"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Monday, February 13, 2006

Where Nothing is Sacred, Nothing is Profane

Or so goes the Western thinking on the cartoons in question.

This article from the dreaded National Review points out that Muhammad has been shown in portraits all through Muslim history. That should be the counterargument in the current brouhaha, not an insistence of the "right" to bait someone else with cartoons. (Let's be frank---offense was definitely intended by them.) It's one thing to have some respect for a religion (which is really for the people who believe in it), quite another to give relativistic tolerance to the crazies' own interpretations of it.

If this clash of civilizations, and it is indeed one, is going to be kept from becoming a full-scale war, it's going to be up to those in the West to study up and engage Islam on its own terms. Hopefully, there's enough liberalism in its history to build on and enable it to turn the corner from the implacable enemy of Western Civilization to something that won't kill us or necessitate us killing them.

(A new scholarly approach to the Qur'an is discussed here. It is imperative that it or something like it succeed.)

My favorite GK Chesterton quote is "reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it."

Beating Muslims about the head to teach them the absolute value of free speech rights shows a lack of prudence if not outright brutishness. If Muslims are willing to die for their faith (and they are), then faith is a matter of life and death, on a higher plane than the exercise of "rights." (I say this because I myself am not inclined to die for the right to publish aggressively offensive cartoons, but more importantly, I am certainly not willing to kill for it. But there are things for which I would do both.)

The West's exercise of the right to publish unflattering cartoons of Muhammad is consistent with its worship of reason. But to the Muslim mind, where faith is more important than life itself, and where personal identity, honor and dignity are inextricably linked with that faith, it is an unspeakable violence, as real as any violence in this world. Unless we are willing to kill and die for these cartoons to match the commitment on the other side, perhaps we ought to take a breath here.

One need not respect faith in order to respect the reality of the situation. The West uses pictures of Muhammad as a truncheon at its own peril, not so much for the threat of retaliation, but for the loss of opportunity. Better to learn the language of Islam, engage it as it understands itself, and find out if there's any way we can learn to share this earth. The hideous alternative will always remain, looming.


connie deady said...

You almost sound like a liberal appeaser my friend.

I have long argued that the war with Islam will be one not with weapons of war, but with ideas and mutual understanding. I'm not sure that they desire to understand us, and much prefer to demonize us. I, for one, would be happy to take the high road and try to convince them that we are not the devil and we can co-exist

Tlaloc said...

Congratulations. I can find no fault with this post. Obviously from me that is high praise.

Matt Huisman said...

One need not respect faith in order to respect the reality of the situation. The West uses pictures of Muhammad as a truncheon at its own peril, not so much for the threat of retaliation, but for the loss of opportunity.

This is certainly true, and we would do well to remember this before acting rashly. The only problem here though is that offending 'West' is not some unified body that acts as a whole when deciding when and where to provoke Muslim sensibilities. Trying to figure out exactly where the line of appropriate cultural challenge lies is quite a difficult thing, and mistakes will certainly be made. Given that, it hardly seems that an aggrieved party should think it appropriate to resort to violence.

Now all of us would agree that the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper that ran the original cartoons was being provacative - but he wasn't being a bully. When he learned that artists in his own country were afraid to work on a children's book about the prophet, he conducted his own lab experiment to see whether Islam could be counted on to act reasonably. Maybe it was not his experiment to conduct, but I believe he got his answer.

For all the talk about the size of the 'moderate' Muslim community, they don't seem to have any pull anywhere - and the more radical elements have determined that force and intimidation work fairly well. Either the moderates will put a stop to this or the West will - whether we understand them or not.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, Connie. I have my moments.

But remember that "understanding" isn't a passive exercise. I have my doubts that the irreligious or even anti-religious component of the West is capable of "understanding" the Muslim mind.

Yes, Mr. Huisman, the key is the "moderates." Those of us in the Western world who are best able to understand their concerns are going to have to give them something to work with. The battleground is between bin Laden and "rights" absolutists. It's up to the moderates on both sides to lead the way, that they not be prisoners of their own extremists.

