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June 13, 2006


Please provide a link to the Digby post you're reacting to.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of American Catholics when Benny Sedici (xvi) seeks to impost canon law on Catholics worldwide.

Actually Benni hath spoken.

Last week he declaimed on Condoms, Birth Control, Plan B, Petri Dish conceptions, and sperm donation as well as all abortion. He is against all that stuff. What matters is that about 80% of American Catholics comprehend that they will figure out the matter on their own conscience.

Take his argument into account, but admit other arguments. The majority of American Catholics are sick and tired of the sexual theology.

Thank you for the post.
I agree that if there is really a desire to have Sharia implemented in the West, that must be fought. It is not clear to me that the majority of Muslims in the West actually want Sharia, but of course recent events in this country have shown that iron-fisted, one party rule does not require backing of the majority.
I would like to offer two stories of my own which inform my understanding of the "threat" of Sharia, one from the 1970s and one very recent.

Back in the mid to late 70's, when I was a teenager, my family met regularly with an Iranian grad student and his family (wife and boy) through an organization called FIUTS----Foundation for International Understanding Through Students.
This man was very nice and sweet, and his wife was very modern. The boy was a toddler, and absolutely adorable. They cooked wonderful Persian meals when we visited there. Also, he helped my family a few times when my father's illness was quite burdensome.

This kind, generous man, Bijan, was an MBA student. Well, when we knew him, the Ayatollah was making a lot of noise. Bijan
was virulently anti-shaw---for good reason, of course. In Khomeini he saw the possibility of liberation from the Shah.
I was quite horrified, because even at my young age, I could see two things: Khomeini was not a democrat; in addition, I knew the recent, horrible history of revolutions in the west.

You know the rest of the story.
About the family: they moved back to Iran, and the son somehow avoided military service. My mother hears news of them occasionally but the revolution severed our connection, and I expect I never will see them again.

The more recent story is shorter. I know a Palestinian grad student in finance. He is a smart man, loves his family, and I thought he had fairly moderate values. Well, another Iranian friend of mine is extremely anti-Islam, for nationalistic reasons. This leads to some interesting, if heated discussions when we meet his Arab friends.

Well, this Palestinian, who has never lived under Sharia, was going on and on about the wonders of Sharia, and about Islamic principles of justice in general.
I was absolutely appalled that he gave the example of cutting the hands of thieves as a really superior idea.
In addition, he thought that requiring 4 eyewitnesses to prove a crime is just dandy.
When I opined that such a system would give those with higher social status a huge advantage, because more people would lie for them, he refused to accept that the idea of relying on eyewitness testimony is bad; rather, he said the problem would be imperfect application of excellent, god-given rules. I wanted to tear my hair out.

Oh, and that reminds me: try asking someone from an Arab country what he would do if his sister had sex. Some I have met in the US will tell you straight out that they would kill their sister.

I see these two stories as showing the same thing, which is that a nationalist or cultural appreciation for Islam could lead to ill-considered support for imposing Sharia.
These people think that Islam and/or Sharia are good, because both represent their cultural tradition. I agree that the lack of Enlightenment values, which along with the brutal experience of sectarian religious fighting has so cautioned us against blind belief, means that well-meaning people may support a truly horrible set of values.

Sorry if I step on any Islamic toes here. I freely admit that I know very little about Islam, and I've never read the Koran;however, the practical significance of any religion lies in what it means to the adherents, and I believe I have some appreciation of this.

LOL.. sorry for the typo. I"m sure my friend loved G.b. Shaw.

By the way, I don't particularly care for the example of the Danish cartoons to show Western values.
The intent of publishing those cartoons was to inflame.
I don't approve of that, any more than I would approve of a cartoon of Bush sucking Osama's dick... um, bad example:)

