Monday, October 10, 2005

Letter to Abdul Karim

Some Mapuche shaman complained recently, I read somewhere, that since their folks in Chile stopped with the child sacrifices, there has been an increase in the number of earthquakes. Cause-and-effect from a religious perspective.

I've got a friend who takes this Chinese medicine because it prevents colds. Thanks to the regular intake of these little yellow pills, she has not gotten a cold in three months. She's a good friend, so I don't remind her that there have been no elephants breaking into her apartment either, and the evidence it was the pills that prevented the invasion is just about the same.

I did ask her once how somebody with so much respect for supporting evidence in other areas (she has a Ph.D.) could hold such views. "If the Chinese have held these convictions for thousands of years," she responded, "There must be something to it." Well, yes. People have held on to astrology for that length of time as well.

But you don't argue against those views. With Chinese herbal medicine, you take the open position that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, chalk it up to harmless thumbsucking, and move on. That way, if the little yellow pills do turn out to prevent colds, you won't look like a total ass.

With child sacrifice, though, you thank your lucky stars we have power over this old Mapuche lady and try to keep her away from the knives when your children are around. Some religious stuff is downright nasty.

If you think Christianity is all about a little baby in a manger, or Mozart's Requiem or those glorious windows at Chartres, you might well want to be in their number when the Saints come marchin' in. If you've ever been at the sharp end of the Christian stick, however, you are more likely to wonder how it is sensible people can worship a god who had to slip into the skin of a human male to be tortured and killed to in order to mollify himself, being so pissed off as he was at the children of Mr. Adam and Ms. Eve.

On the surface of things, why should we respect such nonsense? Where does the idea come from that we should respect irrational claims about the universe? Because they've been around for hundreds of years? Because, like Pascal, we don't want to risk pissing off the Big Guy just in case he's real?

I think the answer is we don't respect it. We think, way down deep in our hearts, it's a bunch of bullshit. We just don't say so most of the time because we don't want to scare the horses. Instead, we give a little so we'll get a little. We let them suck on their lollypop so we we can suck on ours.

This all sounds flippant, I know. Actually, it has a (to me) wonderful moral foundation in Enlightenment values. It starts from the assumption that all god's creatures – whether they evolved or were generated spontaneously or were created not by somebody named God but by another guy named Shakespeare maybe – all god's creatures should sit at a round table as equals until or unless we can come up with a sure-fire system of determining how we might rank some over others without grounding our authority to do so in the law of the jungle. Respect for the person is one of those values; respect for any given ideology, religious or otherwise, is not. In the end, a blind respect for religion can only lead to tyranny of religion, while a respect for each other's space will actually accomplish what one intends by arguing for respect for religion.

For several days now my friends the Danes have been in trouble. I say my friends because I am filled to the brim with respect for the Danish nation and all those lovely blond folk with their mumbled form of the Germanic tongue. Although I know no more than a handful personally, and except for the one night in Aarhus back in the 60s when I thought nothing of sleeping in a storefront in a sleeping bag rather than pay for a hotel, I've never even been to their country. (Oh yes, one stopover in the Copenhagen airport once.)

When AIDS hit and the American president Reagan took four years to acknowledge what was happening, the Danes took the sick into their national health plan as they would any and all of their other sick citizens and saved their dignity as well as many of their lives. When many in America, including many of its leaders, were still calling down Old Testament fury against gay men and lesbians, the Danes were supporting their right to marry and adopt children and make Danish families. While most of the world was wishing the Palestinian problem away, Denmark was out front urging us to work harder to pull them up and out of the morass in which they live. If I woke up tomorrow and found myself a Dane, I think I'd blow a whole bunch of money on champagne.

Now they're in trouble. People are burning their flag and refusing to eat their cheese and torching their embassies because some magazine asked a satiric question of the Islamists and their propensity for violence. The question was, "Is this the prophet you are following?"

If the shoe fits, put it on. The overwhelming majority of Islamic folk take the "peace" in s-l-m seriously. This question was not addressed to them. But the mob driven authorities of much of the Islamic world are bending to their fury and demanding the Danish government come down hard on the Jylland-Posten for having insulted the Prophet.

No! That's not the job of the Danish government. This is a tough call because the pressure is very strong indeed to see this as a red flag in front of a bull. We're being asked from all sides to use "discretion." Be prudent. Realistic. Sensible. To swallow the principle of non-governmental interference with the press so we can go back to selling cheese in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. No!

Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader has just issued a statement suggesting if they had killed Salman Rushdie back when he wrote the Satanic Verses, we wouldn't be in this pickle today. There's no doubt we're playing for pretty high stakes in this game.

It's sorely tempting to do what seems wise and urge caution and get the present situation under control, calm the rioting and get back to the serious work of trying to figure out how to talk across the chasm between Enlightenment and religious fear and ignorance. But I hope we don't send the wrong signal across that chasm.

Samuel Huntington wrote in his Clash of Civilizations that history had progressed through centuries of wars of religious ideology through the Cold War of political ideology to the present war for dominance of Western civilization's fundamental values. I'm with Edward Said in thinking this thesis is facile, but you have to admit it sure seems to make sense in the present context. And if this is war, then maybe we should listen to the peacemakers urging compromise. But we should also remember that one day's compromise is another day's appeasement.

Civilizations don't clash. That's only a metaphor. People clash. And when overspirited boys get into a rumble, other people break it up. As with solutions to other problems, the paths will be multiple. A lot of people will talk across the chasm, each in their own way. I don't want to suggest there is only one approach to take, but let me give you mine. It's a letter to my old friend Abdul Karim Bajwa, a man I spent many hours arguing with when I lived in Saudi Arabia. A Muslim, and one of the kindest, most generous and most compassionate men I've ever known and loved. I don't know where he is today. I'm pretty sure he's not torching embassies, but I'm also pretty sure he's very angry that the Danish government has allowed the Jylland-Posten to insult his Prophet. If I knew where to send this letter, this is what I would write him.

Dear Abdul Karim:

I'm pretty sure you're very angry at the moment at the Danish government, and that you may be tempted, as many of your fellow Muslims are, to extend this anger to all Danish people. Maybe even to Norwegians and French and others from countries which have expressed public support for the right to publish cartoons which insult your religious beliefs.

I wish we could talk about this because I know we'd do this better if we could look each other in the eye and feel each other's emotions. I would like to be sure I heard your real voice when you talk about this instead of the voice I make up for you to speak in. And I would like you to hear my sincerity when I tell you I'm sorry you are troubled by this insult to something you hold so precious.

I would not make fun of The Prophet, because I know what He means to you. I would not draw a picture of Him, because I know that would offend you. I would not do what the Jylland-Posten in Denmark just did, and what many others have repeated.

But just as I accept your faith as part of your person, I hope you can accept my faith in the values of the civilization in which I grew up. I assure you I hold them as strongly as you do yours. One of those values was expressed by Voltaire when he said, "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.'' I think in order to live free there is no other way but to allow others the freedom to express themselves, even when you disagree with what they say. If you cannot hold to this principle, even when what they say offends you, it is an empty principle.

You will say that respect for The Prophet and for the rules laid down in the Koran should be above all other principles, but you have to remember that without the freedom of all religions and moral codes to co-exist, we have no hope of escaping the tribal wars that have plagued us throughout history. Just as you should act out your religions beliefs without interference from others, you have to allow others similar freedom.

Just as the people who call themselves Christians and go to war for nationalist American reasons insult their Savior, the men who kill innocents in the name of Islam insult their Prophet. We should be working together to stop these people, and not working against each other.

The people who made those cartoons were not insulting The Prophet. They were asking Muslims the question, "Is this the kind of prophet you are following?" It was not the real Prophet depicted in those pictures, but the one in the minds of the misguided men of hate who do those things in the name of Islam you know the Prophet would disapprove of.

Even if they did intend to insult Him, however, I hope you will see that these are people limited by their experience as you and I are limited by ours. You know that if we don't allow all ideas to flow freely – the bad ones as well as the good ones – we will fall victim to those tyrants always ready to make our decisions for us. Saudi Arabia has asked the Danish government to control the press in Denmark. But Saudi Arabia has to learn that such a request cannot be complied with in any democratic nation. In the end, Saudi Arabia is moving in the direction of democracy; it is not happening the other way around.

Most Muslims know they will be freer, ultimately, in a democratic nation than in a non-democratic one to practice their religion. An occasional insult, perceived or real, to the Prophet is the price we have to pay for that freedom. That freedom will enable Islam to grow and prosper and for its message of peace to spread around the world. Please allow a cartoonist here and there to overstep your line now and again and question the motives of some of the people who do such damage in the name of your religion. We will all benefit in the long run.

With great affection,

Your friend,


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