Sunday, 12 September 2010

Regarding the burning of sacred texts and double standards

I'm beginning to think there's something a bit strange about the west's relationship with Islam. Forgive me if that's a truism. Like a lot of people I was insensed by the stupidity of Pastor Terry Jones' intended Koranic bonfire. Because I consider myself a liberal, and someone who believes in respect for other cultures, other belief systems and just in not pissing people off for the hell of it.

But then I heard about this: Military burns unsolicited Bibles sent to Afghanistan. Obviously this is not a simple inversion; the Bibles were burnt not out of malice, and not even by Muslims but by (nominally) Christian people who were concerned with protecting themselves and their colleagues.

I also don't think, as I've heard others say, the issue is that the Christian world has a greater intrinsic tolerance. I don't think this is true. History simply doesn't bear it out - Christian nations have committed at least as many massacres, forced conversions and human rights abuses as Muslim nations, and probably much more (the Second World War alone would probably settle this matter).

The real issue is the bizarre passive-aggressive stance the west takes. Western countries meddle in others internal politics, cripple them in abusive trade agreements and declare war when they can't see any other way to get what they want (and to remove leaders who they've groomed, who have got too big for their boots); but we are very eager to put on a show of not disrespecting their religion. So, the American government makes public pronouncements against a tiny Church burning the Koran for fear of upsetting Muslims. While quietly in those Muslim countries, the Bible is burnt, for fear of upsetting Muslims. "Burning another peoples' holy scriptures is completely unAmerican" says Obama, while his military burns their own.

If the (post)Christian west was so concerned with actually being disrespectful, wouldn't fair foreign policies be more to the point? Or would that be too subtle for Middle Eastern Muslims to understand? Isn't it more likely to be the perpetual political meddling and economic imperialism which are causing people to want to revolt in the first place, and the surface symptoms of intolerance such as Koran burning are only sparks which set off a tinderbox?

I've heard a few people argue that Christianity forms the most humanistic expression of religion, because of the Gospels' emphasis on love for humanity and freedom over dogma or a specific, strictly-defined culture. I'm quite dubious that this is really the case, though certainly there is a less deterministic ethic in the Christian paradigm; by concentrating on people's internal attitude rather than their external behaviour, by concentrating on the universal of humanity rather than cultural stability, the individual is given a higher value than the community (and the mind rather than the body but that's -ostensibly?- a different argument). This notion seems to have conditioned our society for both better and worse, such that all individuals are given equal moral value but at the expense of any respect for culture, for the whole of a society.

Christians of course are not up in arms about the Bible being burnt in Afghanistan. Part of this is because of the reasons I mentioned earlier (it wasn't done maliciously by an 'other' intent on defamation); part of it is also because because such a reaction is no longer part of our culture. We no longer see the text itself as holy. Rather it is the spirit behind it, the moral lessons, separated from any theological principles. A third factor is that of power: the (post)Christian west exists inexorably in a dominant relationship to the Islamic Middle East, and therefore events are always skewed in our favour. The fact that there is an American/European military presence in the Middle East, while there is no such Middle Eastern military presence in Europe or America means that the west is in an undeniable position of superiority, and knows it. Inexcusibly awful statements are made on a regular basis about Jews in the Islamic Middle East, because of this fact and perceptions about the relationship between the west and Israel (it's not the issue here and I'm not commenting on the correctness or otherwise of the perceived relationship - only that it is perceived); quite possibly defamatory statements or actions are made about Jewish or Christian scriptures in the Islamic Middle East (it seems unlikely they are not); but the public judgment will ultimately always be that they are not as dangerous as western defamations of Islam, for the same reason that the rhetoric of the Black Panthers or Nation of Islam was never seen as quite as awful as the KKK (despite at points being almost identical); the oppressed have a right to retaliation whereas the oppressors do not have the right to continue their spiritual whitewash.

If you're wondering what my point is, then you're in good company. I'm still trying to work it out
myself. The tendency to think in black and white rather than shades of grey is incredibly seductive and presents a challenge to us all. This is particularly true in terms of the Middle East, where oppression is conducted in almost every combination imaginable, but where people are often quick to shout about rights and wrongs. Interestingly, I've seen little (in fact, nothing) on Facebook recently about the plight of the Roma evicted from France. A people without a nation, expelled from the country they've made their home - where have we heard that before..? Has even Europe really learnt its lessons?

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