Monday, September 24, 2012

An intelligent professor of comparative religions being an utter dolt about Islam

A professor of comparative religions at a major non-Ivy-League university from whom I took several courses -- a brilliant intellectual knowledgeable about European history and philosophy (reader of French, German, Italian and Latin) -- went out of his way to use the still smoking aftermath of 911 as a teaching moment to school not only his students at his university, but also his fellow citizens by publishing, in one of the two major newspapers of Seattle, Washington (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on November 11), the following op-ed about the historical "openness in Islam":

Reviving the Openness in Islam
When Americans look at the Islamic world today, especially when they see pictures of people dancing in the streets to celebrate our suffering or burning our president in effigy, they cannot help but wonder where this hatred comes from or whether there is something inherently aggressive about Islam.
Before rushing to this assumption, we should pause to seek a deeper understanding of what is really at issue for those we need to try to understand. The comparatively small band of terrorists and financial and political supporters associated with Osama bin Laden represent only a minute portion of the larger Islamic world of today. It is true they may be giving expression to a distress, and even sometimes rage, that many Muslims have been feeling in response to such things as America's perceived favoritism toward Israel or the presence of American military forces on the soil of the nation that houses their holiest shrines. But I would like to suggest we look beyond the current flashpoints to try to understand a deeper level of stress in the Islamic world that was there before today's immediate causes of friction and will persist, perhaps not only for decades but even for centuries. 
Like it or not, we live in interesting times -- and Sept. 11 woke us to this in a new way. America is only now beginning to realize that one of the most important stories of these interesting times is the dramatic encounter between the traditional culture of Islam and the challenges it faces in the modern world. Muslims, on the other hand, have been feeling the effects of this for more than 200 years. From at least the time Napoleon invaded Egypt, Muslims have been experiencing the pressure of modern ways of thinking and behaving that threaten both to change their traditional world and to erode their confidence in its traditional foundations. The key word here is "traditional." To live successfully in a modern world requires the development of a modern mentality to deal with it. One of the most important ways of understanding what the Islamic world has been experiencing is to understand the challenges that a traditional mind must experience when it is challenged to become a modern one. 
We can get a sense of what this involves by considering just one, very important dimension of the problem: the overwhelming fact of pluralism in modern societies. Focusing on this will also help to make clear that the real issue is not one that distinguishes the Islamic world from the western world. For many people in modern western societies the transition from a traditional to a modern mentality and the challenge of living in a pluralistic milieu is as difficult as it is for many in the Islamic world or in other traditional cultures. 
Pluralism, for a modern mind, involves not only awareness of different ways of thinking and different conceptions of the good but also the belief that such diversity is legitimate. To a traditional mind, in any society, both may appear deeply threatening. Why? To approach this, let us first consider the way a traditional "world" holds together. It is grounded in what social scientists call a "world view," or conception of basic reality, of how things add up and make sense. In a traditional culture, ancestral stories and precepts tell people what that world view is, why it is true and how one must live to act in accord with the basic structure of reality. 
Most important, the tradition that does this normally has no serious competitors. Every society probably has its village atheist, but unless there are quite a few of those and they group together to constitute a serious competing voice, they are fairly easy to dismiss as simply oddballs. Most people, respecting the tradition, find in it the answers to their basic questions about the meaning of their lives and their place in the larger scheme of things, and they come to rest in those answers mainly by what might be called a sort of "social gravity." Their basic beliefs will seem true to them because "that is what everybody thinks" or "that is what we have always known." If someone asks for further grounding of the beliefs, the answer will usually take the form of appeal to a still higher level of authority and finally to Ultimate Reality itself, to God. 
This system of grounding the sense of reality on authority normally works pretty well unless it is challenged by some unavoidable fact that is inconsistent with the system of explanation (as the devastating Lisbon earthquake in the 18th century was for many Christians in Europe). Or unless it is challenged by the presence of prominent other voices making competing claims. This is why traditional societies generally strive toward unanimity. It is significant that one of the most important concepts and highest values in the Islamic tradition has been "consensus" (in Arabic, ijma). But this also shows that the real issue is not as simple as a clash between Islamic and Western cultures. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson responded to the tragedy of Sept. 11 by saying God was punishing America because of its tolerance of a set of divergent moral views, they were demonstrating the same resistance to pluralism that the Taliban do when they arrest fellow Afghans suspected of deviating from the straight path as they define it. 
The loudest voices in the Islamic world today are those of groups like the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs, or the radical "Islamists" of Egypt, and their numbers are much larger, proportionately, than those of the Falwells and Robertsons here. But Islam, too, has had and still has its own more careful thinkers, and many of these have been trying to find ways of relating Islam positively to the challenges of modern scientific thought and rational inquiry and the possibilities of pluralism. Ahmed Khan (died 1898), Jamal al Afghani (d.1897), and Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) are just a few of the better-known names of the past two centuries. Islam contains rich resources for such development. 
The Quran itself advocates a religious pluralism that was practiced for centuries in Muslim lands in what was known as the "millet system," the freedom of different religious groups to practice their own faith and govern themselves according to their own traditional laws: "And to you We [God] have revealed the Book with the truth. It confirms the Scriptures which came before it and stands as a guardian over them. ...We have ordained a law and assigned a path for each of you. Had Allah pleased, He could have made you one nation: but it is His wish to prove you by that which He has bestowed upon you. Vie with each other in good works, for to Allah you shall all return and He will declare to you what you have disagreed about" (Sura 5). 
In its early centuries, when the Islamic territory expanded to encompass much of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, including major centers of classical learning, Muslim scholars, such as Avicenna (d. 1037), Averroes (d. 1198), and Ghazali (d. 1111), to name only a few, assimilated this learning and advanced it with major scientific discoveries and new philosophical conceptions. In this respect, the Muslim world in those years was much more "modern" and open than was the contemporary Christian West. 
Islam now needs a revival of this spirit of openness, and there are many Muslims who could contribute to future Islamic intellectual and spiritual development in such an atmosphere. Unfortunately Muslim communities in some parts of the world are dominated by loud, angry and, at root, fearful voices that shun inquiry in favor of an artificially rigid traditional notion of consensus. What will be needed more than anything else in this and the next few centuries is for the deeper and more thoughtful representatives of the Islamic faith, here in America, in Europe, North Africa, in Indonesia and, where they can, in the Middle East, to draw on their tradition to develop an intellectually and spiritually open Islam that can live in peaceful and fruitful dialogue with others in the modern world. What we need to do is to understand and encourage this process, and, where possible, to protect it with the civil liberties of the pluralistic world we cherish. 
Eugene Webb is professor emeritus of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. 
Is professor Webb lying? Is he ignorant? I think he is neither lying nor can he possibly be ignorant: his mind is infected, clouded by modern PC MC, which as I have explained at length in other essays, functions sort of as a complex "filtration mechanism" by which incoming data about Islam is re-routed from reasonable conclusions to pre-packaged conclusions derived from, and massively encouraged by, our surrounding culture in our time. This indeed is our biggest problem now as we face an Islam Redivivus
For Hugh Fitzgerald's searingly apposite response to the above text, see here.


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