Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hirsi Ali: "Islam is hostile to reason."

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Philosopher of Tempered Reason
Also with "Downcast Eyes"?
(Image from Wikipedia)

For some reason, perhaps in part due to this blog, I end up on all sorts of mailing lists and therefore receive a lot of emails, most of which get consigned to my spam folder, but occasionally, I receive materials that I find useful and interesting.

I'm therefore not sorry to regularly find emails from The Spectator, an old (since 1828) conservative British magazine published weekly, for it sometimes has articles that catch my interest. Recently, this one by The Spectator's assistant editor, Mary Wakefield, attracted my eye:
Mary Wakefield, "'We are at war with all Islam': An interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali," The Spectator (November 28, 2007)
I found most interesting Hirsi Ali's views on reason and religion as she and Wakefield discuss the differing character of Christianity and of Islam:
'Christianity is different from Islam,' says Hirsi Ali, 'because it allows you to question it. It probably wasn't different in the past, but it is now. Christians -- at least Christians in a liberal democracy -- have accepted, after Thomas Hobbes, that they must obey the secular rule of law; that there must be a separation of church and state. In Islamic doctrine such a separation has not occurred yet. This is what makes it dangerous! Islam -- all Islam, not just Islamism -- has not acknowledged that it must obey secular law. Islam is hostile to reason.'

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's eyes are now aglow. She is a terrific believer in reason. For her, Western civilisation is built on the bedrock not of Judaeo-Christian values, but of logic. After seeking asylum in Holland, she spent five years at Leiden university studying political science, absorbing the Enlightenment philosophers -- Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire -- and she mentions them fondly, as if they're family. But there's a steely side to her atheism, which says with Voltaire: Ecraser l'infâme! During a recent debate with Ed Husain, as Husain was explaining his moderate Islam, she began to laugh at him, saying: 'When you die you rot, Ed! There is no afterlife, Ed!' And it makes me wonder whether, for Hirsi Ali, Islam's crime is as much against reason as humanity; whether she sees the point of spirituality at all.

Are you so sure you understand what is at the heart of Islam? I ask her. Isn't there a peaceful prayerfulness -- apart from the politics -- that an atheist might not understand? 'I was a Muslim once, remember, and it was when I was most devout that I was most full of hate,' she says.

OK then, you talk about your conscience, and how your conscience was pricked by 9/11. But if there's no God, what do you mean by a conscience? And why should we obey it?

'My conscience is informed by reason,' says Hirsi Ali, surprised I should ask. 'It's like Kant's categorical imperative: behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you.'
Although Hirsi Ali may be unaware -- for I'm not certain how informed she is of Christianity -- Kant was secularizing and sharpening (albeit insisting that his categorical imperative was logically prior to) a teaching of Jesus that has come down to us in two forms:
Matthew 7:12: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets."

Luke 6:31 "Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them."
This so-called 'Golden Rule' occurs in various religious traditions and probably in secular ones as well, so it's certainly not unique to Christianity. Interestingly, Hirsi Ali's formulation of what she refers to as Kant's categorical imperative ("behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you") comes closer to Matthew 7:12 ("do to others what you would have them do to you") than to any of Kant's formulations, e.g.:
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." (Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by James W. Ellington [1785], third edition Hackett Publishing Company: 1993, page 30.)
Hirsi Ali may have spent half a decade studying political science at Leiden University and learning about the Enlightenment philosophers (though Spinoza and Hobbes are, to be precise, usually considered pre-Enlightenment), including a dose of Kantianism, but her formulation of Kant's categorical imperative sounds more biblical than Kantian. In fact, it doesn't sound like Kant at all. I'm not ridiculing Hirsi Ali, for I find that Matthew's formulation of the Golden Rule comes more readily to my lips than does Kant's secularized and sharpened reformulation of it in his categorical imperative.

I don't know that this particular point is, strictly speaking, an issue of reason and religion, but it's mildly intriguing that Hirsi Ali's appeal to reason as having informed her conscience actually gives biblically informed listeners the impression that she's paraphrasing the Matthew 7:12.

