Category Archives: Religion

Women Pressing For Seditious Ideas

 

Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free:

My Fight for Human Rights in Iran 

 

Manal Al-Sharif, Daring to Drive:

A Saudi Woman’s Awakening 

             Anyone with an elementary understanding of today’s world knows that there is a major geopolitical tug of war going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional powers competing for influence across the Middle East.  That same anyone knows that Saudi Arabia and Iran represent home bases for the two major branches of contemporary Islam: Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.  And of course our anyone knows that Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, whereas Iran is considered to be among the world’s rogue nations, a member of an “axis of evil,’ to use President George W. Bush’s memorable phrase.  Iran is the seat of the ancient and venerable Persian Empire; it became known officially as Iran only in the 1930s.  Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, was carved out of vast tribal areas in the 1930s. Iran shocked the world in 1979 when it overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi to establish what is formally known as the Islamic Republic, where ultimate power rests in the hands of a theocratic Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House of Saud, the “last significant absolute monarchy on earth” (p.12), to quote from Karen House’s incisive study of Saudi Arabia, reviewed here in October 2014.

          Within the last year, a woman from each published a noteworthy memoir detailing her struggle on behalf of human rights in her country: Shirin Ebadi, Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran; and Manal al-Sharif, Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening.  Ebadi is a human rights lawyer who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for her human rights work in Iran, especially on behalf of women, children and refugees. She was both the first Iranian and the first Muslim woman to receive the coveted award – and later became the first recipient to have her medal confiscated by the state.  Al-Sharif won international acclaim in 2011 for leading a campaign in Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive. That campaign landed the divorced single mother in a Saudi jail, arrested for what Saudi authorities termed, with no sense of irony, “driving while female.”  Just last month, the Saudi government announced that women will be immediately eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, and will actually be permitted to drive on Saudi roads a mere nine months hence, in June 2018.

        The two authors are a generation apart: Ebadi was born in 1947, al-Sharif in 1979.  But they have much in common. Each is a devout, practicing Muslim. Throughout as-Sharif’s memoir, references to the Prophet Muhammad are invariably followed by PBUH in parenthesis, “peace be unto him.” Each has a deep love for her home country. “The story of Iran is the story of my life,” Ebadi writes at the outset of her memoir. “I am so attached to my country. . . [and] feel a duty to my nation that outweighs everything else” (p.3).  Al-Sharif expresses similar sentiments throughout her memoir.  Yet, today both live in exile far from home, Ebadi in Great Britain, al-Sharif in Australia.

        The two memoirs are of almost identical length. Although they tell very different stories, each author must confront the inescapable reality that in her home country, religion and the state are inextricably intertwined.  Shite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may be fierce geopolitical rivals, with religious clerics in each dismissing the other’s brand of Islam as heretical.  But in both countries, Islamic law, norms and customs are the touchstone for governance, with individual rights and the rule of law brutally subordinated to perceived national interests.  Neither offers a hospitable environment for resourceful, independent women pressing for seditious ideas like human rights and full equality for all citizens.

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          During the regime of Shah Pahlavi, Shirin Ebadi became a high-ranking judge in Iran, one of the country’s few female judges, even though she had opposed the regime.  Initially a supporter of the 1979 revolution, Ebadi quickly ran afoul of the new, radical Shiite regime. When ruling clerics determined that Islam prohibits women from serving as judges, she was stripped of her judgeship and demoted to the position of court clerk.  She then embarked on a far more perilous career course as a human rights lawyer, a niche within the legal profession which, to put it mildly, was destined to displease Iranian authorities.

          Ebadi used the money from her Nobel prize to found the Defenders of Human Rights Center, a focal point for work on human rights within Iran.  She led a movement to remove landmines remaining from Iran’s eight-year war with Iran, and to provide assistance to victims injured by the mines; she defended religious minorities facing discrimination in the fiercely Shiite republic: and she helped organize a movement termed the One Million Signature campaign, which focused on demonstrating how Iranian laws hurt women of all social classes and religious beliefs.  Her memoir gains momentum when one of its two major villains, Mohammed Ahmadinejad, was first elected president in 2005.

