Some Thoughts On Events In The Middle East

September 14, 2012 § 6 Comments

This is not what I was planning on writing about today, but the protests and riots in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, etc. require a few words.

1. I don’t quite understand the argument advanced by some that Obama or Clinton or any other government official should not have condemned the movie clip that started this whole mess. As I have written many times before, I am a free speech absolutist and do not believe that anyone should ever be censored, but that is not the same thing as arguing that hateful and abhorrent speech should be completely consequence-free. Nobody within the government is suggesting that the people behind the film should be arrested, fined, or sanctioned in any way, which is precisely what freedom of speech is meant to protect, but it does not then follow that the film should not be criticized (and let’s please put the ridiculous “apologizing for American values” canard to rest, since apologizing and condemning are two very different things). Freedom of speech means that you get to say whatever you want and that others get to say whatever they want in response. To those who are complaining that Obama and Clinton condemned this film but let plenty of other hate speech pass without comment, I would remind you that the primary responsibility of government is to protect its citizens and it is possible that the government’s condemnation will save some American lives by defusing the situation. It is also why the comparison to the Piss Christ exhibit a few years ago is a bad one, since nobody’s lives were in danger in that situation. While it might feel good to get angry at what appears to be a blatant double standard, the bottom line here is that we must deal with the world as it is rather than how we want it to be, and condemning the film while making it crystal clear that this type of speech is always allowed in the U.S., as Clinton did yesterday, is absolutely the right move in my view.

2. I also don’t quite understand the calls for trying to place the violent response to the film in a larger context of demonization of Islam or mistreatment of Muslims in Western countries. There is nothing that justifies the violence that is taking place against U.S. embassies, foreigners, journalists, and others, not to mention that tarring all of the U.S. with the brush of demonizing Islam is no different than portraying all Muslims as terrorists. I do not think that the film results from an environment in which is widely acceptable to dehumanize Muslims, but even if that were indeed the case, it does not justify the response in Libya, Egypt, or Yemen. I would also add that the rioting is going to do absolutely nothing to convince the reprehensible characters responsible for this film that their views are wrong, and is in fact going to have the precisely opposite effect.

3. Following 9/11, there was a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government and other governments across the world to stress that the actions of al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden did not represent Islam and that Muslims should not be held collectively responsible for the actions of a small extremist group. I agree with that 100% and believed at the time and still believe now that it is the correct approach to take, since Bin Laden should not be viewed as a proxy for Islam or for Muslims more generally. By the same token, this film needs to be accorded the same standard, since a couple of nutcases in California do not speak for or represent the U.S. government or American society. The notion expressed in countless interviews with protestors and implicitly suggested by the actions of rioters is that the U.S. must answer for this film, which is completely ridiculous.

4. Something that I am eager to have explained to me by someone whose understanding of Islamic theology is deeper than mine (and I am not being sarcastic; I am genuinely interested): why is there an assumption on the part of the rioters and protestors that Muslim religious principles should be universal? An article in the Egypt Independent on the reasons behind the protests in Egypt quoted a protestor explaining his anger by saying, “It is forbidden to depict the Prophet, especially when they say the exact opposite of the truth about him.” I get that the prohibition exists in Islam, but I don’t get why that means that non-Muslims across the entire world have to adhere to it. Judaism forbids eating milk and meat together, but Jews are not going around burning McDonalds franchises because they serve cheeseburgers, nor are Mormons ransacking Starbucks stores because they sell caffeine. For that matter, Islam forbids eating pork and drinking alcohol but Muslims are not demanding that all of Earth’s 6 billion residents refrain from having a beer with their barbecued ribs. Why is the expectation that everyone adhere to Islam’s prohibitions on depicting the prophet, and why does it only apply in this case but not to other activities prohibited by Islam? Again, I am not being snide but am actually looking for an answer.

5. I can’t help but note that as Arab countries literally burn, the Turkish response has been entirely different. I have not seen one report yet of any protests in Turkey over the film, and certainly no rioting or threats to the U.S. embassy. Two thoughts from this: first, this is as good a proof as any that blaming Islam wholesale for what is going on at the moment is not capturing the story accurately, and second, it is further evidence that the people who talk about Turkey’s “Islamist government” or describe the AKP as Islamist radicals have no clue what they are talking about.

