Sniffing Out the Islamophobes in Pew Polling Data

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Sniffing Out the Islamophobes in Pew Polling Data

Original guest article

By JustStoppingBy

By comparing results from two survey questions, we can get a much more refined view of the prevalence of Islamophobia in different demographic groups.

According to a well-known quote, “Knowledge is power.”  We may think that we know who the Islamophobes are among society.  But, how accurate are our assessments?  One problem with many polls that attempt to measure the presence of Islamophobia is that they often do not distinguish between bias against or dislike of Muslims with general forms of bias or dislike of others.  For example, suppose that someone says that they oppose building mosques.  If the same person would also say that they oppose building churches, synagogues and any other house of worship, it generally makes more sense to categorize them as anti-religion rather than specifically anti-Islam.  Fortunately, the Pew Research Center put out a poll in 2009 that has two questions that, when examined together, can provide us with an interesting take on this issue by specifically isolating bias against Muslims from biases against religious groups in general.

The questions begin with the introduction, “I’m going to read the names of some specific religious groups. For each one that I name, please tell me whether you would favor or oppose this group applying for government funds to provide social services to people who need them.”  Two of the “groups” covered are interesting:  first, “Individual churches, synagogues and other houses of worship” and second, “Muslim mosques.”

What makes these interesting is that we can look at the people who favor government funding for “individual churches, synagogues and other houses of worship” and see how that figure declines when that larger group is replaced by “Muslim mosques.”  The first question should screen out people who object to government funding of any religious group providing social services, whether because they oppose government spending on social services or oppose the government outsourcing such activities (positions that are tied to views of government rather than religion) and those who oppose government providing such funding to religious groups (which could represent a view of government generally or a view on religion generally, but should not be specific to views of Islam).  Then, when we switch to the second question, about Muslim mosques, any change is due to respondents’ views on Islam in particular.  Thus, the drop in support is a relatively clean measure of Islamophobic responses separated out from other issues such as views of government or religion generally.  This drop can be examined for different subgroups, allowing us to examine the relative degrees of Islamophobia across them.  This drop may be more useful than a single question about how respondents view Muslims, as it may be the case that some groups of respondents are generally more friendly or hostile to religious groups in general as opposed to Muslims in particular.

Before presenting the results, it is worth noting a few caveats.  First, the difference in the results represents Islamophobia among those willing to provide government funding to religious organizations for the purposes of providing social services generally.  The questions do not provide any information on the degree of Islamophobia among those who oppose the government providing such funding to religious groups at all.  Second, correlation is not causation.  However, readers are invited to provide their thoughts on the reasons for the differential results across subgroups, and some thoughts will be provided below.

Now, on to the poll results.

The first subgroup examined by Pew is Age.  Here are the results of Support along with two measures of the drop in support going from houses of worship generally to mosques:

Pew_Table1

There are a few interesting things to note here. First, in both the general house of worship and the mosque categories, support declines (with one exception) as age increases. Second, if we measure the decline in percentage points (the change in the share of the total group before screening with the first question), the declines are smallest for the two youngest age categories and then seem to roughly level off. Third, if we look at the percentage change (the change share of those in support on the first question), we see the same general pattern, but even more pronounced. (The 2009 results on age are consistent with a 2013 Pew survey finding that “[m]ost young people continue to reject the idea that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers” and that younger people are more likely to say that Muslims suffer from discrimination.)

In terms of recommendations, there are two conflicting possibilities.  One is that because here is a quite limited amount of Islamophobia among the youngest group, perhaps efforts that are devoted there should be focused elsewhere.  A completely conflicting interpretation is that the near absence of Islamophobia in the youngest group is the result of those efforts, which should then be continued with future groups of young people if not expanded to cover other groups where possible.There are a few interesting things to note here.  First, in both the general house of worship and the mosque categories, support declines (with one exception) as age increases.  Second, if we measure the decline in percentage points (the change in the share of the total group before screening with the first question), the declines are smallest for the two youngest age categories and then seem to roughly level off.  Third, if we look at the percentage change (the change share of those in support on the first question), we see the same general pattern, but even more pronounced.  (The 2009 results on age are consistent with a 2013 Pew surveyfinding that “[m]ost young people continue to reject the idea that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers” and that younger people are more likely to say that Muslims suffer from discrimination.)

