A common assumption in our society, especially among the educated classes, is that ignorance—of a religion, culture, or race—invariably begets hatred and prejudice. A corresponding assumption is that the more you understand the other, the less you will fear him.
Of course, this notion can be easily debunked by pointing out that German Jews who understood what Nazism was all about had good reason to fear the Nazis. Likewise, Southern blacks who understood the true nature of the Ku Klux Klan were justifiably on their guard against the Klan.
Ignorance can breed unwarranted fear, but sometimes ignorance can breed a dangerous complacency in the face of real threats. One thinks, for instance, of the Polish family in Death in Venice who are blissfully unaware of the cholera epidemic spreading through the city, while better-informed tourists are clearing out.
But pure ignorance isn’t the only danger. A shallow knowledge of a culture, religion, or ideology can have the same effect of leaving one vulnerable to poorly-understood forces. As Alexander Pope pointed out, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” One reason is that a little learning can act as an inoculation against deeper learning. C.S. Lewis once observed that satisfaction with a certain level of natural virtue in oneself could prevent one from seeing the necessity for undergoing the deeper transformation that Christianity requires. The same may be said of knowledge in general. We can be easily satisfied with a little learning, especially if the knowledge acquired fits in with our preconceptions and prejudices, and thus absolve ourselves from further inquiry.
What brings all this to mind is an article for Teen Vogue titled “10 Misconceptions about Islam that Muslim Americans Are Tired of Hearing.” The author, Hishaam Siddiqi, is worried about the “constant villainization of Muslims in mainstream media.” “Fortunately,” writes Mr. Siddiqi, “…we don’t always have to be victims of ignorance and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Misconceptions can be overcome with a simple but powerful thing, knowledge.” He then lays out the ten misconceptions:
1. Muslim women have no rights.
2. Muslims worship a different God.
3. Islam doesn’t mix with other religions.
4. Muslims must engage in jihad, also known as holy war.
5. Sharia law is taking over the United States.
6. All Muslims are Arabs.
7. Muslim women are forced to cover up.
8. Muslims starve for an entire month each year.
9. Muslim men are encouraged to practice polygamy.
10. Muhammad was the founder of Islam.
Robert Spencer does an excellent job of dissecting this “sly exercise in Islamic proselytizing” at PamelaGeller.com. So I’ll just confine myself to a few remarks. The first thing to notice is that the “misconceptions” are usually closer to the truth than the supposed “facts” that Siddiqi replaces them with. Take misconception number 10 on the list: “Muhammad was the founder of Islam.” He wasn’t? Then a great many respected historians have been dreadfully mistaken. The only way you can arrive at Siddiqi’s conclusion is if you accept his explanation that Islam preexisted Muhammad and was “the same message revealed by Jesus, Moses, and all the other Biblical prophets.”
The second thing to notice is that his explanations are entirely one-sided. Under the heading, “Islam doesn’t mix with other religions,” he tells her young readers:
All three of the religions [Islam, Christianity, and Judaism] share many similarities, including important religious figures, historical events, and spiritual beliefs. In fact, Muslims are religiously required to believe in Jesus as a divine prophet.
What he neglects to say is that Muslims are also religiously required to believe that Jesus is a Muslim, that he is not the Son of God, that he was not crucified, and that he is not a savior.
Siddiqi is not only a master of the half-truth, he also knows enough to drop a few full truths into the list in order to buttress the rest of his narrative. Take misconception number 6: “All Muslims are Arabs.” It’s an uncontestable fact that this is false, but at the same time it’s a fact that is largely irrelevant to the important questions that need to be asked about Islam. It’s also quite true, as he points out in item 8, that the notion that “Muslims starve for an entire month every year” is a misconception. Again, this has little bearing on the issues that cause people to worry about Islam, but it does serve the author’s purpose of manipulating teenage minds.
If the readers of Teen Vogue had any misconceptions about Islam, they will come away from this article with a whole new set—misconceptions designed to allay their every fear. As Spencer notes, the overall effect of this blend of truths, half-truths, and outright deceptions is to render Teen Vogue’s readers “ignorant and complacent about the jihad threat.” Boiled down to its essence, the author’s message is: “Don’t let the headlines frighten you. Islamic beliefs are little different from your own. There’s really no cause for concern.” Or, in Spencer’s words, “Go back to Justin Bieber, and don’t worry about a thing.”
Which brings to mind the most recent issue of Comboni Missions magazine. What does Comboni Missions have to do with Teen Vogue? Well, this particular edition of the missionary magazine features two pieces about Islam, and reading them one begins to wonder if Ms. Siddiqi is moonlighting under the pseudonym Reverend Joseph Bragotti, MCCJ. He’s the editor of the magazine and the author of the two pieces. Here is an excerpt from “Myths and Reality”:
Can we dialogue with Islam if we do not know Islam? Can we dispel our ignorance? It breeds fear and prejudice, you know.
Most of what Fr. Bragotti writes about Islam is based on the assumption that knowledge will dispel fears. Here’s another sample:
Arabs, Muslims, the Middle East, the Qur’an, Terrorism, ISIS, Jihad! Confused? Worried? Most people are because they are not informed. Ignorance breeds fear, suspicion, and prejudice. God knows we do not need any of that. So, let us try to make sense of it and separate myth from reality.
Yes, another article about misconceptions about Islam. Fr. Bragotti doesn’t list ten, but he does itemize some of the same “myths” as Siddiqi. For example, he informs us that “Arabs and Muslims are not synonymous.” Moreover, “Many Arabs, especially those living in the United States, are Christians.” To prove the point, the article includes a photo of Danny Thomas, “our favorite Arab.”
Now I like Danny Thomas as much as the next man, but what does his being an Arab have to do with jihad and the spread of sharia law? Like Hishaam Siddiqi, Fr. Bragotti seems to assume that the West is rife with irrational hatred of Arabs based on prejudice. He seems to further assume that once Westerners discover that Arabs can be Christians, their fears will melt away.
As for ISIS? Well, every religion has its fanatics. Bragotti reminds us of “the Nazis in Christian Germany, the Mafia, the IRA, and ETA in Catholic Italy, Ireland, and Spain, respectively, and the KKK in our Protestant South.” According to Bragotti, ISIS is an “ultra-fanatic fringe” group, but the real Islam is quite similar to Catholicism:
We share many uplifting stories. We honor the same prophets. Mary and Jesus have a place of honor in the Qur’an. We share words of mercy, peace, and of adoration.
And Fr. Bragotti seems to share some things in common with Hishaam Siddiqi. The message that he bears to the uninformed is essentially the same one that Siddiqi conveys to the readers of Teen Vogue. In short, what Muslims and non-Muslims have in common is more important than the things that separate them. The effect is much the same also. In both cases, the aim is not to provide enlightenment, but to provide comfort food for the mind. “Terrorism, ISIS, Jihad! Confused? Worried?” Stop worrying, say the authors in effect: “ISIS and such-like are just ‘ultra-fanatic fringe’ groups. When you think Islam, think prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and a shared reverence for Jesus and Mary. When you think Islam, think Danny Thomas.”
Fr. Bragotti is not a voice in the wilderness. What he says is in line with what most Catholics who write or speak about Islam have to say. And while it’s true, as he says, that Catholics can’t afford to be ignorant about Islam, they also can’t afford to think that half-truths are the whole truth. They deserve a much fuller account than the heavily-edited one now being dispensed to the faithful. The danger of knowing only half the story about Islam is that you will take it for the whole story, and by the time you realize that there is more to the story, it may be too late to do anything about it.
For the sake of their own survival, Catholics need to move beyond the Teen Vogue level of understanding Islam.