Monday, February 13, 2006

Note to Joe

This is a continuation, of sorts, of the dialogue in connection with my previous post about the "cartoon incident." Joe D'Hippolito made a lot of comments. Here are my notes in response to two of them.

In the blog post, I had written, "Islam cannot be mocked, as it is now being mocked, without striking at the heart of the Christian message." Joe replied: "That would only be true if those messages are the same. But they're not."

I'd accept that point, Joe, if Christianity were "the ideology of Christians." In that case, since Christianity would be just one "position" or "lifestyle" among many, Christians could live in a credal/dogmatic world that isn't ineluctably connected to anything or anyone outside itself. But Christianity is truth revealed by God about all things and, as such, it applies to all things, not just things which visibly and distinguishably pertain to Christians. So, if Christianity teaches that man's need for holiness may not be made into an object of derision, then it is wrong for anyone to do so -- whether he's a Christian mocking Islam, a Muslim mocking Christianity, or a secular materialist who mocks the other two.

Did the Jyllands-Posten cartoons do that? Of course they did. They're no different than cartoons depicting the Apostles as collar-wearing, child-molesting priests. Oh, the people who would make such cartoons would talk a lot of fine talk about freedom of the press and about how they only intended to cunningly allude to some problem or issue about Christian life. We Christians have heard all that talk, and we know it's just a bunch of excuses made by people who like to see crucifixes plunged into urine, and the image of the blessed Virgin covered in dung. It satisfies their need to be rid of competition for the job of Supreme Being.

Not all critics of religion think that way or act from those motives. I don't have problems with Besancon or Ibn Warraq writing about Islam's falsehoods and their deleterious effect on mankind. I don't have problems with Hitchens or Gibbon trying to expose what they believe to be Christianity's flaws. I don't have problems with intelligent fiction like Elmer Gantry or The Satanic Verses trying to explore religion's involvement with the darker impulses in man, even if they do tend to suggest that religion is merely symptomatic of those impulses.

One can, without much charity, consider all those things part of a vast inter-generational, intercultural conversation about the human question and man's place in the universe. They, too, are part of the search for holiness which Dignitatis Humanae commends to our special respect:
The disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it, never-be it understood-having recourse to means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel. At the same time, the charity of Christ urges him to love and have prudence and patience in his dealings with those who are in error or in ignorance with regard to the faith. All is to be taken into account-the Christian duty to Christ, the life-giving word which must be proclaimed, the rights of the human person, and the measure of grace granted by God through Christ to men who are invited freely to accept and profess the faith.
-- Dignitatis Humanae, # 14 (1965)
These cartoons weren't part of that dialogue. They said nothing intelligent about Islam's falsehoods or the shortcomings of religion as a whole; they simply mocked Islam with the same crude tactics mockers of Christianity use when they run out of (or have never acquired) intelligent comments to make about religion.

The cartoons weren't produced or published in the spirit of dialogue, but in the spirit which regards the idea of "holiness" as a joke played by charlatans upon the credulous. That strikes at the heart of the Christian worldview whether or not the immediate targets are Mormons, Buddhists, or Muslims.

Mormonism, Buddhism and Islam are false, but the desire for holiness which animates their adherents is real. It is real because God made it, and planted it in human nature: "Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee." The restless ages of man have wandered through the deserts of falsehood, finding Islam here, Daoism there and, men being men, finding refuge in the truly-sordid escapades men use to hide their emptiness from themselves.

If I saw a man wandering through the desert, crazed and dying from thirst, I would tell him not to drink kerosene because it would be kindness to remind him of what he truly seeks. But I would not mock his search, or tell him that only fools fail to realize that "water" is a lie. The necrotic arrangement which now passes itself off as "Western Civilization" has been doing that with increasing ferocity for the better part of two centuries. That is why the West is dying, and why the terrorists have come: Maggots attack corpses, not living beings. The West's secular disdain for religion has not protected us from Islam. Why should anyone want to trust that it will protect us in future?

I had also written, "It is not enough to scourge Islam from the minds and hearts of men." Joe replied, "Perhaps not. That was also true concerning the Nazis and Communists. But it must be so scourged, or Western Civilization (despite the secularist elements you abhor) will die. That was also true concering the Nazis and Communists."

