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Clash of Civilizations

The death toll in Afghanistan has passed the two-dozen mark in the riots "inspired" by Pastor Terry Jones's burning of a Quran in Florida. The grisly political theater has served its purpose.

Relevant Links
Laying Down the Law In Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion, the prime minister’s office has informed parliament that non-Muslims who cite the Quran “according to their own understanding, without sincerity” are subject to jail sentences under the penal code.
Appeasing the Violent  Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall Street Journal. General David Petraeus’s display of deference to the Muslim mobs that murdered over twenty innocents in Afghanistan will not strengthen the American mission there.

Setting a trap, Jones had his prejudices regarding a Muslim predilection for violence amply confirmed. The Organization of the Islamic Conferences has renewed its calls for global laws to insulate Islam, its prophet, and its holy text from criticism and desecration. Senator Lindsay Graham has suggested that the U.S. Senate may hold hearings on the matter—though it is clear that burning a Quran, like burning a Bible or any other sacred text, is a protected expression of free speech.  

For Jews, the whole affair may stir memories of the past—and, in particular, outbursts of rage over, in their case, alleged desecrations of bread and wine.

The ritual of the Eucharist or Sacrament of the Altar invokes the words of Jesus in offering his disciples bread and wine at the Last Supper: "This is my body" and "This is my blood." In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council spoke of the host bread and sacramental wine of the mass as "transubstantiated": i.e., in fact the body and blood of Jesus. Jews were first accused of desecrating the host in 1243, and for centuries, thousands would be murdered for having allegedly stolen, hidden, or defiled sacred bread or wafers in a ritual re-enactment of the crucifixion.

The plausibility of these accusations was, to say the least, questionable. Rather, the outbursts seem to have been sparked by the conjunction among Christians of a sincere belief in religious doctrine with an equally sincere hatred of Jews—and with an opportune moment (like Easter). The same hair-trigger conjunction no doubt lay behind other such libels, most notoriously that Jews engaged in ritual murder to acquire the blood of Christian children for matzot—a charge that led to similar numbers being robbed, killed, converted, or expelled.

And today? Analogies between religions are always imprecise, but Muslims believe that the Quran in Arabic is not just the record of the divinely revealed word of Allah but the divinely revealed word itself. (This, despite agreement that the text as received was not written down until several decades after the death of Muhammad.) Since the Pact of Umar around the year 717 C.E., non-Muslims have been forbidden from even studying the Quran. Burning it, an attack on or diminution of God's presence on earth, is the very definition of blasphemy, and is punishable by death.

As it happens, scores of Qurans are burned in attacks by Muslims upon other Muslims, as in the routine bombings of mosques by Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan. But, as with Christians toward Jews, condemnations are reserved for the rare attacks by non-believers.

Can the matter be resolved? The Christian-Jewish experience offers only partial hope. According to some sources, the last murder of a Jew on the charge of host desecration was in 1631; according to others, 1761. The 1840 Damascus Affair, in which a blood-libel accusation leveled by Christians led to anti-Jewish rioting and pillage by Muslims, was a modern trifecta.

Protestantism, starting with Luther himself, rejected transubstantiation. In the Catholic Church, the main doctrinal turning point occurred in 1965 with Nostra Aetate, in which the Vatican repudiated the ancient charge against the Jews of deicide. This was recently amplified by Pope Benedict XVI in the second volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth. There he asks, rhetorically: "How could the whole [Jewish] people have been present at this moment to clamor for Jesus' death?" The answer being that they could not have been, Benedict concludes by stipulating that the responsible party was not the Jewish people as a whole—then or later—but rather the "Temple aristocracy." 

Benedict XVI is the 265th pope, the successor of Saints Peter and Paul. He stands atop a global hierarchy of almost 3,000 dioceses, some 400,000 priests, and a billion faithful. His statements can fundamentally alter a tradition that effectively reaches back to 313 C.E., helping to dissipate visceral hatreds that have themselves faded with modernity.

Nothing like this exists in the radically diffused traditions of Islam. There are no churches as such, integrated into hierarchies that transmit tradition and interpret and modify doctrine. Instead, there are competing schools of jurisprudence devoted to interpreting the theory and philosophy of law rather than the law itself. Nor are there priests in Islam, but rather individuals of varying degrees of learning who act as prayer leaders and judges. History does sometimes throw up leading public figures, like the Ayatollah Khomeini or the radical televangelist Sheikh Qaradawi or, among anti-radical Shiites, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but there are no popes with ultimate responsibility for policy and doctrine.

