Thursday, July 27, 2006

Persecution and Derrida's Cat

In response to my earlier post about persecution of Christians in Pakistan and Turkey, Rene of Life, the Universe and Everything feels that I am contributing to "the cause of much of the problems we have today, certainly not the solution". While I don't kid myself that everyone will agree with my opinions (and Rene and I have been debating politics, religion and philosophy for years) I am somewhat surprised that he picked this particular article for special refutation. I would have thought my piece defending the Israeli incursion into Lebanon would have been more to his point. Pointing out examples of persecution would seem pretty tame by comparison, but I'll take whatever response I can get.

First, let me answer a couple of his criticisms specifically, then I will add some further commentary at the end. I don't particularly like this format, since it makes further responses somewhat complicated, but I don't want to give the impression that I am ignoring any of his points..

First of all I think this type of post is completely single sided. Guilty, as charged. I make no attempt on this blog to pretend that I am completely objective and I generally do not trust people who claim to be.

Extreme intolerance or aggression is a serious problem in the world today. It exists and it should be countered and eradicated. But Here he is acknowledging that I have a point. He isn't, therefore in the category of knee-jerk leftists who disagree with any conservative just because he is a conservative. I note this only to point out that I do indeed appreciate the carefulness with which he argues, even though I ultimately disagree with his argument. Yet, note that "but". The real point follows:

the suggestion by examples like this that the problem is an exponent of a single cultural or religious group is absolutely ridiculous. I don't think I made that suggestion. Relating this to the previous sentence, he seems to think that I am blaming all of the intolerance in the world on Islam. My point was much humbler: to point out that some minorities are persecuted with impunity and don't get the attention that they deserve. Even among our "allies", Christianity is treated far worse than, on balance, Christians have treated others.

Too easily do we forget similar tendensies that exist in our own culture, or that of our other neighbours. Have we forgotten the crimes of Nazi and KKK sympathisers? Of extreme black power groups? of violence between Sikhs and Hindus or the aggression that is displayed by Zionist militants? Some people might forget this, but I certainly do not. But the Nazis and KKK have not been in power for a long time, and the other groups he mentions, though perfectly legitimate targets, are not my particular concern. This is the heart of our disagreement, but I will wait until the end to say more about it.

Furthermore, are we forgetting that even in the case of looking at Muslim fundamentalism, that there is no such thing as Islam versus Christianity? There are similar problems between Islam and Hindus, or even within Islam (Shia and Sunni for instance). This whole construct of "them versus us" with "them" as the evil aggressor just does not exist. This is patently false as my two examples prove. Muslim hostility to Christianity may not be the only problem in the world, but it is a problem and it is as worthy of discussion as any other. The fact that I am a Christian (and therefore part of the "us") does not exclude me from having a valid interest in pointing this out.

As to the suggestion that there are conflicts within Islam itself, I am well aware of the fact and my posts on the crisis in Darfur (here, here, here and here for instance) should absolve me of the charge that I have ignored this fact.

Even worse it is the exact same type of propaganda tat is used by extremists in the Islam camps or elsewhere to incite hatred to other groups. If you want an example of Christians abusing a Muslim, or any other combination of ethnic groups, you will have no problem in finding it. Well, I for one have not found too many examples recently. It is true that sectarian violence often involves bad behavior on both sides, but when the violence is one-sided as in the examples I cited, it is usually not the Christians who are the aggressors. If Rene thinks these examples are easy to find, perhaps he can furnish some.

And that is the second major problem. Incidents like this do not even have a proper reference or clear link to facts or truth. Did this happen? Was this the whole story? We don't know. I admit that I cannot verify the truth of the claims, nor even link to a post by Voice of the Martyrs. But these stories are first-hand accounts by people who were treated by VoM representatives. I get three or four such stories via email every week. Some of them may be inaccurate, but that is the nature of after-the-fact reporting.

Even if it happened exactly like this, then the question of how representative of a whole culture / religion or ethnic group this is still remains. Again, I said nothing about these stories being representative. But the fact that they occurred should color our evaluation of the societies in which they took place, even if total condemnation would be inappropriate. If Rene needs me to make a black vs white argument in order to make his point, he should know by now that I am not going to oblige. But neither should unpleasant data be dismissed just because it is not "representative".

In my opinion posting this post contributes to the same problem that it tries to identify and condemn: The aggression of one ethnic group to another. It puts the poster on a same level as the extremist imams that try to convince their followers that Christians are evil, or the Zionist calling for the eradication of Palestinians. As long as we keep hating people, and condemning their beliefs and values, we cannot expect anything else in return. Note in the first sentence that he is careful to say "contributes to" not "causes". This is an example of the carefulness I noted earlier. But in the second sentence he abandons this nuance by the sort of moral equivalence that is emblematic of liberalism. How, exactly, is pointing to specific acts of violence by a specific group of Muslims (in the Pakistan story) or pointing out that certain other Muslims are trying to get a particular church outlawed (in the Turkey story) the same as calling them "evil" or calling for their "eradication"? Is criticism always an act of violence? By that logic, Rene's post is essentially a death threat against me (since he calls my ideas "extremely dangerous") which no reasonable person would conclude. But if there is a hierarchy of disagreement, why is my pointing out specific cases of persecution out of bounds?

So what is my overall response? I happen to believe that Islam is a false religion and Christianity is a true one and that these facts have consequences in the real world. Therefore, I am more inclined to point out abuses of the one against the other. But I have never shied away from pointing out the failings of people I would like to support, as noted by my early comments on the Abu Ghraib scandal. But selecting what stories to talk about is not the same as denying that there are other stories. I pick stories that strike me as interesting and, when I can, that seem to be under-reported.

In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida famously discussed the problem of feeding your own cat while not feeding all of the other starving cats. According to Derrida, the act of doing good in one instance is inseparably connected to the guilt of not doing other possible goods. I think that is the fallacy that Rene is committing here. In pointing out these particular abuses, I am guilty of not discussing other, equally abusive situations. But my answer to both Derrida and Rene is that I will do what good I can and allow others the opportunity to fill in the gaps. This is sort of an extension of the principle of the free market to the realm of ethics.

Ultimately, of course, I believe that God will sort all of this out and dispense perfect justice, but until then we frail humans have the responsibility to point out injustice when we see it and fix it when we can.

1 comment:

René Meijer said...

Hey Jack, thanks for the response.

You raise some valid points, and as always I think we are probably close in intent, although rather different in preferred execution.

I think my main concern is with unfair typecasting. As Sun Tzu noted 2400 years ago, all warfare is based on deception. Every party in every war tried to rally support by demonizing their opponents.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait we were told the Iraqis had been laughingly tearing 500 premature babies from their incubators. During the Bosnian war we were told the Serbs pursued an official policy of rape. Both claims inflamed public opinion and helped muster support for interventions, but neither of these claims was ever substantiated. A few years afterwards they were both disproved and silently retracted.

I think we have to realize that at the end of the day, we are getting very wound up about things that are merely hearsay. None of us ever experienced many of the things we have opinions on ourselves. And when the subject of your opinion is something that so many groups have a vested interest in, I think you should be careful to draw serious conclusions from anything they say, especially if this information is unverified and from a single source.

On a final note I would like to make clear that although I judged your post rather hard, I do know that your intent is good. If I condemned the post, it was a condemnation of the effect it would have, not of the intent of the poster.