Religion & Other Curiosities
What should I say about the Middle East?
Published on: October 10, 2012
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  • WigWag

    “One question repeatedly asked these days is how a poorly made film, which may not even exist beyond a trailer lasting less than fifteen minutes, could arouse violent demonstrations in some twenty countries and threaten the stability of the entire Muslim world. The results have been staggering, leading to many deaths, including that of an American ambassador, and threatening the collapse of US policy throughout the region. It is clear that the film, such as it is, portrays Muhammad in a very insulting manner and must greatly offend Muslim believers.” (Peter Berger)

    A corollary to the question proposed by Professor Berger is why are Jews and Christians able to abide insults to religious figures that they venerate while a nontrivial number of Muslims are unable or unwilling to exercise the same self control?

    It’s not like iconic Jewish and Christian religious figures are not constantly being abused. A few years ago, the American photographer, Andres Serrano incited outrage with his photograph entitled “Piss Christ” that show showed a crucifix immersed in human urine. Outrage there was aplenty but no one died and there was no violence. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic depictions of a highly sexualized Christ never resulted in violence either.

    How often have Christian and Jewish religious figures been lampooned in satirical fashion? Mel Brooks’ depiction of Moses from “History of the World Part One” was hardly flattering. See for yourself,

    Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a send-up of the life of Jesus, wasn’t particularly flattering either. No pious Christian could help but take offence at this scene,

    The list of violence emerging from the contemporary Islamic world as a result of perceived slights to religious figures is long and growing. It’s not just the recent incident; before that it was the Danish cartoons which satirized Muhammad. Prior to the cartoon incident it was the assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Travel a few years further back and it was the Fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie for the publication of his fascinating book, “The Satanic Verses.” Let’s not forget the threats against the life of Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk for authoring the book “Snow” which was a fictional account of the “head-scarf” issue in Turkey or the nearly successful assassination attempt against Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Nagib Mafouz, author of the remarkable “Cairo Trilogy.”

    It’s not just artists, authors and filmmakers who are victims. Splashed across the pages of today’s New York Times and Washington Post is the story of a 14 year old girl shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to promote the right of girls to go to school.

    It’s not entirely clear what to make of all of this and it is certainly unclear what the best strategy is for dealing with it. But what is clear is that the assurance of progressive pundits and the intellectual gliteratti that the problem is limited to a tiny percentage of the world’s Muslims and thus the entire thing can be swept under the rug just doesn’t cut it.

    Personally, I don’t think Professor Berger’s explanation cuts it either. Yes the Hebrew Bible is several millennia older than the Koran and yes there has been more time for Jewish ecclesiastical authorities to temper some of the Bible’s most extreme recommendations but Islam is not exactly a young religion. Muhammad died almost 14 centuries ago. Shouldn’t 14 centuries be long enough for a moral imperative to take hold that people shouldn’t be murdered in the most bloodthirsty manner for who they are and what they say?

    Many commentators have pointed out that like Islamic history, ancient Jewish history and recent Christian history is filled with its fair share of barbarity; this is certainly true. My question is why so many Western commentators who look with disgust on some of the barbaric behavior committed by the Christian world even just a few decades ago are so willing to make excuses for the barbarity that characterizes too much of the contemporary Islamic world. What could be more telling than the fact that secular American progressives who can barely hide their disgust at the views of some Christian conservatives on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues head for the exits as soon as the topic comes up of Islamic violence directed Christians, Jews and those viewed as Muslim apostates?

    Actually, it’s even worse than that; all too often these critics insist that we sweep the whole sad story under the rug. They insist on averting their own eyes but to their great shame, they also insist that everyone else avert their eyes as well. Those unwilling to do so are characterized as bigots.

    Unfortunately for these commentators, their views are becoming less and less consequential.

  • Well, if you worry about not being provocative enough, I can assure you that personally, I find it quite provocative that you manage to write a longish post wondering what you should say about religion in the Middle East, without even touching on what mainstream Muslim clerics such as the “Global Mufti” Qaradawi have to say about divinely ordained jihad – esp. of the anti-Jewish variety.

  • “The results have been staggering, leading to many deaths, including that of an American ambassador, and threatening the collapse of US policy throughout the region.”

    This is not true. The State Department’s experts now admit that the attack was coordinated terrorism, not a spontaneous response to a film.

