What's the life of a Frenchman worth? I hope that doesn't sound like a racist question but we have to live in the real world, don't we? We know about the amount of blood money which it is acceptable to pay for the life of an American. That was fixed in agreement with Colonel Gaddafi recently when the Libyan leader agreed to pay up $2.7bn - as much as $10m to each of the families of the victims of the bombing of the Pan Am plane which came down on the little Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988.
It caused a stir in France, of course. A few years back a court there decided that Gaddafi's agents had also been responsible for the terror attack on UTA Flight 772, the French airliner which was blown up over the Sahara desert the year after Lockerbie. The French convicted six Libyans of the crime, in absentia, and demanded $33m in compensation. No wonder that the French threatened to block moves to end international sanctions on Libya unless Gaddafi upped the offer, which he now duly has done. The exact amount is undisclosed though the families had been demanding a comparable $2.2bn.
There was a telling phrase in reports of the new deal: "The UTA tragedy has often been forgotten amid the attention given to the fate of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie". Indeed but there is another terrible incident of an airliner blown out of the sky which has been even more neglected. On 3 July 1988 an American battle cruiser, the USS Vincennes, shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers on board. Ironic as it now seems, the warship was in the Gulf to support Saddam Hussein during his 1980-88 war against Iran. Its captain, who was later awarded America's highest naval decoration, said he thought he was being attacked by an Iranian F-14 fighter. Washington later paid the victims' families $300,000 each - a figure which was halved if the individual who died was unemployed.
Which perhaps tells us part of the answer to another question: what's a Muslim life worth? You might say this is a leading question. We're not really talking about religion, so much as power, and there's no equity in the distribution of that. And we have to live in the real world, after all. The trouble is that the latest edition of the British newspaper Muslim News asks exactly that question, and revealingly so.
It is easy to forget that we all see the world through eyes that focus through lenses which have been ground by a very particular set of cultural assumptions. Our template is, by and large, political.
Take the detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Depending on our political perspective, we might describe them as dangerous terrorists or as untried British citizens denied due process of justice. But many of our fellow countrymen see them primarily as Muslims. Pick up any of the publications by the Islamic community in Britain - or surf the net - and you will see that very clearly. There is even a new website (www.prisonerofwest.org) dedicated to giving a face to the men the rest of us have seen only in orange boiler suits, hooded, drugged and shackled.
It is all too easy to demonise such figures, some of whom are almost certainly guilty but others of whom, even the Americans admit, are probably innocent. Today a court in Indonesia is due to deliver its verdict on Abu Bakar Bashir, whose religious school in the Javan city of Solo is said to have provided dozens of recruits for an extremist group linked to Osama bin Laden.
He is charged with treason, accused of plotting the assassination of the President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and giving the nod to the Bali and Jakarta bombings. Bashir denies that but who will give him much credence after his pronouncement that "human beings without Islam are like cattle in the eyes of Allah" or his insistence that "a teenage boy should be thinking about martyrdom before thinking about women" or his warning to his trial judges that they would go to hell if they convicted him?
Yet we have to be careful not to fall into the black and white worldview of George Bush where everything divides simply into Manichean categories of good and evil. There was a striking counter-example of this on the radio yesterday in which Abdal Hakim Murad, the Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University, spoke of the difficulty of preaching in present times. He said: "When the war began, I mounted the pulpit of my local mosque and preached the most difficult sermon of my career. My congregation included many anti-war activists; but I could not quite ignore the Iraqi asylum-seekers who were also hearing my words. Some of them found the movements of the Muslim prayer difficult, thanks to the expertise of Saddam's torturers."
He was forced to see things through the perspective of the other. That way of looking can help us to address the complexity or the world, and the difficulty of finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems such as we now face in Iraq.
When we log the fact that daily violence in that country has killed 65 US and 11 British soldiers since the official end of major combat, we need to keep in mind that someone somewhere is adding to the body count of the 6,000 estimated to have been killed on the other side in the conflict. And asking what an Iraqi life is worth.Reuse content