Scruton-izing the West
Conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton has recently published a thoughtful article, "Islam and the West: Lines of Demarcation," in the journal Azure: Ideas for the Jewish Nation (No. 35, Winter 5769 / 2009). In this article, he offers a sketch of seven features that depict Western civilization in contrast to Islamic civilization, which I excerpt below:
The first of the features that I have in mind is citizenship. The consensus among Western nations is that the law is made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey it. This consent is given through a political process in which each citizen participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean by "citizenship," and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up by the view that the former are composed of citizens, whereas the latter are composed of subjects who have "submitted" (which is the primary meaning of the word islam). If we seek a simple definition of the West as it is today, it would be wise to take this concept of citizenship as our starting point.These are all interesting features to consider, especially the surprising seventh one. I would never have considered alcohol as a significant feature of Western Civilization, but perhaps Scruton has a point. At the very least, I can employ his argument to persuade my wife that my daily beer is a defense of significant cultural values. She might counter that I drink 'alone' as I read literature after my daily exercise, but I think of myself as associating with great individuals who are strangers made more familiar by culture and drink.
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This brings me to the second feature which I identify as central to European civilization: nationality. No political order can achieve stability if it cannot call upon a shared loyalty, a "first-person plural" that distinguishes those who share the benefits and burdens of citizenship from those who are outside the fold. In times of war, the need for this shared loyalty is self-evident, but it is as necessary in times of peace, if people really are to treat their citizenship as defining their public obligations. National loyalty marginalizes loyalties to family, tribe, and faith, and places before the citizen, as the focus of his patriotic feeling, not a person or a group, but a country. This country is defined by a territory, and by the history, culture, and law that have made that territory ours. Nationality is composed of land, together with the narrative of its possession . . . . The recent history of . . . [many Muslim] countries might lead us to wonder whether there is not, in the end, a genuine and profound conflict between the Islamic conception of community and the conceptions which have fed our own idea of national government. Maybe the nation-state really is an anti-Islamic idea.
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The third central feature of Western civilization is Christianity. I have no doubt that it is the long centuries of Christian dominance in Europe which laid the foundations of national loyalty as a type above those of faith and family, and on which a secular jurisdiction and an order of citizenship could be founded. It may sound paradoxical to identify a religion as the major force behind the development of secular government. But we should remember the peculiar circumstances in which Christianity entered the world. The Jews of first-century Judea were a closed community, bound by a tight web of religious legalisms but nonetheless governed from Rome by a law which made no reference to any God, and which offered an ideal of citizenship to which every free subject of the empire might aspire . . . . During the early centuries of Islam various philosophers attempted to develop a theory of the perfect state, but religion was always at the heart of it . . . . When all such discussion stopped, at the time of Ibn Taymiyya in the fourteenth century, it was clear that Islam had decisively turned its back on secular government, and would henceforth be unable to develop anything remotely like a national -- as opposed to a religious -- form of allegiance.
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[I]t is, perhaps, the Greek input into Christianity which is responsible for the fourth of the central features that I believe worthy of emphasis when addressing the Western confrontation with Islam: that of irony. There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that is amplified by the Talmud. But there is a new kind of irony in Jesus' judgments and parables, one which looks at the spectacle of human folly and wryly shows us how to live with it. A telling example of this is Jesus' verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery. "Let he who is without fault," he says, "cast the first stone." In other words, "Come off it. Haven't you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?" . . . . This irony is shared by the great Sufi poets, especially Rumi and Hafiz, but it seems to be largely unknown in the schools of Islam that shape the souls of the Islamists. Theirs is a religion which refuses to see itself from the outside, and which cannot bear to be criticized, still less to be laughed at -- something we have abundantly witnessed in recent times.
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Irony is intimately related to the fifth notable feature of Western civilization: self-criticism. It is second nature to us, whenever we affirm something, to allow a voice to the opponent. The adversarial method of deliberation is endorsed by our law, by our forms of education, and by the political systems that we have built to broker our interests and resolve our conflicts. Think of those vociferous critics of Western civilization such as the late Edward Said and the ubiquitous Noam Chomsky. Said spoke out in uncompromising and, at times, even venomous terms on behalf of the Islamic world against what he saw as the lingering outlook of Western imperialism. As a consequence, he was rewarded with a prestigious chair at a leading university and countless opportunities for public speaking in America and around the Western world. The consequences for Chomsky have been largely the same. This habit of rewarding our critics is, I think, unique to Western civilization.
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This habit of self-criticism has created . . . [the sixth] critical feature of Western civilization, and that is representation. We in the West, and the English-speaking peoples preeminently, are heirs to a longstanding habit of free association, in which we join together in clubs, businesses, pressure groups, and educational foundations. This associative genius was particularly remarked upon by Tocqueville in his journeys through America, and it is facilitated by the unique branch of the English common law -- equity and the law of trusts -- which enables people to set up funds in common and to administer them without asking permission from any higher authority. This associative habit goes hand in hand with the tradition of representation. When we form a club or a society which has a public profile, we are in the habit of appointing officers to represent it. The decisions of these officers are then assumed to be binding on all members, who cannot reject them without leaving the club . . . . Association takes a very different form in traditional Islamic societies, however. Clubs and societies of strangers are rare, and the primary social unit is not the free association, but the family.
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This brings me to . . . [the seventh,] final and critical point of difference between Western and Islamic communities[: alcohol]. We live in a society of strangers who associate rapidly and tolerate each other's differences. Yet ours is not a society of vigilant conformity . . . . It is endlessly creative in forming the institutions and associations that enable people to live with their differences and remain on peaceful terms, without the need for intimacy, brotherhood, or tribal loyalties . . . . What makes it possible to live in this way? There is a simple answer, and that is drink. What the Koran promises in paradise but forbids here below is the necessary lubricant of the Western dynamo . . . . Of course, Islamic societies have their own ways of creating fleeting associations: the hookah, the coffee house, and the traditional bathhouse . . . . But these forms of association are also forms of withdrawal, a standing back from the business of government in a posture of peaceful resignation. Drink has the opposite effect: It brings strangers together in a state of controlled aggression, able and willing to engage in any business that should arise from the current conversation.
Exploring some of the tensions among these seven features might be interesting. For instance, the tension between nation-state exclusivity and Christian universalism is worth thinking about. On this point, one might wonder if the European Union offers a workable political framework since it sets itself at odds with the nation-state but apparently eschews any explicit reference to the role of Christianity in Europe's process of self-definition (or so I've read in some reports).
But I'll leave such discussion to those who comment -- if any do -- for my day must begin.