Monday, July 08, 2013

Jeff Jacoby vs. the Prophet Mohammed.

Mohammed's interpretation of Islam.
Jeff Jacoby, of the Boston Globe, is confused about religion in general, and Islam in particular, as demonstrated in an article that appeared on Townhall today.  Let's try to straighten him out. 

For years, terrible and violent crimes have been committed in the name of Islam. Does that mean Islam is inherently a religion of terrible violence?

That depends on how many years, and what you mean by "Islam."

The scholar Daniel Pipes has long argued that it is a mistake to attribute the evils committed by Muslim supremacists and jihadist killers to Islam itself, or to the text of the Koran and the hadith, the religion’s sacred scriptures. Like every great faith, Islam is what its adherents make of it. Today, many of those adherents are influenced by Islamism, the militant totalitarian version of Islam that emerged in the 20th century. The Islamist ascendancy is reflected in the savageries of Al Qaeda, the brutal misogyny of the Taliban, the apocalyptic hostility of the regime in Iran.

There are several deep confusions here. 

First, what is a "Muslim supremacist?"  Someone who thinks Islam should be supreme, one presumes.  But that obviously included Mohammed. 

Second, who is a "jihadist killer?"  Again, Mohammed started numerous wars, enslaved numerous neighbors, assassinated his critics (including a mother holding her baby in bed), and was guilty of torture and mass murder. 

So how can one speak of such activities "emerging in the 20th Century," when in fact they emerged almost as soon as Mohammed started preaching? 

As I said, one needs to pay attention to the number of years that attend the problem Jacoby writes about. 

Third, Jacoby is confused between two positions: (a) "Every great faith is what its adherents make it," and (b) the Koran and hadith are innocent of what Muslims "have made" of their religion.  But if religions are all purely a matter of developed tradition, why do scriptures matter at all?  So why bother to say they are innocent?   

The deeper problem here is Jacoby is being overly dogmatic about how to define religions.  He wants us to define religions according to their developed traditions, and just ignore other definitions.  That's a typically liberal way of defining religions.  But a typically conservative approach (similar to debate over the Constitution) is to define religions according to their sacred scriptures.  A third is to define religions by the person, character, teachings and example of their founders, in this case Mohammed. 

These other definitions are obviously much more important to most Muslims than the "living tradition" version Jacoby wants us to emphasize.  He makes it sound as if all religions were entirely malleable, as if scriptures made no difference at all.  Of course traditions do evolve: Buddhists who ought to believe in compassion conduct inquisitions, and communists who ought to conduct violent revolution turn into Lei Feng, the gentle Chinese soldier-hero of Cultural Revolution legend.  Both phenomena are going on at the same time, as Forrest Gump put it. 

If we define Islam by its founder or by the Koran, then two things follow: (a) Islam will be different from religions defined by different founders or scriptures, and (b) there will be limits to how malleable to faith will prove.  And I think modern history demonstrates both of these facts - as indeed, did Medieval history, already. 

But just as the nightmare of the Third Reich was far from the totality of German culture and character, so Islam’s 1,400-year history is not encapsulated by the violent ugliness of the present moment.

Why is Jacoby comparing a culture to a religion?  Wouldn't it be more reasonable to compare religions to one another -- Islam to Nazism, or if that is too harsh, German culture to Arab culture?  Nazism at its core is bad, I think most of us agree.  What, then, is to stop Islam, at least in theory, from having some similar, if lesser, defect at its core?  To assert that Islam (defined by Mohammed or by the Koran) is flawed in some serious way, would not at all be like blanketly dismissing Arab or German cultures.  Because there are core beliefs, and how faith expresses itself is not all just a random walk of social evolution.

Were Jacoby to compare like to like, though, he might realize that it is not racism or bigotry to evaluate belief systems according to what they teach or the fruit they yield, and that religions can at their cores be better or worse -- fearful thoughts, apparently. 

In other eras, Muslim society was known for its learning, tolerance, and moderation. “If things can get worse, they can also get better,” Pipes writes in the current issue of Commentary. As recently as 1969, when he began his career in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, Islamist extremism was all but unknown in world affairs. “If Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.”

But those eras of tolerance were relative, as Bernard Lewis, Bat Ye'or, and others have shown.  They were also periods after Islam had expanded, which tends to make a culture more confident, an expansion that came at the violent expense over several centuries of all Islam's neighbors.   

In fact, Islamic extremism was quite common well before 1969, whether or not Jeff Jacoby was paying attention to it.  After all, Jews had been almost all driven out of Muslim countries twenty years before that.  And almost 200 years before that, Muslim pirates explained to John Adams (I believe it was) that of course they pillaged and killed infidels, that was part of their religion.  Which indeed it had been, for much longer still, going back to the sacred example of the prophet. 