It occurs to me that Islam is compatible with classical liberalism, which leaves room between society and government.

But both modern liberalism and theocracy refuse any separation between society and state. Opposite sides of the same coin.

Matt Huisman said...

The battleground is between bin Laden and "rights" absolutists. It's up to the moderates on both sides to lead the way, that they not be prisoners of their own extremists.

I like the whole of that last post, but the implementation of moderate ideals – as noted in the snippet above – will be a little tricky. I suppose I’m looking for some clarification on what the very passive sounding ‘understanding Islam’ means.

From my perspective, understanding Islam is fundamental because it is the only way in which we’ll be able to sell them on the idea that ‘Islam is compatible with classical liberalism’. [To be honest, we're trying to convince them that it's not so bad to have Islam fit within or underneath the umbrella of classical liberalism.]

Now I think that there are a rather large number of Muslims willing to go along with this. However, I don’t think that they have the confidence in liberalism necessary to fight (hard enough) for it politically or militarily. Part of this is due to their understandable unfamiliarity with it, but another part is due to the reality that they are not entirely displeased by the ‘advances’ Islam has made as a result of the efforts of their more radical brothers. There’s an element of Osama’s strong horse theory at play here, and it seems to me that we need to acknowledge the individual (and the natural tensions that lie within moderate Muslims)as much as we do the religion.

For the Western moderate, understanding Islam involves a form of active listening - where we publicly denounce renegade cultural editors, while militarily humiliating terror cells and rogue regimes - in order to help clarify any confusion about which road leads to opportunity, and which one is a dead end.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes. As Islam strictly interpreted is both a religion and a politics, the velvet glove and iron fist will both be necessary.

Another problem is that classical liberalism exists only in the United States, and is held to by fewer than half of us. (GOP minus our theocrats, with a few Democrats left.) The US was founded during classical liberalism; by the time Europe got around to (re-)founding its institutions, modern liberalism was its foundation, where the state is no longer simply the guarantor of liberty, but the primary agent for the relief of man's estate. All Goods are political.

This is why nations like France are unequipped to deal with a significant minority of those who are un-French in philosophy. So they try to ban Muslim headscarves.

What the Muslim world knows of liberalism is the modern kind, which dominates Europe and is easily confused with, if not synonymous with, materialism, libertinism and anti-religionism.

We classical liberals have our work cut out for us.

Evanston said...

Tom, it's ironic that you advise prudence based upon a desire to understand instead of offend. The cartoons were drawn and published exactly because the artists and publishers understood their audience. They intended offense, as you say, and they succeeded. The standard should not be "offense" -- the standard should be truth. Just as the Abu Ghraib photos were published freely and repeatedly (causing riots and death), the lies regarding treatment of the Koran at Gitmo were published freely (causing riots and death), Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's overseas speeches against America were made freely and published widely (bolstering the ideology and morale of terrorists), there are occasions where folks who think Muhammed fostered a religion of violence will have their say. The result of this publication -- violent protest by muslims -- certified the point made by the artists and publishers. Go ahead, be prudent and try to overcome the speeches of all the Imams, the state media throughout the middle east, and the likes of Al Jazeera. Study all the sects, each preacher, "...learn the language of Islam, engage it as it understands itself, and find out if there's any way we can learn to share this earth." I think there's an easy shortcut. If you agree to be a muslim, you will never offend. Otherwise, prepare to contain or subvert this religion, and in doing so, you will offend it. Many muslims, like Bin Laden, see "prudence" as a lack of will to die for your beliefs and as a validation of their own. So a search for common ground may only result in your giving up ground, such as the right to publish possibly offensive ideas.
As a Christian, I know that the truth will offend. I should not add to this offense, but I certainly will not subtract from the natural offense brought on by the Gospel. Choose your standard, truth or (so-called) prudence, but recognize at times that they are mutually exclusive.