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Analysis of Middle East events, it often seems, is the worst-managed of all intellectual chores concerning the contemporary world. There are ideological and political barriers that get in the way of accuracy (not to mention fairness); ignorance plays a role, as does fear. But often underlying everything is the fact that when the Middle East knocks at the door, common sense jumps out the back window.
Consider a blog posting entitled, “CNN journalist asks: `Punished mercilessly’–Is this Islam?’” I don’t write this to attack the author—whose intentions are clearly good ones–but merely to ask how people examine the regional issues. What makes this interesting is that the author is Octavia Nasr, Middle East Affairs editor for CNN, in other words a person who has a great deal to do with what appears on that channel and how it’s presented.
Nasr’s basic argument is that the Iranian regime’s repression of anti-government demonstrators is contrary to Islam. One should begin by noting that in the fictional world wherein we live today, a huge amount of attention is paid to the idea that Islam is treated worse (“Islamophobia”) than other religions or doctrines in terms of its intellectual and analytical examination. In fact, it is treated far better almost all of the time. It should be treated the same.
Nasr begins by quoting an Iranian cleric at a Friday prayer sermon who calls on supporters to “Annihilate the rioters” who “should be punished mercilessly.” The cleric `claims they are acting contrary to the decisions of Iran’s supreme guide who is acting according to God’s design in this world. Nasr wants to argue that this behavior is contrary to Islam.
Ironically, Nasr calls him a “fundamentalist,” a word that simultaneously could get her labeled an Islamophobe under other circumstances and reinforces the cleric’s own argument. After all, if he is getting back to Islam’s “fundamentals” that means he is returning to the proper roots of the religion, right? So the choice of words implies that he is correct. That’s why I never use that word and prefer Islamist, someone who uses their interpretation of Islam as a political doctrine.
“Some would say,” she continues, “those words couldn’t be more un-Islamic.” True. But others would say—including the government of Iran—that they couldn’t be more Islamic. This is what the great battle in the Middle East is about: which interpretation of Islam will prevail.
Arguing among non-Muslims which one is more “correct” is a wasted effort. There is no right answer. How Christians interpret their religion with utter certitude in 2009 is not the same as it was in 1009. Islam is neither a religion of peace nor the opposite. It is a body of holy writings, commentaries, practices, and history—just like other religions—which must be examined dispassionately as to how it functions in the world, among different groups, and in different places.
Nasr writes: “The entire religion is based on surrendering all aspect of oneself to `god.’ (sic)….When moderate Muslims hear what this Mullah has called for, they wonder which brand of Islam he is advocating.”
Really? They wonder? The implication here is that Islam has never been used as a tool of repression in history; that it is astonishing someone might insist that he has the proper answer and everyone else must bow to that or suffer.
Christianity is arguably a religion of love—consider the “Sermon on the Mount,” yet how has it been used historically? If someone dares, in many nominally Christian circles, say something positive about Christianity, how many seconds will it be before someone brings up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition?
Nasr points out that the most basic Muslim creed refers to God as “most merciful, most compassionate.” So where, she asks, is the mercy in this cleric’s statement?
Simple and it should quickly come to mind for anyone but the simple-minded. God also has commandments and in Islam it is clearly stated that believers should forbid what the deity doesn’t want and promote what the deity does want. And that’s precisely what this cleric says—and believes—he’s doing.
Nasr then goes on to support the opposition movement, extolling their courage and condemning the attempts to block reporting of what’s happening in Iran. This is all fine, leaving aside the question of whether an editor at a news channel should personally and openly take sides.
Frankly, I find this disturbing even if I think the cause is a good one. Journalists are supposed to be as neutral as possible. If they are reporting on something evil, they don’t have to take a personal stance on it. Just report the facts and assuming you’re right the reader or viewer will draw the appropriate conclusion. Alas, this kind of thinking about journalism is as dead as the dodo or the steam locomotive.
The problem, of course, is that once journalists decide to support one cause you might agree is a good one, they then go off backing a dozen others which don’t fit into that category. It sounds good that the poor, the “victimized,” and the “underdog” should be supported. But before you can say “suicide bomber” or “populist dictatorship,” that definition has come to encompass some dreadful things.
Yet what’s really bizarre about Nasr’s approach is that she speaks as if this cleric’s statement is something new, that suddenly a single call for using violence in the name of Islam is some shocking innovation.
But the Islamist regime in Iran has been in power for 30 years, doing precisely what it is doing today. Islamism—which rather explicitly bases itself on a vision of Islam—has been in business for even longer. The Iranian regime has executed hundreds of people over the years, tortured many more by defining their activities as being against proper Islam.
Meanwhile, thousands of terrorist attacks have been staged, tens of thousands of innocent civilians murdered in the name of Islam. The Saudi religious police go about their business; the Taliban terrorized Afghanistan. Writers are intimidated or killed, women who step out of line are murdered, and genocide against the Jews is advocated.
And if we go back to past centuries we can find no shortage of occasions when Islam has been the basis of repression, aggressive warfare, and other such things.
So why suddenly is a cleric calling for putting down an opposition to a stolen election the beginning of a discovery on these matters?
And how can a non-Muslim confidentally state that the actions of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, including top clerics who have spent their life studying Islam are just flatly wrong because people who aren’t Muslims think so?
Of course, she could say that there are two camps in Islam and she prefers the moderate one wins. She can cite many Muslims who do have a different interpretation of their religion (and are sometimes repressed or even murdered for having expressed it). But to say that a high proportion of actually living, breathing Muslims who believe in Islamism or the most common interpretations of Sharia law and jihad have just arrived from another planet with no connection to anything in their own religion isn’t going to work.
Equally of course, it is better that such a discovery about what’s going on in the world is being made. But let’s face it. The reason for the shock now is that the people being so repressed:
–Look like us in terms of their clothing and mannerisms because they are urban, middle class, and visibly Westernized in mannerisms and clothing.
–Are on television and computer.
–Are engaging in activities (peaceful mass demonstrations) on behalf of a cause (fair elections) which we can imagine ourselves doing and supporting.
The author, who is from a strongly Christian background in Lebanon, must be most familiar with the operations of Hizballah and the civil war there. Is Nasr, the Middle East editor at CNN, telling us that she’s shocked to see radical Islamists preaching an intolerant version of Islam and implementing it? And is she equally telling us that very few Muslims believe this kind of thing?
Consider one detail of her own background. Nasr has a special interest in theatre, including having acted herself on the stage. If she were a Muslim woman, acting in a play might have been sufficient to inspire her family to murder her (in an urban middle class Beirut Sunni family, less likely of course but the point still applies) or certainly she would have been intimidated enough not to try. Could she possibly be unaware of this fact?
What we should be talking about is not the purity of Islam but the battle within Islam and the aggressive efforts of radical Islamists against others. Islam is being used—you can say abused if you want–in Iran and by other groups whose activities affect millions of people, from stoning in Afghanistan or Somalia, to decapitations in Thailand, to suicide bombings even in Spain, Britain, and on the New York skyline.
The article is entitled, “‘Punished mercilessly’–Is this Islam?” In your or my preferred interpretation, perhaps not. But of course this is nothing new and also something extraordinarily important. One might better use the title: “`Punished mercilessly’—This is Islamism” or an interpretation of Islam which we don’t like but one that is quite well-grounded on accepted and traditional Muslim history and sources.
If Nasr were a mere academic, it would not be so surprising she would say such things. But it is frightening to see a top journalist show such a naïve view of the world and its modern history, as well as apparent incomprehension of the workings of ideology, power, and politics.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).