Nevertheless, we should take seriously her claim to appeal to reason, for she is a brave woman under threat of death at the hands of Islamists for such statements as "Islam is hostile to reason." Her critique of Islam is not leveled at present-day Christianity, but her praise for Christian tolerance is tempered:
'Christianity is different from Islam,' says Hirsi Ali, 'because it allows you to question it. It probably wasn't different in the past, but it is now.'
This raises the question of Christianity's relation to reason, an issue broached by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensberg lecture and also one that interests me, but I'll save this, perhaps for tomorrow.

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At 7:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what? Ali isn't a genius, exactly. She just happens to have had sound instincts and, these days, some coaching from that think-tank she's employed with. She looks kind of cute and has quite a story to tell: her own story. She' s a classical one trick pony. Kant is beyond her, hell, even islam is beyond her. Why bother?

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Why bother with what? Broaching the issue of reason and religion with a post on Hirsi Ali's remarks? Well, because it serves my 'curious' purposes by opening the issue of free, speculative reason in Christianity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:44 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I think for some Hirsi Ali's story is not enough and she has been seen as disappointment and in some circles been called a liar. Why would anonymous bother to call her a one trick pony? Did he want her to be cross between Thomas Sowell and Star Parker? Parker's story not as devastating as Ali's.

I believe her comment may be more from not knowing as much about Christianity and how common a quote the Golden Rule is here. It may not have been so in the Netherlands.

At 9:48 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I wonder also, in what language would she have studied Kant?

At 10:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I think that Hirsi Ali is highly intelligent. I acknowledge, with Anonymous, that she can't have a deep grounding in philosophy, but I don't respect her less for that.

Anonymous seems to grant her some respect and might have thought that I wasn't granting her quite enough, but his post is ambiguous, seemingly pointing in two different directions.

I suspect that she read Kant in Dutch rather than German, and you're probably right about her choice of wording in English -- the influence of biblical expressions in American culture.

Anyway, I borrowed her words about reason and religion because I want to post some entries on what Hans Blumenberg called "the trial of theoretical curiosity," which will show that Christianity's relation to reason -- or at least to curiosity -- is not so positive as Pope Benedict XVI would think.

More tomorrow...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:26 AM, Blogger JB said...

I was awakened from a strange stupor into which Mary Wakefield's interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali put me by the seeming attribution of the Golden Rule to Kant. My first take was that the foyer must have been very noisy and Wakefield's reporting impaired. My second was that Ali was, for whatever reason, a name-dropper. But what a strange transmogrification of the Categorical Imperative. This put me on guard for the rest of her message.

No neocon here, but nonetheless I find the present world situation very worrisome.

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JB, thanks for commenting (and I also like your websites).

Hirsi Ali's attribution of the Golden Rule to Kant got things utterly backwards, didn't it, for Kant was himself attempting to rework the Golden Rule into a more rigorous, consistently universalizable form.

But like Hirsi Ali, perhaps, I also find Christ's formulation easier to recall than Kant's.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK! Ayaan Hirsi Ali may not be a genius, but she is a very, very BRAVE woman! We need 10,000 more BRAVE WOMEN like her and this supremacist cult of human sacrifice can be stopped in its tracks and laughed off the stage of world to crawl back into its evil smelling hole and quietly disappear from history.

At 3:13 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, I agree that she is very brave. I also think that she is intelligent, but not as careful as she could be in her remarks about Kant.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:18 AM, Blogger Saujana said...

Peace be with you brother,

Hirsi Ali has tried to signify too much by a simplification like "Islam is hostile to religion."
Significantly, the saudi-wahhabis, a British imperialist assisted project has been promulgating a deviation from the classical creed of Islam (pls. visit and read the article "Kalam and Islam" for instance)which has encouraged civil belligerence and political radicalism amongst the Muslims worldwide, which runs contrary to the true teachings of Prophet Muhammad. These religionists deny the traditionally prescribed instruction in logical reasoning, together with a rejection of the historically transmitted sufi teachings of heart purification and the love for Allah and His humans and creatures.

At 11:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saujana, thanks for the comment.

Yes, the Wahabis are Islamists, but Islamism is broader than that, and I also think that Islam's relation to reason is more broadly problematic than can be explained by reference to Islamism alone.

For instance, is Allah's will constrained by reason, or can Allah do contradictory things? Can Allah make something exist and not exist simultaneously?

Jeffery Hodges

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