Soapbox: Reactions to Quran burning in Afghanistan: Ending the West's culturally relativist exception to Muslim extremism

Posted by Eric Shapiro

Editor's Note: This piece was written before the shooting outside of Camp Belambay on March 10, 2012, it is not intended as an indictment of all or the majority of Muslims.

If the West should remain culturally sensitive in its endeavors abroad, it needs to stop tolerating the barbaric reactions of a minority of Muslims to slights against Islam.  We should not make a culturally relativist exception for extremist Muslims to murder in the name of their religion. 

The burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan was a terrible mistake that merited President Barack Obama's letter of apology to President Hamid Karzai. The Quran, like most other religious texts, must be disposed of in a particular manner as prescribed by religious law.

The failure of U.S. military personnel to recognize this was insensitive and counterproductive to America's stated goal of fostering stability in Afghanistan. Such mistakes undermine our credibility and deserve to be condemned without reservation. Whoever was responsible for the blunder deserves to be punished accordingly. The U.S. would be well served to provide its soldiers with the military equivalent of "sensitivity training" to prevent similar instances in the future. However, none of this excuses the disproportionate and, frankly, childish reaction of some Muslims to what was clearly an accident. 

That being said, the actions of some Afghan citizens in response to the Quran burning is far more appalling than the incident that inspired them. This should not be considered a controversial statement; there is simply no non-theological way to justify murder on the grounds of book burning. If this were the case, the entire world would fall into chaos. It is one thing to accept the sanctity of a holy text; it is quite another to accept the notion that those offended by an act of desecration have the right to exact a blood toll.

The fact that a book burning is held by a significant number of Afghanis as cause for massive protests, much less murder, speaks to a serious lack of priorities in that country and much of the Muslim world. In light of the horrific acts of violence inflicted on Muslim Arabs every day (some of them perpetrated by the "Christian" U.S., many more by other Muslims), the capacity of a book burning to provoke such a violent reaction speaks to a serious confusion of priorities in the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, many progressives have justifiably condemned the Quran burning while unjustifiably sparing Afghanis criticism for their barbaric response. Cultural relativism should never be construed to justify murder. It is long past time that we stop indulging the Muslim world's widespread extremism out of some misguided attempt to feel less guilty about imperialism.

Adherence to an antiquated version of Islam (just like strict adherence to any religion) is a big, if not the biggest, problem in the Middle East right now, and the West does not do Arab Muslims any service by catering to their fanaticism. For years, the West has tacitly accepted violent reprisals by Muslims in response to all manner of slights both real and imagined. The West acts as if years of oppression somehow absolve all Muslims of responsibility for the crimes perpetrated in the name of their faith.  

These same progressives defend Muslims' penchant for violent reprisals by posing the question: would members of any religion respond differently to the debasement of their religious texts in a similar manner? Indeed, no one who has seriously studied Judaism, Christian or any Eastern religion can seriously claim that violence and intolerance are unique to Islam. That being said, in recent years, a sizeable minority of Muslims have demonstrated a disturbing unwillingness to tolerate the inevitable criticism and disrespect that comes with being a major world religion. Worse, moderate Muslims have not adequately condemned the extremists perpetrating violence in the name of their religion - perhaps out of fear for their own safety or perhaps out of a misguided attempt to safeguard Islam's reputation. In many cases, mainstream Islamic authorities have tacitly accepted fatwas on individuals with the audacity to, for example, draw a picture of the prophet Muhammad.     

For all their bellicose rhetoric about waging a religious war against Islam, it is not common for evangelical Christians (or Jews, or Hindus, or Buddhists...) in the West to go on killing sprees when Muslims disrespect their holy texts. Hamas and Hezbollah launch rockets at Israeli cities with the express purpose of killing Jews, who they consider the equivalent of pigs and dogs, and Israel is condemned for a "disproportionate response." But burn one Quran, or display one picture of Mohammad, and we tacitly accept that extremist Muslims will take to the streets in protest, issue Fatwas against journalists, and decapitate film directors in the street. Worse, it is politically incorrect to point out that this kind of reaction is incompatible with contemporary Western values. Comparatively little sympathy is spared for the countless Christians and Jews with the audacity to practice their religion in so-called "Muslim countries."

This is not to say that it is wrong to be offended when the Quran is disrespected, particularly when the events of the past 10 years have given Arab Muslims ample reason to be suspicious of Western intentions. Nevertheless, Arab Muslims deserve to be held to the same standards of conduct as members of every other religion; in the long run, indulging bad behavior on the grounds of cultural relativism will only leave the Arab world mired in a state of ignorance and superstition. Instead of sympathizing with fanatics who kill people and destroy property over burned books, we should promote those Muslims - and there are many of them - who practice a more modern, secular and peaceful form of Islam.

Unfortunately, this silent majority of sane Muslims is systematically marginalized by theocrats who think every state in the Middle East should instate Sharia law. I am not referring to extremist boogeymen like al-Qaeda and the Taliban - who, incidentally, enjoyed considerable support in the Arab world until they started blowing up Muslims along with everyone else - but rather to the considerable number of modern, secular people who only support free speech as long as it "respects" Islam. Reprisals like the one currently playing out in Afghanistan will only fan the flames of anti-Islamic sentiment around the world. True tolerance cannot be one-sided, nor can it be inculcated through fear. The sooner Muslims everywhere realize that they are the ones with the most to lose when extremists perpetrate violence in the name of their religion, the sooner they will receive the respect they deserve.

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