Muslim countries want to make it a criminal offence to disparage Islam, the Koran or the Prophet Muhammad. They are concerned about discrimination and thuggery against Muslims in non-Muslim countries.
That concern is entirely fair and proper. But why are they so little concerned about the vastly worse discrimination and thuggery that goes on in the Muslim world against non-Muslims and the wrong Muslims. I discussed this in a long feature this week.
I want Muslims in the West to feel as secure and at home and have the same opportunities as anyone else. Why don’t so many Muslims feel the same about the marginalised in their countries?
Are Muslim countries really worse? They are not the only persecutors — in the list of problem countries by Christian agency Open Doors, 39 of the top 50 are Muslim states, which means 11 are not, such as North Korea, Burma and China. But in many Muslim countries the persecution and violence are more than opportunistic but a way of life — from the state or Islamist groups or neighbours.
First, an important caveat. This is not a blanket criticism of Muslims. Most of the Muslims I know – and I know many – are as concerned about justice and fairness as anyone else.
Second, this blog is really one long question, a question I have had for decades. On this, see the detour at the bottom – and WARNING the bottom is a long way down.
Third, a blog can only scratch the surface; this is inevitably superficial.
That said, it remains reasonable to ask, why is discrimination so entrenched and legitimised in the Muslim world?
Perhaps the biggest problem is the way systematic discrimination is enshrined in sharia law as it has come to be interpreted over the centuries. Those who want to justify discrimination can find grounds, some from the Koran and Hadiths, and more from the traditions. For example, many nations have blasphemy and apostasy laws that mandate the death penalty for those who convert away from Islam.
It’s important to acknowledge that no ideology – religious or secular – has an unstained record. Of course it is centuries since the Western world saw itself as “Christendom”, with a primarily religious identity, but since then we have had sectarian cruelties plus those inflicted by various nationalisms, fascism and communism. History proves that any people are capable of cruelty.
As I have often written on my blog, people are just people. The differences between Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists etc are not so big, and the vast majority of all those groups are decent people doing their best.
But if that is true, why is the plight of minorities so bad in nearly every one of the 56 Muslim nations?
I think there are several reasons, many of which overlap. One is the corruption and cynicism of so many regimes. If they don’t actively themselves persecute, they are happy to let Islamists do so to distract attention from the regime’s shortcomings.
Another is the rigid, self-righteous version of Islam practised by so many radicals, who shout loudly but persuade few (which is why fundamentalist groups do so badly in elections across the Muslim world). Ideologies demand commitment rather than reflection. But it is not necessary to be ideological to be religious.
Another spur is the colossal sense of victimhood and impotence felt by so many Muslims. For more than 1000 years of their history they were victorious and dominant, which makes the last century of colonialism hard to take.
Look at the remarks of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu on Monday to the Iranian foreign minister. Spreading hatred of Islam is high on the agenda of the West, he said. The West is “hatching plots” to spread Islamophobia and insult Islamic values and the Muslim states must take collective measures to confront the Western plots. Such bizarre paranoia could be dismissed, but Ihsanoglu is general-secretary of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, made up of the world’s 56 Muslim nations.
Another reason is anger at the plight of many Muslims in non-Muslim countries. Muslims see themselves (at least theoretically) as a single, unified group (the ummah), and think Christians feel the same. So attacking local Christians is one way of teaching America a lesson.
Then there’s the war on terror. Infelicities and injustices in the way this has been described, and conducted, have led many Muslims to believe it really is a war on Islam. That, along with a colonial history and other historical factors, have created real resentments. (Mind you, they tend to ignore the fact that Muslims were every bit as imperialistic when they had the power.)
Another important element is education: more and more Muslims are receiving a narrow religious education (both in the sense that the religious view is narrow and that the education is largely confined to religion), often funded by the Saudis who have spent tens of billions of dollars promoting the highly restrictive Wahhabi version of Islam. Pakistan’s madrassas are the paradigm here.
Sometimes it is simply venting a grudge or taking advantage of a minority group’s vulnerabilities – something Pakistan’s vicious blasphemy law encourages. Also corruption vitiates the rule of law.
So that’s the summary from my Western, Christian perspective. Now the detour. Concerned that I was not representing the Muslim narrative, I asked a Muslim friend to comment. He observed that I was right to fear that I would get a simplistic response: “Muslims everywhere persecute Christians, then whinge ignorantly about Muslims being mistreated in the West. What the hell is their problem?" (That's not what I think.)
Then my friend added some much-needed nuance. He observed that to understand this issue one must understand Islam’s complex identity politics. He said: “You mention, for instance, that Muslims view themselves as a single, global community. Do they? For how long has this been the case? What about the quite extensive Algerian-Egyptian violence in the past year, ostensibly over the result of a soccer match? What about the strong Arab Nationalist movements of the 20th century? What did their failure mean for the identity of these nations, particularly in a post-colonial environment?
“How, then can we understand Islamism, not as a religious movement (which it isn't), but as an identity movement aimed at giving nations an identity which they had completely lost through the experience of colonisation? This is very fertile ground, particularly if you're thinking about the persecution of Christians.
“What was the religious identity of the colonisers? What do you make of the oft-repeated claim from the Middle East to Malaysia that the colonial era set in motion discrimination against Muslims in favour of Christians that had to be undone once the colonisers left? Whatever the truth of these claims, one has to note their existence in understanding the identity politics of the countries in the OIC. And that, of course, is before we even get to George W Bush's 'crusade' from 2001.
“This, of course, is only a fraction of the story, and each nation will probably have local factors that are very important. For instance, it makes no sense trying to talk about the persecution of minorities under the Taliban without a discussion of ethnicity and tribal divisions, as distinct from religion. It makes no sense trying to talk about sectarianism in Iraq without exploring the impact of the US invasion in bringing these to the fore.”
So there’s my blog-style over-simplification at least partly skewered. Yet my initial concern remains: minorities in many Muslim countries need help – now. Soon there will be almost no Christians in the region that gave their religion birth. And Christians have much to learn from the way so many Muslims are concerned for their co-religionists everywhere, however inadequate and politicised this is.
Over to you: Do you agree with the way I have described the issues? What have I missed? Have you any solutions? Can and should the West do more, and if so what?