Prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, a cautious debate is taking place in Saudi Arabia’s closed society over intolerance toward non-Muslims and attitudes toward the West that are now viewed by some as inspiring unacceptable violence.
This is how a story in Friday’s New York Times begins.
”The debate appears to represent a significant shift in a society whose Wahhabi branch of Islam tends to make such questioning taboo,” Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar continues. “Apparently a small group of intellectuals, academics, journalists and religious scholars are quietly suggesting that change is needed.”
“We have to confront a lot of things that we thought were normal,” Khaled M. Batarfi told the Times. Batarfi is the managing editor of Al Madina, a daily newspaper which, according to the Times, is a pioneering and progressive newspaper.
“Before Sept. 11, it was just an opinion, ‘I think we should hate the others,’ ” Batarfi says. “After Sept. 11, we found out ourselves that some of those thoughts brought actions that hurt us, that put all Muslims on trial.”
I see. It’s not the hating, per se, which is the problem. It’s that darned blowback the hating creates. If we could just hate “the others” (Read: Christians, Jews, Hindus, and everybody else who isn’t a Muslim) without creating so many hassles for Muslims well, then, everything would be fine.
Now, remember Mr. Batarfi is what amounts to a bleeding-heart liberal in Saudi Arabia. He just wants to hate without inconvenience. Saudi “conservatives” think such views are heretical because, hey, what’s hating good for without the killing? Hating without killing, that’s no good. You might as well kiss your sister if you’re gonna hate Jews and Christians but not kill them. I mean, come on. What’s the point?
For example, the Times reports, views like Mr. Batarfi’s “remain controversial.” When a bunch of Saudi intellectuals issued a manifesto raising the idea that there might be “common ground with the West” they were, according to the Times, “subjected to withering rebuke by those who accept the Wahhabi notion that Islam thrives on hostility toward infidels.”
“You give the false impression that many people condemned the war against America,” one critic exclaimed on a popular website. “But the truth is that many people are happy declaring this war, which gave Muslims a sense of relief.”
Sheik Hamad Rais al-Rais, an elderly blind scholar, complained that the manifesto’s sympathy for the victims of September 11 “debased Islam,” in the words of the Times, for forgetting to point out that jihad is a central tenet of Islam. “You cry for what happened to the Americans in their markets and offices and ministries and the disasters they experienced,” wrote the sheik, “and you forget the oppression and injustice and aggression of those Americans against the whole Islamic world.”
(One quick parenthetical question: Why does it seem like so many Islamic scholars, particularly the nasty ones, are blind? Does the Koran say that you can’t ingest vitamin A? I’m sure I’m missing something, but rabbis and Franciscan monks don’t seem to go blind more than the general population.)
Note the sheik’s invocation of the “whole Islamic world.” More on that in a moment.
Another popular (and presumably sighted) sheik who died last year, issued a famous fatwah which explains that Muslims who live abroad should “harbor enmity and hatred for the infidels and refrain from taking them as friends.”
Now, some Saudis like to split the difference between the conservatives and the liberals, explaining that the distinction between the hating and the killing is a false choice, as Bill Clinton might say. You can hate all you like without any blowback whatsoever. As a professor of Islamic law explains to the Times. “Well, of course I hate you because you are Christian, but that doesn’t mean I want to kill you.”
OKAY, DON’T BLAME ISLAM, BLAME WAHHAB
I could go on all day about this Times story. It reads almost like an Onion parody. Read it yourself and then imagine an identical article being written about Nazi Germany. “‘Until the Normandy invasion many here believed that hating non-Aryans was just an opinion, but now some of us feel that our genocide and conquests are hurting Germans, putting all Germans on trial,’ said Piter Thorman….Others feel that sympathy for the massacred Jews directly contradicts the teachings of Adolph Hitler….” Etc. Etc.
But I want to talk about John Derbyshire’s wonderful essay, “Don’t Blame Islam.” I highly recommend it to everyone. Derb — as we who barely know him call him in print — makes a largely persuasive argument for, well, not blaming Islam. A central point to his argument is that it’s fundamentally unfair to blame a religion — any religion — for the actions of the people who misinterpret it. The Jewish Bible has all sorts of smiting and wrath in it. But — outside of Israel’s neighborhood — my people haven’t done much smiting lately. And our wrath usually takes the form of lawsuits or boycotts of Chinese restaurants. The Christian Bible preaches love and turning the other cheek and yet Christians have strayed away from the text more than a couple times in their history. The Koran was once the defining text of a great and relatively tolerant civilization. The fact that it is now used to justify all sorts of horrors speaks to the problems of various Arab societies. To unfairly sum-up Derb’s argument, religions don’t kill people, peoples kill people.
