Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, December 05, 2003
I've got a backlog of things to write about, and little time to do it. Here's just one thing I've been meaning to write about.

Everyone seems to be talking about this article from Edward Feser about how Islam needs a Pope, not a Luther - i.e., that the "problem" with Islam is that it has no central religious authority and, hence, no "law" as such. And he specifically compares Islam with Protestantism - in its Lutheran and, especially, its Calvinist manifestations - to argue that it is Catholicism, and not Protestantism, that is the true source of a Hayekian liberal order.

This is profoundly wrong in so many ways that I'm not sure I can list them all.

First, it is historically wrong. The modern, liberal order dates basically from 1688. It was born in a Protestant country whose leadership explicitly broke with Rome and which had only recently recovered from a civil war between Calvinist dissenters and partisans of the King who was also the head of the Church. A very good argument can be made that liberalism was born of nationalism and that nationalism began with Henry VIII's schism; I happen to buy into that argument myself. In the only Catholic country with a robust liberal tradition prior to the 20th century, that liberalism was explicitly directed against Catholicism. From the Counter-Reformation through Vatican II, the Catholic Church was explicitly opposed to pretty much everything about modernity and liberalism. I'm on board with the idea that liberalism, democracy, etc. owe an enormous debt to Christianity. But it is pretty hard for me to see how obedience to the Pope was the key element in this debt, and it's pretty easy to make the historic case that the opposite is true: that revolt against the Pope was at least one key element necessary for liberalism to flower.

Perhaps what Feser means to say is that the modernization of Catholicism that took place with Vatican II was only possible because Catholicism is a top-down religion. Catholicism could change in ways that Islam (and, for that matter, Orthodox Christianity) could not. That's probably true. But it's not especially telling; for hundreds of years, the Church took a very different attitude towards liberalism than that taken with Vatican II. If authority was the solution, it was the solution to its own problem.

Second, the argument about the nature of law is deeply flawed. Did Athenian democracy have no law? I suppose not; Athens had a single titular leader from whose lips flowed the law, and citizens of Athens regularly struck out to found colonies when they didn't like the political climate at home. Moreover, Islam has a quite developed legal system, and a lengthy set of traditions. Orthodox Muslims are called Sunni because they follow the Sunna - a set of traditions derived from actions of Muhammad roughly equivalent to the Jewish law code, the Mishnah. The English common law would also fail to pass muster with Mr. Feser, and it is the very paradigm of what law means in the Hayekian sense.

Something has indeed broken down in Islam: what has broken down is the traditional understanding of the law, the relationship to tradition and traditional authority that existed for centuries. In Christian history, when that relationship broke down, we got Protestantism. Which would seem to suggest that Islam is currently going through a Protestant moment - the settled Orthodoxy of the past has been unsettled, and the surging fundamentalist tide is analogous to Lutheran and Calvinist surges in 16th and 17th century Germany. But what does that do to Feser's thesis? After all, Christianity *had* a Pope. They got Protestantism anyhow.

Third, the Iranian Shiites do have a Pope, after a fashion. In any event, they have centralized their religion to a high degree, with a heirarchy and everything, much in contrast to traditional Islamic practice. And how has this proved a solution to any problem? Iran is a repressive, terrorism-sponsoring theocracy, with a tendentious and fundamentalist understanding of their own religious tradition - and the most reasonable Muslim religious opponents of the regime are in effect rebelling against this heirarchy.

Fourth, the church/state distinction may indeed be profoundly Christian, but it is just as reasonably a part of Protestantism as of Catholicism. And I'm not sure it's as crucial as everyone makes out to solving Islam's problem with modernity. Liberalism, remember, is a British invention, and the head of the Church of England is the King. Orthodox Christians also give religious character to the state, and Catholic teaching pre-Vatican II was decidedly in favor of absolute monarchy.

Fifth, what does Islam's problem with modernity have to do with its cult of violence? Orthodox Judaism is divided between those who are ambivalent about modernity and those who are passionately opposed to it - and the passionate opponents are winning. And those same passionate opponents are traditionally quietist and have essentially zero history of communal violence. American Protestantism is in the midst of an extended fundamentalist resurgence, with mainline Protestantism in profound decline against a surge in sects that reject the possibility of evolution, embrace biblical inerrancy, and have a weakness for charismatic leadership. And this is a profoundly law-abiding and peaceful community. They don't have a "problem" in the way that Islam has a problem. Why not?

I'm not saying that Islamism's anti-modernism is unrelated to the cult of violence. But I feel a little like analyses of Nazism that debate whether Nazism was caused by nationalism, or by capitalism, or by imperialism, or (by reaction) by Bolshevism, or by some essential German trait, or by what-have-you. And this implies that the exaltation of murder as a positive good which was the most essential thing about Nazism was somehow derivative of one of these other supposed evils, which are the "real" problem - when, really, the business about promoting murder was kind of the real problem, wasn't it? In the same way, the problem with Islamism's cult of violence is Islamism's cult of violence, not its lack of a Pope or its lack of a Luther.

I was never a fan of the "Islam needs a Luther" school of thought - promoted by, among others, purported Catholic Andrew Sullivan (who, embracing contradiction like an old friend, also has called Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads England's Taliban and Cromwell its Osama bin Laden - but then, he is large; he contains multitudes). I thought the argument lacked appreciation for the structure and history of Islam and advanced a very simplistic understanding of the history of the Reformation. But the "Islam needs a Pope" argument is just as bad.

Apologies if the foregoing was not up to my usual standards of argumentation; time is short, unfortunately.