But let's let Jacoby develop his argument at more length now, before poking any more pins in it:

Since 9/11, Pipes has summarized his approach to the threat from Islamist terror and oppression with the maxim “Radical Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution.” Not everyone accepts such a distinction. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been widely held out as a model of moderate political Islam, has insisted that “Islam is Islam, and that’s it.

Many non-Muslims disagree with Pipes, too. The prominent Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who says the Koran should be banned in Holland, maintains that Islam and Islamism are “exactly the same” and that moderate Islam is “totally nonexistent.” Islam is not a religion like Christianity or Judaism, Wilders told me in a 2009 interview. “It’s an ideology that wants to dominate every aspect of society.”

It’s what Muslims make it.

To those who hold Wilders’s essentialist view, Islam’s teachings are immutable; the values promoted by the Koran and other Islamic scriptures are today what they have always been and always will be. By this argument, the backwardness, repression, and violent incitement against non-Muslims that hold sway in much of the contemporary Muslim world don’t reflect a particularly harsh and unenlightened interpretation of Islam — they are Islam.

Not true, asserts Pipes. “Only . . . by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation” — on topics ranging from jihad to the role of women to slavery — “can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time.”

Jacoby's criticism here seems directly, if not against a straw man, against a very simplistic opposing position.  Of course no text is "understood identically" by any two people at any one time, still less over 1300 years. 

Surely we should seek a balance between supposing the Koran determines what all Muslims will think and feel and do as if they were programmed robots, and supposing that the Koran and hadith have nothing at all to do with the nastiness of modern (and earlier) Islam, and Muslims just willy-nilly make it up as they go along, no doubt after carefully reading the Boston Globe and New York Times editorials. 

Bernard Lewis states unequivocally that while there were reform movements in Islam, none of them ever challenged the inferior status of women and slaves and non-Muslims. 

Take the Koran’s famous injunction (2:256) that “there be no compulsion in religion.” Is that a call for universal religious tolerance? Does it apply only to the various denominations within Islam? Was it limited only to non-Muslims in seventh-century Arabia? Is it to be understood as purely symbolic? Does it protect only non-Muslims who agree to live under Muslim rule? Was it overridden by a subsequent Koranic verse?

Of course, Mohammed was anticipating the present Dalai Lama and his pluralist western friends!  It would be grossly unfair to read this comment in light of how Mohammed actually treated unbelievers! 

As Pipes and other scholars have shown, the correct elucidation of that phrase is: All of the above. There is no monolithic reading of that seemingly straightforward passage. Muslim authorities have variously given it completely incompatible interpretations.
Like all religions, Islam changes. And like all scripture, the meaning of the Koran’s text depends on its expounders. The words may be enduring, but the lessons drawn from them need not be. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament also contain passages whose normative meanings changed as the faiths based on them evolved. Do Jesus’ words in Matthew — “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” — mean that Christianity is not a religion of peace? The answer to that question is not the same today as it would have been during the Crusades or Europe’s wars of religion.

Jacoby is playing a popular but ignoble game, here.  Jesus himself referred to it in terms of beams and splinters.  One can also talk about trees and forests.

There are almost 400 references to "love" in the New Testament.  There are 14 references to hate, only one of which can be twisted and misinterpreted (by someone like Hector Avalos) to mean we should really hate anyone.   Mohammed killed, tortured, enslaved, raped, and started wars.  Jesus healed, fed the hungry, and forgave his enemies from the cross.

Of course that one isolated saying, taken out of context and misunderstood, does not mean Christianity is an inherently warlike religion.  I won't say it is a "religion of peace," so simply, either: there is a time for war, and a time for peace.  But only a fool (of which, true, Christian history has furnished many, some of them rather famous) could miss where the emphasis lies in the New Testament.

It is only fanatics who believe that they alone are in possession of the only correct answer to every important question, and that their beliefs must be enforced through power and persecution. The credo of the Muslim Brotherhood, which until a coup last week was Egypt’s ruling party, declares emphatically that “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way.” That authoritarian, supremacist line — the Islamists’ line — is only one understanding of Islam, and as millions of Egyptian citizens have made clear in recent days, it is by no means a universal one.

Of course no thoughtful person claims one interpretation of Islam has been "universal."  Reasonable people know that religious creeds are only one of many influences on the human soul.  Reasonable people also know that they are deeply important influences. 

As for what the coup in Egypt establishes, or will bring next, shouldn't we pass on making prophecies about Egypt, for a while? 

Radical Islam — not Islam itself — is the menace that must be defeated. In that struggle we have no more invaluable allies than moderate Muslims. Pretending they don’t exist helps no one but the Islamists.

