When evangelist Franklin Graham—son of the better known Billy Graham—had his invitation to the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer service rescinded after Muslim members of the military complained about comments he made about their religion, Sarah Palin leapt to his defense. “Are we really so hyper-politically correct,” she wrote, “that we can’t abide a Christian minister who expresses his views on matters of faith?”
The complaints about Graham go back to his remark in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that Islam is “a very evil and wicked religion.” Graham justified his views by saying that “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” He told an interviewer in 2006 that his views hadn’t changed, saying that “If people think Islam is such a wonderful religion, just go to Saudi Arabia and make it your home. Just live there. If you think Islam is such a wonderful religion, I mean, go and live under the Taliban somewhere.” And in the wake of the decision not to invite him the Pentagon’s National Day of Prayer service Graham continues to defend his original statement, saying that Muslims were “enslaved” by their religion.
Graham is wrong, in the first place, to confuse the radical jihadists who behind the September 11 attacks with Islam as a whole. There are, as Graham says, passages in the Koran and the Hadith which say that is the moral duty of Muslims to fight and kill infidel—and which jihadists use to justify their attacks on non-believers today. It’s true too that in its early days the rapid spread of Islam owed something to violent conquest—although the same could be said at times of Christianity. But there is also a more moderate, peaceful strain of Islam, which has, if anything, been dominant throughout the religion’s history. The word “Islam”—which means something like “submission to God”—is itself closely related to the Arabic word for “peace.” If there are violent passages in the Koran, there are also verses which remind us that we are all brothers and sisters in one human community. And the great Islamic caliphates that the jihadists look back to were actually often extraordinarily tolerant, cosmopolitan centers of learning. The violent fundamentalism Graham invokes represents a particular, mostly new, and largely Middle Eastern strain of Islam—most of the world’s Muslims don’t actually live in the Middle East—and probably has more to do with the political and economic conditions in the Middle East than the teachings of the Koran.
“To have an individual who calls Islam evil and claims Muslims are enslaved by their faith speak at the Pentagon sends entirely the wrong message at a time when hundreds of thousands of our nation’s military personnel are currently stationed in Muslim countries,” Council of American-Islamic Relations Director Nihad Awad said. Since the National Day of Prayer is meant to be an inclusive, ecumenical celebration of faith—and since many Muslims serve with honor in our armed forces—it’s perfectly appropriate for the Army not to invite someone like Graham. In Palin’s defense of Graham, she claimed his comments “were aimed at those who are so radical that they would kill innocent people and subjugate women in the name of religion.” But, as Greg Sargent points out, Graham clearly said that Islam itself was evil, not that a few people had taken its teachings in an evil way. As Steve Benen says, it’s hard to believe Palin would be okay if a prominent Imam had said the same kinds of things about Christianity.
Who knows what Palin herself thinks about Islam? Whether out of ignorance or by design—with her it’s often hard to tell the difference—she misrepresented Graham’s comments to make them more palatable. That allows her to defend him without defending what he actually said, and to brush off his attacks on Islam as a harmless expression of “his views on matters of faith.” That way she can avoid alienating those of her followers with extreme views about Islam, while in some technical keeping her hands clean. It’s the same strategy she used when Rush Limbaugh defended Rahm Emanuel’s use of the word “retarded,” insisting against all evidence that Limbaugh was merely “using satire.” Politicians, of course, all do this kind of thing to some extent. But in the end they should be leaders too, and not encourage our worst behavior for the sake of a few votes.