The U.S.-led war on Iraq has resulted in a hardening of anti-Western attitudes and opinions among Muslims in the Middle East. While Western media trumpeted coalition efforts to spare civilian targets, the provision of humanitarian aid, and relief of the long-oppressed Iraqi people, Muslim media ran horrific images of Iraqi civilians killed and maimed by American missiles while going about their lawful business at the market.
There is no reason to suppose that the Western image of the war is any more accurate than the Muslim view. Both views represent some version of reality. But the recent hardening of Muslim opinion suggests that the coalition may lose the most crucial battle of all: the battle for the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims. Next to that, military victory over Saddam Hussein’s execrable dictatorship will count for little.
Secularism Defended in Malaysia
Malaysia’s dismal record regarding secularism may soon change. At least one top-level Malaysian leader has recognized what humanists have long known: that time given over to religious instruction is time not spent preparing children for the real world. Earlier this year, Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi spoke out for secular education, calling it essential to the country’s future.
Responding to criticism that Malaysian education was insufficiently Islamic, Badawi countered with his concern that too much emphasis on Muslim indoctrination would lead non-Muslim Malaysians to abandon state schools. Moreover, he feared that excessive time spent on religious instruction would take away from more pressing needs: “We have a tough time trying to convince people that we must do this for the sake of the future . . . to be more competitive.”
Religion in Rwanda Bears Blame for Tragedy
Rwanda’s genocidal massacres occurred in 1994, but the roles played by various Rwandan churches before and during the violence have yet to receive the attention they deserve. Two factors cry for wider notice.
First, Rwanda was heavily Catholic; hierarchs strongly opposed contraception education. This led directly to an unsustainable population growth rate of 4.2 percent, with dangerous overcrowding and heightened competition for food and arable land. Many observers were predicting ecological and social catastrophe in Rwanda before the genocide.
Factor number two: shortly after Rwanda achieved independence in 1962, the Catholic hierarchy ended its long history of support for the minority Tutsi tribe, which had cooperated with Belgian colonial rulers. The church switched its support to the majority Hutus and strengthened that support over the next three decades. Though some priests risked their lives to save Tutsis during the 1994 genocide, others followed established allegiances. By 1999 twenty priests and nuns, among them a bishop, awaited trial in connection with the genocide, and two nuns had been found guilty of active collaboration with Hutu militias.
Nor was Catholicism unique in its culpability. At the height of the killings, the Anglican Archbishop Nshamihigo publicly laid blame for the genocide on the Tutsis, then being slaughtered by the thousands. Nshamihigo later fled the country; his replacement publicly apologized for his church’s actions. And most recently, the former head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Rwanda has been convicted of genocide. Rev. Elizaphan Ntakiruti mana and his son actually led attackers to a church and hospital complex, where hundreds of Tutsi families, including some fellow Adventists, were butchered.
Muhammad, Miss World, and the Open Society
Here’s an underappreciated aspect of the 2002 riots in Nigeria that caused the Miss World contest to flee hastily to London: the riots began when a female reporter commented that Muhammad would have taken any of the young women contestants as a wife. Nigerian Muslim opinion was already rubbed raw by the world media’s hostile attention to the recent imposition of strict Sharia law over much of northern Nigeria. Tension between Muslims and Chris tians in the north had cost more than three thousand lives, with Christians hardly less guilty of terrible crimes than their Muslim neighbors. But Muslims felt added pressure after a Muslim woman, Amina Lawal, was convicted of adultery with the penalty of death by stoning. The suspected father had escaped any punishment after denying his paternity on the Qur’an.
A key principle of the open society is the need for all to live with and try to understand the beliefs and practices of their neighbors, even when they seem offensive. But it is not in the spirit of militant Islam, nor of its Christian opponents, to tolerate diversity. Instead, the appropriate response was rioting that cost two hundred people their lives. Whether Western apologists for religion like it or not, those riots are testimony to the power of a living faith. Something is deeply wrong with a system of belief that resorts so quickly to rioting when some of its more hotheaded adherents feel offended, resulting in the loss of so many lives.
Bill Cooke is international director for the Center for Inquiry and a senior editor of Free Inquiry.