East Is East and West Is West

The news that an Afghan man may be executed for converting to Christianity reminds us of one of Rudyard Kipling’s most memorable couplets:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat. (1892)

Kipling (1865-1936), the great poet of British rule in India, knew that Westerners and Muslims have a fundamentally different view of the world. Westerners believe in freedom, Muslims believe in obedience to the laws of Islam.

The only way the man charged with being a Christian can be allowed to live, according to a number of Afghan judges and clerics, is if he is adjudged to be insane. That is to say, only crazy people believe in Christianity, whereas all sane, reasonable people accept Islam!

Kipling would not have been surprised that the Afghan government and its judiciary chose to ignore the precise words in Afghanistan’s new constitution granting freedom of Christians and other minorities to practice their religion. He would have seen rather that the Afghans would rely on another clause in the constitution that says “no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam.” In other words, the Afghans pulled the wool over the eyes of the West by putting the religious freedom clause into their basic law, knowing all along that it meant nothing.

The case shows there is little chance that Western ideas of tolerance, freedom, and democracy will gain a hold in the Middle East. Columnist David Brooks reminded readers in the March 23, 2006, New York Times of Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, who holds that culture matters most. In his book, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington writes that he doesn’t want to change the Muslim world—he just wants less contact with it. As Brooks summarized the situation, “Lofty notions about universal liberty splinter on the shoals of Arab customs.”

Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, indeed with the entire Middle East, are proving the depth of Kipling’s insight more than a century ago: Islamic culture and Western culture are hopelessly at odds, and attempts to bring them together will produce only more examples like that of the Christian convert in Afghanistan, in which neither culture can comprehend the thinking of the other.

On the one side, President Bush said “it is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because he chose a particular religion over another.” The German foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeir, demanded that Afghanistan observe fundamental human rights and freedom of religion, while some politicians called for withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan.

On the other side, Afghan Supreme Court judge Ansarullah Mawlavizada said “Afghanistan is an Islamic country,” and “no other policy will be accepted apart from Islamic orders and what our constitution says.” The judge thereby ignored that part of the constitution that grants religious freedom. Meanwhile, the Afghan economics minister Amin Farhang responded angrily to the “heated and emotional reaction” in Europe, but especially in Germany. “We don’t mix in the internal affairs of Germany or in its legal processes,” Farhang complained. “When German politicians threaten the withdrawal of German forces, this borders on blackmail.”

We have been trying for more than four years to bring democracy and order to the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Afghanistan’s new government is dominated by the same warlords who brought chaos to the country for a generation. These same warlords are operating the most extensive opium poppy production program in the world. The case of the Christian convert demonstrates that the rigidity and intolerance of the Taliban we ousted in 2001 are alive and well in Afghanistan today. In Iraq, we have sponsored several elections, but as of this date the various political and ethnic factions still cannot get together to form a government, while an insurgency led by the minority Sunnis designed to keep Iraq in a state of ungovernable disorder is killing dozens of people every day in roadside bombings, mortar attacks on markets, and kidnappings and murders. A terrorist group, Hamas, intent on the destruction of Israel, has won the outright majority in the recent Palestinian elections, and is seeking—and will probably get—economic support from other Arab states. The new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, regularly calls for the destruction of Israel and denies that the Holocaust ever happened. His thinking is not that of a madman, however, but of a vast number of Muslims.

It’s a dismal scene. What are we to do? The answer is to accept reality and to give up the utopian sentiments expressed a year ago by President Bush in his second inaugural address. In it he announced that freedom is God’s gift to humanity, and people everywhere hunger for liberty. Yes, we in the West do believe these two concepts; our societies are based on them. But they are not universal. The great majority of Palestinians, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Saudis and the rest of the people in the Middle East outside of Israel do not accept these principles as fundamental to their lives.

We must concentrate on practical solutions in the region. We must extricate our troops as quickly as we can, especially from Iraq, where they are subject to constant guerrilla attacks which we can do little to prevent. We must station special operations forces and aircraft in friendly places like Kuwait and Qatar in order to help the Iraqi government—when and if it is formed—to combat insurgents. We must continue to seek out and destroy terrorists wherever they are. We must stop Iran from building an atomic bomb. But we must renounce high ideals about transforming the people of the Middle East. It’s not going to work.

East is East and West is West.

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