Sunday, September 26, 2004

pardon my rudeness

Ryan Overbey, back to blogging and very much en forme, recently attended a Harvard Divinity School orientation panel titled "The Study of Religion in a Time of War." He took some notes of the discussion and posted a list of some of the salient issues. I wanted to address a couple of them here.

1. How does a modern scholar of religion answer the allegation, often made in Muslim intellectual circles, that the Global War on Terror is nothing more than a War on Islam?

I think this is how Muslims themselves choose to view the issue. From their point of view, it's Dar al Islam (the House of Islam, or House of Submission) versus Dar al Harb (the House of War/Chaos). It is Islam, both in its moderate and extreme forms, that continues to advocate a nonsecularist viewpoint admitting no possibility of a healthy religious pluralism-- something Muslim societies desperately need, in my untutored, un-PC opinion.

Muslims aren't automata: moderate Muslims can choose to help the global situation by loudly decrying the sins of their terrorist brothers. And beyond simply deploring these sins, moderates can begin to reform their educational systems to reflect the actual realities around them. For starters, textbooks highlighting the fruits of Muslim-Christian dialogue would be nice: Muslims have for centuries promulgated deep misconceptions about Christians and Christianity, mainly for Muslim audiences. While it's true that Western Christians labor under their own delusions about Islam, international violence statistics these days tend to support the Christians' side. From what religion do most international terrorists hail? In almost all cases, they're Muslim. If this fact can't be openly acknowledged by Muslims themselves, we won't get anywhere anytime soon.

I won't accept a culturally relativistic answer to this challenge. The stats don't lie. While Christianity has had plenty of its own sins to answer for over the centuries, the modern situation is one in which Islam stands implicated and culpable. The sick irony is that so much of modern Islam, through its silent complicity with the terrorists, seems more like the House of War than any house of peaceful submission to God. Where are the moderate voices?

2. Scholars of Islam are in a bind: they are simultaneously compelled to condemn the terrorists, and to defend the tradition.

I think that whichever scholar said this must have been lying. Scholars of Islam in American academe are in the world's friendliest environment to make whatever claims they like about Jews and the West, and they'll find sympathetic non-Muslim hearers at almost every campus. I don't believe for a moment that scholars of Islam who reside in America are being "compelled" to condemn the terrorists. It would be nice if said scholars were impelled to condemn the terrorists, though. So much of the current Muslim problem stems from pious nonsense generated in Muslim intellectual circles; an effective solution can only arise from those same circles.

3. Why is there such a profound requirement to publicly condemn the actions of Muslim co-religionists, especially when a similar burden of public condemnation is not placed on Christians or Jews whose co-religionists commit atrocities?

I have to answer this as both a Westerner and a Christian: the requirement comes from a basic notion of common decency. Is the complainant in question (3) demanding parity? Is s/he demanding that Christians (Jews, etc.) accompany Muslims to the confessional for simultaneous expiation? Nonsense.

As for whether Christians (Jews, etc.) don't deplore Christian (Jewish, etc.) injustice: you've got to be kidding me. The news media do indeed show the intrareligious debates among liberal and conservative Christians regarding a whole host of topics ranging from abortion to gay marriage to just war. One doesn't have to look hard to find these debates occurring in cyberspace, on TV, and in print. Today's Western Christianity is intensely self-critical, to the point that Christians at the liberal end of the spectrum are willing to unplug almost all of the exclusivism from Christian theology, christology, and pneumatology by deconstructing-- some might say defanging-- core notions like God, Christ, and trinity.

At the risk of sounding self-righteous: it's Christians who have been at the forefront of efforts at interreligious dialogue, and Christians who have been most affected by their encounter with other religions. While the profound theological/spiritual changes might be happening only in the more liberal wing of Christendom, these changes have the potential to spread into greater Christendom as years go by. Theologies change; this is inevitable. Arrogant as it may sound, Islam needs to follow a similar path. Perhaps it needs to have more peaceful Koranic narratives brought to the fore, or it needs a dramatic reinterpretation of the violent elements in its scripture, much as Gandhi reinterpreted the Bhagavad Gita as a tract advocating internal and external peace.

