Islam’s Black Dog

The tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, and the near miss by underwear bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, are being analyzed by the chattering classes as a failure of intelligence. In one sense, that’s right.

The army psychiatrist charged with the murders is seen as a closet terrorist whose deployment orders drove him over some psychological edge. He has a record, we’re told, of being argumentative, self-righteous about his religion, unwilling or unable to locate his religious ideas in any context that would limit their effect, and devoted to the jihadist philosophy of the Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki.

Umar Abdulmutallab on the other hand is a sad instance of a privileged upbringing in which fundamental personal and educational questions went unresolved. It didn’t matter. Islam stepped in where reasonable voices feared to go.

Of course, like covering the aftermath of a hurricane, it’s a bit late for that information. Most reflective people find it difficult enough to listen to news “analysis” even when the story is as simple as the saga of a missing child. The infusion of pure intellectual swill, piety, prejudice and ignorance of a world beyond America from the cable networks makes these stories of pathetic characters who found salvation in violence (or intended violence) hard to digest.

When American media get hold of the story, the only relevant details will be (a) We almost got hit again. (b) Who let that happen? (c) People who don’t care about America and probably want us to pray toward Mecca. That is as low as it gets and as low as it is.

Whatever is being said about the peculiarity of these episodes, Major Hasan and the Underwear Bomber (a horrible enough fate to be seared on your soul for eternity) are not unusual. Their so-called radicalism is not based on attitudes unusual among the majority of Muslims, despite what is being said by vast numbers of religious people who have been appalled at this outbreak but still hold that violence is always an aberration of “religious” values, whatever their source and whatever the doctrine.

Whether people actually believe that most Muslims are “soft,” moderate souls, I have no idea. What true is that many Muslims are genial, intelligent people. Until it comes to religion.

The easy equation between religion and goodness (or good-will) is a relatively modern invention, not the legacy of the Middle Ages or Wars of Religion, not the legacy of Zionism or Islamic Jihad, possibly the outcome of post-enlightenment Christianity as promoted on Victorian greeting cards.

At any rate, it corresponds in the West to the decline of doctrinal and biblical certitude and its replacement by ethical Protestantism, relativism, and liberal religion, a movement for which there is simply no Quranic equivalent. But the judgment that religion is the source of amicability between nations and people, that it is not, at heart, comprised of systems of doctrine that are bloodily competitive, intolerant of one another and willing if necessary to defend their claims violently—that is the historical lesson that Mr Hasan’s and Mr Abdulmutallub’s behavior can help us with.

To treat it in any other way is to pat a certifiably bad dog who has just caused serious damage on the head, give it a biscuit, and say “He’s really a good dog most of the time.” Religion has been a bad dog so often that telling it simply to lie down and do no further harm is to miss the point. The tragedy of the Hasan case is that we seem intent on missing the point yet again.

Since 2000 I have been a university teacher in two predominantly Muslim universities. There is nothing wrong with identifying the staff and student population in that way, even though the word “Muslim” does not appear in the name of either. The students are bright, ambitious, economically but not politically pro-western, intellectually engaged, industrious, and curious–mainly about the way in which their countries are portrayed in western media.

In both places, one in the Middle East, the other not, both faculty and staff have resigned themselves to the belief that while their countries and thus their visa chances are ontologically hopeless, they have arrived at that state through systematic injustices, and incomprehension of cultural differences perpetrated by foreign governments and media. This is not entirely untrue of course, but it is not entirely true either.

When a particularly bloody attack in a string of bloody attacks was launched on a police training camp near Lahore, presumably by Taliban fighters or sympathizers early in 2009, an earnest student appeared at my office door, visibly annoyed rather than upset over the day’s headline (there would be a similar headline the next day) and said with the politeness that is still customary in the former colonial world, “Sir, that is not Islam.” “What is?,” I asked – genuinely curious.

It is a question everyone is asking, but one to which the contradictory answers of adherents do not seem especially problematical. Everyone seems to know: it is what they think it is, or what family tradition or the mosque says it is. It is what a liberal imam says it is and it is what Anwar al Awlaki or the almost consummately vicious cleric (rip?) Baitullah Mehsud says it is. All anyone needs to know is that a definition that does not conform to their own is, basically, wrong.

As with other faiths, Muslims can point to scripture, tradition and enshrined opinion (dogma in the west) as a way of defining the essence of their religion. But increasingly this is not good enough. While supporters of interfaith dialogue go out of their way to say that “all” religions can turn violent–have turned violent under certain conditions—it is simply untrue to say that the world has seen this kind of contest before.

More important, there is some truth to the suggestion that when religious warfare was prominent the world was a more religious place, a less scientific place, and a more intellectually continuous place in terms of what was known, unknown, and feared. It is no longer continuous in the same way: the world Mr Hasan was willing to kill for is, in many ways, a world that has been dead to the west for centuries.

The Crusades were fought for largely secular motives, to shore up the temporal claims of the papacy, and they affected the more-accessible Jews en route to the Holy land as much as (eventually) Muslims. They remain a paradigm for Muslims largely because it is the last time the civilizations clashed on equal terms. When they met again, centuries of dynastic quarrels had impoverished Islam intellectually and vulnerated it through regression, nostalgia and colonial power. The religious wars in Catholic Europe, following close on the early Reformation, were as much about the assertion of political and secular authority and economics as religion.

After physical and then purely intellectual struggle between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, secularism (occasional outbreaks of religiousness in America notwithstanding) won the day. No religious state was created, no religious constitution was framed, and every religion, including Catholicism in Italy, lost prestige and ground.

The growing tide of secularism was unparalleled by anything in Islamic nations prior to the creation of secular Turkey on the ruins of Ottoman empire. To glimpse the world that Mr Hasan and Imam Underwear see threatened and dying—a view dwarfed by the statistic of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide—requires us to look at a battlefield discontinuous with what most westerners regard as the outcome of historical data, a dischronologous narrative which only one side feels is worth fighting over.

But in fact, the invocation of historical data is insignificant because we are not living in the Middle Ages nor in the aftermath of a religious reformation, but in a world where the ascendancy of secularism is at least as widely acknowledged as the importance (less and less in a doctrinal form) of religion.

If Christians in the west have become either agnostic or minimalist in their belief, if they believe, to save breath, that God is good and loving your neighbor is a generally good idea, other things (like taxes) being equal, they need to know that the same premises from the mouth of a Muslim imply no such minimalism–no such negotiation.

The sense that the west doesn’t “get” Islam is not a neutral proposition that can be left to one side as we discuss global warming, but a situation that needs to be rectified before we can decide who a “neighbor” is. With the exception of a few thousand very non-violent missionaries roaming the jungles of Bolivia to bring souls to Christ, the “west” has no equivalent for the Muslim belief in its own finality.

At least none it is anxious to defend with the blood of young men. Whatever the “west” may mean (surely not the turgid jumble of a concept offered up by the late Edward Said), it isn’t weakness of faith or moral certainty that makes this mythical region—only eight years after 9/11—uneager about revenge or unwilling to engage in endless struggle: it is that almost no American or European soldier regards vengeance as a prize.

No European or American soldier regards any alternative to a justice now so long delayed as to be meaningless worth fighting for. Whatever else may happen in Israel, Christians as “Christians’ will not fight for Jerusalem—or a final definition of God or to avenge a perceived insult to their holy book. Muslims will, and do.
That is why the question “What is Islam?” is a questions that begs has to be answered before we can send the dog back to its crate.

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