Thursday, July 11, 2002
John Derbyshire writes a very sweet piece about Islam in NRO, one that might make some of his readers think he's gone soft. He has, to some extent - not in the heart, but in the head. He is entirely right to recognize that most Muslims are perfectly decent people; he is wrong to forget that perfectly decent people are perfectly capable of supporting and even directly perpetrating great evil. He is entirely right to note that courtesy, hospitality, and liberality (in the sense of open-handedness) are great virtues of the Muslim world, far more so than in the West (and far, far more so than in Israel, one of the rudest and least hospitable societies on earth). But he is wrong to forget that these same traditional societies that are most noted for their hospitality are frequently most noted for their cruelty; remember the story of Lot, who so valued the virtue of hospitality that, rather than turn his guests over to a rampaging mob, he offered the mob his virgin daughters to defile, and for this righteous act he alone was saved from the rain of fire that destroyed Sodom. That is the ethos of a hospitable society speaking. He is also probably right to say that Islam is not to blame for the Arab world's backwardness; by the same token, he may be wrong to attribute that world's virtues - such as its hospitality - to Islam. He is right to point out that it is, in fact, very difficult to place the blame for the failure of a civilization, and dismissing an entire religion is not a very useful form of analysis.
But I'm a bit disappointed in his conclusion. It sounds very well to say we should appeal to believers to look to their nobler and more generous texts. But the great rub is how to do this.
Let me speak as a Jew. How well would I like it to have the Talmud quoted to me by a Christian or a Muslim against some policy or other of the state of Israel? Would I consider this a warm gesture, my interlocutor trying to speak to me in my own language, or a cynical one? If a Muslim spokesman tomorrow, in response to the recent push for a law allowing Israeli towns to ban land sales to Muslims, cited the Bible's command not to oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt - would this make me more inclined to see his point of view? Or more inclined to respond defensively, feeling now that not only the law in dispute was under attack but that my religion was being subverted by an outsider?
There are things that can only be said from the inside. It is for Muslims to find their way to the solutions to their predicament - or, rather, for Muslims to make sense of the necessary solutions in terms that make sense to a Muslim. We can't do that work for them; we can only provide them the incentives and such ammunition as our own experience affords.
I had an argument (briefly) about this with Daniel Pipes, when I heard him speak a couple of months ago. I asked him two questions, with respect to the ideological dimension of our current war, in both cases by analogy to the Cold War.
First, I said, on the domestic front, one can view the intrusion of Saudi-financed extremism as analogous to Soviet-backed Communist intrusion into, for example, our labor unions. As in the earlier case, so in the contemporary case our mission is to purge our domestic institutions of this foreign, subversive infiltration. But how is this to be done, in the current case, without involving the United States government in the inner workings of a religion? And, if it can't, isn't that a very serious problem?
Second, I said, on the foreign front, a major element in the ideological struggle against Communism was the West's and America's consistent invitation: don't try to beat us; join us. The capitalist, democratic world has plenty of room for Poles, Croats, Russians, etc. Join the West, don't fight the West. And the peoples of Eastern Europe, including Russia, could all imagine themselves as part of the West; indeed, all on some level and to some degree thought of themselves as Western already, and longed for some version of the successful civilization that they saw on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But, even if the peoples of the Islamic world want to succeed as the West has, can they really imagine themselves as part of the West? Can we really expect them to want to be like us? And if not, then how is the ideological struggle to be joined?
He didn't really answer the first question, and his answer to the second was: we don't need them to want to be like us; we just need them to be more moderate, less violent, more friendly to the West. But that really begs the question: how is this to be achieved?
I do think we need the Muslim world to want to be "more like us" - we do need the Muslim world to aspire to liberal societies. And I also agree with Derb that it would be both counterproductive and wrong to see Islam itself as the enemy to be extirpated. He is absolutely right to say that among the most oppressive societies in the region are the secular dictatorships. The rub is that I don't think we can offer much guidance for how to make Islam compatible with liberalism. That is something only Muslims can do.
It's a post-September 11 truism that we all need to understand Islam better. But I wonder if it isn't much more important for us to understand ourselves better, and understand ourselves in terms that could make sense from the outside. That's one reason why, apropos of the relationship of the liberal state and religion, I've written several times of the idea that liberalism may be adequately described as merely a "good idea" - not the only order in natural accord with universal truths (universal truths that turn out to be very Christian in origin) but the pragmatic way to achieve a successful society, and one that does not conflict with religion inasmuch as it "outsources" much of the work of inculcating virtue and transmitting values to organic entities - like religions - that, in a liberal order, lack recourse to the state's monopoly of force. I have hope that this is a way of talking about liberalism that can make sense to a believing Muslim is a way that talk about individual autonomy would not. And I have this hope because it is the way of talking about liberalism that is least threatening to my understanding of Judaism, and its demands.
There are some very bad ideas out there in the Muslim world, and I suspect that many of them are best combatted not by pointing out how they contradict Quranic text but by pointing out how we in the West have combatted these same bad ideas when they were in full flower here. The Crusades and the Thirty Years War are in our past; we should not use them as sticks to beat ourselves with but rather show how we overcame the temptation in our own tradition to religious war and theocracy - without destroying religion in the process. By the same token, we should examine the development of authentic nationalism in the West - the development that ended the tribal and imperial order in our civilization - and show how this was conducive to ordered liberty and progress - and how it did not undermine the international fellowship of Christianity. I continue to believe that a major reason for the failure of Arab societies is that they have failed to articulate an authentic nationalism (Arab nationalism is not nationalism at all but a kind of racialism more akin to Nazism than to the Risorgimento). We need to show how this was done in the West; to do that, we need to understand how it was done.
I guess what I'm getting at is that I don't want to be drawn into the Muslim world's Thirty Years' War. I don't want to fund one Muslim sect to fight another. I agree with Stephen Schwartz that extreme Sunni Islam of the Wahhabi variety is our greatest ideological adversary within the House of Islam, but this has more to do with the peculiarly awful character of the Saudi state than with something essentially evil about strict legalism and severe iconoclasm, both of which have characterized Shiite Islam historically at least as much as Sunni Islam. For that reason, I don't think we'll be particularly successful if we devote our energies to propagandizing on behalf of, say, Sufi mysticism. We'll compromise Sufism by our intervention and make few converts. Rather, think it is more important to speak to the whole House of Islam with one voice, and show them the same fierce determination and the same open hand that we showed the Communist countries: freedom is your inheritance, if you will seize it. Do not think you must fight us to obtain it; your battle is with yourselves. We had to fight that battle before. Here is how we won it.