Local Muslim leader blasts ‘old Orientalist mindset’ about Islam

BY ERIC ZORN

I asked Ahmed Rehab (right), executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)- Chicago if he had reflections he’d like to add to Why Apologize to Afghanistan? by Andrew C. McCarthy at the National Review Online, an essay I blogged about the other day prior to writing today’s column on apologies.  Rehab and I carried on a lengthy and illuminating dialogue on the Danish cartoons six years ago, so I suspected he would have a measured, thoughtful response.

And he did:

Let me first begin by pointing out that I think (McCarthy’s) reference to “Muslim sacrilege” is actually intended for the alleged desecration of Christian and Jewish relics by Saudi security and not “how the reason the Korans were seized in the first place is that prisoners were using them to communicate with one another via marginal notes,” as your asterisk suggests.

I could be wrong, but that seems to be the case when you consider the contrast of “intentional Muslim sacrilege” with the “accidental American offense.”

Before I respond, I want to point out that Andrew McCarthy and the NRO in general tend to take ultra-conservative, right-leaning positions that are often unfavorable to Islam and Arabs, so this commentary is hardly surprising for me. While I intend to address the message rather than the messenger, I thought making mention of the author/website slant may carry some relevance and provide some context to unsuspecting readers who may otherwise mistakenly assume some kind of journalist-style neutrality on the part of this author or this publication.

Now to the issue at hand.

I cannot vouch as to how factual Andrew’s claims are about Saudi Arabia’s policies when it comes to the Crucifix and the Star of David. It would be helpful if he would cite a source, like the section of the Saudi constitution that declares this. I would imagine these allegations are either false or greatly exaggerated given that I know several Christians happily living and working in Jeddah who wear crucifixes and who have never complained about having them confiscated or destroyed.

But let us assume for the sake of argument that Andrew’s claims are correct. After all, Saudi law leaves much to be desired in the way of social justice, personal freedoms, and religious freedom.

The first problem with Andrew’s logic, and indeed language, is his comparing apples with oranges. Notice that while he references Americans by their national identity, he references the Saudis by their religion. So it is not “Saudi sacrilege” but “Muslim sacrilege.” He may counter that Saudi actions are informed by Islam. But even so, it is a uniquely Saudi interpretation of Islam and Sharia, one that is viewed by many other Muslims to be far too strict and  indeed even distorted. Equating Saudis with the unqualified, non-contextualized broad category that is “Muslim” implicates all Muslims, including the majority who don’t subscribe to the Saudi policies, and who may in fact oppose them (myself included). Judging from his other writings, he magically avoids the same reductionism when it comes to Christianity and the various ways in which it is interpreted and practiced around the world.

The second and more important point to be made is that he seems to be engaging in moral relativism which is quite strange. When assessing whether a certain action committed by Americans is right or wrong, why qualify the answer relative to what Saudi Arabia or any other foreign country does?

This would be like a Russian committing an offensive act in China and then saying, well but Japan commits offensive acts with its Belgian tourists, so if we should stop, they should stop, it should go “both ways.” What are the “two ways” here? Well for Andrew, it is Islamdom and Christendom. His logic betrays the fact that he sees the world in these binary terms, two distinct, mutually-exclusive monolithic worlds pitted against one other in an apocalyptic existential battle. In that respect he sees it much the same way Muslim extremists do, and indeed Christian extremists and Jewish extremists.

Andrew seems to be very much captive to an age old Orientalist mindset: seeing Islam and Muslims as one gargantuan black box, all 1.4 billion of us, where Afghans have to answer for Saudis, and American Muslims have to answer for Al Qaeda, etc.

Thirdly, regarding Obama’s apology and Santorum’s objection, I tend to completely agree with your eloquent argument about the function of apologies.

Now a general note about the Afghan riots: this is about more than just the Qur’an burning which is but salt to a greater and much deeper wound, simply a pretext to lash out against a much more serious indignity. I suspect that the riots have as much, if not more to do, with this thing called “foreign military occupation” that has resulted in the deaths of 1000′s of their compatriots including women and children and only now the desecration of what they deem holy.

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