Thursday, June 02, 2005

Contempt for Religion?

In an opinion piece published in the May 18 issue of the Khaleej Times, Aijaz Zaka Syed asks "Is this the way to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds?" The International Herald Tribune for June 1 reprints his article as "The West's contempt for religion."

The IHT's title might sound tendentious, but it derives from one of Syed's claims:

"[T]he West, or Christendom, has developed a robust skepticism, or contempt if you please, for all things religious."

Syed's claim is problematic for at least two reasons. The "West" is not identical with "Christendom." If we interpret "Christendom" to refer to Christians, then Syed is excluding the nearly 400 million Christians in Africa, who would probably not consider themselves part of the West. He is also forgetting an approximately equal number of Christians in Asia. If he doesn't know about these non-Western Christians, then he needs to read The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip Jenkins.

As for the West, if we take it in its narrowest sense, it surely includes both Western Europe and the North America -- in which case, Syed is only half right. Largely secular Europe might seriously be accused of contempt for religion -- though the contempt seems mostly directed toward Christianity rather than religion in general. The United States, however, has a very large, politically powerful block of Christians. One can hardly accuse them of having contempt for religion generally.

Syed does note that:

"[A] majority in the Christian West . . . 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."

This is roughly accurate, if currently contested, but whereas Syed sees this as a reaction to the Medieval Catholic Church and its putatively "excessive control over its flock during the oppressive centuries leading up to the European Renaissance," I would argue that it derives from lessons learned in the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and its aftermath.

Be that as it may, Syed holds that Westerners are epistemologically impaired because of their privatization of religion:

"The West can never truly comprehend how much pain and anguish an irreverent reference to the Prophet and the Book [that] 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."

I think that we Westerners understand this quite well by now, for the violence that many Muslims enact to express their "pain and anguish" has been a very persuasive teacher. Lesson learned.

Syed then adds:

"And this respect is not limited to the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad but extends to all messengers of God and all divine scriptures."

Well, despite this elevated respect, I haven't noticed that Muslims get especially upset at reports of the destruction of Bibles at the hands of Saudi Arabian customs officials:

"A U.S.-based think tank critical of the Saudi government has added its voice to allegations that authorities in the kingdom routinely destroy Bibles. 'As a matter of official policy, the government either incinerates or dumps Bibles, crosses and other Christian paraphernalia,' the Saudi Institute said in an article posted on its website."

Nor was there any Muslim protest at the report that Muslim Palestinian gunmen who occupied the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem used the Bible as toilet paper:

"Catholic priests in the church marking the spot where Jesus was believed to have been born said that during the five-week siege, Palestinians tore up some Bibles for toilet paper and removed many valuable sacramental objects, according to a May 15, 2002, report by the Washington Times."

Granted, neither have Christians risen up in rage at either of these reports. Should they? Would Syed rather that the West's Christians -- or Christians generally -- react as violently to religious insults as many Muslims seem to do?

If Christians did, then there really would be a religious war.


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