Dynamist Blog

The Greater Divide

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose, like Megan McCardle (among others), you think that Newsweek should have distrusted the Koran-in-the-toilet story, because it's hard to flush a book. But you'd like to know if your instincts are correct. So, in a CSI-style experiment, you buy a Koran, tear out some pages (my assumption, though not Megan's, is a two-step desecration), flush them down your own toilet, and see what happens. There are no Muslims present, you don't plan to advertise your actions, and your intentions are purely scientific. How many Americans would think this behavior is outrageous?

My guess is almost none. After all, nobody got hurt. While many Americans believe it's wrong to shock and humiliate Muslim prisoners by violating their religious taboos, very, very few Americans--mostly Muslims, of course--would themselves be horrified by the mere idea of flushing a Koran. And that, I think, is the real bias of the Newsweek report. American reporters, whether secular or religious, simply don't feel instinctive rage at the idea of Koran desecration and, hence, don't expect such reports to generate riots. Diversifying reporting staffs to include more red state types couldn't change that bias. By Western standards, it is, after all, completely idiotic--not to mention highly immoral--to kill people over the treatment of an inanimate object, however disrepectful the symbolism. The American idea of a "culture war" is an entirely verbal debate over whether it should be constitutional to impose a small fine on someone who burns the American flag or whether art like Piss Christ should get federal subsidies. We don't actually believe in killing people over these things. And, of course, few Americans, least of all religious Americans, think the Koran is terribly special.

With its Western biases, Newsweek thought it was writing about allegations of prisoner abuse, a human rights issue. Its overseas audience had a different reading. The differences between us and them really are bigger than the differences between us and us.

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