Saturday, February 15, 2014

A curious culture

The muslim encounter with the West; More from Bernard Lewis's "What went wrong?"

The last time I reviewed Bernard Lewis's book, "What went wrong? The clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East", I strongly supported an hypothesis he made in passing that Muslim women were perhaps the biggest problem of the contemporary Islamic world. That the patriarchial system of systematic disenfranchisement, sequestration, non-personhood, illiteracy, and non-education perpetuates not only a vast cultural deficit among women, but also among men, who are, after all, all raised by women.

Here I will take up a second thread from his book. That is the relative strength of the religious traditions within the Islamic and other cultures. Lewis lays out the unique strengths of Islam as follows:
"The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the promised land. Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter. Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions, to their purpose. Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime. He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was the supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace. In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition."

The contrast with Christianity is particularly sharp. Christianity, as Nietzsche bitterly pointed out, is a loser religion. Jesus was tortured and killed by the Romans. He has never returned like he said he would. And if he ever does return, it will be hell on earth, as we are told in Revelation. Christianity had to be built on extreme cognitive dissonance, which had several effects. First was constant fission into sects and conflicting ideologies. If the core story is so unbelievable and requires such ideological gymnastics for palatability, it will naturally lead to conflicting interpretations and continuing dissatisfaction with any reigning interpretation. This was particularly evident in the early times of Christianity with the constant strife over the cannon, the creed, etc. And then it broke out all over again in the Reformation. There has been no reformation in Islam.

The second effect was a durable separation from the state. While medieval popes behaved more or less like full-fledged states, Christianity mostly fit the more traditional shamanistic role of advisor and arbiter of power, not the holder of power directly. Its internal doctrine was basically non-wordly, indeed highly impractical, and its model of Jesus was the epitome of the non-powerful, non-ruler. A giver of riddles and dreamy ideals more than than a tough Machiavellian. The Catholic church built this puzzle into an institution that invaded everyone's lives, took confessions, trafficked in the body and blood of its totem, made and unmade rulers, but never achieved what came naturally in the Islamic world- the full totalitarianism of the union of religious and temporal power.

As Lewis points out, the solution to the first problem in Christian Europe was the development of secularism and the civil society as a neutral zone among warring religions, giving up the totalitarian scope of most religions up until that point, in this case the ideological totalitarianism, if not the temporal. No such transition occured in Islam, which constitutes the manual of state, law, religion, morals, and a generally complete world view for its adherents. But this manual of state never underwent the kind of critique that happened during the enlightenment under Locke, Mill, Rousseau, et al. Or even underwent, as Europe did, centuries of gradual evolution of parliaments, the language of individual rights vs the state, and similar legal developments descended from Rome and in some instances from Christianity. So when the technology of modern state control entered the Islamic world, we ended up with lots of bad dictatorships, not democracies.

The excruciating developments in Egypt, where modern, democratic impulses have been smothered under the same old military model of strong-man government, dedicated to the proposition that the only loyal opposition is a dead opposition, goes to show how deep the cultural differences remain. The Egyptian government is hardly Islamic in any theocratic sense. It replaced an apparently more fundamentalist Islamic government. But contemporary fundamentalism is a false measure of authenticity, as it is merely a relatively modern reaction to the West and Westernization. The military dictatorship model is probably more traditional and durable in the Islamic world, going back to Muhammed himself, and certainly his successors. After all, that was the core of the Sunni-Shiah split: should the most powerful actor run the state and the religion, or should the most theologically / geneologically appropriate inheritor from Muhammad be given the keys? Sunnis have always chosen the former- a very practical choice, in a way.

But medieval stasis in political philosophy is hardly the worst of it. There is stasis in many other aspects of the culture, only glossed over by the fabulous wealth of the Muslim petro-states. There is a simple lack of interest in other cultures, in translations from other literatures, in science, in diplomacy, in art, in ideas that come from secular sources. While Europe's competitive ferment and legacy from Rome eventually generated endless inquisitiveness that is now institutionized in our universities, the grand Islamic schools of learning always "learn" about the same old thing ... the Koran. And not even using the critical tools that have blown up the study of ancient texts elsewhere.


  • Gratitude, Afghan style. Just which side is the government on?
  • Drug control can work, with public support and moderate policies.
  • Affirmative action- coopting and false-carding the black middle class?
  • Yes, an atheist world would be (will be) wonderful.
  • Brains age rationally- learning less, executing more.
  • Yes, Dorothy, crime really is criminal. But does anyone have legal standing to fight it?
  • Fossil fuel is so over.
  • Or not .. without a high carbon tax, no other action will work. BP projects renewables at 7% of consumption in 2035. Is that acceptable?
  • Social security needs to be increased. Because entitlements are ... good.
  • In Europe, will festering economic failure turn into political disaster?
  • Unearned money makes people conservative and mean.
  • Martin Wolf for redistribution, and for robots.
  • This week in the WSJ: "Reforming that public-school monopoly is the litmus test of seriousness on income inequality." It is truly incredible how WSJ columnists, who presumably are the intelligent creators of wealth and public good, can be so self-centered and blind. But I guess wealth does that.
  • Image of the week- religion in the US.

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