Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Perhaps I'm being stupid

But just why should the Pope have to apologise for causing offence to Muslims?

OK, obviously he's a world figure, whose pronouncements are relayed to everyone the moment he utters them, and as such he has a duty to be circumspect. But hang on a minute. He's leader of the Catholic Church. Islam is a rival faith, a competitor if you like. He should feel no need to appease people who reject his own theology, and nor should those people be either surprised or upset if he says something with which they disagree.

There was a similar uproar when those Dutch cartoons were printed in several newspapers. My main problem with that was that the cartoons weren't particularly well-drawn or funny. Otherwise, I supported their publication and continue to do so. If people find depictions of the prophet Mohammed deeply insulting, then I might suggest that they avoid reading newspapers which do not adhere strictly to their own way of thinking. However, most of the people shouting loudly from the rooftops, and setting fire to embassies, had not seen the cartoons, nor heard the story of them from someone who had. Similarly when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, it was without his ever having read the book.

Now it will be obvious to anyone that I come to this debate from a Christian, and specifically Anglican Christian point of view. I no longer have any time for religion, but that is how I was raised and it informs the way I view the world. Forgiveness and tolerance are things which I can sign up to without having to put on tidy clothes and go to church on a Sunday. Islam, at least of the flavour that makes the headlines these days, seems to be made of a different stuff. And I don't just mean the fundamentalist nutters who think that the best way to win an argument is to blow themselves up along with a lot of innocent bystanders.* There is a growing wave, at least here in the UK, of Muslims who feel persecuted (perhaps with some small justification) and are determined to play the role of victim to the hilt.

These are the people who appear on late night talk shows, or in vox-pop segments on the news, righteously angry at some insult directed at their faith, and thus directly at themselves and their very existence. And they appear to be the same people who look a little shame-faced, but are not exactly vociferous with their condemnation when the suicide bombers strike. They are the people who try to make out American support of Israel, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as direct attacks on Islam - as the great Christian West trying to crush their poor, helpless religion into the dirt.

What irritates me most about this false logic is not so much that it is made, but that it is so infrequently challenged. There are many absurd and wrong-headed reasons why we are at war in so many arenas at the moment; the annihilation of all Islamic belief is not one of them.

Of course, it's very difficult to argue with someone when so doing puts your life in jeopardy. It used to annoy me (and still does, to a certain extent), when spokesmen for Sinn Fein would be all mealy mouthed in their condemnation of IRA atrocities. I'm sure that this was partly because those same spokesmen harboured a secret longing for the good old days when it was bullet and bomb, rather than the more complicated situation that engaging in dialogue entailed. But they also knew that condemning unequivocally and publicly would at best mean they lost what little influence they held over the gunmen, and at worst would mean an unwelcome visit in the night.

So it is, I'm sure, that many moderate Muslims (and they are by far the majority) dare not speak out. If Sharia law says that it is all right to kill someone who has rejected their Islamic faith, and there are zealots out there who are willing to accept Sharia over the laws of whatever nation they are living in (and most likely were born in, too), then it becomes a very real danger to be seen as anything other than in complete solidarity with everyone in the so-called 'Muslim Nation.'

And yet the vast majority of deaths in Iraq now are Muslims killed by other Muslims. Shiites versus Shia, factions fighting each other for power or over historically meaningless articles of faith. If this is a nation, it's a very fractured one. The notion of world-wide Muslim brotherhood is a lie, and yet it is a very persistent lie. Persistent enough that when the Pope says something in Rome, there's rioting in the streets in Turkey, and in Africa seventy year old nuns get shot in the back. Persistent enough that pictures in a Dutch newspaper lead to angry riots on the other side of the world, mobs of people who probably don't even know where Holland is.

I don't pretend to have any answers to this problem. My instinct is to try and teach everyone to behave the way I was taught, with tolerance and forgiveness, understanding and accommodation of alternative points of view up to the point where they impinge on my ability to the person I want to be. Unfortunately, to many people not raised the way I was, that smacks of Christian Imperialism, of trying to impose my world view on others.

And it's hard not to read the newspapers, watch the news, and not come away with a sense that Muslims are making increasingly unrealistic demands of the secular states in which they live. Hence the vocal protestations of unfairness every time there is some perceived insult. Dress it up as cultural differences if you like, but I fully expect to find my views and beliefs insulted on a regular basis. Sadly there isn't a worldwide cult of me that I can whip into a frenzy of righteous indignation, so I just have to deal with it.

Is it patronising to view the anti-west and anti-Israeli proclamations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as like a child throwing a particularly destructive tantrum? You can almost hear the thought processes - if I can't have the world just the way I want it, then no-body can. And likewise, when Turks riot because the Pope has said something they don't much like, are they not betraying a certain immaturity? What is it to the average Turkish citizen if an old man in Rome quotes some fourteenth century criticism of Islamic militarism? Shouldn't they be more indignant about the poverty and corruption in their own country first? I don't know. It seems a terrible and arrogant thing to say, but from my privileged position, the collective indignation of the world's Muslims begins to look like whingeing to me.