Thus, no Muslim, however well intentioned or well regarded, can make a forward-looking statement about the Jews, much less about the encounter between the Quran and modern notions of free speech, with anything like the authority of Benedict. Islamic tradition being, moreover, not a fixed essence but a vast swirl of movements and beliefs, calls for fundamental change can always be short-circuited by calls to the plain texts of the tradition itself.

As for America, longstanding custom suggests but does not demand respect for religion; nor, in a free society, can any law forbid blasphemy or require indulgence of specific religious beliefs. To suggest otherwise in the case of 21st-century Muslims is tantamount to conceding that they are incapable of containing their anger. It is also explicitly to yield to threats or fear of violence.  For now, free speech and Quran-burning collide like two plates of the earth's crust, creating earthquakes that affect us all.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.  He last wrote for Jewish Ideas Daily on Israel's archeological battles.  

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rachmiel on April 8, 2011 at 10:41 am (Reply)
1. please provide scholarly documentation for the claim that
"Since the Pact of Umar around the year 717 C.E., non-Muslims have been forbidden from even studying the Quran."

2. In Judaism, isn't there also a parallel view that non-Jews should not be taught Torah?
Jay Laruso on April 14, 2011 at 6:19 pm (Reply)
1. Most Quran scholars agree that the Quran was actually written down at the time of revelation during Mohammad's life. Mohammad actually reviewed the text prior to his death. Umar eliminated some versions that had only minor differences.

2. I believe as long as the Muslim world is kept poor, uneducated, entrapped in wars, and ruled over by tyrants (some of whom are supported by the West and Israel), we will continue to see backward behavior from these masses. It is all about freedom and prosperity.

Ray in Seattle on April 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm (Reply)
Jay says, " I believe as long as the Muslim world is kept poor, uneducated, entrapped in wars, and ruled over by tyrants (some of whom are supported by the West and Israel), we will continue to see backward behavior from these masses. It is all about freedom and prosperity."

The Arab/Muslim world is in that condition because of their cultural values - not because they lack freedom and prosperity. Freedom and prosperity (in the Western sense that you use it) is the result of growing up and living your life in a society that embraces the right cultural values. You have it backward. You can not somehow give people Western style freedom and prosperity and expect them to develop cultural values that will maintain their condition.

Arab/Muslim cultural values are formed from an early age around the fundamental requirement that success in life is measured by the power one has over others. This depend in turn on the deep Arab/Muslim fear of humiliation and the need to counter such fear with Arab/Muslim culturally stylized notions of honor. These are real psychological forces deeply ingrained in all Arab/Muslim males from painful daily experiences with those who have power over them early in life such as fathers, older brothers, teachers, schoolmates from more powerful clans and families, etc. Those few boys who make it through childhood with some stature - usually boys from those more powerful clans and families - will have learned and internalized a great deal about Arab culture and how to use it to their own advantage.

Few Arab/Muslim males who have acquired such stature as young adults for whatever reasons will turn their backs on the cultural values that got them to where they are in life. They instinctively know that those are the only values in their society that can keep them where they are or bring them further success.

To such young Arab males notions of freedom and prosperity mean the freedom to dominate others who are weaker and the prosperity that such domination will eventually bring them if they are sufficiently clever and ruthless in their affairs. All the other Muslim/Arab males who will spend their lives suffering humiliations under them will learn to make the best of it by picking the right strong man to bow to - or perhaps the right Jihadi group to die for.

They last thing such social arrangements bring to any society is Western style freedom and prosperity for the masses. They all would have to become entirely different people psychologically and such things are not possible in real life.
seymour on April 16, 2011 at 10:33 am (Reply)
why did Mr. Joffe not respond to Rachmiel's request for evidence?

"Ray In Seattle"'s pontification about Arab/Muslim values is silly. Most Muslims are not Arabs, for one thing. His comments smack of the sort of stereotyping that is often perpetrated against Jews/New Yorkers (as being clannish, cheap, vulgar, etc.)

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