Muslims and the Five Questions of Dennis Prager

Juan Cole

Posted Nov 19, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Muslims and the 5 Questions

Somebody named Dennis Prager wrote a frankly bigotted op-ed for the LA Times asking “Muslims” 5 questions. The questions are fairly easy to answer in themselves, but the stupidity of the whole framework is what is objectionable. Why is it that our media personalities cannot think their way out of a paper bag? Why don’t high school civics courses alert them that there might be a problem with stereotyping everyone that you categorize as belonging to a particular group?

Prager begins his “questions” directed, apparently at all 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, by referring to the recent riots in France. He is thus framing his questions with the implication that those Muslims are all trouble-makers and have something to answer for. But the alienated in-between young African- and North African-French are mostly not very involved in religion and a lot of them couldn’t tell you how to pray to save their lives.

Prager’s first question is why “Muslims” are so “quiet” (implied is: “about terrorism emanating from other Muslims”). Of course, Muslims have been anything but quiet about terrorism and all sorts of Muslim leaders and groups have repeatedly condemned it. Muslims haven’t been “quiet.” Prager hasn’t been listening.

Moreover, the mere assertion that an act was done in the “name of Islam” would not necessarily connect it to Islam in the eyes of other Muslims. All kinds of crazy things are done in the name of Judaism and Christianity and Buddhism. Why didn’t the American Buddhists demonstrate when Aum Shinrikyo let Sarin gas loose in the Tokyo subway? Did American Catholics demonstrate against Franco’s policies in Spain? Why should American Catholics even feel responsible for those things? Why should Indonesian or Bangladeshi Muslims demonstrate about something that happened in distant Jordan, which had some local context they don’t even understand? People who are actually Muslims don’t take seriously small groups of cranks who do bizarre things in the name of Islam.

And let’s turn the tables on Prager. Let’s ask why he is so quiet.

Let’s take the following item:

’ Jewish settlers began attacking Palestinians as they returned home yesterday from the funeral of an Israeli soldier, shooting dead a 14-year-old girl and wounding several others in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinians said.

They said the settlers began attacking shortly after the funeral in Hebron’s Old City, throwing stones at houses and cars, and breaking windows.

Nizin Jamjoum, 14, was standing on the balcony of her home when she was shot in the head and died, said her brother Marwan, 26, who was injured.

At least six Palestinians were hurt, including one who was stabbed, Palestinians said.’

Has Prager ever joined a demonstration against the fascist actions of the far rightwing Israeli settlers who are stealing Palestinian land every day and from time to time killing them? Does he care about Nizin Jamjoum or her family? Nizin was a little girl. Her parents doted on her. They fed her and raised her. She played with brothers and sisters. She said cute things that made everyone’s dimples come out. And then an armed colonist shot her dead, in the head. Her cranium was crushed, her brain oozed out the back of her little head. Does Prager care?

Then he asks, Why are none of the Palestinian terrorists Christian?

Prager is not only stereotyping an ethnic group, he is profoundly ignorant. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a much more violent group than Arafat’s Fateh, was led by Christian George Habash. In fact, the PFLP had to hire Eastern Orthodox priests to minister to its fighers. Christians in the Middle East, whether Palestinian Christians, or Maronite Christians in Lebanon, have been just as much parties to the violence in the region as Muslims. And, of course, Israeli Jews haven’t exactly been pacifists.

Then he asks, Why is only one of the 47 Muslim-majority countries a free country?

Well, gee, Dennis. Let’s see.

There is the legacy of European colonialism, which ruled most of the Muslim world with an iron fist and established modern bureaucratic practices that were authoritarian, which the post-colonial states inherited. (If you want to understand the Pakistani military, you have to understand the colonial British Army of India).

And, the Russians invaded Muslim Central Asia in the 19th century. They first subjected those peoples to Tsarist absolute monarchy, and then to Stalinism. Vladimir Putin and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan both have authoritarian tendencies, and it is because they both come out of the old Soviet system. You want to blame Islam for this?

It wasn’t just colonialism. Neo-colonialism has played a key part. Iran was a parliamentary democracy in the early 1950s. Then its prime minister asserted Iranian ownership of Iran’s own oil. And the UK and the US objected to this step, and sent in the CIA to overthrow the elected government of Iran, and install an absolute monarchy for all the world like Louis XIV! Courtesy of Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.

The political scientists now think that democracy is best sustained where the per capita income is at least $8000 a year. It isn’t an absolute requirement, but it seems to help. There are a lot of poor Muslim countries because they are in resource-poor regions (arid parts of Africa and the Middle East).

Why bring ethnicity into it? Is that really the likely explanation? Prager could ask the same question about the Chinese. Why is only one Chinese-majority society (Taiwan) moving toward democracy? Does he think it really has something to do with being Chinese? Authoritarianism in East Asia used to be attributed to Confucianism, but then Japan and South Korea (and lately Taiwan) challenged that thesis. Things change. If we were in the 1930s Prager could ask what was with those Fascist Catholics.

