Here in the U.S., when we’re not marveling over F-16 fighter footage, squinting at grainy green-tinted flashes of light over the Kabul skyline, or counting anthrax victims, more and more of us are spending our time in our parlors and our drawing rooms pondering the superiority of our culture. (I’m rather fond of Western post-Enlightenment culture myself, at least bits of it; I especially like video games, cartoons, gangster movies, and Chinese food.)
So all the pundits are holding forth on the culture clash between “modernity” and “Islam,” and Salon has an interesting take on this topic today: in the article “Islam: Religion of the Sword?” (registration required, but see if you can guess my username and password), author Richard D. Connerney argues that violence (specifically, the concept of jihad, which he defines variously) and Islam go hand in hand, uniquely among the world’s major religions. “In the world today, the locus of most religious violence is the Muslim world,” he says. Furthermore, “The fact of Muslim military might is the rock on which the entire community of the faithful is erected,” he says, because the Islamic religion and the Islamic Caliphate emerged more or less simultaneously, and are ultimately inseparable. Because Judaism and Christianity are (presumably) not so entangled with the affairs of any nations, they have been free to pursue a path of tolerance and liberalism. Let me see if I can reconstruct his argument:
- A religion that develops distinctly from a nation-state is necessarily a more tolerant and less violent religion than one that does not.
- Islam the religion, from its inception, has never existed without the Islamic state.
- Therefore, Islam has an inherent tendency towards intolerance and violence. Christianity, to pick an example, does not.
He bolsters his argument by listing various quotations from the Qu’ran such as “Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it” then backing off by admitting that the Qu’ran is ambiguous and self-contradictory at times. He also mentions that both the Jewish and Christian religions existed for quite some time before association with any particular state, Christianity for a whopping 300 years. Finally, he posits that the lack of Western-style democracies in the contemporary Muslim world implies some kind of cultural incompatibility between Islam and democracy (pop quiz: compare and contrast the Iranian government before and after 1953). Anyway, let’s play devil’s advocate to his argument. Point two is unquestionably true; the Islamic Caliphate spread itself through central Asia, south Asia, southern Europe, and North Africa primarily via military conquest. The problem with the argument is that you can’t get to point three unless you take point one on faith; and if you believe point one, then you absolutely must have spent history class passing notes or smoking behind the band hall.
Kids who paid attention may remember that the last four or five centuries were characterized by European imperial expansion, most often in the name of God, specifically, God, father of Jesus Christ. That’s not important to Connerney, though, and this might become more clear if I reformulate his argument like so:
- One’s material and social conditions are a direct result of the inherent failings or strengths of one’s culture.
- I am a liberal Christian, and I live in a prosperous liberal democracy.
- Many of the world’s Muslims live under repressive, theocratic governments, beset by warfare and poverty.
- I win.
Anyway, and I’m sure Connerney would agree, it’s easier to drop quotes and scatter bits of evidence than to formulate a cogent argument, so I’m going to end this tirade with two quotes, the first from former U.S. president William McKinley, speaking of his decision to invade the Philippines and take it as spoils for the Spanish-American War:
I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And late one night it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came:
That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed to sleep and slept soundly.
Finally, a quote from an Islamic philosopher of the 9th century A.D. (or C.E.), al-Kindi:
We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself.