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Monday, February 2, 2009

Islam and Christianity--Modernity v. Tradition

This morning Spengler's column--Who are the 'extraordinary' Muslims?--made two points of interest to me. The first is one that's been on my mind lately:

“My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives,” United States President Barack Obama told an Arabic television channel on January 26. Really? What are their names? Word has come to the West of no extraordinary Muslim thinker since the 12th century. There is one first-rank Arab writer working today who tries to explain why there are no extraordinary Muslims--but on that more below.
By “extraordinary,” to be sure, Obama means no more than Garrison Keillor meant in saying that the children of Lake Wobegon all are above average. There is no “there” in Obama's “patchwork,” as he characterized America in his inaugural address. America is all patches and no quilt, arranged in no particular order, as in his remark in the same interview that America is “a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers.” Everyone is ordinary, or maybe extraordinary--whatever. If Obama had said that “the Muslim world is filled with ordinary people, etc.,” his meaning would have been clearer. 

This really is an extraordinary (!) statement that Obama made. Think about it. To be “extraordinary” means no more than “to simply want to live your life and see your children live a better life.” No statement about the content or the quality of that life, the connectedness of that life to others, of an overarching meaning to that life. Presumably, the meaning of life is the meaning we give it--a concept familiar to students of modern atheistic ideologies. One can be extraordinary, according to Obama, while leading a life of the utmost ordinariness, while having no ambition beyond mere living--and wishing for your children more of the same!

Recently this new age of the Obamessiah has reminded of that old 1960's (?) song with the children's ditty melody: “Little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes all the same.” The song was, for a while, an anthem of the folky left, Communists like Pete Seeger. A way for them to express their contempt for the spreading suburban way of life. The idea was that capitalism inevitably leads to a dreary sameness of life, epitomized by the box-like suburban houses, supposedly filled with people who were no more diverse nor original than the houses they populated: cookie cutter people with nary a thought beyond acquiring a box made of ticky tacky to live in.

And yet. Has this not become, in many ways, the ideal of the Democratic party? The new New Deal, expression of a benevolent Big Brother of a government, will provide one and all with security: education, a path in life, job, health insurance, retirement. The catch is, that in return for this risk-free life the government--which one somehow suspects means the Ruling Party--must take control of the bulk of societal assets. And this will inevitably mean that life will be leveled. If the less talented are to live better lives, the more talented will need to provide the wherewithal for that Great Enhancement. Moreover, as we have all seen in recent decades, anyone who challenges this scheme will be labeled an Enemy of the People and hounded from public life--toleration will be mandated and the intolerant will be punished. In all aspects of life controlled by Government--and above all in education and the media--an intellectual sameness that corresponds to the material leveling of life will prevail. We've seen it already in academia and in the print media.

So, paradoxically--or maybe not--it seems that the elitist sneers of the left, expressed in the unoriginality of “Little Boxes,” conceals a contempt for human aspiration and a belief that the human spirit can be satisfied with men “simply living their lives,” with no higher vision than having their "fair share" of societal resources. And that fair share will no doubt be quantitatively defined.

The second item in Spengler's article that caught my attention may, at first glance appear unrelated. Spengler references the Syrian poet Adonis (Ali Ahmad Sa'id), who argues that “Islam itself destroys the creativity of Muslims”:

“Because Islam - the last message sent by God to mankind - has placed the final seal on the Divine Word, successive words are incapable of bringing humankind anything new. A new message would imply that the Islamic message did not say everything, that it is imperfect.” The most melancholy Slav sounds like Jerry Seinfeld next to this poet of despair.
The blame for Islamic backwardness, Adonis claims, lies in the concept of “oneness,” or tawhid, of Allah. “Oneness” conveys not just monotheism, but exclusionary comprehensiveness; it refers more to totality than to unity. As the leading European Islamist Tariq Ramadan explains tawhid, for a right-thinking Muslim, it is literally inconceivable to raise doubts about God. A Muslim, Ramadan explains, might forget, but he cannot doubt.
The trouble with a religion that permits no doubt--unlike Christianity, of which Pope Benedict XVI said that “doubt is the handmaiden of faith”--is that it becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Either Islam regulates the totality of life and thought, such that [no?] questioning may intrude within its magic circle, or it becomes nothing. Islam is inseparable from the traditional life of subject peoples; it cannot find roots in the thin soil of modernity. 

There are a number of points that we can draw from this. First, the similarity of Adonis' thought to that of V. S. Naipaul is immediately apparent. Naipaul, in Among the Believers, describes the way in which Islam destroys traditional cultures (more of that later) with the telling metaphor of “the desert.” Islam, says Naipaul, brings the desert of its origins wherever it spreads: a desertification of the human spirit.

