Virtual Talmud

Prof. Mark LeVine should be commended for his cool-headed response to my original post.

To be honest, I wrote the post in a very unrabbinic way (too much steam not enough substance) I appreciate the time he took to flesh out his ideas.

Honestly, I am receptive to your argument, and much of what you say has merit, but I still don’t understand or in any way agree with your basic claim that the problems in the Middle East are political and national and not per-se religious. You criticized me for not bringing any statistics to support my claim that the problem is Islam (and not national or political). So let’s look at some statistics: The Pew Research Forum last year released an important study on Islamic extremism. The study revealed that those Muslims living in different Middle Eastern countries overwhelming see their religion as being the basis of their political worldviews:

The importance of Islam in the political life of many countries where it is the predominant religion is underscored by the large percentages in these countries saying that they think of themselves first as a Muslim, rather than as a citizen of their particular country.

Large majorities in Pakistan (79%), Morocco (70%), and Jordan (63%) say they self-identify first as Muslims, rather than as Pakistanis, Moroccans, or Jordanians. Even in Turkey, with its more secular traditions, a 43% plurality among Muslims identify primarily with their religion rather than their nationality. Indonesians are closely split with 39% self-identifying as Muslims first, 35% as Indonesians and 26% saying both equally. In Lebanon, however, just 30% of Muslims (this question was not asked of Christians) say they view themselves primarily in terms of their faith, rather than as Lebanese

Furthermore, Prof. LeVine, in your response you question my assertion that most Muslims “do not distinguish between the spheres of religion and politics,” claiming instead that my comment “reflects exactly the kind of reductionist thinking that my article is asking people to move beyond. From where does the rabbi claim the authority to generalize for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims?”

Again, Prof. LeVine, I would tell you to look at the Pew Research Forum:

“SUBSTANTAIL MAJORITIES in all but one of the predominantly Muslim countries surveyed–including as many as 85% in Indonesia and 75% in Morocco–say that Islam plays a very large or fairly large role in the political life of their countries.

The major exception is Jordan; just 30% of Jordanians now see Islam playing a large political role in that country, a sharp decline from the 73% who said so in the summer of 2002.
In Pakistan as well, those seeing substantial Islamic influence in political life have also declined in number–from 86% in 2002–but remain in the majority (62%).

Only in Turkey has the proportion of those seeing a large Islamic political influence increased substantially, from 41% in 2002 to 62% currently. Further, large majorities in most of these countries welcome the idea of Islam playing a greater role in political life. Here, the exceptions are Turkey, where half of those who see Islam playing a greater role say this as a bad thing; and Lebanon (32% bad thing).

Lebanese Muslims and Christians divide on this issue; Muslims who believe Islam’s political role is increasing are unanimous in thinking this is a good thing, while Christians mostly view this as a negative development (71%).

At the same time, most of those who see Islam playing a lesser role in politics view this as bad for their countries. Turks, however, are narrowly split with 44% considering a reduced role good compared with 47% who call it bad.

Those who see Islam playing a greater role differ as to the reasons for this. In Jordan, a majority (58%) among this group attributes Islam’s larger role in politics to growing immorality in society, as do pluralities in Morocco and Turkey. Indonesians are divided, with a narrow plurality citing growing immorality.

In Pakistan, a 37% plurality says that dissatisfaction with the current government is the most important reason for Islam’s larger role. In Lebanon, a 44% plurality (including 50% of Christian respondents) points to concerns about Western influence. However, even in some predominantly Muslim countries where support for a politically active Islam is strong, concerns about Islamic extremism are substantial. In Morocco, nearly three-quarters of the public view Islamic extremism as a very great (60%) or fairly great (13%) threat to that country.

Those who see Islam playing a very large role in Morocco’s political life are also more likely to see a very great extremist threat–a pattern that is also seen in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey and to a lesser degree in Lebanon.

In Indonesia, where nearly half of the population sees Islamic extremism as a threat, household income is a factor in these opinions: 57% of the top income group considers the threat either very great or fairly great compared with 42% of those in the middle and lower-income ranges.
Slightly more than half of Pakistanis (52%) also express substantial concern about Islamic extremism. In Pakistan, gender and age are significant dividers: 59% of men, compared with 44% of women see a substantial extremist threat as do 57% of those under age 35 compared with 47% of those in older age groups.

In Turkey, where a 47% plurality sees Islamic extremism as a substantial threat in that country, there are sharp secular/religious differences not apparent in other countries surveyed. Those who self-identify as Turks rather than Muslims are far more likely to see Islamic extremism as a threat to that country. And Turks who say that religion is less important in their lives are far more likely to view Islamic extremism as a substantial threat (62%) than are those who say that religion is very important in their lives (40%).

In Lebanon, attitudes on this issue are highly polarized along religious lines. Overall, about a quarter of Lebanese (26%) see a substantial internal threat from Islamic extremism, but this includes 53% of Christians and only 4% of Muslims. In Jordan, a large majority (87%) see little or no threat from Islamic extremism.

Prof. LeVine, I am sure you have had many interesting conversations with people in the middle east but for the rest of us your argument just does not seem to hold up.

You also criticize me for pointing out that you disregard every public statement made by Hezbollah and Hamas. In jest you toss away my critique by saying “First of all, has the rabbi read every public statement by the two groups? I certainly haven’t, but I’ve read enough and interviewed enough members of them to know that they are full of contraditions, depending on the person, the time, the political circumstances, the larger political agenda of the leadership at the moment, etc.”

Since you misunderstood me, let me be more precise: Prof. LeVine, you disregard the actual mission statements of Hamas and Hezbollah. I dare anyone to read Hamas’ mission statement and say their “struggle” is not about religion or Islam. Merely pointing out that at other times others have said different things is like saying the Vatican’s statements are meaningless because liberals like James Caroll contradict what Pope John Paul II has said. Or better yet, what President Bush says has no real weight because some renegade Republican in Congress said otherwise.

Of course, what is written on paper is always different from how it is played out in real life, but come on…. Your whole argument assumes that we don’t take seriously the official statements of the groups that are waging war.

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