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Sunday, July 25, 2010

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I want to thank you, Peter, for your challenge to me, or, as I prefer to see it, your invitation to me to answer the question you pose: “Does Islam as a religion promote the values of liberalism, toleration, and the Western way of life?” And I want to thank Bill for providing you with the space to pose it and me with the space to respond.

Let me begin by granting you and Bill that, were I to succumb to the temptation to give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer to the question, it would be “No.” I will not, however, give a simple answer to the question, because the question is itself complex. Nor will I or can I give it a complete answer. I will only be able to give the beginning of a complex answer.

Before, however, dealing with the question directly, I think I should comment on your “So it seems that Prof. Hennessey conclusively refuted Bill’s statement. Did he?” Please understand that my point was not just that his statements were wrong, if given the obvious, if (as he indicated) uncharitable, interpretation that I gave them. Rather, the point was that he, eminently capable philosopher that he is, should be aware of the need to avoid the ambiguity of unguarded assertions like “Muslims aren't very 'liberal,' are they?” He shouldn’t have to rely on his reader being charitable enough to supply the requisite quantifier, so that the assertion is understood to mean, “At least some Muslims aren't very liberal,” rather than “No Muslims are very liberal.” Or, perhaps better, if he meant radical or militant Muslims and not Muslims tout court, he should have supplied the requisite qualification, saying, “Radical Muslims aren't very 'liberal,' are they?” or “Militant Muslims aren't very 'liberal,' are they?”

Now, the question, “Does Islam as a religion promote the values of liberalism, toleration, and the Western way of life?” As I said above, the question is complex. This is because, among other things, the subject of the sentence, “Islam,” is in the singular, thus assuming that there is but one religion under consideration. There are, however, many Islams, just as there are many Christianities. There are, as you are well aware, Sunnis and there are Shiites, both of which groupings contain sub-groupings of various inclinations. There are Sufis, both among the Sunnis and among the Shiites, and there are those who look askance, to put it mildly, at the Sufis. There are reformers who, rather like Reformation Protestants, seek to return their religion to its scriptural foundations and get rid of the, as they see it, distortions that have become part of the traditional Islam over the centuries. And there are those who, attached to tradition, resist those efforts. Finally, more to the point at hand, there are liberal Muslims as well as conservative Muslims. There are, for example, Shiite clerics among those who have resisted the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran, some, though by no means all, of whom are as liberal, as tolerant, and as interested in, say, inter-religious understanding, as the liberal priests and ministers who often trouble their more conservative Christian co-religionists.

Closer to home, there are genuinely liberal American Muslims who subscribe to the views expressed so well by Reza Aslan in his No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House, 2006). I can say the Islam to which they and Aslan profess allegiance is an Islam that does indeed “promote the values of liberalism, toleration, and the Western way of life” and promotes them as the values of Islam itself. I can’t say that of the Islam, or the Islams, of many others. Thus my talk of quantifiers.

I can agree with at least some of what Bill says about radical or militant Muslims, as opposed to Muslims without the very important qualifiers. I am opposed to religious fanaticism and, on the other hand, devoted to the “Enlightenment values” to which Bill, rightly, opposes those of radical or militant Muslims, though even here more care should be used in specifying which Enlightenment values we share and which values of radical or militant Muslims we oppose.

It seems, then that at the end of the day Bill and I further agree that some but not all Muslims are not “very ‘liberal,’” some but not all are “intolerant in their attitudes and their behavior,” and some but not all are “work[ing] to undermine our way of life.” But yet I worry and I have to struggle to muster up all the charity I can when I read the closing paragraph of his “Addendum,” in which he moves so smoothly from an acceptably nuanced expression of his concerns about “radical Islam” to speaking about “Muslims,” without qualification and without those precious quantifiers; giving him the last word:

Just at the threat to the West in the 20th century was Communism, the threat to the West in the 21st is radical Islam. Both are totalitarian and internationalist. Both are extremely skillful in recruiting young fanatic followers. In one way the threat posed by militant Islam is far more dangerous than that posed by the Commies. The Commies, being atheists and materialists, had a good reason not to deploy their nukes. Muslims have no such reason. (And it seems clear that they will soon be getting nukes thanks to Obama the Appeaser.) They are eager to move on to their crude paradise wherein they will disport endlessly with black-eyed virgins and get to wallow in the sensuousness that is forbidden them here.

