Monday, February 06, 2006

Religious Extremism Will Be Our Undoing

There is an interesting contrast between reports on this weekend's protests and riots in Beruit over Danish cartoons in Monday's editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Both dailies provide richer descriptions of the dynamics behind the unrest than the pejorative propaganda circulated by some more partisan bloggers. So, bits of the descriptions are worth passing along here to gain some insight as the smoke clears.

According to the Times, while thousands of Muslims turned out to protest the cartoons of Muhammad, the entire group was not responsible for the burning of the Danish embassy:
[A] breakaway crowd surged toward a high-rise building that houses the Austrian and Danish Missions, chanting obscene anti-Danish slogans in Arabic and vandalizing cars, office buildings and a Maronite Catholic church nearby. Other protesters burned Danish flags and flags bearing images of the cross .... Lebanon's grand mufti, Muhammad Rashid Kabbani, denounced the violence, saying there were infiltrators among the protesters trying to "harm the stability of Lebanon." Muhammad Khalil, an Islamic teacher from Akkar, in northern Lebanon, and an organizer of the march, said: "The burning of buildings and the destruction of cars is unacceptable. This was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration, but people who love God and Muhammad are becoming overwhelmed by their anger" .... But many Lebanese also spoke of unity, the memory of the 15-year sectarian civil war still fresh in many minds. At the [Lebanese Christian] counterdemonstration, a Christian woman who would give her name only as Rita and who lives near the Danish Mission said men leaving the demonstration had entered the bakery where she worked. "They were apologizing," she said, and saying, "'We didn't mean for this to be a violent demonstration. We only wanted to say that we stand behind the name of Muhammad. But we believe that we are all Lebanese together.'"
The Post indicates that there are profound religious fissures and tensions opened up across Lebanon that not even a common political identity can overcome. Even some Christians are taking up weapons and calling for a separate "Christian" nation:
The [interreligious] unity of [earlier] protests [unleashed with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which forced Syrian withdrawal] has since given way to political uncertainty, the perception of Syrian troublemaking and growing communal tension, particularly between Shiite Muslims, the country's largest single group whose leadership has remained pro-Syrian, and other religious communities. Around the corner from the smoldering Danish Embassy was a faded, torn poster that read: "Lebanese Christian + Lebanese Muslim = Lebanese." "We're defending our land, our cross and our religion," said a 27-year-old who gave his name as John. He stood with other Christian youths carrying sticks and iron bars in the nearby neighborhood of Jemazye. One of his friends, Nabil Hazboun, walked toward him. "If they want the return of the militias to Lebanon, we're ready for them to come back," he said. Down the street, Mahmoud Aitour, a 23-year-old Muslim, took a break from his job at a restaurant and smoked a cigarette. "These things shouldn't happen, but at the same time, you have to show respect for religion," he said. As he spoke, a firetruck barreled down the street, its sirens blaring. "There has to be respect," he said. "Without respect, you get this." Text messages circulated on cell phones throughout the day. "Brothers, 200 years of killing of innocent Christians by Muslims and irresponsible Christian leaders," one read. "We say no more!!!! Launch the 'Christian Nation of Lebanon.' It is NEVER going to end unless you prepare your weapons, organize, and claim your Christian independent territory, by force. Or die."
The rightwing bloggers here are all abuzz with comparisons of "violent Islam" and "peaceful Christianity." The first-hand reports in both of these stories defy those stereotypes. The threat to freedom of expression does not come from the sum of any one faith tradition. It comes from the religious extremists in all countries who do not understand the difference between protest and unjustifiable, violent insurrection. It is what comes when religious devotees from any tradition place their faith above basic human rights that span cultures irrespective of theological differences. For political opportunists to jump on this awful episode as validation of the truth of "our religion," amounts to demagoguery and it incites religious extremism at the fringes of the Christian tradition in America.

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