Teverow responds to column

[Editor’s note: The following is a letter to the editor from Southern professor of history Paul Teverow in response to Michael Woodruff’s column in the Sept. 9 issue of The Chart.]

Although I respect Michael Woodruff for his service to our country, I was nevertheless disturbed to read his hostile and, I think, misinformed take on Islam, a faith whose adherents includes people I know in this community and on this campus.

To be sure, there is no denying that the terrorists responsible for the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center were motivated by an Islamist political ideology, one that as Woodruff says places little value on human life.   But surely Woodruff can recall a 1994 incident in Oklahoma City, as in 1993 also involving a Ryder truck packed with fertilizer and also resulting in appalling loss of human life.

In this case, the perpetrators likewise subscribed to an extremist ideology, but one based on [I would say] distortions of both Christian and American values. It would be both mean-spirited and inaccurate to hold all Christians or American patriots responsible for this incident.  

As for Woodruff’s linking of Muslims with the burning of the famous Alexandria library, the historical record leaves it unclear when and by whom the library was destroyed.

Most of the library was probably gone centuries before the Muslim conquest of Egypt. It is more certain, however, that, for one, the earliest mentions of the Muslim leader Amr ordering this in the 640s first appear only several centuries after his alleged action, and the most detailed version appears in Christian polemics against Islam.

Second, by the 900s, the largest library in Europe was in Cordoba, the capital of then Muslim-controlled Spain. Its 400,000 volumes touched on virtually all branches of learning.  

Alexis de Tocqueville, from whom Woodruff includes a long quotation, was indeed among the most astute observers of the relationship between politics and culture.

He is a writer whose perceptive comments on pre-Revolutionary France and on Jacksonian America I have found tremendously useful in making sense of those eras. However, before we take at face value Tocqueville’s comparisons between Christianity and Islam, it is worth considering that first, at the time Tocqueville wrote these comments, he was among those trying to justify French wars of conquest in Islamic North Africa.

Second, for the first generations of Christians, political issues were largely irrelevant. As members of a small, though rapidly growing, and persecuted minority, they had not even the remotest chance of exercising power. By contrast, from the very beginning, Muslim leaders held sway in areas where the majority followed their religion. They had to take responsibility for the government of peoples and territories.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Quran includes “political maxims, civil and criminal laws”, because unlike the Gospels, without this material it could not have served as a guiding text for its earliest religious community. Later on, wherever Christians did come to hold the reins of power, they likewise developed what they claimed to be distinctively Christian political structures and law codes. Today, in our country and in many other places, both Christians and Muslims live in political settings very different from their forbears’.

I question the assertion that today’s Muslims are less capable than today’s Christians of being full participants in a “cultivated and democratic” society, especially when I consider how some influential figures have argued that my religion, Judaism, includes practices and values incompatible with full participation in a modern, enlightened society.      

As someone who is neither Christian nor Muslim, it is not for me to assess the competing claims of either religion. But as an American and as a member of the MSSU campus community, I have every interest in asserting that Muslims have as much right as anyone else to be part of this country and this university.

And because I know how our community has benefitted from the kindness and generosity of Muslims in our midst, I will not stay silent when their beliefs are misrepresented and slandered.