Time To Take On America's Haters

One of the most troubling realities of the Muslim world today is the cowardice of moderates. Mainstream Muslim leaders--political and religious--do not condemn religious extremism often enough and vigorously enough. As a result, fundamentalists gain courage and their poisonous views go unchallenged. Unfortunately, the same phenomenon appears to be at work now with America's own homegrown fundamentalists. Last week Jerry Falwell announced on CBS's "60 Minutes" that Muhammad was "a terrorist." His comments are part of a trend. At various points Pat Roberston has called Muhammad "a robber and a brigand" and described Islam as "a monumental scam." Billy Graham's son Franklin has chimed in as well, frequently calling Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."

While there have been scattered condemnations from editorials here and there, there has been silence from the White House and most mainstream political and religious leaders. Commentators who froth at the mouth when they read of one crackpot mullah in Egypt saying noxious things about Christians or Jews are now silent. Forget about Islamic moderates for a moment; where are America's moderates?

And in this case, the "extremists" are not obscure characters but rather three of the best-known religious leaders in America, with tens of millions of followers and huge political influence. Franklin Graham was invited by President George W. Bush to deliver the prayer at his Inauguration last year.

Islamic fundamentalists are having a field day with these comments, which have been played and replayed throughout the Muslim world. Al-Jazeera has broadcast fiery call-in shows on the controversy. There have been protests in India, Malaysia and Iran, and fundamentalists from London to Indonesia are saying, in effect, "We told you that America hates Islam." Iran's theocrats have used Falwell's comments to rally the country behind their otherwise unpopular regime. Throughout the Muslim world, America's friends--the reformers, the moderates--are embarrassed, while its foes are celebrating.

As it confronts a war with Iraq, the United States is trying to convince the Arab world that it is not at war with its people. The White House and the State Department have devised major new programs to tell Muslims that America is concerned about their welfare. Yet our case becomes much harder to make--and genteel efforts at cultural exchange will count for nothing--against the backdrop of bigoted ranting by preachers.

For the next decade or so at least, the single biggest issue for American foreign policy will be its relationship with the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world. Getting that relationship right will have a greater effect on protecting American interests--including the lives of American citizens--than any other. And Falwell, Robertson and Graham's hate-filled campaign is lighting fires that could grow into a terrible conflagration.

For the fundamentalists, September 11 solved an urgent problem. Over the past decade they have been searching for enemies. Their old ones--abortion-rights advocates and homosexuals--have not proved as useful as they had been, because Americans have become more tolerant on social issues.

Immediately after September 11, Falwell and Robertson decided to use the tragedy to fire up their flock. In a joint appearance on national television, Falwell blamed the attacks on "the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen'." Robertson concurred.

Other fundamentalists joined in. Billy Graham's daughter Anne Graham Lotz told CBS's Jane Clayson on Sept. 13, 2001, that the tragedy took place because "Americans... have shaken their fists at God and said, 'God, we want you out of our government... our business... our marketplace'." All this backfired. In the next few weeks the preachers were roundly condemned by hundreds of organizations, newspapers, magazines and politicians--including President Bush. Falwell and Robertson backed down, issuing apologies and claiming disingenuously to have been quoted out of context. Since then, they have stopped peddling that particular brand of intolerance. In Muslims, they have found an easier target.

As President Bush has repeatedly noted since September 11, confronting extremism works. It will work again at home if he would only try.