This is the second part in a series of posts about the Danish "Muhammad cartoons" controversy. If you haven't already read it, it would probably be useful to start with part one.
3. Nous ne sommes pas tous americains.
[C]ontemporary Orientalist attitudes flood the press and the popular mind. Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization. Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.
...[A] white, middle-class Westerner believes it his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition "it" is not quite as human as "we" are. There is no purer example than this of dehumanized thought.
-- Edward W. Said; Orientalism (Vintage Books edition, 1979, page 108).
Well. Sometimes you get a reply to things you write that just leave you speechless. I knew the Muhammad cartoons were controversial and might elicit a whole range of responses. But when I wrote earlier about how offensive it is to caricature Muhammad as a hook-nosed, bigotted, bloodthirsty old deviant, the one response that I really didn’t anticipate was that it isn’t offensive to say that because that’s just how Muhammad really was! Specifically:
"Muhammad was just simply a pedophile (he married a six-year-old girl) and a warlord".
I’m going to respond to that comment in some detail, not only because it’s profoundly ignorant in itself, but also because it is suggestive of a wider self-imposed national ignorance of all things foreign that seems to have a lot of us in its thrall right now, and that leaves us alternately confident that the whole world is just like us and then confused about why hordes of bearded men are burning our flag instead of showering us with the chocolates and roses we expect and deserve.
Because, as difficult as this is for some Americans to get their head around, the fact is the whole world - and the whole of human history - is not made up of 21st century Americans. As unbelievable as it might sound to some us who are nourished on a daily diet of “USA! We’re number one!”, there are more than six billion people on this planet who are not American, who are proud of their own not-American languages, histories, customs and cultures, who have no wish to become American or be ruled by Americans or live like Americans, and who don’t sit around all day tearing their clothes and cursing their bad luck at being born foreign.
So how does that fit in with the "Muhammad as pervert" meme? Well, when we hear that Muhammad was married to a nine-year-old (not six, but never mind) we can do what my presumably American correspondent did, and say: “Well here in 21st century America, marriage is an institution that unites a man and a woman primarily for the purpose of having children. Therefore, a grown man who marries a child must be a paedophile, and as this is what Muhammad did, clearly he must have been one. QED”. And if we frankly don’t really like Muslims or Arabs anyway, we will probably find that that conclusion is a comfortable fit with our prejudices, so we’ll stick with it.
The other thing we could do is remind ourselves that Muhammad wasn’t a 21st century American, and ask ourselves whether it is possible that, at other times and in other places outside of 21st century America, the institution of marriage might have had a broader function than the primarily sexual one that we associate with it now. And if we took the trouble to research this, by reading a book or – heaven forbid – going to a local mosque or Islamic Center and actually speaking to a real-life Muslim, we might find that marriage did have different functions in some other cultures, including in the 7th century Arabian Peninsula, which was where Muhammad lived.
Bearing in mind again that Arabia is not America, here is a response to "Muhammad was just simply a pedophile... and a warlord", laid out as monosyllabically as I can:
1. Arab society in 7th century was organized on the basis of the extended family, clan or tribe.
2. An individual's membership of the tribe was through the male head of the household, ie your husband
3. The tribe was an important structure in maintaining social order. If someone victimized you, your tribe would stand up for you. If someone killed you, your tribe would take revenge.
4. Tribal revenge might sound barbaric to 21st century American ears, just as "an eye for an eye" does in the code of Hammurabi or in the Hebrew scriptures/Old Testament. But these measures were actually progressive in their day. The purpose of "an eye for an eye" was not to give an excuse for taking out someone's eye, but to limit the retribution that an injured party could claim against an offender, so that tribal vendettas would not develop and escalate. Similarly, tribal revenge was not an excuse to commit violence, but a deterrent to stop it happening in the first place, by warning a would-be offender that his actions would have consequences.
5. Seventh century Arabia was marked by tribal warfare, so it's difficult to know what to make of the accusation that Muhammad was a "warlord". How do you think people lived in tribal societies in times of war? Check out your Jewish or Christian scriptures and reacquaint yourself with the history of the Hebrew kingdoms. In half a millenium of tribal kings, from Saul to Zedekiah, precious few of them would escape the title “warlord”. It’s part of living in a time of war, not a character defect.
6. Until the mid-20th century, the primary casualties of war were those who fought it, i.e. young adult males.
7. Referring back to point 2, above, the loss of young adult males to warfare in 7th-century Arabia had the effect of cutting loose from tribal protection the widows and orphans whose affiliation to the tribe had been through the deceased male head of the family.
8. There were ways to regraft vulnerable, unattached people back into the tribal structure. A man who could afford to support someone else's son might formally adopt him into his tribe. A man who could afford to support more than one wife could bring widows and orphaned girls under the protection of his clan through marriage. The function of such marriages was not sex but social stability; you did not have marital relations with a pre-pubescent "bride".
9. So, while a perfectly normal nuclear family in the 21st century United States might comprise husband plus wife plus 1.7 children, a perfectly normal 7th century Arabian nuclear family might instead comprise a husband and a wife (or wives) with whom he had children; plus a number of previously-widowed and previously-orphaned wives with whom he did not.
10. Which, coincidentally, was what Muhammad’s nuclear family looked like.
So how about that. Muhammad turns out to be not a 21st American paedophile, but a perfectly normal 7th century Arab.
I'm sorry if that seems to be stating the obvious, but it apparently needs saying. Other people and cultures do things differently to us. It doesn't make them defective, deficient or deviant. It just makes them not us. Some of us seem stuck in the mentality that the way we live is normative for all humans: "western values" are the epitome of goodness, progress, culture and freedom, and our way of life is therefore normal not just for us, but for everyone. If 7th century Arabs don't display the same family structures we do, then they must be perverts. If Muslim women don't dress like us, they're being confrontational. And if Iraqis don't shower us with petals for invading their country and trying to forcibly recreate it as a shrine to American neoconservatism and unrestrained free market economics, well they must be "Islamofascists".
The fact that the vast majority of people on this planet are not American is not a problem. The arrogant assumption that cultures we know nothing about are inherently worthless, evil and incapable of teaching us anything, is.