Monday, November 26, 2007

Islam, Christianity, Culture, and Kooks

"The Islamic world" is a handy label for that swath of territory and people from Turkey to Indonesia.

As the followers of Mohammed preached and hacked their way across Asia and Africa, they set up quite a wide variety of "Islamic" cultures. I'm aware that I'm over-simplifying here: This post is long as it is, without going into detail on what's happened in the last fourteen centuries, since Mohammed's conquest of Mecca in 630.

(The founder of Islam has my respect, if for nothing else than for raising an army, marching on a city, conquering that city with minimal bloodshed, and then refraining from slaughtering the inhabitants. Such a high level of humanitarianism has been rare in human history.)

(And, about the spelling of the Prophet's name. There's a variety of ways to take his name from the Arabic alphabet and drop it into the Latin alphabet as used in English. I'm going to use Mohammed, since that's what the standard set in the Associated Press style book I use. Exceptions will be situations where I'm quoting from a source, or where I make a mistake.)

Islamic Unity??

Since Islam is a sort of roll-your-own religion, with no central authority to define what's so and what's not, there are many varieties of Islam. I'm going to take a glance at three "Islamic" countries, and "Christian" America, and try to make some sense of what's out there.

Indonesia is just over 86% Muslim, compared to
  • 70% Sunni Muslim for Sudan
    (with 5% Christian - mostly in south and Khartoum -
    and 25% indigenous beliefs)
  • 100% Muslim for Saudi Arabia
For comparison, America is about 78% Christian, if you include Mormons:
  • 52% Protestant
  • 24% Roman Catholic
  • 2% Mormon
  • 1% Jewish
  • 1% Muslim
  • 10% Other
  • 10% None
Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country, in terms of raw numbers, and is more "Muslim" than America is "Christian."

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia owns and controls Mecca, and is virtually all Muslim.

And, in addition to being about as far away from each other geographically as any other two Islamic countries are, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are very far away from each other in terms of their on-the-street, practical, Islamic beliefs.

Islam: Saudi Style

She's known as the "Girl from Qatif." She's a 19-year-old who was raped by about a half-dozen men, and (so far) sentenced to 200 lashes and prison time. The Saudi Justice Ministry's latest story is that she's guilty of adultery. And that's why she'll be flogged.

It makes sense, since what passes for justice in Saudi Arabia is run by a collection of Islamic courts and judges appointed by the king. The royal opinion has access to the opinion of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Judicial Council. The whole mess uses Sharia Law as the foundation for their decisions.

A little oddity in this case: The Saudi Justice Ministry's current story is that the "Girl from Qatif" was with a high school friend, recovering a photo that showed the two of them together. "Then they were spotted by the other defendants as the woman was in an indecent condition as she had tossed away her clothes, then the assault occurred on her and the man," is how the Houston Chronicle reported the latest Saudi story.

That sentence of prison and lashes, that the 19-year-old got after an appeal? It was legal, according to the Saudi ministry, and followed the "the book of God and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad."

Speaking of Mohammed, here's an example of

Islam: Sudan Style

A British school teacher has been sentenced to 40 lashes. She's guilty of a serious crime. She allowed her class of 7-year-olds to name a teddy bear "Muhammad." The vote was 20 for "Muhammad," 3 for other names.

British Embassy in Khartoum said that it still doesn't know whether the teacher has been charged. Formally, that is. "We are following it up with the authorities and trying to meet her in person," said the embassy.

I'm impressed at how laid back Sudanese authorities are, about getting around to formal charges. Not favorably impressed, but I am impressed.

The teacher was following a British National Curriculum course for teaching about animals and their habitats. The animal this year was the bear.

After naming the teddy bear, each student could have the bear for a weekend. They were supposed to record what they did with the bear. Then each account was put in a book, with "My name is Muhammad" on the cover.

This apparently is an insult to the prophet of Islam. And, more to the point, regarded as an insult by the prophet's lash-happy followers in Sudan.

Sudanese police now want to question the 7-year-old girl who brought in the teddy bear.

Posts on "British Teacher Home from Sudan: Gillian Gibbons, Muslim Clerics, and a Teddy Bear named Mohammed"

Islam, Indonesian Style

Since the Indonesian judicial system isn't based on Sharia Law, it wouldn't be entirely fair to use Indonesian court decisions as an example of Islam in action.

Christians have been executed in Indonesia: For example, the three Christians who were convicted of leading a militia that killed at least 70 Muslims during 1999-2002. After that, Indonesia sentenced a dozen Christian men to terms of up to 14 years: Because they beat two Muslims to death, and beheaded them. The nominal Christians were exacting vengeance for the earlier death sentences.

Christianity, American Style

America is less "Christian" than any of these three Islamic nations is "Muslim." And, America's judicial system, like Indonesia's, isn't based (directly) on a set of religious laws.

For both countries, I'm sure that the religious faiths of those who drew up the laws had something to do with what the laws dictate. I think, though, that America can take credit for putting more distance between traditional religious beliefs and actual judicial practice.

Religious Values: or Cultural Values?

Islam isn't the only religion where decisions about the faith are made on a regional or local level. Protestant Christianity is very democratic in the way that its lack of a central authority demands that groups decide for themselves what they believe.

In the case of large denominations, like the Lutheran or Baptist churches, we don't often see beliefs preached that stray very far from the dominant culture.

At the other end of the scale, we've got outfits like the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. (Not the Westboro Baptist Church of Westboro, Ontario, which has nothing in common with the Kansas outfit, apart from the name.) I discussed this outfit's notions about the American military being part of a homosexual plot in "Tolerance Only Goes So Far" and "Does Free Speech Include Disrupting Funerals?."

Then, there's the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. They're not a religious group, but their beliefs include disapproval of the existence of Catholics and Jews in their neighborhood. Or anywhere, I gather. And, their habit of burning crosses has seared the idea into people's minds that they're a Christian splinter group.

I'm no expert, but it looks like "The Islamic World" is nowhere near being a unified entity. From Saudi Arabia, where religious fanatics seem to be running the judiciary, to Indonesia, where religious fanatics are trying to topple the government for not being Islamic enough, there's at least as much of a divide as between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who want to kill infidels in America, and elsewhere; and the infidels, who, by and large, would rather not be killed.

Certainly not for offenses like wearing pants.

The impression I get is that many of these "Islamic" countries are what America would be like, if the KKK or the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka ran the show.

Related posts, on Islam, Christianity, Religion, Culture and the War on Terror.
Related posts, on tolerance, bigotry, racism, and hatred.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.