Wednesday, November 13, 2002
Correspondent J Martin points me to the following piece by Franklin Foer in The New Republic, about one humane Muslim scholar's fight to survive - literally - as a free independent interpreter of Islam. He's described as someone who argues that religious proscriptions must be construed narrowly, for fear of usurping G-d's authority. He's not a liberal, not an apostate - not that it matters. In any event, he lives, in the United States, in fear of his life from death threats from colleagues, students, and people he doesn't know, who only know that he has criticized Muslim authorities in Saudia Arabia and elsewhere.
We hear over and over again about the ignorance and simple-mindedness of the reigning powers in Islam. The Wahhabis have consciously declared war on the intellect, declaring all thought to be heresy and all disputes to have been settled by the time of the first generation after Muhammad's death. Muslims who weild great influence have had little or no education as Muslims. "Sheik" Yassin of Hamas has a sixth-grade education. Osama bin Laden has no formal Islamic education; he nonetheless issues fatwas (religious rulings) and is one of the more influential decisors alive (which he appears still to be). Even giants of the fundamentalist movement like Qutb had little Muslim education; their ideas were derived from Western sources - specifically, anti-Western sources within the West such as Leninism, or Nazism, or their intellectually respectable underpinnings in Marx, Heidegger, Fanon and so forth. All this is true, and the El Fadl's of the world are right to despair of such a situation.
But somehow, this seems insufficient as an explanation of the current mess that Islam is in. People have to choose to follow ignoramuses. The Saudi princes themselves have decided to mortgage the future of their regime to a bunch of ignorant fanatics. Is that smart on their part? The corruption of Saudi money has destroyed the intellectual idependence and credibility of much of the Islamic world. But is this buying the Saudis anything? Their regime's most fierce critics are those who follow the doctrines they fund most rigidly and fanatically. Muslims all over the world see successful and unsuccessful societies. They see the Great Satan is successful and they are failing, more and more. Meanwhile, non-Western countries from Japan to Mexico have prospered by following the Western example. So what do they decide? To make war on the West and embrace any philosophy, however alien from their own traditions, so long as it is anti-Western. Why? What is it gaining them? They see how essential science and technology are to prosperity and power, and they see how free inquiry and the exchange of ideas is essential to science. So what do they do? They embrace dependency on outsiders for technology and crush any vestige of independent inquiry in education. Why? People must choose to be corrupted, must choose to live in luxury in exchange for lying, rather than live free, honestly and less well-off. Why are their so few El Fadl's willing to do so? Particularly in the West, where the Egyptian secret police cannot get at them, and where a perfectly comfortable life is possible without compromising one's beliefs?
I also think it's simplistic to identify theological conservatism - or even fundamentalism - with fanaticism and violence. There's a large theologically conservative bloc in the Catholic and Anglican churches. There's a strident trend within Orthodox Judaism toward both literalism and traditionalism, exemplified by the Lakewood Yeshivah in New Jersey. There's a spectacular growth of the theologically conservative Pentacostal churches worldwide. And the LDS Church - conservative, heirarchical, secretive, resistant to criticism and downright conservative theologically - is growing by leaps and bounds. But none of these movements are without active, well-financed, angry opponents. And none of of these movements are characterized by political violence. There's a worldwide trend to fundamentalist, conservative, strict and ahistorical approaches to religion. There's a single religion that has taken these trends and married them to terrorism and madness.
At bottom, what we're talking about is cowardice. Muslim students in Iran have the courage to stand up and fight for the freedom of professors who dare to criticize the regime. Muslim students in Berkeley seem only interested in enforcing closed-minded conformity with the jackboot. And well-meaning Westerners are far more eager to help the latter than the former. It is no accident that Muslim "fighters" exclusively do battle with unarmed civilians: children in their beds, teenagers at a discotheque, patrons at a theater, workers in their offices: from Kibbutz Metzer to Bali to Moscow to Manhattan, the common thread is that these brave warriors will never, ever fight like men. They are ready to die - eager to die, in many cases - but in no case ready to fight honorably. They are the essence of cowardice, and this is the essential attribute they share with their intellectual defenders who would rather sell their entire religion into intellectual slavery for a Gulf junket and a quiet life than do what they know their G-d demands.
Nothing will be gained by allying with cowards. Nothing will be gained by not calling them by that most-fitting name. We're constantly being told that this war is partly one for hearts and minds, and that reaching out to Muslims and making them feel at home in the West is an important complement to smoking evildoers. And there is truth in that. But contempt is a weapon, too. And we should not underestimate its power.