paleo Ideofact

Friday, May 16, 2003
Xavier Basora of the Buscaraons sends a bilingual email (actually, I thought it read fairly well, so I'm not going to translate the French phrase):
Yes and no is my response to your post on medieval Moslem tolerence. Yes you're quite right that medieval Christanity was fighting schims and heresies; treated the Jews abominally. However, you downplay the dimmitude too much.

To state it coldly, the Moslems didn't need to persecute overtly -- the odd jihad might be lauched pour encourager les autres of Moselm dominance- the psychological trauma of the dhimmitude was far more effective in keeping the people of the book in line than the Inquisition.
Fatimah at Disaffected Muslim has a lengthy post on the subject of dhimmitude as well (it's her May 16 post -- blogger's archives are still down).

I'll have to think about Xavier's point, which is really interestingly phrased. I'll try to respond over the weekend.

Thursday, May 15, 2003
A note on the caliphate
I liked this story, recounted in The Political Language of Islam, by Bernard Lewis:
With the decline in the effective power of the line of caliphs, the title khalifa also suffered a process of devaluation. In time it ceased to connote sovereignty or indeed to connote any kind of effective authority. This is already clear in the last centuries of the 'Abassid caliphate in Baghdad, and the process was completed after the destruction of the caliphate in Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 and the establishment of a sort of puppet caliphate in Mamluk Cairo. But even before these events, the transfer of effective power from the caliphs to other rulers was recognized and in a sense formalized, and when the 'Abassid caliph al-Nasir attempted to reassert some political authority for the caliphs against the military rulers, this was regarded as a usurpation. In 1194, according to the Persian historian Ravandi, the military leaders, complaining of the caliph's action, addressed the populace as follows: "If the caliph is the Imam, then his constant occupation must be prayer, since prayer is the foundation of the faith and the best of deeds. His preeminence is this respect and the fact that he serves as an example for the people is sufficient for him. This is the true sovereignty; the interference of the caliph in the affairs of government is senseless; they should be entrusted to the sultans."
This sounds rather like a separation of Mosque and State.

A while back, I posted some comments on Lewis' work What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, which I titled, "Asking the Wrong Question." I noted,
...the question in my mind isn't so much what went wrong in the Islamic world, but what went right in the European world.
At the time, I thought the technological progress made in the West was crucial; I still do. Briefly, the technological revolution was aimed not just at the top of society, but at the bottom as well. A twelth century account of the way water power was employed in a Cistercian Monastery to run mills, beat flax, and do quite a few other things as well, contains this interesting observation:
How many horses would be worn out, how many men would have weary arms if this graceful river, to whom we owe our clothes and food, did not labor for us?
Developing labor saving devices was a Medieval preoccupation, and there was something of a religious motivation for it. Of course, I don't mean to suggest a prime mover -- culture is complicated, history more so.

One of the things I have noticed though -- a sort of leitmotif running through modern thought in much of the Islamic world -- is that, whether the subject is Arab nationalism, Islamism, the "secular" Ba'ath movement, the monarchies -- there is a tendency toward the exclusion of other views. The modern Arab and Muslim thinkers and polemicists I've encountered, whether it be Sayyid Qutb or Sati' al-Husri, reject any sort of pluralism. It is one vision, one path to salvation. Everything else is an abomination. Qutb goes so far as to reject 13 centuries of Islamic history -- and the believers who made that history -- as a period of error. Al-Husri's definition of "Arab" encompasses Kurds, Berbers, Chaldeans and anyone else who happened to fall within the borders he imagined for his Arab national homeland; those who disagreed were simply denying the truth of their Arab identity.

There is nothing unique to Islam or Arabs about this kind of approach to the world. On the contrary, I tend to think it is something of the norm in human history, at least where power is at stake.

