the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 July 19


There are a billion Muslims in the world, as any one of them will tell you. That is a number that demands respect, and most of them will in fact demand it. But it would perhaps be better to be merely impressed by the great mass of believers, and instead to offer the higher honor of respect to Muslims only individually, and only to the precise extent that they individually earn it. Respecting Islam as a religion is not something we should feel obligated to do at all. And attempting to respect Muslims as a collective is a disservice to individual Muslims who have earned respect, because it suggests that we can fairly judge the individuals by the collective. I cannot imagine why any one of them would want this, given the actions of the collective. I respect the collective less and less with each new report of the actions of “Muslims” worldwide.

The recent Koran riots are on my mind, among other things. Nearly twenty persons were killed ― all Muslims, I believe ― because it was merely reported in Newsweek that a few copies of the Koran were possibly damaged by US military personnel to provoke their Muslim prisoners. Reports that Muslim prisoners had similarly damaged copies of the Koran to provoke US military personnel were completely disregarded. Retractions made by Newsweek were disregarded as well. It is easy enough to believe that US soldiers would deliberately damage a book that they do not personally value. It ought to be difficult to believe that Muslims would sacrifice their lives, or more often the lives of fellow Muslims, in protest against such action, regardless of how much they value the book. Sadly, though, I believe it. I now believe that there are many Muslims who value even a copy of the Koran more than they value innocent human life. They would sooner flush a dozen lives down the toilet than a single copy of a book.

If I believed that disrespect to a good book merited a violent response, I would have assassinated Peter Jackson years ago. But I am a sensible person, so I do not believe this. Nay, not even for so good a book as ‘The lord of the rings’. A book like the Koran falls much, much lower on the scale. I have not read the entire Koran, but I can confidently say that it is not an especially-good book. I have read as much as I could before the motivation of historical knowledge was outweighed by the marked lack of literary value. Put another way, I would like to be able to judge the Koran after having read the whole thing, but not if it means having to read the whole thing.

But then I have never been one of those who felt a need to appease religious believers by offering hollow tolerance for their beliefs. You will not hear me say, “There is a lot of wisdom in the Bible.”. Even if that is true, as I doubt, it is hardly worth mentioning among the nonsense of which there is also a lot of in the Bible. In order to identify the wisdom in the Bible, to separate the wisdom from the nonsense, the reader must be wise already. Of what value is the wisdom then? It would be of exactly the value of the statue of David contained within a block of marble. If only Michelangelo can get to that statue, then all credit goes to Michelangelo. A block of marble is just a rock.

And the fundamentalist attitude towards a book is more pronounced in Islam than in Christianity, a religion in which fundamentalism is already sufficiently silly. Er, logically insupportable. The idea, as many non-Muslims know, is that the archangel Gabriel dictated the Koran to an illiterate Mohammed word-for-word in Arabic, and not only every word but the Arabic language itself is now somehow seen as divine. Old copies of the Koran cannot merely be discarded; they must be buried or burned. When it is translated (or, as the pious insist, “interpreted”, since no real translation from the divine original is possible), it is often rendered in archaic language meant to give the book the same falsely-elevated sound as the King James bible. And my local bookstore violates its own classification system to place the Koran on the top shelf, thereby placing it higher than any other book (except, of course, the books on the dozen floors above the top shelf, but never mind that). This, among other things, gives it preference over the Torah, the Mahabharata, and the Tao Te Ching, and the only reason this is viewed as acceptable is apparently because Jews, Hindus, and Taoists have not appeared en masse to complain.

Some Muslims have responded to the reported Koran desecration (so called) by burning the United States’ flag, or a copy of its constitution. If this is revenge, it is also chauvinism, the belief that Muslim symbols require respect from all, but non-Muslim symbols do not. It hardly matters, though. Fortunately, the United States is presently liberal enough to tolerate (even if not universally) symbolic attacks. That does not make Yankee individuals superior to Muslim individuals. But it does mean that, if we must consider them collectively, the United States is superior, in this respect at least, to the Ummah, the community of all Muslims.

If Muslims are looking for something offensive: it is offensive to spend so much time talking about how we have offended prisoners’ delicate sensibilities, and particularly offensive to worry about mistreating the Koran, when there are so many more important problems in the world. The Koran is a book. If we damage a copy there are hundreds of millions of other copies. Each human life is unique and irreplaceable. If Muslims wanted something to worry about, something to protest about, something to rage and storm about, they might consider that a human life lived in the Muslim world is one of the most dismal that our world has to offer, and that it is largely Muslims who have made it so.

Iraqis, for a long part of the post-war period, blamed the United States for failing to bring peace and stability to the country. But those reporting on the situation are now describing a Shiite majority that recognizes that the insurgency is not Iraqi nationalism but Sunni chauvinism, and that the situation is essentially a Shiite-Sunni war. The rhetoric and apparent motivations of the foreign jihadis is certainly anti-Shiite, and such sentiment is the only way at this point to explain the vicious and relentless attacks on the Shiite populations, not merely current and potential “collaborators” (those who prefer a government job to no job) but also regular citizens and even worshippers.

When ordinary Shiites in Iraq are not being massacred by Sunnis for doctrinal reasons, ordinary Shiite Arabs and Sunni Kurds are being massacred by Sunni Arabs for tribal reasons. This second motivation is simply a replay of the Saddam régime, which lasted for thirty-five years and involved the murder and torture of hundreds of thousands of Muslims by Muslims, with no outside powers to blame. The current secular element of insurgency is nothing more than the desire by one group to rule over another, and again, this has nothing to do with anyone but Muslims.

