What follows are some thoughts evoked by reading a report, “In Reaction to Two Incidents, a U.S-Afghan Disconnect,” dispatched to the New York Times, March 14, 2012, by that paper’s exceptionally thoughtful reporter, Rod Nordland.
The “two incidents” of the title are: (1) the discovery in mid-February of charred pages of the Qur’an on a NATO base near Kabul and (2) the apparently random murder of sixteen innocent civilians in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the middle of the night, March 11, by an evidently berserk American soldier.
The first incident touched off at once mob demonstrations that continued for several days throughout Afghanistan cities. At least twenty-nine demonstrators lost their lives in the mayhem. The American President apologized abjectly, to no effect. (“Obama apologizes for Koran burning in Afghanistan,” Reuters, February 23, 2012.) Copy-cat riots occurred elsewhere throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan and further afield, raising in many minds the prospect of a region-wide upheaval on the scale of the Danish cartoon riots of 2006. The possibility of practical cooperation between NATO nations and locally-chosen governments in the cause of collective security against terrorism was set back seriously. On the mind of every serious person in our part of the world was the question: How can we prevent such incidents in the future?
In the second incident, university students in Jalalabad organized demonstrations, burning a cross and an effigy of President Obama. Then, at this point, as Nordland reports: “villagers [in Kandahar] at first wanted to take the bodies of their victims into the city, but elders persuaded them that displaying them to crowds would lead to mass violence, and they desisted.” A mere whimper, compared to the reaction in February to the alleged Koran-burning. Meanwhile, senior Afghan government officials rushed to the district and began handing out cash compensation to the families of the victims. Nordland notes that “these families are very poor and are part of a culture where ‘blood money’ is regularly paid for even accidental deaths.”
The “disconnect” (this now-ubiquitous noun has my vote for the Ugliest Neologism of the new Millennium) occurs where Nordland attempts to fathom the reason for the strikingly different responses to these events. Mullah Qayiin, speaking for the religious authorities, “was astonished and a little bit angered to be asked why the accidental burning of Korans last month could provoke violence nationwide, while an intentional mass murder that included nine children last Sunday [March 12] did not…. ‘How can you compare the dishonouring of the Holy Koran with the martyrdom of innocent children …. The whole goal of our life is religion … Humans were sent here to worship and protect religion. That is what the purpose of a Muslim’s life is.” The matter is expressed more economically in an Afghan proverb quoted by Nordland: “You give your money away for your life, but you give your life away for your religion.”
Among other matters of urgent nature facing our elected leaders is that of finding a modus vivendi between the values that have informed our civilization for three thousand years and the values embedded in Islam. Our municipal politicians and school board authorities are expending ever-increasing portions of their time dealing with angry delegations of imams and Muslim parents bringing complaints against the little bits of Christian flotsam and Jewish jetsam that they discover floating in our textbooks or portrayed (they say) on the walls of our schools and public buildings. Nowadays, it is simply taken for granted that “avoiding offense” against Muslim sensibilities is an absolute obligation. No time at all needs to be assigned to appeasing offended Christian or Jewish parents. These latter constituents accept the lesson from history that preventing with the force of the state other people’s offensive utterings cannot be accomplished without creation of privileged standing to the loudest and least liberal voices. By default, therefore, the field is abandoned to those whose notion of government is that it exists for the purpose of imposing the eternally-mandated biases of the Qur’an on the entire population.
In our debate with Islam there exists no possibility of a levelled playing-field for ideas and beliefs. Where we see differences about large matters as providing opportunities for compromise, Islam sees only a zero-sum struggle. If we are being honest with ourselves, we have to admit the impossibility of thinking our way onto the moral terrain that is described by the imams who were interviewed by Rod Norland in Afghanistan. Furthermore, there is nothing noble or even generous about making the effort to do so. Even to imagine that possibility is an abdication of critical reasoning. The notion of a God who approves such worship is incompatible with the notion of God that informs our Judaeo-Christian Scripture. This, I believe, is the right response to those who propose the notion of “trialogue” among “the three Abrahamic faiths.”
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