A recent post I read over at Disaffected Muslim sparked some thoughts. In her May 14 post, Hopelessly Ignorant Apologists for Islam, Muslim vs. Western Worldviews, etc. (yes, blogger's archives are down), Fatima writes,
Sometimes one will come across someone who will extoll the tolerance, high culture and harmony of Islamic culture, often in Andalusia, Spain, but also in Baghdad, Cairo, India, etc. However, when confronted with facts that perhaps it wasn't a Utopian paradise, said evidence is simply ignored. In fact, you will sometimes get a rant about how "bigoted" and "racist" you are for mentioning these less-than-pleasant facts.

While Muslims sometimes act like this, I'm thinking more of the non-Muslim apologists, who sometimes seem to have such a high opinion of Islam and its history as the brightest, most dynamic, most tolerant culture ever, that one wonders why they don't just run down to their nearest mosque and pronounce the Shahada (the profession of faith that makes one a Muslim). While this does happen once in a great while, it doesn't happen nearly enough to account for most of the new-found "fans" of Islam.

Of course it really has nothing to do with Islam, it has to do with feeling self-righteous, more tolerant and more enlightened than others who don't have such a rosy picture of Islam, as evidenced by the willful blindness to anything that contradicts the perfect picture. And the fact that it is Islam that is the subject doesn't mean much either; it just happens to be the culture-du-jour from being in the news so much. It could just as easily be about African, Chinese, or Indian culture.

Another more sinister reason for these views is, bluntly, as a sledgehammer to whack away at Western civilization and culture, and since Islam has traditionally been the "enemy of the West," locked in countless struggles with Europe, it is the perfect weapon. I find the most ironic part of the whole thing to be the fact that the apologists, while bashing at the West with Islam, constantly attribute modern Western values to medieval Muslims, such as freedom of religion, peaceful coexistence of all religious groups, freedom of inquiry and speech, women's rights, nonviolence (jihad as "peaceful struggle") and the like. Even while trashing everything the West stands for, they can't get far enough away from Western values and thought-patterns to see that Muslim views on the above are very different and come from a worldview 180 degrees opposed to theirs, instead acting as if Muslims were just Westerners at heart who just happen to have different clothes and prayer rituals.
And it goes on from there. From time to time, I have noted that I largely agree with Bernard Lewis' assessment that, compared to their Christian contemporaries (who expelled or killed Jews, launched Crusades against heretical sects and so on), medieval Muslims were far more tolerant of minorities, who had legal standing and were protected. Islamic tolerance of the medieval type falls far short of the kind of equality that came out of the American Revolution, or the kind of tolerance that appeared in Europe during the Enlightenment, but it is not at all insignificant that Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain found refuge and created a flourishing culture in the Ottoman Balkans. I would not suggest that this means that the Ottoman Empire is the equal of the United States, or that anything in historical Islamic polities is the equal of the Declaration, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. But I am also aware that the West hasn't been free of the same sort of lunacy that currently infects elements of the Islamic world. The Holocaust was a European phenomenon; the October 1917 coup by the Bolsheviks gave us modern totalitarianism; Marx's crackpot readings of Darwin and economics gave us a system that killed over a hundred million people.

The whole post is worth reading and pondering, and I've bookmarked her blog.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Minor update
I corrected something in the post immediately below, and Aziz offers his thoughts over at Shi'a Pundit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
Minor essay
I have assiduously avoided posting on the recent controversy that provoked the post (although I did privately communicate with a very few of those involved), but part of the discussion prompted by Diana Moon's defense sparked my interest. Aziz Poonawalla wrote, in one of the comments,
I'm a fanaticaly patriotic American. I havent figured out 100% how to integrate these identities [American and Muslim], but its an ongoing process.
Diana responded, in part,
Integrating an American identity with an Islamic one must be tough. The two systems of thought are so radically different. I wish you luck. But from my perspective there is one that must prevail: the American one. By that I don't mean you should give up your Islamic identity, only that it must stay private, and not impinge on mine.

