Sunday, June 26, 2005

Musings on an Islamic Apologia

Last night I was watching a program on CSPAN-2 (how's that for ultra-in-depth geekiness?) that featured Reza Aslan talking about his book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Mr. Aslan has his own website, which you can find here. I thought his presentation was very disturbing, because it seemed a bit long on smug bafflegab and a bit short on blunt answers to hard questions.

On one level that's not surprising, nor cause for any condemnation. Mr. Aslan is a Muslim, and tends to make Islam sound like the superior answer to every social question -- just as any Christian might exaggerate the social and political benefits of his faith. In that sense, his "smugness" is largely in the eye of the beholder; no doubt Mr. Aslan would roll his eyes at my description of how wonderful the Middle East would be if the Byzantines, and not the Ottomans, had steered the region into the 20th century. Now I think religion does matter in these areas. I think it matters whether a society has Catholic roots or Protestant ones, and likewise for Islam, Buddhism or any other faith. So I don't mind it when a faithful person extends his witness into the realm of politics, economics, and so forth, urging us to accept all, most, or some of his beliefs as the basis for our social arrangements.

But I did mind something Mr. Aslan (like many Christians) managed to do, which is to suggest that disagreements with his views about the social and political consequences of his religion are instances of sheer bigotry which have no part in a serious and civilized discussion about democratic politics. He did this on several occasions, notably when he claimed that American impressions of Islam are harmfully influenced by an Evangelical Christian culture which he called "exclusionary" because it doesn't accept Islam's status as a divinely-inspired religion. Whether Christianity is more "exclusionary" than any other religion is a more debatable point than Mr. Aslan seemed to think, and I'll get to that in a moment. For now, I'll observe that I found it very strange for Mr. Aslan, who continually stressed the existence of "pluralism" in the Muslim world (at one point referring to its "infinite diversity") and regularly chided ignorant Westerners for assuming that Islam was a unified ideology that completely dictated the thoughts and viewpoints of Muslims everywhere, to suddenly claim there is a unified Evangelical ideology which completely dictates the thoughts and viewpoints of Americans -- conservative or not -- about Islam.

Tu quoque. I'm not sure how Mr. Aslan managed to attend Santa Clara University, Harvard, and the University of Iowa and come to that conclusion. Or maybe I am sure; Mr. Aslan probably accomplished it by confining his grand tour of American diversity to graduate-student hangouts and faculty get-togethers. In those venues, life in America is largely thought of in terms of being on Prospero's guest list:
"The abby was amply provisioned . . . The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure . . . buffoons . . . improvisatori . . . ballet dancers, . . . musicians . . . Beauty . . . wine. All these and security were within. Without was the 'Red Death.'
Make that "Red State Death" and you've got the parochialism of the Harvard lifestyle pretty well nailed. Mr. Aslan didn't help matters when he kept prefacing his identification of Evangelical "exclusionism" with the word "conservative" -- by which he meant, of course, George Bush and the Republican Party. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Aslan's thoughts on the myopic haughtiness of conservative Evangelicals were he to spend a year stranded on a desert island with Billy Graham, Chuck Colson, and the Guerilla Girls.

Nor did Mr. Aslan's special pleading for Islam help his case very much. He seemed to be arguing that Islam respects Christianity in a way Christianity can't return because Islam recognizes a common divine source for the religions of Abraham's children, whereas Christianity is bound up in a singular myth which involves the fulfillment of human dignity with the repudiation of other faiths. I found that a bit tendentious in light of the Muslim belief that the Bible used by Christians is full of imaginative crap:
The Islamic request to Christians is just this: Please follow Jesus, don't follow Paul, who preaches a different gospel! The Islamic belief about the present Book, which the Christians use as "the word of God", called the New Testament is that it is not the Gospel of Jesus mentioned in the Qur'an. Still, Muslims believe that the Gospels in the bible contain some teachings of Jesus, as well as the interpretations of the writers of those books, whoever they might have been. Also Muslims believe that in the words quoted from Jesus in these gospels, you come across certain ideas, which he received from God too. So the New Testament (particularly the Gospels) is valuable to the Muslims. It is valuable in that there is the "word of God" in it, exactly as the Old Testament (particularly the Pentateuch) is valuable to Muslims in that it contains also the "word of God" in it. . . .

