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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Apologies won't fix this

Immediately after September 11, I remember having discussions about what might happen next. I clearly recall feeling that the world was holding its collective breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop... and drop it did, right on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Had the U.S. stopped there, and not pressed its agenda into Iraq, would today’s situation look different?

Yes and no.

We would not have the Abu Ghraib pictures and films resurfacing, stoking anger in the Middle East. We probably would still have had the cartoon protests. We’d still be having problems with fundamentalist Islam, though.

World War III has come sneaking into our lives when we weren’t watching.

In the 1980s (in some ways another lifetime), Polimom traveled in the Middle East, and the memories from that trip have not faded with time. Traveling with a small group of westerners (male and female), we were careful of our hosts’ cultural mores, covering our heads and bodies, visiting only areas and sites that were permitted, observing border sensitivities… yet we were still treated differently – because we were from the West.

Among other things, Polimom and her female friends were groped and mauled by men on the streets. Publicly. We were told it was because all women from the west are whores, and thus deserving of such treatment. Syria, in particular, was a terrifying place for us, because all the men who approached and groped were armed with semi-automatic weapons.

It just was.

By the time we got to Jordan, Polimom was getting pretty angry. However, a gentle young man and his family befriended me, calming my outrage. He spoke about Mohammed, and a peaceful message of Islam. Before we left Amman, this young man gifted Polimom with a dual-language Koran, which today sits on Polimom’s bookshelf alongside her other religious texts and writings from around the world.

The next country visit, however, put Polimom right over the top with disgust. On the docks of Suez, we were approached yet again by a man feeling as if he could freely touch and handle Western women. But this young many was not armed, and Polimom was done with these sinister abusers. Polimom picked up a rock, threw it in his face, and kicked his ass all the way down the dock. He ran away, and Polimom reported him to the Suez police (who were unimpressed and slightly amused).

Polimom has American female friends who have converted to Islam who have not experienced these problems, so the line actually is not drawn on the West so much as it is on whether one is Muslim or not.

Some years later, Polimom found herself in the military’s foreign language institute in Monterey, where she learned Arabic, and revisited the human, moderate side of Islam. Many of Polimom’s instructors were from Iraq, and all of them were like the young man in Jordan.

Polimom re-evaluated yet again, and opened her mind back up to the possibilities of diversity and tolerance. It’s much easier to do from a distance.

Today, people are writing and talking about a gap that “has opened between Islam and the West”. Offended by the Danish cartoons (and corresponding support for free speech), the mullahs and leaders in the Middle East are citing grievances against America, against Europe, and against Western ways, in general.

This culture clash didn’t spring up overnight, folks. There is a vast chasm between these societies, and what we’re seeing has been coming for a long time.

Christianity has extremists, as does Islam. But in the West, our extremists tend to be a fringe group, universally condemned and mocked by us. Contrary to WaPo’s slightly bizarre article and theories yesterday, Christians long-since internalized a “turn the other cheek” philosophy. That, to Polimom, is tolerance. The West is far more capable of overlooking cultural gaffes, and we’re notorious for lampooning pretty much everything.

Islam’s fundamentalists are not a fringe. They exist in enormous numbers, from the very lowest street-cleaners to the leaders of entire countries. Unlike the secular west, where we ridicule religious zealots (think Pat Robertson), Islamists one-up each other in their quest to demonstrate the depth of their fervor.

One simply isn’t Muslim enough if one isn’t outraged by slights to the point of raving.

American papers are apparently under the impression that if they don’t re-publish the cartoons (or new lampoons), the zealots will not focus anger against the U.S. Such a stance is naïve. The fundamental discord is much deeper, and everything is fuel now.

There is no room for accommodation of extremists or threats, and apologists in the West are missing an important component that distinguishes the Islamic culture from the Western: contrary to our expectations of a civilized society, the moderates are not running the show, and there is no way to rationalize with the insane.

Polimom still has many moderate Muslim friends, and she’s sad for them. They are voiceless and powerless in their own societies, and while Polimom wishes it were not so, neither they, nor we, can change that.

World War III was coming, whether September 11 had happened or not, and we’re going to have to get used to the idea.


  • At 2:11 PM, Blogger Schroeder said;

    Interesting story. I'd have loved to see the rock-throwing incident.

  • At 8:25 PM, Blogger TravelingMermaid said;

    I wonder how Muslim men would feel if their wives or daughters were groped in public in America.

  • At 11:45 PM, Blogger Tim said;

    Have you read Sam Harris' "The End of Faith"? He writes about how religious beliefs have become the most dangerous idea to humanity.

  • At 11:05 AM, Blogger Liz said;

    In a pre-911 world, a moderate Muslim man I work with (in USA) was talking about the difficulties he had with educating his young son. He wanted him to learn Farsi but felt the only language programs were led by radical Muslims and did not want him exposed to this element. I naively said something along the lines of - maybe they arent so bad it might be worth it if he got to learn Farsi. He kind of stared at me and said that I just didnt understand, that I had no idea of the extremeness of the beliefs he was referring to. I agreed at the time I had no idea what he was talking about. After 911, I figured it out. I'm glad to know he decided to teach the boy Farsi himself. It must be very sad to be a moderate Muslim in todays world.

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