The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but here it is for what it's worth.
Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Muhammad Ali was supposedly visiting Ground Zero when someone asked a barbed question: How did Ali, the most famous Muslim in the world who is not a terrorist, feel about sharing his religion with Osama bin Laden? The champ shot back, "How does it feel to share yours with Hitler?"
As I said, the story -- it began circulating soon after the attacks -- is probably not true, but it ought to be. It's valuable for what it says about our tendency to demonize the unfamiliar and overlook the obvious.
Which brings us to Eric Rudolph, alleged Christian terrorist.
And, to this question: Is that a fair term to describe the accused serial bomber? Some observers have begun debating that since Rudolph's recent arrest in North Carolina. Among them, The Washington Post, which raised the issue in a story last week. And Arsalan Tariq Iftikhar, Midwest communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who tackled it a few days ago in The Miami Herald.
The question is, to say the least, provocative. After all, the crimes of which Rudolph stands accused -- the bombings of a gay nightclub, two abortion clinics and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- can fairly be described as terrorism. And he is indeed thought to have been motivated by Christianity, albeit that perversion of it found on the extreme right end of the political spectrum. In that perversion, love of Jesus somehow translates to the conviction that Jews are diabolical, blacks subhuman, and explosive devices a valid expression of faith.
So does that make him a Christian terrorist? And if not, why? What is the substantive difference between him and all the "Muslim terrorists" who plant bombs out of their supposed devotion to Islam?
If you're a Christian, as I am, your reflexive response is likely to resent being lumped with this guy whose beliefs reflect no Christianity you've ever known or practiced. And perhaps you're self-aware enough to realize in the process that this is the argument moderate Muslims have been making for years, to limited effect.
Granted, the comparison is inexact.
For one thing, Christianity is, by a sizable margin, the largest religion in America. Its ubiquity makes it unlikely that Rudolph could ever be seen as "representative" of the followers of Christ. So it's difficult for most Christians to appreciate fully how the term "Muslim terrorist" must resonate with Muslims who are not.
There's another reason the comparison is flawed. Namely, that fundamentalist extremists have managed to hijack Islam to a degree most of us find unfathomable.
In this country, it is considered newsworthy and a cause for concern that a few people in the hills of North Carolina have expressed sympathy for Rudolph. But in the Middle East, "sympathy" for terrorism is general, often taking the form of government support, institutional anti-Semitism, and the lionization of suicide bombers. Fairly or unfairly, the damage that behavior has done to Islam in the eyes of the world is incalculable.
For all its imperfections, though, the comparison is a valuable one. It requires the majority to walk in the minority's shoes, demands that we grapple with issues of fairness and sensitivity we might otherwise never consider. It serves to the goose the sauce prepared for the gander.
Is Rudolph a Christian terrorist? If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, then isn't the unavoidable answer yes?
Not that we'll ever call him that. As history is written by the winners, so perception is shaped by the majority. And I doubt that any mainstream news outlet will ever use "Christian terrorist" to describe Eric Rudolph. People will say it's provocative and unsettling, and it is.
I'm just not convinced that's a bad thing.