           Ahmadinejad freely used and abused religion to consolidate power. He unleashed religious extremists who filled the ranks of the state’s voluntary militias, “encouraging their most intolerant attitudes and giving them subtle signals that should they wish to punish those who deviated from their strict view of Islam, the state would not get in their way” (p.59). These extremists broke up anti-state lectures, set up check points to harass youth listening to Western music in their cars, and raided private parties where people might have been daring to have fun. At some point during Ahmadinejad’s first term, Ebadi went from being a thorn in the government’s side to what it considered an enemy of the state, part of a global conspiracy to undermine the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

           The task of following Ebadi and seeking to silence her fell to the memoir’s other major villain, Mr. Mahmudi, a particularly enterprising intelligence agent.  Mahmudi began watching Ebadi’s every move with an obsession that never waned. Because she was too visible and too powerful for the state to target directly, Mahmudi and his colleagues systematically undercut all the constituent pieces of her professional and personal life.  Hounded by Mahmudi, the Defenders of Human Rights Center was forced to shut down, closing the “main intellectual and social hub for those in Tehran working on civic activism” (p.103).

             When state authorities took away her daughter’s passport, it became clear to Ebadi that the state had started going after her family. “It wasn’t just content with me anymore. I had witnessed this over the years with many of my clients, dissidents and activists whose relatives suffered state intimidation, were hassled and threatened and sometimes blackmailed or imprisoned, all ‘collateral damage’ in the quest to get the original target – the dissident or activist or journalist in question – to drop their activities. It was the dirtiest of the methods the security agencies used, exploiting these families and their emotional ties” (p.126).

            The 2009 presidential election, pitting Ahmadinejad against reform candidate Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, and one other candidate, proved to be a fateful turning point for Ebadi. Ahmadinejad’s popularity prior to the elections had “sunk abysmally; Iranians widely reviled him for ruining the economy and for the repressiveness of his rule” (p.131). Mousavi seemed to have a genuine chance to replace Ahmadinejad.  Yet, in an election widely considered to have been plagued with irregularities, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner after the first round with 62% of the vote.   Huge numbers of Iranians took to the streets to protest the results.

           Ebadi happened to be in Majorca at a conference in the immediate aftermath of the elections. Her husband and professional colleagues counseled against her returning to Tehran amidst the civil unrest and ensuing government crackdown.  As the crackdown continued, Ebadi came to the realization that should she return to her native country, her passport would surely be confiscated, she would likely be jailed, and perhaps even executed.  She therefore elected to stay abroad, relocating to London with her daughter, who had taken a job there.  But the attempts of Mr. Mahmudi and fellow state intelligence agents to destroy Ebadi intensified rather than diminished while she was out of the country.

          Most heartbreakingly, her husband of more than thirty years was the victim of a state sexual blackmail plot to place him in a compromised position with another woman, a former girlfriend prior to his marriage to Ebadi. The plot marked the beginning to the breakup of what had been a solid, loving relationship.  Disappointed that her husband had succumbed to the state-manufactured temptation, Ebadi writes that she was “even more furious, more floored, by the depth of evil of the intelligence agents. Their malice and cunning truly had no limit: they were prepared to do anything – crush people’s children, their marriage – to achieve their ends.”  She asked herself, “How much could they take away from one person? They had taken my judgeship, my entire life’s ambition; when I resurrected myself and built a human rights center, they took that too; with their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland.  And now they had tried to take away my husband” (p.166-67).

        Iranian tax authorities subsequently reinterpreted Iranian law to conclude that Ebadi owed taxes on her Nobel Prize, a matter that seemed clearly settled at the time the prize was awarded. This required Ebadi to sell what seems like a very comfortable Tehran apartment to pay back taxes, along with a rural property her family was particularly attached to. The amounts generated by the sale of the properties proved insufficient to satisfy the tax claims, and Ebadi became a formal debtor to the Islamic Republic. The secure family life Ebadi had known in Tehran was thus shattered beyond repair. She was hopelessly in debt to the state for alleged back taxes; she separated and then divorced her husband after 30 plus years of marriage; and state authorities briefly confiscated her Nobel medal, until the international outcry forced them to return it to her family.

            In London, Ebadi became active in the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights, supporting pro-democracy elements in Iran by working with other lawyers who had left Iran in the aftermath of the 2009 protests. The memoir ends with Ebadi in Britain, afraid that the intelligence services will target her directly for assassination there, something they had not quite dared to do directly while she was in Iran.  To this day, Ebadi has not returned to Iran.

