Category Archives: Islam

Innocence and Experience

Over the last week, the world has seen film criticism turned into violent protest. The movie in question, The Innocence of Muslims, portrays the prophet Muhammed as a child-molesting, adultering, homosexual thug. In doing so, it has offended many, some of whom attacked U.S. embassies in North Africa. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in Libya were killed in one of those incidents.

I didn’t want to watch the film, but for the purpose of writing this article, I saw it on YouTube. It’s some thirteen minutes of inept acting, bad dialogue, pathetic effects, and an absence of character development or a coherent plot.

But the protests aren’t over the fact that it’s a lousy movie. The problem that some see in it is that it depicts Muhammed as a bad person. It calls into question the origins of the Islamic religion. Is it offensive? Certainly. Is violence an acceptable response? Certainly not.

The implication of the protests is that the religion in question is too weak to survive criticism or insult. Ideas cannot be defended by violence. Those who accept ideas do have the right to defend themselves against physical harm, but offense doesn’t qualify. People have the right to live and to believe, but ideas do not.

Understand the point that I’m making there. A person has the right to be a Muslim or not, but the religion itself has no right to special protection. Ideas have to stand or fall on their own strengths and flaws. As we’ve seen time and again, nonsense gets the protection of swords and shields, but that doesn’t make it true. Good ideas are often suppressed, but that doesn’t make them false.

So what makes a religion true or false? It’s not scientific evidence or historical events, no matter what some believers may say. Religion isn’t subject to those considerations. What makes the difference is the narrative power of the religion and the meaning that it gives the lives of its participants. In terms of social utility, we can consider whether the religion makes a person better, but that goes beyond the validity of the religion itself.

I’ve seen questions asked about how a film like this could have been allowed. This comes mostly from countries that don’t respect freedom of expression. Those countries also don’t typically respect freedom of religion, either. America has extraordinary religious freedom and no official religion and a high rate of participation in religion. Those two facts are connected.

With that in mind, the right response to an offensive movie is to speak out, to make a new film, to preach, and to argue. If the religion in question has good ideas, it will survive. If not, it’s not worth fighting for in the first place.

Pyramid Power

Over the last several weeks (January 2011), we in America have been watching people in the Arab world rise against their dictators.  The government of Tunisia has already fallen, and now, Egyptians are demanding that Hosni Mubarak leave power.  This wave of revolution raises a couple of points that we need to consider.

The first is that America needs to give up its hypocracy.  We’ve been supporting one wretched regime after another in the Middle East, arguing that a dictator is better than a theocracy that the people would choose.  The prime example is Iran.  Of course, that falls apart when we recall that we bear a lot of responsibility for the Iranian Revolution, since we kept the Shah in power for decades, having used the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected leader in 1953.  (He committed the sin of leaning to the left during the Cold War.)

If we believe in democracy, we have to support democratic movements.  Yes, we are worried about the so-called Islamists, but suppressing such groups only increases the heat in the pressure cooker, and ultimately, we can’t tell foreign peoples how to feel.  Propping up strongmen who will do what we want is shortsighted.  In the long view, democracies are better partners in the world, even when they don’t agree with us or comply with our wishes.  Take France as the illustration of this.  French foreign policy seems to be centered on opposition to American interests, but we haven’t gone to war with France and have no cause to do so.  We do business with the French.  We drink their wines and visit their museums, and while we have occasion to call them surrendermongers, arguing with words tends to be more pleasant than arguing with bombs.

Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls this the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Resolution.  In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he observed that no two nations that have McDonalds restaurants have gone to war with each other.  (Recently, there have been shortlived conflicts that challenged this, but the principle still holds.)  Democracies enjoy spending money on luxury goods, and war is expensive.

Democracies also do a better job of providing good lives for citizens.  They aren’t perfect at this, but as Churchill said, they are better than any other form of society that has been tried.  Poverty and oppression are the primary causes of unrest around the world, and while the transition to democractic governments is often messy, the societies that result will be filled with people who write angry letters to their representatives, rather than blowing themselves up in crowded markets.

The second point here is that each nation has to decide for itself when it’s ready for democracy.  The creation of free societies is a fundamental duty of human beings, but that cannot be imposed from without.  It can be held back for a while, and it can be encouraged, but only the people themselves can earn this excellent form of government.  Look at what happened in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.  The people there arose, and their “leaders” could do nothing to stop them.

