Saturday, September 30, 2006

Islam and The Pope

Here's Thomas Friedman's excellent article that usually requires registration to read:

Islam and the pope
Thomas L. Friedman - The New York Times

Published: September 29, 2006

We need to stop insulting Islam. It's enough already.

No, that doesn't mean the pope should apologize. The pope was actually treating Islam with dignity. He was treating the faith and its community as adults who could be challenged and engaged. That is a sign of respect.

What is insulting is the politically correct, kid-gloves view of how to deal with Muslims that is taking root in the West today. It goes like this: "Hushhh! Don't say anything about Islam! Don't you understand? If you say anything critical or questioning about Muslims, they'll burn down your house. Hushhh! Just let them be. Don't rile them. They are not capable of a civil, rational dialogue about problems in their faith community."

Now that is insulting. It's an attitude full of contempt and self-censorship, but that is the attitude of Western elites today, and it's helping to foster the slow-motion clash of civilizations that Sam Huntington predicted. Because Western masses don't buy it. They see violence exploding from Muslim communities and they find it frightening, and they don't think their leaders are talking honestly about it. So many now just want to build a wall against Islam. It will be terrible if Turkey is blocked from entering the European Union, but that's where we're heading, and the only thing that will halt it is honest dialogue.

But it is not the dialogue the pope mentioned - one between Islam and Christianity. That's necessary, but it's not sufficient. What is needed first is an honest dialogue between Muslims and Muslims.

As someone who has lived in the Muslim world, enjoyed the friendship of many Muslims there and seen the compassionate side of Islam in action, I have to admit I am confused as to what Islam stands for today.

Why? On the first day of Ramadan last year a Sunni Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Shiite mosque in Hilla, Iraq, in the middle of a memorial service, killing 25 worshippers. This year on the first day of Ramadan, a Sunni suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 35 people who were lining up in a Shiite neighborhood to buy fuel. The same day, the severed heads of nine murdered Iraqi police officers and soldiers were found north of Baghdad.

I don't get it. How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year - in mosques! - and there is barely a peep of protest in the Muslim world, let alone a million Muslim march? Yet Danish cartoons or a papal speech lead to violent protests. If Muslims butchering Muslims - in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan - produces little communal reaction, while cartoons and papal remarks produce mass protests, what does Islam stand for today? It is not an insult to ask that question.

Muslims might say: "Well, what about Abu Ghraib, Guant?namo or Palestine? Let's talk about all your violent behavior." To which I would say: "Let's talk about it! But you'll have to get in line behind us, because we're constantly talking about where we've gone wrong." We can't have a meaningful dialogue if we, too, are not self-critical, but neither can Muslims.

Part of the problem in getting answers is that Islam has no hierarchy. There is no Muslim pope defining the faith. There are centers of Muslim learning, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but their credibility with the masses is uneven because they're often seen as tools of regimes. So those Muslim preachers with authenticity tend to be the street preachers - firebrands, who gain legitimacy by spewing hatred at both their own regimes and the Western powers that support them.

As a result, there is a huge body of disenfranchised Sunni Muslims, who are neither violent fundamentalists nor wannabe secularists. They are people who'd like to see a marriage between Islam and modernity. But right now there is little free space in the Sunni Muslim world - between the firebrand preachers and the "official" ones - for that synthesis to be discussed and defined.

I had hoped Iraq would be that space. Whenever people asked me how I'd know if we'd won in Iraq, I said: when Salman Rushdie could give a lecture in Baghdad. I'm all for a respectful dialogue between Islam and the West, but first there needs to be a respectful, free dialogue between Muslims and Muslims. What matters is not what Muslims tell us they stand for. What matters is what they tell themselves, in their own languages, and how they treat their own.

Without a real war of ideas within Islam to sort that out - a war that progressives win - I fear we are drifting at best toward a wall between civilizations and at worst toward a real clash.