Dr. Hennessey,

Likewise, I wish to thank you for taking the time to engage in this very important topic.

I wish first to put on the table a principle that I find very compelling: “Morality Trumps Complexity”. That is, while most historical phenomena, ideologies, and religions are by their very nature complex, at the end of the day we must in some cases bypass these complex explanations and pass a judgment on their moral character and merit. For instance, we may examine and study for many years Nazi ideology and the conditions that lead to the rise of Nazism specifically in Germany and some other countries. But the complexity of these conditions cannot exempt us from concluding that Nazism is an evil ideology and, thus, morally condemning Germany during the 1930s and 1940s for succumbing to such an evil ideology. I do not feel that making such judgments stems from succumbing to the temptation of simplistic thinking. I rather see the insistence upon such judgments in certain cases as preserving the ultimate integrity of morality even while acknowledging the complexity of the situations so judged.

The fundamental question that your last post raises is whether the issues presently under consideration merit invoking the principle of morality-trumps-complexity. Bill I suspect thinks that the current state of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West requires us to invoke the morality-trumps-complexity principle. I believe that Bill’s statements which you found objectionable previously and in the third paragraph of you present post are motivated by Bill’s insistence that it is time to invoke the morality-trumps-complexity principle. You seem to resist invoking this principle and this resistance emerges clearly in your response to my original question; the question of whether you think that Islam as a religion promotes the values of liberalism, toleration, and a Western way of life. You say:

“Let me begin by granting you and Bill that, were I to succumb to the temptation to give a simple “Yes” or “No” answer to the question, it would be “No.” I will not, however, give a simple answer to the question, because the question is itself complex. Nor will I or can I give it a complete answer. I will only be able to give the beginning of a complex answer.”

I side with Bill on this question. However, I am certainly interested to hear why you think that the current state of the Muslim world and its relationship to the West does not justify invoking the principle I proposed. So I think this is an issue worth discussing openly.

Now, when you address my question directly (beginning in the fourth paragraph) you seem to invoke the converse principle to the one I have mentioned above; namely, the principle that “complexity-trumps-morality.” You note that “There are, however, many Islams, just as there are many Christianities” and many trends among Muslims that “seek to return their religion to its scriptural foundations and get rid of the, as they see it, distortions that have become part of the traditional Islam over the centuries.”

But these observations, even if true, cannot remove what I see as our obligation to render a judgment on the dominant trend currently in fashion in the Muslim world. So we need to render a judgment whether the dominant trend among all of these factions promotes an anti-liberal, anti-tolerant, and anti-Western ideology. Do you deny that the current dominant trend in the Muslim world features these attitudes? Moreover, even those elements in the Muslim world who oppose a militant attitude towards the West (e.g., the Saudi Royal Rulers) do so only because a militant approach to the West undermines their own strategy which prefers a much more stealthy approach to achieve the very same ends.

I also wonder whether the “scriptural foundations” to which the reformers wish to return Islam are perhaps not as accommodating, liberal, and tolerant as some might hope. So this subject is also an interesting topic for discussion. And perhaps we might discuss in this connection the important historical fact that Democracy, The Enlightenment, Humanism, and Scientific Methodology did not emerge in the Muslim world and did not take hold in it even today.

Finally, you express a deep unease about a passage in Bill’s “Addendum” in which “he moves so smoothly from an acceptably nuanced expression of his concerns about “radical Islam” to speaking about “Muslims,” without qualification and without those precious quantifiers;”

The unfortunate facts are that (i) “radical Islam” is the most visible, dominant, and leading ideology currently in fashion in the Muslim world; (ii) there appears to be no equally visible, concentrated, and efficacious effort in the Muslim world to condemn this ideology without reservations and qualifications (like, for instance, Nazism was openly and visibly condemned in the Western World during WWII without reservations and qualifications); and (iii) while the majority of Muslims have no inclination to join the “radical Islamic” movement and become active in its violent activities, they are to varying degrees sympathetic to its ideology, goals, and even methods; note, for instance, the well documented fact that after 9/11 many Muslims in the so-called moderate countries were jubilantly dancing in the streets. What do you think explains this strange phenomenon?