My response is, well, yes and no. As Derb is no doubt far more aware than me, there are very real differences between Islam and Christianity. Islam was a religion of the sword. Perhaps the leading definition of jihad, historically speaking, is a holy war to retake or defend Muslim lands. If you die while defending the soil, you will get your virgins and the rest of the goodies behind curtain #2. This, it seems to me, is a religious doctrine especially suited to empire-building. Call me crazy.
Meanwhile, Christianity was born in suffering. A Christian martyr, at least during Christianity’s formative centuries, died because he refused to relinquish his faith not because he refused to relinquish some territory.
Any non-Muslim can still recognize that Muhammed was an indisputably great man according to any definition of what makes someone a great historical figure. He was wise and brave and intelligent and many other wonderful things. He changed the world faster and more significantly than anyone in human history, Jesus and all the prophets included. But, unlike Jesus, Muhammed was also a general. He ordered the beheadings of his enemies. He took the wives and children of the vanquished and gave them to his men as booty. Jesus didn’t do that sort of thing. I’m no expert, but I think the most violent thing he did was knock over some tables and kick some money changers in the butt.
These differences are hardly insignificant. Regardless, I take Derb’s point and largely agree. Islam need not be a hateful religion and for untold millions of decent people around the globe it most certainly isn’t that. I think every Muslim I’ve actually met has struck me as kind and generous. And, since Islam will not go away whether we want it to or not, we’d better get busy working with the good guys in the Islamic world to make sure the bad guys don’t win.
Which brings me back to Saudi Arabia and where I might disagree with Derb. He doesn’t discuss Wahhabism or the Saudis in his essay so I’m not sure where he stands.
I can accept the argument that no truly successful and enduring religion can be fundamentally evil. Religion doesn’t work that way. But “enduring” can be a long time. And history is full of examples of short-lived evil or dangerous religions. The Thuggees — from whence the word “thug” is derived — were an evil cult which glorified murder and robbery, for example.
There have been any number of cults which have claimed to be the “true faith” of a larger, dominant religion. Many of these cults produced thriving, healthy denominations: Shia Muslims, Lutherans, Lubavitch Jews etc. And sometimes these cults were just plain dangerous and terrible. And sometimes, I suppose, these cults started batty and dangerous and mellowed over the years.
I covered a lot of this territory in my “Islam Needs a Pope” column, but I think serious people need to address the fact that while Islam may be innocent of many of the charges leveled against it, Wahhabism is guilty of all charges. It is a cult which is breeding terrorists every day. Saudi Arabia is the Muslim equivalent to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They are brutally repressive at home and fanatical proselytizers abroad. All around the globe, the people who put the lie to “Islam means peace” are attending Wahhabi mosques. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a satellite of Saudi Arabia, politically and ideologically. In Pakistan, Indonesia, and the U.S. it is Saudi money and Saudi (Wahhabi) ideology which is the threat. That New York Times article is just a drop in an ocean of evidence, but it says everything you need to know. Islam doesn’t necessarily preach hate any more than Christianity does. But under Wahhabism hate is just as much of an obligation as praying (and yet Saudi apologists continue to call them “moderates” because they sell us oil).
Apparently Wahhabis resent being called Wahhabis because they claim that they are simply the most faithful Muslims. To call them Wahhabis suggests they are merely a branch — or cult — of what is supposed to be a unified, monolithic, faith. Wahhabi clerics claim to speak for all Muslims. And they are not Islamic Derbyshires. They say all Muslims are at war with all Christians and Jews because Christians and Jews are most certainly to blame.
Meanwhile, the Saudis are working very hard to ensure that they do in fact speak for all Muslims. They are spending millions trying to convert the whole Muslim world to the “true faith.” And if they are successful, if the world’s Muslims all embrace the Wahhabi way then Derb will have a much harder time saying Islam is not to blame. So we better get to work helping the Muslims Derb is talking about before it’s too late.