"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Jeff Jacoby on Why Islam Is Disrespected

In his syndicated column today, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby evaluates the reaction of U.S. government officials and media to the Muslim riots sparked by a rumor that American soldiers had desecrated a copy of the Koran. Jacoby points out that both the Bush administration and conservative media pundits blamed Newsweek for the riots. While acknowledging the magazine's culpability in the matter, Jacoby points out that there were no "deadly protests triggered in recent years by comparable acts of desecration against other religions," as in 1989 "after photographer Andres Serrano's 'Piss Christ'—a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine—was included in an exhibition subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts," or when "singer Sinead O'Connor, appearing on 'Saturday Night Live,' ripped up a photograph of Pope John Paul II," or "in 2000, after Arabs demolished Joseph's Tomb, torching the ancient shrine and murdering a young rabbi who tried to save a Torah from the flames," or "in 2001 in response to the destruction of two priceless, 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha by the Taliban government in Afghanistan."

Religious conflicts are always a part of human life, given that religion is a fundamental part of a person's mindset. However, we have a right to expect a sense of perspective on these things, and as Jacoby's examples indicate, it is by no means impossible today for religious people to show restraint in such instances.

Jacoby points out that the sort of behavior both non-Muslims and Muslims themselves seem to expect of Muslims is perfectly infantile and would not be tolerated from any other group. I would add that claims of earlier oppression by colonizers from other cultures certainly have some validity and may merit redress today (although all ethnic and religious groups can make such claims; such is the nature of human history). Nonetheless, the kind of perfectly mad reactions in which Muslims today indulge in response to the smallest presumed slights cannot be excused by either past wrongs or claims about the sanctity of their religious symbols and artifacts. People should respect one another's religions, but other groups have similar claims about their sacred objects, yet they do not routinely engage in such hysterical overreactions today. Complaining in the press, as American Catholics did in response to the slights Jacoby mentioned, is a far, far, far cry from riots and murder. Such behavior certainly is not expected from nor accepted of groups other than Muslims.

Jacoby points out that the people leading Islam today harm non-Muslims and Muslims alike, and the latter worse than the former. In this they are abetted by the acceptance of the Muslim poeples in their own oppression. Hence, Jacoby says,

"the real desecration of Islam is not what some interrogator in Guantanamo might have done to the Koran. It is what totalitarian Muslim zealots have been doing to innocent human beings in the name of Islam. It is 9/11 and Beslan and Bali and Daniel Pearl and the USS Cole. It is trains in Madrid and schoolbuses in Israel and an 'insurgency' in Iraq that slaughters Muslims as they pray and vote and line up for work. It is Hamas and Al Qaeda and sermons filled with infidel-hatred and exhortations to 'martyrdom.'"

"But what disgraces Islam above all is the vast majority of the planet's Muslims saying nothing and doing nothing about the jihadist cancer eating away at their religion. It is Free Muslims Against Terrorism, a pro-democracy organization, calling on Muslims and Middle Easterners to 'converge on our nation's capital for a rally against terrorism' this month—and having only 50 people show up.

"Yes, Islam is disrespected. That will only change when throngs of passionate Muslims show up for rallies against terrorism, and when rabble-rousers trying to gin up a riot over a defiled Koran can't get the time of day."

10 comments:

Tlaloc said...

Let's be honest for a moment. The important differences between Islam and Christianity and Judaism as religions can fit on a 3x5 card. Consequently if you took world history and simply placed Islam in europe and Christianity in the Middle East you reach the exact same point just with the religions swapped.

Islam isn't disrespected because of a problem with Islam. Islam is disrespected because the corner of the earth it hails from has been relentlessly abused, manipulated, and coerced. As a result the people there tend to be a bit twitchy.

The answer naturally is to stop abusing, manipulating and coecing them. In case you were wondering dropping bombs, torturing their citizens, and forcing our social ideas on them would be part of "abusing, manipulating, and coercing." If we could just manage to get out of their faces for a couple decades you'd see a huge improvement in the region.

It's hard to be a fanatic when you don't have a readily available enemy. This is the same reason the Religious Right portrays itself as an underdog: if it admitted the stranglehold christianity has on the country it'd be hard to motivate their base.

James Elliott said...

Mr. Jacoby's column treats Muslims as churlishly as he accuses Muslims themselves of behaving.

If violence were s o inherent in Islam itself, we could have expected widespread rioting among Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia, mad rioting bastards in Indonesia and Malaysia (the two most populous Muslim nations), protestations among Shi'a in Iran, Muslim Palestinians would have turned on their Orthodox Christian bretheren, and maybe some good ol' U.S. flag-burning would have occurred among Detroit's sizable Muslim population. But we saw none of these things.

To compare the desecration of a holy symbol by a ridiculous artist such as Andres Serrano or Sinead O'Connor to a desecration perpetrated by a member of the power structure one views as having a boot on your neck is ridiculous. They are entirely different circumstances. The sacking of Joseph's Tomb is closer in feel, and I do not wish to diminish the horror of such an act, but again, circumstances are different.