Marky, I do approve -- I had doubts initially, but after two hours of searching, and then several hours of messing with German and Danish wordbooks, I finally got clear on Bert Brecht's notion of Danish Humor as he experienced it while living on the Island of Funen in exile from the Nazi regime in the late 1930's. It comes down to "you can't understand Danish Humor unless you can deal with the Danish Language, and with how the Danes use their language to do irony." I have spent probably as much time as Brecht in Denmark, and much more of that time not speaking English -- and learning how to do Irony is half of learning Danish. I have minor ability in Labor language, Lolland Farmer's language, and North Jyllandish Baker language. Brecht was right -- and the Danes have a right to their irony in cartoons. I agree it was a little stupid and all, but I grant them the linguistic right. To deny would be like telling Americans that Abbot and Costello jokes are out of bounds. Brecht wrote Roundheads and Pinheads while in Danish Exile -- read it and you will get a glimpse of the irony he incorporated. There is a bit of it in Mother Courage. The film "Babbets Feast" also suggests much. Try reading a Peter Hoeg (put a slash through the o) novel and you will perhaps comprehend. Perhaps 5+ million folk can do the language, but it and the culture have been around perhaps 4000 years. Old Jysk is one of the roots of modern English. So don't dismiss the irony and humor out of hand. Now I am not defending the humor content in the cartoons -- I am defending the Danes right to make cartoons and laugh at them.

While I appreciate Sara's overall point that Islamist cultural extremism should be taken seriously, I don't find her anecdote to constitute a convincing argument that the actual threat is as dire as she seems to suggest. Speaking strictly for myself as a person of color in America, I find racism from Christian Americans to be more of an everyday threat than Sharia. Furthermore, I agree with Marky that the Danish cartoons are a bad example of "defending the Enlightenment".

Sure, the Danes should ideally be able to publish any damn thing they want, but get real. Here in liberal New York City, art exhibitions have been shut down in recent years because of their supposedly offensive depictions of Christian subject matter, without much blogospheric hullabaloo that I ever saw. I'm just curious: was Sara equally vehement in defending these works from their Christian censors?

What's especially silly is that these particular works were in fact reverent, intended to spiritually elevate. Imagine the "enlightened Western" response to depictions as purposefully hurtful and offensive as the Danish cartoons; say, a photographic-quality image of Jesus Christ sodomizing the Virgin Mary or ejaculating on her face. A cartoonist might say the purpose of such a work would be to explore the hypocrisy of Christian prohibitions against sex in a culture where sexual deviance is widespread. I'm pretty sure you'd see an uproar in American streets vaguely equivalent to the Muslim uproar over the Danish cartoons.

I'm not saying that the crushing bigotry that Sara witnessed during her travels in South Asia aren't real and worth addressing. But the reality is that patriarchal violence and cultural intolerance aren't strictly Islamic problems; and getting rid of them in one's own tribe and region go a long way toward showing that one's preaching to foreign tribes and regions amount to more than well-meaning paternalism.


No link to the Digby post in question?

this is a most interesting post with, as usual, fine illustration of sara's points.

my interest is in the first half of her column - about the cartoons.

my view is that the danes had every right to draw and the danish newspaper every right to publish every one of those cartoons.

furthermore, they had every right, though they did no such thing, to have published the bogus "danish" cartoons that were used to inflame the muslim world by muslim relgio-political operatives.

whether european enlightenment or (u.s.) first-amendment-style political philosophy,

drawing and publishing cartoons on political, religious, or ethnic subjects is an intellectual right for an individual and a necessity for healthy political systems.

and tolerating such cartoons, (or other efforts at political expression) is incumbent on every civilized society.

such tolerance does, in my view, encompass verbal counterattacks but it does not encompass rioting, economic sanction, or threats to life - not that human nature will ever forswear these handy non-verbal means of "resolving" differences.

in particular, the right of political expression, in my view, should not be held hostage to the sensitivities and opinions of those whom that expression seeks to criticize or lampoon, or, even, misrepresent.

while the danish cartoons matter was playing out, i read very little mention of the salmon rushdie affair. but british author rushdie had to exist with a british body guard in hiding for several years because he was deemed to have spoken rudely about prophet Mohamed by some self-appointed muslim man-god.

recently, both prof juan cole and profs john mearsheimer and stephen walt have been attacked, not for cartoons, of course, but for positions they took on various aspects of the israel v. the arab world conflict.

if there are places where the slippery slope argument truly applies, this matter of tolerating physical or economic, rather than verbal, attack on personal political expression, qualifies as one of those.

attacking the writer rather than the writing is a slippery slope down which, in times of intense political conflict, freedom of individual expression can slide quickly.

and then can stay suppressed for decades afterward - that is the lesson of the soviet union with regard to political AND cultural writing.

and it is the lesson in the fiction of "1984".

in the danish cartoons conflict,
in my view, american newspapers, who love to prance around on the first amendment stage whenever it suits their economic or professional purposes, behaved reprehensibly in refusing to publish even some of the cartoons or to discuss them in a two-sided manner.

