Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Koran-burning is cancelled. Angry Muslims are still angry.

Thankfully, Florida pastor Terry Jones opted out of the planned Koran-burning fiesta that created outrage around the world. Whether indeed he did strike some deal to have the Ground Zero mosque relocated (as he claimed), whether he just saw sense, or if shadowy government forces made him an offer he couldn't refuse, he has backed down, for the benefit of us all.

I personally couldn't care less if someone burns a Koran, a Bible or any other holy book, but obviously a lot of people do. And the fact that some of those people are violent extremists means that if the Koran-burning went ahead it was almost certain to lead to an increase of hatred and violence against the West.

And while I have little but contempt for someone like Terry Jones, this whole issue also raises the same old issues about Islam and its role as a modern religion.

A pastor from some obscure church in Florida threatens to burn some Korans, and what happens? 15 people are killed in riots in Kashmir, in which a Christian Church is burnt. Thousands protest in Afghanistan and pelt rocks at a NATO base. And more elsewhere. By contrast, remember in 2001, when the Taliban blew up two massive 6th century Buddha statues in Bamiyan? The reaction from Buddhists the world over was to get a little bit miffed and plead for them not to do it. If today in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the Muslim world, an imam organised a burning of Bibles, there might be a story on FOX News about it, but apart from that, no one in the Christian world would do much more than shake their head in disappointment.

Why are these reactions so different? Sure, Terry Jones is a damn fool to provoke the wrath of angry Muslims. But why must they be so angry in the first place?

Islam is often described as a "violent" or "medieval" religion, yet all the world's major religions are all quite medieval and violent in their own ways. To say that the Koran is a hateful violent book and the Bible is a book of peace and love is not only too simplistic, it's just plain wrong. If you follow the Bible closely enough, it says that if your son disobeys and offends you, you should stone him to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). The world would be a pretty horrid place if we were to truly use the Bible (the Old Testament in particular) as our guide to running a society. An example is in Uganda, where driven by Christian teaching, many are campaigning for homosexuals to face the death penalty. Go back a few hundred years and Christians were rampantly killing and enslaving people and stealing their land all over the globe, often in the name of God.

Yet while predominantly Christian nations are often as violent as any other (see Zimbabwe, Brazil, The Philippines), their violence is usually based in reasons other than religion. Today, Christians in general tend to live relatively peacefully. They do not righteously slay those who work on the Sabbath, or smite those who have sex outside of marriage. Even though their Holy Book instructs them to, almost no Christian believes any of those things should be applied today.

Both the Koran and the Bible can be used as examples of how to treat one's fellow man with utmost respect and kindness; or equally, to justify some of the most heinous acts and attitudes imaginable, which in the past, people certainly have. The difference is that in today's world, Christianity appears to mostly have evolved past this latter stage, and settled into a secular, mild-mannered groove. Islam, in many parts of the world at least, is anything but mild-mannered.

How do we explain this?

One worthwhile article that touches upon this matter came out this week by Christopher Hitchens, which talks about the process of "civilizing" a religion in order for it to exist successfully in a modern society, something which other religions have had to go through to become ensconced and normalised in the West.

"Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present."


It is hard to shake the feeling that Christianity has grown up and settled down, and Islam hasn't, at least not to the same extent. While the majority of Muslims, like Christians, are peaceful people who just want to get on with their lives, the radical fringe among Muslims is not only far more numerous than among Christians, but it so much more radical and aggressive than among Christians. Some of the most vile and hateful figures the contemporary Christian world can produce - like Fred Phelps of the homo-hatin' Westboro Baptist Church, for example - are not half as scary as the thousands of British Muslims who took to the streets demanding the murder of Salman Rushdie after he wrote a book they hadn't read but assumed must have been evil.

One of the great achievements of the Prophet Muhammad was to end the tribalism of the Arabian tribes that had mired them in constant war with each other. He did this by the establishment of the Ummah (the community of Islam), in which all are brothers. The trade-off, however, is huge - he exchanged one type of tribalism for another, more vast variety. The Ummah is now, in effect, one vast tribe; full of Muslims who acutely feel the pain of their brothers being oppressed halfway around the world, and who will mobilise in order to help them, yet there is so often a distinct lack of empathy for those outside the Ummah. The Muslims in various parts of the world who have got steamed up recently over the proposed Koran-burning and the Ground Zero mosque controversy would do well to look at the bigger picture. Despite the Islamophobia on display in the US, they actually have a Christian president who has clearly come out in support of the rights of Muslims. And Muslims in the West have it a whole lot sweeter than Christians in Pakistan or Egypt, for example.

I've long felt that a man who is insulted or offended should be able to rise above it and "be the bigger man", rather than constantly reacting to having one's buttons pushed. The Islamic world certainly has its cooler heads, yet it seems too often they are drowned out by the loud voices of those who work themselves into a frenzy and want to kick someone's ass for every imagined slight. Someone needs to teach them that sometimes the high road is better; just take a deep breath and walk away.

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