As one group of Islamic militants was waging war in Paris, another was slaughtering vast numbers of civilians in Baga in northern Nigeria – as many as 2,000, according to Amnesty International; “only” 150, according to the Nigerian government.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida has blown up scores of people in Yemen, and the Pakistan Taliban murdered 150 people at a school. Libyan extremists blew up a Foreign Ministry building last month because an official wished people “Merry Christmas.”
These spasms of terrorism cry out for a conversation among Muslims about faith and tolerance. Islamic reformers could point out that the Quran prescribes no punishment at all for blasphemers other than telling others to keep their distance from them. The holy book that decrees death for blasphemy is the Bible (Leviticus 24:16).
Fortunately, a Saudi liberal, Raif Badawi, has kick-started a public discussion about Islam and modernity on his blog. Good for Saudi Arabia for promoting this kind of debate!
Well, no. Actually, our Saudi allies sentenced Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” The first 50 lashes were delivered in a public flogging on Friday, and Badawi is scheduled to receive 50 more every Friday until he reaches 1,000.
“Raif raised his head toward the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back,” Amnesty International quoted a witness as saying.
There is a difference between murdering cartoonists and flogging bloggers. But still!
Saudi Arabia could play a leadership role in Islam. In the mid-20th century, King Abdul Aziz al-Saud overcame traditionalists who opposed cars, radio and the telegraph as non-Islamic by having the Quran read aloud on the radio.
Yet since then Saudi elites have retreated, sipping whiskey at private parties while deferring publicly to the traditionalists. Saudi Arabia does not allow Christian churches and sometimes has confiscated Bibles. (I once smuggled in a Bible to see what would happen if I were caught; Saudi customs officials searched the wrong bag.) The kingdom oppresses Shiites, funds extremist Wahhabi madrassas across the Islamic world and last month referred two women to its anti-terrorism courts – for driving cars.
To be blunt, Saudi Arabia legitimizes Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance.
Pakistani officials play a similar game. Pakistan was once a tolerant country whose first foreign minister was a member of the Ahmadi sect. Now Ahmadis are persecuted, and a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, is on death row in a preposterous blasphemy case after drinking water said to be for Muslims only.
(Bravo to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, for daring to publish online an article this week by Arafat Mazhar using Islamic legal reasoning to protest the sentence against Asia Bibi. That’s exactly what we need more of.)
One risk is that the West will respond to Islamic terror with Islamophobia and intolerance that aggravates religious tensions - just what the terrorists hope to provoke. The French nationalist Marine Le Pen has gained ground, and we’ve seen suggestions from Rupert Murdoch and others that all 1.6 billion Muslims are somehow to blame for Islamic terrorism. After I wrote last week that the world should resist that impulse to smear all Muslims, I was denounced by Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox News and called an “ink-stained coward” by The Weekly Standard.
Hmm. When Bill O’Reilly apologizes for IRA bombings and the genocide by Christian Serbs, then Muslims will no doubt apologize for Paris.
Maybe if these “journalists” left their bubble and actually talked to more Muslims, they wouldn’t spew nonsense – such as that Pakistan is an Arab country or that Birmingham, England, is entirely Muslim and a no-go area for Christians. That paranoid claim by a Fox News “expert,” later retracted, led wags to suggest that the city had renamed itself Birming, since Muslims avoid ham.
Let’s resist simplistic narratives on our side, for they’ve already done enough damage in the Islamic world, and in truth Islam is as complex and diverse as, say, “journalism.” Muslims include the terrorist who murdered Jews in Paris and the Malian worker there who risked his life to save seven Jews.
In the past our overreaction to Islamism has sometimes been counterproductive: The Bush administration was so fearful of the Islamic Courts Union government in Somalia that it was complicit in an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 that led to the rise of the terrorist al-Shabab militia there. We were all left less secure.
Republicans have been hounding President Barack Obama for not sending a top official to Paris. They’re right. But let’s engage in more than symbolism and actually support the moderates in the Islamic world who are pushing for change - and, sometimes, being flogged for it. By our “allies.”
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.