Everybody's business

Posted: Aug 02, 2006 12:01 AM

The old injunction about minding your own business has always been a little problematic, because carried to formal lengths it distresses other laws, laws that have to do with being one's brother's keeper. From large-scale national perspectives, there are the laws that translate into maintaining balances of power. You can try to ignore it when you hear that Hitler has ultimate solutions about how to deal with Germany's Jews, but meanwhile it makes sense to maintain your fleet in good condition, never mind if regulating German Jews is other people's business.

Itchy stuff. In the 19th century, moral realities hardened on the subject of slavery. That too had been thought of as other people's business for a long time, even when the "other people" were your neighbors. After a while, it was felt that slavery was other people's business only if the practice of it was removed at least by regional boundaries. And then after a couple of generations, it was resolved that slavery was not a business to be tolerated anywhere within the nation's territory; and so on.

The problem of which communities' practices continue to be sheltered as other people's business is lightly touched on in a huge story in The New York Times on Tuesday about what they are taking to be their own business in a province of Indonesia. Aceh is a straitlaced part of the Muslim community. The big photo shows a man standing in a long white shirt looking down. On his left is a man dressed in black whose face is shrouded by a mask. He is holding what looks like a long stick. In fact it is a rattan cane, about a meter long and 0.75 centimeters thick.

The photo depicts one stroke laid on by the "executor" -- that is what the Wilayatul Hisbah are called, the enforcers of Shariah, or Muslim law. The camera caught the swing of the cane because the prisoner was still standing. The story says that on the seventh stroke, he fell down in a faint. His sentence was 40 lashes of the cane, and the eager crowd was promised that when the man came back to life, he would receive the balance due of his sentence, another 33 strokes.

One is permitted to pause in cosmopolitan surprise that seven strokes of the rattan cane, inflicted on a man's back, would cause him to pass out. Old Etonians must be especially skeptical, though their own Wilayatul Hisbahs aimed at buttocks, not backs, but often went on past a seventh stroke, with not much evidence of students fainting.

But the point here being made is that there is in Aceh a revival of Muslim fundamentalism. "Aceh," the reporter tells us, "is undergoing a profound transformation that is likely to have considerable impact on the nature of Islam in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country." We learn that there are more than 40 prisoners arrested for thievery, and it is being deliberated whether to chop off their hands. We are reminded that this remains the practice in Saudi Arabia, and one is left to suppose that it is routine. If it were spectacularly unusual, it would presumably have rated a photo and a story in The New York Times. But engines of the news cannot be alert to mundane torture. If somebody is going to be hanged every morning at Tyburn, after a while one loses interest, and that, really, is the point of this essay.

Much hangs on the development of Muslim practice in the 21st century. It can't remain somebody else's business exclusively if organized communities take to chopping off people's hands. The Times article describes the arrest of three women in Aceh. Their crime? They were sitting in a secluded section of a hotel corridor without their head scarves. Inasmuch as the Shariah is being developed, restored, revived, evolved, it matters greatly in what direction it is developing. We know that cheek by jowl in the Middle East we have had developments along the lines of the Taliban, with torture and death, and along different lines, as in Turkey and Egypt. It is precisely an urgent moral concern what practices will govern life and law enforcement in Iraq -- and Lebanon and Syria.

It has been a matter of huge reluctance even to think of, let alone refer to, a great religious-moral collision approaching, setting Islam against the Judaeo-Christian world. The old counsel is to be permissive about what other people do, especially if they are self-governing. But in present circumstances, these do not consolidate as purely local matters. What happens in Aceh, when fundamentalist Islam is reviving throughout Indonesia, is exactly as reported, a matter of profound international concern.