By Luke Brinker
For four days, Afghanistan has been convulsed by deadly protests over the accidental incineration of several Korans at a NATO air base on Monday night. At least seven people died in protests in Herat, and an Afghan soldier, indignant at the Koran burning, killed two NATO soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. The violent reaction to the Koran burning episode raises important issues of religious intolerance and how it is discussed in polite American circles.
The New York Times editorial board, seeking to sound a note of moderation and reason, wrote, “The behavior of the American soldiers was shockingly insensitive. And while Afghans’ anger is understandable, there can be no justification for violent rampages.” The Afghan anger is “understandable” in the sense that the Koran, viewed by Muslims as the direct word of Allah, is revered and sanctified by Muslims to a far greater extent than the Bible is by Christians or the Torah is by Jews. There is nothing wrong with seeking to comprehend the sources of Muslim rage. It is remarkable, however, that many to the left of center do not subject Islam to the same level of critical scrutiny as they do Christianity.
Rick Santorum, whose firebrand social conservatism has its roots in orthodox Catholic theology, is regularly – and justifiably – ridiculed for his archaic views on contraception, women in the military, gay rights, and secular public education. By contrast, liberals rarely take Muslims to account for their hostility to women, Jews, Christians, atheists, gays, and the secular state.
For the past week, Palestinian prisoner Khader Adnan, a member of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad, was a cause celebre for the international left. Adnan went on a 66-day hunger strike to protest his detention without charge by Israeli authorities; he ended his fast when an Israeli high court judge ordered his release in April if prosecutors have not charged Adnan by then. Many left-liberal commentators, including Peter Beinart, emphasized the injustice of Israeli detention policies while acknowledging that Adnan was no saint. But debatable as the Israelis’ detention of Adnan without charge may be, is it too much to ask that the media devote some measure of attention to Adnan’s activities in Islamic Jihad, his actual beliefs, and whether Adnan renounces violence against the Jewish state?
Adnan’s case – and his status as a symbol of the persecuted Palestinians – is telling. There is a decidedly illiberal strain of thought on the left holding that it is permissible to tolerate intolerance, provided that the perpetrators of intolerance are widely seen as “victims” – of Western imperialism, the Israeli occupation, capitalism, or some other such malady. This fetishization of victimhood conveniently ignores the worldviews of the alleged victims. For instance, while many Israeli policies toward Arabs are at odds with liberal democratic principles, is it not pertinent to ask whether, in a Palestinian state, Arabs would afford Jews the same rights that Arab citizens of Israel enjoy? Is it not relevant to note that in Afghanistan, where angry mobs are railing against NATO for the accidental if insensitive burning of Korans, conversion to Christianity is a capital crime? We are not discussing a clash between culturally insensitive bigots and oppressed advocates of equality and toleration. How do American liberals, with their support for abortion rights, gay marriage, and secularism, think they would fare in conservative Muslim societies?
For too long, concern about fundamentalist Islam has been monopolized by the American right. But liberals, who theoretically support social toleration and political equality, could be formidable, credible critics of extremist Islam. Paul Berman, author of The Flight of the Intellectuals, is one such critic. Many liberals may be fearful of taking on Islam for fear of appearing bigoted, or out of a desire to avoid association with Shariah alarmists like Santorum and Newt Gingrich. On this score, I can think of no better response than the concluding words of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. Some argue, Hirsi Ali writes, that “criticism of Islam is … too painful for Muslims to bear.” But Hirsi Ali, herself the victim of an attempted forced marriage and of the fundamentalist mindset that oppresses women in Islamic societies, asks, “Tell me, how much more painful is it to be these women, trapped in that cage?”