As we have endeavored to point out elsewhere, the idea that an American soldier would throw the Koran into a toilet is merely the last straw in a litany of perceived depridations.

Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Karnick are ignoring cultural influences on such behaviors and focusing on the religious. Islam spans numerous ethnic and cultural identities. In Afghanistan, tribal warfare has been a way of life for literally millennia. Violence is all that whole generations of Afghanis have known.

Here's an analogy: Today, many poor urban youth are involved in gangs. Gangs fight mainly over several things: territorial integrity, community identity (the gangs themselves), and respect. Afghani Muslims who rioted are like one of those youth gangs - they are responding to an act of "disrespect." To "disrespect" someone is the ultimate insult among gang culture and demands violent retribution. Similarly, among a culture that views itself as oppressed or routinely disrespected, violence will emerge because violence is one of the few avenues all people have to feeling like they can regain control. People may not respect your culture, but they'll darn well respect your power to hurt or kill them.

I'm not saying it's right, or that they shouldn't find other outlets. I'm saying that the situation is simply way more complicated than "Muslims are more prone to violence."

Similarly, in decrying the lack of throngs of Muslims protesting against terrorism, cultural influences are ignored. The majority of Muslims live in authoritarian states where public gathering is simply prohibited unless state-sponsored. Many cultures simply socialize their children in to not expressing themselves in such a way.

It is even entirely possible that many Muslims see Muslim terrorists in at least a quasi-sympathetic light, much the same as I, an atheist, was disgusted by the disrespect inherent in Mr. Serrano's "Piss Christ." When one feels powerless and disrespected, one is liable to feel sympathetic to another's response to the same stimuli, even if it isn't the response one would have chosen. It isn't rational, but then, neither are people.

As the world shrinks, drawn together by the Internet and satellite TV, power disparities become more and more obvious. Many people in Muslim countries have had to live under multiple oppressions: ethnic, socioeconomic, military, and plain-old authoritarian. Add to that the primacy of Western Christianity in today's mass media, that the industrialized powers are of that culture, and are perhaps seen as now continuing their old colonial ambitions, and BOOM! It's simply not a good mix. There are too many systems at work to merely distill down to "Islam is infantile."

Melchior Sternfels v. Fuchshaim said...

Tl: Let's be honest for a moment. The important differences between Islam and Christianity and Judaism as religions can fit on a 3x5 card.

Now I see why you prefer the simplest possible explanation. It saves you from having to know anything about what you are talking about. If you really believe what you wrote above, then you are so ignorant of both Christianity and Islam that you really ought to be ashamed to say anything about them at all.

Islam isn't disrespected because of a problem with Islam. Islam is disrespected because the corner of the earth it hails from has been relentlessly abused, manipulated, and coerced.

Many places in the world have been, how you say, "relentlessly abused, manipulated, and coerced". So why aren't the Vietnamese or the Nicaraguans or even the Cubans driving jetliners into U.S. buildings? Simple explanations have their virtues, but any explanation should account for all the data. Like those many other countries abused by the West and ruled by authoritarian regimes. What precisely distinguishes the abused Islamic world from the abused non-Islamic world? Please cite evidence to support your answer.

As a result the people there tend to be a bit twitchy.

A bit twitchy? Is that all it is? I wonder what all the fuss was about then. You were doubtless smiling like the euphemism that ate the canary when you wrote that.

If we could just manage to get out of their faces for a couple decades you'd see a huge improvement in the region.

Just long enough for Saddam to have died and Qusay to have come to power. You could have a brilliant career at the State Department.

Melchior Sternfels v. Fuchshaim said...

I think you make some valid points, JFE. For instance, it is wise to distinguish between cultural and religious influences. And even between local indigenous cultural influences and cultural influences that are generic to Islam, but cannot easily be justified out of its core teachings. For instance, the high regard in which the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are commonly held among Muslims as indicative of the true character of the Jews and their aspirations. Surely you've read of the popular television series "Horseman Without a Horse"? Here's how you are edified in a Friday sermon in the Palestinian Authority:

We have ruled the world before, and by Allah, the day will come when we will rule the entire world again. The day will come when we will rule America. The day will come when we will rule Britain and the entire world--except for the Jews. The Jews will not enjoy a life of tranquility under our rule, because they are treacherous by nature, as they have been throughout history.

James Elliott said...

A valiant try, Melchior. Unfortunately, your own attempt at sounding reasonable undercuts your attempt to ascribe violent anti-Semitism to all Muslims. You see, it is indeed important to understand cultural and historical influences. In the case of the Palestinians, they have had over sixty years to equate Jews with their tribulations and struggles as a people searching for a national identity. As the Nazi and Stalinist propoganda programs demonstrate, it's easy to take someone you are predisposed to hate and blame them publicly for everything in order to energize your base. Sound familiar? It should. James Dobson does the same thing. Does it justify anything? No. Does it explain a lot? You betcha.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are similarly held in high regard by white supremacists and their churches, just as they were by Henry Ford and the Nazis. Should I then associate hatred of Jews with Caucasians, Christians, Ford Motor Co., and Germans?