    It appears that at least some portion of our liberal democratic institutions have been vulnerable to precisely the influences they were supposed to mitigate against, not mirror. If defense against barbarism lies in the institution of liberal democracy, this is a very big problem for us.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Dr. Berger’s provocative first hand observations and comments about the Middle East are a welcome counterpoint to so much typecasting by some conservative American scholars of Muslims as terrorists out to revive the Crusades.

    At the risk of going off on a tangent from Berger’s column, one of the more recent attempts to address some of the issues Berger raises is William T. Cavanaugh’s book “The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict” (Oxford U., 2009). Cavanaugh says the categorization of traditional religion as irrational, divisive, and dangerous and secular society as a rational peacemaker is an artificial social construction (borrowing from Berger’s social construction theory).

    Cavanaugh states that secular societies also manufacture enemies, namely Muslims, because Muslims refuse to separate public religion and politics as we do in modern society. Cavanaugh says traditionally religious societies are not more violent than secular ideologies and institutions.

    To Cavanaugh the “Middle East War” is often “justified not merely on behalf of oil and freedom,” or “on the basis of a millenarian (apocalyptic) reading of Christian scriptures,” but on the secular basis of nationalism to eradicate Muslims who do not accept the modern separation of church and state. He finds anti-religious wars fought to stamp out displays of public religion (Sharia, etc.) to be no better than religious wars. But he says most religious wars were myths created by secularists in the first place to grab power away from religion.

    Cavanaugh goes to war against the modernity notion that it is justified to go to war to make the world safe for secularism. If I understand Cavanaugh correctly, he believes we must do away with the artificial construction of the separation of religion and politics. He asserts there is a moral equivalence between modernity and traditionalism. Neither is better than the other. The only exception to Cavanaugh is traditional societies offer thicker and stronger institutions of personal and familial morality than the thin or anti-institutionalist structures of modern societies. Cavanaugh sees strong moral institutions as a place for both Christians and Muslims to breach the divide between religious and the secular societies. But strong religious institutions have also have a proclivity toward fundamentalism.

    I believe Dr. Berger would remind us that it is the separation of the public and private spheres that makes up the modern world and its worldviews. And this private-public separation breeds pluralistic conceptions of morality. So how would the religious-secular divide be patched by monistic conceptions of morality is problematic to Cavanaugh’s thesis.

    Cavanaugh’s view could also be seen as ersatz Marxism that infers that the powerless (Muslims or proletarians) are victims of wars by modern secular elites (Capitalists, oil, etc.).

    But neither is the American “War on Terror” a war against traditional religious societies for “oil,” “secularism,” “Westernism,” “nationalism,” or “democracy as Cavanaugh wrongly asserts; nor is Islamic terrorism on the infidel U.S. a religious war, as Cavanaugh seems to more accurately assert.

    For a possibly more productive approach to the dilemma of religious fundamentalism versus equally fanatic modern relativism I would suggest reading two of Prof. Berger’s books: “The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics” and his “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions Without Being Fanatic.”

    I apologize if I have taken readers off on a tangent. But I hope this also “says something” about what Berger has previously written about “the Middle East.”

  • Really, this is very strange.

    It appears that that Berger has only found immense, empty, quiet religious space in or as mosques. But the same effect can be experienced in Christian cathedrals around the world,synagogues when prayers are not in session, Buddhist temples, etc.

    Since he touched on India, one of my strongest memories of India was the peace and quiet in a Buddhist temple, with a statue of Buddha at the end of a small reflecting pool.

    None of these peaceful scenes negates the fact that all these places have been, at various times, the location and often the source of extreme violence, often on the basis of extremist religious beliefs.

    The difference today is that most religions are, by and large past that phase of their development. Islam, unfortunately, is not.

  • Another problem with talking about religion in this context is a misunderstanding by Western Christians about what “religion” means in the Middle East. The one similar case in the West is that of Ireland, also sometimes misunderstood as having something to do with theology or confession.

    In the ME, your religion is your nationality. Since the end of the Ottoman empire in 1921, a modern, Western-based system of nation-states has been superimposed on this reality. These nation-states are under tremendous economic and political strain, and resurgent tribal-sectarian identities that make more sense to many ME people are ascending. Even traditionally stable and fairly secular nations like Turkey and Israel are facing multiple threats of this type, especially Turkey.

