Is Muslim life actually ‘cheap’?

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz’s anti-Muslim slanders have finally gotten him into trouble in the mainstream, after years during which the major opinion-makers pretended not to notice his chronic racism. Here again is the second half of his latest slur, the part he didn’t apologize for: “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims. . . This is a statement of fact, not value.”

The racism is obvious. But underneath it is a dangerous and inaccurate assumption – that the Muslim world today is exclusively or mainly violent.

First, the most murderous area on earth by far over the past two decades has been east-central Africa – Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo – where at least 3 to 4 million of people have died. Most east-central Africans have Christian or traditional religious beliefs. There are a few Muslims in Rwanda; some of them are honored in the genocide memorial I visited in Kigali earlier this year for risking their lives in 1994 to protect the Tutsi victims.

Let’s turn to Indonesia, which with 238 million people is the world’s most populated predominately Muslim state. Indonesia has lived through ethnic/religious clashes, especially during and just after the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998, but today it is basically peaceful, with an imperfect but functioning democracy.

How about Egypt, the nation with the most (79 million) people in the Arab world? Egypt is definitely a dictatorship, supported by both the United States and Israel, and the Mubarak regime does torture its own citizens. There are also clashes from time to time in upper Egyptian towns, with Muslim/Coptic Christian overtones. But Cairo is one of the world’s safest big cities, and you can walk in any neighborhood there at any time. The vast majority of Egyptians have convincingly repudiated the violent Islamic movements of the 1990s, which is why Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who is Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, is hiding somewhere in the Afghani borderlands instead of organizing at home.

In fact, Egypt is somewhat representative of most other Arab nations – authoritarian, repressive regimes; a mass of people who vacillate from acquiescence to resentment; and (sometimes) small violent Islamic movements. (In fairness, some of the rulers (Mohammed VI of Morocco [32 million people], King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia [27 million]), do enjoy genuine popularity, although the Syrian and Tunisian presidents could not win free elections.)

But neither the United States nor Israel makes any noise about Egypt and these similar dictatorships; in fact, their military and security services even collaborate.

So where is “Muslim life” supposedly so “cheap”? Lebanon? There was a ferocious civil war there, but both Christians and Muslims fought in it, and the 1982 Israeli invasion contributed to the killing – at Shabra and Shatila, Israeli soldiers stood by while Christian militiamen slaughtered at least 800 Muslim civilians.

Algeria? Unquestionably, the country lived through terrible violence, particularly back in the 1990s. But the killing did not start until a peaceful Islamist movement won the 1991 elections, and the military overturned the results – with the tacit approval of the West.

Darfur? This is a favorite example of the Muslim haters, but the genuine experts agree that although the violence there has been horrible, the religious element is insignificant.

Which brings us to Iraq. There’s no doubt that Saddam Hussein presided over a murderous criminal dictatorship – but during the period of some of his greatest crimes, such as when he dropped poison gas on the Kurds in 1988, he enjoyed Western support, including that famous 1983 visit by Ronald Reagan’s special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld. The West made no effort back then to either boycott Iraq’s oil, or to stop selling him weapons, so it is at least partly complicit in his crimes.

A civil war would have broken out in Iraq at some stage even if the United States had never invaded. But you can argue that the American invasion has made the fighting longer, more complicated, and even more violent.

Let’s look now at large Muslim communities outside the Arab world. India, with its huge minority population of 138 million Muslims? Hindu fundamentalists, in Mumbai, Gujarat and elsewhere, regularly unleash pogroms against Indian Muslims.

Iran? Another repressive, authoritarian regime, increasingly unpopular. But a regime that kills and tortures to hang on to power, and only uses religion as a transparent, feeble justification.

Which brings us to Pakistan – a nation which, at first glance, does seem to be a nightmare of violent religious passions, of suicide bombings and sectarian killings among Muslims. So far, however, elections there have shown that the extreme Islamists are a minority. As elsewhere, on closer inspection some of the militant political movements seem motivated more by a lust for power than by any genuine spiritual quest.

Of course, Pakistan (or certain other places in the Muslim world) could in fact continue to slide into wider and wider violence. This would be awful, but not completely incomprehensible. We could re-visit the section of our libraries devoted to European History (1929-1945), and remind ourselves how widespread, prolonged unemployment and chronic economic stagnation can create and nourish murderous mass political movements that nearly destroyed the world.

In historical terms, this all happened only recently, and there was scarcely a Muslim in Europe to be blamed for it.

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