Friday, February 10, 2006

The Spirit of Inquiry

Like many, I have been dismayed by the recent rioting of angry Moslems protesting the depiction of Muhammad in European cartoons. I do have some mixed feelings about all this. One the one hand, I try to follow the old saying, “don’t go begging trouble.” And by publishing the cartoons, this is exactly what the European newspapers did in fact do.

But on the other hand, I do understand and agree with the position taken by the newspapers. Muslim minorities in western European are increasingly attempting to impose on the whole of their adoptive countries--at least as it pertains to Islam—those restrictions which would be a matter of course in Islamic societies. This would mean absolutely no questioning of Muhammad and Islam, no criticisms of Islam, no critical inquiry of Islam and certainly no jest at the expense of Islam. One could better understand this if meant only for the Islamic community, but rather the pressure is to apply these standards to the whole of European society. Recognizing the threat this poises to the very continuity of their culture, the newspapers took a stand against Islamic intolerance and censorship.

I suspect many moderate Muslims are dismayed and embarrassed by the senslessness and silliness of this spectacle. For they must realize that the rioting did far more damage to Islam's reputation than the scribblings of a Copenhagen cartoonist (I love cartons. I have seen these cartoons and frankly, they are not that good). I also suspect that the rioting was not exactly spontaneous, but was, in fact, pretty well orchestrated. The irony is that most of the rioters had plenty to demonstrate about. They are largely poor, trapped in a stagnant society—culturally, economically and politically—with little hope of relief on any front. And yet, they rioted not over these factors which affect their lives on a daily basis, but over cartoonists in far-away Copenhagen.

Clearly, Islam and the West, or really "the Rest," are not playing by the same rulebook. Whether Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, we all seem to flourish in what I term "the spirit of inquiry." I believe it to be in some way rooted in the very nature of our faith. We question. We inquire. We criticize. We doubt. The downside is that we have elevated this questioning to almost an article of faith; so much so, that in Europe and America many have questioned and reasoned themselves right out of any faith. Our society will have to confront the shipwreck that is our faith. But this is in spite of the nature of our faith, not because of it.

And undeniably, this inquisitive spirit finds fruition in all aspects of our society--the arts, our economic system, scientific experimentation, exploration, and political institutions. Now the sceptic may point out the excesses of western Christianity in history--and they are not hard to find--but they primarily consist of Roman Catholic heavy-handedness in the Middle Ages, forced conversions of natives by Spanish missionaries and the atrocities associated with the religious wars which washed across central Europe in the 1600s. But these events were not really normative for Christianity as a whole, and that temperament did not prevail for the faith. Christ calls us, but never forces us. He tells us that "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." And every believer has to face that statement at some point, to believe it or not, to follow or to turn back. We follow our Shepherd willingly. We are never herded and prodded like cattle.

I would like to say that the Islamic response to European cartooning has been an abberation, an exception. Sadly, I find it fairly normative. Historically, they have shown little interest in the outside world, secure in an unnerving surety of their absolute correctness of their own beliefs. This lack of inquiry spills over into all aspects of an Islamic society. An oft-quoted statistic notes that the country Spain translates more books inn one year that the entire Islamic world has ever translated. In Turkey, the most secular of all the Moslem nations, authors and intellectuals are prosecuted for acknowledging the truth of the Armenian genocide. In Iran, the president implies that the Holocaust is a Jewish hoax. Throughout the Middle East, the farcical Protocols of the Elders of Zion is accepted as absolute fact. David Pryce-Jones, in the current issue of The New Criterion, noted that "this mind-set--and the cultural assumptions that stem from it--goes a long way towards explaining the phenomenon of the loss of creative energy, of scholarship, or inquiry, which afflicted the whole House of Islam, inducing an unrealistic self-perception that could only generate stagnation."

But this is nothing new. In the waning days of Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor John VI Cantacuzenas (d. 1383) observed the following:

The Muslims prevent any of their own from engaging in dialogue with Christians, in order it seems, to keep them from ever learning the truth clearly through such an exchange of views. The Christians, however, confident that their faith is pure and the dogmas they hold are right and true, do not in any way hinder their own; on the contrary, every Christian has full permission and authority to converse with anyone who wishes or desires to do so."

Clash of civilizations? Yep. But it is the same one that has been going on for nearly 1400 years now. Perhaps this wisdom is finally beginning to sink in to the consciousness of the inheritors of the oh-so-enlightened West.


Jared Cramer said...

Great quote at the end. I hope we also have the courage and humility to engage in such dialogue.

John said...

Jared, I agree with you about the quote--and your comment, as well. Cantacuzenus is one of my favorite figures from Byzantine history. After his abdication, he become a monk and writer for the last 30 years of his life. Sometimes maligned by historians, he sought to reach out to both the Muslim East and the Latin West.

I apologize for all the typos in the post. I had it all written out, but then lost it before I could post it--aaargh! This is just a hurried replacement, to the best of my memory.

Good to hear from you. Drop me a line sometime and let me know how things are going with you. Peace.

Gabriel said...

I agree with much of the sentiment of what you express here, though I believe the "clash of civilizations" has taken on an entirely different form in (post)modernity than it ever had before. Whether it was contra the Orthodox or the Catholics, Islam's historic clash was animated by a struggle for the so-called "Kingdom of God" on Earth with mixed sentiments over the eschatological implications of this very worldly battle. What was at stake in the West and the Orthodox East was the sanctity of the Church of Christ itself.

What is being defended by the West (in replacement of the Catholic Church and the now-defunct Orthodox East)? Liberalism--an ideology which obscures the stakes in the name of tolerance and discussion. Liberalism cannot conceive of how to ward off an Islamic threat because its own doctrines imply that Islam can be privatized and "melted" into society (even if only on its fringes). Even radically secular European nations can only reject the Islam; they cannot conceive of rejecting the Muslim. As such, the lines of battle are not clear and the friend/enemy distinction so crucial to framing any clash of this magnitude becomes almost hopelessly obscure.

John said...

Gabriel--yeah, I hesitated about using the "clash of civilizations" bit--it's often misused. But I generally agree with Huntington's thesis, and believe it has held up well since first formulated.

You are spot on, though, in identifying the confusion in the West. The West, or at least western Europe, seems confused by the confrontation, with no clear idea any more of what it is, exactly, that they are defending in this clash.

Stanley Fish had an interesting article in today's NY Times, in which he identified the religion of the West as the "religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism," where " to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously," where all religions are to be "respected," where religious beliefs, if any, are to be kept private and in no way allowed to affect the public sphere and where "strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's museum." This is why the Europeans are so flummoxed by all this. They seem amazed that any group of people would take their religious beliefs so seriously. They seem genuinely surprised by all this. And you are absolutely correct; there are no clear battle lines for them. The European response has often been, "oh dear, where did this mess come from?" I suppose my whole point in the post, is simply to say (to them): wake up, pull you head out of your ass and look around at the reality of the world you have made (while you still can.) Of course, being an Orthodox Christian gives me a little different perspective on all this.

For the Moslem community, though, I sense no such confusion. The "clash" for them is the same as it has always been; the advancement of the House of Islam being right and inevitable.