2006-03-25 17:04:16 UTC
It's Not Islamophobia When There Really Is Something To Fear:
The striking thing about the Abdul Rahman prosecution in which an
Afghanistan court is considering whether to execute Rahman because he
converted from Islam to Christianity is how Establishment the
prosecution is. The case is before an official Afghani court. The death
sentence is, to my knowlege, authorized by official Afghani law. The New
York Times reports that the prosecutor, an Afghan government official,
"called Mr. Rahman 'a microbe' who 'should be killed.'" The case is in a
country which is close to the West, and is presumably under at least some
special influence from Western principles (whether as a matter of
conviction or of governmental self-interest).
We're not talking about some rogue terrorist group, or even the
government of Iran, which is deliberately and strongly oppositional to
the West. We're talking about a country that we're trying to set up as
something of a model of democracy and liberty for the Islamic world. And
yet the legal system is apparently seriously considering executing
someone for nothing more than changing his religion.
This is telling evidence, it seems to me, that there is something very
wrong in Islam today, and not just in some lunatic terrorist fringe.
Doubtless many, I would hope most, Muslims would not endorse executing
converts. But a strand of the religion, and a strand that is not far from
the levers of political power in at least some countries, does seem to
endorse such a position. This is deeply dangerous, most obviously to
residents of countries in which radical Islamism has broad support, but
also to residents of Western countries as well.
Nor can this easily be dismissed as an aberration that's not reflective
of Real Islam. Real Islam, as I've argued before, is not a coherent
whole, but a collection of many strands. Yet some of those strands, and
not unimportant strands, represent an ideology that is deeply
antithetical to freedom.
Given this, what should the West do? Believing as I do in religious
freedom, I emphatically do not think that the bad views of some Muslim
movements should lead us to restrict the ideas that Muslims generally
whether moderate Muslims or Islamists teach in the West.
But neither can we ignore such teachings, when they aim at spreading
fundamentally illiberal ideas. We need to criticize those teachings, both
ourselves and, when effective, through our own influential institutions.
We need to defend those who are getting into trouble for criticizing
those teachings (consider the cartoons affair).
We need to call on moderate Muslims to criticize those teachings (just as
I have called and would call on moderate Christians to criticize the
harmful teachings of Christian radicals). If there's reason to think that
some of the extremist Muslim organizations are going beyond teaching to
criminal action, we need to keep those organizations under close lawful
surveillance. And of course we need to do what we can to protect those
outside the West, as well as ourselves, from the sometimes lethal
excesses of those teachings.
I was particularly put in mind of this point by the juxtaposition of the
Rahman trial and the report by UN special rapporteur [on racism and
xenophobia] Doudou Diéne criticizing the publishers of the Mohammed
cartoons, and the Danish government for allowing the cartoons'
publication. The report says, among other things (some paragraph breaks
[T]hree of [the Mohammed] caricatures show: the head of the Prophet
wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit wick, the Prophet in
the likeness of a devil holding in his hand a grenade, and the Prophet
offering virgin girls to committers of suicide bombings. This constitutes
an illustration of three significant tendencies at the heart of the
recrudescence of islamophobia.
The publication of the caricatures is, in its chronology, its initial
motivation and with regards to the public concerned, revealing of the
vulgarizing of defamation of religions. The caricatures published are the
result of a contest launched by the newspaper in answer to allegations
according to which the Danish cartoonists were so frightened by
fundamentalist Moslems that they wouldnt illustrate a biographical work
on Muhammed. Thus the original motivation of the contest is the
expression of a challenge and of an opposition to a group, the
fundamentalist Moslems, suspected of causing an atmosphere of self-
censorship. The identity of the public aimed at by the biographical work,
children, reveals a concern for influencing the perception of a religion
by a particularly significant and vulnerable age group. The object of the
publication, a biography, showed the intention to present not a fiction
but the life of the Prophet.
The dominating message of the caricatures was therefore to associate
Islam with terrorism. The caricature relating to the sexual gratification
of suicide bombers with virgin women suggests the return of a age-old
historical islamophobic Western imagery: the association of Islam and its
prophet with sexual depravity. The way in which these caricatures defames
Islam has now been defined....
On the political level and with regards to the ethics of
international relations, the Danish Government has not shown in this
question, in the alarming context of the recrudescence of the defamation
of religions, in particular of islamophobia as well as anti-semitism and
christianophobie, the engagement and vigilance which it usually shows
with regards to counter-acting religious intolerance, counter-acting
religious hatred and promoting religious harmony. These values are
precisely those which give direction, legitimacy and opportunity to the
recent launching by the Secretary General of the initiative for an
Alliance of civilizations.
The accusations of "islamophobia," "defam[ation]," "religious
intolerance," and promotion of "religious hatred" strike me as quite
damaging to serious, sensible Western consideration of the threat that
some strands of Islam in fact pose. There really is something to be
afraid of. There are true, not false, criticisms being made of important
strands of Islam. Religious tolerance and a desire for religious harmony
does not require silence about the dangers that those strands pose. And
substantive criticism of an ideology (even criticism that I have argued
is in some instances unfair, albeit in a way that is probably inevitable
in heated public debate) shouldn't be tarred with the charge of
I would say exactly the same, of course, about the need to criticize and
be wary of radical Christian/Jewish/Hindu/etc. groups that preach death
to infidels. And of course some centuries ago Christian religious
extremism of the sort that we see among some Muslims today was
regrettably commonplace. Fortunately, though, it has been some time since
Christian governments have threatened to execute apostates.
Unfortunately, one cannot say the same about modern Islam.