Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Islam, as such...

Freddie deBoer takes umbrage with Rod Dreher's broad strokes in labeling the Mumbai terrorists "Muslim terrorists." Such a complicated issue, for so many reasons...Freddie writes,
So there's about 1 billion Muslims in the world. A billion. A billion is a lot. What would a billion man plot look like, exactly? How would they communicate? Coordinate? I mean if you could really get a billion people together to attack Mumbai, you might as well try to take over a whole country. Ah, but maybe by "are behind" he means "support". That kind of contention is thrown out there all the time, of course, and it has the virtue of requiring no form of proof whatsoever. Just like the contention "The average Palestinian would murder every Jew if he could," this kind of statement has no referent, invites no verification, requires nothing but the author's say-so and the guts to think you can leave it out there, orphaned and unsupported. This in non-falsifiable nonsense. I'm sure, say, the thousands of impoverished Thai Muslims living along the coast with no television or newspapers would be surprised to learn that they support a terrorist attack they've never heard of. Dreher has left himself an out, here, but he's done it in about the weakest form possible: possibly most Muslims weren't behind these attacks. Mmmm.
I think both Dreher and deBoer are missing the point. First of all, Dreher is too quick to jump on the Muslim-bashing bandwagon and leave it at that. No, this is not really a struggle between Christians and Muslims, or Hindis and Muslims, or any of that. This really isn't about a religious clash at all. A more relevant discussion would focus on the Pakistani effort to destabalize Afghanistan and India, a strategy of nationalism rather than religious ideology.

Then again, the nationalists in Pakistan, Palestine, elsewhere do indeed use Islam both as a tool for recruitment and a rallying cry behind much of what they do. It is far easier to convince young, typically poor and uneducated men, to blow themselves up if they then become martyrs, go straight to Heaven. Serving Allah is a far better thing than simply serving Pakistan's regional ambitions. Religion will always trump geopolitics when it comes to fervor. It's simply a sexier alternative.

Freddie worries that people are blaming all Muslims for being behind these attacks--and indeed, many people suffer from great bouts of ignorance and intolerance and are quick to blame the "other" especially if that other happens to be a religion with a long history of clashes with the Western world. No better Bogey-man.

Still, there is blame to lay at the feat of the Islamic culture at large. Unlike post-Reformation Christianity, Islam is very much a religion of homogeneity--less so with Sunni than with Shiite, but culturally both still basically follow orders from on high, with some exception. Essentially, Islam is more like Catholicism than Protestantism. So, like the Catholic Church, Islam should be open for systemic critiques. The abuse of boys at the hands of Catholic Priests is a problem inherent in the Catholic Church--not necessarily in the dogma, nor in the average adherent, but in the Church itself. Terrorism, and specifically suicide terrorism in the mid-east and neighboring regions, is a problem that has been born out of that deadly coupling of post-colonial nationalism and massive religious resurgence. The problem is fueled by both continuing economic disparity funded largely by oil, and widespread fundamentalist teachings of a religion that was born during more violent times--the Koran, after all, is rife with violence and justification for violence.

The trouble with fundamentalism is that it makes it so easy for any religion to pick and choose those pieces, give them greater weight than they deserve, and create out of them something utterly missing the fundamental point.

Freddie goes on to ask,
So what should we do, guys? There's this resilient movement within our national discourse, since 9/11, of people who are fighting mad that more of us aren't fighting mad. Islam is the enemy! This is an existential threat! You're not taking the threat seriously enough! If these statements are more than self-aggrandizement, if they are made with some goal in mind beyond letting the world know what a brave opponent of terrorism the person making them is, then there has to be some action advocated by these people.
I would say that as mere bloggers there is little we can do. And yes, over-all the world has taken this threat seriously. There is better collaboration, better investigation, a more pervasive understanding of the threat. Then again, as witnessed in Mumbai, we are still vulnerable. We may always be. We may not be able to do much more ourselves. However, I don't think we should take the apologist approach, either. Freddie notes that he knows "very few people who argue that Islam doesn't need reform." Fair enough, but at the same time, we have these wings of the debate that argue either "Islam is the enemy" or "Islam is not to blame, just a few bad apples." I would argue that the truth lies somewhere in between. Islam is not to blame, nor is it the enemy, but there are systemic issues within the religion that need to be addressed by those members of the faith that have the most authority. And we as a society, as a government, as an international body, need to pressure these people to act. The clerics need to denounce terror, violence, oppression against women. The clerics ought to be a counter-balance to the nationalists, not play a supporting role. So rather than take the extreme argument from either side, perhaps it is time to say that yes, this brand of terror is an Islamic problem that Islam needs to address. No excuses. No matter that most of the 1 billion Muslims in the world aren't terrorists. Most of the 1.5 billion Catholics in the world aren't child molestors, either.

To do anything at all to address the problems within the Catholic Church, they first had to have their feet held to the flames. What makes us think that any less is required when addressing the Islamic Church?

Update: Thomas Friedman makes a similar point in yesterday's New York Times:

“I often make the comparison to Catholics during the pedophile priest scandal,” a Muslim woman friend wrote me. “Those Catholics that left the church or spoke out against the church were not trying to prove to anyone that they are anti-pedophile. Nor were they apologizing for Catholics, or trying to make the point that this is not Catholicism to the non-Catholic world. They spoke out because they wanted to influence the church. They wanted to fix a terrible problem” in their own religious community.

We know from the Danish cartoons affair that Pakistanis and other Muslims know how to mobilize quickly to express their heartfelt feelings, not just as individuals, but as a powerful collective. That is what is needed here.