Thursday, May 19, 2005

Koran-verse toilet paper?

Here is a key difference between the way Westerners seem to think and the way that the Arab/Muslim world seems to think: Westerners believe in principles. The Arab/Muslim world does not.

Westerners believe that if something is right or wrong, then it is right or wrong for everyone. Things are either universally right or universally wrong. Arabs/Muslims believe no such thing. They believe that there are things that are wrong to do to them, and there is never any reason to generalize that belief.

Many Westerners for example are Christians. They believe that everyone ought to respect Christianity. They then realize that to get Muslims to respect Christianity, they have to have Christians showing respect to Muslims. This then gets generalized to “people ought to respect the religion of others”.

Muslims on the other hand believe that everyone ought to respect Islam. They realize that if they want to see this happen they have to make everyone respect Islam by force. Ultimately this gets generalized to “everyone must respect Islam, regardless of what Islam says about you”. This is very different from the Western model.

One can see many examples of this. Take the recent Koran in the toilet incident. Muslims believe that everyone must respect the Koran. Westerners believe the same thing. However, Westerners believe this as the product of a principle that derives from our need to respect the important symbols of others, perhaps because we respect them and perhaps, more cynically, because we want them to respect ours. Muslims believe that people ought to respect the Koran because it is a sacred symbol of Islam, regardless of how Islam treats their sacred symbols. There are few Muslims who have any compunction about, say, burning the American or Israeli flag – both symbols that are pretty sacred to their respective peoples. Muslims do not have a principle that claims that one ought to respect others, only that one ought to respect Muslims.

A second example: The Arab world expects Israel to do the right thing and recognize the Palestinians and their state. This comes from the universal belief that everyone ought to recognize the rights of the Palestinians, regardless of what the Palestinians do. When an American looks at this she is thinking that we need to recognize the right of Palestinians because any people ought to be recognized, and are entitled to a free state. Arabs have no interest in granting statehood to peoples. Israel was created over 50 years ago and has never been recognized as a state by the Arab world (outside the context of the two specific peace treaties). So Arabs have an interest in promoting their state, not any general concept of peoples who have rights to states.

A few weeks ago I posted a response to an op-ed by Rami Khouri. That piece essentially said that there were a lot of things that are important to the Arab/Muslim world and the US was ignoring them – to the detriment of the US. For example, Khouri claimed that Arabs need to perceive that what countries are doing has international legitimacy. The US had no international or moral legitimacy, and thus they are unwelcome in Iraq. I responded by pointing out that international legitimacy is not important to the Arab world, as we can see from a whole slew of examples. There was no international UN sanctioned coalition with the Arabs when they invaded Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967, or 1973. Khouri was playing on our beliefs in principles. The principle that Arabs really believe in is that there ought to be international consensus when invading one of their countries.

Khouri was deliberately lying to us. Khouri knows that Westerners will look favorable on any idea that seems to invoke principles that apply to all equally. That seems to be the meaning of fair. (Under a Rawlsian veil of ignorance we would only want an invasion of Arab territory if there was an international consensus.) So he took some Arab complaints and claimed that they were really instantiations of general Arab principles. He then got all Arabs who read it to say “yeah! That’s what we believe!”. When in reality what they believe is the rule as it applies to this specific case.

It is very clever, but rather insidious and ultimately a bunch of deliberate lies. Westerners look at Arab/Muslim claims and reproach themselves for failing to live up to general principles that all take sacred, and Muslims get to feel self-righteous for having these humane principles that the West tramples.

It is smarmy because what Westerners really believe is that they ought to always reciprocate: if you respect me, I’ll respect you. Westerners then turn this in to a general principle of all respecting all. The Arab/Muslim world skips the reciprocity step, and just demands the general respect that falls out of western principles. Westerners do not realize that anyone could skip reciprocity, and wonder what we are doing wrong and how we could fail to respect the rights of non-Westerners.

Westerners need to wake up and realize that we are not dealing with a culture like our own. If the Arab/Muslim world wants our respect and wants us to care about things like torturing their prisoners, or using the Koran as toilet paper, they need to start showing us the same respect. We need to realize that until we demand this, we ought not to care about those things. We cannot afford not to provide a disincentive to that part of the world not to respect us.

Muslims and Arabs need to realize that respect is a two way street. Someone is going to start manufacturing toilet paper with verses from the Koran in English and Arabic and sell it on the internet. It will be funny to Westerners who think that Christians and Jews are not welcome in their countries, so they really don’t care what the inhabitants think. It will be even funnier when the great toilet-paper fatwas start flying.

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