When a gunman attempted to assassinate President Reagan, we saw the drama of a solitary young man, a loner. This was his way, a short cut to history, a way of securing the attention that had eluded him. Then came the attempted assassination of the pope. There, too, was a young man with a belief that the bullet can make a statement. There, too, was the classic encounter between the target -- a symbol bigger than himself -- and a would-be assassin.
But the world would not be what it is if the deed of Mehmet Ali Agca, the accused assailant of the pope, were not used as a way to indict an entire civilization. Here was an easy way of tarring another culture. And it was offered by Joseph Kraft in a column (May 19) that shows just how cynical and partisan much of what passes for today's political and intellectual analysis is.
Kraft wants to go to the source. In Agca's deed, Kraft sees "the dark side of Islam." There is a danger hovering about and it is Kraft's duty to tell us about it. This was not terrorism, he says, but "the crazed product of a notorious cultural milieu. I speak of the milieu of Islamic fundamentalism." Other Westerners are reluctant to discuss the dark side of Islam because it is "bad form" to discuss other people's religion. But since the "truth" ought to be faced, Kraft is not one to dodge it: "At the root of the assassination attempt is a turbulent Islamic society. It is a society pregnant with nasty surprises, and the large lesson is that those who look to the Moslem world as a sure supplier of oil or a steady ally against Moscow do so at their peril."
From Mehmet Ali Agca to Islamic society as a whole. From the bullet of a would-be assassin to the large questions of oil supplies and containment of the Soviet Union. It is quite a formidable leap of logic. But it is of a piece with the analysis that Kraft and others of his stripe have been peddling about the Muslim world.
Now the world over, social institutions unravel before our eyes and the veneer of civil society cracks. The contract between rulers and ruled erodes, and large numbers of people, particularly young people, are left unsure of time-honored verities, tempted to strike at visible symbols of authority. When tragic deeds happen, we search for clues in the life histories of individuals. We draw a line, as we should, between the deeds of solitary individuals and the cultures from which they hail. But apparently an exception is to be made in the case of Islam: there and there alone we locate trouble in the character of civilization and the essence of the religion.
To my knowledge, Kraft has not seen fit in the crisis in El Salvador, in the murders of American nuns and the larger political crisis of Latin America, the dark side of Catholicism. Nor presumably would he tell us that the murders in Jonestown indict Western culture. Nor again would he say that the man accused of shooting Reagan indicts upper middle-class American life.
This "pop sociology" of Islam is offered not for the "sociological" reasons claimed by Kraft but for a variety of other motivations. Geography and raw materials, namely oil, placed the domain of Islam in the eye of the storm, someplace where the two superpowers converge. Profound changes engulf the domain of Islam as does the whole world. A number of Islamic countries are trying to find their own way. to control their own resources. In doing so, their will sometimes comes up against that of others and their visions of a good society clash with the preferences held by those like Kraft who believe that their own views approximate a monopoly on truth. In this encounter it is not so much Islam, but the force of nationalism trying to order its own space. This of course is messy and difficult to accept. Writing it all off as religion has its obvious temptations.
Kraft is no expert on Islam. For the diversity of Islamic civilization he substitutes shallow stereotypes. Consider the following passage: "In general, Islamic society has been characterized by economies that are agricultural and rural, ect." Nothing could be further from the truth. The social order of Islam has been built on cities and towns. Islam has been a religion of the city, its heartland a crossroads civilization.
There is an irony to affixing the deed of Mehmet Ali Agca on Islam. For a number of decades, the West claimed and "adopted" Turkey as its own. This was a society, we were repeatedly told, that broke with tradition and bought the ways of the West. Now the Turkish experiment has fallen on hard times. Turkey is thus written off. In Turkey, Kraft and others choose to see not the strains of modern society by the pathology of Islam. Turkey is handed back to the Moslem world. The turmoil of Mehmet Ali Agca becomes the turmoil of Islam.
This clearly will not do either as analysis or, to be sure, as a basis for policy. For the dialogue we need with others, Kraft and like-minded individuals escape into cultural indictments. For the needed analysis there is only discomfort with alien ways and social systems. Large trouble lies ahead if the dogmas offered by Kraft really begin to take hold in this country.