Richard Landes on Islam's Honor-Shame Culture
Richard Landes has written an insightful piece for The Telegraph on Islam's lack of a culture of critical discourse, titled "Liberal intellectuals are frightened of confronting Islam's honour-shame culture" (August 19, 2011).
I found the article interesting not only for its perceptive analysis of Islam's problems in coping with Modernity but also for its overlap with a number of points that I intend to make about the need for a culture of discussion in East Asia when I give my talk at the 2011 Forum [on] Civilization and Peace early in October. Some of my ideas in an earlier stage of development can be read in "'Korean Identity?' in Philosophy and Reality" (December 18, 2009) and "'Toward a Culture of Discussion,' The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (Summer 2010)" (May 15, 2010). But I go substantially beyond these two in my upcoming Forum 2011 presentation.
I don't deal with Islam, however, so I'm intrigued by much of what Landes has to say. He brings into his analysis a distinction that I've often noted in blog entries, though I won't be using it in my presentation, i.e., the contrast between a shame culture and a guilt culture. Landes focuses on the characteristics of a shame culture contrasted to the culture of Modernity (which he doesn't describe as a guilt culture):
In an honour culture, it is legitimate, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honour, to save face, to redeem the dishonoured face. Public criticism is an assault on the very "face" of the person criticised. Thus, people in such cultures are careful to be "polite"; and a genuinely free press is impossible, no matter what the laws proclaim.From this distinction, Landes formulates a memorable rule:
Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism -- sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy -- make that pain worthwhile.
Politeness is not saying certain things lest there be violence; civility is being able to say those certain things and there won't be violence.Landes applies this 'rule' to an analysis of Islam in our modern world:
This [use of violence to defend honor] is particularly true for Islamic religious culture. In Dar al Islam, a Muslim's contradiction/criticism of Islam was punishable by death, a fortiori did this hold true for infidels. Modernity has been a Nakba (psychological catastrophe) for Islam, and Islam in all its variegated currents has yet to successfully negotiate these demands of modernity.Why is this the case? Landes explains:
On the contrary, the loudest voices in contemporary Islam reject vehemently the kind of self-criticism modernity requires. Criticism constitutes an unbearable assault on the manhood of Muslims.
Secularism demands more maturity, it requires that religions be civil, that they not use force (the state) to impose their beliefs on others. Religious communities have to give up their need to be visibly superior as a sign of being right/true. This involves high levels of both self-confidence and tolerance for public contradiction.Landes goes to the core of Islam's problem with Modernity, in my opinion, and does much to explain the rise of Islamism in our time. The article is well worth the time taken to read it, and a longer version -- "Islam, Modernity, and Honor-Shame Dynamics: Reflections in the Wake of Breivik" -- appears on his blog, The Augean Stables, for those with deeper interest in the issues raised.
For Islam this is a particularly difficult challenge. For Islam's formative period, it dominated. Dhimma laws spelled out the principles: infidels were "protected" from violence and death at the hands of Muslims as long as they accepted a visibly humiliating, inferiority. And among the key demands made on dhimmis, was that they not challenge, criticise, or in any way "insult" Islam or Muslims.
As I noted at the outset, there's overlap between this article and my upcoming presentation, specifically, on the need for a culture of discourse, and I like the distinction Landes makes between courtesy and civility, though I won't be raising this in my paper. I also don't make the point about a shame culture, though I'm very familiar with the concept, as I've noted. Most of all, I don't talk about intellectuals being afraid of criticizing Confucianism, one of the main themes of my paper, because they're not afraid to do so. There are no 'Confucianists' with sharpened knives lurking as a warning not to 'insult' Confucianism, unlike the case with Islam, which has its violent Islamists.
Perhaps Confucianism is a more "civil" ideological system . . .