Who's pretending they don't exist?  I just don't see Mohammed as one of them.  And I do see that as a serious problem. 


Brian Barrington said...

The Koranic injunction that “there is no compulsion in religion" is,  Muslims believe, the word of God, and that command is neither negated nor affirmed by anything Muhammad may or may not have done. Muhammad is, for Muslims, merely a human being, like Moses is for the Jews - Muhammad, like Moses and the other prophets, tells people what God says, but he is not God himself.  Muhammad and Moses are not God, whereas Jesus is God for Christians, so Jesus has to be perfect in every way for Christians. Like Moses, Muhammad was a political and military leader as well as a religious leader - Jesus (like Buddha) was only a religious figure, so he did not engage in the kinds of acts that political and military leaders need to engage in. Moses, a Christian prophet as well as the most important Jewish prophet, "killed, tortured, enslaved, raped, and started wars."

But unlike the Jewish Bible and Christian Bible, the Koran contains no instructions to perpetrate genocide or commit gang rape. Maybe Jews and Christians have found ways to "interpret" their Bibles so as to do away with these injunctions - but then Muslims can also engage in the same "interpretation" of passages in the Koran and Hadith.

Of course, during the era of Western anti-Semitism, people would point to the blood-thirsty passages of the Jewish Bible and to the blood-thirsty acts of Moses, and contrast them with the New Testament,  in order to justify Jew hatred. It is no surprise to find anti-Muslims today attempting to use the same techniques to justify Muslim hatred - the same type of people in the West who were Jew-haters 100yrs ago, now eagerly embrace Muslim-hatred.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I was wondering if you'd pay us a visit on this. So many posts have flowed under the bridge on other subjects since we last talked about Islam . . . Maybe you'd even agree with one or two, who knows.

Mohammed occupies a position for Muslims between Jesus and Moses (who did not engage in rape or torture, so far as I know) for Christians, but much closer to that of Jesus. He was not sinless, but he is the Muslim model of manhood. (As Socrates was to Stoics.) His habit of assassinating critics is accurately reflected in the tendency to start riots when unfavorable cartoons of him are printed in obscure European newspapers.

But if you think I'm advocating hatred of Muslims, you're mistaken. One point of the post is that we need to separate ideology, which is something people believe, from culture or race, which are things that one can hardly be argued out of. That is Jacoby's error, and I find it patronizing: we are responsible to believe responsibly.

You are in error in disbelieving in God, as Muslims are in error in following Mohammed, and communists in following the theories of Karl Marx. Naturally I have reasons for thinking so. This is no more to justify hating Muslims, than to justify hating you, which of course I do not. And you have your own reasons (good, you no doubt think) for rejecting Christianity, among which you may count the misbehavior alleged of Moses or Joshua, or of Medieval anti-Semites. But Muslims today are in no state of weakness comparable to Jewish villages in Medieval Europe: 1.5 billion people, including some very rich countries. A better analogy might be to the Jews themselves, in Israel.

Anyway, another main point of the piece is to distinguish between three ways of defining religion, one of which liberals adopt, the second of which is typically conservative, and the third, which both use at times. I tend to think liberals and conservatives argue past one another, by adopting different definitions, without recognizing the fact. Any thoughts on that?

Brian Barrington said...

Different religions have widely different relationships with their founders, and some of the most important and oldest religions have no founder at all (for example, Hinduism). What is clear is that any religion which claims that its earthly founder was God (as Christianity claims), has a radically different relationship with its founder than do those religions which do not make that claim (e.g. Judaism, Islam). The position of Muhammad in Islam is closer to that of Moses in Judaism than it is to the position of Jesus in Christianity. What conclusions do you draw about Judaism and the Jews on the basis that Judaism's most important prophet "killed, tortured, enslaved, raped, and started wars"?

I doubt you personally hate Muslims - I'd rather say that you are biased against them, against Islam and against Arabs, and that Westerners who surrender to anti-Muslim bias aid and abet those Westerners who really do hate Muslims - just as Westerners with mildish biases against Jews and Judaism would have previously aided and abetted the most venomous anti-Semites.

But your point about there being more Muslims than Jews is valid - it means, for example, that Europeans would probably not get away with doing to their Muslim minority what they previously did to their Jewish minority.

I suppose it makes sense that conservatives and theists would take sacred texts more seriously than liberals and atheists - to an atheist, each religious text is just another book written by fallible humans and interpreted by fallible humans, often to suit whatever purposes they might have at any particular time. Whereas conservatives and theists will be at least open to the idea that there is a book which is the revealed word of God - as a Christian you probably have more of a sense than I do what the Koran means to Muslims. 