I would not say "perhaps," unless I intended to imply that there really was nothing worth fighting for except another false idea. But I might have put my point more clearly by appealing to Sun Tzu, who wrote that the highest form of generalship is to win a battle without fighting. Instead, I only wrote, "[w]e don't want a world in which Islam has been scourged out of existence. We want a world in which a billion Muslims quietly walk away from what they realize has been a myth." There are people who are resigned, even eager, to forego that goal in favor of a military-political "clash of civilizations."

In some ways that's a natural response; it's difficult to imagine holding a productive dialogue with someone who wants to kill you. But it's interesting to note that a lot of Islamic anger at the United States comes from a sense (however wrongly, on occasion, held) that the United States is not living up to its moral responsibilities. Muslims who believe that Islam was created for one purpose, namely to destroy the Satan United States, are not yet typical:
As our surveys underscore, the U.S. continues to face enormous challenges regarding its public image in Arab and Muslim countries. Anti-Americanism in the region is driven largely by aversion to U.S. policies, such as the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, and U.S. support for Israel, in addition to the general perception that the U.S. fails to consider the interests of countries in the region when it acts in the international arena. At the same time, however, our findings highlight areas of improvement. U.S. favorability ratings have increased in some countries, and there are signs that support for terrorism is waning. Moreover, there is strong evidence suggesting that Arab and Muslim publics overwhelmingly desire democracy for their countries.
-- Andrew Kohut, President, Pew Research Center, Testimony U.S. House International Relations Committee. You can find the testimony here.
* * *

Concerns over Islamic extremism, extensive in the West even before this month's terrorist attacks in London, are shared to a considerable degree by the publics in several predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Nearly three-quarters of Moroccans and roughly half of those in Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia see Islamic extremism as a threat to their countries. At the same time, most Muslim publics are expressing less support for terrorism than in the past. Confidence in Osama bin Laden has declined markedly in some countries and fewer believe suicide bombings that target civilians are justified in the defense of Islam. . . .

The polling also finds that in most majority-Muslim countries surveyed, support for suicide bombings and other acts of violence in defense of Islam has declined significantly. In Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia, 15% or fewer now say such actions are justifiable. In Pakistan, only one-in-four now take that view (25%), a sharp drop from 41% in March 2004. In Lebanon, 39% now regard acts of terrorism as often or sometimes justified, again a sharp drop from the 73% who shared that view in 2002. A notable exception to this trend is Jordan, where a majority (57%) now says suicide bombings and other violent actions are justifiable in defense of Islam. . . .

When it comes to suicide bombings in Iraq, however, Muslims in the surveyed countries are divided. Nearly half of Muslims in Lebanon and Jordan, and 56% in Morocco, say suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable. However, substantial majorities in Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia take the opposite view.
-- Pew Research Center, "Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics." You can find the entire report here.
One's first reaction to such studies is to wonder, if these results constitute "improvement" in Muslim thinking, whether it might not be better to conquer these countries now, while we can. Consider, however, the number of Muslims indicated who do not want a world whose only choice is between Osama Bin Laden or the Third Infantry Division. There's little point in hysterical reactions to those numbers; the only sane response is to recognize that they can increase, or decrease, and inquire how our actions can achieve one or the other result.

Besides, we can't "conquer" them all, or most of them, or even a few of them. We can defeat them militarily, so long as we can attack them in detail (one of my worst nightmares, thankfully fanciful, involved a simultaneous advance on U.S. units in Iraq by Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish forces). But we can't conquer them in any useful sense by force of arms. You see, ultimately the problem isn't that Muslim extremists are trying to kill us. Ultimately, the problem is why they're trying to kill us -- conquer that and we'll have made a bolder stroke for good than B-52s could ever make.

The Pew results indicate, at least to me, that there remains a window of dialogue between the West and Islam which, if properly exploited, can (I do not say "shall") produce two things. First, it can produce an Islamic self-story that accepts the existence of powerful, independent non-Muslim countries as a good (or at least benign) part of Allah's plan for humanity. Second, it can produce an increasing recognition among Muslims that Christianity and its civilizations are congruent with divine truth and, more gradually, a realization that Christianity is the true fulfillment of the hope which brings men to Islam in the first place.

That's the only solution which can protect the West. It can't occur in an atmosphere of warfare, coercion and revulsion, which is all the "clash of civilizations" perspective really has to offer. Is that kind of victory practicable over Islam? I think it's a certainty that too few among us are interested in the question.

No comments: