9/21/2006

taking up the Pope's gauntlet

If the purpose of the Pope's speech was to stimulate debate, then it was indeed a success. As with the Cartoon StupidStorm, the short term initial wave of violent reaction by the extremist minority has given way to substantial and thought-provoking analysis. Said analysis, not incidentally, also enjoys the same total media blackout as the post-cartoon analysis did.

Paramount among the reasoned responses to the Pope is Tariq Ramadan's essay, which argues that the real context of the Pope's address was to emphatically place Islam within the category of Other with which no true dialog can be undertaken. Ramadan argues,

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the crisis is that the real debate launched by Benedict XVI seems to have eluded most commentators, and particularly Muslim commentators. In his academic address, he develops a dual thesis, accompanied by two messages. He reminds those rationalist secularists who would like to rid the Enlightenment of its references to Christianity that these references are an integral component of European identity; it will be impossible for them to engage in interfaith dialogue if they cannot accept the Christian underpinnings of their own identity (whether they are believers or not). Then, in taking up the question of faith and reason, and in emphasizing the privileged relationship between the Greek rationalist tradition and the Christian religion, the pope attempts to set out a European identity that would be Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason. Islam, which has apparently had no such relationship with reason, would thus be foreign to the European identity that has been built atop this heritage. A few years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger set forth his opposition to the integration of Turkey into Europe on a similar basis. Muslim Turkey never was and never will be able to claim an authentically European culture. It is another thing; it is the Other.


Or, to put it more succinctly, Muslims are Orcs.

And as we know, Orcs are a mindless horde. They cannot be reasoned with, because they lack reason. Therefore, any attempt at dialouge with Islam is utterly futile. Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, highlights that subtext in the Pope's address clearly:

What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.


And we see that attitude towards Islam reflected in the foreign policy of the present Administration, in fact. Hossein Derakshan, reknowned Iranian blogger, points out that Iran is developing nukes for the most obvious reasons: security. But security guarantees to Iran in return for cessation of its program are beyond the pale? Meanwhile, Syrian's Assad cultivates Hizbollah as a counterweight to Israel's regional dominance. Are there no common interests between his nation and ours? The expectation of the West towards muslim nations is as towards a dog: do as you are told, or be punished - be obedient, and you may be given some scraps.

And if muslims are orcs, then Europe is Minas Tirith, which must be defended. The question of Turkey's admittance to the European Union is the flashpoint for this subtext. In the face of lengthy polemical diatribes that invoke the West without ever defining it, it is not surprising that Turkey itself is reconsidering it's own allegiances - and the strategic position for the "West" will be the poorer for it.

Let us take up the substance of the Pope's charge. What does Islam have to say about Reason? In a tremendously insightful comment on my previous post, reader jr786 writes:

Interestingly, for a Pope so well read in Islam he seems to have forgotten that Koran 18: 60-82 deals explicitly with the limits of human reason and its finite, conditioned interpretation of events. The message for Muslims is to strive for knowledge and truth and not to be misled into thinking that reason is the highest form of human achievement.


Qur'an 18 is Sura al-Kahf, one of the most mystical and powerful - and exceedingly difficult and symbolic - surahs in the Qur'an. In it, the prophet Moses follows a chosen servant of Allah, and learns the limits of his own rational faculties. The lesson is that all knowledge is not within reach of the human intellect, and that reason can take you a certain distance, but not all the way. Ultimately, super-rationality is an illusion.

And the Qur'an, far from being (as the Pope implies) a spartan text filled with trivial daily injunctions and strictures, is a deep well when it comes to broader philosophical issues. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in one of his typically erudite essays entitled, "The Qur'an and Hadith as source and inspiration of Islamic philosophy" gives this overview:

One might say that the reality of the Islamic revelation and participation in this reality transformed the very instrument of philosophizing in the Islamic world. The theoretical intellect (al-aql a1-no ari) of the Islamic philosophers is no longer that of Aristotle although his very terminology is translated into Arabic. The theoretical intellect, which is the epistemological instrument of all philosophical activity, is Islamicized in a subtle way that is not always detectable through only the analysis of the technical vocabulary involved. The Islamicized understanding of the intellect, however, becomes evident when one reads the discussion of the meaning of aql or intellect in a major philosopher such as Mulla Sadra when he is commenting upon certain verses of the Qur'an containing this term or upon the section on aql from the collection of Shiite Hadith of al-Kulayni entitled Usul al-kafi. The subtle change that took place from the Greek idea of the "intellect" (noun) to the Islamic view of the intellect (al-aql) can also be seen much earlier in the works of even the Islamic Peripatetics such as Ibn Sina where the Active Intellect (al-aql al fa dl) is equated with the Holy Spirit (al-ruh al-qudus).