Like the title said, perhaps I'm being stupid. Certainly the whole thing is much more complicated than I can begin to cover in a blog rant. But I for one am not going to alter my behaviour just to avoid inadvertently insulting any other person or group. I will continue to be unapologetically heterosexual, even though to some gay people that is as bad as a slap in the face. I will argue that socialism is fundamentally flawed, even though many of my friends and acquaintances may take that as an insult to their intelligence. I will disagree with much of the teaching in the Koran, and reject the Christian Church and every other organised religion, simply because I don't like being told how to act and what to think.

You might say that the Pope, as a world figure, has a responsibility to try and avoid making inflammatory statements, and to a certain extent this is true. It's not helpful when political or religious leaders say things that whip up a fervour. But it seems to me that Islam is uniquely intolerant of criticism, and uniquely prone to violent histrionics in reaction to it. To that end, I think that the Pope, far from apologising for any offence his words might have caused, as he has done, should have faced up to the furore stood by his words.

Of course, it would be better if people would stop invoking deities at all, and instead take some responsibility for their own actions. But I'm not so stupid as to believe that will happen any time soon.

* You will notice that it is the young, impressionable zealots who are in the front line when it comes to suicide bombing, never the mullahs. When a religious leader decides that the best way to serve his cause is to sacrifice himself, then I might start taking his message seriously. I'll likely still disagree with it, mind.


Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

For me, the Pope's comments came under the heading of 'Pot, meet kettle." The obvious response from the mullahs should have been one of intelligent debate. Rioting and killing to prove one's non-violence negates the message.

September 20, 2006 4:06 pm  
Blogger JamesO said...

I quite agree, Mindy. The Pope's words were quite staggeringly hypocritical. I never meant to defend what he said, so much as wonder at the inanity of Muslims calling for apologies and retractions, threatening and carrying out acts of violence until they got their way. Why should they expect an apology from anyone who doesn't share their belief?

September 20, 2006 4:16 pm  
Blogger Vincent said...

When I first heard it reported on the news I was amazed that the Pope had been so spectacularly untactful, but the news report went on to put this quote in context. The Pope's original speech had used the quote to illustrate how some Western thinking currently views Islam and how people need to move away from that. So, the Pope was actually criticising that 14th Century view rather than endorsing it.

Which in some respects makes things worse. These protests aren't against what the Pope said, but a soundbite taken out of context. Can the Pope be held accountable for that? Is it the fault of the media? Or are these fundamentalists too eager to jump on any slight against their faith, even when there's no ill intent?

While there's culpability on many fronts, I don't think anyone comes out of this well.

September 20, 2006 6:16 pm  
Blogger angie said...

That's not how I read it, Vincent. I read a translation of his talk in its entirety. The essence of which was that Islam has been spread through violence, and that their god/faith is not based on reason. Pot calling the kettle black, indeed.

Unfortunately, the remarks were more offensive (to me at least) when taken in context than in the soundbite. And yes, the violence that has errupted in the Muslim community has done little to suggest that his remarks were incorrect. Very, very sad and irresponsible behavior from all parties involved.

September 21, 2006 5:53 pm  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Take responsibility for our own actions?

Where's the fun in that?

September 21, 2006 8:31 pm  
Blogger Trace said...

In the words of Stuart, "Oh look! A bee!"

September 21, 2006 10:58 pm  
Blogger Daniel Hatadi said...

This is a great post, James. I say so because it got me, someone that avoids religion and politics like the plague, to think about it.

Really think.

Thank you.

September 22, 2006 6:14 am  
Blogger JamesO said...

I'm glad it stimulated the old grey cells, Daniel. I too avoid religion and politics as much as I can, but sometimes just have to have a rant. The whole idiocy of organised religion is summed up in this little spat - it's just a shame people get hurt and killed by it.

Trace... where?

Angie, I try very hard not to use the term 'muslim community' as I'm not sure that there is one. When I hear people on the news talking about 'the muslim community', I always assume they are referring to something they would like to see, organised and run exactly as they think it should be, rather than something that actually exists. There are far more violent schisms within Islam today than within Christianity.

September 22, 2006 7:10 pm  
Blogger angie said...

Hmm. Not quite sure what you mean about the Muslim community not being an actual community. The term has been thrown about a bit by the media & seems to have attracted additonal baggage. I simply meant it in the literal sense - a social group that shares location, government, and customs (including religion). Like any community, there are divisions & disagreements. And yes, some of these schisms are quite violent and cannot be justified on the basis of faith, IMO.

September 24, 2006 4:05 am  

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