Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scruton-izing the West

Scruton's Western Landscape

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

[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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.

. . .

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.
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.

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.

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At 6:59 AM, Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

This is very thought provoking, and rather timely considering the great Racefail debate going on among the science fiction and fantasy writers at the moment. You might find that interesting. (links on my blog's second to last post.)

At 7:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, WW. I took a look at the links. I suppose that we're often not only blind to what is blinkered in our vision but also to the very things that blinkers our vision.

For these reasons, I like Scruton's essay. It focuses my eyes on not just what is seen or not seen but on precisely what enables me to see through my Western perspective -- even while demonstrating what is good about seeing in this way.

Speaking of irony, Scruton's opinion on the importance of Christianity is partly an expression of the vital role that a religion plays simply by getting out of the way in order for a culture to thrive.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:32 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Interesting, but very and surprisingly (given the huge historicakl dimension in the formation of "Western Civilization" and the encounter(s) between it and "Islamic Civilization")a-historical (and hence unconvincing, e.g., the notion that Christinaity somehow dispositively disposed the West towards nationalsim, because of its valorization of a realm larger than family, clan or tribe is weird considering (1) giving its universalist claims, Islam thus should have done the same, and (2) the nation-state came into existence in no small part as a result of secular opposition to the temporal claims of the Church (althuough there was ofcourse an accomodation or accomodations.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree, Sperwer, in part.

Christianity's universalizing claims would work against nationalism: "In Christ, there is neither Greek nor Jew."

But the Christian conception of two spheres, the religious and the secular, could leave room for the nation-state to develop.

By contrast, Islam's refusal to distinguish the two would leave the secular without a leg to stand on.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:59 PM, Blogger JDsg said...

Unconvincing? Absolutely. From the very debatable (citizenship) to the absurd (alcohol, making government and civilization a drinking game brought about by drunks). Scruton doesn't seem to understand Islam very well, at least based upon your excerpts.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JDsg, thanks for visiting.

Scruton's citizenship issue looks pretty sound to me. Debatable, no doubt, but I think that he's right on that point.

As for Scruton's point about alcohol, I am still surprised by his certainty, but to characterize him as "making government and civilization a drinking game brought about by drunks"? That seems to me rather a severe misreading of his point.

But don't rely upon my excerpts. Go to the source.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:06 AM, Anonymous Michael S. Pearl said...


Limiting myself to the first of Scruton's points, that about citizenship (in the West) and submission (in Islam), I must say that I find Scruton's analysis to be painfully superficial.

Speaking in terms of "the West as it is today" does not sufficiently deal with the still rather recent use of the citizenship concept and what would of late be called the rule of law on the part of the Nazis to "justify" the horrendous treatment of the Jews even before the Final Solution. Arendt, Ehrenburg, and Grossman make it plainly clear just how inadequate are appeals to legal-political concepts, and these inadequacies plague the West to this day.

The same problem with justification by legal concepts applies to Muslims who imagine their submission strictly in terms of Divine prescriptions and proscriptions, but what Scruton does not do at all is even consider that there is another sense of submission other than the one which the Western mind tends to associate with oppression if not slavery, and this other sense of submission would be the response of the mystic to God: Not my will, but Yours; not me, but You; I give my entire being for You, etc.

Personally, I would not choose the term submission to describe this response of the mystic, but it is this sense of a voluntary giving over of one's whole self that the Director of Antiquities in Upper Egypt intended to convey when, during my recent trip to Egypt, he described the tomb workers as being thrilled to be "slaves" for their god(s).

In any event, it is this sense (whether in terms of submission or not) which supersedes law.


At 4:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, I thought that Scruton's argument on citizen vs. subject was rather one of his stronger points.

Not only Muslims 'submit' to God, of course, but "submission" in Islam entails submission to a sociopolitical system of laws. Otherwise, Scruton's contrast to citizenship would not make sense, for one is a citizen of a state and must obey the laws of that state. The concept of law is different, as Scruton notes.

Where I find a problem lies in Scruton's emphasis upon Common Law as characteristic of the West. He says little about Roman Law, which is more generally characteristic of law in Western Europe, for good of for ill.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:35 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

Interesting that Scruton sees irony and self-criticism as products of Western civilisation and by implication: civil attitudes. Neither irony nor self-criticism is a Scruton virtue, in reality, as his ability to be self-righteous (in a right-wing sort-of-way)is without the modesty that comes with ironical reflection. Scruton is no Mercutio. I rather wish that he had decided to rest on the seventh day and known when to quit his creation. Some of his points are valid, however, I guess.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

This is a forerunner of the discussed article, I think, with RG once more in less than ironical mode on irony. Here, he reads irony as satire. What Scruton really dislikes is Fundamentalism because it is more fundamental than Roger.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Eshuneutics said...

The context of the remarks seems important, on reflection: Scruton is defending American values (not quite the same thing as Western civilisation--though they might be in his mind).

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics. I'll take a look at the link.

Being British, you would know a lot more about Mr. Scruton than I. In the few articles and one book of his that I have read, he gives the impression of being thoughtful, but I have no sense of who he might be as a person.

He does seem to have had a checkered political career (and I recall some controversy over smoking).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:05 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

It seems to me that, when all is said and done, Scruton is implying that the loyalties of Muslims living in the "west" are more to Islam than to the countries in which they reside; and that they are somehow "different" from the "Christians" they live among.

But isn't this what was said about the Jewish minorities until relatively recent times?

At 7:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Christopher, Scruton does make the point that Europe has enclaves where disaffected Muslim minorities live and that these enclaves harbor Islamists. Other than that point -- which is arguably correct -- I don't recall his saying much about that specific issue. I guess that I'd have to look at more of his writings.

Whether that would be parallel to the charge of dual loyalty leveled at Jews, I don't know.

Jeffery Hodges

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