Ultimately, a reading of Islam that derives the conclusion that it is hostile to reason is fundamentally a polemic, not a debate. In other words, it is anti-reason itself. Did the Pope really desire debate? It looks more like he wanted to ensure that there could be none.

Ramadan concludes his essay with this call to action:

Muslims must demonstrate, in a manner that is both reasonable and free of emotional reactions, that they share the core values upon which Europe and the West are founded.

Neither Europe nor the West can survive, if we continue to attempt to define ourselves by excluding, and by distancing ourselves from, the Other — from Islam, from the Muslims — whom we fear.

13 comments:

Nightstudies said...

Your quote by Seyyed Hossein Nasr is completely meaningless without context since it refers to many things, while defining none of them.

Do you suppose you could elucidate the meaning of that passage?

jr786 said...

Ramadan is right, of course,but then this is how things are always framed by Popes and/or Christian religio-cultural supremacists. I disagree, however, with his insistence that Muslims 'must' do, think, or say anytthing in regard to Euro-Christian sensibilities. Rather we should remember that for them, historically, the only good Muslim/Native/Wog was always Dead/Converted/Erased. What, precisely, is so different today?
Aziz is also correct in saying that the Euro-Christian cultural supremacists desire complete submission by Muslims, as they have always and bloodily and mercilessly demanded from subject peoples. Again, why are we to believe that anything has changed? The real tragedy is that the United States has picked up the sword, a phrase beloved of the Christians, and gone Crusading in the Euros' stead.
Muslims do not have to justify, defend or otherwise explain Islam to anyone whose intention is to disparage or insult. Debate? If well-intentioned, certainly, but as equals, never as slaves. Peaceful co-existence? May it please G-d, but this is clearly not the Vatican's project, nor that of its bigoted, Islam-bashing followers.
The dynamic at work is as follows: Islam is violent, it demands forced conversion. The Muslims are all the same, they are an ontology unto themselves. They will ultimately attack and forcib ly convert us to 'Mahommedanism'. Therefore, we are right to attack them first. Thus reason.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

nightstudies, the quote was intended to merely briefly illustrate the diversity of Islamic thought upon the topic of 'aql. I suggest reading Nasr's entire essay; with respect to the specifics I could fill an entire separate blog. My aim is merely to show that teh claim that Islam knows no reason is false, in fact Islamic philosophers have grappled with the issue using as much sophistication and subtlety as any Christian theologian. The details are left to the reader to investigate as they please, or dismiss, as they please.

Arshad said...

Salam alykum
Your post on Pope is really good.
I have looked at this issue through my post
http://justlybalanced.blogspot.com/2006/09/now-pope-speaketh-faqs.html
Warm regards
Arshad
http://justlybalanced.blogspot.com

Nightstudies said...

I'm afraid I can't be bothered to read the pope's speech too carefully, but my impression is that he takes the contradictory position you'd expect him to: he confuses reason with Christian revelation, briefly attacks Islam as being incompatible with reason, and attacks reason that isn't rooted in Christian revelation. It's an arguement that any fundimenalist of any religion could agree with, if you only swap Christian revelation for their own revelation.

But out of context it seems to be attacking Islam as unreasonable, an arguement that secularists might agree with, but which the Pope didn't really mean the way it sounded. At its base he really said that his revelation is good and true and yours isn't. But that's the message of most religion to all others, it shouldn't be news at all, and, I think, should command no headlines, outrage or response.

Nightstudies said...

I shouldn't downplay the importance of the arguement the Pope exploited, that Islam is unreasonable and violent. But a Pope who doesn't really believe in reason is the wrong person to be making that arguement. He's exploiting the resonance without being an appropriate spokesman for that point of view.

Nightstudies said...

But then the Emperor quoted probably wasn't a good spokesman for that point of view either. So this is hopelessly muddled.

Nightstudies said...

Though I suppose I'm being unfair and unrealistic in contrasting reason with revelation as if you can never have both...

Jerry said...

Was the purpose of the essay to write a lot of words that facts become buried in irrelevance?

