Comments on Dialogue with John: Sacred Texts/Tests by CK MacLeod

@ George Jochnowitz:
I suppose. But you get the point, don't you?

@ narciso:
Huh? What you outline also wouldn't equate with "about Islam," it would equate with "about Salafi presence" etc.

@ George Jochnowitz:
The article looks like a good article, and I've added the Hudson Center on the future of Islam etc. to our blogroll, but it isn't "about Islam." Really, George, that's like looking at a backgrounder on Baruch Goldstein and saying it's "about Judaism."

@ Rex Caruthers:
See there you go reacting to someone else's ideology (Paul's or narc's) with your own.

We are different from every other "large civilization" because... we're not the same as any other large civilization. In fact, the underlying confusion over what "we" are - country, civilization, empire, idea, power structure currently headquartered in North America - already introduces an insuperable indeterminacy into any such statement.

Doesn't mean that success is guaranteed, or for that matter that the success of the country and the success of the empire are the same thing. For some people it would be, for others the success of the empire would mean the failure of the country, and vice versa, and so on.

The idea may prove "exceptional" or it may turn out to be contingent on "exceptional" geopolitical advantages, or the anti-exceptional geo-economic situation that obsesses you may defeat both. Or the defeat may be temporary, and the idea and geopolitics may win in the end. Stay tuned for the next exciting scenes.

@ narciso:
As I said, I'm not in favor of the Canadian system as I understand it. My point, which you effectively concede, is that the concept of "hate speech" doesn't exist on some simple one-dimensional spectrum of more-free/less-free. The critics of hate speech take a similar position regarding invective aimed at groups in society that the the Islamophobes take towards perceived anti-freedom characteristics of Islam. Both believe that at a certain point speech becomes action, in itself and also indirectly, and that, if we oppose the deeds, we need to oppose the words. It's a familiar example of one kind of freedom supposedly coming into conflict with another. You have a right to consume pornography; you don't have a right to publicly display it in an effort to intimidate female co-workers.

This is an all too short introduction to another question for Colin & Co.: what do you mean by “Abrahamic” faiths, and why do you think Islam is one?

Not sure what you're asking. It's a conventional usage for referring to the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which all trace their lineage to Abraham. There are also good theological and historical justifications for it.

I know we're not trying to be totally rigorous here - it's just a blog thread - but I'd hesitate to define "Allah" simply as "unknowable and completely Other" or to presume very much about what definitions would be absolutely excluded from the other faith traditions.

These resentments tend to erode the freedom by which human rights are at once recognized and lived. It is curious that you would make this argument in an age when claims of “hate speech” are widely made to stifle free expression, when claims to group rights and privileges erode individual choice, opportunity, and property rights, when the leading forces in the economy seek rents and protection from emerging competition, when the US has practically bankrupted itself to privilege today’s consumers at the expense of the freedom of future generations, when the “rights of man” are claimed by people who want to destroy the freedom of men that we may be returned to some more totalitarian order.

Way too much ideology packed into that paragraph (and following ones) to take it all piece by piece. I'll just point out that the statement itself exhibits an apparent contradiction between "group rights" and "individual rights," yet at the same time proposes totalitarianism as one end of a simple linear opposition with freedom. It seems to me that we already have at least two different axes to plot, and we haven't even gotten to positive vs. negative rights - or different kinds of groups, or different concepts of the individual...

But, since you bring up "hate speech," let's consider it briefly in the above context. I'm not in favor of Canada's hate speech codes and how they've been implemented, from what I understand of them (i.e., completely as depicted by American conservative defenders of Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant, or by Steyn and Levant themselves, salted with some David Warren), but I strongly suspect that that those who conceived of and support them likely believed that that the codes would protect the freedoms of typical objects of hatred.

In many respects the beginning point of this discussion for me was a firm sense that the opponents of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" were violating a set of truly fundamental commitments to freedom of conscience and expression, both at ground level in the sense of their attempt to squelch somebody else's free exercise, and, more dangerously, in committing to the undifferentiated collective pre-judgment of a faith community.

I don't know your position on that controversy, or even if you're familiar with it. When Pamela Geller advocates a cultural center dedicated to "expunging" offensive passages in the Koran, in place of the proposed Islamic cultural center dedicated to interfaith dialogue, we are not, to say the least, in the presence of an absolute libertarian position. Leaving aside the hostile and ignorant doctrinal pseudo-exegesis that this position rests on, Geller is explicitly calling for a ideological attack on Muslims in America. She's accusing their very doctrine (as she interprets it) of being a form of "hate speech" - well before anyone makes the same accusation, to my mind with much greater justification, against her.

I've already gone on and on about the the "mosque" topic elsewhere, so I'll leave it for now. I'll let the discussion of guilt marinate a little longer, or see if you have more to say on it, before I respond.

George Jochnowitz wrote:

As of this moment, there is no movement within Islam that denies that the words of Mohammed were said by him.

Muhammad does not occupy the identical place within Islam that Jesus occupies within Christianity.

In any event, what significant movement "within" Christianity denies Jesus, denies the importance of the example of the life of Jesus - historical or mythical - or denies the importance of interpreting the words attributed to him? Why should we expect there to be a movement within Islam denying Muhammad in any of those senses? It's like asking why there aren't more Laker fans who root against the Lakers, or why there aren't more American patriots who hate America.

@ narciso:
The plain meaning of the crucifixion is that the prophet failed and that his political quest and bona fides (from the perspective of the ancient world, which wanted proof of divine favor) died with him. The inverted meaning is that the miserable humiliation and death of the prophet was intended right from the get-go. Similar operations occur throughout the Old Testament, where one or another immense setback to the Israelites is interpreted not as a failure for their all-powerful warrior god, but as proof of his even greater power: The older understanding was that if your god was powerful, he'd bring you victory. The newer understanding was that if your god was really, really powerful, he could control the other guy's god, too, and use him to punish you through the other guy's victory over you - an interpretation that has the further appeal of suggesting that, contrary to appearances, your true authentic god is still primarily concerned with you and your progress.

