Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The True Outrage

A recent Newsweek article said that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had desecrated copies of the Quran—the Islamic holy book--in order to provoke detainees into disclosing information about terrorist activity. Muslims in several nations responded with violent protests and riots that have resulted in the deaths of at least 15 people. Even after Newsweek retracted this story because of insufficient evidence, the protests continue, and the Pakistani information minister chided Newsweek by saying, “Just an apology is not enough. They should think 101 times before publishing news that hurts hearts." Meanwhile, the top Muslim authority in Saudi Arabia condemned the alleged desecration and urged a full inquiry "to alleviate the sorrow that befell Muslims."

I agree that news media should be extremely careful about reporting such predictably inflammatory stories. They should not rush to publish these stories unless and until they are sure of their facts and sources. I don’t know why Newsweek printed a story that they later deemed unsupportable. Did they print a false story because they succumbed to the pressure of being first with the ‘big scoop’? Or did they print a true story that they later retracted because of government pressure?

But what’s more interesting to me is the Muslim reaction. Are Muslims justified in feeling so upset by this unconfirmed story that they rage and riot in the streets? If so, why? Is almighty Allah truly harmed if someone, and a non-believer at that, flushes a copy of the Quran down the toilet? If he is, how mighty a god is he? Is Islam truly harmed by this act? If so, how legitimate a religion is it? Are Muslims truly harmed by it? Does it undermine their faith in Islam or Allah? How so? If Allah is just as mighty, Islam just as legitimate, and a Muslim’s faith just as strong whether some non-believing American interrogator flushes or doesn’t flush a copy of the Quran down the toilet, why all the violent upset and outrage?

I might be accused of applying too much rational commonsense to something—religion—that is more a matter of the heart than of the mind. But it seems to me that religion in general and Islam in particular need to effect a wiser and more wholesome balance of head and heart than we see throughout the Middle East and much of the entire world.

I’m not suggesting that religious people should never feel upset or even outraged. But it seems to me that they should feel far more upset and outraged over seeing human beings gleefully beheaded and blown to bloody shreds in the name of their god and faith than in seeing a book flushed down the toilet. A book can easily be replaced. A human life cannot. The interrogator’s alleged act reflects mainly on the weakness of his own character that it could be so lacking in regard and respect for another person’s faith and feelings. But a fatwah against the likes of Salman Rushdie, a brutal beheading of a journalist accompanied by joyful cries of “Allah O Akbar (God is great),” or the incineration of a bus filled with innocent schoolchildren is a far uglier reflection on the character of the person who carries it out or endorses it because it displays abject disregard, disrespect, and even hatred for the precious sacredness of a human life and for the redemptive capacity of that life. And what casts a religion in a worse light—flushing a copy of its bible down the toilet or barbarously murdering people and celebrating these murders in its and its god’s name? How many turn away from or even condemn religion in general and Islam in particular over the former compared to the latter?

Many Muslims need to grow up. Many Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and people of other faiths also need to grow up and value love, compassion, and respect for all humankind more than they do printing on paper and blind adherence to dogma. Until then, they limit themselves and dishonor their faith in the eyes of growing numbers of people such as myself. In today’s world, the greatest enemy to any faith is not the scornful non-believer, but the violently fanatical ‘defender of the faith.’

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