Bill’s “smooth” movement from “radical Islam” to Muslims in general “without qualification and without those precious quantifiers” is I believe a legitimate protest against facts (i)-(iii) noted above (among many others some of which were mentioned previously in the present post) and a warning that it is time that people in the Western World render a moral judgment about the attitude of the Muslim world towards them and their culture. It is I believe a genuine and justified concern that unless such a judgment is made soon, Western Culture will collapse under the pressure of radical Islam, the silent acquiescence of the rest of the Muslim world, and the ambivalence and inaction of the West.

It is in this context, I think, we need to assess Bill’s statements that engendered such concern on your part. I invite you to address the underlying concerns which I have enumerated above and which I believe motivate Bill’s statements. For unless these concerns are openly, directly, and boldly addressed, there is not going to be a serious and fruitful discussion of these issues.

It is with great interest that I follow this thread.

Professor Hennessey makes a powerful point when he writes, "He [Bill, the Maverick Philosopher] shouldn’t have to rely on his reader being charitable enough to supply the requisite quantifier [...]" I think that Bill would ultimately grant that point being, as he is, quite demanding about the precision of expression. Bill and I share a mutual admiration for Schopenhauer, who once wrote that great writing is like a Swiss lake, which reveals its depth by virtue of its clarity. I hope to aspire to merely a mildly disturbed pond in this response.

So I speculate that what lies behind Bill's original, less-than-perfectly-qualified expression is a sense of frustration. This frustration is a significant, modern-day phenomenon that I believe deserves a name. I will here call it "Islam Fatigue" (IF).

In my treatment of IF I do not necessarily endorse all of its sentiments, but I believe that I have identified something which, if properly understood, is an important factor in countless discussions about Islam.

IF is a complex, ever growing phenomenon that seems to encompass a number of sentiments. Included in IF are the following:

(a) "The Surfeit": The sense that Islam and related subjects are demanding too much of our attention right now and are dominating too much discourse, and that this state of affairs promises only to become much worse before it gets better. It is becoming increasingly difficult to be indifferent to and to ignore Islam in an ever increasing number of areas including physical space, intellectual space, moral space, political space, and religious space. Many people are simply becoming "tired of" Islam.

(b) "Death by a Thousand Qualifications": The sense that any discussion about Islam and related subjects demands an endless series of tedious, mandatory qualifiers every time they are discussed and that if the qualifiers are not used, one will generally not be given the benefit of the doubt in their absence. Additionally, there is the sense that in the presence of all of the necessary qualifiers, Islam becomes impossible to define and therefore impossible to discuss (this is inspired by the point that Lupu was making above).

(c) "The Bigot": The sense that, by criticizing Islam, the Quran, Muhammad, or Islamic behavior through history, one will be seen by a significant amount of people thereby as a religious bigot.

(d) "The Transformation": The sense that Islam, on the basis of its growth and increasing influence, will cause a fundamental change in the way the world works in the future. There is some unease among non-Muslims about this possibility; indeed, there is unease among some Muslims, as well.

(e) "Jurisprudence": The worry that Shariah may be essential, or at least extremely important, to Islam in general, with the corresponding worry that a widespread separation of mosque and state may be awesomely difficult or even impossible to achieve in Islam.

(f) "The Double Standard": The sense that, especially in contrast with Christianity, Islam benefits from a large number of double standards that make reasoned and profitable discussion frustratingly difficult.

(g) "Knowledge is Acceptance": The sense that there is a ubiquitous, unquestioned assumption that learning more about Islam is a guarantee that one will cease finding it problematic. This assumption leads to the reflexive response to criticism of Islam that the critic, by virtue of his critical attitude, is deficient in knowledge; however, the general principle that negative attitudes toward religions and ideologies is necessarily the product of ignorance is a principle that is false since counterexamples are readily available.

I think that some combination of these factors goes some way to explaining the frustration that many people often express when discussing Islam and related subjects. They are so powerful, in fact, that they lead people to make the conscious decision not to discuss these topics at all for fear of some kind of negative repercussions. Did I consider not discussing them in this very post...?

First, to Peter.

Please drop the “Dr.”; who cares? I prefer “Richard” or even “Dick,” with or without the definite or indefinite article. And I ask that Bill and Michael refrain from “Professor”; again, who cares?