the newspaper response, a lot of insincere tsk tsk-ing about differing religions and values, was cross-cultural sensitivity turned into the camp art of political correctness.

in the weblog world as well, the only published comment i ran across which attacked muslim intolerance and political manipulation head on was a column by "morby" at the "carpet bagger report".

no doubt there were others as direct but they were infrequent enough that i missed them.

if we don't laugh at extremism, laugh at religion and other ridiculous notions of primitive culture, we will not grow as a species. Hell, we won't even make it out of the bronx.
no matter what religion, no, it is not funny. It is a matter of derision. One can't understand reality until one gives up fantasy. You certainly can't argue the point, because it becomes specious when you argue points that have no merit, no fact.

religion does not equal "values" It is only a means to make money and influence others. It is a way to justify one's own point of view only. It serves no purpose but as a collective group of people. I suggest that any activity that involves religion, is hiding behind unspeakable reasons. Sometimes as simple as a group of people trying to do good for their community. Sometimes it is a group trying to inflict their will on their community. Until the latter is no longer a factor, it tarnishes all the others with it.

too bad learning is abandoned so early in so many places in this world. What is the average, 3rd grade education? which now means 2nd grade education in our country due to no child left behind. no learning, just not left behind.

because of the pure stupidity involved with selective reasoning, I don't feel qualified to discuss the matter. I admit it. I can't understand religion, and don't want it screwing with me or mine. must I leave this country to find one that isn't controlled by the insane?

One more time: Sara, please provide a link to the Digby post which prompted this post.

Or change the title of the post.


I like most of what you say, but I tend to think it's a bit academic and therefore out of touch in a couple of ways.

First of all, I saw an overwhelming majority of liberal bloggers defending the publication of the Danish cartoons and, like you, condemning American newspapers for not running them. However, I never really bought most of these defenses because they didn't sufficiently grasp the dynamic at play. Almost all Westerners appeared to believe that Muslims found the cartoons offensive because of archaic religious sensitivities, whereas my understanding is that the real offense was caused by the modern-day political context in which the cartoons appeared. In other words, at a time when Western Christian nations were bombing, invading, and occupying Muslim countries (to say nothing of the grinding everyday violence that Christian imperialism has wrought on the world), it seemed outrageous to single out Muslims as uniquely violent barbarians. The apparent blindness of Westerners to their own hypocritical double-standard was the thing that really got people around the world worked up (and not just Muslims, mind you, most of my friends and family in Asia were also offended, though not on religious grounds).

To put it another way, I suppose that what has been left unexamined in Western critiques like yours is the fundamental asymmetry in power that serves as a backdrop to this cross-cultural dialogue. On the one hand are people who are impoverished, oppressed, subject to daily humiliations and a life of hopeless injustice as they watch their loved ones suffer and die. On the other hand are people whose cushy lives of luxury are unimaginable to most of the world, whose daily struggles involve things like losing weight and parking their SUVs, and who control the world's biggest armies and biggest media voices. Naturally, when push comes to shove, the former group will end up finding whatever desperate vehicles it can get its hands on to express the wrenching agony of its own powerlessness, while the latter will sit back to ponder the most philosophically appropriate modes of civilized discourse. This asymmetry of power is as important to understanding the Danish cartoon protests as any other factor. The inability of most Westerners to see this disparity dramatically underscores the point.

Of course, this is in no way a defense of violence as a way to settle political differences, whether that violence is perpetrated by Islamist extremists or Western armies. I'm only saying that if we are to move the cross-cultural dialogue forward, in a progressive direction, and thus hope to avoid more violence, we can't conveniently ignore crucial aspects of what's happening.


One of the images painted in Sara's commentary about mores with respect to sexuality recalled my own shock early in grad school delving into some new authors in a country in southern Europe in a literary epoch defined commonly as romanticism. Before beginning what later would be a lifelong effort to contemplate the very few works which attained worldwide recognition from that land's writers, in our course on romanticism we learned that the renaissance values which were so novel to the romanticists incorporated rejection of such macho themes as men ending a female relative's life for what the romanticists coyly characterized 'as having been dishonored'. Mention of anthropologic factors could illuminate the context better, but I leave those to a separate discussion. What seemed relevant was the existence on European soil of such a repressive tradition. Societies utilize organized bodies of purportedly spiritual teachings to justify mores, occasionally as some kind of politicized personal, introspective ethics rather than a true exploration of the human condition, which we share. I am glad Sara's narrative developed the topic in various ways here.