We have good evidence in the Gospels themselves that Jesus was using the original Bible for his preaching. He used to refer to it as The Gospel of the Kingdom: "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people." (Matthew 4: 23) . . . Here it is said that Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom. Ask those Christian disputants whether Jesus was preaching one of the four Canonical gospels included in the Bible in 325 C.E, written not in Jesus' own Aramaic language, but in the western language of Greek, at least thirty years after his alleged crucifixion. It is so obvious that no Christian scholar, worth his salt, can deny the fact that the present gospels contain the words of God, the words of Jesus and the words of the writer. That means that they are not fully God's word. The Islamic belief is also the same.
Let me pause here for a minute to explain more fully why the juxtaposition of Mr. Aslan's comments with this ordinary Muslim belief bothers me. It doesn't bother me that faithful Muslims have concluded -- as they must, if Islam is to be what Islam claims to be -- that the Scriptures revered by Christians are full of imaginative crap that has nothing or very little to do with God. What bothers me is Mr. Aslan's implied claim that pejorative views are acceptable when they're held by Muslims about Christians, but inadmissible bigotry that reveals a damnable flaw in Western civilization whenever Christians -- as they must -- take a pejorative view of Islam.

Mr. Aslan's assumed superiority of position, and its concomittant sense of entitlement, bodes ill for his own project. Citizens in a western democratic society characterized by religious pluralism have to accept the fact that large numbers of their neighbors are going to think they're slaves to an unjustifiable and/or pernicious myth. With very few exceptions, just about any iteration of Christianity has found ways to accept this burden without apostasy. Mr. Aslan, however, insists that Islam is a different case because unlike Christians, Muslims can't separate their duties to the civic order from their duties to the divine order. Aside from the ignorance about Christianity which is required to make this statement, it's particularly worrisome to see Mr. Aslan's picture of Muslims demanding recognition of their religion's superiority of position and entitlement with respect to the promulgation of contrary religious opinions. Not all criticism of Islam is "anti-Islamic," and not all Christian attempts to witness for the truth of the Gospel over the inventions of Muhammad are condemnable acts of ethnic or cultural discrimination.

Mr. Aslan shouldn't allow himself to be seduced by the American Left's penchant for enshrining non-western (or anti-Western) beliefs into thinking that secular democracy means never having to hear anything unpleasant (or unpleasantly true) about one's religion. He should realize that when our Left tut-tuts itself about "anti-Islamic" discrimination, it has in mind only the chance to excoriate the Evangelical Christian bogey-man for his malignant intolerance. Should the day come -- as it, in all likelihood, will come -- when Muslims find themselves in a position to influence the making and interpretation of American laws, Mr. Aslan will find that the same wispy-bearded, latte-drinking, birkenstock-shod colleagues who used to commiserate with him about anti-Muslim bigotry screaming to the heavens about female circumcision in Mali, slavery in the Sudan, and Islam's dogmatic opposition to science, reason, and human freedom. It may, of course, be too late by then for the apostles of secularism to do anything more than scream. But maybe there will be enough "bigoted Evangelicals" to make common cause with the Starbucks secularists and, though fear and anger combined with Muslims' following Mr. Aslan's lead and treating Evangelicalism with their own brand of contempt, make being Muslim in America the kind of unpleasant experience which Muslims only now imagine it to be. Mr. Aslan should heed his Prophet, and realize that the People of the Book are, in the long run, easier to live with than the "People of The DaVinci Code."

The same contradiction arose later, when Mr. Aslan was explaining the perils of Americans trying to foist their conceptions of democracy onto Muslim cultures. As a Christian conservative, I found some of what Mr. Aslan said to be a refreshing and thoroughly-bracing gust of common sense in what is largely a fetid hothouse of secular self-adoration. I can't quote Mr. Aslan's speech, but I can quote something very similar from one of his interviews:
The great irony of all of this [the Iraqi war] is the President by his own admission, had such a simplistic view of the complexion of Middle East culture and politics that he really didn't know what he had gotten into, you know, this belief that all we had to do was drop some bombs on Baghdad and Iraqis would be throwing flowers at us and some kind of Jeffersonian democracy would bloom in Iraq. Anyone who knew anything about the region knew this was ludicrous.. . . But when I say that there is great irony here what I mean is that maybe we needed someone with such a simplistic view to allow the Muslims to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them to build an indigenous Islamic democracy.
Just so; the only people who can answer questions about Islam and modern political order are Muslims: Asking Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeldt and the Heritage Foundation just won't cut it. Laws are derived from culture, and culture from religion. It's really that simple, and it means that the American experience is a smorgasbord of savory and bitter alternatives, not a universal blueprint for achieving truth, justice and decency in every corner of the world.

