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April 12, 2004

Brittle it be

Seems like Teddy Dalrymple is at it again-commenting on British Muslim culture (via ParaPundit via Diana). A few points:

Dalrymple uses the term "brittle" to describe Islam. I've used this term myself, partially in analogy with Jewish culture before 1800 in Europe, which "shattered" under the impact of Christian and post-Christian "Enlightenment." Jim Kalb, "traditionalist conservative" par excellence, is often comparing Islam with liberalism, in that both are axiomatic, and destructive of custom & tradition. Since I myself view many threads in the modern Western political tradition as secularized forms of Christian universalism, this is entirely plausible. I also view liberalism as brittle, an "unstable equilibrium," albeit a precious one.

On the other hand, I have recently had second thoughts of broad-brush characterizations of "Islam" as an axiomatic-"meme complex." To illustrate the problems: Islam has traditionally been inimcal to those who were not "People of the Book" (this hostility itself is disputable, but my impression is that the dissenters are either highly heterodox or modern revisionists). There were some parts of the Koran used to justify the toleration of Zoroastrians and Mandaeans. But what about the Hindus of India? No matter the axiomatic injunction, it was generally not honored, and the legal scholars simply pretended as if Hindus were People of the Book and ordered that the dhimmi jizya (tax) be imposed upon them (rather than the death that was the lot of pagan Arabs).

Nevertheless, there are general trends in the Ummah, and this is what Dalrymple is speaking to. He notes that "Islam has no separation between Church & State." Well, I have cautioned the optimists who wish to see such hope in liberal Islam from behaving as if this is the Muslim norm, but I would caution the same for Dalrymple et al. For instance, the contrast between Sikh & Hindu Punjabis and Muslim Punjabis is something that Dalrymple uses as a "controlled" comparison, showing how the only difference between them is religion, but the Muslims seem to be faring far worse socioeconomically. But what about the Gujarati Muslims of East Africa? In particularly, the Ismailis. Their brand of Islam is in many ways far more like that of a Hindu sect (socially, not theologically), in that they are traditionally a Gujarati merchant caste. I would like to emphasize that Ismailis are peculiar in the Muslim world, and so we should be cautious about generalizing, but they are illustrative of the topographic diversity of Muslim religious expression. Dalrymple implicitly tips his hat to this principle as he notes that Islam's expression in its particular time & place, in the Arab and West Asian worlds, as well as after the observation of the ascendence of post-Christianity in Europe, makes it fundamentally a different creature which is a chimera of many beasts.

This is all set-up for an opinion I would like to express: I do not believe that "separation of Church & State" is as much of a problem as thinkers would suggest (at least in the long term). I work by analogy here: It was not in the Catholic nations where the Church remained established as the Second Estate, parallel with the First Estate, that liberalism flourished. It was in England where liberalism took root, a nation where there is an established Church headed by the monarch. This co-exists with religious pluralism established after the turbulence of the reigns of the later Stuarts. Similarly, in Scandinavia, the Church became absorbed by the state (to its detriment if religious feelings are any indication), and stable and transparent democracies have resulted. Contrastingly, state supported Prussian Protestantism gave rise to one of the more heinous autocracies of this century-though students of details of history will note that the Hohenzollern monarchy was for a long period characterized by a Calvinist monarch ruling over a Lutheran people (though Frederick the Great was personally an unbeliever)-a situation that eventually ended with the forced solvation of the Calvinist confession into the broader Lutheran Evangelical tradition. My point? Be cautious of this generalization. If history teaches lessons, must we look for a Muslim Laud, or Cromwell, or even William of Orange?

Finally, I would like to say I'm amused & surprised that City Journal is distributing a tract that seems to imply that atheists are healthy for a liberal/plural culture:


But until Muslims (or former Muslims, as they would then be) are free in their own countries to denounce the Qu’ran as an inferior hodgepodge of contradictory injunctions, without intellectual unity (whether it is so or not)—until they are free to say with Carlyle that the Qu’ran is “a wearisome confused jumble” with “endless iterations, longwindedness, entanglement”—until they are free to remake and modernize the Qu’ran by creative interpretation, they will have to reconcile themselves to being, if not helots, at least in the rearguard of humanity, as far as power and technical advance are concerned.

As godless & I are wont to say: Islam must be gelded (or, as godless so explicitly would state: "There must be a Piss Muhammed next to the Piss Christ"). I am not a naive exponent of the view that secularism brings with it the panoplies of modernity, that religious is always base superstition and culture stifling, after all, muscular self-conscious secularism did not come to the fore in European culture until the 18th century, while Europe's rise dated to the 16th century at the latest. But, a vocal and somewhat uncivil and publically skeptical class of bohemians & firebrands is something that the Dar-al-Islam seems to lack-rationally so, since death at the extreme, and social expulsion at the least, are consequences of public infidelity to Allah. The experience of Islam in the West might be crucial to this process: once the tools that sliced & diced the tendons and ligaments from the flesh of Christianity are brought to bear on Islam, this process might slowly make its way into the Muslim world. But unfortunately, our public equation of Islam = "people of color" in some sectors is mitigating this process, and further ossifying the religious culture. So many times on my country-wide trip I would hear that "Islam is a beautiful heritage," but so was the culture that produced the Inquisition, the Theocracy of Geneva and the burning of witches.

When Symmachus, the pagan Prefect of Rome, pleaded for toleration for the "Old Ways," Ambrose of Milan retorted "There is no shame in passing to better things." Just once, I'll say it: amen!

Posted by razib at 05:42 PM