Sunday, December 19, 2010

Islam: some home truths

Ranking as the third major component of the Abrahamic sequence, Islam inherited a heavy load of judgmentalism, intolerance, and violence from its Judaic and Christian predecessors. Comparative study of all three demonstrates this point. Yet such study also shows that as it unfolded, Islam augmented the stock, bringing forth a veritable swarm of dismal refinements of its own.

1. Islam divides humanity into a hierarchy of three strata. a) Only Muslims count as fully human, as their unique and complete adherence to divine law permits them to achieve their inborn capacities. b) The “Peoples of the Book,” Jews and Christians, deserve regard for their precursor status. However, efforts to bring them to recognize the superiority of Islam must be unceasing, through imposing the jizya tax and other disabilities. c) The lowest category consists essentially of vermin, who must be dealt with decisively--through extermination if necessary. This subhuman group includes Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists.

2. All unbelievers are regarded as unclean, For this reason, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are closed to non-Muslims, whose presence would pollute them. The Saudi government supports this ban by citing Sura 9:26 from the Qur’an: “O you who believe! the idolaters are nothing but unclean, so they shall not approach the Sacred Mosque after this year; and if you fear poverty then Allah will enrich you out of His grace if He please; surely Allah is Knowing and Wise.”

Not surprisingly, the existence of cities closed to non-Muslims and the mystery of Muslim pilgrimage have often aroused intense curiosity in non-Muslims. Some have masqueraded as Muslims in order to visit the city of Mecca and the Grand Mosque. The first to leave a record was Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna (1503). The most famous account of a foreigner's journey to Mecca is “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina,” written by Sir Richard Burton. In 1853 Burton traveled as a Qadiriyah Sufi from Afghanistan. Individuals who use fake certificates of Muslim identity to enter risk being arrested and prosecuted by Saudi authorities.

During the Soviet period, certain technological cities in the USSR were closed to outsiders. However, the Mecca-Medina ban, which goes back to the early days of Islam, is the only major example that is known of such exclusion on religious grounds.

3. Since the time of Constantine in the fourth century CE, Christian polities have honored a dual system of law: the civil law, inherited from the Romans, and canon law, the religious counterpart. After a long struggle in the West, the supremacy of the civil law has triumphed. Historically, Islam did not acknowledge this duality, adhering only to sharia, or religious law. More accurately, one could say that sharia fuses religious and secular functions. As a result of Western influence, some states that have been historically Islamic, such as Turkey and Egypt, did in fact adopt civil law codes. Currently, however, the Islamic world is seeing a chorus of demands that the sharia be enshrined as the sole source of law. Some even insist that sharia be introduced into Western countries.

4. Sharia law harbors a number of indisputable barbarities, such the hudud procedures of stoning for adulterers (rajm) and amputation of the hands of thieves.

5. An important tool of Islamic exegesis is the doctrine of abrogation (nashk). For example, in the early days of the faith wine drinking and gambling were permitted (see the passage in Sura 2:219); then the permission regarding these practices was withdrawn, and both were banned (5:93). This principle of abrogation bears significantly on the “peaceful” verses of the Qur’an, which occur mainly in the earlier (Meccan) Suras. Following the abrogation principle, these are nullified by other, later verses contradicting them. For this reason, Islam cannot be rightly described as a religion of peace.

6. Islam views our planet as divided into two spheres: the Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam) and the Abode of Warfare (Dar al-Harb), which has not yet been placed under Islamic rule. It is the duty of the Believers to act so that the latter sphere, the infidel realm, will constantly shrink, with the goal that ultimately the whole planet can be declared the Abode of Islam. In many ways--the departure first of Jews and then of Christians from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East; the tensions in Nigeria, the Southern Sudan, and in Thailand and the Philippines--we see the malign effects of this expansionist principle today.

7. As a rule, in Islam the value of a woman counts as only half that of a man (Sura 2:282). This principle applies to inheritance, legal testimony, and other matters. A husband may easily divorce his wife; but not the reverse.

8. The death penalty for male homosexuals, currently being carried out in Iran, goes back to the earliest strata of the hadith. To be sure, at various times and places, pederasty (sexual relations between an adult man and a boy) has enjoyed de facto toleration; never, however, adult-adult homosexuality.

From time to time we hear that one should not worry about this or that barbarous provision, for it is “not found in the Qur’an.” As with Christian apologists, sometimes self-designated progressive Muslims seek to buttress this claim by marshaling exegetical legerdemain so as to mitigate or efface inconvenient assertions that actually are in the Qur'an. That is not the only problem,for one needs to acknowledge that not everything the makes up the Islamic core is found in the Qur’an. For example, the practice of male circumcision is not mentioned in the Holy Book; yet it is integral to Islam. The Muslim faith is in fact constituted by two controlling authorities: the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna, or recognized body of religious tradition. In judging what is authentically Islamic both source streams must be taken into account.

Observers in progressive circles in Western Europe are wont to assert that Muslims are basically pleasant, peaceful people, who left to themselves, would go about their business without troubling others. It is only Western pressure and aggression that have riled them up. Accordingly, these disingenuous individuals claim, if we will just cease our unwarranted interference, our hysteria and fear-mongering, our “Muslim problem” will be solved. Currently being promulgated by Max Blumenthal and others, this is wishful thinking.

Brief as it is, the above exposition has shown that such naivete' ignores key features of the original remit of Islam. These shortcomings are not the exclusive province of “extremists,” but are broadly held and practiced by Muslims as such. In many ways "extremist Islam" = mainstream Islam.


