December 10, 2007

The Effect of a Moderate Majority

by PG

In criticizing Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Times op-ed, Jill at Feministe makes the useful points that
1) "Selecting one section from a centuries-old religious text and then drawing the conclusion that most followers of that religion follow that text to the word is ridiculous."
2) "If moderate Muslims were actually silent, we would have never heard about this case [of a Saudi girl who was kidnapped and raped, but is being punished for having been alone with men] to begin with."
3) "And itís really not the responsibility of Muslim people to be on the constant defensive in the first place -- criticize the radicals, but donít pin their actions on the millions of people who are horrified by them. And certainly donít draw hasty conclusions about who is and isnít speaking out when you havenít even bothered to listen."

What Jill doesn't address, however, is the question of how laws and policies come to be in the first place. Ali doesn't say there's no such thing as a moderate Muslim; she says, "The vast majority of Muslims are said to be moderates. ... How many Muslims are willing to stand up and say, in the case of the girl from Qatif, that this manner of justice is appalling, brutal and bigoted -- and that no matter who said it was the right thing to do, and how long ago it was said, this should no longer be done?"

The question of "how many" is a question of who forms the majority -- the moderates or the extremists. If the majority of Saudis think it is wrong to have a woman caned for being the victim of a crime, why is this the result of their laws? Certainly every nation has laws that are outdated (although I suspect there's a correlation between those who say there are no moderate Muslims, and those who think sodomy-as-felony was a perfectly sensible law), and the retention of stupid laws is more excusable in Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy, than in a country where a majority of people can change the law.

But there are more examples in Ali's article than Jill addresses. What of a 54-year-old woman who could have faced 40 lashes for the crime of not knowing that she shouldn't let Sudanese schoolchildren name a teddy bear after the Prophet? The Sudan at least theoretically has democratic participation in government and thus in legislation. Perhaps the nation's leadership was lying, but they claimed that they were worried that letting the woman off without any punishment would antagonize their own people. There apparently are enough Muslims in Sudan who think blasphemy, even the unintentional sort, should be punished with 40 lashes that this woman's case required a pardon and spiriting her out of the country. There is, in short, a radical majority, or enough radicals that their voice can dominate as long as moderates don't protest. The same apparently is true in the world's largest democracy.

Then thereís Taslima Nasreen, the 45-year-old Bangladeshi writer who bravely defends womenís rights in the Muslim world. Forced to flee Bangladesh, she has been living in India. But Muslim groups there want her expelled, and one has offered 500,000 rupees for her head. In August she was assaulted by Muslim militants in Hyderabad, and in recent weeks she has had to leave Calcutta and then Rajasthan. Taslima Nasreenís visa expires next year, and she fears she will not be allowed to live in India again.
How can Indians -- not just Muslims, but Hindus, Sikhs, Christians -- tolerate this treatment of a human rights refugee? I don't even have NRI status, yet having originated from Andhra Pradesh is enough to embarrass me about the behavior of people in Hyderabad. This is a healthy embarrassment; it encourages me to do what I can for Ms. Nasreen's ability to stay in India free from harassment. How many Indians are willing to stand up and say Ms. Nasreen's harassers will be prosecuted by law and shunned by the majority moderate society, and that cowardly politicians who refuse to renew her visa will lose their seats? This is what a moderate majority must do. It is not enough for a few moderates to speak up on behalf of the oppressed. A majority must do so.

I have no problem with people abroad asking me how Americans could have let the Bush Administration invade Iraq. I do not try to claim that this was the action of a few "radicals" and that the majority of moderate Americans were horrified by this action. I have to admit that a large majority of Americans in March 2003 thought the Bush Administration was doing the right thing (and apparently still believed so in November 2004). Evidently those of us who disagreed didn't do enough to change the majority's mind. For those of us who tried, no blame should attach. But what would you be if you didn't even try?

December 10, 2007 05:07 PM | TrackBack

Good post.

"For those of us who tried, no blame should attach."

As someone who was arrested numerous times for civil disobedience during Gulf War I and later did practically nothing (beyond stating my opinion in private conversations) in opposition to Gulf War II, my personal philosophy is that moral blame is shared by all who choose to be a part of a particular associative system, regardless of the degree to which an individual participated in countering the blameworthy behavior. I think our failure in Iraq is born by all Americans, regardless of our approval or disapproval. I can't stand the "don't blame me, I voted for X" bumpersticker mentality. (And why I can't bring myself to find anything redeeming in the Dixie Chicks; if they didn't like George Bush, they should have said so to the people they were enriching themselves off of, not skulked around Europe trying to absolve themselves of moral blame).

My belief that the US has failed over the past seven years to maintain a decent standard in our conduct towards the rest of the world (and, indeed to ourselves) does not diminish my belief that, all in all and hopefully someday again, the US stands for positive things in this world. If I ever came to the conclusion that we no longer did, and that our negative impact on the world exceeded our positive impact and that there was no way to change it, I think it would be my moral obligation to renounce my association with the political ideology of the US (I'm not saying necessarily giving up citizenship; nationhood is more than a set of political ideals). Even then, that would not free me from blame: failure is failure.

There are clear differences that I see between modern Western societies and modern Islamic societies: When millions of US citizens pour into the streets in protest, it is usually against our own government and society's actions that restrain the freedom and rights of others (for example, to protest the war in Iraq).

In Islamic societies, when people pour into the streets in protest it seems to rarely be about protection of the rights of others or to guard against a turn towards a more hard-line regime (although Pakistan may be an exception). Rather, it is pretty clear to me that citizens in Islamic societies turn out to protest the perceived wrongs inflicted on them by others (namely Israel and the US, along with the occasional middle aged schoolteacher or Danish cartoonist). And I think that was Ali's point: until such a time as Islam stands for something other than intolerance and terrorism, Muslim moderates face two choices: accept the blame inherent in their failure to moderate their religion's more vile characteristics, or disassociate from it. But you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Posted by: Dave at December 10, 2007 07:27 PM
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