Monday, February 19, 2007

Why Sam Harris & co. matter   posted by Razib @ 2/19/2007 10:25:00 PM

Recently Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been making the rounds on the talk shows because of a new book. A few weeks ago she was on a Boston radio show, and you can listen to the whole interview, but, I suggest you fast forward to 24:30 and listen to the female Muslim caller. Listen to her voice, the outrage and shock, the tremor because she can't abide what she hears. I generally listen to a radio feed while I'm at work and Ali has been on a few shows, and this is a common response. Whatever reasoned critiques this variety of caller has of Ali's assertions (I am, for example, not positively inclined toward Ayaan's recent tack of repackaging herself as a Muslim by culture), the emotional impact of seeing their religion criticized and verbally raped makes them nearly unhinged. This is not an abnormal reaction, people attach great value to their religious identity, and when it is assaulted, even rhetorically, they take it quite personally. Remember that the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was in large part justified by their 'atheism,' their public disrespect of the traditional gods not their own. The concept of blasphemy, violation of taboo, is pretty universal. That being said, after the 18th century Christendom, and what became post-Christian Western civilization, shed the taboo against criticizing religion. It is simply part of the freedoms we take for granted. Most of the callers who have reacted with outrage against Ayaan Hirsi Ali are immigrants, and to me it seems quite clear that their outlook has been shaped by the inviolable nature of Islam and Islamic ideals in their societies of origin. When people talk of a "Western Islam," I think one of the things one must look to as a metric or indicator is acceptance of violation and blasphemy, a disrespect that Christianity has become accustomed to over the past few centuries.

One may contend that provocateurs such as Ayaan and Sam Harris go too far in violating the public pieties, but if you listen closely to what the caller asserts you can see why such a violation is necessary. Her reiteration of the "true Islam" in direct contradiction to the general way Islam is practiced does nothing to establish a common ground, it reflects the dreamland of her own imaginings. Fundamentally, those like myself who are secular but generally disinclined toward engaging in an anti-religious jihad because we see neither the point or the possibility of a final victory are skeptical of the hope of a modus vivendi when the delusion extends from down on high toward the mundane world of facts on the ground. Believe what you will of the divine, but accept the reality of the profane and do not fib like a child because you wish it to be so. Your parents may tell you that you are the most beautiful and smartest child of them all, but once you enter preschool you start seeing that there is more to the world than you could ever have imagined. So let's hope that preschool is in session, inshallah.

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