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Heart problems

Culture | The looting in Iraq illustrates the moral and political crisis that plagues the Islamic world

Issue: "Staying underground," May 3, 2003

No sooner were the Iraqis freed from the subjugation of Saddam Hussein than they went right to the opposite extreme: a frenzy of looting, pillaging, and-were it not for coalition troops finally enforcing order-social anarchy.

The plundering of government offices might be excused as signs of the public's hatred of the Baath Party police state. But then the looting spread to banks, shops, and other private property. Some of the destruction-like burning the contents of the national library-was sheer vandalism. Some-like stealing animals from the zoo-was theft for theft's sake.

The pillaging of the National Museum was a tragedy for biblical archeology. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers originally flowed, according to Genesis 2:14, out of the Garden of Eden. Nineveh, where Jonah was called to bring the message of the Lord, is in present-day Iraq, as are the sites of the great empires Assyria and Babylon. Not only the city of exile but the city of origin for the Israelites is in Iraq: Ur of the Chaldees, the home of Abraham, from which he was called out to another land that God would give him.

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Among the holdings in the National Museum currently missing and feared stolen or destroyed by looters is Hammurabi's Code, the first humanly devised written legal system, which was set forth by a Babylonian king, carved onto tablets reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. (What Moses received on Mt. Sinai, of course, is much older.) Also unaccounted for is a carving from ancient Ur known as "The Ram in the Thicket," reminiscent of the sacrifice God provided as a substitution for Isaac (Genesis 22:13), an Old Testament image that prophesies Christ.

Thousands of ancient coins, pottery, inscriptions on clay tablets, and other artifacts were lost. A golden harp from Ur around the time of Abraham was ruined, as looters tried to scrape off the precious metal, leaving only a pile of broken wood.

Incredibly, Iraqis-and Western opponents of the war-blamed not the looters but the United States! The Americans should have stopped it, go the accusations. So the destruction is America's fault.

This rejection of personal responsibility is at the heart of the moral and political crisis that plagues the Middle East. The looters for the most part were presumably pious Muslims. (The women carting off furniture and TV sets were wearing their veils.) Islam teaches that stealing is wrong.

In fact, the Quran teaches what many Arab countries apply, that thieves should have their hands cut off. The penalty is both a harsh punishment and an attempt to prevent further transgressions: A thief would be hard pressed to steal again if he doesn't have a hand to snatch something that doesn't belong to him.

Islam tends to set up external controls, establishing righteousness not by converting the heart but by making it as difficult or as costly as possible for someone to do anything wrong. Christianity, on the other hand, tries to internalize the moral law. The gospel grants forgiveness for sins, whereupon the Holy Spirit, in conflict with our sinful nature, changes the heart so that we do not want to do what is wrong. The conscience is sensitized. Virtue becomes voluntary.

When dealing with the moral problem of lust, the Christian approach is to cultivate the inner disciplines of self-control and the spiritual strength to resist temptation. The Muslim approach is to swathe women in yards of cloth so that it is impossible for a man to see the woman's body.

In Islam, morality is forced from the outside. In Christianity, morality comes from within the individual.

This is why, historically, Christianity is associated with political freedom. Those who can govern themselves morally do not need a strong central governmental power to maintain social order. Conversely, Islam, for all its high moral teachings, enforces them with coercive external power. For that, it needs a strong authoritarian government. Whether this government is religious, as in the theocracy of Iran, or secular, as in the Arabic fascism of the Baath Party, the habits of mind and the political repression are the same.

And when that external coercive power is removed, if only for a moment, what Christians recognize as the sinful human nature will break out.

After the American revolution, when the colonists were liberated from their tyrant, they did not loot and pillage their own cities. This is not just a cultural difference. When the French had their revolution, which was grounded in a repudiation of Christianity, they acted even worse than their current Iraqi allies.

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