Whatever the answer is to Prager’s question, it has little or nothing to do with the religion of Islam per se.

Prager’s number 4 is Why are so many atrocities committed and threatened by Muslims in the name of Islam?

Prager’s list is skewed to begin with. He lumps together localistic national liberation movements (Chechnya) and individual crimes of passion with the guerrilla movement in Iraq, and attributes them all to “Islam.” In Prager’s weird world, everything Muslims do is in the name of Islam.

I append below a list of the number of murders per year in a fair number of the world’s countries, and have put the Muslim-majority countries in bold. They cluster at the bottom, not the top. If we wanted to think in Prager’s warped way, we’d have to ask what is with those Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, that they are so murderous.

Prager’s number 5 is Why do countries governed by religious Muslims persecute other religions?

Countries governed by religious anythings have persecuted other religions. This is true not only for religious ideologies but also for secular ideologies like Communism and Fascism. Make an idea into an “-ism” and boom, you get gulags. Religion or no religion. You think Muslims were tolerated in Franco’s Spain? And, by the way, why can’t a Muslim guy marry a Jewish girl in Israel if the two love each other? Hmmm. Could it be that the rabbis are unsympathetic to young love? Prager doesn’t seem to know that Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing was in fact part of the Christian Identity Movement, or that fanatical Christians have killed abortion doctors in the name of Christianity.

There is something seriously wrong with the questions themselves. They come out of a weird mindset that lumps Malaysians with Moroccans, Kyrgyz with Sudanese, and Uigurs with Moro Filipinos, all just because they have a common heritage in one of the great world religions; it isn’t as if their actual local practices and beliefs are all exactly the same.

The questions are symptomatic of prejudice and sloppy thinking. They demean Americans by the posing of them. Muslims as individuals haven’t done anything wrong, and don’t have to answer Prager’s silly questions.


Now let us turn international murder rates. Obviously if we look at absolute numbers, the big countries will have the most murders. But even so, there are some surprises. Despite being relatively small countries, Colombia, South Africa, Mexico, Venezuela and Thailand seem particularly murderous societies. You will note that none is Muslim. Only Indonesia gets into the top ten, among Muslim countries, and at some 200 million, its rate of murder is far less than any of the countries above it. The good people of genteel Washington, DC kill more people every year than do the Yemenis!

In fact, the US is approximately 5 times larger in population than Britain. The British rubbed out 850 people last year, so you’d expect the US to have whacked a little over 4,000. In fact, we polished off three times that many. Why are we three times as violent as the people in the UK? Shouldn’t the gentle Yemenis be asking Americans what is wrong with them?

We don’t appear to have good UNO statistics on crime for very many Muslim countries. The ones we do have cluster toward the bottom, both with regard to absolute numbers and with regard to rates per 1000 population. Prager’s lurid imagination of Muslims as unusually violent isn’t borne out by these statistics.

Of course, murder rates are only one index of violence. But if you totalled up how many people the US has killed in war in the past 100 years and compared it to those killed by Muslims, the result would not reflect well on the US, I promise you. It is widely thought that we killed some 2 million Vietnamese, and a similar number of Koreans, in those two wars alone. The biggest toll taken by Muslims was the Iran-Iraq War, which probably involved nearly a million deaths. It is not that the Muslims are better than Americans. It is that the Americans have been deeply involved in industrialized warfare as a sovereign state for much longer than Muslim states.

Murders per Year by Country

1. India 37,170
2. Russia 28,904
3. Colombia 26,539
4. South Africa 21,995
5. Mexico 13,829
6. United States 12,658
7. Venezuela 8,022
8. Thailand 5,140
9. Ukraine 4,418
10. Indonesia 2,204
11. Poland 2,170
12. France 1,051
13. Belarus 1,013
14. Germany 960
15. Korea, South 955
16. Zimbabwe 912
17. Jamaica 887
18. United Kingdom 850
19. Zambia 797
20. Italy 746
21. Yemen 697
22. Japan 637
23. Romania 560
24. Malaysia 551
25. Spain 494
26. Canada 489
27. Papua New Guinea 465
28. Kyrgyzstan 413
29. Lithuania 370
30. Moldova 348
31. Bulgaria 332
32. Australia 302
33. Portugal 247
34. Costa Rica 245
35. Georgia 239
36. Latvia 238
37. Chile 235
38. Azerbaijan 226
39. Hungary 205
40. Netherlands 183
41. Czech Republic 174
42. Uruguay 154
43. Finland 148
44. Slovakia 143
45. Estonia 143
46. Armenia 127
47. Tunisia 113
48. Saudi Arabia 105
49. Greece 81
50. Switzerland 69
51. Denmark 58
52. Norway 49
53. Macedonia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of 47
54. New Zealand 45
55. Hong Kong 38
56. Ireland 38
57. Slovenia 36
58. Mauritius 26
59. Seychelles 6
60. Iceland 5
61. Dominica 2
62. Qatar 1

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