Monday, February 13, 2006

The Alter of the Altar

"So, even if you happen to be offering your gift at the altar and recall that your friend has some claim against you, leave your gift there at the altar. First go and be reconciled with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift." Matthew 5:23-24, SV.

James Carroll:

What we call ''the West" was born in the clash of civilizations that climaxed in the Crusades, with Muslims assigned the role of the external ''negative other" against which Christendom defined itself positively (The internal ''negative other" were the Jews). Among Europeans, and then Americans, that intellectual polarity was sublimated over the centuries, but its insult remained current among Muslims, and was powerfully resuscitated by the assault of colonialism.

The economics of oil, including the creation of an oppressive local class of Western-sponsored oligarchs, locked the grievous insult in place. As if to be sure it was more sharply felt than ever, Europe imported ''guest workers" from the Islamic world, openly consigning them to an underclass that is as religiously defined as it is permanent.

And then the United States launched its wars. One of the major disconnects in the present conflict is the way in which European and American analysis obsesses with the apparently anarchic outbursts of violence in the ''Arab street" without taking in how brutally violent the post-9/11 ''coalition" assault has been, not only physically but psychologically.

Mobs throw stones through the windows of European consulate offices, and the legion of CNN watchers recoils with horror. Meanwhile, unmanned drones fly across stretches of desert to drop loads of fire on the heads of subsistence farmers in their villages; children die, but CNN is not there.

Billions of dollars are being poured each month into the project of imposing an American solution on an Arab problem, and increasingly the solution looks, from the other side, like annihilation. Muslims, that is, understand the new reality far better than non-Muslims do -- the state of open cultural warfare that ''the West" imagines is a narrowly targeted war against ''terrorism." Muslims, as Muslims, experience themselves as on the receiving end of a savage -- but, alas, not unprecedented -- assault.

Are they wrong? In the argument over ''Enlightenment" values, sparked by the cartoons, some champions of free expression have fallen into the deadly old mistake that led, in the 20th century, to a grotesque betrayal of those very values -- the over-under ranking of human beings, with the lives of some being counted as cheap.
Why are we killing them? As with multiple problems today, this one comes back to the misbegotten American war. It threatens to ignite the century, and must be stopped.
An example of what Mr. Carroll means comes to us from Denmark, via Street Prophets:

COPENHAGEN, Feb. 12 -- About 25 Muslim graves in western Denmark were vandalized late Saturday night, bringing swift condemnation from Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as tensions simmer from a Danish newspaper's publication last year of cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

"I strongly condemn this disgraceful act, and I deeply regret the desecration of Muslim graves," Rasmussen said in a statement released by his office Sunday night. "I have made it clear that the Danish government condemns any expression or any action which offends people's religious feelings."

This raises an important question in response to Rasmussen's condemnation of this act: Was this an 'act' that has offended people's feelings in Denmark? Or: Was this an expression of a widely held view in Denmark--that Muslims should keep quiet or get out?
Or the French decision to ban head coverings worn by Muslim girls in French schools.

It is less a question of the proper use of power, than the use of power at all. As janeboatler keeps reminding us:

because we have the freedom to do something, that does not exempt us from using good judgement about whether we do it or not. The greater the freedom, the greater the necessity to exercise that freedom responsibly.
And how else are we to determine responsibility, except by consideration of the alterity of the other?

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