The West's contempt for religion

Posted in Broader Middle East | 01-Jun-05 | Author: Aijaz Zaka Syed| Source: International Herald Tribune

Muslims hold Korans and chants anti-U.S. slogans during a rally in Lahore.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Pundits and editorial writers in the West appear genuinely perplexed by the stunning Muslim response to reports of the desecration of the Koran. They don't say it in so many words, but it's clear that the intensity of the expressions of outrage from Morocco to Malaysia has left the West bewildered and wondering: "What's wrong with this community? How can a passing reference to a small incident involving the Book make it so angry?"

The trouble is, the secular West can never truly understand or empathize with the Muslim approach to faith. A majority of Muslims continue to believe that their all-encompassing faith should and must be the guide in all aspects of their life, as it is sent by Allah for the benefit of all mankind and to serve as the eternal source of guidance for all time to come.

On the other hand, the West, or Christendom, has developed a robust skepticism, or contempt if you please, for all things religious. Nothing viewed as sacred by the rest of the world is sacred anymore in Western eyes.

If a majority in the Christian West have over the centuries developed a disconcerting disillusionment with their faith and today sees faith in general as the private affair of an individual that, at best, should remain restricted to the four walls of the local place of worship, the Christian church itself is to blame.

The church's excessive control over its flock during the oppressive centuries leading up to the European Renaissance (remember the Spanish Inquisition? Or how the church persecuted Galileo Galilei for his scientific beliefs?) and its unreasonable opposition to all scientific inquiry and quest for knowledge generated a popular backlash. As a result, much of Western society banished the church forever from its life and day-to-day existence. More important, this hopeless conflict left a deep distrust and contempt for all religions in the Western mind that remains far from shaken.

This is why Western society is not appalled when its religion and all that symbolizes it are openly ridiculed and lampooned. Few eyebrows are raised in the West when Jesus or his mother, Mary, are derided by new prophets of pop culture. Few feel offended if a semi-clad Madonna flaunting a cross writhes on the floor suggestively. There were no protests in the Western street when movies like "The Exorcist" had the devil worshippers defiling the cross and denigrating Jesus. These things are by and large ignored in the West as part of so-called artistic freedom or freedom of expression.

In Muslim society, though, even the suggestion of such rude references to faith or to those who preach it would amount to sacrilege.

The West can never truly comprehend how much pain and anguish an irreverent reference to the Prophet and the Book he brought can inflict on the faithful. Reverence for faith and all that's associated with it is an essential and fundamental part of Muslim belief and psyche. And this respect is not limited to the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad but extends to all messengers of God and all divine scriptures.

Unless the West seeks to understand this, it can never appreciate why Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" brought Muslims out on the streets around the world. Or why the Afghans braved police gunfire last month in Kabul to protest the outrage against the Koran in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

But even assuming the American soldiers at Guantánamo Bay were not aware of Muslim sensitivities, it is hard to interpret the Koran's desecration as the careless act of ignorant GIs. How many times will the U.S. authorities blame such outrageous acts on a "few rotten apples"? From Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo Bay - there is an endless trail of rotten apples. The whole basket, it seems, is affected by the rot.

Whatever Washington's explanation, this is certainly no way to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds. If this is what President George W. Bush had in mind when he promised "human liberty and democracy" to the people in Muslim lands, the Islamic world would be better off without America's gifts. Thanks but no thanks.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is opinion editor of The Khaleej Times in Dubai.)