TCS Daily

Just Ask Mohammed

By Lee Harris - April 8, 2003 12:00 AM

For the past couple of days, ever since I heard about him, I have been thinking about Mohammed.

This is the name that has been given to the man who guided American Special Forces to the hospital in which Jessica Lynch was being held by the Iraqis, and where, without Mohammed's intervention, it is quite probable that she would have died, alone and terrified.

We all owe Mohammed our profoundest gratitude. Not merely for saving the life of one of our soldiers and one of our daughters, but for demonstrating the immense difference that the heroic decency of one single man can make.

Heroic decency has an odd ring to our ears, and well it should have. Decency, in our world, is taken for granted; it marks the standard by which our conduct is judged to be adequate and acceptable, and certainly not the standard by which it is judged to be heroic and inspiring. If we fail to be decent, we are rightly condemned; but if we just manage to be decent, no one thinks to praise us. And why should they? We live in a society where acts of decency usually cost us little or nothing.

Mohammed and his family do not live in such a society. And that is what made his act heroic. Because in the Iraq governed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, the simple act of saving a fellow human being from pointless and unmerited suffering is regarded not as an act of humanity, but as an act of treason. And far from costing Mohammed nothing, such simple decency could have easily have cost him the lives of his own children. And that is what makes it heroic. How many of us would have done the same?

We must grasp this fact if we are to understand what the liberation of Iraq really entails.

Liberation is not a gift that is within our power to give to the people of Iraq, but something that they, and only they, are capable of achieving for themselves. We may knock down one monster; but they may rush in to set up a new one in his place. History-sadly-is full of such episodes, like those pathetic stories of women who, rid of one wife-beater, immediately set out to replace him with another.

We cannot liberate Iraq; but men like Mohammed can. And it is this truth that must determine our role in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. We must create there a political environment where men like Mohammed do not need to be afraid to act decently.

Such men do not need to act like us, or to believe in the same things as we do, or to share the same cultural values. But as long as they play by the same standards of decency-provided that we continue to play by these same standards ourselves-then the great rift between the Islamic world and the West can possibly begin to heal.

The late American philosopher, John Rawls, toward the end of his distinguished career, provided one last immensely useful concept that can offer us guidance at this moment; and it is what he called "overlapping consensus."

This is what occurs where two or more different groups, each coming from disparate cultures or divergent religious and ethnic traditions, can find a core set of common values that can be shared through a common practice, despite the fact that each particular group may justify this value in different ways, according to its own doctrines and ideologies. For example, in Mohammed's act of heroic decency, he may himself have been motivated by the Koran's injunction to emulate the mercy of Allah, whereas another man may have undertaken a similar act of heroic decency because he was a devout Christian or Jew; or, indeed, a socialist moved simply by the suffering of another human being.

For Rawls, what matters is not what where the decency comes from; but the world that is brought about by such decency. And that is what should matter to us, too.

Our goal in Iraq, paradoxically, must be to make Mohammed's decency a matter not of heroism, but of routine. That is, we must be prepared to fight tooth and nail any force that attempts to threaten and intimidate men like Mohammed through the use of terror.

Terror does awful things to a community. In the South of my childhood, the relatively innocuous terror of having a cross burnt on your front yard, or having your business ransacked, was an effective deterrent to the normal operation of conscience on the part of many decent white Southerners-men and women who believed that segregation was a violation of the simple standards of fair play, but who were afraid to speak their mind for fear of the consequences of doing so. And not without reason.

What ended the terror is the South was the firm determination on the part of the United States government to employ whatever means were necessary, including the use of force, so that good men and women no longer needed heroism in order to act with decency.

And this is a lesson that many liberals today are badly in need of remembering. A world in which the wicked use terror to intimidate the decent from acting decently is not a world in which you can expect liberal values to thrive. Someone must be prepared to act to defend these values from those who would eradicate them.

Just ask Mohammed.

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