Thursday, September 30, 2004


WSJ Commentary

There is an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today by Amir Taheri about kidnappings and exhibition killings and Islam. I think Taheri really misses the point in all of this and while much of the information that Taheri points to is very interesting (the dynamic between France and the Arab world, Russia and its position in the Muslim world as it relates to Palestine and Chechnya, etc.), his argument falls back on a very tired Orientalist argument.

In response to debate over whether hostage taking is justified, Taheri seems outraged that there even be a debate. Taheri writes:
Non-Muslims may find it strange that such practices are debated rather than condemned as despicable crimes. But the fact is that the seizure of hostages and "exhibition killing" go back to the early stages of Islamic history.
Ah, so its just part of "the Islamic tradition" one is led to believe, as Taheri spends four paragraphs giving us a history lesson in Islamic treatment of POWs, only to conclude with this:
Recalling this background is important because what we witness in the Muslim world today is disregard of religious tradition in favor of political considerations.
So wait, it doesn't have to do with tradition? It's all about politics? As for his argument that this needs to be understood before we approach the issue, in an article in the Wall Street Journal that is highly critical of the Muslim world, I find this disingenuous. Rather, it serves to reinforce the idea that this is a "clash of civilizations" and not a matter of political considerations.

The meat of Taheri's argument is that leaders of the Muslim world are willing to condemn the Beslan tragedy because of Russia's support for the Palestinian cause. Likewise, Muslims speak out against the kidnapping of French journalists in Iraq but not against other civilian victims of kidnappings or killings by Iraqi insurgent groups. In the case of Briton Ken Bigley, Taheri writes:
The two British Muslim delegates made their case in a different way by arguing that, although Britain participated in toppling Saddam Hussein, a majority of the British were opposed to the war. Thus British hostage Ken Bigley should be released not because hostage-taking is wrong but because such a move could strengthen anti-war sentiment in Britain.
Allow me to interject. Taheri chooses to condemn the Muslims who sought the release of Bigley because he does not approve of their methods? Instead of interpreting this as a sign of the moral degradation of Islam, as Taheri seems to, I think it is more evident of "the West"'s lack of credibility if it chooses to approach the issue on a purely moral basis. Approaching the kidnapper as if he simply does not understand that "kidnapping is wrong" will hardly work against somebody who can easily reply that the killing of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong, that the demolition of homes of innocents in Palestine is wrong, that the "kidnapping" (indefinite detention without charges) of Muslims in Palestine and Guantanamo Bay is "wrong." So please spare me the idea that somehow "the West" understands the difference between right and wrong and those Oriental savages just don't get it. Is Taheri as outraged that there is debate (and not across-the-board condemnation) about torture in Abu Ghraib or about the wall in the West Bank or about home demolitions in the West Bank and Gaza? Maybe I simply missed those "commentaries" (I admit, the WSJ is not my paper of choice).

But to be critical that "it is enough for anyone to designate himself as an Islamic 'Mujahid,' fighting for Palestine and opposing the 'occupation' in Iraq, to get carte blanche from millions of Muslims, including many in authority" implies that millions of Westerners, including many in authority, give carte blanche to the US, to Israel, or to any other country or group designating itself an actor in the "War on Terror," fighting for democracy, freedom, liberty and opposing the "scourge of terrorism."

Taheri quotes Abu Anas al-Shami, "the self-styled 'mufti' of al Qaeda":
"There are times when Mujahedeen cannot waste time finding out who is who in the battlefield," he wrote. "There are times when we have to assume that whoever is not on our side is the enemy."
I would venture that this does not deviate too far from the statements made by those such as George W. Bush who says that you're either with us or against us ("whoever is not on our side is the enemy") or Donald Rumsfeld who said that sometimes in the fog of war its hard to tell who the civilian casualties are or who killed them ("there are times when [we] cannot waste time finding out who is who in the battlefield"). You see, the reason that Taheri's purely moral arguments on hostagetaking and exhibition killing ring hollow in parts of the Arab and Muslim world ring hollow is not that "they just don't get it" but rather that "the West" seems to have lost the moral footing from which it is possible to make such arguments in a meaningful and effective manner.

Hm. Taking hostages is like arresting the mama and the kids of a suspected insurgent/rebel, doncha think?? Maybe it's even possible to think that taking hostages is sorta like "collateral damage".
Maybe it's just me, but I seem to notice that the "respectable" press seems to always try to find somebody with a Middle Eastern type name to write these "what's wrong with Islamic culture" bullshit op-eds. It's pretty damn insulting, as if "if one of them is saying it, then it must be true."
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