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 institutions.
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 their perception.
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