Sunday, May 20, 2007

While Europe Slept:

This is a book I am going to try to read this summer. Check out Bruce Bawer, one of the finest essayists of the modern era, discussing Europe and Islam on Bill Moyers' show. The book is about how tolerant Europe has become too tolerant of intolerant Muslims, and how they, in turn, threaten Europe's live and let live lifestyle.

Moyers seemed to stress over and over again -- but this isn't the way most Muslims are, right? In my community college classes, I usually have at least one (sometimes more) Muslim in a class of 25+. I also have plenty of traditional Christians, liberal Christians, Jewish students, atheists, agnostics, and so on and so forth. Whenever I criticize the more extreme elements of Islam, I always stress that most Muslims say this doesn't represent the authentic version of their faith. Now, in truth, I have no idea whether I'm right and may well be engaging in a Straussian lie. But, if Islam, as a faith, isn't going away -- and I don't think it is -- Muslims must be convinced that a more liberal, sober and rational understanding of their faith is the authentic one. This is exactly what Madison tried to do with Christians in his Memorial and Remonstrance.

Indeed, how we deal with intolerant religions reflects a paradox in Founding thought. Rick Garnett discussed it here and I responded with my thoughts. The paradox is, the rights of conscience are so profound government has no business saying what is true or false religion. Yet, government indeed does have an interest in promoting the "right" kind of religion, that is religion compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms.

Our Founders did to Christianity what the modern liberal governments and institutions, are, or ought to be doing to Islam (like telling folks extreme Islam doesn't represent authentic Islam).

Almost all of the most notable Christian thinkers from the pre-Founding era differed with our Founders on tolerance and the freedom to worship. John Calvin knew the Bible as well as anyone but thought it entirely proper to see see Servetus burned at the stake simply for publicly denying the Trinity. Likewise, Calvinist Samuel Rutherford, who purportedly influenced our revolution, too thought it just for Servetus to be executed in that manner. All of the early colonies except Rhode Island didn't grant freedom to worship and often imposed brutal punishments sometimes executions, for worshipping the "wrong" way. And they all justified such with textual appeals to the Bible.

To our Founders (the most notable of whom, like Servetus, weren't even "real Christians" but unitarians) this was not authentic Christianity, or Christianity properly understood. Our Founders had a vested interest in convincing Christians that most notable past Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to John Winthrop erred on tolerance and religious liberty. And though the government ultimately granted (and still grants) free exercise of religion to any religious thought, no matter how extreme, the Founders still endorsed, mainly through their supplications to God, a version of religion that was kinder and gentler than what came before. As Rick Garnett put it:

Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching.

The early Presidents did do a lot of "God talk," and most of it was not even particularly Christian, but spoken in generic or philosophical language, purposefully worded to include religions outside of Christianity. Sometimes though, they did speak of Christianity or revelation and they often used particular adjectives and qualifiers to describe such: "Benevolent", "benign" and even "liberal" and "enlightened."

For instance Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address I have emphasized those terms:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter -- with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?

Or George Washington's Circular to the States:

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.

These Founders were not simply "taking" the Christian religion as they found it; they were actively involved in a project to make such kinder, gentler, more sober and rational.

We should do the same with Islam.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The theological problem in Islam is that no man may come between another man and God. This means that it's bad form to say anyone is operating under a bum interpretation of Islam, which explains much of the silence from reasonable quarters.

Bin Ladenism or Wahhabism, then, is and can not be overtly condemned; perhaps these fellows have the correct interpretation after all.

So too, altho there is some hierarchical structure, particularly in Shiism (which most Muslims consider heretical not in small part due to the existence of "mullahs"), theological discussion is decentralized, and the "more-orthodox-than-thou" crowd tends to hold sway, especially if they're willing to kill "moderates." (Which they are. See the historical persecution of the putatively more mellow Sufis.)

There is a structural problem here. There's no self-correction mechanism---except death, of course. Better to kill someone than call them a bad Muslim. Allah understands.

Jonathan said...

Well there is a little thing called hermeneutics. Though, I really need to read up more on the Koran and present state of Islam. I've seen Muslims speak on TV who claim those verses and chapters and understandings are there. Hell, I know of one prominent lesbian who considers herself Muslim -- Irshad Manji.

Besides the primary sources, I know Bernard Lewis is the place to go to learn up.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm making a subtle and somewhat original point here---it's fine for you to have interpretation x and me have y, but x does not tell y that he's wrong. We may make affirmative arguments for our positions, but not attack the other fellow's position. It's a cultural-theological thing.

BTW, al-Ghazali is the pivotal figure in Muslim intellectual history. Islam was hundreds of years ahead of Christendom until Ghazali killed off philosophy.

A Muslim Joseph Priestly would be dead meat, of course.

Starfire said...

I think you (the blog author) are right. People and governments should encourage a 'good' Islam, they can't just leave this one alone. They can point to the positive, progressive times in Islamic history without actively promoting the religion or giving anything to 'religious supremists'.

I also agree with Tom Van Dyke that theological arguments seem to be seen as 'bad form' in Islam and no doubt are also perceived as divisive (an interesting point and one I hadn't really realised before). Even so, the job of a government is to promote rational, reasonable discourse and 'good' behaviour, not to mention lending support to the good people in society and thwarting the will of destructive people. For me, we kind of have to make such judgments, or else we have the paralysis of moral relativism, in which no-one can say what is right and wrong. But it may be better to do this in an impersonal way- love the sinner, hate the sin.

Emphasising the good aspects of Islam, without actually promoting it as a religion may be the best way... but unfortunately this is currently a difficult task to do effectively, as militants try to justify the things they do on passages in the current text of the Koran (but who's to say there weren't ever different ones?). We just have to make an alternative vision and effectively promote it. If it can save lives and avoid suffering, it's worth doing.

prof said...

rendez vous sur
a bientot