The next category covered in Pew is household income.  There does not seem to be much in the results, but they are presented here in case someone sees something worth discussing.  (You may also note that the Total category results change a little from those in the Age table.  This appears to be due to slight changes in the sample, perhaps based on people not being asked or not answering questions for the different types of categories.)

Pew_Table2

Next is marital status.  In this case, it seems that the results are at least somewhat related to age, with the widowed category showing one of the highest levels of Islamophobia and the never been married the least.

Pew_Table3

Next, Pew presents the results by religion.

Pew_Table4

(Other Christian = Mormon, Orthodox, Unitarian, self-identified as Christian.)

It is worth noting that the atheist/agnostic/nothing in particular category shows the smallest amount of Islamophobia.  This should be kept in mind when considering whether some of the prominent New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are representative of the broader atheist community.  Second, while Jews are pretty much tied with other religious groups when considering houses of worship generally, they show the smallest dropoff, or the least amount of Islamophobia, and end up being the only religious group (even including atheist/agnostic/nothing in particular) with a majority support for government funding of social programs at mosques.  If this were purely a question of how a minority (meaning non-Christian in the United States) religion is attentive to concerns that a minority religion would not receive its fair share of funding, we would expect to see similar results for the “other religion” category.  Instead, that group falls a little closer to the higher level of Islamophobia in three Christian categories than to lower level among Jews.  Similar to atheists, the lower than average rate of Islamophobia among Jews should be kept in mind when comparing the general Jewish population to prominent individuals; generally different from atheists, who tend to have fewer identity-specific institutions, one can think about whether mainstream Jewish education and communal/religious organizations have a substantial role in bringing about this result.(Other Christian = Mormon, Orthodox, Unitarian, self-identified as Christian.)

Next, we have education.

Pew_Table5

While support for government funding of social programs at houses of worship is relatively flat across education levels (or perhaps a bit U-shaped: higher at the ends than in the middle), it is distinctly lower for those without a high school diploma when it comes to funding for social programs at mosques.  There clearly seems to be a story and a lesson here about how education helps reduce Islamophobia (while still keeping the correlation/causation caveat in mind).

The next category covered by Pew is sex.  The differences seem to be relatively small, with a slightly greater degree of Islamophobia seen among males.  In a bit of contrast, the 2013 Pew survey showed fairly clearly that men were more likely than women to say that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.While support for government funding of social programs at houses of worship is relatively flat across education levels (or perhaps a bit U-shaped: higher at the ends than in the middle), it is distinctly lower for those without a high school diploma when it comes to funding for social programs at mosques.  There clearly seems to be a story and a lesson here about how education helps reduce Islamophobia (while still keeping the correlation/causation caveat in mind).

Pew_Table6

The final category studied by Pew is “political ideology.”

Pew_Table7

Depending on one’s expectations, the results here may be a bit surprising.  The highest degree of Islamophobia is among conservatives, not those who identify as very conservative.  Thoughts on this are welcome.  Another interesting point is that the moderate and liberal results appear quite similar, with a small decline in Islamophobia among the very liberal.  In this case, the 2013 Pew survey did show a clear ordering of results, with conservative Republicans most likely to say that Islam encourages violence among adherents, followed by moderate/liberal Republicans, Independents, moderate/conservative Democrats, and finally liberal Democrats.

Hopefully, the data above provide some amount of knowledge.  It should go without saying that the data represents information aggregated across groups and do not prove that any single individual is or is not Islamophobic.  After all, while those earning over $100,000 typically have below-average displays of Islamophobia in this poll, Robert Spencer falls into that category.  And while a Jewish woman with some college but no degree would display three features associated with a below-average degree of Islamophobia, we have a prominent counter-example with those three characteristics.  On the other hand, the data should not be ignored as it may provide useful information if we can figure out how to use it properly.

Oral Traditions in Islam and Judaism

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Oral Traditions in Islam and Judaism

Original Guest Post

by JustStoppingBy

Both Judaism and Islam rely on oral traditions that explain and put texts into context and can help counter misperceptions of the religions.

One of the sources of Islamophobia and Judeophobia is the selective quoting of religious passages that, either taken out of their literal context or without the context of how they have been interpreted, suggest that the adherents of Islam and Judaism repeat and harbor seemingly harsh views.  When the literal context is missing, sometimes just referring to the preceding or following verses is sufficient to counter any misconceptions and let a stereotype go.  In other instances, the religions’ oral traditions may help elucidate how adherents read those verses.

