Islam vs. Christianity in a Holy War?

When he issued his ill-fated call to save Eastern Christendom from the Muslims around A.D. 1090, Pope Urban II unleashed what scholars across religious and ideological divides agree was one of history's biggest exercises in futility.

Over the next 200 years, wave after wave of crusading knights wrecked havoc, death and destruction at the end of which, very little was gained.

The holy city of Jerusalem was eventually recaptured by the Muslims, and experts say the only long-term outcome of the Christian Franks periodically storming the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea was an exacerbation of the suspicions and strife between Christianity and Islam.

Those were the mistakes of the Dark Ages, of course, an era when ignorance and barbarity shrouded the Western world before the intellectual illumination of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment saw reason and humanism triumph over superstition and feudalism.

But tune in to the discourse sputtering from a number of radio and TV stations across the world in recent months, and "reasonable" is not a term that will instantly spring to the average listener's mind.

By all accounts, the radical fringes within Christianity and Islam seem to have launched a modern-day crusade, a slander-to-vanquish battle where the mass media appears to have taken over from the sword as a weapon of choice.

In an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes last year, the Rev. Jerry Falwell called the prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" and "a man of war." Falwell's comments capped a TV season that saw televangelist Pat Robertson call the prophet a "robber and a brigand" and the Rev. Franklin Graham (son of the Rev. Billy Graham) denounce Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion."

On the other side, underground cassette tapes of vitriolic Friday sermons delivered by mullahs across the Muslim world are available from Cairo to Quetta. And from post-9/11 hideouts, al Qaeda continues to release taped messages promising a fight against the "infidels."

"They have taken their rabbis and their monks for gods beside Allah, and also the Messiah son of Mary," said bin Laden in a audiotape released last November. He was expanding on an earlier warning issued before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that the West had "divided the world into two regions — one of faith and another of infidelity, from which we hope God will protect us."

The Hot New Debate

As two Semitic, monotheistic religions (the belief there is only one God) with shared roots, Islam and Christianity have interacted for centuries, and the relationship has had its ups and downs.

If history has witnessed the Crusades, the fall of Constantinople, the ousting of the "Moors" from Spain and the Christian European colonialism that surged in the Age of Exploration, there have also been periods of confluence, when arrangements were made for Christian pilgrims to make their way to the Holy Land and scholars across religious divides were invited to debate at royal durbars, or courts.

But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, whatever spotty appeal the issue of Muslim-Christian ideological harmony had in academic and public discourse quickly faded as a more pugnacious debate pitting the Muslim and Christian worlds in a "civilizational" clash suddenly made it to the top of the charts.

With readers and listeners seemingly eager to get to the bottom of the new problem of the times, Western experts posed variants of questions such as "What went wrong with the Muslim world?" and "Why do they hate us?"

Once-obscure university press books such as Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong? and Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order suddenly landed on national best-seller lists.

By most accounts, answers to the question "Why do they hate us?" tended to yield polarized answers, with several Western scholars referring to some sort of clash of civilizations. On the other hand, many Muslim scholars tended to address the issue as a political one with the answers lying in a complex stew of the impact of U.S. foreign policy, imperialism, and the aftereffects of the Crusades.

In his seminal 1985 work, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf argued that while the era of the Crusades led to a cultural and economic revolution in Western Europe, the terrors of the holy wars led the Muslim world to close in on itself, leading to "long centuries of decadence and obscurantism."

Huntington, on the other hand, viewed the clash as a necessary conflict that occurs at what he calls a "civilizational fault line" or the "boundary where two or more civilizations meet."

Bin Laden Displays Fundamentalism Toward Himself

While Huntington's thesis of a brewing global clash between the Islamic and Judeo-Christian civilizations has received mixed reactions in Western intellectual circles and among moderate Muslims, many experts say it's a view that has resonated with al Qaeda and other extremist Islamic groups for years.

Besides its specific political aims of getting U.S. troops off Saudi soil and what it calls the restoration of Arab lands to Muslims — namely, the Palestinians — al Qaeda's broad agenda includes the establishment of an arc of sharia (Islamic) law societies from North Africa to the Pacific.

It's an ambitious agenda that targets the Muslim world — including moderates and existing governments in Muslim-majority countries — as much as it threatens the West.