Melchior Sternfels v. Fuchshaim said...

Where did I "attempt to ascribe violent anti-Semitism to all Muslims"? You don't have to ascribe violent anti-semitism to all Muslims in order to think that a series like "Horseman without a Horse" says something substantial about the cultural context in which those who are indeed violent exist. I would point out that those in the West who nowadays cite the Protocols with approval are marginalized, while the Muslims who do the same do not seem to be marginalized (though I hold out great hope that someday soon they will be).

Are you alleging that anti-semitism isn't a substantial cultural force in Islam well beyond the Levant? What about Matahir Mohammed's speech at an Islamic Conference in '03? I don't think Islamic anti-semitism began in 1948. It seems to me that there is a good deal that can't be explained by reference to Israel alone.

Anonymous said...

What about Muslims in the west who cite the Protocols?

James Elliott said...

I don't think Islamic anti-semitism began in 1948. It seems to me that there is a good deal that can't be explained by reference to Israel alone.

Sure it can. First of all, let's not forget that before there was Israel, there was Jewish terrorism against Palestinians and the British. Let's also not forget that Arabs are, if you take the Bible a tad literally, descended from those other tribal peoples that God commanded the Jews to slay. So, let's just hit the cultural animosity thing right off the bat. It's millenia old.

Add in to that contemporary difficulties. The Muslim world extends across several areas where its indigenous ethnic peoples have been previously victimized by the West's colonial past. It's not exactly a mentality we can completely understand (just as I cannot completely understand the institutionalized feelings about racism and slavery for African-Americans or a Jew's position on the Holocaust, for example) because we haven't experienced it. Because of a myriad of post-colonial policies and foreign relations phenomena, such as the Cold War, globalization, and oil's emergence as a prime resource, these areas perhaps view current Western actions through the lens of colonialism. Put simply, they perceive that they are being further victimized.

The deplacement of the Palestinians in order to form Israel (a Western-mold nation populated by Western transplants) could likely have been seen as further colonial activity. The U.S. and other Western states' activities to support Israel, combined with globalization (and the resultant economic and cultural invasions that occur), along with millenia old cultural and ethnic animosities, viewed through a post-colonial-victimization lens, would naturally result in aggressive behavior and rhetoric. Add to this Arab and Muslim propensity to grandiose, lurid statements (remember Baghdad Bob?), and Islam's internal unity (Shi'a and Sunni rhetoric aside), et voila.

Tlaloc said...

"Now I see why you prefer the simplest possible explanation. It saves you from having to know anything about what you are talking about. If you really believe what you wrote above, then you are so ignorant of both Christianity and Islam that you really ought to be ashamed to say anything about them at all."

Uhhuh, sure. I mean sure all three are monotheistic religions derived from a common root that extoll the same virtues and use a common mythology and imagery but other than that they are totally different. All three employ an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent father figure god who judges souls to heaven or hell based on three virtually identical lists of sins and virtues but again -apart from that- they're really different. Feel free to explain how wildly different the three religions are though. I suspect you won't bother now that your bluff has been called.


"Many places in the world have been, how you say, "relentlessly abused, manipulated, and coerced". So why aren't the Vietnamese or the Nicaraguans or even the Cubans driving jetliners into U.S. buildings?"

Hello Viet Cong. Hello Sandinistas. Al qaeda may have been the first group to manage to attack us here but there have been plenty of local groups in other areas that have attacked our imperial ambitions.



"Just long enough for Saddam to have died and Qusay to have come to power. You could have a brilliant career at the State Department."

If the people of Iraq accept it then so be it. The issue is that so long as we were in their faces we were the common enemy. Remove us from the equation and see how long those dictators last. Hint: not long. You don't even realize you are using the same logic that has FAILED FOR THE LAST FIFTY YEARS. It failed in Southeast Asia. It failed in Latin America. It failed in the Middle East. And yet you apparently can't imagine not giving it another fifty years, just to see. Maybe it's just getting warmed up. Or maybe the people responsible for the worst failing of foreign policy in the history of the US should admit they were wrong.

Evanston said...

Tlaloc and James Elliott, compare/contrast the lives of Christ and Mohammed. Perhaps you'll notice a difference. Perhaps. But since you've mastered the Art of Excusing Differences instead of recognizing that they really exist, you will be perpetually frustrated. Tlaloc, thanks for bringing up the VC and Sandanistas. Made me laugh real hard. Both were wiped out, Vietnam ended in a conventional invasion from the north by the Viet Minh, if you care to recall, because people like you didn't mind consigning an entire country to the horror of living under communism. Mucho congrats.