6. Finally, for those waiting for things to get better, I have a sinking feeling that you’ll be waiting awhile. Arab publics have a seething resentment against the U.S. for all sorts of reasons, and if you think that these protests are simply about a film, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. The depth of the problem should be quite evident by this point following U.S. backing for democratic change in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places over the past 18 months that has bought it little credibility or leeway in these very same countries. I don’t know what the answer is for U.S. policy short of shuttering embassies and completely disengaging from the Middle East, which is obviously not a real option. I do know that we should expect violence targeting U.S. interests for years to come because people are upset for a host of reasons, some more legitimate than others, and this will not abate any time soon.


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§ 6 Responses to Some Thoughts On Events In The Middle East

  • Krishan Bhattacharya says:

    The basic answer to your question in #4 is that Islam has a short holy book.

    The holy book(s) of Judiasm and Christianity contain many commands from god that are every bit as absolutist and life destroying as anything you would find in the Koran, but if the modern Christian doesn’t want to follow, say this hideous passage (Deuteronomy 13:7-11):

    If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the peoples surrounding you, whether near you or far away, anywhere throughout the world, you must not consent, you must not listen to him; you must show him no pity, you must not spare him or conceal his guilt. No, you must kill him, your hand must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the rest of the people following. You must stone him to death, since he has tried to divert you from Yahweh your God. . . .

    he can simply ignore it, and read the Jesus of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount (the above verse is never read in church anymore). He can turn to Ecclesiastes, or what have you.

    In Islam, however, it is difficult to do this, because the Koran is a short book, and non-belief is relentlessly demonized on almost every page of the Koran and the Hadith. Turn the page, and you just find more calls to destroy the infidel.

    If the behavior of Joshua can be taken as a guide, Judaism used to be the same way as Islam, but now we have Reform Judaism. Christian Europe was burning scholars alive for five centuries, but it has managed to change. When societies decided they want to liberalize, they could simply ignore the totalitarian passages of Exodus, Kings II, and Deuteronomy, and read the nicer bits about consolation and parables of morality. Love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc.

    But the totalitarian, warlike bits of Islam are too thoroughly woven into the fabric of Islamic literature, so it’s too difficult to create a Reform Judaism version of Islam, and that’s the problem. If a Muslim wants to argue for a more liberal interpretation of the religion, he is left to split hairs, and sift through mountains of Koranic venom to find a single grain of peace.

    • I think there is a difference though, since the passage you cite from Deuteronomy relates to Jews who are idolators. My question is not why Islam enforces its strictures on Muslims, but why it expects non-Muslims to conform to these strictures as well. The debate about a reformation within Islam is a separate question.

      • hexag1 says:

        OK, I see. Perhaps we could describe it as the idolatry – banning problem. You see, there is a paradoxical phenomenon known to anyone who is aware of the ironies censorship.

        The first such wave of Islamic protests to sweep the globe was the Satanic Verses Affair. The book was banned in Egypt, but everyone read it. When a Pakistani film was made about Rushdie, in which he was executed at the end by a giant Koran falling from the sky, Rushdie went to great lengths to make sure that it was published in the UK, because he knew that banning it would only add glamour to the film.

        The taboo against insulting the Prophet Mohammed is a similar version of this, taken to extreme form. Idol worship is officially banned in Islam, unlike in Hinduism, where it is basically the central practice of the religion (praying at statues of Ganesh or whatever). However hard a religion tries to ban idol worship, it always re-emerges in new form. In Pakistan there is supposedly cape that was worn by Mohammed, and people go and pray there. At another mosque, that have a supposed beard hair of the prophet, and people go and pray to it. Idol worship, that is worshiping representations of god is banned, but an artifact associated with the supposed prophet are an easy substitute.

        Christianity has the same ban on idol worship in its holy book. But what do you see when you go to a catholic church and see the crucifix, with Christ depicted in death? Or when people go and worship the appearance of the Virgin Mary in an oil stain in Mexico. Bans are instituted, but ready substitutes come roaring back, and no religion has managed to get rid of them for long.

