Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Middle Eastern and Islamic issues

The United States has endured a horrendous attack that killed 22 people -- 13 American servicemen, five U.S. civilian contractors, and four Iraqis -- in Mosul, the BBC reports. Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "We have had a suicide bomber apparently strap something to his body... and go into a dining hall." Why wasn't our security tighter?

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on the great Victorian diplomat/soldier Sir Henry Rawlinson. Notably, it recalls Rawlinson's service defending Kandahar during the First Afghan War (1839-42). Writer Stuart Ferguson uses the following description: "when an entire British army was wiped out on its retreat from Kabul, he helped rally the vastly outnumbered Kandahar garrison and saved the day." Maybe the day, but not the war; the National Army Museum shows that this was a disaster for Britain. The pertinent issues of the war -- the removal of a foreign ruler accepted by the majority of his population, and the question of how to deal with uprisings against the occupying forces -- are no less important today. To ensure democracy in Iraq, the U.S. must win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Iraq, like Afghanistan, is tough to unite because there are many different religious and ethnic groups who have an uneasy history living together. Let us hope the Americans can learn from what happened in Afghanistan over 150 years earlier. By the way, if you want to read a compelling book on the English presence in Central Asia in the 19th century, check out Peter Hopkirk's "The Great Game."

Now for an item on a Muslim population in another country: the Netherlands. Christopher Caldwell has a fascinating article on tensions between Muslim immigrants and the "native" Dutch. Caldwell is writing in the wake of several important events: the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh (a descendant of Vincent and a critic of the Muslim community) by a Muslim; and Muslim threats against the life of two politicians who have criticized Muslim immigrants, Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Caldwell says that the Dutch need to reconsider their historically laissez-faire attitude toward immigrants, and implies that they must do this to prevent a 9/11 on Dutch soil. (He notes that van Gogh's death comes 911 days after the assassination of anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn, although Fortuyn was killed by an animal-rights activist.)

Caldwell presents an image of a tolerant majority population, with a legacy of "freedom" (think hashish in coffeeshops, and legalized euthanasia and prostitution) that the public by no means approves, and Muslim immigrants with contrary views. At the end, he describes a female Dutch politician meeting an imam who refuses to shake her hand; Fortuyn was once quoted as saying: "In Holland, homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does this happen?"

Granted, it sounds like Fortuyn and van Gogh slurred Islam through comments and media. However, van Gogh's assassination, and the campaign of fear used against Wilders and Hirsi Ali, show that some Muslims react in deplorable ways when defending their religion. This is a serious problem, not just for public safety in the Netherlands, but also for Islamic culture as a whole; debate about religion is vital in any culture, and taken for granted in ours. (Many people in Brooklyn complained about Chris Ofili's dung-spattered art, but in general, people agree there should be no ban on his work.)

It's simplistic to paint members of one culture as evil. But it's not simplistic, and not ethnocentric, to say that values such as equality for women and homosexuals, and the freedom of debate, are vital to human life, and should be encouraged, not suppressed. Muslims in the Netherlands need to realize this. So do we all.


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