How is this so? Adonis locates the problem in the concept of the “oneness” of God. For Islam, the concept of God is essentially empty: God is no more than a marker, a referent to guarantee the authority of Muhammad. But this empty One God is alone real, much as the Platonic Idea of Being. Any being other than God is created and constantly recreated from moment to moment by God, leaving no room for human freedom. This is Islamic orthodoxy, and Islam itself means precisely “submission” to this schema; the Muslim is God's “slave”--as he must be if his very existence is a series of essentially discontinuous recreations. If the life of the individual, theoretically, possesses no coherent identity or continuity, no more can the corporate life of man, as expressed in culture. “Culture” itself is a vanity, from this viewpoint. Art, music, literature--all is vanity, because it attempts to ape the One God's sole creative power. And importantly, for Islamic orthodoxy, power is the central attribute of this empty One God: since nothing can be known of God from his creation, all that is known is God's brute power, and man's one suitable response to such power is submission. Period. With the exception that Muhammad has given as God's command the injunction to force the submission of all men to that power--to that power as expressed by Muhammad. To spread this spiritual desert. All human creative impulses must, therefore, be submitted to the desert according to Orthodox Islam, and so all revivals of Islam throughout history have returned to this extreme “puritanism,” inspired by the essentially unknowable emptiness of the One God.

The appeal of Islam is clear, from this standpoint. If all are slaves, then all are essentially equal. But beyond that, Muhammad offered something more. As enunciated in the Quran, Islam is basically an ideologization of the Bedouin raiding way of life, a parasitic way of life that feeds off the more advanced cultures. But, whereas the Bedouin of the marginal lands raid and harass the settled peoples, robbing them of their women and belongings, Islam does two things: 1) it extends the scope of raiding to the entire world, and 2) it makes this raiding of the world and enforcement of submission into a command from God--theoretically, the be all and end all of the Muslim (the slave of the One God). This rationalization of what was previously mere opportunistic raiding and plundering, as part of the Bedouin way of life, and its elevation to fulfillment of the One God's will constitutes what I call “ideologization.” Its appeal is to perhaps the lowest instinct in man, the desire to dominate.

In no way can this way of life be termed a “faith.” Faith, in the Christian view, is reasoned belief or trust, and submission of the mind to reason involves dialog with reality--which is ruled out by Islam. Note that for the Christian faith--reasoned belief--is a function of the analogy of being. Because being is analogical rather than univocal, the concept of God is not empty but rather overwhelmingly full--full beyond human comprehension, but not beyond human capacity to at least express the truth of this proposition. And because being is analogical a reasoning creature such as man is able to approach God through reason. For Islam, on the other hand, there can be no role for reason in the submission, enslavement, of the individual to the emptiness of the One God who cannot be known by reason--whose sole claim on man is through power. Islam offers the security of societally enforced conviction--apostasy is punished by death, as is free thought. For the Christian, doubt is a concomitant to the use of reason, just as the centrality of and commitment to reason militates against enforced submission. Spengler is, in this sense, correct to say that Christianity can live with doubt--must, in fact, live with doubt--whereas Islam cannot permit of doubt without self destructing.

The role of Scripture for Christians is also different. Christianity is a response to a person, not to a book. The book, for Christianity, must always be subordinate to the faith from which the book arose--and that faith is embodied in the Church. Important as the early Christian writings of the New Testament are, they are not themselves the faith of the Church--that faith preceded the writings.

Now, Spengler's cryptic comment--”Islam is inseparable from the traditional life of subject peoples; it cannot find roots in the thin soil of modernity”--deserves some comment. This appears to be shorthand for a common theme in Spengler's articles, namely, that Islam is essentially identical with “traditional” cultures of third world nations (i.e., “subject peoples”), what Mircea Eliade calls the culture of “archaic man.” This is not the case. It is true that Islam relates to “traditional life” in a parasitic manner--a life of constant raiding cannot support life. But Islam is also in constant tension with the traditional life that it dominates--for this reason. As both Chesterton and Eliade recognized, “traditional” man has an implicitly realist view of reality, implicitly accepting an analogical view of being. Contrary to the orthodox Islamic view, in which the empty One God is utterly unknowable through creation but only through Muhammad (who commands permanent jihad), archaic man sees reality as participating in divine or heavenly archetypes. This traditional view constantly seeks to reassert itself, and orthodoxy must constantly war against it--this explains the cycle of toleration and suppression of the arts in Islamic countries. As Chesterton understood, Christianity seeks to inspire traditional culture with the substance of faith. Islamic "faith" is no faith at all--it is mere submission to a spiritual desert and a will to dominate. There is no content or substance to inspire art. Christian faith has both content as well as a theoretical basis for that content. Christian faith embraces realist philosophy, the ability of reason to know not only the reality of this world but to relate that reality to the divine wisdom that is its source. Above all, as Chesterton expressed it, Christianity is a “true myth,” a truly lived life (and every life is a story) of a true man, that fulfills the deepest longings of archaic, “traditional,” man. Islam must seek to dominate and suppress “traditional” culture, but Christianity fulfills and inspires “traditional” culture.

And this is the similarity between modernist politics and Islam--as well as why modernist politics must war against Christianity. Like Islam, modernist politics must seek to suppress any appeal to transcendent truth and the cultural expressions of a worldview based on an analogical vision of being.

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