Some further thoughts on the problem with contemporary Islam. What troubles it – utter certainty, abhorrence of heresy, the use of violence to buttress orthodoxy, the disdain for infidels – is not unique to it by any means. In history, some of these deviations from the humility of true faith have been worse in other religions. Christianity bears far more responsibility for the Holocaust, for example, than anything in Islam.
But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries forced a reckoning between those coercive, reactionary forces in Christianity, and in the twentieth century, Catholicism finally, formally left behind its anti-Semitism, its contempt for other faiths, its discomfort with religious freedom, and its disdain for a distinction between church and state. Part of this was the work of reason, part the work of history, but altogether the work of faith beyond fundamentalism. Islam has achieved this too – in many parts of the world. But in the Middle East, history is propelling mankind to different paths – in part because of the unmediated nature of Islam, compared with the resources of other faiths, and also because that region is almost hermetically sealed from free ideas and open debate and civil society.
Let me put it this way: when the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.
Western democracy was only made possible by the taming of religion. But Islam, in a very modern world, with very modern technologies of destruction and communication, remains, in a central part of the world, untamed, dangerous, and violent. No one outside Islam can tame it. And so we wait … and hope that the worst won’t happen.
Today, I noted one amazing feature of what the taming of Catholicism in the Second Vatican Council can lead to – a synod where taboos are being broken, and new voices heard, as Francis’ glasnost has its effect. We paid homage – once again! – to the octopus, exposed the disgusting fear tactics of the GOP in the current election, and noted the brain-dead book-whoring of Leon Panetta.
About which: However down I am about Obama’s new war in Iraq and Syria, the knowledge that Panetta and Clinton and Petraeus all opposed him in core respects in foreign policy makes me feel better. All three of them are vested in the way things always were, in the twentieth century, and in the smug, conventional Washington consensus that led this country down the cul de sac of the Iraq War and all it represented. If you want to know how much Obama has really represented change these past six years, just check out his critics. They tell you a lot about what he has tried to do – and the immense forces arrayed against him. For a great take-down, see Michael Cohen.
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