  1. Another great article from Friedman, always articulating our thoughts.

    I have been on "a break" from current affairs and political issues after nearly having a heart attack arguing with a fellow Arab on the difference between Judiasm as a religion and Zionism as a political ideology, which was all fine until he insisted that the Holocaust never happened. So I vowed to myself never to get into a political discussion with anyone who does not acknowledge facts. I do not expect everyone to take one stance, but I do expect facts to be addressed for opinions to be credible.

    When the Abu Ghraib Scandal was unleashed, an American friend of mine and I came to an agreement after a long discussion that the difference between the Arabs/Muslims and the West is not their actions, but it is their level of responsibility. Yes, Abu Ghraib events were horrible, but there is a system in the West in which people must learn and do take responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, I have yet to witness this in the Middle East, and no that does not include Bin Laden's tapes boasting about killing innocent civilians.

    One person's terrorist may be another person's freedom fighter, who nevertheless remains a terrorist.

  2. I don't get it. How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year - in mosques! - and there is barely a peep of protest in the Muslim world, let alone a million Muslim march? Yet Danish cartoons or a papal speech lead to violent protests

    this is the main point

  3. Tom Friedman is so very very right. I love this article, it's amazing!

    Regardless of the Pope's speech, or the cartoons or whatever else, our reactions as a 'nation' create animosity and fear in others. He's right, we lack the tool of 'dialogue,' we're extremely tempremental...

    And, instead of worrying about others hurting, we should first help one another instead of pointing the gun at each other...

    a very, very insightful article, which I greatly enjoyed reading..

  4. Thanks Zaydoun,

    The day we are able to sit down at a coffee table, anywhere, and have a civil discussion, without having to reach for each other's throat to prove a point, that will be the day.

  5. Great article!

    Now the question is do we read it and put it aside? Or do we do something about it?

    Can bloggers across the muslim world unite and start the discussion?

    Between ourselves, then with out communities etc.

    It seems violence has really taken over the muslim world, in Kuwait specifically, we can't even drive to work peacefully.

    Truly shameful.

  6. I dont get it Friedegg.head..? american troops kill muslims on their most hOly month & mosques.and all muslims in the world did/still doing protest.....but i dOnt see it On NBC..!? and the cartoOns & the pOpe thing.. its the last small wars that we can win ...its pathetic but guess whOs tO blame..!?..Mr.DemOcracy spokesman.!...Im dOne:P

  7. Great article, Zaydoun. I?ve been impressed with Thomas Friedman intellectual discussions and fair handling of middle eastern issues since reading From Beirut to Jerusalem in the late 1980s.

    On the subject of books, here are a couple of titles worth reading in the long days and nights of Ramadhan:
    The God Delusion

  8. q8_demon

    I dont always agree with what he says, but this time he nailed it.

    I bought Londonistan, it's waiting its turn in the queue

  9. An outstanding read.. its seems there is still hope after all.

  10. Simply bril.

    Thanks for sharing, Zed.

  11. There are more questions raised here than answers. Why do muslims behave this way? Very simple. Education. Mr. Friedman failed to mention the differences between education levels in the muslim world versus that of the West. The other problem that Mr. Friedman failed to mention is that although the problem seems to be stemming from religious understanding, it is really stemming from cultural attributes. It seems that Muslims for some reason are open to conspiracy theories rather than straight facts. True, that one has to be analytical, bit not at the expense of the truth. Why is it that many still think that somehow the Mosad were behind the 911 attacks and that Bin Laden is an agent. In fact that kind of thinking is really spoon fed through different governement channels. The West, USA in particular, are directing people in the same way, where perception is formed through the eyes of the media. Going back to education, why is it that an American thinks that a sikh, wearing a turban is a muslim ? True that muslims have their own problems, but maybe its the frustration of being misunderstood that is fueling all of this so called "clash of civilizations".

  12. Based on the fact that muslims can blow up mosques full of people on Ramadan, I'm not sure Friedman's thesis that our fear is unreasonable resonates with me.


Keep it clean, people!