    None of this has ANYTHING to do with religious belief or theology, a strong bias that Western Christians have as a result of Christianity’s Hellenistic origins and modern position in secular, civil-law nation-states. ME countries have attempted secular nationalist solutions and, except for Israel, they’ve led to highly corrupt failures. Resurgent tribal-sectarianism is attractive as a replacement. But stop thinking of it as connected to theology, ethics, philosophy, or anything like that.

    In the case of groups like Turks, Jews, Persians, or Kurds, it’s possible to imagine nation-states that roughly match up “nations” with “states.” But in the rest of the ME, nationalism in the Western sense is recent and weak, and never stood much chance. Instead, tribal-sectarianism (think Lebanon) is a backward-looking but solid and reliable rock to stand on in the ME when it comes to personal and communal identity. That’s what’s going on in the ME, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • Anthony

    To supplement overriding essay’s theme, one may add that frictions and hurts come with being human; and the sentences “I think that, in the final analysis, this is a misleading question. The more basic question is why such murderous eruptions are not more frequent.” strike the mark. Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” provides analytic data and compelling voice to thrust of essay’s conclusion.

  • One example from today’s news:

    Egypt’s foremost Muslim Brotherhood official called on the Arab world Thursday to replace negotiations with Israel with “holy Jihad,” claiming that if Jews are allowed to pray on the Temple Mount they will destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and supplant it with the third temple.

    Mohammed Badie, Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared in a public message published by Egyptian daily Al-Ahram that “the Zionists only understand force,” and that Arabs cannot hope to achieve justice from the Jews “through the corridors of the United Nations or through negotiations.”

  • John Bragg

    Your case could be summarized as “Islam is a pretty good religion if you leave out the Muslims.”

    That may be true or may be false, but for our purposes is unimportant.

    Islam ain’t so bad, says you and says noted religious scholars Presidents George W Bush and Barak Obama. Islam is jihad, says the ayatollahs, says Al-Azhar University, says the Saudi ulema. Hmm, whose assertion carries more weight?

  • Gary Novak

    After 9/11, Bush was asked in London if he thought Muslims worship the same God as Christians. He said yes. The terrorists not only hijacked airliners but Islam, too. Others argue that the sword is an essential strain of Islam. Can the matter be settled by consulting the Koran? If it is no more inerrant than the Bible and is subject to interpretation, then the essence of Islam, like the essence of Christianity, can be found neither in Scriptures by themselves, nor history by itself but only in the “nexus” that is formed between tradition and experience. (I am, of course, again borrowing this idea of nexus from Berger’s “Questions of Faith.”) Ironically, the essence of Islam seems to be more in doubt just as the demand to know “whose side it’s on” peaks. Is it anti-modern? Anti-Western? In a post-9/11 sociology class, I once suggested that the Muslim world might be trying to modernize but not Westernize. That got an enthusiastic “Yes, yes, that fits!” from my Muslim student.

    But why not Westernize? Dinesh D’Souza (“The Enemy at Home,” 2007) sees an elective affinity between anti-Western Muslims and cultural conservatives at home. Cultural conservatives don’t like Western decadence any more than militant Muslims. Gay marriage, androgyny, safe sex education in elementary school, feminism, pornography, etc. are not popular in either group. But Berger points to an important difference when he notes that Westerners have liberal democratic institutions that keep our culture wars mostly cultural. A few leftists may blow up banks, and a few conservatives may blow up abortion clinics, but (Chomsky notwithstanding) the West does not engage in state-sponsored terrorism.

    D’Souza, then, wants to unpack “the West” a bit and argue that Muslims are offended not by colonialism, the heritage of the Crusades, support for dictatorial regimes, or many of the other possibilities offered. Their religious sensibilities are offended by the cultural left in America—which, in their view, is America, the Great Satan. Why, then, are conservatives (or neo-conservatives) more energetic in prosecuting the “war on terror” (a term D’Souza doesn’t like because terror is only a tactic and obscures the terrorists’ motives)? And why are leftists missing in action when it comes to opposing the Taliban’s real “war on women”? D’Souza argues that “of course” the left deplores what it sees as the illiberal values of all religion, but it regards the threat of Christian theocracy at home as a greater threat. As Wendy Kaminer put it, 9/11 was a [Bush-like] “faith-based initiative.”