As Passover approaches, I want to highlight two well-known (at least among Jews) portions of the Jewish oral tradition that appear at the Passover seder and how, in broad terms, they relate to some well-known portions of the Islamic oral tradition because they are used by adherents to help put other texts into context.  The Passover seder relates the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt.  Within the story, there is a listing of the ten plagues with which the Egyptians were smitten.  As each plague is recited, Jews either spill a drop of wine or use a finger (more traditionally) or utensil to take a drop of wine from their cup and discard it on a plate or napkin.  It is not clear how far back the common explanation for this ritual goes, though it is at least as far as Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel, or Don Isaac Abarbanel. (1437-1508) who wrote, “The custom is to drip drops of wine out of the cup when counting the plagues to indicate that our joy is not whole because on our account an entire people was punished. Even though the enemy deserved that defeat, it does not cause us real joy.”

My guess is that the explanation, if not the tradition itself, developed over time.  A likely reason is that Jews saw a “difficult text,” or one that can have multiple interpretations, and wished to emphasize the interpretations that resonated with their view of their religion’s morality.  A similar portion of oral history that works its way into many seders  is a midrash, or interpretation of the Torah, found in the Talmud that describes what was happening in Heaven as the Red Sea closed over the Egyptian army that was pursuing the Children of Israel: “The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?”  As is the case with many midrashim, some Jews take this as a literal revelation and others as a story made up later to provide a moral lesson.  For my purposes here, it does not matter which it is.  Rather, what matters is that hundreds of years after this midrash was first recorded, Jews find it worthwhile to retell every year because it provides context for our understanding of an important Jewish text.

Turning to Islam, I would like to highlight a few portions of its oral history.  One I take from anessay by Imam Shamsi Ali, who writes, “Our oral history records Muhammad’s last sermon as containing the following guidance: ‘Even as the fingers of the two hands are equal, so are human beings equal to one another.  No one has any right, nor any preference to claim over another.  You are brothers.’”   I chose this quote not because of its meaning, but because of how Imam Shamsi Ali explicitly ties it to the oral history.  Still, an Internet search shows that this is indeed a popular quote, appearing in numerous locations.  That should not be surprising given that it is the type of quote that should resonate with Muslims when thinking about the moral messages provided by Islam, with the equality of human beings being one of those messages.

A second piece of the Muslim oral tradition was cited by Arsalan Iftikhar in his interview with Loonwatch: “…we should be reminded of a well-known Islamic parable that tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed and his interactions with an unruly female neighbor, who would curse him violently and then dump garbage on him from her top window each time he walked by her house. One day, the prophet noticed that the woman was not there. In the spirit of true kindness, he went out of his way to inquire about her well-being. He then went on to visit his unfriendly neighbor at her bedside when he found that she had fallen seriously ill.”  This is indeed a well-known parable, found frequently on the web, including in comments at Loonwatch.

But, here is one potentially surprising thing about this particular story: it is not clear that it is authentic.  While there are similar stories, some investigations of this particular one have yielded results such as “I have not found a basis for this specific incident in the books of hadeeth or reliable works of prophetic biography, and it seems as though this story has become popular on the tongues of people without any source to support it, and Allah knows best” as well as “although the record of this particular incident is found in almost all the books of ‘Seerah’ or biography of the Prophet (saws) and is oft-repeated by the Muslims, to the best of our knowledge there is no record of this specific incident in any of the authentic and established Books of Sunnah. And Allah Alone Knows Best.”  As with the midrash on the angels preparing to rejoice, for my purposes it does not matter if this story is authentic.  The fact that this story is so popular even without it being found in what may be called the reliable or authentic hadith or Books of Sunnah only strengthens the point that Muslims repeat this story not because they are “forced” to because it is part of canonical literature that must be repeated, but, rather, they repeat it because its message resonates with their view of the morality of Islam.

Another reason that I chose the quotation provided from Imam Shamsi Ali is the further observation provided by his co-author, Rabbi Marc Schneier, in one of his essays in the samebook.  Rabbi Schneier writes, “Most Jews and most Muslims, however, are simply unaware of the good news that the other side has an oral tradition that moderates the sometimes harsh language of the written law.  The ignorance among the majority in both faiths allows the demagogic purveyors of hate to peddle their poison virtually unchallenged.”