There is something to the “principle” which you find ‘very compelling,” that “Morality Trumps Complexity.” It is quite simply just true that, in some cases, in the absence of even a moderately full understanding of the complexities of our circumstances, we must make a judgment, we must decide, and we must act. Not in all cases, however, and acting may have its dangers, just as not doing so may; it’s a matter of prudential judgment.

Now Bill may well think that it is time to act, to do something, faced with, say, as he thinks we are, Muslims seeking to “undermine our way of life.” If so, he’ll still want to ask, “To do what?” and “To or with whom?” And his answers to these questions will very much depend on whether he sees, for instance, all Muslims, or Muslims qua Muslims, to be engaged in “undermining our way of life.” If he were to believe that, on the contrary, many Muslims are supportive of “our way of life,” then he might seek to make common cause with those who are supportive of “our way of life” against those seek to undermine it.

You say, “I invite you to address the underlying concerns which I have enumerated above and which I believe motivate Bill’s statements.” I appreciate the invitation, but the list is long. And, given my penchant for pedantry and luxuriating in complexity, were I to begin to work my way through it, I’d never get back to the philosophical topics I really feel I need to explore in Gnosis and Noesis and elsewhere, including, Bill willing, in The Maverick Philosopher. So, I think I’ll beg off.

Then, to Michael: I think your taking notice of and spelling out of the phenomenon of "Islam Fatigue" is right on tnhe mark and powerful. I couldn’t agree more. I believe, in fact, that I have seen it in my classes.

Mike,

Your comment above is an impressive piece of analysis. You should consider extending it with examples into a separate article. Here are a few comments.

"Knowledge as Acceptance." Your point is generalizable. Leftists too, who often work in cahoots with Islamists, often display the attitude that if people only understood their positions, then they would accept them. Many in the Democrat Party, for example, think that their problem is that 'they are not getting their message out.' They seem not to appreciate that conservatives understand leftist positions well enough; it is just that they reject them and the values that underpin them.

"Jurisprudence." This is of capital importance. Although leftists absurdly accuse conservatives of being 'theocrats,' Islamic theocracy does not seem to bother them. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is little or no basis in Islam for mosque-state separation. But church/temple/mosque-state separation is absolutely essential to our political scheme here in the USA. It is therefore entirely reasonable to fear that an increase in Muslim population here, together with increasing aggressiveness of Muslims -- only one indication of which is the provocation of the Ground Zero mosque -- may undermine church-state separation.

Islamic states tend not to be places where Enlightenment values flourish. Or are there some such states where they do flourish? That is not a rhetorical question. Turkey comes to mind, but Turkey has recently been moving away from the secular vision of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

"Death by a Thousand Qualifications." This is relevant to my original post which was obviously polemical in nature and a response to the outrage which is the building of a mosque near Ground Zero -- which is a bit like building a Japanese Shinto shrine near the USS Arizona only a few years after December 7, 1941. I am accused of not making nice distinctions -- distinctions which I have made again and again over the six years this blog has been in existence -- while Americans are being slapped in the face.

Another issue we ought to discuss is assimilation. To what extent do Muslim here in the State intends to assimilate to the West? (To the best of the West, co course, not to HollyWeird decadence.) If they have no intention of assimilating, then I say there is a good reason not to let them in in the first place.

No comity without commonality -- as one of my aphorisms has it.

Richard,

I certainly understand your reluctance to engage in such a complex and time consuming project.

Richard, Bill,

I agree with both of your assessments of Mike's post: it is excellent. Mike's focus upon IF and his analysis of its various elements is an extremely important aspect of the current attitude among many people in the West regarding the subject of Islam.

Not sure if I can contribute anything but some loose observations as it has been and is a boiling issue in densely populated Holland (my birthplace) .

Assimilation is usually the primary subject of dispute ; there's a noticeable division of native and Muslims in certain areas of the major cities. Culturally we do not have much in common , despite the increasingly ubiquitous multi-culturalism. You'll doubtlessly have heard of the murder of Theo van Gogh , death threats , and the fear these events have engendered in public , few dare to be explicit about their views in the media. There have been some problems with the stricter closed-border policies of the national party , and recently its association in general with other parties in the newly formed coalition government . The tense atmosphere can be quite palpable in the crowded subways for instance ; I don't think I am a bigot *.

