Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Islam and Irrationality

As good as Andrew Sullivan is on torture, that's how bad he is on Islam.

I know he's a smart guy and I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to comparative religion, he's not even making the effort. He has come out early and often in favor of Pope Benedict's recent statements about the need for rationality in Islam (as if virgin births, resurrections and transubstantiations are the model of pure reason). In this post, he buttresses the Pope with the ever-so-deep argument that while Muhammad was a warrior, Jesus never killed anyone. Therefore Christianity is somehow less violent. He failed to mention the bit about the lakes of fire and Jesus returning with the sword to cut down all of wicked humanity, but that's sort of beside the point, isn't it?

A couple of days later he seconds Sam Harris in calling Islam a "pestilential theology". Well, not all of Islam, of course. Only the Islam practiced by "devout Muslims". Nothing offensive there.

Then, in a post about Iranian president Ahmadinejad, he says this:
In a religion like Islam, where reason has been eclipsed for a very long time, the absence of oxygen for the doubt that makes faith both real and reasonable is acute.
Now, apart from the absurd use of "reason" in the same sentence as "religion", Sullivan manages to say that the Muslim faith is neither real nor reasonable. I'll back him up on the second point (if he concedes Christianity, too), but to say that the faith of Muslims is not "real" is unbelievably offensive and, worse, patently condescending.

Not content to let that gem be the final word, Sullivan chimed in yesterday with a grotesque quote from a sermon by a Hamas religious figure that seems to threaten the Pope's life (although, ever quick to judge, Sullivan never considers the equally plausible interpretation that Benedict's cruel fate lies in the next world). After a few paragraphs of blather from the Hamas cleric, Andrew sums it up with his now-all-too-typical sneer:
Ah, yes, a threat of murdering the Pope with scriptural backing. But Islam is all about peace, right?
Let me let you in on a secret, Andrew: No religion is the religion of peace. How naive are you? And how can you hope to have that deep discussion about religion and society you want to have when you're so busy spouting off ignorant one-liners?

Now, Hamas is a well-known extremist organization. If the results of the Palestinian election are any indication, they represent the views of 44% of the 3.5 million (to be generous) Palestinians. That's about 1.5 million, if you're counting. Is it reasonable, do you think, to say that the views of 1.5 million people—people who live on and are routinely crushed by the fault lines where Islam and politics meet—fairly represents those of all the Muslims the world over? No, but fairness isn't what Sullivan's after, despite his great appeal to rationality.

Just yesterday morning, as luck would have it, NPR ran a long story (audio available here) on a rare interview granted by the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis. The Ismailis are the world's 2nd-biggest sect of Shiite Muslims, with between 15 and 20 million adherents. Andrew Sullivan has written about Hamas dozens of times on his blog. He has, as best as I can determine, never once written about the Aga Khan or the Ismailis. Is it because he doesn't know who they are, or because they don't fit into the hang-the-Pope mold Sullivan wants to promote?

As luck would have it (again), the Aga Khan's topic was ignorance of Islam. We are not in a clash of civilizations, he said, but a "a clash of ignorance". And how does he hope to promote the positive understanding of Islam in the world? "The answer lies in the expanding role of civil society." That would be music to Sullivan's ears, if only he could hear it. My fear is that he's just not listening for those moderate voices he so claims to want to hear. Do yourself a favor and listen to the whole story (linked above).

I'm not for a moment suggesting that there aren't horrendous elements in Islam today, but I'm pretty sure the way to address it is not to have the most prominent leader of the Christian world spouting off about how bloodthirsty Muhammad was. The best way to foster the kind of dialog the Pope says he wants and Andrew Sullivan champions is to engage the moderates. Unfortunately, you can't do that if you convince yourself, against the available evidence, that they don't exist.

What Sullivan does, essentially, is to throw up his hands because Hamas, of all people, just won't listen. How rational, to use his pet term, is that? You're not going to start there. You need to marginalize the wackos. In America, would you try to convince Pat Robertson to mend his ways or would you instead support the alternatives to his odious theology and hope to convince regular people not to buy into his brand of extremism? The same thing needs to happen in parts of the Muslim world, and the best thing people in the West can do is lift the veil of ignorance that shrouds us like a comfortable blanket of cultural superiority.

Generally speaking, the religious extremism of an area is in direct proportion to how screwed up it is socially and politically (that's probably playing a little fast and loose with anthropology, but it's not all wrong). There's a reason why people from Iceland and Scandinavia tend toward moderate Christianity and the bulk of weeping Virgin Mary statues and Jesus-shaped edibles come from less advantaged locales—and it's not all culture. It's economics and politics as well. For a similar mix of reasons, Islam is expressed differently in Saudi Arabia and, say, Indonesia. Our first mistake would be to assume there's no difference. And our second would follow directly from the first.
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