        Although Ebadi’s memoir lacks detail on precisely why state intelligence services concluded that she was an enemy of the Islamic revolution, her outspokenness as an independent woman was clearly an affront to state authorities. Whether the state would have been quite so ferociously persistent with a male civil rights lawyer is left to the reader’s speculation, but the overall thrust of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has plainly been to try to redefine the status of women. Somehow, Ebadi emphasizes, Iran was able to retain a “burgeoning, vibrant women’s movement. . . [which] had managed to flourish, despite Ahmadinejad’s emergence” (p.68-69).  Literacy among Iranian girls and young women is nearly 99 percent, she indicates, and women make up over 60 percent of all university students.  “[I]f you walk the streets of any Iranian city at rush hour, you will see women streaming out of workplaces, boarding buses and subways alongside men. They are an active, engaged part of public life and they increasingly often serve as primary breadwinners in their households” (p.264).

        Iran has long suffered from honor killings, forced marriages, and domestic violence although, Ebadi notes, with “far less severity than many of its neighbors” (p.264). But the legal structure of the Islamic Republic, based on medieval interpretations of sharia law, “enshrines gender discrimination and violent punishments, including lashing and stoning . . . Iran remains a country where a man can marry up to four wives, where women face enormous challenges securing a divorce, and where a married woman cannot travel without the written permission of her husband.   The list of discriminatory laws that are unfit for Iran’s modern society is long” (p.254-55).  Ahmadinejad “singlehandedly snuffed out [Iran’s] women’s movement and, most dangerously . . . renormalized the idea that women should be open targets for the state and ordinary Iranians alike” (p.263).

           Consequently, the climate for women in contemporary Iran is “deteriorating by the day” (p.262).  Women can no longer work in Tehran’s cafés and restaurants; female musicians are no longer permitted to perform onstage; and female civil servants in Tehran are no longer permitted to work along side men, on the theory that “women working long hours outside the home in the company of male colleagues undermined family life” (p.262). Ahmadinejad instituted gender quotas in state universities, “making it impossible for women to study physics, chemistry, and tens of other subjects” (p.260).  In 2014, authorities in Tehran forbade women from watching the World Cup in public cinemas and cafés, particularly disappointing for young people. These moves were “part of a stealthy segregation plan, deployed piecemeal over time in and across different spheres, that threatened to remake public life in Iran and push women, who participated vibrantly despite the state’s myriad restrictions, to the margins” (p.262).  Treatment of women in Iran thus seems to be headed in a direction similar to that so firmly entrenched in its bitter geopolitical rival, Saudi Arabia.

* * *

          Manal al-Sharif’s memoir makes clear that the interdiction against driving is but one example of the almost unimaginable control and subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women need permission from male guardians to travel, obtain passports, enroll in school, sign contracts, or undergo medical procedures. Most public places, such as parks, beaches, and buses, are rigidly segregated, and public schools are both separate and blatantly unequal. In 2002, fifteen girls died inside a segregated girl’s middle school. The religious police, al-Sharif recounts, barred the girls from exiting through the front door because they were not following proper Islamic dress code. “When the school door was opened and they were finally carried out, it was as charred corpses” (p.66).  At another point in her memoir, al-Sharif describes how she was not allowed to board a public bus because she did not have a male guardian accompanying her. At that point, I screamed to anyone within earshot, using my most profane language, “At least they let Rosa Parks onto the bus, for crying out loud.”

            Yet, in a country ostensibly seeking to modernize, the Saudi ban on women driving stands out as both wildly inefficient and absurdly contradictory. Unless a husband or male family member is available, it requires women to rely upon a male taxi or hired driver for every trip of daily life, such as shopping, commuting to work or taking children to school, not to mention emergency trips to the hospital. Moreover, as al-Sharif points out:

[A] society that frowns on a woman going out without a man; that forces you to use separate entrances for universities, banks, restaurants, and mosques; that divides restaurants with partitions so that unrelated males and females cannot sit together; that same society expects you to get into a car with a man who is not your relative, with a man who is a complete stranger, by yourself and have him take you somewhere inside a locked car, alone (p.10).

