Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Daniel Pipes has a follow-up on his schtick about how Islam is not the enemy, Islamism is, and how our goal should be to modernize Islam. I really can't go along with this. For starters, Islam was more tolerant and intellectually flexible in the Middle Ages than it is today. Who says modernity means tolerance? Fundamentalism is a very modern phenomenon as much as secularism. Indeed, modernity and the reaction to it has a great deal to do with the violent fundamentalism that is currently raging through Islam.
But there's a deeper point. Pipes, and John Derbyshire, and others who have argued that militant Islam is somehow a deformed and false version of the religion - a defamation of Islam, in fact - ignore the fact that this particular defamation recurs in Islamic history. What is going on now is that a militant, primitive, fundamentalism variant of Islam is engaged in a civil war with an establishment that it considers decadent, weak and under the sway of foreigners. We have seen this movie before, in the Almoravid conquest of Spain, for example. A western source that mentions their invasion is the Poem of the Cid: the Christians are alarmed at the sound Berber drums in battle. The Almoravids practiced a severe, puritanical Islam, and were brought in by the ruling kings of Spain to help defend them against the marauding Spaniards, and the Almoravids wound up deposing these kings and taking over. This was the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Muslim Spain. The same story played out in Egypt, where Salah al-Din, a Kurd with a fairly primitive religious background, put an end to the waning Fatimid Caliphate, which had been one of the glories of the Muslim world. Salah al-Din is revered as the military leader who drove the infidels out of Jerusalem, but his conquest of Egypt nonetheless represented a setback in terms of the progress of the medieval Islamic Enlightenment. It's an old cliche that Islamic history is the history of culturally primitive charismatic military leaders riding out of the desert and conquering the decadent cities, purifying them of infidel ways and restoring "true" Islam, after which they establish new dynasties which themselves decay, to fall in a similar fashion to a new charismatic leader. It's an old cliche, but that doesn't make it false. Islam has a puritanical streak, and a history of political violence sacralized as necessary to purge society of immorality. That is far from the whole of Islam; the golden ages of Spain, Egypt and Baghdad are also Islam. But it is an authentic part of Islam, and it does no one any good to pretend that this is not the case.
Religions, as human institutions, are subject to human failings. As I put it in a letter to a friend: what might be the best way of thinking about it is not to say that one or another religion is evil but that religions have their blind spots. They may be good at correcting certain sins, but they will leave the believer vulnerable to other sins, and these sins become part of the characteristic "footprint" of the religion when viewed from the outside. From the inside, of course, a believer would argue that these sins are not at all part of the religion - and he may well be right, but it would be well for him, too, to be aware of patterns that manifest themselves, and be on his guard against them so that he does not defame the name of his religion by committing these characteristic sins.
There is clearly a temptation within Islamic history for Islamic leaders and would-be leaders to use violence to establish a kingdom consonant with the perfect law of God here and now. It's happened too many times to be a random accident. That doesn't mean that Islam is an evil religion by any means. There are characteristic evils associated with Christianity as well, and that doesn't make Christianity evil. For example, embedded deep within Christianity is millennial expectation - the belief that Christ will return imminently and rectify the world. any number of outbreaks of madness and violence since medieval days can be connected to this expectation. Christianity similarly has a complicated relationship with the Jews, one that has been characterized in the past by supercessionism (the doctrine that the Church replaces and abrogates the covenant with Abraham, a doctrine largely repudiated by the Vatican and by some Protestant sects in the second half of the 20th century) and that can clearly be connected with horrific anti-Jewish violence. Does that mean that Christianity is evil? No. But it does mean that Christians should be alert to these patterns, and particularly wary that they will be led down these particular paths.
As I have argued before, as both a sociological and a theological matter, the heavy lifting of changing Islam has to be done by Muslims. It is better for us to understand ourselves, and point out not how they must change but how we have changed. It is better for us to detail the history of the Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17th centuries, the reign of Oliver Cromwell and the era of the Spanish Inquisition, and explain - in terms comprehensible to a Muslim - how Christians came to change their view of the relation between religion, violence and the state as a result of these experiences. I don't know that it's useful to call this "modernization" - first, this is precisely what many Muslims - not only fundamentalists - are afraid of, and second, the Muslim world has a long history of chasing after one or another version of "modernity" - secularism, racialism, socialism, etc. - and catching only misery. Better than talking about the Muslim world as being backward perhaps is talking about them going the wrong way - a way that will help them neither materially nor religiously.