Compare this with a statement by one such demagogic purveyor of hate, Robert Spencer, who has written, “Rabbinic Judaism ever since the destruction of the Temple had evolved non-literal ways to understand such commands, while in Islam such literal interpretation is still very much alive.”  In fact, Spencer is misleadingly inaccurate on both counts: Judaism had evolved non-literal ways of interpreting “problem texts” before the destruction of the Temple, and there are both literal and non-literal interpretations of “problem texts” very much alive in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.   It is the latter point, however, that is the more important.  By suggesting solely that there are literal interpretations of “problem texts” in Islam, Spencer hides the existence of similar interpretations in Judaism and Christianity as well as the many Muslims who highlight stories such as Muhammad’s concern for a woman who would throw trash on him (whether the story is literally true or not) as a lens through which they interpret any texts that could be read to call for retaliation for aggressive acts.  As Imam Shamsi Ali writes in one essay, “The guidance found in scripture is not meant to be taken only literally.  … Our stance is that though the Qur’an is sometimes exact, to extrapolate the wisdom in its passages, we need not see the texts as simply static, literal words.”

Strikingly, the Qur’an has no problem citing Jewish Oral Law.  “Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely. And our messengers had certainly come to them with clear proofs. Then indeed many of them, [even] after that, throughout the land, were transgressors.” Qur’an 5:32.  The reference may be to Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (“Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so that no one should say to his fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours…’”) or potentially other similar references such as Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a).  Whether one  believes an Islamic interpretation that Qur’an 5:32 was revealed to Muhammad, or a secular one that the ayah  repeats something that Muhammad heard, this ayah shows a continuity of belief and a tie between the oral Jewish tradition (which by that point had been written down) and written Muslim tradition.

Yet for some “demagogic purveyors of hate,” as Rabbi Schneier calls them, this is not a sign that Muslims view the Qur’an as part of a continuous revelation sometimes referencing Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Instead, these Islamophobes claim to “find further proof of plagiarism of apocryphal Jewish literature; this time in the Jewish Mishnah Sanhedrin” or title a section of an anti-Islam screed “Plagiarism in Quran,” citing the same passages.   If only the Qur’an had managed to avoid the charge of plagiarism by introducing the text by saying something like “We decreed upon the Children of Israel.”  Oh wait, it did!  Presumably, the demagogic purveyors of hate would not be satisfied with anything short of a footnote and embedded hyperlink in the text when it was compiled over 1300 years ago.

Certain Islamophobes who accuse the Qur’an of plagiarism in this verse, despite the explicit reference to a decree to the Children of Israel, seem less concerned with how Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”) does not reference Tobit 7:15 (“And what you hate, do not do to anyone”) or a well-known (among Jews) saying of Hillel the Elder(traditionally c. 110 BCE, died 7 CE): “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”  One notable demagogic purveyor of hate, Ali Sina, has written, “There is nothing in the Quran and Hadith that would make us believe that Islam is compatible with the Golden Rule.”  Actually, Wikipedia provides a dozen quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith that are variants of the Golden Rule.  The one that struck me the most was one that echoed Hillel: “A Bedouin came to the prophet, grabbed the stirrup of his camel and said: O the messenger of God! Teach me something to go to heaven with it. Prophet said: ‘As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them. Now let the stirrup go! [This maxim is enough for you; go and act in accordance with it!]’ —Kitab al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 146.”

All three of the Abrahamic faiths thus not only cite the Golden Rule in some form, but have traditions citing it as a maxim that sums up the morality of their religious texts or beliefs.  It is only by being selective in what they cite from the written and oral traditions that the demagogic purveyors of hate could hope to obscure this commonality.   Instead, it is worth taking the time to review the full range of the traditions of each religion, notably those cited repeatedly by their adherents because they resonate with their view of their religion’s morality.  And then, it is time to let the stereotype, and the stirrup, go.

From Moses to Moses: Traversing two Maimonides Quotes on Muslims

From Moses to Moses: Traversing two Maimonides Quotes on Muslims

March 30 marks the birthday of Moses Maimonides. As such, it seemed to be a good time to discuss two of his quotes that have been used in discussions of Islam and Islamophobia in part due to the range of views that seem to be expressed in them by the same author.

Original Guest Post

By JustStoppingBy

Recently, Robert Spencer tried to make a distinction between Allah and God, arguing that “even though they may share a name, any examination of the particulars of Christian and Islamic theology reveals that the deities in question are quite different in character.”