As the title of this article suggests, the apex of the pyramid can only remain when the base supports it.  Dictators use fear to maintain power, but as Egyptians are now demonstrating, fearful power is an illusion.  A few may die if Mubarak is stupid enough to order killings, although it appears that the army is choosing to stay neutral.  What brave people understand, though, is that a free life is the only one worth living.

So to the Egyptian people, I say that it’s about time and hip, hip huzzah!  If we in America do our duty, we’ll support you.

Remarkable Firing

In the dark of a Wednesday night (20 October 2010), National Public Radio fired news analyst Juan Williams for remarks that he had made on The O’Reilly Factor the previous Monday. The response from bloggers and Fox News was swift outrage, and as much as it pains me to agree with Fox, here I am, joining in the condemnation.

First, let’s review what Williams actually said. He acknowledged that when he gets on an airplane and sees a fellow passenger in “Muslim garb,” this makes him nervous. He referred to the words of the man who failed to bomb Times Square who claimed that America is in a war with Muslims that is just beginning.

NPR stops there. Williams didn’t, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but take the supposedly objectionable remarks in themselves. Williams didn’t say that this nervousness is appropriate. He wasn’t defending fear. He simply acknowledged something that many Americans feel. If we won’t tolerate that kind of openness, there never will be any genuine peace, and NPR was wrong to fire Williams for being open. There are plenty of media outlets that provide only one accepted narrative.

But Williams hadn’t finished his commentary. He went on to say that treating all Muslims as terrorists is the equivalent of treating all Christians as such because of people like Timothy McVeigh. NPR prides itself on allowing time for extended discussion, but here the organization is doing exactly what it accuses other news sources of doing: cutting down the debate to sound bites.

I’ll go into the blather about biases in a moment, but what this incident shows is the insipid timidity that has infected NPR in the last decade. I see a connection here to the firing of Bob Edwards several years ago. Edwards was fired from being the host of Morning Edition, and the reasons given were a lot of doubletalk for “He’s not stylish enough.” Williams has been fired for making complex remarks.

It’s been my feeling for the last decade that NPR is desperate to avoid controversy and desperate to kowtow to power. To some extent, this is understandable, since the Republican Congress during the early years of the Bush administration threatened to cut funding because of a perceived liberal bias. But when NPR sacrifices depth of analysis for mere volume of talk, it becomes just like all the other vacuous news channels.

I have been an NPR listener for the better part of thirty years, and I find the claims of liberal bias to be off the mark. NPR does have an intended audience, namely educated people. For much of the time that I have been listening, NPR worked to provide context for and prospective on the events of the day. It also challenged those in power. It helped me understand the debate over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court; it rejected the hyperbole surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal in favor of political analysis. All along, it did not take the side of the Democrats. Instead, it stood outside, and its reporters and commentators did what we need them to do: ask questions and refuse to accept shallow answers.

But then came the years of the Bush administration. NPR went from college professor to elementary school librarian (excuse me, media specialist). The information was still there, but we had to be quiet while reading it and make sure not to spill food on the books.

Is there a way out of this? I doubt that Williams would want to be rehired. Fox News has given him a lucrative contract, and he has no reason to return to where he isn’t wanted. NPR can redeem itself by returning to what it is supposed to be. We have quite enough of CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, et al. We don’t need any more Entertainment Tonight channels masquerading as news. It is the duty of NPR to be the voice of reasoned opposition.

What can we do? Dear readers, write to the NPR ombudsman; write on your weblogs; write to your local NPR affiliate. Tell them that you want NPR to be what it was. Tell them that there is no point in supporting what it is now. Goad them where it hurts, and be individually what NPR needs to be collectively: well reasoned, but never satisfied.

Book Burning

The controversy over the plans of Pastor Terry Jones to burn a copy of The Qur’an this coming Saturday raises a number of points of interest for me, points that derive from contrasting values that I hold.  This plan challenges the idea of freedom, but also the extent of commitment to faith.

