Monday, December 14, 2015

Don't know much about Islam, but we know what we don't like

Safavid 16th c. miniature from “The Seven Thrones” of Jami, from Mehdi Khansari, Persian Gardens, 1997, via  Electrum Magazine.
Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, thinks he's spotted an amusing difficulty in the way we opponents of Islamophobia think about "The Islamic Dilemma":
for several reasons — because we don’t understand Islam from the inside, but also because we’re divided about what our civilization stands for and where religious faith fits in — we have a hard time articulating what a “moderate” Muslim would actually believe, or what we expect a modernized Islam to become.
You see the assumptions built in there: "we" don't know anything about it, but we're sure what we'd like doesn't exist, as yet, and is waiting for "us" to tell them how to do it. We say we're sure they're good at heart and then we can't even help them with their theology homework.

Not just a stupid ploy in content, but in form it's that "I'm just saying" argument where you claim not to be asserting anything, merely asking some pointed questions, but the questions are pre-loaded with all the things you might be asserting, and might get called out on if you did.
And to any Muslim who takes the teachings of his faith seriously, it must seem that many Western ideas about how Islam ought to change just promise its eventual extinction.

This is clearly true of the idea, held by certain prominent atheists and some of my fellow conservatives and Christians, that the heart of Islam is necessarily illiberal — that because the faith was born in conquest and theocracy, it simply can’t accommodate itself to pluralism without a massive rupture, an apostasy in fact if not in name.
"Not my idea, of course. I'm just saying." But of course if you can't understand Islam from the inside, you could try learning about it from the outside, e.g. by talking to people, or reading, activities journalists are supposed to be familiar with, and discover that Islam has had massive ruptures and apostasies all over the place in its millennium and almost a half, starting with the fundamental Shi'ite-Sunni split, and has been accommodating to pluralism in alternating fits and starts ever since.

You can get a picture of the extent to which they've succeeded from a 2012 Pew study of the world's Muslims (unfortunately excluding Iran, Syria, and India, which alone has 10% of the world's Muslims). In huge parts of the ummah, all over the former Soviet Union and Balkans and in Indonesia (which has far more Muslims than any other country, ahead of Pakistan and India and Bangladesh), most people don't even think of themselves as Sunni or Shi'a, but "just a Muslim". Have you met a Christian recently so non-sectarian that she or he says, "Oh, I'm not Catholic or Protestant, just Christian"? Also big pluralities in parts of North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco) and sub-Saharan Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Guinea-Bissau).

More important, probably, is the existence of an explicitly,  overwhelmingly peace-loving tendency represented by Sufi practice, which exists in all sects, Shi'ite and Sunni alike, except perhaps the puritanical and militant Salafis—carried out by mystical religious orders who spread their message of love and experience of the divine throughout their communities.

While those Salafis, incidentally, a tiny Sunni sect representing 50 million or around 3% of all Muslims worldwide, are the source of virtually all "radicalized Islamic terrorism" from northern Nigeria to Mindanao in the Philippines, and including whatever happens of that kind in North America, spread round the world by Saudi missionary funds—and sometimes, as in Afghanistan or Lebanon and Palestine, with US and Israeli aid respectively. (I don't refer to the civic oppression and international mischief of the bad side of the Iranian government as terrorism; not that I think it's a good thing, I denounce it everywhere, particularly for its cruelty to Iranian citizens, but that I don't think "terrorism" is the right word in any sense.)
But it’s also true of the ideas of many secular liberal Westerners, who take a more benign view of Islam mostly because they assume that all religious ideas are arbitrary, that it doesn’t matter what Muhammad said or did because tomorrow’s Muslims can just reinterpret the Prophet’s life story and read the appropriate liberal values in.
No, really, count me out. Along with all the secular liberal Westerners who have fallen in love with the poetry of Rumi, whether or not they are aware that he was the Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī whose thinking led to the foundation of one of the most important and influential Sufi orders, that of the Mevlevi, in the 13th century. Islam doesn't need us to supply "appropriate values" for them. For a large majority of the 97% who are not Salafis, the religion is already permeated with ideas of tolerance, love, and happiness through music, dance, and poetry.

Indeed, throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, Islam was castigated from the West for the extreme quietism and passivity of its fez-wearing adherents in Turkey and Egypt. Then Sufi devotees were persecuted in Turkey by Atatürk's Westernizing movement, and they are persecuted in Egypt today by the Sisi government, while Turkish politicians in reaction against secularism have developed some awful kind of rightwing variety of nondenominational Muslim rhetoric to exist in the same kind of ahistorical vacuum as a lot of Christian rhetoric in the US.
some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment.
"Watch out, conservative Muslims! Before you know it your women will be getting birth control and you won't be able to stop them! Just saying." Indeed, with the aid of the Pan Arab Project for Family Health under the wicked United Nations Millennium Development Goals, anything could happen.
PAPFAM, 2012, link above.
I certainly see the commonalities between Bad Islams and Bad Christianities, if that's what you mean, and I certainly think theocracy needs to give way to the pluralism and tolerance guaranteed in our, or France's, Constitution, in all countries, including Israel, where the dominance of religious Orthodox over certain areas of life (marriage and immigration, and to some extent diet and Sabbath observance) in an overwhelmingly nonreligious population is absolutely a scandal to me, though no doubt not as hard on the citizens as Iran's. If you want to task me with the paradox, "How come you guys are so intolerant of my intolerance?", go ahead, but don't expect me to bother arguing back, because it's just dumb.

The main thing is there is no need for any of us on the non-Muslim side of the theological borderlands to say anything to Islam at all about what it ought to be.

I would like to discourage radicalized Islam, that potentially violent 3%, above all by not bombing people, to whatever extent possible (and I realize thanks to the depredations of the Bush years that will be hard to do for a while yet), and in general welcoming Islam into the worlds we share instead of treating it with suspicion and dread at every turn.

By the same token, I'd like to deal with radicalized white Christianity not by making it illegal, or suggesting a more "appropriate" belief system, but by dealing with the economic desperation, drug and alcohol addiction, marital failure, and gun violence that ravages the redneck communities in our country through massive government investment in education and infrastructure etc., instead of aggravating their suspicion and dread by stoking it with lies about black people, successful women, "liberals", and so on, including Muslims*, I'm looking at you, Ross. Just saying.

*Steve M has a horrifying piece today about radicalizing Christians into an anti-Muslim and sometimes anti-Jewish fervor at the hands of a demogogic young Catholic priest. Father Jacek Międlar. More on the mass movement model than the terrorist cell, but to those of us raised on World War II stories that will always be more frightening than any 9/11 anyway.

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