But that's when Mr. Aslan began to lose me, because he kept insisting that the wonderful character of Islam demanded distinctively-Islamic laws and political institutions. He tried very hard to make this sound like a happy outcome by, for example, translating dhimmitude as "protection." Dhimmis -- Christians and Jews -- are "protected people" in Islam, he said, and then he said no more. Which isn't surprising, because I don't particularly admire the Islamic policy of taxing Dhimmis who want to practice their Christianity, or the myriad laws Islamic societies have always had to prevent the spread of other faiths. But me no buts about Christians forcing Jews to pay special taxes and wear yellow stars -- either that's wrong, which it is, or it's an acceptable way to "protect" Jews that really ought to be done by Muslims, who alone have the right to "protect" members of different religions by -- as the Koran says -- making them "feel themselves subdued." Either way, we return to Mr. Aslan's assertion that Muslims are incapable of separating their duties to God from their duties to the civic order.

Discussing the wrongness of imposing American conceptions of democratic society on Islamic countries, Mr. Aslan said it couldn't be done because of this unity of faith and politics which is part and parcel of Islam. Whenever Muslims are in the majority, he argued, they must transform the political and social order to reflect the truth of Islam. I have no doubt that Mr. Aslan is correct, for his assertions are borne out by every constitution of an Islamic state. Here is the Constitution of Iran:
In accordance with the sacred verse "God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [Koran, 60:8], the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights.
But if the "norms and the principles of Islamic justice" involve oppressing non-Muslims, and if this oppression is thought to be consistent with human rights (rights, no doubt, which are to be derived from Islam), then one has to wonder if Mr. Aslan hasn't actually told us that Muslims can't participate in western democratic societies, that they can only bide their time until they are numerous or powerful enough to transform Germany or the United States into Islamic republics whose laws will "protect" us Dhimmis so long as we -- again in the words of Iran's Constitution -- "refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam."

This can easily become a hypocritical concern. If one, for example, chooses to find the portrait of Western civilization in the glossy pages of People magazine, then Roman Catholics such as myself may be said to wish that civilization ground into dust. If one finds Roe v. Wade to be a sterling achievement of western democratic government, then every pro-life Evangelical is engaged in a conspiracy against the state. Howard Dean, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party routinely make those very suggestions and, depending on what one takes as "civilization," they are entirely right to do so:
I'd rather be a Klansman in robes of snowy white
Than be a Catholic priest, in robes black as night
For the Klansman is an American, America is his home
But the Catholic priest owes allegiance to a foreign prince in Rome
The Klansmen had their vision of "civilization" and the Roman Catholic Church has her vision of it. The DNC has its own vision of "democracy" and so does Iran's Islamic Consultative Assembly. So to a very significant extent, the "war" described by Mr. Aslan is a continuous and ordinary feature of pluralistic and democratic societies. Values will come into conflict. These conflicts will be fought to resolution. And these fights will produce winners who have superior positions and entitlements, and losers who must "feel themselves subdued." It's an inevitable process, and we shouldn't blame Muslims merely because they're going to remind us of it.

Except that Mr. Aslan was at pains not to remind us of it. He kept telling the audience that Islam has no fixed content when it comes to politics and law, that Islam could just as easily be another compromising and negotiating interest group like the AARP as the force which drove Suleiman's armies to the gates of Vienna. The Muslims who felt otherwise, he said, were "fundamentalists" who were out of touch with the fluid nature of Islamic theology and whose rigidity forced them into conflict with western values. But if Muslims are inevitably compelled to transform non-Muslim societies into Islamic societies, and if Islamic societies will have laws and social arrangements which are unique and non-Western, then how can Mr. Aslan simultaneously claim that Islam is so flexible and ever-changing that we need not worry about conflicts in values, about fighting, winning (or losing) a culture war? ‘There is no single Islam,' Mr. Aslan kept saying, ‘there is no true Islam.' Well then, where do Muslims get their duty to remake society into an Islamic form?

I think it might be more straightforward for Mr. Aslan to admit that, ultimately, the difference between his vision of Islamic conversion of the West and Osama bin Laden's vision is in the area of means. This is a far less-damning admission than one might think. The difference between William Wilberforce and John Brown can "ultimately" be put down to the issue of means, as can the difference between myself and men who murder abortionists. But if there's no true Islam, no single Islam, then how do Islamic societies find the moral and intellectual wherewithal to reject bin Laden's vision as Americans, for the most part, found the moral wherewithal to reject John Brown? Mr. Aslan's vision of an ever-changing Islam capable of compromise and even partnership with the western tradition proved too much, for it also proved that the hand of Islam can just as easily push a detonator as sign a treaty.

