Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Christopher Caldwell on the European system for 'managing' Islam

Christopher Caldwell
Holding Forth on His 'Likes'

Here's Christopher Caldwell, author of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, stepping on some more toes.

He's discussing -- although perhaps not specifically in the photo above -- "The European model of managing religion," which he maintains is inadequate for addressing Islam because this model was conceived of with respect to Christianity and "deals with the place of religion in society rather than scrutinizing religious doctrines from the inside" (193). This ignorance of Muslim doctrine has consequences demonstrating the model's inadequacy:
One sign of its inadequacy is that politicians are increasingly given to pronouncing on what is and is not Islam. Those who make such pronouncements are usually trying to exonerate Islam from the charge that it is a violent or intolerant religion, as George Bush famously did in the days after September 11, 2001, by pronouncing that "Islam is peace." One hears non-Arabic-speaking statesmen holding forth on what the Koran does and doesn't say about the duties of veiling. One reads about "poorly trained, mostly foreign imams" who incite young men to terrorism or "poorly educated judges" on sharia courts. The blame never falls on Islam itself but always on something aberrant, adventitious, exogenous, atypical, something imposed on it by an unrepresentative handful of nutcases, misinterpreters, Svengalis, and secret agents. The public is generally unconvinced. It asks what kind of religion requires expertise -- even "training" -- to keep it from being dangerous in the hands of its practitioners. Surely most Christian ministers in the United States are "poorly trained," and most new priests in Ireland (where only a handful a year are now ordained) are "foreign." But they don't scare people. And if they did, few would argue that their scariness had nothing to do with "real" Christianity. (193)
Again, rather blunt. But also a bit unclear. The inadequacy that he refers to would seem to be the assumption on the part of many politicians and statesmen that Islam is a peaceful religion because religions are intrinsically peaceful . . . like Christianity. But Caldwell doesn't clearly state this point, and when he does draw a parallel to Christianity, he does so to a hypothetical case. But I'm not entirely convinced by his analogy to a hypothetical 'scary' Christianity. If ministers and priests did go about scaring people with threats of violence, I think that a sizeable number of observers (though not all, of course) would "argue that their scariness had nothing to do with 'real' Christianity." And they would be right! That sort of scariness would be a distortion of New Testament teachings (unless we're also intended to hypothesize a different New Testament text).

The problem with Islam's 'scariness' -- as Caldwell emphasizes -- is that very many observers have the impression that this is the "real" Islam. Most of those observing Islam and drawing this conclusion, however, are also judging Islam from the outside because they don't know its "religious doctrines from the inside." They, too, are "non-Arabic-speaking," much like the "statesmen holding forth on what the Koran does and doesn't say."

People are thus not entirely sure, and most of us would prefer to believe the best about such a powerful, numerous religion . . . but perhaps we should be investigating instead.

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At 1:04 PM, Blogger Teacher Leo said...

Hi - I must say you have me intrigued to read Caldwell for myself.
I've been rather busy with drawing up a curriculum to use in the 'English Village' classroom, so my reading at present is The God Delusion and In a Sunburned Country (Dawkins and Bryson).
Dawkins is, I think the relevant author here to address the assumption by western leaders and people in general that Islam, like Christianity, is a peaceful religion. Well, first of all, no religion is peaceful. It sets up divisions by its very nature - the 'true believers' vs. the 'infidels'. Then, again by the nature of 'God has sanctioned us', the power is often corrupt and of an absolutist nature.
Of course there are wonderful people who happen to be devout Muslims, just as there are wonderful but devout Christians, Jews, Hindus etc.
My problem with the Muslim world is how accepting they are, as a whole, of the atrocities committed in their name or the name of their God. But hey, a couple of centuries ago you could have said that about Christians and the crusades, the Inquisition...
Complex problem that seem neverending.

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One important question is how readily the sacred texts of a religion can be used to condone violence. Of course, any text can be 'used' that way, but some can't be so used without doing 'violence' to the text itself.

Buddhist texts are likely to be very peaceful, for example, but I could found a violent religion and write some 'sacred' texts to condone the violence, and I maintain that my religion would be intrinsically more violent than Buddhism.

Maybe reformers would moderate my religion someday, but they would find little textual support.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:10 AM, Blogger John B said...

The analogy is rendered somewhat problematic given that we are deeply rooted in a very Christian-influenced society (and/or Christianity is/was heavily influenced by our Western society) so it doesn't seem frightening to us so much as normative. Saying that since its not frightening to us it wouldn't be frightening to an outsider is problematic.

Also, Christianity (with specific textual examples) was used extensively to justify 18-early 20th C colonialism and liberalism -- as ssen by outsiders of that time, Christianity was a very violent religion (although there were non-Western figures holding forth that the religion wasn't evil, the people were misinterpreting it -- leading to a lot of anti-colonial resistance ideology).

Not necessarily wrong, but . . . I wouldn't accept that assertion without textual support from non-Western sources.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, Christianity in practice has had its violent phases, as has Buddhism (and probably every religion), but the sacred texts don't seem to me to call for violence. Admittedly, we all have to form our own judgements, but these can only be properly grounded by reading the texts and reflecting upon them. Of course, one will need to take into consideration the interpretive community, but to be frank about this, the Islamic interpretive community doesn't inspire me with much confidence.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:08 AM, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Islam is what Islam does, as someone once said. As someone else once said, whenever I hear someone scolding me that I need to try harder to understand Islam, my first reaction is, "oh god, what did they blow up this time?"

At 5:14 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

TSI, that's quite witty . . . but also a bit depressing since it does capture some truth about my reaction as well.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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