Friday, July 08, 2005

the Gollum syndrome

In Tolkein's masterpiece, the inherent bundle of contradictions that is man comes graphically to life in the character of Smeagol.

Or is that Gollum?

It is Smeagol and it is Gollum. The depth of the conflict between 'the two', oddly enough, does not diminish the identity of the one character. It merely puts everything he is on the table. Therein lies the art of Tolkein's creation. Smeagol is not less Smeagol because he is Gollum. Gollum is only truly Gollum as long as he remains Smeagol.

This is the defining essence of humankind. We are many things at once, and it is no single element that defines us. We are Red Riding Hood and the wolf. We are Snow White and the jealous Queen. We are the nameless protagonist and Tyler Durden.

If this is true on an individual level, how could it not define us as society? Is there any reason to think that, all together, we become somehow less antonymous? More coherent?

Americans are the most rampant consumers in the world, yet we are a very religious society. We impose our political and economic will on other countries with almost missionary zeal, yet we receive more immigrants and donate more money and aid to foreign causes than any other nation. All human groups are complex and contradictory. We're all a little bit Gollum and a little bit Smeagol.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting in this vein when trying to understand the judgment of the Muslim world on the terrorism of Muslim extremists.

First, we should recall that there is no central Islamic authority and, therefore, no unified Muslim voice. What is orthodox to one Muslim is, often, heretical to another. All refer to the Qur'an as their guiding principle. When final authority is attributed to a text, inspired or not, chaos ensues. Any text can be made to say any number of things if there is no superior point of reference to authoritatively interpret it. That's exactly what happens to fundamentalists in the Christian world who cite Scripture as the bottom line for doctrine and morality.

But internal divergences aside, why the sense in the west that there is no real, unequivocal condemnation of terrorist violence by the Islamic world, even when its victims are civilians?

Thomas Friedman goes there in his OpEd in today's NY Times. He points out that the only lasting way to curb the 'jihadist death cult' that thrives in Islam's midst is for Islam itself to come to grips with it and root it out. That has not happened. It does not look like it will happen in the short term. Friedman marvels that no Muslim cleric of note has yet issued a fatwa condemning Usama Bin Laden, when author Salman Rushdie, for what was an infinitely lesser offense in western eyes, received a virtual death sentence from a shiite iman.

But that is a constant in the Muslim world. Was anyone surprised by the totally underwhelming reprimand given by the Egyptian government to the Iraqui Al Quaeda cell that kidnapped and offed its leading diplomat in the war torn country? The uproar was notably stronger when Newsweek reported that the Qur'an had been mishandled in Gitmo...

The west asks, how can Muslims not be horrified by acts of planned terror that take innocent lives? I venture that they are. Even when they strike nations perceived as aggressors, like the US and the UK. They are human, they have families, they are not unaffected by the suffering of others.

I also venture that they are not. Muslim nations feel they have been historically mistreated, shut out and left behind by the west. They bear the brunt of a campaign against Islam born of fear and distrust. They know that, if not for the oil reserves under their soil, the west would care little for the advancement of their culture or the resolution of their conflicts.

The Qur'an sanctions retaliation against the enemies of Islam. Today's mujaheddin fight back the only way they can: innocent lives for innocent lives. That is how they see it.

When the west is hit by terror the Muslim world deplores it and doesn't. With equal sincerity.

No one should have to suffer the effects of a suicide bomb.
Yet, somehow, didn't they have it coming?