The overwhelming impression Mr. Aslan left was one of doublespeak, of a glib account which managed to portray Islam as tolerant without yielding anything of its cultural demands; claiming membership in society as an equal partner with Christianity or Judaism while owning a sense of entitlement over those rival faiths; eschewing the ravages of terrorism without committing itself to regard the terrorists as infidels, lawbreakers, and heretics. The standard western conservative reaction to this bafflegab is to recall the Islamic practice of al-Taqiyya:
The word "al-Taqiyya" literally means: "Concealing or disguising one's beliefs, convictions, ideas, feelings, opinions, and/or strategies at a time of eminent danger, whether now or later in time, to save oneself from physical and/or mental injury." A one-word translation would be "Dissimulation."
"It's all lies!," we hiss, "a dastardly plot to inflitrate and overthrow the west with flouridation pseudo-scholarly doubletalk!" I'm not too sure at this point.

A two-word translation for "al-Taqiyya" might be "discreet speech," the term used by the Catechism of the Catholic Church to refer to the licit practice of Catholics muting our religious identity in times of eminent danger. There's more from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
St. Augustine held that the naked truth must be told whatever the consequences may be. . . . he puts [a] case which became classical in the schools. If a man is hid in your house, and his life is sought by murderers, and they come and ask you whether he is in the house, you may say that you know where he is, but will not tell: you may not deny that he is there. The Scholastics, while accepting the teaching of St. Augustine on the absolute and intrinsic malice of a lie, modified his teaching on the point which we are discussing. It is interesting to read what St. Raymund of Pennafort wrote on the subject in his Summa, published before the middle of the thirteenth century. He says that most doctors agree with St. Augustine, but others say that one should tell a lie in such cases. Then he gives his own opinion, speaking with hesitation and under correction. The owner of the house where the man lies concealed, on being asked whether he is there, should as far as possible say nothing. If silence would be equivalent to betrayal of the secret, then he should turn the question aside by asking another -- How should I know? -- or something of that sort. Or, says St. Raymund, he may make use of an expression with a double meaning, an equivocation . . . An infinite number of examples induced him to permit such equivocations, he says. Jacob, Esau, Abraham, Jehu, and the Archangel Gabriel made use of them. Or, he adds, you may say simply that the owner of the house ought to deny that the man is there, and, if his conscience tells him that this is the proper answer to give, then he will not go against his conscience, and so he will not sin.
I have a manual of moral theology which says that if one finds oneself among non-Catholics, to whom observing Catholic customs would be greatly offensive, one may omit the observance provided that in doing so one avoids any appearance of defection from the faith itself. Is that al-Taqiyya? I think it probably is, and that the paranoia heaped on the Islamic word is just an echo of how Protestants liked to misuse the subtleties of Catholic theology to prove that we're all deceivers, biding our time until we can break out our guns and ammunition and turn the whole country over to the Pope . . . . .

Confusion, glib doubletalk, eating one's cake and having it -- they're all the marks of deceptive men who have secret agendas. They're also the marks of men grappling with awkward and unfamiliar questions before a hostile and volatile audience. I don't just mean Mr. Aslan's audience. They were Washington intellectualoids. Hell, they probably liked the idea of subverting our civilization and replacing it with some kind of totalitarian ideology. No, I mean Islam's audience in the West. Mr. Aslan rightly referenced the religious wars of sixteenth-century Europe as the crucible in which our slow-poison compromise with secularism was forged. That was our answer. I don't expect or demand that Muslims take it for their own. Given what's happened to Christendom, I'd be very surprised if they did. And if post-enlightenment secularism was forcibly introduced into the West by foreigners, if Rousseau had been the Chinese Minister of Colonial Affairs for France, I'd have expected Western Christians to react far more vehemently and violently to secularism than they did. No, I think Mr. Aslan can be cut some slack for having the unenviable task of writing an apologia for a culture which has not identified its authentic response to modernity, seems to be in no hurry to do so, and also seems at times to be Hell-bent on letting the dynamics of warfare provide the answer.

As I said, Islam has unanswered questions. I think Mr. Aslan sounded far too confident of Islam's ability to answer them in the long term, let alone the next few decades. ‘There is no single Islam,' Mr. Aslan kept saying, ‘there is no true Islam.' Western nihilism can't provide the answer to Islam's questions, not unless Islam wants to become the world's largest Unitarian denomination. There had better be a single, true Islam, for if there isn't nobody really needs to listen to Mr. Aslan explain the harmony which can exist between multiple, fake Islams and the West. Mr. Aslan has written a book on the subject. I think I shall read it. Hopefully there's more pith in it than his presentation to the World Affairs Council.

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