The failure of Middle Eastern politics and the failure of Islam

The events in the Islamic world over the last month reflect colossal failures of American foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics, and Islam. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2012 — The explosion in the Islamic world this month was supposedly sparked by a YouTube video. While the video was deliberately offensive to Muslims, it didn’t cause the rioters in Benghazi to kill American diplomats or attack western embassies. That was a decision they made for themselves. 

The events in the Middle East represent colossal failures - failures of American foreign policy and failures of Middle Eastern politics in particular - but the failures of politics in the region can’t be separated from Islam. Most Muslims may be moderate devotees of peace, but the question then is, why is it the radicals drive the political agenda? As a colleague points out, most Germans weren’t Nazis, but why then didn’t “moderate” Germans protect the integrity of German civilization and politics from barbarism? 

Muslims in Europe have long insisted that their beliefs be respected. At the same time, many wouldn’t consider respecting the beliefs of visitors to North Africa or the Middle East. We might be tempted to think that the problem is that they fail to respect our beliefs while expecting us to respect theirs, but that’s not the case. The problem is that anyone expects beliefs to be respected at all. 

This problem is exacerbated in Islam because Islam isn’t just a religion for Friday worship; it’s also a collection of political beliefs and a way of life. 

We’re prone to claim that religious beliefs should be respected in general: You should respect my faith, and in return I should respect yours. To which I say, “No. That’s nonsense.” The law requires me to tolerate your beliefs and not discriminate against you because of them. It doesn’t require me to respect them, and good sense says I shouldn’t. Some beliefs are pernicious, destructive, evil, or simply stupid. I need not respect your beliefs about God, politics, race, global warming, or the origin of species. No matter what they are, they don’t deserve my respect. 

You, on the other hand, can earn it. 

My first inclination in running this article was to run one of the French cartoons of Mohammed as the lead photo. I paused to consider the horror that would resonate through this publication if I did so and the possibility that my editor, of whom I’m very fond, might drop dead on the spot from a heart attack. We will run no cartoons of Mohammed here. That’s not because I respect the beliefs of Muslims who might be offended, but because I deeply respect my Muslim friends, my editor, and others who could be hurt by that for no better reason than my fit of pique at rioters in Benghazi and Cairo. 

The right of this publication to run offensive cartoons and articles disparaging of religious or political leaders is fundamental to American political beliefs. Were we to run them just for the sake of poking fingers in religious eyes, we would deserve contempt. Our right to do so, however, deserves deep and solemn respect. 

I’m perfectly willing to see my beliefs mocked as the price of living in a free society. It’s not that I enjoy it (though I do enjoy South Park, whose creators mock my beliefs on a semi-regular and award-winning basis), but that I don’t think speech needs to be polite or inoffensive to deserve protection. I don’t enjoy hearing or reading gratuitously ugly things said about Baptists, Muslims or atheists, but I like even less the idea that it’s okay to mock some beliefs and not others. Some beliefs need and deserve to be mocked, and if it’s to be open season on some, it must be open season on all.

We should respect people, not beliefs. I respect my Muslim, atheist, Christian and Wiccan friends. I share some of their beliefs, others leave me unmoved and uninterested. Some of their beliefs strike me as weird and ridiculous. But these are people who have earned my respect, and so I take their beliefs seriously. I take them seriously as part of the formula that has produced men and women of excellent character, generous nature, people who are kind and good. If beliefs deserve no respect, people who earn respect cast a glow of that respect on the beliefs that have made them who they are.

We should be the kind of people who deserve respect, and if that’s the kind of person our beliefs say we should be, then that’s the respect our beliefs have earned and deserve. That should be enough. If you wish for people to respect your beliefs, you must first give them a reason to respect you.

Show me how you treat others, and I’ll tell you what you really believe. Some of the killers of our diplomats are probably kind to their friends. They may be fond of children and kind to puppies. But they showed themselves to be savages, not people of profound and serious belief whose beliefs deserve any respect. If they were the sole face of Islam, we could conclude that Islam is a gutter religion that deserves to be stamped out. 

They are not. In addition to giving us jihad, fatwas and riots, Islam has given us a rich tradition of philosophy and art, and it kept the flame of western civilization burning during Europe’s Dark Ages. That that was yesterday, and my bosses in the private sector would say, “what have you done for me today?”

Islam faces a crisis. The face its extreme adherents present to the world is one of intolerance and cruelty, from the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia to restrictions on Christians across the region to the cruelty shown to Egyptian Copts to the stoning deaths of gays and adulterers. Muslims protest, “that isn’t Islam.” If it is not, then why don’t you do something about it? 

The disease that has distorted Islamic politics has spread around the world and across religions. It is a form of arrogance that demands respect where it isn’t earned, and refuses to tolerate dissent. It’s especially problematic in Islam, though, because Muslims take their religion much more seriously, seeing it as integral to the way they live and practice politics in ways that Presbyterians and Episcopalians don’t. And if this is true as well of moderate Muslims, we should ask them, what are you doing to protect the “honor of Islam” and “the honor your prophet,” not from bigoted American film makers, but from the Muslims who scream “death to America”?

It isn’t enough to confront Islam with its failings. We all have an obligation to defend the beliefs that we love, not from unbelievers, but from “true believers.” Moderate Christians, Muslims, Democrats and Republicans alike should all ask, if radicals drive the religious or ideological agenda and the politics, how is it that moderates aren’t to blame? 

Believers of all stripes should remember, by their fruits shall you know them, and by their acts shall you know their beliefs. If Islam will be known as a “religion of peace,” then Muslims must be known as men and women of peace, and who love peace enough to stand up for it in their Mosques. And so should we all in our churches, temples and political gatherings.


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. His Christianity is suspect, but he does take it seriously. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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