Islam and the Pope
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
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, theyâ€™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: ‘Letâ€™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.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.