Professor of English and director of the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England in Maine
The violence that has erupted throughout the Muslim world in the wake of the release of a short film on YouTube, one that depicts the Prophet Mohammed as a heartless fraud, is a wake-up call for very many of us.
I arrived in Morocco, the most liberal country in the Arab world and a reliable partner of the West for decades, on the eve of the YouTube controversy. As soon as I heard about the murders in Libya and the violent protests elsewhere, I chose not to be silent in the face of Islamist fury. I spent a lot of energy patiently explaining to cab drivers, unemployed youths, poorly educated workers, and highly educated professionals that the US government can’t control what people post on the Internet.
The typical response I get is one about the inviolate nature of monotheistic prophets. Civility, I keep getting told, consists of respecting other faiths and beliefs. Sunni Muslims say this without the slightest sense of irony, conveniently forgetting their genocidal murders of Shiites, let alone their persecution of vulnerable Christians in Pakistan and other minorities elsewhere. (The Jews, of course, have long been pushed out of Arab lands, but saying this will get you nowhere. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict torpedoes any attempt at a rational debate on this issue.)
Politics is only part of the matter. Try starting a conversation about cremation, for example, or asking about whether good women will get their male houris in heaven. I look at dead-serious believers in the face and start enumerating the deficits of Arab and Muslim-majority nations: No decent public education, no adequate health care, no rule of law, rampant corruption in public office, widespread social hypocrisy, no employment opportunities, and total dependency on the unbelievers, the kuffar, for everything they consume. People nod—and nod—in agreement and instantly go back to their default position: Islam is the only truth. The faith, as interpreted by the ulama (religious scholars) is so deeply woven in their psyches that they genuinely believe that questioning it might bring the wrath of God on them.
This suggests to me a fear of freedom and what it could bring. Yet without genuine freedom society cannot create or produce anything of value. It cannot bear critical thinkers, a quality that is indispensable to progress and development. Muslims live in a world of ever increasing red lines, beginning with the prohibition of reading the Qur'an as anything but divine and believing that Mohammed is God’s last prophet. Try suggesting that historical evidence--however preliminary--points out that the Qur’an, like all texts, is the product of human hands and editorial decisions over a long span of time, and see what happens. One could have serious doubts as to whether Mohammed is the historical figure we have come to know, but such views would be unlikely to be listened to or taken seriously. And so it goes. There is no budging—the world must adapt to Islamic beliefs, or the world must go to hell.
We need to push ahead with hard questions about the origins of the faith and why Islam is a historical construction. We should take a second look at our view of Islamic history, revisit old assumptions, and allow the chips of tested knowledge to fall where they may. Religion might be hard to stamp out from our lives, but we should at least try to contain its effects. That should be the goal of those who care about peace. The reader may disagree with me, but I really don't see another way for people in Muslim-majority nations to build a decent a society for themselves and their children.