Friday, January 9, 2015

Islamic Violence, Islamic Silence and Western Relativism

This past week the world has been witness to another outrage committed by those who claim devotion to Islam.  If this event were unique, a person could discount it as not really having a basis in Islam in some fashion, but as its far from unique, a person can't and shouldn't.

Over the past couple of years alone we've seen Moslems blow up a bomb during the Boston Marathon, kill French cartoonist and magazine staffers, murder a British soldier in his home country in the street, attack the Canadian parliament, and wage a war combined with barbarity in Iraq and Syria.  Each time this occurs, people in the west, indeed people in much of the world, are told that we are not to assume that this means such actions accurately reflect any tenants of Islam.  Indeed, a White House spokesman was quoted in The Weekly Standard as saying this past Thursday:
There are some individuals that are using a peaceful religion and grossly distorting it, and trying to use its tenets to inspire people around the globe to carry out acts of violence. And we have enjoyed significant success in enlisting leaders in the Muslim community, like I said, both in the United States and around the world to condemn that kind of messaging, to condemn those efforts to radicalize individuals, and to be clear about what the tenets of Islamactually [sic] are. And we’re going to redouble those efforts in the days and weeks ahead.
That's all well and good, but a statement by the U.S. Presidency to this effect has exactly zero effect as a statement on behalf of Islam, influencing Moslems, or really doing anything at all.  Something like this would mean something if it came from a really influential Moslem cleric, but it does not, at least in so far as this statement is concerned.  So, does this accurately reflect real Islam, or not, or can these acts be squared with Islam, or not?

Well, maybe they do not, maybe these people are nutty outliers (I suspect at least some of them clearly are, if not outright mentally disturbed) but unfortunately maybe they do, at least to some Moslems.  Indeed, a recent poll of Saudis found that over 90% view ISIL's actions as consistent with Islamic tenants.  Now, a person has to be careful about that, as consistent with, and mandated by, are two completely different things.  Indeed, its completely possible for a person to abhor something in a faith, while being a loyal member of it, but while also regarding that thing as "consistent with" the faith.  So, I don't take that to mean that Saudis all are supporting ISIL by any means.

But all of these things together, combined with a poll figure like that, should tell us something. And the general, or at least apparent, silence up until quite recently of Islamic leaders who count when these things occur means even more.

Generally, the people who are quick to assert that "Islam is a religion of peace" aren't Moslem, and in fact, Islam really isn't a religion of peace consistently in regards to non Moslems.  The founding document of Islam, the Koran, isn't consistently peaceful by any means.  Nor does it recognize a separation between religious and civil government.  As Christians well know, Christ instructed his followers to "render until Caesar things which are Caesar's" but Mohamed, who of course rejected Christ's divinity (although in actuality may have been more of a Gnostic in reality, rather than as he was later remembered and quoted), left no such instruction.  For that reason, early Islam featured a unified government for its adherents, and that government waged war against its neighbors.

This early history, and the foundation of the religion, is extremely important in this context.  From the outside, when observed in a historical context, the origins of Islam can be and are debated, but a long held school of thought which still holds much historical weight would place very early Islam in the category of Gnosticism but advanced by a very charismatic leader.  That early Islam probably didn't really hold all of the same tenants of the current one, but it did fight its neighbors, sometimes with Christian allies even in Mohammed's time (which again would tend to suggest that early on it was actually a species of Gnosticism, rather than a new religion).  The Koran itself, to non Moslem students, seems to have been written in an evolutionary fashion, with earlier portions being less aggressive than later, perhaps reflecting the evolution in conditions on the ground that Mohamed and his followers were facing. 

Of course, to almost all Moslems, and certainly to any adherent Moslem, this view is all wrong and they would argue that the Koran is the word of God, and that's the way it is. And for Moslems, therefore, the violent portions of the Koran cannot be ignored as Moslems have to deal with them in some fashion.

But they can be interpreted differently, and there are those who have argued that they should be.  Particularly recently.  Indeed, a major Egyptian figure is arguing that this be done right now, and there have been Moslem clerics also arguing the same, recently.

That modern conditions aren't exactly the same ones that Mohamed faced in his lifetime are pretty obvious, and that humans have largely evolved past the point where every national difference must  be solved by violence or warfare, if that was ever really the case, are gone.  Indeed, the world is becoming more peaceful, not less, so this violence stands out more and more as an aberration.  But it doesn't seem to be an aberration in Islamic terms.

