Deadly Riots in the Streets, Manipulation in the Mosque

Newsweek’ s story about the Koran in the toilet roused the elemental passions of primitive believers: Americans who think our actions (usually mistaken) control the world.

To these fundamentalists, the Pentagon bestrides the narrow world like a colossus, except when it’s looking up the long legs of the media. What Donald Rumsfeld and Michael Isikoff do or don’t do can cause rampage and death from Kabul to Jakarta.

It is the place of maturity to know that the world is full of actors beyond ourselves. Some very bad actors seized on the Newsweek story to manipulate an alleged blasphemy for political ends.

Most of the inflammations of anti-American and anti-Western passion in the Muslim world during the last 30 years, running right through the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, back to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, were political as much as religious eruptions: more political than religious. No doubt simple Muslims found the idea of The Satanic Verses offensive, just as millions of Iranians found the Shah distant, overbearing and (to the extent he exalted Iran’s Aryan past and his own cosmopolitanism) impious. But there was hay to be made, just as there is now when mobs turn out to burn Old Glory.

In countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, malcontents long to come to power. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, mullahs and rogue members of the vast royal family seek distractions abroad in order to maintain power at home. In Afghanistan and Iraq, those who ruled under the Taliban and who gorged under the Baathists seek to regain power. A despot like Gen. Pervez Musharraf is an obvious obstacle to the career plans of such men (there are no women among them). But so is any degree of democracy. If people rule themselves, then tyrannical elites cannot rule them. If people have a say in making their own laws, then Islamofascists cannot say, in the name of holiness, what the law should be. If presidents can be elected and unelected, then there will be no palaces for Uday and Qusay.

If you need proof of the political storyline behind the headlines, consider the hypocrisy of the religious complainers. We were told it would be offensive to fight in Afghanistan during Ramadan, though many wars in Muslim history have been launched then. Beware, beware of attacking mosques, and so we have been, though our concern has not been matched by terrorists who stuff mosques with ordnance and guerrillas. The horror of imagining a Koran flushed down a toilet apparently didn’t stop some of the Guantánamo detainees themselves from ripping pages from their Korans (all provided by the U.S. Army) and flushing them down their toilets, so as to cause blockages and confusion. What, finally, are we to make of suicide bombers, or the 9/11 hijackers, since the Almighty in the Koran, as much as in Hamlet, has fixed his canons ‘gainst self-slaughter?

Grant that the uproar is manipulated. Is Islam susceptible to manipulation? Let us draw a comparison from our own experience. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft is an evangelical Christian. Former Presidential candidate Howard Dean is a die-hard secularist (he left his Episcopal Church in a fight over a bike path, which is taking good government and public aesthetics pretty seriously). Mr. Ashcroft is driven and dour; Mr. Dean is pugnacious and flamboyant. Each man, moreover, stands for legions of the likeminded. Now let their sternest enemies honestly ask themselves: However distasteful you think your bête noire and his followers are, could you imagine Ashcroftians or Deaniacs murdering people in the streets? You couldn’t. So why does it happen in the Muslim world?

The obvious secular explanation for Islamic violence is the poverty of the Muslim world. Subtract oil, and you have a mass of peasants (give or take Turkey)-and where destruction is only a drought away, it is easier to rouse people to destroy in the name of Him Who controls the rain clouds. This is the analysis of humanist meliorists of all stripes, from libertarians to the Second International. There is something to be said for it, though it doesn’t explain why so many jihadists, like the 9/11 hijackers, should have been so well-off.

Is violence justified by Islam itself? Islam is a this-worldly religion. The goal is Paradise, but definite instructions are given for how society should be ordered here and now. Augustine wrote about the city of God and the city of man. Islam acknowledges the realm of believers and the realm of struggle. Can’t rioting be seen as a shortcut to victory in the latter?

There is another perspective. All religions believe that they embody eternal and unchanging truths. But in daily life, religions are defined by what believers do. A religion might or might not encourage a struggle to rule the world. But if believers are not in fact struggling, then the definitional question has answered itself.

The third-largest Muslim country in the world is India. It has a long-running dispute with its Muslim neighbor, Pakistan; its Parliament was shot up by jihadists soon after 9/11, and Hindu incendiaries have murdered Muslims and destroyed mosques. With all these materials for explosion, most Indian Muslims haven’t followed Newsweek into the streets. They show, by their actions and inactions, what their faith means to them. Similarly with Muslims in America-a tiny minority, but one ideally positioned to embarrass the American war effort, if it chose to heed jihadist appeals. Yet it has not done so. By their fruits you shall know them.

This is not bland hopefulness, a belief in easy escalator rides to the penthouses of consciousness. If religions change, and change for the better, it takes work from the faithful: to understand revelation better (as they would say) or to fit revelation to truth (as Christopher Hitchens would say). It also takes work from outsiders: to call out believers when they are being inhumane, and to not let politeness stand in the way of respect. Maybe outsiders are divinely directed to do so. The Lord works in mysterious ways.