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Religious Certainty and Acts of Terror: Islam and the West

Reader comment on item: What Are Islamic Schools Teaching?

Submitted by David B. Aronin (United States), May 24, 2005 at 20:10

I believe that forms of theological supremacism expressed by many elements of Christianity and Observant Judaism are not very different from those found in many elements of Islam. And therefore that the crucial difference between the effects religious certainty has had on civil order in the West as opposed to that found in Islamic countries lies not in a greater theological relativism - but in the ethic of civic toleration that developed in the west in response to the brutal futility of the religious wars, and has yet to be formally recognized within Islamic culture as a whole.

My reading of Dr Pipes' article though gave me the impression that he found almost as much to be concerned about in the religious certainty expounded in many Islamic schools, particularly in the way that reflected on the beliefs of other faiths, as in any explicit expressions of hatred or incitements to violence. Indeed that expressions of religious certainty of the kind similar to "Islam is true and other faiths are false" - and similar as well to those expressed in many other faiths – were seen to be in themselves to be forms of hatred and incitements to violence. I hope my reading of this is in error.

Body of comments:
The genius of Western civic tolerance is that it traditionally requires only that citizens respect each other as citizens regardless of the deep differences in their world views. What this process does not do or require is that people give up the ethical and conceptual judgments that stem from their deepest commitments, or any actions stemming from those judgments pertaining to questions of whom they choose to associate with and what activities they choose to participate in - so long as they don't in doing so impinge on the civic rights of others. This has been true even when such decisions may imply a negative or disrespectful judgment on the commitments, actions and judgments of others.

Historically such commitments have stemmed from religious faith, in the US, to a large extent they still do. And large and important segments of the major faiths in the US have been and continue to be both triumphalist, and significantly exclusivist in their conceptions of both religious truth in general, and eschatology in particular (see below).* And through most of its history many Americans have lived, gone to school with, befriended, fought and died next to, and sometimes married, those who they did not believe they would see in the World to Come. And every one knew this – as well as the fact that such judgments were "merely" concluded from a prior determination that - your faith - was mostly false - bordering on paganism or idolatry in many cases - if not crossing the line altogether (and that mostly in regard to different denominations of Christianity, let alone other faiths altogether). On the other hand some groups did - and do - largely self-segregate in many important facets of their lives – and practice some degree of gender segregation internally as well. There was for most of that time no "cult of sensitivity and self-esteem" to take the edge off these "hard facts", but somehow civic peace was usually maintained and people managed to grow up, be reasonably good citizens and make satisfactory lives for themselves.

I had thought that the project of reforming Islam was to reproduce - if at all possible - the structure and habits of civic tolerance as they had developed in the west – as sketched out above. But this article seems to be expressing the view that - in the case of Islam and its adherents – it is the - similarly -triumphalist and exclusivist elements of its doctrines that somehow sets it apart, even to the point of providing evidence of possibly intractable inclinations towards violent militancy. But if Western Faiths had been viewed this same way at the inception of the movement towards civic tolerance – or at many points along the way - would that project have even begun? Clearly the Europeans and their American offspring were then just as vehement in their theological differences with each other as Islam is with other Faiths now - and many in the west remain so up through the present – particularly in the US. Do Moslems – unlike westerners – really need to give up their belief in the unique truth of their faith in order to live in civic peace and civic equality with others? Is it inconceivable that they too can simply participate along with other faiths and denominations in a peaceful competition for adherents and influence as theologically incommensurable faiths and denominations have long done in the West? On the other hand, the tone of this article seems to reflect something oddly akin to the kind of general aversion towards expressions of theological certainty that has long been characteristic of the academic left. I hope I am mistaken in this perception.


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