Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and no doubt many other atheists have landed especially hard blows against the Muslim religion recently, prompted specifically by the recent wave of deadly protests over the trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims. So here are my two bits.
Sam Harris dismisses the idea that murderous violence of Muslim rioters should be ultimately blamed upon Western foreign policies (a euphemism for invasion, occupation, exploitation, support for violent overthrow of some dictators and democratically elected governments alike, and support for the violent entrenchment of other dictators among the Muslim states of the Middle East).
Sam Harris has countered that if it were not for the particular religious teachings of the Muslim religion then Muslims would not react with blood-lust against makers and facilitators of a satirical movie mocking their religion. Christians don’t react the same way when someone insults their faith. So it is clear that there is something more rotten in the state of Islam than in other religious faiths.
One of the problems (there are several) I have with this argument is that the Muslim violence we have been experiencing has not been with us until quite recent times. Violence and terrorism used to come from anarchists and secular political movements in Europe and the Middle East. The pioneer suicide bombers (in Lebanon in the 1980s) included Christians and Socialists (See Dying to Win by Richard Pape). The current wave of Muslim violence is not one of history’s constants but is a new thing.
Presumably Sam Harris’s complaint is that a more civilized religion would not see its adherents so seethe in response to whatever geopolitical shifts or Western policy intrusions into the Middle East have occurred in recent times, so that when an insulting work raises its head, devotees of more benign faiths would still manage to behave themselves.
But that just leads to the next question: Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule? And another question: How do we explain the quiet of the Muslims for so long until quite recent times? Did no one ever publish a blasphemous or satirical cartoon or work until recent times? Or did Muslim communities generally ignore anything like that however offended they may have personally been?
What has happened, it seems so clear to me, is that the earlier popular political movements among Muslim nations (not only Arabs — Iranians have been key targets, too) have been snuffed out by Western backed dictators. With the demise of socialist movements the void has been filled by religious leaders. Not unlike the replacement of the union and workers’ movements in the United States in the nineteenth century by the churches — the one major remaining meeting and sharing point many people had after the bloody suppression of popular secular political protest by business magnates.
To focus on Muslim outrage over films and cartoons is to focus on the symptoms of an issue that is far more sinister. Western media count the number killed by the rioters. The numbers of Muslims killed by Western powers or Western backed powers during the same period do not reach our consciousness.
No, this is not an “anti-Western” or “anti-American” snipe. The U.S. is behaving pretty much the same way as any other imperial power in history has behaved. (And each such power has similarly believed in its own “exceptionalism”, in the goodness of its motives, when it acts in the affairs of other nations or kingdoms. Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was to put an end to Czech terrorism; Rome’s empire, like Britain’s, was the burden it “unintentionally” acquired from unselfishly trying to bring peace to others.)
Against such power interests it would seem futile to even speak. Except for the fact that those who are aware of what is happening and the part they themselves play in it will always feel a personal outrage at what is being done to others in their name and feel compelled to do something if at all possible, even if only to do their bit to raise awareness among others.
But there are many Muslim leaders who are condemning the recent violence, too. (I heard that planned repeat demonstrations in Sydney — violence erupted in the first one — were called off as a result of pressure from moderate Muslim leaders.)
Condemning the Muslim religion as worse than the others is not helpful at a time like this. It can only exacerbate the tensions and make it more difficult for the Muslim majority leaders to influence their volatile minorities.
This is a critical moment in history for Muslim peoples. In past history Christians have had their critical moments, too — and acted just as murderously. Salem, persecutions, lynch mobs, wars, ethnic cleansings. But historians rarely put these outbreaks down to the virulent nature of the Christian religion — despite the many perpetrators of this violence claiming to act in the name of their religious beliefs. It is clear in hindsight that something far deeper than the mere belief systems of the Christian religion was involved. Other events and developments led many to seize upon cruel passages in the Bible to justify their blood actions. That Christianity itself has been pro-slavery and anti-slavery, anti-feminist and pro-feminist, and such, tells us that religions are not self-contained bubbles in the world but are constantly being fed by wider social and political issues.
To focus the blame of recent violence upon the Muslim faith is, I think, black and white, simplistic and unhelpful thinking.
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