Thomas Friedman: Islam and the Pope

Islam and the Pope
Published: September 29, 2006

We need to stop insulting Islam. It’s enough already.

No, that doesn’t mean the pope should apologize. The pope was actually treating Islam with dignity. He was treating the faith and its community as adults who could be challenged and engaged. That is a sign of respect.

What is insulting is the politically correct, kid-gloves view of how to deal with Muslims that is taking root in the West today. It goes like this: ‘Hushhh! Don’t say anything about Islam! Don’t you understand? If you say anything critical or questioning about Muslims, they’ll burn down your house. Hushhh! Just let them be. Don’t rile them. They are not capable of a civil, rational dialogue about problems in their faith community.’

Now that is insulting. It’s an attitude full of contempt and self-censorship, but that is the attitude of Western elites today, and it’s helping to foster the slow-motion clash of civilizations that Sam Huntington predicted. Because Western masses don’t buy it. They see violence exploding from Muslim communities and they find it frightening, and they don’t think their leaders are talking honestly about it. So many now just want to build a wall against Islam. It will be terrible if Turkey is blocked from entering the European Union, but that’s where we’e heading, and the only thing that will halt it is honest dialogue.

But it is not the dialogue the pope mentioned – one between Islam and Christianity. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. What is needed first is an honest dialogue between Muslims and Muslims.

As someone who has lived in the Muslim world, enjoyed the friendship of many Muslims there and seen the compassionate side of Islam in action, I have to admit I am confused as to what Islam stands for today.

Why? On the first day of Ramadan last year a Sunni Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Shiite mosque in Hilla, Iraq, in the middle of a memorial service, killing 25 worshipers. This year on the first day of Ramadan, a Sunni suicide bomber in Baghdad killed 35 people who were lining up in a Shiite neighborhood to buy fuel. The same day, the severed heads of nine murdered Iraqi police officers and soldiers were found north of Baghdad.

I don’t get it. How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year – in mosques! – and there is barely a peep of protest in the Muslim world, let alone a million Muslim march? Yet Danish cartoons or a papal speech lead to violent protests. If Muslims butchering Muslims – in Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan – produces little communal reaction, while cartoons and papal remarks produce mass protests, what does Islam stand for today? It is not an insult to ask that question.

Muslims might say: ‘Well, what about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or Palestine? Let’s talk about all your violent behavior.’ To which I would say: ‘Let’s talk about it! But you’ll have to get in line behind us, because we’re constantly talking about where we’ve gone wrong.’ We can’t have a meaningful dialogue if we, too, are not self-critical, but neither can Muslims.

Part of the problem in getting answers is that Islam has no hierarchy. There is no Muslim pope defining the faith. There are centers of Muslim learning, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but their credibility with the masses is uneven because they’re often seen as tools of regimes. So those Muslim preachers with authenticity tend to be the street preachers – firebrands, who gain legitimacy by spewing hatred at both their own regimes and the Western powers that support them.

As a result, there is a huge body of disenfranchised Sunni Muslims, who are neither violent fundamentalists nor wannabe secularists. They are people who’d like to see a marriage between Islam and modernity. But right now there is little free space in the Sunni Muslim world – between the firebrand preachers and the ‘official’ ones – for that synthesis to be discussed and defined.

I had hoped Iraq would be that space. Whenever people asked me how I’d know if we’d won in Iraq, I said: when Salman Rushdie could give a lecture in Baghdad. I’m all for a respectful dialogue between Islam and the West, but first there needs to be a respectful, free dialogue between Muslims and Muslims. What matters is not what Muslims tell us they stand for. What matters is what they tell themselves, in their own languages, and how they treat their own.

Without a real war of ideas within Islam to sort that out – a war that progressives win – I fear we are drifting at best toward a wall between civilizations and at worst toward a real clash.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

I rarely read Friedman, but this is one of the better opinions I’ve read recently.

I think it’s about time that we stop treating Islam with kid gloves, bending over backward to avoid “offending them”: e.g. the papal remarks, the Danish cartoons, the various other so called “indicia of western disrespect and racism”. The kid gloves have to come off, and a line ought to be drawn in the sand.

I am afraid, though, that I do not have much optimism that there will be a war of ideas within Islam, or that progressive elements will win it. I prefer to consider preparing for the worst, namely that clash of civilizations that Huntington so presciently predicted.

September 29, 2006 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

Friedman asks, “How can Muslims blow up other Muslims on their most holy day of the year – in mosques! – and there is barely a peep of protest in the Muslim world, let alone a million Muslim march?”

Ordinary homicide and traffic accidents kill vastly more people than terrorism. Even trans-fats in our food kill vastly more people, yet we haven’t outlawed trans-fats, as Europe has done.

One of the big reasons why terrorism is so much in the public mind is that it taps into a primitive human response against outsiders. When Americans are being killed by other Americans, or by inanimate things like trans-fats, it doesn’t inspire obsession. When Timothy McViegh blew up the federal building and killed hundreds of people, it didn’t trigger a war against domestic terrorism.

It’s the same way with the Muslims. Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism accounts for a tiny fraction of all Muslim deaths. If it’s true that they’re not terribly worked up about Muslim-on-Muslim terror, it’s because they’re more focussed on the threat from “outsiders” — the United States, other Western countries, what they see as Christians killing Muslims.

