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.