Note that Spencer does not say that Christians and Muslims have “different views of the same deity” but discusses “the deities in question.” In doing this, he invites the reader to reach the conclusion that the “Muslim Allah” is not the same as the “Christian God.” Danios has already provided a thorough explanation on the use of the term Allah by Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic times. As Danios points out, a common Islamophobic response is to claim that Muslims appropriated the term Allah while referring to a different entity, perhaps a moon god, but not to the god that Jews and Christians worship.

To further create a distinction between Allah and the Christian God, Spencer has asked whether the hajj is an act of apostasy based on his claims that the rites involved in the hajj are of Hindu origin. Of course, it is widely accepted that polytheists made pilgrimages to Mecca and that the Ka’bah was a pagan shrine that contained idols before the advent of Islam, including a belief that pre-Islamic pilgrims to Mecca, “[w]ith all their polytheism and idolatry, they too used to circle the Ka’bah and kiss the Black Stone.” So, even if Spencer were right, that would not seem to be a particularly Earth-shattering revelation.

Since many who propound this “deities” theory won’t listen to Danios perhaps they will listen to some other views. We can start by moving a little away from the Christian-Muslim deity distinction that Spencer wants to draw and referring to a statement by perhaps the most renowned post-Biblical Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam). In Responsa #448, Maimonides writes as follows (ellipses in Wikipedia, bolding added; alternate translation also available):

The Ishmaelites are not at all idolaters; [idolatry] has long been severed from their mouths and hearts; and they attribute to God a proper unity, a unity concerning which there is no doubt. And because they lie about us, and falsely attribute to us the statement that God has a son, is no reason for us to lie about them and say that they are idolaters … And should anyone say that the house that they honor [the Kaaba] is a house of idolatry and an idol is hidden within it, which their ancestors used to worship,then what of it? The hearts of those who bow down toward it today are [directed] only toward Heaven … [Regarding] the Ishmaelites today – idolatry has been severed from the mouths of all of them [including] women and children. Their error and foolishness is in other things which cannot be put into writing because of the renegades and wicked among Israel [i.e., apostates]. But as regards the unity of God they have no error at all.

Maimonides’ life covered various phases of Muslim-Jewish relations. Maimonides was born in Córdoba in 1135, at the tail end of the longest potential extent of the “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry, which saw the blossoming of Jewish culture and the attainment by individual Jews of high positions in commercial and public life. As a result of the Arab political dominance, Maimonides knew Arabic, read many texts in Arabic, and composed many of his most famous works in Arabic and referred to God as Allah in his Arabic writing.

In 1148, Córdoba was conquered by the Almohads, an Berber-Muslim dynasty that revoked the dhimmi status of Jews. There is, no doubt, much debate about the quality of the life of a dhimmi, but scholars have noted that “in any historical case, these relatively abstract and general provisions of the dhimma could and did materialize as either a tolerant and even liberating arrangement, or at the other extreme, a culturally repressive policy within which religious freedom is a hollow formality.” (María Rosa Monocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,” p. 73. Garibaldi reviews the book here.) Life for Jews under the Almohads went from the previous tolerant and liberating arrangement to the other extreme, with the result that “[m]any Jews were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the new converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them available to public scrutiny with many forced to convert or go into exile.” The point of this is not to dwell on history, but to put Maimonides’ responsa into context. It was written not by someone who had experienced only positive relations between Muslims and Jews, but who had also witnessed among the harshest of relations. And one should note that after fleeing Córdoba, Maimonides eventually again found himself in a place where he could establish good relations with Muslim authorities, becoming court physician to Saladin.

So, what does Maimonides have to say about how Muslims view God? Returning to the quote, we see that Maimonides says that “[idolatry] has long been severed from their mouths and hearts.” This, is in fact the same story told in Islam’s view of its own history: before Muhammad, the Ishmaelites (as Maimonides refers to them) in and around Mecca were idolaters. But, since the advent of Islam, “they attribute to God a proper unity.” The Islamic term for a “proper unity” istawhid, which, in essence, is not just a superficial form of “unity” but a “proper unity” that has an influence on Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. It is also possible that Maimonides was even distinguishing between the “proper” Jewish and Muslim view of God’s unity and what he would consider the “improper” Christian view of a trinitarian unity. Nowhere does Maimonides even suggest that Muslims are worshiping some different deity or that they do not share the Jewish view of God’s character.