September 30, 2006 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Well Pablos, I disagree entirely.

Terrorism provokes an irrational fear, one that makes us question who our neighbors are. In a fair and just society, I do not fear my neighbor. But terrorism changes that.

As for Tim McVeigh, your statement “When Timothy McViegh blew up the federal building and killed hundreds of people, it didn’t trigger a war against domestic terrorism” is absolutely rubbish.

Tim McVeigh was an athiest who was a member of a radical militia group. Though his actions were his own, and not that of the militia group, those groups were crushed by the FBI. So, we did confront sources of radicalism in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some adhoc militias in rural areas of the US, but Tim’s actions humiliated and discredited their movements.

I only wish the same could be said for muslim “martyrs”. In the islamic world, they celebrate their mass murderers, rather than revile them.

That’s why they aren’t going anywhere, and we should seperate our foriegn policy from our energy policy, and build a wall around those forever regressive societies.

September 30, 2006 @ 7:32 am | Comment

Traveller, I humbly disagree. Though my name may suggest a Muslim heritage, I am an atheist. I think we need to be careful to separate the small minority of rulers and terrorists from the vast numbers of Muslims who live their daily lives just like anyone else. To say that the actions of violent fanatics are celebrated is quite unfair to the vast, silent majority. The screams of fanatics and their followers make for much more interesting CNN reports than the civilized humble behavior of the majority.

What we need to is to develop a sensible national energy policy that frees us from the bondge of fossil fuel and we need to act as a nation that actually believes in its stated principles of freedom, equality and due process. Currently we are doing neither and instead we appear to the outside world, including the Muslim world, as religous crusaders, economic opportunists and political conquerors. Whether any of these things are true or not, to the rest of the world they seem to be real.

Let’s isolate regressive regimes by showing their people the possibilities that exist in a just, democratic society based ona a system of law. We can do a lot by setting an example for the world to follow rather than ramming it down anyone’s throat.

September 30, 2006 @ 5:04 pm | Comment

Well, after 50 years of cruelties against Palestinians, the Coup d’Etat agains’t Mossadegh in Iran, the prevention of democracy in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the restoration of Kuwait dictatorship, the mass killings of Kurdish in Turkey, all of it supported by the USA, together with Tom Friedman’s enthusiastic support for the occupation of Palestine, the war in Lebanon, the war against Iraq, and supporting other wars against Syria and Iran, makes Friedman’s talk about dialog a hoax. Muslims knows that the only way they have to regain their rights is by resisting war against the sionists, the US and their clients. Unfortunately history talks by itself.

October 1, 2006 @ 8:59 am | Comment

I’m a strong supporter of an independent, sovereign Palestine and a critic of Israel, but I must point out that both democratically elected Palestinian Authority governments are corrupt and inefficient.

The Saudi government is not America’s bitch. Many Americans argue it’s the other way around – that the American government overlooks Saudi Arabias’ horrid, horrid human rights record because it depends on Saudi oil.

“The restoration of Kuwait dictatorship”? I didn’t know Saddam Hussein was democratically elected by the Kuwait people.

Turks killing Kurds? Yep, that’s right. Muslims killing Muslims. Uncle Sam does not condone this, and in fact, Uncle Sam’s protection of Kurds in northern Iraq was a source of conflict between it and Turkey. Turkey doesn’t need to take lessons on mass murder from Uncle Sam. Turkey demonstrated its capacity for genocide on the Armenians in the early 1900s.

The US government has much to answer for with regard to its relations with Muslim-majority countries, but blaming all ills on Uncle Sam is dishonest. The Islamic Republic of Iran was established 25 years ago, and made headlines soon after its establishment by brutally persecuting Bahai’s as heretics. It now boasts the world’s second highest rate of executions, just ahead of Saudi Arabia, guardian of Mecca and Medina. Its lackluster economic performance and retreat from reforms have left many Iranians dissatisfied with the government. Iran tortures, imprisons, and murders political opponents and reporters. In 1999, paramilitary troops violently put down student protests at Tehran University. Judging by Iran’s experience under its domestically established Islamic regime, achieving democracy and prosperity isn’t as simple as exiling pro-US dictators.

October 1, 2006 @ 10:51 am | Comment

Are you the Peking Duck of AXA message board fame ? Who knows ? With warm regards

October 1, 2006 @ 11:34 pm | Comment

Islam is a danger to the western civilization. Confronting the situation may the only solution. If muslims do not hesitate killing muslims, what chance is there that they would hesitate killing christians or jews. Killing infidels is the easiest route to heaven.

October 2, 2006 @ 12:57 am | Comment

I’ve given up reading Tomas Friedman for he writes shameslessly. And then he eats quite as quickly what he vomits. Eg. his advicay for Iraq War and the so-called birth of democracy. (read his articles before and during the early days of war).
I think he better be occupied with the problems afflicting the West than semonise others. He’s the last man to advise others because he’s incapable of honest and sound advise.

October 3, 2006 @ 3:05 pm | Comment

[…] ante este hecho. Los musulmanes mismos deben. Y pueden. Recordarán un artículo reciente de Thomas Friedman sobre Irak, informando de que milicias sunníes colaboran con las fuerzas estadounidenses en la […]

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