There is an excellent op-ed in the NYT about the current wave of Arab revolutions, “How the Arabs Turned Shame Into Liberty.” It is a good reminder of some recent history for those of us who don’t follow the Arab world closely. The author compares the current situation to the revolutions of 1848 in Europe. But of particular interest to me is this paragraph:

In the tyrant’s shadow, unknown to him and to the killers and cronies around him, a moral clarity had come to ordinary men and women. They were not worried that a secular tyranny would be replaced by a theocracy; the specter of an “Islamic emirate” invoked by the dictator did not paralyze or terrify them.

This presents a particularly poignant contrast to a recent post on the website Pagan+Politics, called “Human Rights vs. Religion Deathmatch.” First of all, that title is simply an embarrassment. The idea of a deathmatch, even an intellectual one, makes me want to puke, and it is certainly the wrong metaphor for the delicate and complex interactions of human rights and religion that modern societies have to navigate. The author was trying to investigate some interesting areas, but in so doing, created strawmen left and right, and oversimplified history and religions, and created a false opposition, summing up with a possibly interesting concept about religion but no real insight into the intersection of society and religion. (The potentially interesting concept of a “doctrinally minimal” religion, by which I think the author is trying to say a religion that is tolerant or supports religious pluralism, isn’t fully explained or investigated, and seems to be the default conclusion because the author seems to be approaching the idea from an American point of view, assuming rights of free speech and dancing around the interplay of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment.)

In the comments, I tried to address one commenter who posted a long reply that viciously mischaracterized Islam and then went on to assert his sweeping world-historical theories based solidly on colonialism and covert racism. I allowed myself to get sidetracked onto the world-historical confusion, because that’s where my personal academic training lies, but I recently came across a fantastic refutation of the claims and mischaracterizations of Islam: Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. This book was Prothero’s response to the stunning religious illiteracy found in America today. The chapter on Islam describes the religion’s basic tenets, its history and evolution over time, and the wide range of ways Muslims today interpret their religion, not just from Sunni to Shi’a, but also Sufis and, yes, radical Islamists, as well as Muslim feminists and Muslims who work in interfaith dialogue and promote religious tolerance and pluralism. Muslims are struggling with human rights and how to understand their religion in today’s world just as much as people of any other religion are. To say otherwise is a grave insult and a reflection of deep ignorance verging on maliciousness. We can no longer have the luxury of that ignorance given the major upheavals in the Arab world today.

Recent events in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and, of course, Libya, have caused me to wonder whether the author of the post and that commenter are paying attention to the sweeping changes in the Arab world. The uprisings have been characterized by demands for human rights, and although some US commentators have been frothing about the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, there has been relatively little sign of an impending Iranian-style theocracy taking over the current momentum. I think there is genuine hope for the rise of societies and governments that support and defend human rights in the Arab world, and I think that hope doesn’t depend on people turning away from Islam (as the commenter implies) and doesn’t necessarily depend on the majority of people subscribing to the most liberal, “doctrinally minimal” forms of Islam, as the author implies. If I turn out to be wrong about that, I will eat my words, and I will weep for the people whose rights are denied them, and I will work to restore those rights.

But I hope the author of that post and that commenter are watching. And I hope they’re learning something. I hope we all get to learn something amazing about people claiming their rights and creating a new, freer, safer society for themselves, regardless of their religion.

3 thoughts on “Shame, Arabs, Pagans, and Politics

  1. Literata, I’m sorry you were disappointed in my post. I am not an academic in the fields of history or religion — I’m a linguist — and in any case it was not my purpose to lay out an in-depth analysis of these issues. I cannot, and did not, claim to have the necessary expertise. What I was trying to do was lay out a very basic question, give a little bit of background, and then open up the discussion. I think I succeeded in that. Naturally I used straw men to illustrate the extreme positions on each side of the question. But I do not think the opposition is false — on the contrary, it’s an extremely thorny question that has to be answered with nuance.

    I’m sorry if you found my title embarrassing, but this is a blog post, not an academic treatise. Interesting titles are essential to drawing readers. I freely admit that the title is more than a little sensationalist in tone, but it was also tongue-in-cheek.

    Finally, concerning “doctrinally minimal religion” — the phrase actually comes from the article in “The New Republic” which I linked to in the post. Damon Linker argues that a society with strong human rights traditions must necessarily have doctrinally minimal religion. I tend to agree, but this is not because I am an American; it’s because of my Zen Buddhist background (which makes me suspicious of all doctrine, including ‘human rights’ doctrine).

    Of course I am delighted with what’s been going on in so many Muslim nations (and in China and Africa and other places inspired by them), and I’m extremely optimistic that all of them will move further along the path to free and open societies. I’ll also be watching to see what happens to Islam in the process. Every sect of Christianity was deeply changed by the development of open societies in Europe, and I expect the same to happen to Islam.

    In any case I want to thank you for reading my post, and while I’m sorry you didn’t like it more, I take some comfort in the fact that I at least succeeded in bringing the issue to your attention, and inspiring you enough to write about it at length. 🙂

    1. Hi, Jeff! I’m honored that you came over to see what I wrote. I understand that you were trying to spark discussion, and you certainly succeeded. I was more deeply frustrated with the failures of that conversation in the comments than with your original post, and I’m sorry if I didn’t adequately separate the two in my description here.

      I do think there is tension between religions which claim to have a complete understanding of all aspects of how to live and a society founded upon a conception of human rights that conflicts with those precepts, but I don’t think that religion and human rights are necessarily in tension. You sort of tried to get around to that in the questions for thought, but didn’t quite, and, as I said, my annoyance was even more with the discussion.

      Anyway, I do look forward to reading your work in the future, and I’m likely to respond either in comments or my own posts. Here’s hoping for many productive future conversations!

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