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The intrinsic character of Islam

Reader comment on item: [Moderate] Voices of Islam

Submitted by Enoch Wisner (United States), Sep 24, 2003 at 09:06

I am not a student of Islam. I have, however, lived in the Middle East, and my exposure to Muslims has, at least, afforded me a basis for some impressions respecting their religion.

Perhaps most notable of these impressions is what I can best describe as the period specificity of the Q'ran. "Moby Dick" is a period-specific novel: one can hardly read it without feeling one's self transported to the mid-19th century, and to become a part of that era as one reads. "Murders in the Rue Morgue," though written in the same period, could as easily refer to the mid-20th century as the mid-19th, Poe's peculiar style notwithstanding. Plato cannot be read without a sense of history, although Aristotle (exclusive of his scientific observations) is timeless. The Q'ran, too, seems to have been written in a style inseparable from the period which inspired it, and so cannot be understoodoutside that context absent a liberal interpretation.

Of the religions and their texts that are familliar to me, the Q'ran is unique in this period specificity. Judaism most nearly belongs to this category because of the frame of reference established in the Temple service, except that the Mishnah and Talmud have afforded a viable construction of religious conduct divorced from place. The only form of Jewish zealotry at all analogous to militant Islam belongs to the breed of Zionist that considers the reconstruction of the Temple and the reisntitution of its service within the immediate power of human agency, and these Jews do not belong to the universe popularly described as the "Ultra-orthodox." Indeed, these "reconstruction Zionists" are generally considered to be on the marginal fringe of Jewish orthodoxy by the vast majority of orthodox Jews. None of the ideological references in Christianity are period specific, nor are those of any of the other major world religions.

Islam's reference, however, is to a time and place largely informed by an almost Hobbesian social condition. Whereas the Mosaic expression of the Lex Talionis is mitigated in the Talmudic laws of witnesses, torts, cities of refuge and seven-year cycles of the forgiveness of debt and obligation, Islamic law knows no such nuance: its laws reflect directly the severe brutality of life in general in the 7th century Arabian pennisula. A literalist reading of the Q'ran, therefore, must imagine a social context conformable with its laws; and, as its laws belong to the 7th century Arabian penninsula, so must the society in which it operates.

Life in the 7th century was very much a yes-or-no, black-and-white, life-or-death experience, and this character is clearly reflected in the Q'ran. Such clarity is especially seductive to those trying to navigate their lives through a fog of circumstances beyond their control, or where moral conduct is complicated by a sea of competing moral premises -- or in the absence of any clear moral structure at all. Life in the modern, industrialized world, however, is necessarily complex and tolerant of difference. A religious or ethical structure that demands 7th century simpicity cannot coexist with modern diversity, variety and the uncertainties entailed in these. Most dangerous of all, to the degree that its simplicity is vested in divine clothing, nuance and tolerance must necessarily be heretical. Add to this a fundamentally evengelical, univeralsist quality, and Islam becomes as great a threat to modernity as there are Muslims who construe Islam in its literal meaning.

There is no deliberate remedy for the threats and challenges presented by fundamentalist Muslims. One can no more dilute literalist Islam by fostering its liberal streams than one can overwhelm the Church of Rome by encouraging the liberal Episcopal church in the United States. Only in such influence as a predominantly liberal society can impose is there any chance of opposing fundamentalist Islam with a force it cannot overcome. The fundamentalist Muslims know this, and it is the basis for their inveterate hatered of the United States, for the US, its diversity and tolerance (i.e., its classical liberal foundation) has proven successful, in a Darwinian sense, beyond anyone's wildest imaginings. In the US (as in all places strongly influenced by its model), complexity and diversity have proven themselves strengths, not weaknesses; and this, against the literalist Islamic model, is fundamentally heretical. So absolutely incompatible are these two, it cannot be that both may be allowed to survive in the same universe, but one must die that the other may live.

Fundamentalist Muslims know this from the example of other religion's fundamentalists in the US: all have been forced to make their peace with US society, and in every case this peace has been predicated on religious compromise. In real terms, it was not so very long ago that our own Puritan fathers used stock and pillory, dunking chairs and witch-boards (in which a suspected witch was crushed to death under a board laden, one by one, with stones) in cases of religious unorthodoxy or mere suspicion of the same. Today, such purists are extinct, and the nearest equivalent in their place are forced to concede that even self-proclaimed witches have the same rights and protections at law as they have -- and, consequently, as much right to live and thrive as they. Fundamentalist Muslims know that the same fate awaits their construction of Islam, and that the US influence is so far-reaching that no mountaintop will afford their religious contruction safe haven.

Fundamentaist Muslims recognize that their faith has reached such a juncture that they have no choice but to kill of be killed -- and they understand this choice as literally as it is expressed. We, in the US (and in as much of the world as holds similar values), prefer to contrue "kill or be killed" as a verdict pronounced upon our competing systems, and not as alternatives referring directly to the individual. We can afford this construction only when our opposite construes the alternatives similarly: as 9-11 has demonstrated, however, our opposite contrues these alternatives quite personally. In the end, it is the survival of systems that will decide the victor in this struggle, and there is no hope for fundamentalist Islam in this struggle. In the meantime, however, we must admit to having a determined and desperate mortal foe, one which represents a very real threat to every individual life its reach and grasp can take. In the meantime, we must construe our choice as literally as our opponant: kill or be killed. We must take this approach because to fail is to forfeit our right to victory: the liberty which defines our liberal society belongs to the individual who, if we do not defend his individual life, in being undefended gives the lie to the very premises upon which the justice of our struggle depends.

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