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More Wisdom from Our Leaders

Today Senator Trent Lott told CNN, as he emerged from a meeting of Congressional Republicans with President Bush:

    It’s hard for Americans…including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people. Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.

This pretty much speaks for itself, but I do have a couple of things I want to say. First, the idea that “these people” have something inherently violent about them is unfortunately not unique to Senator Lott. A friend of mine from Prague wrote to me last spring, at the height of the controversy over the cartoons of the Prophet. Our exchange began with an innocent question:

    What do you think about the Palestine election result? Have you heard what a caricature in a Danish newsletter has caused? Ambiguous and complex problems, aren’t they?

I replied with a defense of the Arab and Islamic point of view in an e-mail that I will post later in its entirety. My friend responded that he largely agreed with me, but added this (I’ve cleaned up his English a bit):

    I don’t see the riots as a trait of Islam. I do believe that any religion is good and has roots based in human knowledge, showing the way of compassion…so I see it solely as a possible temperament of people living, by coincidence, in the Islamic area. I myself absolutely don’t care if someone a thousand kilometers away published that…my father or my son is a pedophile [or] serial killer. The feeling I might have could be scorn, but why even feel scorn? Nevertheless, okay, I can imagine that someone is highly indignant and protests. What point is there in burning down embassies and cars? Are you sure that only a handful of people are aggresive and that a majority of the demonstrations are peaceful? They say it on the TV news! I am very afraid that intolerance is prevailing among people in certain areas…. I would like to trust you because you’ve been living close…but then why are the two branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shias, fighting in Iraq among themselves these days? Why do they kill themselves…? Why are they bombing their own ancient mosques? Are you sure that…only a few people do these things, and the rest are not insane?

I made three main points in reply.

First, what we see in the Western media is a selective presentation of events through Western eyes. In many ways we see what we want to see. When Western journalists go to the Middle East, they look for images of bearded men holding rifles in the air, marching in funeral processions or setting embassies on fire. Meanwhile, people going about their daily lives, sending their kids to school, sitting in cafes or going shopping, don’t make the evening news. “Egyptian Housewives Indifferent to Cartoon Controversy” isn’t a story. So the journalists keep looking until they find what they’re looking for.

Second, there is certainly violence in Iraq, most of it between Shiias and Sunnis, though increasingly it is random with no logic at all. Apparently an average of 60 people a day have been dying in recent months. I pointed out to my friend that none of this would be happening if the U.S. hadn’t destroyed Saddam’s Baathist state which, however oppressive it may have been, was at least providing security. I explained that the Iraqi army and police have been infiltrated by death squads that go into the homes of their enemies and drag them away. Meanwhile there are private militias, some supporting the state as the Sadrists do, others opposing it as the Sunni resistance does, still others looking out for themselves in the tradition of armed gangs. So the situation in Iraq is about as bad as can be imagined, but I’m not sure what this has to do with being Arab or Muslim. Just look at Colombia back in the 1980s and 1990s, or Cambodia during the same period, or any other failed state. Only in the case of Iraq, the U.S. bears a large part of the responsibility.

Finally, I pointed out that the West has seen its share of intolerance, mob violence, and religious conflict. A recent example, very close to home for my Czech friend, was the breakup of Yugoslavia with its ten years of ethnic and religious war. Another was the slow-burning conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The U.S. had the Los Angeles riots in 1992, a wave of similiar riots in the late 1960s, and racial terror throughout the South in the 1920s and 1930s. There was the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, followed by Nazism, the Holocaust and WWII. To say that the West is historically more tolerant and peaceful than other parts of the world is simply not plausible. “No Justice, No Peace,” the slogan goes. What justice or peace the West has won, was the result of a long and often bloody struggle.

Returning to the comical Senator Lott—comical only because he doesn’t have the power of our equally clueless President—I’ll admit that he got it partly right when he asked, “Why do they hate the Israelis and despise their right to exist?” This question of “hating Israelis” is a tricky one, since there are many shades of opinion in the Arab and Muslim world. I can’t speak for them all, and wouldn’t want to, but my time in Morocco taught me something about the majority view. My friends sometimes confessed to “hating Israelis” when they were angered by innocent deaths under Israeli fire, but they always distinguished this from hating Jews. The Qur’an and the Prophet command them to live in peace with the Jews, and they are proud of Morocco’s centuries of tolerance for Jews. What they don’t like are the extremist elements in Israel—racist, expansionist Israelis whom they believe want to keep devouring Arab territory until they have formed a Greater Israel. No one I met in Morocco ever questioned a Jew’s “right to exist” or to live where he wants, including in Israel, though to an Arab that means the 1967 borders. What they “despise” is the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and the way the Palestinians are treated there by the Israeli state.

Finally, doesn’t Senator Lott discredit everything he’s said by concluding, “They all look the same to me?” Did he really say that? Who is he trying to impress? After all, this is a man who was forced from his position as Senate Majority Leader for consorting with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a “polite” version of the Ku Klux Klan. Did he make this comment with a straight face because he’s the sort of person who thinks it with a straight face? Didn’t he even hear its coded racism? Or is racism against Arabs still openly acceptable in America? This pretty much disqualifies the Senator from being taken seriously on the Middle East, but unfortunately, his views are shared by more reasonable people. The idea that Arabs or Muslims are inherently violent needs to be confronted for what it is, a form of racism.

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