The charge that modern Christians and Jews display no self-criticality (or an insufficient level of it) is absolutely false. If there is no "burden of public condemnation" on today's Christians and Jews, it's because they're already about the business of intrareligious critique.

4. In political science, why do so many analyses of politics in the Muslim world use circumstances of seventh-century Arabia or the irrationality of fundamentalist Muslims as the prime motivating factor for action? Why ignore other conditions such as poverty, colonialism, &c?

Maybe it's because we have the dubious privilege of living in a time when we can document Muslim irrationality as atrocities occur one after another.

Also-- oppressed people have not always chosen to react to oppression with the kind of violence we see coming from Muslim quarters today. Here again, the example of Gandhi shames all adherents of all religions who too quickly choose the violent route in response to oppression. Gandhi's satyagraha project was an amazing example of the power of nonviolent action to change a regime and reclaim a society. The project is by no means finished, of course; today's Hindus are scattered all along the violence/pacifism spectrum. But Gandhi's case is paradigmatic, as is that of the European Jews who refused to respond with violence to Hitler's oppression and systematic massacre of them. Does Islam have any such paradigmatic cases? If it does, why aren't they front and center?

The other problem-- and this was pointed out well before Gulf War 2-- is that the Muslims who spearheaded the 9/11 attack and who lead the various terrorist groups still fighting today are not from the ranks of the poor, uneducated, and physically/psychically oppressed. These are largely educated people of means, inculcated in an ideology. They have a plan. The bin Ladenic vision is much more grandiose than a mere response to perceived oppression: it aims for the reestablishment of the Dar al Islam, a restoration of former Muslim glory on an immense scale. Al Qaeda is not striving for a merely proportionate response to the West: this isn't simply a battle to preserve Islam (which, having a membership of around 1.3 billion, isn't in danger of disappearing anytime soon), but a war to convert the world. Or so these Muslims would say.

On a more conciliatory note, I'll observe that 1.3 billion Muslims are not all taking up arms and chopping up every infidel they see. Most of these folks are average Joes and Janes who want to live their lives and practice their faith in peace. For the conservatives who assume that Islam is somehow inherently warlike, I present the nonviolent Muslim majority as evidence against that argument.

At the same time, I can't back down from my belief that now is the time for Muslim mea culpas-- not Christian, not Jewish. The perceptive will have noted that Pope John Paul II, known derisively to some Catholics as The Pope of Apologies, has been a fervent advocate of interreligious dialogue. Under him, the Roman Church has recanted its position on many subjects, most notably its position re: Galileo. It's true that the Roman Church's stance on other matters, such as homosexuality, remains (in my opinion) antediluvian, but it's changing. The same goes for many Protestant churches in the West. This modernization (the famous term from Vatican 2 is aggiornamento), when it happens, is all to Christianity's credit. Muslims must make a similar move.

I've spoken often on this blog about the need for Islam to acquire a secularist element, though I know this is next to impossible, especially in the current climate. I hope that Muslims who live in America, far from becoming insular and feeling beleaguered, participate in the larger, secular, pluralistic world of American culture and then somehow export this pluralism, in disjointed fragments if need be, back to the Old Countries. I was never convinced that a democratizing project would work if violence were the primary instrument-- that's one of the reasons why I was against the war. But if this is truly a war of the mind, then we need to concentrate on the generation and propagation of the appropriate memes to aid us in that war.

I also think American Muslims and non-Muslims have a stake in cultivating a much stronger feminist sensibility in American Islam. This sensibility desperately needs to be exported.

Do I stand in judgement of Islam as a Westerner, and particularly as an American Christian? Of course! In this case, I'll fall back on S. Mark Heim's orientational pluralistic paradigm and assert that, yes, I'm doing exactly that while acknowledging that other people with different points of view can and will do the same to me. Angry Muslims currently stand in judgement of my culture; they should expect that I do the same of theirs. But unlike Muslim extremists, I don't advocate going about matters by sawing off people's heads. And unlike Muslim moderates, I won't keep silent if I think my Christian co-religionists are in the wrong (as they too often are).

Sorry, but these questions pissed me off. Many thanks to Ryan for his intrepid note-taking.


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