On Not Minding One's Business


skepticI try to make it a practice to stay out of arguments to which I am outsider. I figure, as my long-ago maternal grandfather in Arkansas used to say, “I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight”. So if our neighbors are having an argument among themselves, even if the argument is clearly audible from our deck in our own back yard, I tune it out. But if and when – this has never happened – if and when our neighbors were to stop shouting at each other and began to allow their Glock-9s and H&K MP-5s to do their talking for them, I would not hesitate to make it my business. Or rather, the moment the first ammunition round crossed the line between our properties, the neighbors themselves would have made it my business. Such is the situation in the Islamic world today. The most glaring difference between that world and the West is not religious or political or even petrochemical. It is that the atavistic religious passions of Europe were largely neutralized over 300 years ago by the Enlightenment, whereas the Islamic world as a whole has – so far -- experienced nothing analogous. Until it does, we are – all of us – in danger.

If you look at Europe, including the British Isles, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and much of the 1600s, what you see is eerily similar to what you see when you look at the Islamic world in the 21st century. In particular, you see …

o … dozens of nations of varying populations, languages, and degrees of political power and economic affluence, severely divided by …

o … dozens of differing interpretations of the Bible, of Christianity, of theology, of Church governance, etc., …

o … but united in their insistence that they -- by God! -- are right and the others wrong, and that the power of the State and the power of the Church, to whatever ambiguous extent the two can be distinguished, should ideally be united so as to work hand in hand in order to …

Thirty Years War

o … enforce political, social, and above all religious uniformity on the nations’ respective populations …

o … and, if necessary -- as it often was -- to use brute military force, even (or especially) against civilian populations, to achieve those ends, because …

o … that is what God commands on pain of eternal damnation

Does this sound at all familiar?

The result of all this militant religious triumphalism was that, for all the 1500s and most of the 1600s, waves of religious war turned all of Europe into a vast Continent-sized abattoir where hundreds of villages and dozens of cities were laid waste, not just once but repeatedly, and where the bodies were stacked high enough to blot out the sun. And that statement remains true, even if we subtract out of our calculation the effects of the concurrently recurring Bubonic Plague. During this period, Europe was not Club Med. It was Club Dead – or would have become such, had not the religious wars abated.

So what stopped the slaughter? The short answer is twofold: pragmatism and science. Pragmatically, it became evident that a century and a half of internecine bloodletting had accomplished precisely nothing … except possibly the spawning of even more religious splinter sects in a sanguinary medieval version of Whack-A-Mole. Even the most militantly bloodshot-eyed religious zealots realized that if the wars continued, all their sects’ partisans would be dead. There was no point in presiding over a Church of corpses. So, having exhausted all alternatives, they decided to anticipate the Beatles by 300 years and “Give Peace A Chance”. The results were the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 and the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.

Treaty of Westphalia

Both incorporated the principle of cuius regio, eius religio – literally, “whose rule, his religion” – decreeing that henceforth the religion of a given nation’s Sovereign would be the official religion of that nation. (This was the first baby-step toward individual freedom of religion, and would culminate a century and a half later in … cue the drum-roll and trumpets! … the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses in particular.) The second tourniquet that stopped the hemorrhage was science. Ironically, given the K-Mart Blue-Light Special Europe had declared for death and dismemberment, the 1500s and 1600s witnessed an explosive growth in science and technology that would not be equaled until the first half of the 20th century saw the formulation of relativity and quantum theories, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the detection of the background blackbody radiation of the Big Bang, etc., etc.. This resulted in a kind of chicken-and-egg feedback loop: advancing science bolstered people’s confidence in the human rational faculty, which led to more scientific advances, which further reinforced that confidence … etc., etc. … a kind of “virtuous cycle”. In the end, there was just too much to do and too much to discover for people to devote such inordinate amounts of time to slaughtering their neighbors over differing interpretations of a dusty middle-Bronze-Age religious text. (Religious passions persisted, of course, but were personal and private. E.g., Newton spent far more time writing recondite treatises about the mystical meaning of the Bible than about physics. Differential calculus and the great Principia were just oh-by-the-way sidelines. Ditto Blaise Pascal.) Europe first learned how to agree to disagree – then moved on to more constructive pursuits. The ensuing peace was far from perfect, but it was substantial, especially since the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. The two great Exceptions to that order -- World Wars I and II -- were instances essentially of outbreaks of recidivistic religious passion overcoming the tutelage of reason in human affairs.

