Religion: How Should We Think about Islam?

Article excerpt

Byline: Kenneth L. Woodward

The terrorist attacks of September 11 brought out the best and the worst in American religion. Clergy of all collars worked at Ground Zero in New York City, ministering to exhausted firefighters and emergency workers, helping those in the grisly business of identifying body parts and praying at the site's temporary morgue. Others, however, came to proselytize the weary workers and, in a few cases, to exploit the crisis for promotional purposes by videotaping themselves ostensibly braving the rubble. Seizing the moment, some religious spokesmen rushed to judgment. Evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed homosexuals, pornographers and abortionists for drawing the wrath of God down on a wayward America, views echoed from many a fundamentalist pulpit. Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy's son and successor, took a different tack. In a sharp break with the Bush administration, Graham blamed Islam itself for the attacks, denouncing the faith of some 1.3 billion Muslims around the world as "an evil and wicked religion."

In the year to come, Americans will sort these issues out--especially what they think of Islam. How they decide will determine the nation's religious climate for years to come. Already we have some clues. According to a December poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly three out of four Americans, including 63 percent of Evangelical Protestants, reject the Falwell-Robertson doctrine. And what is more telling, 59 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Islam--up from 45 percent before the September 11 attacks. Not surprisingly, Falwell and Robertson have both apologized--sort of--for their statements, and Graham, too, has tried to soften his blanket condemnation of Islam.

The truth is that most Americans--like most evangelists--know little or nothing about Islam. But that, too, will change in the coming year. …