Whose Side Are You
by Leah C. Wells*, October 17, 2003
Originally Published in CommonDreams.org
Abraham was born in the town of Ur, in what is
present-day Iraq. His spiritual lineage includes the triad of
Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
This may not be common knowledge, however, among people who have
become fearful of Muslims in the past few decades. They have been
used as scapegoats and bad guys in movies, and more recently since
the war on terror brought Muslim countries in the fix of its scope.
We are led to believe that Muslims are all jihadists running around
with bombs in their backpacks, hating the West for its democratic
The covert message is that Muslims, with widely
stereotyped accents further delineating their difference, are
suspect; they are not like us. The deft linguistic move of identifying
with a "Judeo-Christian" background alienates what is
the third of the Abrahamic traditions, Islam.
Yet it's not as simple as saying that if only those
identified as "Judeo-Christian" recognized their shared
past with Muslims, there would be a magic resolution to the deeply
entrenched problems in the Middle East and the United States would
not have to fear being attacked again. Language is not the whole
problem, but it is evidence for how we posture the problem, and
how we define who the enemy is.
While there are clear cultural, linguistic and
religious differences between the Abrahamic faiths, they all have
a common history. A verse in the Quran quotes that Muslims believe
in the same God as Jews and Christians. How we use language to
make distinctions, like identifying a "Judeo-Christian"
background, satisfies the objective of making us separate in thought
and practice even when we share the same history.
But objectives don't define themselves. When an
indisputable historical link exists between these three religions,
why is all-inclusive terminology not used?
Early in the war on terror post-September 11th,
President Bush made an important retraction after calling his
plan a "crusade." He made belated, yet important, outreach
to religious leaders in the Muslim community, visiting mosques,
shaking hands and proclaiming solidarity. He condemned the hate
crimes visited upon non-whites in the United States in the aftermath
of the terrorist attacks.
Clearly, the way we talk about who we identify
with distinguished us from others. Primed with national rhetoric
of "us versus them", the subtle transition to "Judeo-Christians"
versus Muslims is nearly invisible. Many people make that presumptuous
leap without even knowing it. Others are not so inhibited in shifting
Lt. Gen. William Boykin has recently come under
scrutiny for making what many consider to be inflammatory remarks
against Islam. "I knew my God was bigger than his,"
said Lt. Gen. William Boykin in reference to a Muslim in Somalia,
proclaiming that they hate us because we are a Christian nation.
However problematic, offensive or inaccurate these
comments may be, the deeper problem is that people who control
the language of war and politics have the capacity to wield exclusivist
terminology, creating artificial boundaries between groups of
people, between Jews and Christians, and Muslims.
So is the idea that there are two groups to be
divided, an "us" and a "them," legitimate?
Thought comes before form; we use language to think
about what we will do. We troubleshoot. We brainstorm. We categorize
and sort. Politics may very well be the art of convincing others
to look at the world through our categories. Creating predominant
thought is a powerful job.
Having an "us" and "them" ensures
that there will be a "winner" and a "loser".
The way we talk about the problem of fighting them, our enemies,
not only influences our decisions, it legitimizes and reinforces
the notion that we have enemies in the first place. Indisputably,
there were people selfish and hateful enough to orchestrate and
carry out a morning of terror two years ago on September 11th.
But can the problem be viewed only through the lens of "us"
versus "them"? Physicists could argue that at the quantum
level, there is no distinction between anyone or anything, but
at present this idea does not have much of a foothold in geopolitics.
Still, to this day we have looked at no other options
for how the problem might be defined, or redefined, than in terms
of "us" versus "them." The ability to mobilize
a negative mass perception of Islam and continue the path of our
war on terror rests on the persuasion that Muslims are disqualified
from the "Judeo-Christian" tradition.
*Leah Wells is a consultant to the Nuclear Age Peace
Foundation. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org