'God has 99 names,' and one is Allah

July 05, 1996|By Richard Reeves

AUSTIN, Texas -- At a dinner here last year, I was lucky enough to sit next to Lady Bird Johnson, who looked great and was as smart as ever, gently deflecting the gentlest criticism of Lyndon Baines Johnson by a visitor.

She was also as sharp as Texas barbed wire when the subject turned briefly to prayer in schools. ''Oh, I love hearing our good Christian prayers,'' said Mrs. Johnson, with a hint of exaggeration that promised more than met the ear. ''And we could let our Jewish friends say their wonderful prayers . . . ''

A beat or two, and then she said, ''By the way, aren't there quite a number of Muslims in the country now?''

Yes, there are. Perhaps as many as 6 million, according to Judith Miller of the New York Times, whose important new book is ''God Has Ninety-Nine Names.''

Large families

There will be many, many more Muslims here and everywhere in the world. One of the things Ms. Miller talks about are the age profiles of the world. While families in the United States and Europe continue to get smaller and the average age of the populations gets older, Islamic families remain large. In several countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a majority of populations are teen-age or younger.

One of the implications of such patterns is that, in the United States, the Muslim population is already larger than the Jewish population, or soon will be -- and that gap will grow very quickly.

As the phrase ''ninety-nine names,'' which is from the Koran, Islam's holy book, suggests, there is at least as much diversity in the beliefs and lifestyles of Muslims as there is among Christians. More so, probably, because Christianity is an older religion -- by six centuries or so -- and is in a generally ecumenical phase now that wars between Catholics and Protestants seem to be over -- with the exception, of course, of Northern Ireland.

There is an enormous difference in the spirituality and fervor among the believers. For example, the people of the largest Muslim country, Indonesia, are totally different from the militant Sunni Muslims of Sudan or the Shiite Muslims of Iran.

Oh, you didn't know there are more Muslims (180 million) in Indonesia than anyplace else? There is a lot we don't know, beginning with the fact that most Muslims are about as militant as modern Presbyterians.

Ms. Miller, who has a feel and affection for the easy family rhythms and hospitality of most Muslims, is not writing about the many but about the few, the militant and fundamentalist brethren of Mohammed who are terrifying the world, or should be -- beginning with their own countries. There is, she says, no effective defense against a 19-year-old suicide bomber raised in the bitter poverty of a desert refugee camp who believes that paradise awaits him as a martyr to the faith.

The danger of educating women

The first line of defense against fanaticism is, of course, in their own countries. Muslim countries such as Malaysia are vigilant against the dangers of religious fundamentalism -- anti-Western modernism, in loose definition, beginning with the mass education of women. A few years ago, the government of Malaysia was sending large numbers of its young citizens to universities in the United States -- until it discovered that those universities were becoming the principal recruiting grounds of militants picking off homesick young Malaysians ignored and scandalized by America.

It is important to understand that it is not only old ayatollahs who see American life as satanic. Ms. Miller identifies an American-educated Egyptian writer, Sayid Qtub, as the ideological father of modern Muslim militance. This is Qtub, writing on American ''depravity'' and ''synthetic civilization: ''

''Songs from the record player whipped the dancers into a fury. The room became a confusion of feet and legs: arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together. The air was thick with passion. The minister . . . began to urge the hesitant young men who remained seated to join the dancing, [choosing] quite a famous tune, a stirring song, 'Baby, It's Cold Outside.' . . . The couples left one by one as they pleased.''

Qtub, who was executed by the Egyptian government in 1966, but whose books and influence live on, was describing a 1952 church social after a Sunday evening service in Greeley, Colo.

Knowing how others see us is the first step to understanding them, and we have no choice but to learn of the levels, the hopes and dangers of Islam.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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