Learn about Islam before you criticize its followers, historian says

Garry Wills

“Forty percent don’t think President Obama was born in America. How do you deal with a populace like that?” historian and author Garry Wills asked at his lecture Wednesday. Photo: Al DiFranco


Those who oppose the followers of Islam need to “shut up until they learn something about the people they’re attacking,” Garry Wills told a UIC audience Wednesday.

He began his lecture by asking how many in the crowd at Hull-House Museum had read the Quran. Six hands went up.

“A year ago, a friend asked if I had read it,” said Wills, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, historian and Northwestern University emeritus professor. “I was ashamed to admit I hadn’t.”

But now he has, and he’s learned, among other things, that the Quran mentions Jesus, Noah, Moses and Solomon among the prophets.

Wills’ lecture was presented by UIC’s political science department. “In light of Paris, his talk is all the more pertinent,” said associate professor Alba Alexander, coordinator of the lecture series.

Wills, 81, spoke without notes, but he did read a passage from the writings of Pope Francis.

The pope noted that Islam, like Christianity, began with Abraham, and that “Jesus and Mary receive profound veneration” in the sacred text. Reading the Quran “sheds light on shared beliefs,” the pope writes, noting that true followers of Islam are opposed to violence.

“Now there’s a man who knows something about religion,” Wills added.

Wills said U.S. policymakers’ ignorance about Islam was evident from the beginning of the war in Iraq. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the country would fall “within weeks, not months,” and Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykins said we were fighting “to prove our God was better than their God,” Wills recounted.

We cannot treat Islam’s followers as if they have one body of belief, Wills said.

Why don’t other Muslims condemn the extremists? he asked. “They have,” he said, referring to an open letter from more than 120 Muslim scholars and leaders accusing ISIS of misreading the Quran and being traitors to the faith.

audience at Garry Wills lecture

Wills spoke without notes, although he did read a passage by Pope Francis. Photo: Al DiFranco

During the Q&A, Wills was asked about Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent announcement that he would halt Syrian immigration to Illinois.

“A great appeal to constituents of the Republican Party is that it’s racist,” Wills said. “Forty percent don’t think President Obama was born in America. How do you deal with a populace like that?”

Many say the reason for Donald Trump’s popularity is that he’s a TV celebrity. No, Wills said, it’s because Trump is the leading proponent of the belief that Obama is not an American. “That’s his core constituency.”

Asked about the influence of money on the political process, Wills said Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren have forced Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton to temper her stand on campaign financing.

“She says she’s not getting a lot of money from Wall Street,” he said. “It’s nice that she feels the need to lie.”

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