        Islam has a ban on imagery all together (which isn’t really followed, except for religious stuff), and in its case the banning of idol worship has itself become a form of idolatry. Mohammed’s very name has become the object of idolatry. Like the censoring of an sexual image, the banning of idolatry has simple caused the suppressed desire to come out more intensely in another way. Remember when the school teacher was arrested for allowing her class to name the class teddy bear Mohammed?,2933,313690,00.html

        Here the name itself, of He Who Is Forbidden To Be Depicted, has become the idol. I loved Chistopher Hitchens’ quip (from memory) “If you can give the name Mohammed to a squealing, shitting, nuisance of a child, which somebody does about five thousand times a day, I think you should be able to give it to the class’s favorite teddy bear”.

    • davedickson says:

      Well, one could split hairs here fairly easily, in my opinion. I made myself read an “English prose” version of the Koran a few years back. You are right in that it pretty much says the same darned thing over and over, and that it does relentlessly demonize non-belief. (literally!) However –and this may just be my memory doing bad jumping-jacks–I don’t believe it tells people to “destroy the infidel” in all but a couple of spots. Even in those couple of spots, it seems to be speaking in the context of “destroying the infidels at Mecca”–who, let’s be fair, were trying their best to assassinate Muhammed at the time.

      No, whatever demonization of non-belief that the book exhibits is overwhelmingly expressed not in its mortal-sphere dictates, but in its depiction of the afterlife. Y’know, all the “heaven and hell” stuff. (Well, actually, mostly “hell”. The translation I used would make good fodder for a (strictly non-alcoholic) drinking game–every time you read the words “grievous punishment”, drink a root beer shot. You’ll be bouncing off the walls by page 100.)

      As far as a “liberal interpretation” of the religion, there’s a few passages that give one hope–relentless dictates to support orphans and the poor, as well as a few (surprising!) admonitions for men to treat their wives well, or at any rate much better than women were usually treated in Arab tribal society before Islam. Keep in mind, I haven’t read the mountain of ancient literature that usually accompanies the Koran–the stuff that has been used to interpret it over the centuries.

  • pepe793 says:

    In relation to number 4, there are two things. one is the rule on drawing prophets and the rule on blasphemy. not too many muslims care if prophets are drawn per se. if you watch docos on islam youll see some depictions of Mohammad, usually from iranian sources and famously iran made a tv series on the prophet yusuf(joseph). The blasphemy on the other hand is a general law (for obvious reasons) that applies to everyone. Although it applying to people on the other side of the plannet is an innovation of some sort.

    personally i have issues with theology being used to explain current affairs. Usually there are better explanations (cultural wars, identity politics, geo politics).

    Also i think its fair to say most followers of enlightenment ideologies dont think everyone should be able to say what they want (screaming fire in a crowded cinema) and most muslims dont think religious sensitivities should silence all use of free speech. So we are closer than some assume.

  • davedickson says:

    Good arguments, all — but I wouldn’t say the theological conciseness of the Koran likely has much to do with the absolutism you’re seeing on display worldwide. You could argue that, but my impression is that people in general don’t really know much about their own religion beyond a few talking points and a general “feeling”.

    It is that “feeling” that you’re seeing on display–a “feeling” merged with the “feeling” that Other People who Don’t Know The True God are trying to “tell us what to do because they’re jerks”.

    Then add to that the logic chain that goes something like this: a.) the idea that many Islamist thought-leaders have that the Internet is a brainwashing device created specifically by the infidels (and by government/military research, natch) to lead good people astray, b.) the idea, based on their own real-world experience with governments, that if the leaders of America wanted to suppress this video, they could and would, and c.) Q.E.D., that the leaders of America are responsible for the production of this video.

    And, by the way, that extends to everything else bad that happens in the region. Assad being evil? Oh, it must be because the American government let it happen. Civil war in Iraq? American government. Israel bombing this/that/the other? American government. Bahrain etc.? America. (That last one is completely true, but the point stands.) Libya? Well, that was good, but. . . um, we’re sure America has ulterior motives there. Oil, etc.

    So. . . it’s kind of an adding-insult-to-injury thing. Based on a foundation of perfectly reasoned logic applied to absolutely false premises, which are derived from badly applied induction. Their life experiences tell them who to blame in this case. That, and they just want to raise hell.

    The Koran? It’s just an excuse at best.

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