Maimonides further argues that “should anyone say … [the Kaba’a] is a house of idolatry and an idol is hidden within it, which their ancestors used to worship, then what of it? The hearts of those who bow down toward it today are [directed] only toward Heaven.” This can be read as a pre-rebuttal to arguments made by Robert Spencer about the Kaba’a and the hajj based on views, true or not, about their pre-Islamic origins. As Maimonides points out, if Muslims view Allah as the same god Jews view in Heaven and direct their prayers accordingly, pre-Islamic history does not affect their monotheism. Say what you want about any possible idol remnant in the Ka’bah or the etymology of the term Allah, it is clear that the “hearts of [Muslims] today are only toward Heaven.”

Now, why is Maimonides such an interesting person to quote from when countering Spencer’s Islamophobic rhetoric? For one thing, Spencer’s polemical partner Pamela Geller has also quoted from Maimonides, believing that it helps the position that she and Spencer take in general and in her fights about her ads about a choice “between the civilized man and the savage” in particular. Here is a quote she uses, from Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen:

Let Ye understand, my brothers, the Holy One Blessed HE through the trap created by our iniquities cast us amongst this nation, the people of Ishmael [Muslims] whose oppressiveness is firmly upon us and they connive to do us wrong and despicably downgrade us as the Almighty decreed against us (Deuteronomy 32:31, “Your enemies shall judge you”).

There never came against Israel a more antagonistic nation. They oppress us with the most oppressive measures to lessen our number, reduce us, and make us as despicable as they themselves are [Psalms 120:5].

Geller, misleadingly introduces this quote by saying that Maimonides “said this of Islam.” She further introduces the purely religious term Muslims in brackets where Maimonides referred to the “people of Ishmael,” a term that could have ethnic, political, and/or religious connotations.

On the religious aspect, while Maimonides did not accept Islam, it is clear from the earlier quote that he fully accepted that Muslims, or Ishmaelites, were monotheists whose hearts are directed only toward heaven in prayer. Instead, the conflict he describes is a political one, in particular with the Yemeni Shi’a of the time. Ultimately, “Maimonides interceded with Saladin in Egypt, and shortly thereafter the persecution came to an end.”

There are a few additional points worth noting in this quote from Maimonides. First, the reference to “the people of Ishmael” may sound like a form of generalization today, but no more so than the positive references to Ishmaelites in the first Maimonides quote or his reference to Jews as Israel in the second.

Second, unlike Geller, Maimonides does not attempt to create a picture in which one side is civilized and the other savage. Indeed, Maimonides describes Israel’s exile as a “trap created by our iniquities.” Traditionally, this referred to the “baseless hatred,” or the religious and political disputes, mistakes, violence, and venom that existed at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and the onset of the Exile. Thus, Maimonides’ approach was not to turn a political dispute or suffering persecution into a basis for misrepresenting the religious views of others. Nor did he argue that those of his religion were pure and those of another religion were not; rather, he pointed out sinful behavior in both. In Maimonides’ view, monotheism was a good quality, and, from the first quote, we see that he was able to acknowledge what he saw as the good in his political opponents rather than feeling the need to suppress any of those qualities or actions as if his entire position would fall apart if his political adversaries had any good side. In addition, when Maimonides corresponded with a community of Jews who were being persecuted by a Muslim majority, he made a point of noting that even the Jews who then felt persecuted should not ignore their group’s own history of hatred and violence, including political mistakes that were part of the reason for their exile.

While there are aspects to the two quotes from Maimonides that one can agree or disagree with, they do reflect an overall attitude that contrasts sharply with those of Spencer and Geller.

While Maimonides had political differences with various Muslim groups, he did not seek to mischaracterize their religion or their religious beliefs. For there can be no true peace with the Other without recognition of the truth of their beliefs and behavior and honest dialogue based on those truths, a sharp contrast to the insidious Spencer/Geller policy of no peace, no truthful recognition, and no honest dialogue. Compare Maimonides’ recognition of Islam’s positive monotheistic quality, even when he disagreed politically with Muslims, with Spencer, who has argued that “the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim,” meaning that in his view, the only morally good Muslim is one who is not an Islamically good Muslim.

In terms of lessons for today, it may be helpful to see how Maimonides separated the political battles he faced from the opportunities to engage in religious prejudice against the beliefs of the Other. This did not mean that he refrained from political activity, as seen by his appeal to Saladin. But, neither did he refrain from standing up for the truth about another group’s religious beliefs. In viewing how Maimonides conducted these two fights, perhaps it can be said that the lesson is that we should fight our political battles as if there were no religious prejudice, and we should fight religious prejudice as if there were no political battles.