Friday, May 14, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: Response to Annika

Before plunging into a very dark subject that is highly relevant to my field of study, I need to show you this series of photos, first highlighted by Satan's Anus. The resemblance to me and my meaty face is uncanny.

And now-- forward into the religious morass.

The video of Nick Berg's beheading (I finally saw it, and yes, it's pretty damn disturbing) has circulated the Internet. It's been highlighted as a response to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal: "If you think our troops were bad, don't forget how bad these people can be." It's probably true that the Berg video will, in some measure, counteract the mound of negative press surrounding the prisoner scandal. It'll provide ammunition for those arguing against the moral equivalence of our actions in Iraq and the actions of the terrorists-- or the moral equivalence of our respective goals.

Annika's recent post about religion and Nick Berg takes us step by step through every moment of the beheading. She asks in horror whether we would be capable of such a thing. Here's what she writes:

Cutting through a fellow human's neck while they're still alive, with a knife, means slicing down through skin, severing arteries and veins, loosing a torrent of pulsing blood, sawing back and forth through thick muscle and tendon, crunching through the hollow, wheezing, screaming windpipe, hitting bone and disk, sawing again, pushing down, hearing it crunch, pop, putting your weight into it, slicing through the spinal cord, watching the body go limp, gripping the handle tight in all the slippery blood, sliding the blade through the last cords of muscle and tendon, blade striking the floor, watching the head roll forward, now just an inanimate object, though its eyes are open, then raising it, still warm, up to the camera.

Could you do that? Can you imagine the mind of someone who could? i simply can't fathom that kind of evil.

They chanted to Allah while they sliced off an innocent man's head.

Annika can't fathom how anyone could do this, but one of her commenters wrote:

Honestly? You want the truth? If the people I was decapitating were the five fucks from that video, not only do I think I could do it -- I think I could do it with a dull pen knife. Really.

I think a lot of us feel the same way. I know I do.

Annika doesn't say only this, though. Her larger point is indicated by her post's title: "This Is Not A Religious War Bullshit." Annika argues that this is indeed a religious war, and she provides evidence, such as the captors' chanting to Allah as Berg's head was removed, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into World War I by declaring jihad.

Whom is Annika addressing when she argues this way? Is Annika trying to convince us that we should also be thinking of this as a war between religions?

If so, this is not how the conflict is generally conceived-- by either side. The Muslim fight is not specifically against Christianity. It is, if scholars like Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington are to be believed, a conflict between Islam and the West. Lewis notes that this division is problematic: Islam is a religion and a culture; the West is an amalgam of many religions and cultures (including Islam). This may at least partially explain why there are so many debates about whom, exactly, we're fighting. If this were a clear, settled issue, there'd be no debate.

Annika herself waxes extremely religious in this post. Here's what she says:

You can say this is not a religious war. You can say that God, assuming you believe in Him, doesn't take sides in a war. i say bullshit. God will deal with these unholy bastards. They will die someday, as all men must, and they will be shocked when they are finally confronted with His just punishment. His divine retribution. i pray too, that the United States will become the instrument of their death.

It seems Annika's claiming this is a religious conflict on all sides. If that's her claim, I disagree. But if Annika is merely stating her own convictions, letting us into her head to see how she personally views this conflict, then she's on solid ground. After all, a Christian (Annika's Catholic) is likely to see things through a Christian filter. That's to be expected.

But what does an American Jew see when they look at the Berg video, or at Islamic terrorism in general? What do American atheists see? Being Jewish or atheist or Buddhist doesn't prevent you from employing the language of good and evil. It's appropriate language when viewing something as horrific as the Berg video. But are we all seeing the same thing as we watch this conflict unfold?

One thing we can all agree on is that this is something big. The scope of the conflict is enormous. Who, at this point, can afford to claim noninvolvement? My buddy the Air Marshal, who's been posting up a storm recently, notes that conflict always seems present on the geographic borders of Islamdom. Islam, on the whole, "does not play well with others," as he puts it. This in turn leads to the vital question of whether Islam is inherently this way.

Readers of this blog already know my answer: no. There is nothing inevitable about the connection between Islam and violence. To argue for its inevitability is to argue that Muslims are not people with the freedom to choose how they act-- i.e., they're animals, not human. Annika calls Berg's killers "brute animals." I understand her emotion, but disagree with the statement's content. No: these people did what they did freely and consciously, and this makes them accountable.

Note what I did not say: I did not say there is no connection between Islam and violence. After all, we have a huge historical record chronicling Islam's violent history, starting with the life story of The Prophet himself. My contention is that there's nothing inevitable about the Islam/violence connection. If we hold Muslims accountable for their actions, we affirm their humanity, thereby affirming both their freedom and their responsibility.

Herbert Fingarette, in his little book on Confucianism, notes that the term "responsibility" has two major senses:

1. simply being the locus of action
2. being a free, accountable agent

If an animal kills a family member, we can say the animal is "responsible" in the sense that we can point a finger at that particular animal. That one did it. That's the first sense of the term. We don't apply sense (2) to animals-- i.e., it's difficult for us to blame an animal for acting like an animal. The same is often true for the insane: we offer justifications like, "He doesn't know what he's doing," etc.

Can we afford to think that way about Islamic terrorism? I think not. These folks don't need to be let off the hook by being called "animals" or "crazy." We tarnish our own cause when we dehumanize them. We also have to avoid applying extreme labels to Islam as a whole, because that simply muddies the issue. With over one billion Muslims in the world, most of whom are not engaged in violent acts, it should be obvious that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the accusation that Islam is only about war. This doesn't eliminate the need to deal with certain crucial issues, the two most pressing being (1) the question of "Muslims moderates," who they are and what "Muslim moderation" means; and (2) the question of how to incorporate a secularist sensibility into Muslim public thought and rhetoric.

If people want to talk about root causes, they need to look deeper than the pat answers of "Islamic terrorism" and "Muslim fundamentalism." We are involved in a war of the mind. Violence has its role in such a war, but if our ultimate goal is to reach a state where violence is minimal, then we have to find paths that eventually lift us out of the cycle of violence. Dismissing the enemy as animals or crazy isn't the best strategy. The same goes for dismissing Islam as a whole.

Know your target, and stay cold about it.


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