Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Flying While Muslim and Other Imaginary Crimes

I listened to a podcast yesterday of Michael Medved's show wherein he featured a debate between Victor Mordaci (web site: Sword of Islam) and Jafar "Jeff" Siddiqui, who led a demonstration against US Airways because of the treatment of the six imams. He alleges that it was the result of racism and irrational fear. He is also a common spokesman in Seattle for understanding Muslims, and is the head of American Muslims for Puget Sound.

Mordaci had been on Medved's show previously and had made a number of strong claims about what Muslims believe, and Siddiqui was positively insensed. He accused Mordaci of being a total bigot.

Now, I can't fully defend Mordaci because the things he said on Medved's show were in fact very inflammatory. Also, I know what it's like when non-Mormons attempt to tell me what Mormons believe. They tend to cherry-pick items from our scripture (or worse, obscure sermons delivered 150 years ago that are not considered to be at all canonical), quote "scholars" who repeat false rumors that get into print over and over (and are therefore considered to be true), and fail to distinguish between official Mormon doctrine and what individual Mormons might do or think.

Mordaci also had a tendency to waffle, go off on digressions, and not have any idea about the allegations relative to the US Airways incident.

On the other hand, Siddiqui kept referring to the fact that he was on the verge of coming unhinged in rage (oh, what a virtuous man that he doesn't go off on the other guest!), and he had a hard time admitting that some of his co-religionists have gone completely off the rails. He also didn't spend enough time stating counter-arguments to Mordaci's allegations instead of expressing outrage.

Case in point: Mordaci said that Muslims believe that the Jews are sons of monkeys and pigs. Sura 5:60. "Allah cursed those who betrayed him, and converted them into monkeys and pigs."

(The source I found on Google (Authorized English Translation (search term: Sura 5:60, first entry) has it reading thus:
"Say, 'Let me tell you who are worse in the sight of GOD: those who are condemned by GOD after incurring His wrath until He made them (as despicable as) monkeys and pigs, and the idol worshipers. These are far worse, and farther from the right path.'")

Siddiqui insists that the Quran does not specify that Jews are monkeys and pigs. I skimmed the Sura and found that it deals with a common theme in the Quran: the wickedness of unbelievers and their unrighteous hatred of those who had received the latest revelation from God. (The Authorized English Translation, you notice, inserts a clarifying parenthetical remark that they are "as despicable as" monkeys and pigs, which removes the chance that there was any literal or figurative tranformation of the unbelievers into animal-like beings. Furthermore, I don't know if any religion is specified in the original Quran, but this web version certainly specifies Christians and Jews. Musli? Can you shed some light on this?)

Mordaci asserted that you could ask any Muslim child who the pigs and monkeys were, and they'd answer "the Jews." Siddiqui countered that you can't take the word of a child or of any random people off the street and conclude that That's What Islam Teaches.

They both have a point. If the Quran doesn't actually say that Jews are monkeys and pigs, then Islam doesn't teach such a thing. End of story. However, it's not unusual for believers to be lazy readers of their own scripture and therefore come up with bad readings of it. Cultural beliefs that have little to do with the actual religious doctrine also find their way into the belief system of individual believers, and they tend to find scripture that appears to justify their stance. As the old saying goes, the Bible is like a violin: you can play any tune you want on it. (Hence the multiplicity of Christian sects.)

Mordaci is also right when he says that many Muslims believe that Jews are monkeys and pigs. I've seen the MEMRI video (broadcast on Glenn Beck's CNN-Headline special) where a young Palistinian girl is quizzed about the identity of the monkeys and pigs, and that she promptly answers that it's the Jews. I have also heard tell (but not verified) that many of the textbooks in Muslim schools preach this apparently non-Quranic teaching.

I am unable to say what the Quran says or doesn't say: I can't read Arabic, and I know the hazards of translations. I also know that what I think the Quran says is not relevant to the question of what Muslims believe: what they think the Quran says is the only relevant thing.

And it's clear to me that not all Muslims interpret the Quran the same way. As if 1.3 billion people are going to agree on anything after 1400 years.

But what Siddiqui and other Muslims need to understand is that while it's good that they defend what they consider to be "true Islam" from false allegations, it would do the rest of us a world of good if they would acknowledge in spades that some Muslims are way off in their interpretations. (Of course, the fanatics would say that the moderates are the ones who are way off, but that's not my fight.)

Mordaci: "Every Muslim in the Middle East knows who the monkeys and pigs are."

Siddiqui: "Oh please! Spare me!"

Um, Mr. Siddiqui? The man was making a valid observation. It's true that many Muslims in the Middle East believe that the Jews are the monkeys and pigs spoken of in Sura 5:60, despite what the Quran may or may not actually say. The correct response from you should have been, "If they believe that, they are wrong."

But it's hard for me to be sympathetic when you circle the wagons around people who don't deserve to be protected.

But anyway, back to the US Airways issue.

Like I said, Mordaci wasn't prepared to talk about it. Siddiqui said that he had read the police report, and that there was no mention of the provocative behavior (moving to seats in a terrorist configuration, unchecked baggage, one-way ticket, etc.)