Where Islam conflicts with American ideals, Islam must give way. Since Islam believes that it is the perfectly realized faith, and cannot be tampered with, it sets up a cognitive dissonance in the mind of a believer that cannot be rationally reconciled.
Aziz wrote back:
I perceive no dissonance - the only challenge is assigning priorities to responsibilities.
Actually, I lean more toward Diana's opinion on this one, but this is oversimplifying my opinion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer of prose which is almost effortless to read (a fact that masks the considerable craft employed, and often the profundity of the thought behind it) wrote in the opening paragraphs of his brief essay The Crack-Up,
...let me make a general observation -- the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
My one quibble with Fitzgerald is the modifier "first-rate"; I think the predicate is the test solely of intelligence, and not necessarily a first-rate one.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all have to cope with moments in which our identities clash. I was born in the 1960s, when one party controlled the legislative and executive branch of government; the same situation held in the latter 1970s, again for two years in the early 1990s, and since the 2002 elections, for the past few months. For a partisan Democrat today, or a partisan Republican of yesteryear, recognizing the government as his government, while simultaneously believing that the party in power in that government is pursuing wrongheaded policies, requires the ability to function with something of a cognitive dissonance. Yet tens of millions of Democrats did not refuse to file their income tax returns last April 15, just as tens of millions of Republicans did not in 1993 or 1994, let alone pursue more drastic steps such as emigrating, or taking up arms against their duly elected officials.

As recently as the 1960 election, there were questions raised as to whether a Catholic who owed religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome could also be President of the United States. And I recall a recent pre-debate story that went beyond wondering about the implications of Lieberman balancing his faith with the rigors of a campaign:
In fact, the reason the debate on ABC News is starting so late on Saturday night, past many newspaper deadlines and considerably later than other candidates would have liked, is because Mr. Lieberman will not take his seat until after the sun has set and he has completed his weekly observance of the Jewish  Sabbath.

There has been much speculation, even among Mr. Lieberman's closest aides, about whether the nation is prepared to elect its first Jewish president next year beyond questions like whether Mr. Lieberman is too conservative for voters in Democratic primaries.
This story, by the way, appeared in the New York Times, not exactly a fringe publication.

Of course, we subject those running for President to a much more exacting test than our citizens (and rightly so, although Nixon's response to the religious issue is worth quoting):
I have no doubt whatever about Senator Kennedy's loyalty to his country and about the fact that, if he were elected President, that he would put the Constitution of the United States above any other consideration. I believe that he, as a Member of Congress, has followed this standard. I believe he would follow that standard as President. I don't believe, in other words, there is a religious issue as far as Senator Kennedy is concerned.
It seems to me that it is difficult to balance one's religious views with the demands of citizenship in a secular state. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin fretted over whether the Quakers, who were important players in Pennsylvania politics at the time, would ever authorize the sending of troops to defend the colony in the various skrimishes against the French. (As I recall, enough took their civic duties seriously enough to ensure Pennsylvanians would fight.) Those Friends who supported sending troops, those who went themselves, were forced to choose between their religious convictions, which I imagine were sincere, and demands of their American identity.*

Diana argues that Islam, as she understands it, is incompatible with American ideals, and where there is conflict, Islam must give way. I think Islam is more complex than her characterization of it. There are certainly aspects of the religion that trouble me, but I find that, like Christianity or Judaism, there is much good in it as well. Diana suggests that the "cognitive dissonance" cannot be rationally reconciled; I believe the dissonance is absolutely necessary, can be reconciled only through reason, and further, only through this cognitive dissonance will the Islamists, who refuse to admit a second, opposed idea into their minds, be routed.

But this begins to touch on subjects that are better left for another post.

*--Correction: There's a reason I end up with piles of books around the computer when I blog -- if I don't have them at hand, I make mistakes. In his Autobiography, Franklin does lament the Friends' Principle that "no kind of war was lawful," and he recalls that James Logan, a Friend who served in the Assembly, argued that defensive war was consistent with the Principle (which led to the raising of money for a military action), but I couldn't find any indication that the Friends went off to fight.