"In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful," by Turkish calligrapher Hüseyin Kutlu
There's been a good deal of writing lately about U.S. abuses of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo, the recenty-published pictures of Saddam Hussein, and the incidents of the desecration of the Qu'ran, and I wanted to point out a few as well as bringing up some points of my own.
Readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of the simplistic, smug writing of Thomas Friedman, but I appreciated that he took on these topics in his columns "Normalizing Torture" , about depictions of torture on TV, and "Just Shut it Down", about the Guantanamo camp. Friedman, pointing out from his apparently eye-opening reading of the British and international press during a recent trip to London, that in his opinion the real damage of Bush's rhetoric, and clueless foreign policy appointments, is to American's image abroad (are there still intelligent readers who haven't grasped this? I guess so...) writes:
When photographs of Saddam Hussein in his underwear were printed in the New York Post and the London Sun, President Bush told the Associated Press: “I don’t think a photo inspires murderers. These people are motivated by a vision of the world that is backward and barbaric.” Then he added, “I think the insurgency is inspired by their desire to stop the march of freedom.”
Karen Hughes as director of public diplomacy at the State Department. Her mandate, when she assumes the job later this summer, will be to “promote U.S. values and improve America’s image abroad.” Hughes has no foreign-policy background and no discernible experience in Islamic matters. But never mind—she is Bush’s longtime political strategist and close friend.
On learning of the appointment, Business Week columnist David Kiley issued this caution: “One of the reasons America and George Bush’s image is so damaged abroad is that the Administration’s policy and rhetoric is so devoid of truth and historical perspective.”
I'm glad to know that now. Anyway, I guess it's good that Friedman hammers away on these points. What bothers me is that in all the talk about the damage to America's image, or to Newseek's credibility, we lose sight of what *I* would term the "real damage" - the astounding, life-altering damage to the dignity, health, and even the death of the human beings who have been the victims of these atrocious acts. Second to that is the damage being done to soldiers who have witnessed or participated in the acts themselves, and who have been perverted or traumatized by them and will be bringing those physchological and emotional scars back into American society on their return home. Third, there is the damage to people like myself and so many other sensitive, caring human beings whose own psychology and mental landscape has been irrevocably altered by witnessing these images, reliving the acts in our minds, and considering the ways in which we have unwillingly participating or even aided them. Why can't we talk more about this, the true human cost of war and violence, rather than the fact that "American interests" have been hurt abroad, and that someone's profits will undoubtedly go down?
Another piece that is probably more worth reading is an essay by senior contributing editor James M. Wall in the most recent issue of The Christian Century, discussing recent American foreign policy pronouncements alongside the idealistic and accurate portrayal of the Islamic perspective in the recently-released film on the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven. I haven't seen the film yet, but I've been glad to read about the vision of director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise) and his desire to "help correct the imbalance that has led too many in the West to brand 1.2 billion Muslims as the 'evil other' in a 'clash of civilizations.'" Scott was advised by a Muslim scholar, Hamid Dabashi, a film expert from Columbia University, to help ensure the historical accuracy and fairness of Kingdom of Heaven. James Wall has been tireless in his attempts to broaden American understanding, especially that of religious leaders, about the Middle East and American foreign policy, and he's maintained a consistent and courageous point of view particularly in his writing about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In his recent post, Revering Dead Trees, Fr. Jake reflects about Islamic and Christian reverence for their holy books:
Here's what I find to be a very curious thing; that the desecration of a book could cause such outrage, or at least the appearance of outrage, while the physical abuses going on just off the Floridian coast hardly get a mention in the daily newscasts.
I understand that Islam, as well as other faith traditions, cares for their sacred texts with deep reverence. Christians honor the bible in a similar way; in a sacramental way. The words are an outward and visible sign of God's revelation.
But, they are still just books. By themselves, they are just dead trees with squiggly marks on them. The texts come alive when a living being engages them. We are what matters to God, not dead trees.
The ensuing discussion on Fr. Jake's post is very interesting, especially when the commenters talk about the use of the Bible as reverential object during liturgy. But I think some of it misses the mark, perhaps due to a lack of deeper understanding about why the Qu'ran itself, as an object, is treated with such respect by Muslims. Yes, as Jake and some of his readers point out, it is considered to be the revealed word of God - and many evangelical Christians see the Bible the same way. But that alone doesn't explain why people would riot over its desecration, and I think from a Christian point of view we can't quite get our heads around that.
When I was first getting to know my Muslim friends, I remember that one night we all noticed a local newspaper with an illustration of some Arabic calligraphy on the front page. Included in the calligraphy was the Arabic word "Allah", or "God." One of my Muslim friend said, "in my homeland this is considered very bad." I was surprised and asked why - I had thought she'd be pleased to see an article attempting to educate westerners about an aspect of Middle Eastern culture, and the calligraphic example itself was very beautiful.
"It's a newspaper," she said. "And newspapers get used to wrap food or refuse, they get sat on, they get used to clean things, they get thrown away. For us, the written name of God is holy and should be respected. It can appear in a book or in something that has a permanent place of honor and will never be desecrated, but it shouldn't appear in a place where it can be discarded or mistreated - because that is so disrespectful; to us it is the same as doing that disrespectful thing to God himself."
Not all Muslims would be that strict, but perhaps this puts the flushing of the Qu'ran into a different cultural light, especially when contact with excrement is also one of the very worst things that can happen, and something that Muslims strive to avoid. What we perceive here in the West has an entirely different meaning when seen in an Islamic contect - a meaning that goes far beyond a physical object, a book. And there is no way to judge that - it simply "is". Our task is not to judge, after all, but to understand.