But ‘insurgency’ calls to mind images of guerrilla warfare, while attacks on civilians engaged in daily living are usually called ‘terrorism’, and rightly so. So with the mass transit attacks in London. The idea that London commuters, even if they also be voters, should die so that Britain will withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and thus leave millions of ordinary, decent Muslims at the mercy of a small number of extraordinarily indecent Muslims ― the fanatics of the Taliban, the Baath Party, and al-Qaeda ― shows the barbarism of the ideology that seems not to be a major concern to the Ummah.

The Egyptian ambassador-designate to Iraq was killed at around the same time on the spurious grounds of apostasy (as though that were a capital crime anyway), because he, through the state he served, was associated with Christians and Jews, and with their nefarious plot to support democracy and moderate Islam in Iraq. His killers were part of the Qaeda movement ― and it is fundamentally more frightening to recognize al-Qaeda as a movement than as a single organization. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda chieftain in Iraq, is making a show of fealty to Osama bin Laden, but he is clearly an independent force, and much more of a murderer personally than Osama. But it is not just Arabs who will murder for bizarre doctrinal and theocratic reasons. Attacks by Sunnis on Shiites happen frequently in Pakistan also.

Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is dominated by the same ethnic group, the Pashtuns, that fostered the Taliban, and there the governing party has just established an Islamic police state, where minor points of “morality” will be enforced, Taliban-style. The Pashtuns are Sunni, but Shiites do this as well, as we have seen through a quarter century of theocracy in Iran. Iran’s so-called democratic process has just produced a president who actively supports this kind of thing, and while Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will have only a fraction of the power of the clerical rulers of Iran, he will certainly not be impeding their oppression of the masses. We are supposed to believe that he was popularly elected; if so, that only makes the situation more troubling.

Many Muslims, it seems, are happy to have their personal freedoms taken away, as the price for taking away the personal freedoms of others. While that statement applies to Westerners as well, the level of oppression tolerated in the Muslim world is far, far greater than that in the West. Beyond the observation that much of the Muslim world is a place of medieval superstition, there is the important observation that it is condescending to suppose that persons raised in the Muslim world are incapable of anything better. It is condescending to write off a billion persons because, up to now, so many of them have been living in self-induced misery. Of course, during the actual Middle Ages, the West was a place of superstition, while the Muslim world was relatively enlightened. So Islam is not inherently disastrous. But it has been many centuries since Islam could be said to be even relatively enlightened.

It is Islam, of all the religions, in whose name the greatest insanity and even atrocity is committed. The only significant group of Christians committing violence as Christians is the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda ― but then its messianic leader Joseph Kony refers to the “lords” of his inner circle, so the connection to Christianity is hardly solid. Hindus in India, Buddhists in Southeast Asia, and Jews in Palestine have done some gruesome things, but the more we look for religious motivations, the fewer the examples become. By contrast, it is easy to find examples of Muslims doing horrible things with religious motivations. Much of that is intracommunal, especially between Shiites and Sunnis, as in Iraq and Pakistan. Ultimately this violence results from a chauvinism of belief and purity, particularly on the part of Sunnis. But Shiites and Sunnis alike wield violence and intimations of brutality against their fellow believers for alleged religious impurity and impropriety, as in Afghanistan and Iran.

And though it may be only coincidentally Islamic, Muslim cultures both Arab and non-Arab have produced honor systems in which whole (male) societies condone the beating, torture, and murder of women and girls for trivial “offenses” ― and only the caste-based violence of India compares. In recent days, a teenaged girl in Jordan, who had fled her home after accusing her father of being abusive, was returned to her father’s custody. He promised in writing not to harm her, which might seem like a surprising demand but for the fact that females are routinely injured and killed for supposedly humiliating their male relatives, humiliation if we accept the rigid and ridiculous idea of family honor that exists in much of the Muslim world. Even were this father to go so far as killing his daughter, he would face at most six months in prison, which is what the patriarchal parliament of Jordan considers to be a suitable punishment for honor killings. As it happens, he did kill her. He beat her to death as soon as he got his hands on her.

Living in a Muslim culture is what physiologists describe as a risk factor. Living in a Muslim culture does not necessarily lead to an oppressive life devoid of freedom and reason, nor does it lead to an early or violent death. Islam does not necessarily cause misery; but there is enough statistical correspondence to infer a connection. And that, if we care at all about our Muslim fellow humans, should prompt some thought, and eventually some action, on their behalf. John Rawls’ veil of ignorance implores us to establish a world in which we would be content to be reborn in any place and any station. Some Muslims may be content with their lot, but many others must recognize how much better their lives could be, and some must surely resent the fact that few of us in the rest of the world do anything to help. And as for the rest of the world, there are five billion persons who were born outside of the Muslim world, and must be praising their own gods for the fact. The sentiment of our hearts is a secret ballot; and which of us, in private, would ever want to trade places with our counterparts in a Muslim country? Cultural relativism is an empty ideology anyway, the vague and inconsiderate assertion that all cultures are equally good or bad, and not subject to outside interference or even comment. I think we might hear a different opinion from our young friend in Jordan, if her father hadn’t smashed her face in.


Original version


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