I recently attended a Q&A session with the President of a Washington-based international think tank. When I suggested that the conflict between Islam and the Jews went all the way back to their refusal to accept Muhammad as their Prophet in Medina, the CEO disagreed. The schism between the two parties in seventh century Medina, he argued, was due to their having "violated the concordia" established by Muhammad.
As soon as I heard that phrase I realized that he, like almost everyone else in Washington from the President and his four-star Generals to the most junior State Department diplomats and Pentagon intelligence analysts, had learned Islam from Muslims or Muslim apologists. It could have been John Esposito at Georgetown, Akbar Ahmed at American University, my former professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr now at George Washington, or a hundred others. He had learned Islam from their perspective, rather than critically examining its texts for himself.
Your response is perhaps, "Duh? And your point is? Of course we learn about Islam from Muslims! Just like we learn math from mathematicians, history from historians, and French from French speakers. What's the difference?"
The difference is that almost every Muslim in the world has an idealized, wistful, and wishful view of their Prophet and his ambitions. Commenting on my post about some Muslim women in America who recently tried without success to overcome gender segregation by standing next to men at their mosque, one woman noted, "These women are courageously taking Islam back to its original form. Compassion, mercy and equality are not innovation. Oppression, tyranny and chauvanism are the innovations."
Her view of Islam as a religion of compassion and mercy is almost universal among Muslims, but is it correct? Here I argue that historically it is not. Muslims and non-Muslims learn an idealized view of Islam from Muslim teachers whose perspective is blinded by faith or from non-Muslim apologists who present only one side of the story. That was my experience as a student at Temple University. When Tariq Ramadan tells the story of Abu Bakr freeing slaves in Mecca, he speaks as a believer and ignores the crucial elements of the story that do not correspond to his idealized view of historical fact. When Karen Armstrong describes Muhammad's encounter with the angel Gabriel in the cave of Hira, she does so with such emotion you would think she had been there personally sharing the experience!
Imagine how different modern history would be if leaders had always done this. Suppose General George Washington's closest advisor was a British loyalist, or Abraham Lincoln sought counsel from Southern plantation slaveowners. What if Mahatma Gandhi listened to advocates of the British Empire before the Great Salt March in 1930, and Martin Luther King asked the opinion of the Klu Klux Klan before the Great March on Washington in 1963? How about if President Woodrow Wilson conceded to pacifists when the Germans were sinking passenger ships during World War I, or FDR sought the advice of Nazi sympathizers during WWII? What if Ronald Reagan cozied up to Communist Party members in determining his position towards the Cold War and the Berlin Wall? To bring it right up to date, what if President George W. Bush had listened to opportunistic Shia dissidents assuring him Iraqis would welcome American soldiers on rose-petal strewn streets if he toppled Saddam Husayn - oh, wait a minute, that's exactly what he did!
And that is why Mosab Yousef's new book Son of Hamas is a must-read (for those readers in countries where your political or religious leaders will not allow you access to this book, be sure to put it on your shopping list for your next visit to a country where you can). Mosab is only one of a rapidly growing number of intelligent young men and women who not only know Islam, but also see through and beyond it and who are leaving Muhammad behind. These are the people you want to teach you about Islam. It's amazing to me that Muslim apologists such as Reza Aslan receive a greater welcome in many government and academic circles than do ex-Muslim realists such as Mosab. Hopefully, that will change.
You perhaps noticed that I used the adjective "almost" twice in this posting in describing the view of Muslims towards their faith. There are Muslims who understand exactly what their Prophet wanted to accomplish, and who have dedicated their lives to completing his mission. They have well-known last names such as Mishal (Hamas), Nasrallah (Hizballah), Ahmadinejad (Iran), and bin Ladin and Zawahiri (cave-dwellers somewhere in Pakistan). All the more reason to listen really carefully to young men such as Mosab Yousef.