            But al-Sharif’s memoir is about far more than her campaign to allow women to drive.  After beginning with her arrest and time in a Saudi women’s prison, it shifts back to tell her life story before finishing by focusing again on the driving campaign. Her story delivers powerful insight into the challenges of Saudi life, particularly for young and intelligent women.

         Al-Sharif grew up in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, in sub-standard housing, without running water or a telephone. Her mother, born and raised in Egypt, attained only a fourth grade education. Her father was an illiterate Saudi taxi driver. Beatings were a regular part of her family upbringing, mostly by her father, occasionally by her mother. Her mother had a fiery temperament and late in life was diagnosed as a likely bipolar schizophrenic. Yet, she also had an uncommon belief in the value of education for her children, and instilled in al-Sharif a thirst for learning.  Al-Sharif excelled at the girls’ schools she attended.

            In one of the book’s most difficult passages, al-Sharif describes in gut-wrenching terms how she was “circumcised” at age 8, subject to female genital mutilation, a practice designed to protect girls from “‘deviant’ behavior by “removing her desire for sex” (p.57). It was a trauma from which she never fully recovered.  A few years later, when al-Sharif told her cousins about her first menstrual period, they “informed me that I could no longer talk to my male cousins, let alone play with them. If one of my male cousins wanted to a walk past where I was sitting, or even enter the house while I was there, I had to first be hidden out of sight” (p.88).  Saudi females, al-Sharif indicates, pass through two stages in their lives. “First, as young girls, they are supervised and monitored; then, as adult women, they are controlled and judged. Their first menstrual cycle is the abrupt turning point. There is no transition into adolescence” (p.89).

          Al-Sharif further complicated her adolescence through a religious conversion that lasted into her early 20s, becoming an ultra-devout, practicing Salafi Muslim. Even by Saudi standards, she stood out for her religiosity, upbraiding family and friends when they were insufficiently observant.  Although she had previously been “crazy over books” (p.73), she abandoned all but religious reading and urged her brother to give up his interest in decadent Western popular music.  At the heart of the Salafi religious ideology, al-Sharif writes, is a “deep belief in Hell,” which led her to an “all-consuming fear that I, as a Muslim, wouldn’t reach the level of righteousness and devotion required to escape condemnation from the eternal hellfires” (p.96).  But the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, led by young Saudi men of her age, transformed her religious convictions. “I could not believe that God would demand the killing of innocent people,” she writes. “I was done with Salafism” (p.133-34).

         After completing university, al-Sharif landed a job as a computer security specialist at Armaco, once Standard Oil’s Saudi outlet, today owned by the Saudi government. But Armaco remains a state within the state, as it as been since its beginnings in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Its huge compound, which al-Sharif compares to a “perfect Southern California town” (p.3), was set up to make Saudi Arabia more inviting to expatriate Armaco workers, with housing, shopping and amenities that are unavailable within the rest of the kingdom. Even though the Saudi state now runs Armaco, many of the severe norms and mores of Saudi life do not apply on its compound. For starters, men and women work together in the compound, side by side. Imagine that.

           While working at Armaco, al-Sharif met the man she would marry – and later divorce. Al-Sharif’s account of her courtship is a Saudi version of a more universal eye-on-the-guy tale.  She developed a mad crush on a man she had only seen briefly at work and knew almost not at all.  Somehow, they met and courted in a way that was well at odds with Saudi norms, not least because it was conducted without the initial approval of either family – for a while, without even the knowledge of the families.   But later, both families were brought on board and gave the relationship their blessing.  Al-Sharif and the young man married and had a child together. But they did not live happily ever after.

          Her husband proved to be more traditional than al-Sharif had anticipated in his views of the proper role for a married woman; by Western standards, he was plainly abusive. When the marriage broke apart, al-Sharif was able to maintain something akin to custody over her son. But she had to give him up when Armaco sent her to study in the United States.  Al-Sharif spent a year in New Hampshire, where she learned to drive and obtained not only a driver’s license but also a rental car, paid for by Armaco. It was “no small irony,” she writes, “to think that Saudi Arabia’s largest company was openly paying for a Saudi woman to drive abroad” (p.199).

