Hiding from the facts of the modern world

Posted: Jan 10, 2005 12:00 AM

From worlds away -- maybe another planet -- "explanations" for the tsunami catastrophe begin.

On Palestinian Authority TV, according to MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), Sheik Ibrahim Mudeiris asked Allah in a Friday sermon to have mercy on "all the Muslims who died" in the tsunami. Which means everyone else is on his own. Next, the sheik railed against the disaster's cause, which was neither earth, skies nor anything divine in between. It seems it all had to do with "the oppression and corruption caused by America and the Jews" -- naturally. General corruption in Bangkok worked its way into the homily as well, but mainly as the sordid site of "Zionist and American investments." The question for his flock was: "Do you want the sea to lower its waves in the face of this corruption that it sees with its own eyes?" "No," he replied, "the zero hour has come." Too bad his handlers haven't.

Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajjid's take, as broadcast on state-controlled Saudi television (also reported by MEMRI), was somewhat more religious. Or rather more anti-religious. Make that anti-Christian. "The problem is that the (Christian) holidays are accompanied by forbidden things: by immorality, abomination, adultery, alcohol, drunken dancing and ... and revelry," he said, displaying a less-than-Dickensian expansiveness of spirit. "At the height of immorality, Allah took vengeance on these criminals ... Allah struck them with an earthquake. He finished off the Richter scale," he added. "All nine levels gone."

No mention of the tens of thousands of non-Christians "gone" alongside said "criminals" -- and, of course, no mention of the vast amounts of "criminal" (and even, ye gods, Jewish) aid pouring into the region, most expeditiously via the United States military, in amounts that dwarf the contributions of the Muslim world.

Then there's the Web site Jihad Unspun. In a feat of contorted thinking not even The New York Times editorial page would attempt, it connects the killer from the sea to Thailand's support for United States foreign policy -- that is, for "the Christian Crusaders" at "the altar of capitalism." No word on why Allah kept other U.S. allies tsunami-free, not to mention Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv.

Still, it's not all about blaming the Great Satan. In Indonesia, The Washington Post reports Muslim imams are blaming themselves -- or, rather, their congregations. They have explained the colossal devastation as a warning from Allah against people's laxity in observing sharia law. "God is angry with Aceh people, because most of them do not do what is written in the Koran and the Hadith (the collected sayings and actions of the prophet Mohammed)," one cleric told the newspaper.

Even allowing for the tender ministrations of clerics to their flocks, none of the above explanations leave an opening for a scientific explanation of December's disaster -- not even Sheik Al-Munajjid's somewhat hilarious invocation of the Richter scale. This would seem to be in keeping with Islamic tradition. In a fascinating book called "For the Glory of God" (Princeton University Press, 2003), comparative religion professor Rodney Stark reveals why science developed in the Christian West, not the Muslim East. I think his theory offers an important insight into the cultural attitudes on display in the tsunami's wake.

Historically, according to Mr. Stark, it came down to completely different visions of an Almighty. "Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but has been conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate," Mr. Stark writes. As a result, human efforts to understand natural law have always been considered nothing short of blasphemous because "they denied Allah's freedom to act." He continues: "Islam did not fully embrace the notion that the universe ran on fundamental principles laid down by God at the Creation, but assumed that the world was sustained by his will on a continuing basis."

By direct contrast, Mr. Stark writes, Christianity did indeed fully embrace the notion that the universe ran on fundamental principles laid down by God at the Creation. "Christianity depicted God as a rational, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful stable structure awaiting human comprehension." The intellectually inquisitive European scientists of the 16th and 17th centuries, Mr. Stark writes, saw themselves "as in pursuit of the secrets of Creation."

Most of these secrets remain -- including many secrets of December's tsunami. To this day, the cultures of the West and East regard them in a completely different light. This is something elemental to consider. For just as Islam hides its face from the facts of modernity, we must not hide our face from the facts of Islam.