The police report is here. I went and looked for myself.

This is what the report says:

Officer Desubijana, Federal Air Marshall Grewenow, and I boarded the aircraft and located [deleted]. I requested [deleted] point out the individuals he witnessed together in the gate area. Officer Desubijana and I asked the six passengers [deleted] pointed out to us to get up and leave the aircraft. Systematically from the rear to the front of the plane, we asked all six to leave the plane. All parties left the plane cooperatively. It should be noted that two of the individuals were seated in the rear, two were seated in the middle, and two were seated in the front of the aircraft; all of which stated they were travelling together.

So the reporting officer saw the seating arrangement for himself. However, there is no mention of the men having been assigned to other seats previously and then moving to that configuration. One US Airways employee mentioned that at the gate, some men had requested two seats in First Class (but they were filled).

Witnesses, including an off-duty flight attendant, mentioned that the request for seat-belt extenders didn't seem necessary, as the men weren't all that large.

One witness, a member of the clergy who had spent extensive time in Turkey, said that "[t]he behavior of the group in the gate area was atypical for my experience w/Muslims..." This man engaged one of the group in lengthy conversation, in which the imam expressed what the man believed were extreme political beliefs. (The PDF isn't clear, so I couldn't read all of what he said.)


Mr. Siddiqui. The official police report mentions the suspicious seating arrangement and the requests for seat extenders that were subsequently not used. It also cited the loud prayers, the "Allah, allah" chants, and the strange behavior in the gate. It does not say whether the imams had checked baggage or not, nor does it say whether they had one-way tickets. (A witness claimed that three of them had one-way tickets and that they hadn't checked any luggage. I don't know if that witnesses' claims were accurate.) The police report mentions that carry-ons were removed along with the imams and that a police dog checked them for suspicious materials. I don't know how many carry-ons were involved.

You can cry "Islamophobia" all you want, but I think that the actions taken by US Airways were reasonable given the long-standing rules about proper flight behavior. I have known since I was a child that you can't even joke about bombs in an airport without being investigated. Passengers whose behavior seems stranger than normal are always investigated, Muslim or not. It may not be your fault that Muslims are now under greater scrutiny since 9-11, but that's just how it goes these days. As soon as all Muslims get thrown off all flights every day, then I'll start seeing racism. Otherwise, sit down and shut up about this.

And the allegations that they were being deliberately provocative so that they could make a scene, thereby intimidating airlines and passengers into keeping quiet about suspicious behavior are unfortunately plausible. Short of sudden clairvoyant ability, though, I can't say for sure what their intentions were.

But man, don't be defending these guys. They should have known better, and if they didn't, they should still have been detained and later educated. Perhaps by you, who are so eager to explain alien cultures to each other.

Because it might be a code in your society that you don't trash members of the Ummah in front of non-believers, and it might be that you think that it's more important to defend appearances than to defend the truth (ugly though it may be), but that won't fly in this country. And that's one place where the Muslims will have to understand US, rather than the other way around.

I don't care what your culture says: In God's eyes, Truth matters more than saving face. You can take that to the bank.


Richard Landes said...

very thoughtful post. i agree with many of your points. as for the issue of monkeys and pigs, the quran's text is less significant than how it is read and taught. Siddiqi's points are all evasive. if child after child tells you jews are pigs and monkeys, that tells you what adults have to say to each other and to their children. if Siddiqi and other "intellectuals" want to obfuscate by insisting that this reading has nothing to do with the text, and not what islam teaches, they have a right to. and we have a right not to accept such fallacious reports.

if jews taught the book of joshua as a command to slaughter the infidel today -- which they most decidedly and explicitly do not -- then one could make the same comment about what judaism "teaches" whether or not the text makes any mention of "today" or the command is explicitly about "policy" towards gentiles.

scriptures are living texts and the way religious communities teach them defines their meanings not some abstract... "it could mean..." the deeply depressing situation in islam today is that we have far too many muslims "reading" the text in deeply violent and racist ways, far too many obfuscating that phenomenon by appealing to our cognitive egocentrism (they're just like us) like Mr. Siddiqi ("O please, spare me!"), and far too few, as you point out, willing to fight this openly.

your post is an excellent example of someone who refuses to be the dupe of demopaths. we need much more of that.

dicentra63 said...

Richard Landes?


I am not worthy.

dicentra63 said...

your post is an excellent example of someone who refuses to be the dupe of demopaths. we need much more of that.

But not here, on a blog that averages [embarrasingly small number of] hits a day. We needed it on the Baker-Hamilton-Chamberlain committe, aka the Iraq Surrender Group.

I pester my congresscritters as much as time and resources allow, but this blog, like most others, preaches to the converted.

(Pedant alert: "Preaching to the choir" means that you're trying to persuade disinterested parties, not people who don't need convincing. If conservative blogs were preaching to the choir, it would mean that the aliens on Alpha Centauri were reading them—people who have no dog in the fight.)

Taking to the streets with large papier mâché puppets isn't my idea of a good way to change the world. I wish there were some better way of getting the message out.