Towards the end of the main discussion above, while outlining some core problems residing in the Islamic faith, I alluded to a puzzling attitude currently rife in "progressive" circles--a seeming indifference to the authoritarianism, aggression, and violence that so many Muslims display today. This Islamic misbehavior is common both in the Middle Eastern heartland and in the diaspora communities, particularly those in Western Europe. One would have thought that human-rights considerations--witness the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals--would have moved these progressives off the dime. Instead, though, they tend to prefer the ostrich tactics of ignoring such inconvenient facts.

Having once been a leftist (long ago, it is true), I asked myself: what can these progressives be thinking? The following rationales have occurred to me.

Themselves religiously indifferent, the progressives find it hard to wrap their minds around the sensibility of those to whom religion is important. To be sure, they decry the bigotry of Christianists and fundamentalists--but those folks are, in their enlightened view, hopelessly stupid. There is no reason to have any concern with what mere rednecks think. By contrast, Muslims, heirs to their glorious Golden Age, are subtle thinkers.

Because of this selective attention to the importance of religious motivation, the progressive Islamophiles prefer to disregard the central role played by a set of archaic Arabian superstitions. Since the latter are merely incidental in their view, there is no need to examine the beliefs and practices in detail. And so the progressives don't. As a rule, I find that Western leftists, serene in their Islamophilia, are ignorant of the most basic features of Islam, such as the Five Pillars.

A corollary of these views is the comforting illusion that those who adhere to their faith in its full rigor are just a small band of "Muslim extremists," in no way typical of the great mass of decent Muslims. As I showed in the previous posting, however, the Islamic mainstream shares many basic beliefs with the so-called "extremists." There is no bright line of separation.

Those who know a bit more, and who have been paying attention to diaspora apologists like Tariq Ramadan, will contend that the perceived excesses of Muslims today (such as "honor killings" and female genital mutilation) are not part of the original faith. This argument tends to rely on the notion that the Qur'an alone is the defining guide for Muslims. In fact there are two sources of authority: the Holy Book and the Prophetic Sunna (tradition). The ulema is still interpreting the Sunna today.

More generally, all religions have evolved. Most Christians, even some Catholics, would admit that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a modern accretion. On a more trivial level, Christmas trees and Santa Claus (the contemporary version as distinct from St. Nicholas of Myra) are recent innovations. Yet these things are Christian. Islam has evolved in a similar fashion. However, honor killings and female genital mutilation are not trivial matters.

Moreover, progressives tend to perceive Muslims primarily as victims: 1) in their homelands, long ravaged by Western imperialistic incursions, and 2) in the diaspora in Western Europe, where they are harried by discrimination and prejudice. Response to the plight of minorities, of almost any kind, has long ranked as a sort of knee-jerk reaction on the left.

Influenced by the relativism that stems from anthropology and the social sciences in general, progressives emphasize the need to respect cultural differences. This approach has advanced under the banner of multiculturalism. In this perspective, Muslims do not care about individual rights; they see everything in community terms. For their part, many Muslim women say that they are not oppressed; therefore, they are not. We are also told that there are very few genuine homosexuals in Muslim-majority countries; homosexuality is a concept imposed by Westerners. Without this Western interference, men who love men and women who love women would have no problems in the Islamic world (see the recent book of Joseph Massad). This claim is pure, unrefined b.s.

Finally, there is the wish to separate oneself from the vehemence of such antijihadists as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. I too would distance myself from such figures, but by the same token I cannot ignore the very real danger that the serious core of Islam presents, as its adherents increase their numbers in our midst.

For a variety of reasons then, progressive thinkers prefer to pass in silence the crimes against humanity which are part and parcel of the Islamic heritage. Sometimes, though, euphemism is preferred, as when the vicious practice of female genital mutilation is called simply "cutting."

The argument that one must not give comfort to the antijihadists reminds me of the situation sixty years ago during the Cold War, when it was said that one must not criticize the USSR because this would lend credibility to the McCarthyites. Yet the crimes of Stalin and his accomplices were very real. Similarly, one might recommend that one not speak of the Holocaust, the Shoah, because this helps the cause of Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC. Yet the Holocaust really did happen, and it does not enhance one's credibility to downplay or deny it, for whatever reason.

A final issue is this. If one is critical of the policies being pursued by the state of Israel (as I am; see my previous postings), one is expected to mute one's comments about Islam. Conversely, a thoroughgoing critique of Islam is thought to go together with an uncritical defense of the state of Israel.

Why this need for a choice? Both critiques are needed.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, there is no truth that should go unspoken. That is the principle I am seeking to follow.

POSTSCRIPT. By coincidence, I have just finished reading Andre' Gide's critical account of his 1936 trip to the USSR. As he prepared his book on the subject for publication, Gide found that a number of his leftist friends, while acknowledging the basic truth of his allegations about Stalin's tyranny, nonetheless urged him not to publish the book. To do so, they averred, would give aid and comfort to reactionary forces. In a similar fashion, I am now asked to mute my criticisms of Islam because that would associate me with the "hysteria" that is ostensibly raging on the right about the subject.

It seems to me that one's first obligation is to speak the truth, and not to worry about what inappropriate use might be made of such frankness. Besides, I am not and will not be an Andre' Gide, a man whose integrity and fame were both immense.

I am just a minor blogger. By the same token, I am free to discharge my volleys according to my lights. Ganymede willing, I will continue to do so.



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