When it comes to discussions about the human worth of different societies two things irk me to no end: American exceptionalism and politically correct cultural relativism. Let’s start with the first one.
In 2005 I became a citizen of the United States of America. To achieve that goal I had to study on government-provided booklets about the American Constitution and American history (about which, I think I can safely say, I know significantly more than most Americans). I passed both “tests” with full score (10/10 correct answers in both subject matters). But I was astonished to see that the booklet on American history still talked about “manifest destiny,” a belief that — rather hopefully as it turns out — Wikipedia describes in the past tense: “[it] was the belief widely held by Americans in the 19th century that the United States was destined to expand across the continent.” Apparently, it is also held by the Federal Government, in the 21st century.
Needless to say, there is no such thing as destiny — certainly not in the Bible-inspired naive way implied by the above phrase — and Americans should never forget that their free nation was established on a combination of genocide and slavery. But hey, sometimes people have rough beginnings. The United States has done some (minimal) reparation to native Americans, slavery was abolished after a bloody “civil” war that people in the South still refer to as “the war of Northern aggression,” and since 1920 even women can vote in this great nation.
So, all this current talk of “American exceptionalism” (typically from neo-con / Republican quarters) sounds pretty sinister to me, and is a sure sign of a significant residual degree of cultural immaturity. The United States is certainly an unusual place in the world, for both good and bad reasons, and it is a pleasure to live here if one can afford it (particularly in terms of healthcare and pension), but it neither factually or ethically ought to be considered “exceptional.” Consequently, the US shouldn’t be able to violate international law without impunity, or reject baby steps like agreeing to join the International Criminal Court.
All of the above said, the recent riots in Muslim countries clearly show that the United States, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and several other Asian countries are a hell of a lot better places to live if one is minimally concerned with human flourishing. Which is a nicer way to state that many Muslim societies have a long way to go before rising to the (always imperfect, sometimes troubled) level of societies like the American one.
Yes, I realize perfectly well that the riots, burnings and killings were not just in response to a perceived offense to Islam nor were they supported by all persons within each of these societies. I understand that local governments (apparently, including some of the fledgling democracies, not just the theocracies) are taking advantage of a largely uneducated, poor and unemployed population for their own political purposes. But that’s the point: a society in which a notable portion of the population can so easily be manipulated, where people take to the streets and chant “Death to America” or “We are ready to die for you Muhammad” because some idiot puts an horrendous video on the internet has serious maturing to do. A culture where “offending” a religious figure (or anyone, really) is sufficient reason to go on a violent rampage, or to demand another government’s apologies, or to push anti-blasphemy laws at the United Nations is not a good society. And I am using the term “good” in an unequivocally moral sense here.
Is it just Islam? Is this an admission that — as many American right wing commentators would have it — there is something particularly warping about the Islamic faith that leads to these sorts of outcomes?
Of course not, and anyone with even a cursory grasp of the history of religions would know better. Just look at the history of all three Abrahamic faiths: Jews used to go around pillaging, raping and merrily engaging in (god-sanctioned) genocide; we owe to Christians the invention of the words “crusade” (which I urge you never, under any circumstances, to use in a positive sense, please) and “Inquisition.” Islam is just late to the party, and hasn’t (yet, hopefully) moved away from Christianity's situation during the Middle Ages, or Judaism's before the Roman empire.
What about other religions? It is hard to find comparable levels of violence inspired by non-monotheistic religions. Even though Hinduism has led to several such episodes in modern India, it is worth pointing out that it has largely coexisted peacefully with Buddhism in ancient times. The serious trouble started with the Muslim invasion of the Indian subcontinent, with Timur’s massacre in Delhi ranking as one of the largest atrocities of the Middle Ages. There may really be something to the idea that belief in a single god is a particularly pernicious type of metaphysical nonsense.
Then again, contra popular lore among some atheists, it’s not like secular regimes have fared that much better. The Reign of Terror was unleashed by the entirely secular (and, indeed, viciously anti-religious) Revolutionary Assembly in 18th century France (you know, very shortly after the so-called “Age of Reason”), and two of the greatest social disasters of the 20th century were the result of atheist regimes in Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China.
Yes, yes, those people were not really atheists. But of course “true” Christians, or Muslims, or Jews, can make the same argument, all of which end up being varieties of the no-true-Scotsman fallacy.
The reality is that whenever people start blindly following an ideology — secular or religious — violent trouble soon follows. And this is made much more likely by two sets of factors: external conditions, like poverty, and internal ones, like the degree of sophistication of a society’s citizenry (and yes, the two are not at all independent). What we have been witnessing recently in many Islamic countries is, unfortunately, a perfect storm of those kinds of factors. And in the process of observing we are also quickly learning that democracy ain’t a magic fix either (pace W. and his neocon ideologues). Then again, Plato had already figured that one out 24 centuries ago.