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Who's more arrogant?

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In Islam vs. the West, what's needed is an examination of conscience on both sides

At the end of September, Egypt's independent weekly al-Maydan reported, "Millions across the world shouted in joy: 'America has been hit!' This call expressed the sentiments of millions whom the American master had treated with tyranny, arrogance, bullying, conceit, deceit and bad taste."

Bad taste? That's one way to describe the offensive success of the Dollar People. Still, it is hard to think of anything in worse taste than "shouting in joy" at the news that religious lunatics have killed thousands of innocent people on a Tuesday morning.

Al-Maydan's spittle-spraying, six-count indictment of America illustrates the principle that a person, when ranting about others, often describes himself. In 1941, for example, Hitler said of Churchill, "For over five years, this man has been chasing around Europe like a madman in search of something he could set on fire." Similarly, any commentator who writes about "arrogance," "tyranny" or "deceit" from an editorial perch in the Islamic Middle East is describing conditions outside his office window.

Focus simply on al-Maydan's indictment (popular everywhere in the world, by the way, including the U.S.) that America is arrogant. Who can doubt it? The world's sole surviving superpower, and its most fabulously successful democracy, could not be unarrogant if it tried. But the arrogance is complicated. In the American mind, arrogance coexists with a surprising, even squirming self-effacement--a perverse impulse, for example, to think that somehow Americans may have deserved 9/11 for their sins (notably, the sin of arrogance!). Or the touchingly strange concern in the U.S. that 9/11 might lead Americans to think anti-Islamic thoughts, perhaps be rude to Arabs.

The famous "arrogance of power" is cross-grained, and self-subverted. The world might learn to be more alert to another kind, the arrogance of powerlessness--which may take the form of aggressive exaltation suffused with God's righteous, annihilating power. What is more arrogant than a vocabulary of "infidel," "jihad" and "fatwa"? More arrogant than the totalitarian conceit that Allah obliges "the faithful" to wage vicious holy war against the airplanes and office buildings of the ungodly? What is more arrogant, or in worse taste, than hijack heroes' sleazy dreams of paradise, with 72 virgins at the disposal of each "martyr"?

Since the bombing started in Afghanistan, American commentators have worried a lot about "the Arab street." Well, there's also an "American street." It is more dangerous to the Arab street than the Arab street is to the American, for this reason: the indelible grievance of 9/11 has nullified certain long-nurtured American inhibitions--such as the constraints of political correctness and "hate speech," and even the taboo against speaking of nuclear weapons.

The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, spoke for the American street when he told a television interviewer, "The God of Islam is not the same God [as that of Christianity]. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." The American street is now willing to employ ayatullah vocabularies--to think in fatwas.

Arrogance comes in many forms, some crazier than others. There is no equivalence between Islamic arrogance and American arrogance; they inhabit different centuries. But they are two sides of a dangerous coin.

Is there an antidote to arrogance? Humility, no doubt--though arrogance gags on such medicine. Humility is one of the neglected and unpopular virtues, like chastity--a little brown wren of a virtue, unsatisfying, unphotogenic, ill suited to a media age. Let us try instead...introspection.

If this is to be a clash of civilizations, Islam vs. the West, there might still be time for a period of serious, difficult introspection--a cultural examination of conscience on both sides.

The Muslim introspection must confront the failures of Islamic societies, political and economic and moral, and the evil, fascistic dreams that these societies sometimes export with vivid results.

The Americans find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being the injured party. But eventually, when they have got a grip on the terrorist threat and return to calmer moments, they are going to have to give intelligent thought to turning their money and freedom to more decent, more responsible purposes. When they have put their flags away, Americans will have to ask if they want to go back to what they were on Sept. 10. They can do a lot better.


Cover Date: December 10, 2001


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