Here's a dose of straight logic from the world of reason:

1. The Pope sought to open a dialogue with the "Religion of Peace" on a renunciation of violence committed in the name of religion.

2. The "Religion of Peace" summarily declined the invitation and sought to deflect issue by attacking the Pope for being the Pope (i.e., advocating Christian principles).

3. In the meantime, adherents of the "Religion of Peace" murdered a nun, burned churches, and threatened all Christians worldwide with death if they refused to convert to the "Religion of Peace."

4. Of course, this only proved the very thing they objected to, which is the suggestion that any linkage exists between Islam and violence.

5. Leaders and laity of Islam loudly protested the Pope's comments as an "insult" to Islam.

6. In the meantime, these same leaders and laity have said nothing -- NOTHING -- about the wanton and babaric slaughter of women and children in Iraq by suicide bombers, carried out in the name of Allah. Aparently, these acts are NOT an "insult" to Islam.

7. Those of us who live outside this echo chamber have been reminded of all we need to know about the "Religion of Peace."

Nightstudies said...

You may be interested in Ammar Abdulhamid's take on this.

Jerry said...

Thanks for the link to Ammar.

I note that his site is called "A Heretic's Blog." I also noted his bio. Somehow, I get the impression that he is not quite a representative of the Muslim mainstream around the world. So, if this is the best evidence there is to show that my observations are erroneous, I think my point is proven.

Ammar asks, "Why can’t Muslims take a more proactive approach to these matters, and organize some sort of a periodic meeting where certain problematic issues, such as jihad, apostasy, freedom of conscience, academic freedom, relation between Islam and the state, not to mention the ever problematic issues of gender relations and sexuality, are continuously addressed and the Muslim positions on these matters is continuously refined?"

Why not, indeed? I think City of Brass gives a glimpse of the answer:

"The riots and tragic murders that the Pope's remarks set off are tragic, foolish, and yet more evidence of the profound vacuum that exists at the center of the muslim world's discourse. But riots and murder in the name of insult to religion are hardly limited to Islam. My aim is not to engage in tu quoque but rather to illustrate that violence in the third world is worthless as a metric. Such violence is the product of professional thugs who exploit the lack of civil order in their societies, and seek any pretext upon which to wage chaos. Their efforts are barbaric, and they are transient, and they are ultimately futile.

"The violence is a red herring; far deeper damage has been done."

So, violence in defense of Islam is "tragic" and "foolish" and evidence of the "vacuum ... at the center of the muslim world's DISCOURSE."

The rest of the world sees the problem as being MUCH bigger than a "vacuum" in "discourse" among Muslims -- and with good reason. We see the problem as a refusal to renounce suicide bombers. Period. And we see the refusal to act when action is required by people of goodwill as a tacit condonation of the violence.

What happens when non-heretitcal Muslims do have discourse within their community, such as here? You get profoundly troubling excuses for the inexcusable, such statements that murder is "tragic" and "foolish," but no acceptance of any responsibility. Instead, we're told that, "Well, you know, the third world is a violent place, so you cannot lay this at Islam's doorstep."

Here's a newsflash: we CAN, and DO, lay it at Islam's doorstep when: 1) the violence is carried out in the name of Islam; and 2) Islamic leaders not only to clearly renounce the acts but actually incite mob actions.

YOu also get the excuse that, "Well, other groups are engaged in violence, too." Does anybody here realize that the underlying premise of this argumnent is that Islam has no distinctive guidelines, no distinctive strictures, and that it is functionally the same as other religions? (Well, other religions save Christianity, a prominent leader of which sought to engate Islam in a dialogue on this very point)?

It doesn't help Islam's image to say that "violence is a red herring." At best, that's wishful thinking on your part, and I believe it is more; I believe it is a calculated effort to (yet again) deflect the conversation away from the topic you don't want to address. And it does not go unnoticed that the deflection is in the form of a dismissive minimalization of MURDER. It's hard to imagine an argument that would be less persuasive to someone who takes the time to reflect on these issues.

I say again, the rest of the world has its answer regarding the true nature of the "Religion of Peace," and places like City of Brass only reafirms it.

Nightstudies said...

Actually I was talking to Aziz, not Jerry.

Another point is that the Pope's speech probably was well crafted, with awareness of exactly the sort of reaction it would get. The extremists are being played, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.

Dave Schuler said...

Ping!