Monday, January 09, 2006

Seeing Islam clearly


Persian tile, 15th century

How people in the West perceive Islam says a great deal about our ability, or lack of it, to stand outside the conditioning we've all undergone, to study the situation and analyze it for ourselves.

The Liberal Establishment talks about "moderate" Muslims and dithers in its resolve partly because, superficially, Muslims seem like exactly the kind of people we have been told all our lives that we have wronged. In fact, they possess many of the characteristics that liberals imply are signs of moral superiority.

You can go right down the checklist: with, obviously, some exceptions in each category, Muslims are poor; their homelands have been colonized; many are darker-skinned than Anglo Americans and at times in the past they were looked on with racial prejudice; they do not consume anywhere near as much as we do, albeit not through their own choice, so they are less of a burden on the environment (if you ignore their staggeringly high birth rates); they have a musical and artistic culture that is not much appreciated in the West; they are full of grievances.

In other words, they can be cast perfectly as the oppressed according to the liberal mythology!

Let's grant that there is some truth in all these characterizations. Let's even stipulate that many Muslims have been hard done by (not necessarily at the hands of infidels!) and deserve our empathy. Here's where the test comes in: can we acknowledge all this and still see through the Liberal Establishment's predisposition to understand them as nothing other than victims? In short, do we have the mental agility to admit that although there is in Islam much that we can respect and live with, we absolutely cannot accept -- must absolutely and proactively prevent -- the Islamic drive to expand the rule of the Prophet and the Quran until they are universal?

Islam as a politico-religious force scares me right down to the ground. That doesn't blind me to beauties of Islamic artistic culture and even -- are you ready for this? -- what remains of honest spirituality when you sluice off all the fanaticism, closed-mindedness, and aggression.

Hamid Al Amidi

Hamid Al Amidi, calligraphic art

Look, I admire Muslim architecture and calligraphy. (Most Islamic design is non-figurative because showing human figures is forbidden in Muslim religious art.) I enjoy rai music and a good deal of Middle Eastern music in general, some of which (like that performed by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) is rooted in Muslim religion. (An NPR-supporting fool could imagine, from my artistic interests, that I am a good liberal.)

It isn't clear what the state of traditional Sufism is today in the Muslim world, but the Sufis' goal is ecstasy and direct experience of Allah: not unlike the quest of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics, and right opposite to the "Quran is the absolute final word" thinking of mainstream Muslims.

Probably many among us infidels find the traditional practice among Muslims of facing toward Mecca and praying five times a day is laughable. I do not. Stopping our frenzied lives several times daily to connect, as best we can, to spiritual truth seems to me highly enlightened if done with sincerity and not as an empty ritual.

Muhammad Jalaluddin

Muhammad Jallaluddin, calligraphy

But, you know what? I hold all these admirable qualities (and any others) to be found in Islam as worthless as dust when weighed against freedom of thought, freedom to express ideas, equality under the law, and freedom to find God in our own individual ways. To live according to our own beliefs rather than dictates from authoritarian holy men whose rule is based on a single unchanging and unquestionable document from the 7th century is greater than anything Islam has ever produced.

If it were necessary to defend our civilization, I would reduce every mosque to rubble, I'd shut down every dervish's prayer hall, I'd make rai and qawwali music against the law. Fortunately, it shouldn't be necessary to do any of these things; that isn't how our heritage will be won or lost. But insofar as we're threatened by expansionist Islam's aggression and intolerance, we have no choice but to counter it with equal fierceness.

As the Duke of Wellington said to his officers at Waterloo, "Hard pounding, this, gentlemen. We shall see who pounds hardest."

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