Saturday, February 04, 2006

Losing Your Rag

As this is being written the number of people killed by the Sudanese backed Janjaweed militia in Darfur has passed three hundred thousand. The number of people displaced is more than one million eight hundred thousand. The killings surpass by far the number of Palestinians killed by Israel; the number of displaced people eight times larger than the refugees generated by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. This state sponsored atrocity is being inflicted on sub-Saharan Africans,who are Muslim, by nomadic Saharan tribes armed by the Sudanese state, who are also Muslim.

There is incontrovertible evidence of a sustained policy of assassination, mass murder, rape, terror and torture. Ethnic cleansing is being committed on a daily basis. United Nations officials have described it for years as an unparalleled humanitarian catastrophe, and the United States and others have called it genocide.

The response of the international institutions of political governance has been disappointing. The African Union held their latest meeting in Sudan and chose to ignore the massacres taking place. The United Nations has not intervened and the United States has chosen not to take unilateral action. The European Union has opted for dialogue. The international and local institutions of Muslim unity have met and chosen not to say anything at all.

More than a quarter of a million people slaughtered and a Muslim population equivalent to that of Palestine evicted from their homes and then from their refugee camps and the various Muslim Leagues have nothing to say. There have been no marches of anger in Knightsbridge, the Sudanese Embassy has not been targeted and the Sudanese flag has not been burnt in Gaza, Tehran, Baghdad or Copenhagen. The decapitated corpses of black Africans decaying and deserted on the edges of the Sahara don't seem to move anybody.

A series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed, in contrast, seem to have tapped into an inexhaustible reservoir of outrage throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Danish flags are going up in flames, Churches in Egypt and Iraq have been attacked, Scandinavian embassies in Indonesia have been ransacked.

What needs to be understood here is the relationship between the indifference to the genocide in Dharfour and the fury about a set of cartoons in newspapers that very few people read. The answer is to be found in the relationship between identity and narrative that provide the basis of contemporary politics.

The dominant Muslim narrative that unites Islamicists with 'moderates' is that there is a systematic international conspiracy to 'disrespect' Islam, to denigrate it and humiliate it. This is driven by the 'enemies of Islam', of whom the most significant are the Jews and their willing Christian stooges in the United States and Europe. They are engaged in a systematic attempt to symbolically violate Islam and it is the duty of every Muslim to protect the honour of their religion. This is what makes the depiction of Mohamad in a Scandinavian newspaper of far greater meaning and wrongness than the murder of a black African, or the shooting of a Roman Catholic Priest in the courtyard of his church in Istanbul. This is the deep structure of the Islamic story, the one of hidden powers, hidden agendas and hidden Imams, the one that can divine the sign of the times.

This systematic attempt to violate Islam, and rape the honour of the Prophet is the story that feeds the identity of Muslims as victims of the hidden powers, as innocent victims of evil forces. Just as it is the majority opinion in Muslim communities all over the world that 9/11 was committed by Jews so it is that the idea that Muslims are responsible for evil, for suffering, for inflicting pain and damage in anything other than self-defence is incomprehensible. The idea that the Islamic government of Sudan is murdering innocent Muslims because it is driven by ethnic politics in which the Northern Arabs dominate the black Africans of the South doesn't fit into the dominant story of an innocent Islam defending itself against violation by a Jewish materialist secular crusade. The identity of Muslims as a righteous and just community and the story they believe of legitimate self-defence in confronting the evil powers makes any understanding of themselves as evil, as part of the problem, incomprehensible and impossible.

What this indicates is the vacuousness of 'respect' as a political concept. The very conditions of life in societies in which there are a diversity of religious beliefs and none is offensive to Muslims, and Christians, and Jews, and atheists. Christians who hear that Mohamad is the final word, the Barry White of Prophesy, the first, the last, the everything, can only respond with offence to the denigration of Jesus, as Jews can only marvel at the Koranic rewrites of Biblical stories and Muslim insistence that theirs is the original. The point being that all religious belief is offensive. Muslims offend Christians and Jews, as well as atheists every day. Sunnis offend Shia. We all offend each other all the time. The only way we can have an honest and meaningful conversation is by being disrespectful. The Jews were not responsible for 9/11. Muslims are responsible for genocide in Dharfour. There is no monopoly on victimhood and self-righteousness.

Human life is the ultimate value and truth is the ultimate goal. To all else it is important to show no respect. Muslims are not the powerless victims of the hidden powers with a blameless heart. Genocide is not the moral equivalent of a cartoon mocking virgin rewards for killing people. We are all part of each other's stories. There is no avoiding talking to each other, there is no avoiding offence.