@ Rex Caruthers:
Robert Wright (THE EVOLUTION OF GOD - currently under "reading") takes the view, in short, that the plain meaning of the crucifixion was inverted after the fact by clever religious entrepreneurs - but the point (and Wright's point) is that even that reductive view of the tradition doesn't mean that that the existential symbolism is invalid on its own terms, and didn't catch on for a good reason. Even your atheistic view takes that as a given, while covering it over with hostility to the Church and its supposed false pretenses. Even the view that the historical J was just the lottery winner from among a large cohort of competitors leaves much open to further question: What need was the cohort of Jesus-like prophets serving at the time of the Roman occupation of Israel? What do the known events say about the limits of Earthly power, and the human capacity to re-configure life and death symbolically? Maybe that's as much the message of the Christian revelation as any - that it is within our power to master our destinies. In that sense, Christianity is one central origin, perhaps the most important one, of modern atheism - and many of its opponents recognized just such a threat in it: the annihilation of the ancient gods in favor of a false/merely human god, as the end of the ancient world's understanding of the divine.

I'm not convinced, Rex, that much of anything attributed to the historical figure Jesus was all that much different from anything that countless other itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preachers of his day were saying, or that statements like the prediction of betrayal, if said at all, amounted to more than random statements typical of "prophet types," endowed with meaning by re-contextualization. That doesn't necessarily make the Christian tradition any less valid, however, though it obviously makes cultish aspects of Christian worship harder for a skeptic to accept.

George's simplification of Christianity is a typical outsider's reduction. The discourse of salvation/damnation is merely one leading item on the Christian menu - kind of like the Big Mac at McDonald's, important, hard to imagine McDonald's without it, but far from the whole franchise.

We could perform a similar operation on Judaism - define it as from the beginning to the present day a discourse meant to serve the Jews, but under shifting conceptions of Jewish interests, that among other things gradually discovered the uses of monotheism - and that might be all we needed to say about Judaism if we didn't care about what the Jews thought.

The same can be said for Muhammad (switched spelling here for no good reason) to a large extent, even though the Koran can mostly be considered his words as recorded by true contemporaries, though with edits, interpolations, dubious translations, etc., even before you get to the usual tactical selection of verses to support one or another agenda. The Hadiths are even more subject to dispute, and the later development of Muslim doctrine is rather obviously political, sometimes serving conquest, sometimes serving the peaceful administration of empire, sometimes serving self-defense, often serving the interests of whatever existing power structure (or its opponents on the rise), and sometimes even serving the open-minded search for truth under a presumption of universal brotherhood and mutual tolerance and an implicit understanding that the Koran and the entire tradition must be re-adjusted for changing times and understandings.

This is partly what I meant about a critique of Islam simultaneously undermining other religions. We've operated in this country under the time- and battle-tested assumption that religious disputes should be mixed with politics as little as possible. The worry was that otherwise you end up with roving armies under the command of fanatics destroying churches and the people in them for the dastardly crime of using the wrong furniture while celebrating the God of Love.

On the other hand, if we decide to take the critique further - to the end - nothing requires us to view the faith tradition as overthrown just because its sacred texts, or hallowed interpretations of sacred texts, can be shown to be collectively produced artifacts. If Christianity is seen as "done" by Christians rather than ordained by the historical figure Jesus, that doesn't necessarily make it any less "divine." It may not even interfere with most of the magic. Likewise for the other faiths.

@ George Jochnowitz:
There you go again. Most of "Islam" has had other things on its mind: Like gathering enough firewood and clean water to make it through the day, for example. Over that same period, political Islam or Islamism - the noisiest part of the "Islamic world" - has defined itself around a widely embattled post-colonial process of self-organization and in many places economic and military self-defense. That doesn't mean that Arabs were "in the right," specifically when they combined to attack Israel, or that Islamists were in the right in any particular acts of terrorism or oppression, but it does suggest that a different set of interests have generally governed relationship to religion. Where Islamic nations have sought allies, in particular allies against the revolutionary Islamists themselves, we see different kinds of negotiations with or suppression of intolerant and belligerent doctrinal elements. Thus, for example, Sistani's quietist form of Shia develops in a multi-denominational and internationalized context - serving multiple simultaneous purposes: reduction of conflict vs. Saddam and successors, separation from aggressive revolutionary non-Arab Shia, availability for tactical alignment with foreigners, Western and Sunni. Sistani seems to be a very brave man, as far as I can tell - it's not an insult to him to note that non-quietism in Baathist Iraq would almost certainly have gotten him killed.

There's no inherent reason why, over the long term, the same needs and interests - and related modes of interpretation - that have led to pragmatic adjustments in Western doctrines can't lead to parallel adjustments in Islamic ones: "All men by nature believe they love those things by which they believe they are benefited." (Xenophon, quoted in ON TYRANNY). But it's a lot to ask of someone to confess that he's cynically revising his "deepest" spiritual beliefs because there's something in it for him.

@ George Jochnowitz:
The inconsistencies in the Koran in re the Jews are relatively easily explained by the circumstances and objectives of Mohammed and his nascent movement at the time (Mecca vs Medina, seeking allies/making war). Similar patterns on relating to other faiths obtain in the Old Testament, in the Gospels and other books of the New Testament and in the whole history of interfaith conflict, dialogue, and doctrinal adjustment. The developments occur unevenly, always too slowly for some and too fast for others, are subject to reversal, and produce losers as well as winners. We're not always in a good position to determine who is really prevailing.