Middle East mindsets

Radical Islamists love to scream about the “decadent” West. Everything from our operas to our attitudes about women outrage these loud, pious critics.

As part of their condemnation, fundamentalist Muslims say they put a higher premium on family values and reverence for the past than crass modern Americans and Europeans do. But that is hardly true.

In Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, unforgiving Shariah law administered by stern state clerics dictates the cutting off a hand for theft.

Is there less stealing then? Not at the highest levels at least. Sheiks from the ruling House of Saud are notorious for gambling and squandering abroad their nation’s collective petro-wealth. But few such royals walk around Riyadh with missing limbs from “judicial amputation.”

Recently on a British Airways flight to London, members of Qatar’s royal house were outraged that its princesses had been seated next to male passengers who weren’t related to them. Was this a clash of civilizations?

Not quite. The entire entourage was, in fact, returning from an all-day shopping spree in Milan, Italy. The angry members of Qatar’s royal house may claim outrage at gender equality, but they seem to have no problem with the libertine West when it comes to splurging their kingdom’s wealth on luxury items.

This type of hypocrisy in the Muslim world is not limited to supposedly devout oil-rich Gulf sheiks who cherry-pick Western sin. Terrorists — with one foot in the seventh century and the other in the 21st century — want it both ways, too.

How often have we heard Ayman al-Zawahri, the mouthpiece of al Qaeda, damn the disruptive culture of the West? Yet he has no reservations about broadcasting his infomercials using video technology made possible by a secular science unique to Westernized culture. And does the observant Zawahri object that his pals, the pious Taliban, are linked to heroin traffickers?

Jihadists champion Shariah law, too. But when captured, they hire sophisticated secular Western nitpicking lawyers to sue over conditions in Guantanamo or incarceration in British prisons. Al Qaeda, of course, complains about everything from American troops once stationed in Saudi Arabia to even the U.S. failure to sign the Kyoto accords. Meanwhile, by blowing up religious shrines across Iraq, they show far less respect for mosques than we do.

There is a general pattern in these various paradoxes of fundamentalist Islam, both its violent and nonviolent manifestations.

Supposedly Western sins, such as drugs, bribery and rampant consumerism, turn out to be as common in the Muslim world as they are here. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality even seems to be tolerated as long as it is not overtly discussed in public. Indeed, the only real difference may be our Western tendency to talk freely in a secular context about controversial topics rather than hide or repress their presence.

Moreover, it is not always what we do in the Middle East, or even who we are, that infuriates the radical Muslim world. Its frustration also rises out of fascination with the West — and the ensuing religious embarrassment over wanting what we enjoy.

It’s worth noting that the United States is not hated in numerous other places, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, where it has had a military presence or adopted controversial foreign policies.

In contrast, the peculiar furor at the U.S. in the radical Islamic world arises because our culture, when viewed on DVD, satellite television and the Internet, is judged to be incorrect in the ideal world of seventh-century Islam — and impossible for conflicted Muslims to enjoy fully in the 21st.

Of course, our foreign policy, or even the crassness of Western pornography, can inflame this pre-existing anti-Americanism. But, ultimately, there remains this divide between vibrant modern life that is the product of the Western Enlightenment and a static tribal order that is not.

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