I feel that I should say something about the Middle East. After all, this blog is supposed to be mostly about religion. Here an entire region is exploding with rage in the name of religion, and what have I been writing about? About eco-ideologues flirting with an ancient goddess, and about homosexuals wanting to be heterosexuals. “Other curiosities”, maybe. But hardly with consequences comparable to those of a wave of anti-American Jihadism extending from North Africa to Southeast Asia.
The trouble with my saying anything on this topic is that my views on Jihadism generally agree with those expressed by most scholars of Islam and by statements of Western governments since 9/11 (agreement with majority opinion doesn’t make for provocative blogging): 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.
The core of that religion is an overwhelming sense of the power and justice of God, which at the end of history will be manifest for all to see. It is the case that the religious law which proposes to express that justice has features which offend our present perception of human rights, but no more so than the law promulgated in the Hebrew Bible. The difference in this between Judaism and Islam is that the former is many centuries older, and has been modified (and significantly moderated) in numerous rabbinical judgments through these centuries (not to mention the modification brought about by Christianity).
One should also recall that for almost two millennia there has been no Jewish state in which the harsh penalties of Biblical law could be carried out, while there have been Islamic states in existence from the establishment of the one in Medina by Muhammad himself all the way to our own time (when the aforementioned penalties are carried out by states supposed to be allies of the United States). There are indeed groups in modern Israel who would make Jewish religious law the law of the state, but, as far as I know, not even the most radical haredim would want to restore capital punishment by stoning for adultery. (If that happened, Tel Aviv would have to stop advertising itself as the coolest city on the Mediterranean.) As far as the core of Islam is concerned, one may also recall that every chapter of the Koran opens with the verse “Bismillah al-rahman al-rahim” – “In the name of God, the compassionate, who acts compassionately”).
Perhaps all I could do here is to tell two anecdotes about my encounters with Islam, and then to make a possibly useful comparison of the current demonstrations in the Muslim world with those in another region: Asia.
I have always been attracted to Islam. Years ago my older son (he must have been around twelve then) asked me: “If you were not a Christian, what religion would you like to be?” I think he expected me to say something vaguely South- or East Asian. I replied, quite spontaneously: “A Muslim”. The attraction has been more emotional than intellectual. I cannot describe it very specifically—perhaps best as a sense of the vastness of God. It is especially to be experienced in mosques when no services are going on—an empty space, bereft of all images or other symbols except for inscriptions of Koranic verses, a silence waiting for the word of God to become alive in speech. And yet, in an immense tension with this experience of divine majesty, there is another Muslim experience, expressed in a Sufi saying that God is as close to me as the gland in my throat.
Both episodes occurred in huge empty mosques—one in India, one in Turkey. I was lecturing in Hyderabad. I had a day left free for tourism. My host said to me: “You are interested in religion. Very good. We’ll give you religion”. He first took me to a Hindu festival, a large tumultuous affair in the streets surrounding a temple—masses of people milling around, chanting priests, garlanded images of gods with flowers and small lights at their feet, cows moving imperiously through the crowd of humans. I found it all very impressive. But it did not speak to me. My host then took me to the big mosque that had been built by the erstwhile Maharaja. (Hyderabad had a majority Hindu population, ruled by a Muslim dynasty which did not want to join newly independent India. Nehru invaded the country and forced it into becoming part of India.) The mosque is huge. No service was going on at the time. The vast space was empty, except for a couple of old men slouched against a wall—meditating or sleeping, I could not tell. I walked through this great silence, and in a totally unexpected way I felt, after the exuberant noise of the Hindu festival, that I had come home.
The other episode happened in Istanbul. I was also there for an allegedly scholarly event. My hosts had arranged a visit to the so-called Sultan Ahmet Mosque, one of the magnificent edifices overlooking the Golden Horn which I had missed on earlier visits. Before on that day I had tried unsuccessfully to reach my wife in America. I was anxious, because I knew that there was a potentially serious problem at home, but I did keep to the local schedule rather than keep on phoning. Here too the mosque was empty, very much like the situation in Hyderabad, except for the astonishing beauty of the architecture. We set down on one of the few chairs in the back of the huge interior. I felt that the silence was enveloping me, and I felt tranquil and reassured. Of course I did not hear any voice (my capacity for mystical ecstasies is definitely limited), but the message I seemed to get was that God is indeed both rahman and rahim, and that I could trust in his compassion for me and all those I cared about. (My capacity for assuming miracles is also limited, and I did not make such an assumption when later that day I got through to my wife and learned that all was well. But the message I sensed in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque stayed with me.)
The other thing I could say about the current events in the Middle East is a comparison with events elsewhere, from which an anthropological conclusion might be drawn. 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. Still, this degree of violent response triggered by such an obscure event? At the same time there have been fierce protests in several Chinese cities against Japan for laying claim to a few small uninhabited islands, which may or may not sit on top of valuable natural resources and which China asserts to be within its territorial waters. So far at any rate, these demonstrations have been less violent than the ones in the Middle East, but the language has been violent indeed. There have been calls for war with Japan, in one reported case including the threat of nuclear war (particularly alarming to the one country that actually experienced such war). There are some differences between the two cases, though in both, whatever popular spontaneous movement there may have been, dormant hatreds were deliberately spurred for political reasons (in one case by Jihadist movements, in the other case very probably by the Chinese government). In the latter case the immediate trigger has been this group of islets that surely most of the demonstrators had previously never heard of and would have difficulty locating on the map. Again, how can such a petty matter trigger such an actual or rhetorically murderous response?
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. There is a free-floating potential for violence present in every society, and there is a frequently recurring temptation for political movements or regimes to fan this potential for their own purposes. Almost any trigger can serve. Of course the agitation must be legitimated by some locally plausible grievances, be they real or imagined: It would be hard to bring Arab masses into the streets because of some islands in the South China Sea, or Chinese masses because of insults to the Prophet Muhammad. The propensity toward murderous violence is, I think, grounded in the constitution of our species. In describing this, Christians may refer to original sin, psychologists to the pathologies bubbling in the subconscious, biologists to our descent from a peculiarly murderous mutation of chimpanzees. If we did what comes “naturally”, we would be murdering each other for the most trivial reasons. To keep this tendency under control there are those unique artifacts known as institutions. Of course murder too can be institutionalized, but what I have in mind here are the institutions designed to keep a society relatively humane. In the modern world, which has a scarcity of benevolent despots, liberal democracy does not guarantee decency, but makes it more likely. There surely are lessons from this for the Middle East and for China.