For what it's worth , I have known some quite liberal-minded Islamic people , mainly in college , who are very open and tolerant to Western values .However, in general I have found that they remain reticent or ambiguous about their personal views and I get the impression that much of what they do reveal is deliberately conciliatory; I too would be tacit in their presence . They are mostly ( paradoxically? ) of left-wing persuasion , but that may not mean a thing since it is quite uncommon for students to be anything but liberal.

Mike's description of IF strikes a pellucid (ha!) chord with me , especially when I , with pliers and 'bullshit' shades within reach , read the newspapers . Here in Bonnie Scotland the topic is not nearly as hot and contentious as it is in Holland among the student crowd and the things I have heard and seen at university during my brief study of Islamic movements boggled my mind. Hamas not to be considered a 'terrorist'^ movement ? Seriously? We actually weren't allowed to use the word in our essays and some were penalized for doing so . But I digress...

*' There are two kinds of people I cannot abide : bigots and any well-organized ethnic group ' Edward Abbey
^Why do quotation marks tend to arouse my suspicion in academic texts ?

Rob,

Thanks for your comment. I've read a lot of Ed Abbey, but was unaware of that quotation. Thanks.

Assimilation is one of the key questions here. It makes no sense to me that the tiny country of Holland would want to allow in people who, most of them, have no desire to assimilate and whose values are radically at odds with the extremely tolerant and liberal -- if not libertine -- Dutch. Do the Dutch have a death wish?

No comity (social harmony) without commonality. It is impossible to live in peace with people whose values and beliefs and practices are wildly at odds with one's own, especially when they are prepared to use violent means to enforce their values and beliefs.

You know about 'Piss-Christ'? The so-called artist Serrano is a schlockster in my view, but I would defend his right to freedom of expression -- on his own time and with his own 'dime.' (If he receives taxpayer monies, then that is just plain wrong.) I have very little in common with Serrano, but more than with someone who would murder a filmmaker or cartoonist who depicted Muhammad unfavorably.

The quote can be found on page 16 of that delectable little book 'A voice crying in the wilderness' . Thank you for putting me onto Abbey's scribblings , his river expedition with Thoreau is a treasure. I am always intrigued by Abbey's recurring doubt on matters of philosophy. He was certainly no joiner!

With regard to Valle's exposition of Islam Fatigue , I wonder whether it has any bearing on the idea that not enough people of the younger generations in West-European societies really know , or aspire to know , what values and beliefs they hold and in what they are grounded. It's perhaps just plain relativism that I'm alluding to.

If we tentatively grant this rather bold notion , it follows that it becomes difficult to defend that what is pressurized and threatened by a minority which especially DOES know what it believes . This general idea I extract from books like Allan Bloom's 'the closing of the American mind ' and Macintyre's 'After Virtue'. There could be some truth in such speculations . If they are valid , it does seem in a variety of ways to fit in with aspects of Valle's exposition of IF.

Surely I can adduce myself as evidence of this phenomenom. I probably couldn't defend most of my beliefs and values coherently if pressed by an interlocutor. Many that I held in the past turned out , on further reflection and study, to be a gaseous bubble of High School and cultural 'dung'.I shall have to work on rectifying something. My point is that this sense of argumentative (and doxastic?) incompetence in confrontation with people who do have a more inveterate (or non-individualistic) sense of what tradition they belong to is partly what could generate IF in some of its permutations.

Hopefully this made sense , it is a tentative line of thought .

>>the idea that not enough people of the younger generations in West-European societies really know , or aspire to know , what values and beliefs they hold and in what they are grounded.<<

Excellent. That is certainly a big part of the problem.

>>it follows that it becomes difficult to defend that what is pressurized and threatened by a minority which especially DOES know what it believes .<< Kids brought up to believe in nothing are easily snookered by fanatics who have all the answers.

I am reminded of the case of 'Jihad Johnny' who was brought up in California as a Catholic and ended up fighting with the Taliban. Can't remember his last name. But that is a typical case. Abdication of authority on the part of teachers and religious leaders in the West, watering down of RC teachings into namby-pamby be-nice-ism, lack of structure and discipline, and people like Johnny look for structure and guidance from Islam.

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