By contrast, Islamic culture is still for the most part fundamentally hostile to all the principles outlined in the previous two paragraphs. In particular:

o … in many Islamic countries, there is no meaningful separation between religious power and political power: no separation between Mosque and State, least of all any persistent and institutionalized separation. This means that the uniquely volatile  religious passions associated with monotheistic ideologies have immediate and unquestioned access to police and military resources. In Calvin’s Geneva, certain municipal officials were appointed to literally be peeping-Toms to look through people’s windows on Sundays and make sure the occupants were doing something “spiritual” like praying or reading the Bible. But Calvin’s Geneva was almost 500 years ago. Cognate forms of this practice exist in, e.g., Saudi Arabia today.

o … virtually all conservative Islamic nations forbid the critical analysis of the text of the Qur’an. (Form, redaction, and source criticism of the Bible began during the first half of the 1700s, and were met with similarly strong opposition from religious conservatives. Immanuel Kant was officially censured and ostracized for publishing Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone in 1792.) This prohibition significantly muzzles the spirit of free inquiry, not only in qur’anic studies, where it would arguably have only a restricted impact, but that muzzling influence “bleeds over” into fields outside of matters pertaining to religious, doctrinal, and theological issues. The strait-jacket of restrictions on the critical textual analysis of the Qur’an has the same effect on Muslim intellectual life as a whole that the substitution of creationist and intelligent-design ideologies for legitimate science would have on American public school curricula. This stunting effect goes a long way to explaining why so few Nobel Prizes in the sciences have been awarded to Muslims.

Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie

o … Muslim culture as a whole has not learned the skill of agreeing to disagree – as witness the war between Sunni and Shi’a currently raging in Iraq and Syria. (And even the current conflict is only the latest skirmish in a war that has been raging intermittently at least since the murder of Hussein at Karbala in 680 CE, well over 1300 years ago.) Asserting that such conflicts are political rather than religious in nature only demonstrates a misunderstanding of the degree to which, in so many ways, Islamic political culture is still time-warped back to the 15th century: there is no such distinction. Nor was there any such distinction in the minds of Europeans prior to about the middle 1500s – and even then, it was very, very tenuous. If you had asked a European of that era “Are you fighting for God or for Country”, you would have received either a deer-in-the-headlights stare or, at most, a bewildered “What’s the difference?” And if you valued your carotid artery, you probably would not have asked the question at all.

If you believe these criticisms of Islam are warped by too "Western-centric" a perspective, I would invite you to read the following:  The Trouble with Islam and Allah, Liberty, and Love, both by Irshad Manji; also Infidel, Nomad:  From Islam to America, and The Caged Virgin, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. All three are in de facto exile -- Rushdie still has a fatwa hanging over his head -- because of their heterodoxy vis a vis orthodox Islam ... and because Manji is a publicly "out" lesbian, who nevertheless is an observant Muslim. Perhaps the most important lesson Western liberals / progressives can learn from such expatriate Muslims is not to insult Islam by succumbing to what has been described as "the soft bigotry of low expectations". Tolerating intolerance is not tolerant, merely insulting.

To say that the Islamic world has not yet learned to agree to disagree is most emphatically not to say that the Islamic world will never learn it. If / When it learns it, it will learn it in its own way, in its own time, according to its own cultural paradigms, articulate the lesson in its own idioms, and transmit it to the future via its own memes. “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished”, but I have no idea when that will happen or what that would look like. My crystal ball was manufactured by General Motors, so I’m not sure I want to risk using it – or that it would give me an answer, even if I did. Nor is it to deny that there are individuals in the Islamic world who are conspicuous exceptions to the rule. Yes, there are people like Reza Aslan, Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Omid Safi (professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), et al. It is equally noteworthy that they all live in the West. (As far as I can learn, the late Dr. Abdus Salam, who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics with Sheldon Glashow, was the only Muslim Nobel laureate to reside in his native country:  Pakistan. Dr. Ahmed Zewali, who won the chemistry Prize in 1999, is at Cal Tech.) But it is to say, first, that the Islamic world as a whole is a world that is in the 21st century, but that is of the 15th; secondly, that as long as this remains the case, the entire world – not just the umma, not just Muslims, not just Europeans, not just North Americans, but the entire planet – is at risk until it is both in and of the former. Why? Because the biggest difference between the religious wars among Muslims in the 21st century and the religious wars among Christians in the 16th is that, sometime in the not-too-distant future, the former might be fought with nuclear weapons. The latter slaughter, using pikes and swords, was bad enough, but at least it was not possible, as it would be now, to turn entire nations into giant patches of radioactive glass. And let’s please not even think about bio-warfare. That makes it the business of all of us. That makes it your business. That makes it my business. Contra my beloved grandfather, we all “have a dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight”.

James R. Cowles


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