As a writer and teacher, I value books in general and abhor burning them.  I will not say that all books are sacred–if everything in a category is sacred, then effectively, nothing is–but the idea of books certainly is.  The Qur’an is clearly an important and complex text.  It comes out of the same Abrahamic tradition as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.  I do not accept it as binding on my life, any more than the Bible, but I respect those who do, and I recognize the cultural value that it has.  Let’s remember that for many generations, Islamic societies led the world in scientific and economic development, and The Qur’an was a unifying and propulsive force in that.

At the same time, in America, we cannot be compelled to respect anyone’s sacred book.  According to today’s edition of the NPR news program Here and Now (9 September 2010), protesters in Pakistan are demanding that Pastor Jones be stopped from burning a copy of The Qur’an.  What they don’t understand is that this is impossible.  Yes, he does not have a permit to burn, so he may be fined, but that’s it.  The charge would be the same if he burned trash.  In this country, freedom of expression is recognized as a fundamental right.  We can burn flags, photograph crosses in urine, write dirty books, and practice infidel religions.  If that right is supressed, we lose our humanity.

I am concerned at the way that protesters are so willing to defend one book, but not others.  Recall the fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie because of his book, The Satanic Verses, and the death threats against Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Muhammed.  Is a novel or a cartoon the equivalent of The Qur’an?  I argue that it is.  Each is an expression of ideas and art.  An act of violence against one idea threatens all.  There is a hypocrisy in those who insist that what they value must be respected, while the values of others are taken to be of no consequence.

What is the answer to all of this?  I quote Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California:  “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”  If Pastor Jones dislikes The Qur’an, I ask him to write his own book that explains why.  If Muslims oppose burning the book or are angered by someone else’s expression, they may preach and write in an effort to convince the rest of us to see things their way.  Ideas must be defended on their own terms:  in speech, in writing, in drawing, and in other forms of expression.  Argumentum ad Baculum in either case proves nothing beyond demonstrating which side has the greater force, and as history shows us, empires built on force inevitably fall.  By contrast, the great ideas make who we are, and their influence stays in us.

Build a Mosque, but Build It American

The controversy over building an Islamic center near Ground Zero is a blend of the just plain silly and the genuinely meaningful.  Let’s analyze what’s going on.

First, have a look at this article:

Matt Sledge uses Google Earth to show that the center is not being built on the site of the World Trade Center itself.  It will be two blocks away.  New Yorkers may feel free to correct me, but that distance in a large city strikes me as too far to get excited about.

But that’s not the heart of the matter.  The important question is one of American values and identity.  In this essay, I’m going to use the pronoun, we.  Understand it to mean Americans as a whole and the point of view that the many and the influential have held in this country.

Look at three religions that have shaped America’s history.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam battle with each other with such intensity because they are all three siblings. They worship the same God and draw from the same cultural and mythical sources.  Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages.  El and Allah–the first, a Hebrew and the second, an Arabic name for God–have the same root in the parent language.  All three faiths grew up out of the desert culture of the Middle East.  All three have a positive system of morality that is contrasted with other behaviors, and each insists that it is monotheistic.

That having been said, any of the three would make an effective core religion in America.  It does not matter which one.  What we do need to decide is what type of the religion will win here.  Americans have always been deeply religious, but we have a set of values that are in conflict.

We value individual liberty; we value being religious, but we also value converting others to the truth.  The Bill of Rights was a defining statement of our valuing personal rights, as was the American Revolution.  The fact that America is filled with churches and synagogues and mosques, despite having no official religion, shows our need for religion.  It may even be the result of our govenment acknowledging that we are free to believe by virtue of being human.  We have sent missionaries, soldiers, and businesspersons all over to remake the world in our image.

Note that these three values, when pushed to the extreme, contradict each other. What kind of Islam, what kind of Judaism, and what kind of Christianity is practiced here will determine whether any of them can be a truly American religion–a religion that is deeply held and loudly proclaimed, but not forced on anyone else.

With all this in mind, I say, build the Islamic center.  Some have argued that Saudi Arabia would not allow a church to be built in Mecca.  Whether or not that’s true, it’s irrelevant.  Saudi Arabia is not America.  It does not hold our values.  Our values support building mosques, so long as they are built American.  Build a mosque whose congregation values the separation of religion and state, the rights of women, and the sanctity of the individual.

In fact, as an American, I say, build the center, no matter what it’s like.  Just understand that if it goes against who we are, we’re free to speak out, and we will do so.