Is Prejudice stronger than Principle?

Darrow questions Bryan during the Scopes Trial (July 20, 1925) (Smithsonian)

My last blog,  about the Qur’an being distributed in Germany and Islamic fundamentalists winning elections in Egypt, was an attempt to explore some of my own prejudices and to test the strength of my democratic values.  Both the election of Islamist party members in Egypt and the distribution of the Qur’an in Germany make me slightly uncomfortable.  They make me uncomfortable at a level that I have difficulty articulating, even to myself.  Why do I even care, why bother to read anything about either?  What possible impact could they have on my life, my world?  There is no easy answer, except to say that since 9-11, like many of my contemporaries, I have had anxieties over Islam.

Every religion can be viewed, understood and practiced at more than one level.  First and foremost, Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is a religion of a book – the Qur’an even calls Jews the people of the book.  That means you can read the book, read it as literature, read it as history or read it as the word of God – how you read it is personal choice.  I love parts of the old testament, I read it in Hebrew and very much like the sounds and rhythms of the stories – but I am indifferent to the religious meaning.  The Qur’an is more difficult for me, first I don’t read Arabic and second I can’t find the same pleasure in the flow of the words – that is probably because I don’t read the Arabic, almost universally Arabic speakers say the Qur’an is the best of Arabic literature.   The new testament to me is more of a Hollywood movie, I have read very little of it, at least since I was 12 years old and I see its stories as they were depicted on film. There was a time when each of those books was considered “true” history, that is rarely the case any longer.  Still each can be used. to help contextualize more formal and by current standards correct histories; rather like reading diaries, letters or court documents to help one understand the large events in a historical narrative.

All religions can also be viewed and understood as a system of philosophy and moral values.  Into this mix we usually throw the eastern religions, particularly Buddhism.  Again, when studying one of the great religions and thinking about its value system, we can choose to believe and follow its directives or simply study it as an abstraction, the way we might read Das Capital or Discourse on Method today.  It is an obvious truism that believers and abstract students read the treatises differently.  A Muslim finds truth and guidance in the Qur’an, while you and I might find some values we can respect and even integrate into our lives and at the same time reject other values out of hand others.  Even within those differences there are further differences – not all Muslims (nor indeed Christians or Jews) read the text and understand the words in the same way.

Take for example the word jihad – a word we have heard very often in the last 10 years.   To us it is usually explained as making war, holy war,  on non-Muslims by Muslims, or on wrong-thinking Muslims.   I have a book, some 200 or 300 pages, of scholarly thinking on jihad; and while the book’s definition can be stretched to the definition so commonly thrown out in the media, its jihad is given a much simpler and more sympathetic definition.  There jihad is striving/struggling – working hard to reach the ultimate goal, to live one’s life according to the will of God; who could find fault with that definition?  In that definition, jihad finds a place in Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism; don’t all believers strive to follow the dictates of their faith, battling their more base human nature?   However, many Muslims hold to the same definition we use, and see jihad as a “holy war” like those of 11th century against the crusaders, or subsequent wars against any foreign, non-Muslim invader of Muslim lands.

This is where Islam starts to give us a slight bit of anxiety.  Somewhere deep inside many of us, we are afraid of those jihadist – our society has been preaching against them since the year 1000 of the common era, it is a message deep inside our culture.  The fear might have been lying dormant for a long time, but the last decade has caused it to resurface.   I received one comment on my last blog that was a well-articulated rant against Islam – the writer’s conclusion was: “all right thinking people are against Islam.”  It was extreme, filled with hate and prejudice, but in fact it just expressed what many people are thinking.  It was also well-informed and even knowledgeable, it was in the interpretation of the facts the prejudice was to be found, not it the facts themselves.

A couple of months ago I attended a meeting of some very sophisticated, well-education and knowledgeable people.  The focus of the meeting was the current situation in the Middle East.  The speakers varied a great deal, there were Syrians, military experts and one purported expert on Islam.  The expert,  did indeed know a great deal about Islam and could recite verse after verse (in English) from the Qur’an, talk with facility on the life of the prophet, his sayings and his community (hadith and sunnah)  and on the history of Islam right up to the present day.  What he could not do was to look objectively at anything concerning Islam – he was filled with the same fear, hate and prejudice as my commenter.  Actually, that was my underlying question yesterday, when our value system comes up against our fears, our hates – our prejudices – which side will win.  At this point, I am not optimistic that our values will triumph over our prejudices.


2 Responses to “Is Prejudice stronger than Principle?”

  1. 1 Bill Hanigan April 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    I read an article by Rana Khoury of Al Arabiya which I thought was reasoned even if I didn’t agree with some of the premises. However I was completely blown away by the mostly ignorant and arrogant hate bile that followed. Where do these people come from ? Underneath rocks ? I normally don’t follow blogs because I fear to interact with these people. I suggest you Read Rana’s article and what follows.

  2. 2 Ken Adams April 17, 2012 at 7:05 am

    That kind of rant is what I was referring to, it startles me at times, the anger and hate people express over the ideas and beliefs of other people – the ones that represent a view other than theirs. My life and thinking has been disconnected from standard and orthodox beliefs and I suppose that is why I find it easy to think about others’ beliefs without rancor – but it also means I lack a solid basis of principle for understanding the world around me and that is not always a positive thing.

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