Monday, April 11, 2011

Disproportionate Response?

Recent event surrounding the alleged burning of a Qur'an (Koran) by an American political activist in Florida illustrate the dynamics of response to various cultural stimuli.

Terry Jones burned a copy of the Islamic text as a political statement. Debate continues about whether his action was good or evil. In either case, however, his deed falls into a context of public burning: in Islamic countries, flags and Bibles are often publicly burned as an expression of intense hatred toward other cultures. America and Europe have long chosen the tactic of not reacting, or under-reacting, to this hatred. We do see or hear protest or outcry every time an American flag is burned in a Muslim nation, or when a Bible is defaced, desecrated, or otherwise dishonored. The non-Islamic world sees such actions as expression of thought, which - however distasteful - our notion of freedom allows.

By contrast, one single instance of a burning Qur'an is met with an amazing level of response in the Islamic nations. Dozens of people were killed in rioting, and Hamid Karzai demanded that the U.S. government punish Terry Jones for exercising his symbolic freedom of speech. Indeed, Karzai went to great efforts to ensure that his Afghani subjects were informed, in detail, about both the burning and Karai's response to it. (Whether Karzai acted out of Islamic piety or personal political calculation remains an open question.)

As the Special Assistant to the President and White House Communications Director noted, many Muslims

believe beheading or stoning is the right response to an insult to Islam. And not only that.

Residents of Islamic nations who embrace Christianity face

the death penalty for apostasy and was forced to flee his own country. In some Muslim countries, death is the prescribed punishment for Muslims who convert, for Christians who seek converts and for any who insult Islam.

Remember that "insult" here includes political cartoons in newspapers, or making of documentary films about Islamic culture's treatment of women. Specifically, the former refers to Danish sketches made in 2005 (an order was given for the artist to be executed by assassins); the latter refers to the murder of artist and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. In these cases, the principle is that Islamic culture sees killing as an appropriate response to words or symbolic actions, while non-Islamic cultures respond to words and symbolic actions with opposing words and symbolic actions. The one response is disproportionate, the other proportionate and in kind.

Stoning is also seen as proper punishment for women who commit adultery. In Pakistan recently, the governor of Punjab and the Cabinet minister for religious minorities, both Catholics, were assassinated. Why? Both had opposed a law under which a Christian woman had been sentenced to death after some farmhands accused her of blasphemy. The governor was murdered by his own bodyguard, who was then hailed by 500 religious scholars who urged all Muslims to boycott the governor’s funeral ceremony, as he had gotten what he deserved. In the last two years, Christians have been burned alive by Muslims in Pakistan, and by Hindu extremists in India. Christian churches have been torched and scores of the faithful massacred on holy days in Iraq and Egypt. Few of these atrocities have received

significant media attention. A second principle comes into play: words and symbolic actions in non-Islamic cultures are scrutinized in the public media, while no questions are raised about the propriety of words or actions in Muslim nations. An American who burns a Qur'an is subject, at the least, to intense analysis and public rebuke, while deaths and death-threats in Islamic nations pass with little notice.

Which brings us to a re-examination of the idea that America can help bring democracy to the Middle East. First, we might ask if this is possible. Second, if it is possible, would these nations use democracy to elect governments which restrict freedom rather than expand it?