Brian Barrington said...

Regarding the previous debate on this site about Jesus having a bad or good influence on people -as an atheist one can also agree that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and a very good person, who has often positively inspired people to do good things. A positive view of Jesus's moral teaching is not incompatible with atheism. One can have an overall positive view of Jesus without being a Christian (I.e. without agreeing that Jesus was God or that God exists). That would probably be close to my own view - although  I would say some of Jesus's teachings have had a bad influence, like the doctrine of hell, which is a nasty fantasy that has been used to terrify and control vulnerable or gullible people for thousands of years

David B Marshall said...

In theory, one would think Christianity would rely on Jesus to a "radically" stronger degree than Islam relies on Mohammed. In practice, I think because Mohammed's example is easier to follow, it is followed at least as much, even in the West. Also, human beings seem to need a human model, whether they officially perceive that model as divine or not -- which is why so many communist leaders and atheist gurus like Freud and Ayn Rand and P Z Myers create "cults of personality."

Again, you're mixing ideas and racial identity. Do you see it as anti-German bigotry to describe Nazism as morally off-center? If not, then let's not mix race with religion. 80% of Muslims are not Arab, though they do suffer from the cultural imperialism that does ride on Islamic expansion, as Naipaul argues.

steve said...


I largely agree with your analysis. However:

Although it's undoubtedly correct to judge Islam by Muhammad and the Koran, it's also correct to judge Islam by authoritative legal/interpretive traditions in succeeding centuries. As you know, "jihad" is a fixture of Islamic historical theology. Islam isn't a sola Scriptura religion like Protestantism, but a tradition-laden religion like Roman Catholicism.

In addition to the Koran, as well as Muhammad's exemplary role, it's also appropriate to judge Islam by centuries of legal precedent and hermeneutics.

David B Marshall said...

Fair enough. My point was not really that the "liberal" interpretation of religion is "wrong." All three definitions are valid. In fact, I would say tradition is also very important in Protestant Christianity, more than we often admit. But defining a religion by its founder and its scriptures is usually primary; it is also easier to get a handle on, for lazy scholars like myself. :- )

Brian Barrington said...

David, since your Calvinist chums over a triablogue barred me from making comments there (apparently on the grounds that I was “wasting everyone’s time”!) I think you should considering barring them from making comments on your website :-)

Unknown said...

You know we try to be tolerant, liberal, and humane here. We do discourage blooming idiots and crassness, but otherwise are ecumenical. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church; I can handle a few Calvinists, if they and the Armenians, anarchists and liberals are kind enough to observe house rules. Anyway, while I do delete blasphemy, pornography, ads, and asinine vituperation when it crops up, I don't really know how to ban a poster.

steve said...

David B Marshall said...

"Fair enough. My point was not really that the 'liberal' interpretation of religion is "wrong." All three definitions are valid. In fact, I would say tradition is also very important in Protestant Christianity, more than we often admit. But defining a religion by its founder and its scriptures is usually primary; it is also easier to get a handle on, for lazy scholars like myself. :- )"

Clearly some developments are illegitimate. They redefine the religion to the point of turning it into a different religion, contrary to the vision of the founder.

David B Marshall said...

Skimming the conversation, I actually found it rather interesting. Of course while I have sympathy for people who have such feelings, I think homosexual marriage is an oxymoron, and probably going to cause much more harm to more people than good. But one of the nice things about blogging is one can ignore such topics, even while the whole world can't stop yacking about them. I would much rather post photos of wildflowers and Mt. St. Helens that no one comments on, than endure a thousand comments about Adam and Steve.

Let me challenge you empirically on a couple points you make in that thread, though.

First, it is way too simple to describe Marxists as "moral absolutists." I talk about the three conflicting Marxist moral systems in Jesus and the Religions of Man.

Second, you write:

"You would also need to demonstrate that all the moral philosophies that are not based on a personal God are false or untenable, such as Buddhist ethics, Taoist ethics, Confucian ethics, Aristotle’s ethical philosophy, Hume’s moral philosophy, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, pragmatic ethics, virtue ethics, common sense morality and so forth."

Four of these arguably WERE originally based on belief in a personal God. But I am also (perhaps for aesthetic reasons) not very fond of arguments about the metaphysical basis of moral theory, and therefore have also managed to avoid reading Harris' book. (Which is no doubt overpriced.)

David B Marshall said...

Steve: Sure. Though in many cases, that's progress. Mitt Romney is a much better person than Joseph Smith. If modern Mormons choose to define themselves in terms of Romney rather than Smith, their religion may have evolved, but in a positive direction. That may make it less coherent, but more pleasant.