    D’Souza, who grew up in India around many Muslims, agrees with Berger than most are moderate, not militant. I heard D’Souza give a talk at David Horowitz’s Freedom Center in Los Angeles shortly after his book came out, and one of the Jewish listeners asked why, if there are so many Muslim moderates, so few are speaking out against militancy. Because most Muslims—even the moderates—feel threatened by American (leftist) cultural imperialism. To use a sociological term, “Muslim” tends to be a “master status.” Even the moderates are “fundamentalists”—in the sense that they take their religion very seriously, and, in a situation where there is no separation of church and state, no separation of religion and life, violations of due process in going after the bad guys are not the first thing they notice. So, while not essentially bloodthirsty, a part of them cheers the collapse of the twin towers.

    There is no clash of civilizations between East and West, but there is a clash within both East and West. Muslim is clashing with Muslim when Pakistanis protest the Taliban attack on the 14-year old girl activist. American clashes with American when the government implements religiously offensive policies. And, as D’Souza points out, it’s a good thing that Muslims are human after all, because there are so many of them!

    So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Before answering, sit in an empty, silent, austere mosque.

  • Rao

    One correction regarding Hyderabad integration into India. Home Minister Sardar Patel was credited with the decision to send in the army against Nizam (not Maharaja) of Hyderabad. Prime Minister Nehru was on travel leaving Sardar Patel in Acting PM role. Being a Hyderabadi I felt compelled to offer this correction.

  • mel kreitzer

    “That there is today a dangerous spread of Islamic radicalism, but that it is not to be identified with the faith of most Muslims in the contemporary world, nor with what has been the core of Islam from its beginning. Most Muslims have no inclination toward violence, but rather find personal meaning and comfort in their religion.”

    But so what? This supposed minority aspect of Islamic violence can still result in the massive casualties inflicted on 9/11. And the prospects of a nuclear-style attack are hardly ameliorated by the thought that only a few Muslims might be likely to do this.
    Mr Bergen knows that he can be as critical as he likes about right-wing “Christianists” and Israeli settlers and never have to worry about his personal safety or even just his ability to get access into Israel. But this does not apply to the Islamic world. Do we have a (well-justified) vested interest here?

  • Haim

    “Beneficial influence of Christianity on Judaism”? Now I AM insulted.

  • Les Hardie

    The emptiness Berger finds in mosques clarifies the problem with Islam: their god never has, and never will, experience human life. He is utterly alien and remote. Like Aztec gods, allah does not love men; he will give gifts only when men obey and submit. Men cannot love a god so distant, so they lavish their love on Mohammed, who becomes as divine as Christ, despite all their protestations. This creates a schizophrenia which I think is behind Islamic homicidal rage.

  • RedWell

    Berger’s essential point here is that religion doesn’t matter. Institutions do. Liberal democracies are better able to air and channel grievances in a way that avoids violence. Fine, but I also think several of the commenters are pressing on an important point: why are institutions in contemporary Muslim states apparently very bad at this? Berger mentions Chinese nationalism, but in the end, as he says, those protests were not literally violent.

    Perhaps we need to parse out types of violence and mobilization: a generation ago, Latin America was plagued by violence, but it was tied to ideology more than relgion, so we didn’t get too worried about what it all might mean. In many regions of sub-Saharan Africa, violence remains a legitimate political tool of last resort. Still, in none of those places has minor slights to religion led to serious violence as it has in the Muslim world. Why? Political culture? Religious tradition?

    Answering these qeustions is important because the violence “sanctified”–which typically means we can expect longer duration and more suicidal violence than in other types of violence. It is also important because the grievances expressed are directed at the same liberal institutions Berger says will moderate violence.

  • jsmoe

    “In the modern world, which has a scarcity of benevolent despots…”

    ~Never worked in a corporation?

  • Peter Barlow

    Dear Mr Berger,
    I live in the ME. What I find surprising about so much comentary about the region is that writers do not compare it to other places. For example, Africa is hardly a beacon of stability, democracy, separation of church and state, or other modern “values”. Neither are some nations in South and Central America. Nor are some nations in the former Soviet Union. And yet, people talk about the ME as if it were some kind of unusual or exceptional place, because it hosts “conflicts”, “religious fanatics”, and other offending facts of life in most parts of the world.

    As a resident of the region I may say that it has its problems, like any region, but that such problems do not make it fascinatingly different from other places.

    Two years ago I was in India. People write that India is a coming nation, but from what I saw, it is just as problematic as the ME, but people do not write about it with that sense of fascinated awe, disappointment or pretended compassion and respect that they use when writing about the ME.

    Why is the ME so badly misunderstood, why do people make it so complicated, and what is the answer?


    Peter Barlow

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