"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dear Infidels, just so you know, we have no sense of humor. Love, Islam

OK, I know that's not entirely fair. The cause of the recent rioting and unrest in the Muslim world were several cartoons published by Dutch newspapers depicting the prophet Muhammed (strike one) in unflattering ways (strike two) including a ticking time bomb turban (strike three). At the very least, these illustrations were in bad taste; at worst, downright offensive. So one wouldn't be surprised if faithful Muslims were a little upset by it.

This is the point where my sympathy for the rampaging Islamic street runs out. I mean, how much sympathy am I supposed to have for a culture that takes offense with all the subtlety of a five-year-old who gets called a bad name on the playground? And am I supposed to forget that the same five-year-old likes to describe those around him with far less flattering adjectives on a regular basis?

There are a couple of currents flowing out from the angry Muslim masses in this latest clash of Infidel-vs-Righteous worth examining. The first, and most obvious, is the question of freedom of the press, expression vs responsibility, provocation vs self-restraint, etc. It's a debate we've had before, and we'll have it again so long as our society remains free and democratic. There are always questions as to where we should draw the line between freedom of expression and good taste. The simple fact is that so long as we have a free press, good taste will suffer. We live in a society where if one person believes that "art" or "satire" involves painting the Virgin Mary with elephant shit or putting a gay Jesus on stage with an equally gay Judas in a biblical Brokeback Calvary, then they can fire away and damn the outcry. It's offensive, it's vulgar, but it's freedom of the press, baby. And, of course, the flip side to this coin is that for every dung-encrusted painting, we also have Internet search engines that keep politicians honest, uncontrolled information exchange that allows fact-checkers to check facts, whisteblowers to blow whistles, and pundits to pundit so that every voice, no matter how small or oppressed, how ridiculous or intelligent, can be heard. Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democracy, and while its abusers often frustrate or insult those of better taste, that same freedom exposes their own lack of character and allows more civilized folk to criticize and comment; and, somewhere in the middle, we find the balance that has allowed the democratic West to survive and prosper.

The second current is less talked about but more insidious, and doubley so because that silence is bought with the type of violence we've seen this past week. That current is the tide of militant Islamic supremacy. The ideology goes something like this: Muslims, particularly the radical strain, demand not only equality with non-believers, but domination over them. It is not enough that they be accepted. They must rule. It is a simplistic, hypocritical position that would have little strength save for the angry energy that propels it.
Mark Steyn, as always, makes an excellent point: if the adrenaline that drives the violent protests we've seen could be directed toward something like improving economic infrastructure or promoting entrepreneurship, imagine the strides Islamic society could make.

The hypocrisy, of course, is obvious. These same Muslims who demand that everything to do with their religion remain sacrosanct, even to non-believers, even outside the borders of Islamic countries, happily attack, degrade, and persecute Jews and Christians in their own media and under their own governments. Nobody has ever called them on this, for one big reason: oil.

The combination of oil and Islam is the reason we rarely see economic, scientific, or political strides. There is no Silicon Valley in the Middle East (save Israel). There is no Wall Street. Scientific breakthroughts do not come from Damascus or Tehran. Part of that is because Islam is fatally entwined with its own sense of superiority, long after the facts have proved them wrong. Once they presided over a large and powerful empire. Now the Caliphate is gone, but the supremacy complex remains. The Muslim populations now burning embassies and flags are not simply offended over religious insensitivity. They refuse to believe that the rest of world has surpassed them. They refuse to realize that their beliefs no longer rule. They refuse to acknowledge that another side, another perspective, exists. Clinging, instead, to past glories, they have allowed time to pass them by.

Time has passed by their religious singlemindedness as well. A few brave voices in Islam point out that many aspects of Koranic law were developed out the context of small nomadic bands struggling to survive against much more powerful opponents. That is, they were spawned in a specific place and time, under conditions that no longer exist. Yet many Muslim leaders do their level best to remove the Koran and the life of the prophet from the stream of history, robbing it of context and thus any chance that their laws can be reinterpreted according to new historical dimensions. Nothing in their tradition tells them that one can interpret without changing fundamental values. Christianity, from the day Christ left this world, constantly analyzed and interpreted His teachings for the world which it inhabited. It would be foolish not to, for two thousands years ago the Apostles could never have anticipated things like cloning, nuclear warfare, civil rights, and the like. Yet Christianity, in trying to address these issues, has never abandoned its fundamental precepts: do not kill, do not rob, do not steal, help the helpless. We believe that the Holy Spirit guides us in understanding Christ's teachings in the modern world; Muslims need to start thinking that an all-powerful God like Allah would surely not be so short-sighted as to leave the faithful with rules frozen in the past, when God is ever-present.

Yet Islam has never faced these harsh realites because they've been able to reap the benefits of a resource that demands very little social advancement to harvest. A government does not require democracy or freedom to drill holes in the ground. As a result, the most extreme and dangerous nations in the Middle East can stay alive without the introspection and self-criticism required by countries lacking such a cheap and abundant export. The dichotomy is odd: culturally, economically, socially, politically, the states that spawn mad mullahs and murderously extremist Islam are stagnant, yet they have the money to support that stagnation. History has passed them by, but they don't see it because their oil provides the means for them to stay frozen in time. And because that resource is so vital to the more dynamic economies of the West, few demands have been placed on these nations to bring their peoples out of a social and religious Dark Age. Occasionally, we see a
glimmers of hope in the nascent democratic movements in Islamic regions, but incidents like the cartoon outburst make us wonder just how realistic that hope is. In some places, freedom moves forward; in others, repression strikes back, as it now seems to in Europe as they contend with their growing Muslim demographic.

The sad thing is that Europe seems content to allow this self-destruction to take place. On a continent where tolerance is king and secularism queen, governments have taken this to such an extreme that they can't even bring themselves to condemn the very
intolerance they claim to abhor. They are so desperate to preserve their sense of cultural sensitivity that they abandon the precepts of freedom which they claim their tolerance preserves. Not that the Muslim mobs take any notice. Government leaders cry sensitivity and understanding, yet the rioting continues unabated.

Repressive Middle Eastern governments certainly share the blame for this frenzied outcry; after all, the more people in Iran and Syria expend their energies on imagined slights from the West, the less they look at their own leaders and realize how horrendous they truly are. But another reason that these mobs are allowed to run rampant is that they know they can achieve results this way, because they've never been held to a better standard. In the West, we use the ballot box and the editorial to express our displeasure because A) those who do things like blow up federal buildings in Oklahoma City to vent their frustrations are arrested and executed, and B) we know that they produce results. Many Muslims have never been presented with those two options or encouraged to choose the latter. They engage in the former because we're too terrified to punish them for rioting and burning, for fear of being labelled hateful or insensitive (as well as fearful of our own lives, as Theo von Gogh found out the hard way). Eventually, the West is going to have to make a choice. Either stand up to the intolerance of Islam and tell its adherents to find a more civilized way to express their disagreements (while striking down without mercy those who would murder men like von Gogh for the imagined crime of criticism), or surrender every pretence of freedom for the pipe dream of self-preservation. There is much greater dignity and respect to be found in being held to the same standard as everyone else; Muslims need to be taught that, either from without or within.

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