Interesting comments here -- a few responses.

I would agree that preaching "at" another tribe or culture probably achieves little -- but I focus on the Arabs the Afghani women with Doris Lessing met in 1984-85 as probably the early core of al-Qaeda because until that tea at Dean's hotel in Peshawar, I was not aware of how the cultural scene was interpreted by Afghani women who had migrated to London, and achieved sufficient cultural integration so as to be medical personnel within the British National Health Service. I think their take on the condition of their sisters in the Refugee Camps is not really preaching. In fact they were horrified by what they found.

Yes I am more than aware of the Salman Rushdie matter. I was teaching at the U at the time, and part of a faculty group that sponsored a monthly book review group at lunchtime -- and when it all blew up, I volunteered to do a public review of Satanic Verses as well as other Rushdie works -- I still think Midnight's Children is his best work. It got wierd -- both the Muslim Students Organization and the Jewish Defense League sent folk -- though neither had previously engaged in book discussions on campus. The U actually sent a couple of security types just in case it got out of hand. It didn't -- I contended then (as now) that you can't intelligently discuss a book unless you first read it, and fist pumping slogans about wanting to burn the book and author don't count.

All this would not matter much if both Rushdie and the Cartoonists -- and the folk who worked at the WTC had not become cultural symbols attracting murder. I would suggest this is why we need to understand it, and consider how to defend something I believe profoundly important -- the Enlightenment. I certainly agree that within the Christian fold there are close minded and bigoted groups -- but there are also some decidedly not so -- remember in the US we have over 400 brands of Christianity. Religion was used to justify slavery and it was also one root for the Abolitionist Movement. Due to the Enlightenment we have these contradictions.

The fact that you may have a RIGHT to do something does not in and of itself mean that in any and all situations it is a good idea to do it. Even if you are sure you have a right, you still have to apply prudential reasoning to the particular circumstances to decide whether it's really good to do it in those circumstances.
When all hell breaks loose, and you argue that, after all, you had the RIGHT to do it, it's an irrelevant argument. The answer is -- okay, you had the right, BUT WHY DID YOU DO IT?

So far as the Danish newspaper goes, it is worth noting that their staff had previously considered publishing cartoons satirical of Christianity but decided not to do so on the grounds that it might be offensive to some readers (i.e. that, as a conservative newspaper, read by Danish conservatives, they might lose money if they did this :-) Doesn't say a lot for their steadfast devotion to freedom of expression, and Enlightenment principles, now does it?

Jihad has two meanings -- one, the understood notion of human perfectability attained through self examination and criticism, but the other, and the one that should concern us, is the idea that man can judge man (or know the mind of God) and kill in the name of perfection.

Actually, I believe that this is quite a distortion of the second definition of jihad. Here, "physical jihad" is defined this way:

. . . The use of physical force in defense of Muslims against oppression and transgression by the enemies of Allah, Islam and Muslims. . . The defensive nature of physical jihad (or "jihad with the hand") is frequently lost among many, Muslims, Christians, secularists and others.

Sara, you may have met Muslims in Afghanistan who were dangerously bigoted about women. Some of these men may have seen Afghan women who sought to expand women's roles in Afghanistan as a threat to Islam, and responded with what they might consider jihad. That is a very far cry from saying that those same men would consider jihad against the US because of the behavior of American women here.

If you read the al-Qaeda bill of particulars against us, it has to do almost entirely with our actions in Muslim countries. Looking at who has troops stationed in whose countries; who interferes in whose internal politics; who claims rights over whose oil, it is hard to avoid the fact that it has been we who have been in their faces, not vice versa.

The notion that Muslims are lusting to come here and take over our countries, or had the slightest chance of doing so even if they wanted, is complete nonsense.

That's not to say that there aren't problems and injustices in Muslim countries. There certainly are.

Sara, I would also like to see a link to the Dibgy post that inspired this thread.

BTW, I do consider al-Qaeda to be dangerous. However, the greatest risk we face is from blowback from our own behavior. I think that with a few nonviolent policy changes we could basically win the misnamed "War on Terror".

It would appear that the Digby post referred to is this one, in which Peter Beinert's ludicrous proposition that the radical Islamists are as dangerous to us and as central to this era as Communism was to the post-WWII Cold War era (you remember communist countries, the ones that controlled enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over and maintained large standing armies) is quite properly ridiculed.

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