"Osama bin Laden is a fundamentalist toward the traditions of others and toward himself," says Khaled Abou El Fadl, a leading scholar of Islamic law and a professor at the UCLA School of Law. "He doesn't value Muslim life any more than he values non-Muslim life. He values the lives of those who agree with him, period."

But in doing so, says El Fadl, bin Laden differs from several right-wing Christian evangelists "who are not fundamentalists toward themselves, but only toward others."

A Theology of Hate

Certainly the choruses of commentaries emerging from several Christian evangelists over the past few months have been vitriolic and personally targeted at Mohammed, while Muslim extremists have steered clear of attacking Jesus, since he is also considered a prophet in the Koran.

Last June, the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, publicly called Mohammed a "demon-possessed pedophile."

But while Vines' speech was made during a pastors conference ahead of the annual Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Falwell's description of the founder of Islam as a terrorist on national television sparked a furor across the world, including a bloody riot in the Indian city of Bombay, where eight people were killed and at least 85 others injured.

"I would say people like Falwell, Graham and Robertson, along with a host of fundamentalist Muslim and Jewish leaders, are engaged in a theology of hate that tends to be ultraconservative, fundamentalist, nonpluralist, intolerant and pitches believers and nonbelievers in the particular framework that says, 'I'm saved and unless you believe as I do, you're not saved,'" says John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Washington-based Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

According to Esposito, as monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity are particularly vulnerable to viewing the "other" with suspicion, even hostility. "The monotheistic tradition sees God in a special covenant with the community," says Esposito. "And if pushed too far, it brings about religious extremism."

But within the theology of hate, Esposito distinguishes between those who maintain that "unless you become a Muslim or a Christian, then you go to hell" and those who say they have "an obligation from God to dispatch you to hell."

A Clergy for All Purposes

The author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam, Esposito maintains history has shown that extremists, regardless of their religion, have been able to find extremist clergy to back their views and provide a religious interpretation backing their action.

In 1996, a U.S. court sentenced Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric, for inciting a series of terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center.

And when Jewish extremist Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, his brother said Amir had received a halachic (Jewish law) ruling from a rabbi sanctioning the killing.

Many Islamic scholars say the Koran, Islam's holy book, has been particularly vulnerable to interpretations for a variety of personal motives.

As a devout Muslim, UCLA's el Fadl believes the Koran was not written by Mohammed, but is the word of God as it was conveyed to the prophet. But he describes the Koran as "an open book, a vibrant, lively text that can rebirth itself in a variety of contexts." The heart of the matter, el Fadl says, is a "moral commitment" when it comes to reading the holy book.

"When I ask people to read the Koran, I ask for a moral commitment," says el Fadl, who also wrote The Place of Tolerance in Islam. "If you have a moral commitment, then the results will be righteous. But without a moral commitment, the results will be bad. Just like a fanatical reading of the American Constitution can give rise to the KKK."

A Struggle to Understand Jihad

By all accounts, jihad, or struggle, has been a particularly contentious term, with many Muslims interpreting it to mean a struggle to defend one's faith and ideals.

Some experts say the fundamentalist interpretation of jihad as the duty of Muslims to fight to rid the Islamic world of a corrupting Western influence or of autocratic Muslim leaders received a modern shot in the arm when the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, used the concept of jihad as a holy war to try ending the foreign occupation of Muslim lands. The Muslim Brotherhood is widely believed to have spawned the al Qaeda network.

But while the Koran is open to interpretation, el Fadl admits that the intellectual climate in the Islamic world tends to be inhospitable to dissent. "I do agree that in the contemporary age, dissent in Islam has become difficult, to say the least," says the UCLA professor, who says he has received threats over his writings and seen the cancellation of planned publications of Arabic translations of several of his books.

Although Islam has had a history of reform movements and a number of dissident voices through the centuries, Esposito maintains that extremists on the one hand coupled with authoritarian regimes have led to what he calls "the struggle for the soul of Islam."

Experts say that unlike the rise of democracy in India that enabled the spread of reforms within Hinduism or the political advances in the West that encouraged the ideals of the Enlightenment, the combination of extremism and political repression across the Muslim world has put modern Islam, in Esposito's words, "between a rock and a hard place."

But Vali Nasr, California-based author of Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power, says that while "there is a lot happening in the Muslim world, the West — and let's admit it, the media — is obsessed with Muslim fundamentalism — it makes good copy."