And it won't seem to be until that point at which most Moslems make it clear that they not only aren't resorting to the gun, but that they don't approve of it being done.  And so far, that really hasn't been the case.  Much like peaceful Communists, or the hard right, in the 1920s and 30s in Europe, people tend to wink or be silent in the face of violence committed by those they agree with on other issues, and that truly ended badly. The time has really come for Moslems in Europe and the United States to take a stand, one way or the other, and hopefully against violence.  Not until they take that brave act will this trend abate.  Of course, doing that is made doubly difficult now, as for anyone to do it in this climate they risk being branded a traitor or heretic by those who support a violent view, and beyond that there's no recognized central authority in Islam and hasn't been since the original Caliphate fell apart many centuries ago.  Indeed, the only body really claiming the the title of central authority is ISIL, and even thought the overwhelming majority of Moslems don't recognize that claim, at the same time there's no other central authority and there doesn't appear to be any way for one to be recognized in the present age.  And so, almost by its very nature, its really difficult for any Moslem leader to have a voice, unless he's very much in the global news, and that only tends to be nobody at all. So even when Moslem clerics do decry violence, and they sometimes do, it's almost never heard by anyone, even when they do occupy a position of respected authority.

That is particularly problematic, as with no central authority, there's no vehicle for reformation or interpretation that is really controlling.  Indeed, the complete lack of a central authority really makes Islam unique, as almost every other faith has one.  Even highly fractionated Christianity has that in that the various denominations do, and even though some would be reluctant to admit it, the ancient structure of the Catholic and Orthodox world is looked on for guidance by everyone.

So we face a crisis of collision of cultures in a way that we have not for some time, with an absolute need for a group now highly associated with violence to declare against it, with no easy way in which for them to accomplish that.  But they really need to.

Assuming we aren't too late now.  We've been near a tipping point in Europe for awhile, and now that we've seen this in France, a nation that has a long and complicated, and not always peaceful history, with Islamic residents, things are going to get much worse in terms of the political climate in Europe, or at least they could.  The time, therefore, for a large and effective Moslem declaration that this isn't what they support is here now.  Assuming, of course, that they really truly do, as a group, abhor such actions.  If they do, they should make that loudly plain now.

But at the same time, we should also take note, contrary to the claims of some, that the story of Islam in the West isn't really one solely of immigration, but also one of conversion.  There's a lesson to be learned here as well.  Islam is filling a void in the west left by something, and that something may be the demise of clear religious and philosophical sets of purposes.  

What exactly has occurred here remains unclear, and is still an evolving story, but as late as World War Two it was still the case that a large majority of Europeans adhered to at least some world view based on Christianity or, if not, social justice in a concrete sense.  Not all of the political movements were admirable by any means, but most people did have a sense of the greater and lesser, and the founding central focuses of those views was pretty concrete. This has tended towards collapse in recent years leading towards an increasing view of absolute relativism on everything. As a result, Europeans have been shocked with cultures that have not taken this path collide with them, as they increasingly are, and not just in regards to Islam, but also to Europe's giant eastern neighbor.  

And relativism turns out not to be a satisfying philosophical concept for anyone. As the "everything is equal" and "all conduct is okay as long as it doesn't hurt anyone" ethos has crept in, human desire to find meaning in something, anything, other than money, has likewise increased.  Ironically, at the same time, central institutions of all type have increasingly adopted relativism as their more or less official positions. As traditional European institutions or institutions that were traditionally strong in the west have weakened, many have been aimless and others have turned towards those institutions that have their base in distant lands, but which seem more absolute.

As official positions, relativistic institutions don't work, particularly on anything founded on a strong thesis. This doesn't mean that a person must agree with one particular thing or another, but it does mean that institutions shouldn't hide their basic concepts or dilute them to the point that they're nearly meaningless.

For when they do, there is always something left to fill that vacuum.  And in an age when many of the Christian religions in Europe have diluted their faith to the point that it isn't very recognizable, and when many social and political institutions seem mainly focused on what the best way for an economy to make money is, those who are looking for something to give their lives meaning have to look pretty far.  And for some of them, that will be Islam, as whether a person agrees with it or not, Islam seems to know what it believes.  Countering a strong belief with the ethos of "it's nice to be nice to the nice and everyone is nice" isn't going to cut it with people who are searching.  Indeed, it  really doesn't cut it with anyone.

So we've reached this point.  And its a bad one.  Maybe its time for those who have a foundation in something to declare what it is, and for those who have a foundation in something that others feel licenses violence, when they feel otherwise, to state that.


Of note here, and of interest, a fair number of newspapers in the Middle East have, in fact, run cartoons from their cartoonist decrying the terrorists' acts.

That's a brave thing to do, given where they are from, and  its exactly the type of reaction from that quarter that's needed here.

Postscript II

And there was indeed a good turn out for the March in Paris, which did indeed include some significant Moslem figures, including clerics and King Abdullah of Jordan.

So, perhaps things have turned a corner.

Postscript III

For the first time, I've heard a really good explanation, but a noted religion writer, on the topic of this type of violence and Islam.

Of note, according to this author, who seemed very well informed indeed, such violence is in fact not sanctioned by Islam, even if Islam's history and texts have some violent aspects. A partial reason is that there's no authority that has authorized it, which can authorize it.  Indeed, there would appear to be no authority which can in fact authorize it.

Additionally, it appears that the violence has in fact turned off a large segment of the Islamic population everywhere, to such an extent in fact that the religion is loosing a significant number of adherents in some areas, including Iran, where those abandoning the faith are either completely abandoning any faith, or are converting to Christianity.

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