Let’s Be Frank

Our friend H. Jeffery Hodges, who writes thoughtfully about the problem that Islam poses to the rest of the world, has been doing so again lately. In posts here, here, and here, he discusses the book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, by the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell.

Jeffery quotes a passage by Caldwell in which the author addresses the reluctance of public figures to ascribe the threatening aspects of Islamism to Islam itself:

…[P]oliticians are increasingly given to pronouncing on what is and is not Islam. Those who make such pronouncements are usually trying to exonerate Islam from the charge that it is a violent or intolerant religion, as George Bush famously did in the days after September 11, 2001, by pronouncing that “Islam is peace.” One hears non-Arabic-speaking statesmen holding forth on what the Koran does and doesn’t say about the duties of veiling. One reads about “poorly trained, mostly foreign imams” who incite young men to terrorism or “poorly educated judges” on sharia courts. The blame never falls on Islam itself but always on something aberrant, adventitious, exogenous, atypical, something imposed on it by an unrepresentative handful of nutcases, misinterpreters, Svengalis, and secret agents.

This well-intentioned policy, reminiscent of similar assertions about Scotsmen and their porridge, is indeed very common, amongst academics as well as politicians. It is also, I think, very dangerous. Recently I read Islam: A Mosaic, Not A Monolith by Vartan Gregorian, which is a lengthy brief for just the sort of proposition that Caldwell address in the quoted passage: that retrograde Islamic fundamentalism is hardly representative of the majority of the world’s Muslims, who embrace a broad diversity of worldviews — and that Islam is fully compatible with what we in the modern West would regard as open and enlightened societies.

One example that is usually given to support this view is the “Golden Age” of Islam, which, to hear it described from the comfort of the Western academy, was a splendid period of prosperity and scholarship, during which diversity (which is, of course, currently worshipped as civilization’s summum bonum) was rightly celebrated, and all cultures were nurtured and respected.

Things back then weren’t quite as chummy as we are sometimes led to imagine, however. Even in those best of times, the ahl al-dhimmah were spared forcible conversion or death only under restrictive conditions. They were compelled to pay an infidel’s tax called the jizyah; they were forbidden to make any outward sign of their religion; they were not allowed to build houses of worship, or for that matter any buildings higher than those occupied by Muslims. They could not ride on horseback. And to offend Islam in any way, or to tempt the faithful away from the techings of the Prophet, were capital offenses. And this was Islam at its most tolerant.

Even in Dr. Gregorian’s book, which is about as sympathetic an apologia as you are likely to find for Islam’s chances of achieving harmony with the modern world, his argument is undercut again and again by the persistent tendency of Islam to have at its core an ever-renewing wellspring of fundamentalism. In each promising instance that he gives of modernizing, secularizing Islamic communities, the chapter seems to end with a relapse into either sectarian violence or repressive theocracy. In Dr. Gregorian’s eyes, though, the attempt is the point, and is enough; it demonstrates that there is more to Islam than radical and atavistic Islamism — that there are indeed forward-looking Muslims. But the real lesson, which he does not acknowledge, is that there is a constant gravitational attraction toward the original holotype of the Muslim society: that of life under the Prophet himself, in the Mecca and Medina of the seventh century. There is no parallel in Islam for Christ’s admonition to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”; in Islam, as befits its name, everything is to be rendered unto God. There can never be a secular Islamic society that is not continuously subject to this ceaseless tidal force; it is part of the religion’s essential and immutable nature.

Finally, Jeffery links to a video clip of someone who most certainly is not afraid to tell us how he really feels about the threat presented to the modern world by Islam: the voluble English polemicist Pat Condell, who is, well, mad as hell. He is, as usual, intentionally provocative, but I must say I find precious little in his tirade to disagree with.

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  1. Thanks, Malcolm . . . though I actually make a formal distinction between Islam and Islamism, while leaving up to my readers to reflect on just where that formal dividing line should be drawn.

    I hope, of course, for reasonable, reflective discussion of the issue.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 7:17 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thank you, Jeffery, for the stimulating posts.

    You are quite right to discriminate between Islam and Islamism; I think any informed person does the same.

    The point here is that the the impression is often given that it is possible to have one without the other. I have very little confidence in that.

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Yes, there is a difference between Isalm and Islamism; just like there’s a difference between science and scientism. While I don’t have principled objections to ‘ismism’, it does frequently connote fanaticism of one sort or another, to which I do have principled objections.

    Posted August 13, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink