Friday, June 11, 2004

What's Wrong with This Picture?

A scene from the horror story of BBC correspondent Frank Gardner, gunned down by Islamists in the streets of Riyadh, won't leave me. They killed his Irish-born cameraman and shot Gardner and left him for dead, but he sat in the street, conscious, bleeding, and shouted to bystanders, in Arabic, "I'm a Muslim, help me, I'm a Muslim, help me."

The Beeb's news director said, "Nobody knew Saudi Arabia or knew the sort of risks they were undertaking better than Frank who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and spoke fluent Arabic ...."

Which tells me Gardner shouted out, not "help me, I'm dying," or "help me, I've been shot," but "help me, I'm a Muslim," because he knew those were the words that would move people around him to do something to save his life.

In what other place in the world would a man, obviously gravely injured, have to shout out an explanation of his religious affiliation before he got help to save his life?

In Tel Aviv, I can imagine, a wounded person might shout, "help me, I'm a Jew," if he had reason to think that the people around him feared he was a Palestinian martyr-in-the-making with a half a crate of dynamite strapped to his body. But even if that is the case, I hardly think that proves a flaw in the heart of the people of Tel Aviv, or their religion.

Can you imagine a man dying on the streets of Philadelphia or Copenhagen, shouting out, "help me, I'm a Christian"?

What's wrong with Islam, that in its core nation, this can happen? Even beyond the fact of the shooting itself, which is part of a wider political and religious war, why this cruelty?

For that matter, why the crushing treatment of women, the "dhimmitude" status of non-Muslims, the muzzled media, the denial of basic civil rights for Shiites in Saudi Arabia, the genocide against blacks in Sudan, the murderous repression of gays everywhere, the continuing tendency to slavery.

It's part of the "problem of Islam." The modern leaders of the faith, in Saudi Arabia, have embraced a brutally fundamentalist form of Islam, to the exclusion of other interpretations. Those interpretations do exist, but they're not being given breathing room. After 9-11, this is no longer merely an internal concern among Muslims. As Irshad Manji points out, "How the Koran is allowed to be interpreted -- and how it isn't -- has become everybody's business."

I've opposed fundamentalism in the religious culture around me. Since I am an American, that religion principally has been Christianity. Three years ago I found my country under attack from a different religion's fundamentalists. I have no problem recognizing the same enemy. Fundamentalism in the three great monotheisms, as Karen Armstrong wrote, is of a piece. It offers the same solutions to the same challenges, and along the way it locks personal paranoias and cultural fetishes into the word of God.

Jesus happened to live in a time when Roman might so dominated the world that only suicidal fanatics would oppose it in open warfare. There were such insurgents among the Israelites of his day, and my secular historical view says that his modification of Judaism survived, and theirs didn't, because he turned from violent struggle, as from the outer world. That is why Christianity has had its wonderful pacifist quality, its spiritualism. (The disturbing flip-side of that is that it has been, at times, the ideal religion for slaves.)

Muhammad had it different. "Islam was born in an extremely harsh and violent environment and received a very hostile and aggressively violent reaction from the tribes of seventh century Arabia. The first Muslims had to fight for survival until Islam prevailed throughout Arabia by the time of the death of the Prophet. The preexisting norms of intertribal relations were heavily, if not completely, dependent on the use or threat of violent force by the claimant of any right, even the right to exist." [Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im] As a result, even though the Shari'a introduced controls on violence and tribalism that were progressive for that time and place, the Quran repeatedly enjoins Muslims to support each other, disassociate themselves from non-Muslims, and fight unbelievers "and slay them wherever you catch them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem" [9:5] unless they submit to Islam.

Far more than in the other great monotheisms, a militant, violent tendency is limned in the holy texts of this religion, as is rejection and hatred of the "unbelievers." The fundamentalists and absolutists in Christianity and Judaism generally exist on the fringes of those faiths. In Islam, for centuries, they have been at the helm of it. Except in the North American mosques, and less and less even in them, the idea of "ecumenical Islam" is a contradiction in terms.

But the problem in the picture is more than that.

Islam is Arab-centric. The Quran is only read, properly, in Arabic, even if you're a Malaysian Muslim. V.S. Naipal has written eloquently about this, and how it warps lives and cultures in the non-Arab Muslim lands. "The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism."

Manji herself, in her wonderful book, "The Trouble With Islam," tells of a speech she gave at a North American university. The campus Muslim Students Association showed up to try to intimidate her, and they lined the walls and glared at her as she spoke about "God and gays." When they got down to Q and A time, she began to challenge them, offering up the diverse, non-fundamentalist approaches to Islam that once had flourished in places like Pakistan. One of her attackers shot back that that was, "because Pakistanis are not real Muslims. They're converts. Islam was revealed to the Arabs." Without intending to, she had hit on just the weapon to make the solid wall of her opponents melt -- many of those who had come to object to her lesbianism were South Asian Muslims.

Gardner is a Muslim. But he also obviously is a Westerner. When he was shot, it was his non-Arab skin color that marked him out as different to the people whose forms you can half see in this picture, watching him pleading for his life.

In parts of old segregated America, there once were hospitals that would not admit black people. Billie Holliday died of such prejudice. And it's been damned and execrated and rightly banished from modern America. Our health care is still far from equitable, in terms of rich, middle-class, and poor. But if any American ambulance driver refused to pick up a black person, or an Arab, for that matter, he'd be fired at once and lambasted in a hundred newspaper editorials.

Until that begins to be true in Islamic Saudi Arabia, don't talk about moral equivalency.