Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The New Yorker Usually Does Not Suck

Which is nice, in a world where many things do suck. I was asking myself the other day what the New Yorker would be like if Tina Brown were still the editor and it's not a pretty picture. The New Yorker has been the source for countless important stories on Iraq, on Katrina, on the environment and the disastrous results of the current administration. Yet, I don't know who the current editor is. Was it always so political? I don't think so. I don't remember it being so. I started reading it in the '90s. For the short stories. mostly. It seemed full of vignettes and then, under Tina Brown, Vanity Fairesque worship of the rich and famous. Not much political insight.

Still, there were two articles in the September 11th issue that continue to bother me. What surprised me was that, because they were in The New Yorker, they came in under the wire, as it were. I accepted their presuppositions without realizing it.

The first was George Packer's "The Moderate Martyr: Interpreting Islam for the Modern World." It's about the Sudanese Islamic philosopher named Taha. (I'd never heard of him before.) Briefly, Taha makes it possible for Muslims both to embrace modern universalistic ethics and to believe in the Koran by positing two versions of the Koran: A Medina version and a Meccan version. The Median version is universalistic and the Meccan enjoins Muslims to regard women as lesser and to kill infidels, among other things. (Strangely, perhaps, a fundamentalist Christian member of my family actually mentioned to me about six months ago that "something happened to Mohammed after he left Medina." Freaking out that this person, whom I love, was going to say something horrible, I tried to change the subject but I gathered that Christian fundamentalists are turning to critiques of Islam, which is scary. But they are also thinking about Islam religiously and finding out about its history, which is sort of interesting.)

What disturbed me about the article: That it so quickly embraced and confirmed the idea that Muslims who care about equality and justice have this terrible problem in that Islam enjoins them to affirm inequality and injustice. Is this true? It is true in the sense that all the major monotheisms have a long history of intolerance and inequality and some scary-ass things in their central religious texts. Islam says slavery is OK, and so do Judaism and Christianity. But beyond that it makes it sound as if any attempt to marry these more ancient views with a modern enlightenment morality are just somehow pathetic and inauthentic. I know many people who would agree with this, about all three monotheisms. Yet, we know there are a number of instances where Islamic political power and Islamic culture has taken a just and reaonably enlightened (for its time) form. Medieval Muslim rulers were supposed to be more tolerant than Christian rulers of the same period. And most of the people who want to condemn all monotheisms for immoral statements in its foundational texts would not be comfortable with the idea we should throw out Kant and Aristotle because of their racist and sexist views.

In any case, what I didn't like was the author's implicit assumption that all forms of Islam other than those by this guy Taha are inevitably oppressive and supremacist. That it's sort of inimical to Islam to be that way. At least, I found myself thinking "Oh. I guess maybe Islam is sort of a naturally violent and cruel religion." The article kind of slips that in, in what I thought was a disturbing way.

The second article does a very similar thing. Jeffrey Goldberg's article about Hamas. I think it was written with a bit more honesty. What it says is most likely true but I have to wonder what isn't said. Much interviewing is done of men shooting rockets into Israel, political leaders who want their sons to "grow up to be martyrs, as long as they kill Israelis." Yes, there are Palestinians who want their children to be suicide bombers and think that they will shoot rockets into Israel until Israel somehow goes away. (It is very strange, this claim they make--do they forget the existence of the Israeli bombs? The Israelis have PLANES. The Israelis have MISSILES. The Isralis have NUCLEAR WEAPONS. How could they possibly believe that they will harass the Israelis with their little rockets into up and leaving, even if they do happen to get their hands on much better rockets?)

Are there no Palestinians who are thoughtful and have insight into what is happening? Why is it so rare for us to hear their views? What is the real position of the "Palestinian moderates," whose existence is only postulated by some Israeli official?

I suppose one thing I always think when I read about the dangerous Muslim extremists--why is there never any mention of the fact that they are so outgunned it isn't even funny? I'm not sure what Goldberg could have put in his article to make it less of an affirmation that Palestinians are just crazy and there is no hope for peace with those crazy Palestinians. Maybe it's just the case that there is no hope for peace with those crazy Palestinians but is there no one he could interview--no Palestinian whatsoever--that could give a different perspective. It's just: Crazy Palestinians and a few Israelis who are presented as somewhat moderate.

At some point--I get very lazy writing a website that no one reads--I will explain in more detail my absolute and unwavering commitment to the existence of Israel.

I like to think of myself almost as an outside observer. I have some strong feelings about criticism of Israel when it seems anti-Semitic. (Yes, such a thing is possible. Even rather commonplace.) OK, I have some very strong feelings about that. But in general, I analyze the stories I read in a somewhat disinterested way. I have no axe to grind, in particular. I'm not a freaked out anti-Zionist or a ferocious pro-Zionist (at least of the Palestinian hating type). I am concerned about the deep suspicion of Muslims that I see creeping in (if it wasn't there already) to the less extremist news sources. The failure to present a multi-faceted picture of Islam, Muslims, Palestinians, the Palestinian situation. And of course, I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt there is a multi-faceted picture. I suppose I go by the principle that there always is one. Well, almost always.

It is ridiculous to say perhaps but I worry a bit for the Muslims. Things are bad for them in a variety of ways and I suppose I worry they will get worse. At some point, if things do get worse, then we will have to admit that Muslims are being targeted as Muslim. Then, of course, I worry for the rest of us because we have to live with Muslims and things are not going to be pretty for any of us if large numbers of them turn to violence in response to oppression. I think lefty bloggers tend to avoid such discussions because then it plays into the rightists hands--they have set things up so that concern about the anti-religious turn things are taking sounds like concern for the terrorists. Also, some progressive bloggers are uncomfortable with religion or actively opposed to religion. But at some point we have to ask when the attempt to get a few bad people by sifting through a whole group of people who share characteristics of those bad people (primarily religion but also national origin) starts to become the persecution of a people as a whole.


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