           Al-Sharif’s year in the United States and her driving experiences there emboldened her.  Upon return to Saudi Arabia, she became active in a group termed Women2Drive, which used Facebook and other social media to attract potential women drivers. Women2Drive followed a 1990 Saudi women drivers’ protest, in which 47 women had driven on city streets for about one-half hour. That protest “stalked them for the rest of their lives” (p.210). The women and their husbands were banned from foreign travel; those who held government jobs were fired; and all became targets of religious condemnation, “denounced as immoral vixens, boldly seeking to destroy Saudi society” (p.210).

          In 2011, the comments on the Women2Drive Facebook page, mostly left by men, were “menacing, saying very directly that our campaign was designed to corrupt young girls and that we were ‘betraying Islam’” (p.214). Al-Sharif nonetheless “clung to the belief that if I could just show Saudi society that no harm would come if a woman drove, many of the other issues surrounding the campaign would simply vanish” (p.221).  She studied the Saudi traffic codes and other relevant legal instruments and concluded that there was no formal legal interdiction against women driving; it was simply a matter of custom.

         In preparation for Women2Drive’s national driving campaign, al-Sharif allowed herself to be filmed driving, with the intention of posting the film on YouTube. She describes her mixed feelings of fear and fearlessness as she pulled out behind the wheel onto a Saudi road in the town of Khobar:

My heart began to beat faster as I turned the key, heard the engine catch, put my foot on the brake, and switched the car into reverse. My decision to drive had been made in a moment of anger, but now I felt pure calm rise up inside me. I was committed to driving because I was convinced, after having read and understood the traffic code, that there was nothing actually forbidding me from doing so (p.224-25).

           Shortly thereafter, however, in the middle of the night, Saudi authorities came to her house to arrest her. She spent nearly two weeks in a Saudi women’s prison, not a pleasant place for women transgressors of Saudi custom and order.  Her imprisonment attracted huge attention within Saudi Arabia and internationally.  The Saudi press accused her of operating as a traitor and spy on behalf of foreign enemies.  Saudi religious clerics denounced her for blasphemy and for seeking to destroy Islam, describing her as a whore.  She was released from prison when her father, two of his cousins, and their tribal chief traveled to the Royal Palace to meet 86-year-old King Abdullah.  Although the King made no commitments at their meeting, al-Sharif was released later that day. By this time, she had become an international celebrity.

          Al-Sharif was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people of 2011 and received the Oslo Freedom Forum’s first Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. She resigned from Armaco when it refused to allow her to travel to Oslo to accept the award.  Notwithstanding her international celebrity status, official Saudi Arabia gave no ground on the issue of women driving. The government endorsed a report in the fall of 2011 warning that if women were allowed to drive, “prostitution, pornography, homosexuality, and divorce would ‘surge,’” and “within ten years, there would be no more virgins” in Saudi Arabia (p.270).

         When death threats against her became too ominous, al-Sharif fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai with her new husband, a Brazilian national whom she had met at Armaco.  She left without her son, whom she had to leave in the custody of her first husband.  In 2014, she gave birth to a second son. She lives today in Sydney, Australia, where her second husband relocated for his work, but returns periodically to Saudi Arabia to see her son from her first marriage.

* * *

          Only the most hard-hearted readers will fail to be stirred by these two valiant women and their stories of overcoming oppression and resisting the bullying of religious and state authorities.  But each has been forced into exile, required to work for change from outside her home country.  Although women behind the wheel may be commonplace in Saudi Arabia by this time next year, I finished the two memoirs thinking that women in both countries seeking full rights as citizens still have a long, uphill drive ahead of them.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bayonne, France

October 24, 2017

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, History, Middle Eastern History, Religion

Reporting From the Front Lines of the Enlightenment

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Robert Zaretsky, Boswell’s Enlightenment

           The 18th century Enlightenment was an extraordinary time when religious skepticism rose across Europe and philosophes boldly asserted that man’s capacity for reason was the key to understanding both human nature and the nature of the universe.   In Boswell’s Enlightenment, Robert Zaretsky, Professor of History at the University of Houston, provides a highly personalized view of the Enlightenment as experienced by James Boswell (1740-1795), the faithful Scottish companion to Dr. Samuel Johnson and author of a seminal biography on the learned doctor.  The crux of Zaretsky’s story lies in  Boswell’s tour of the European continent between 1763 and 1765 – the “Grand Tour” – where, as a young man, Boswell encountered seemingly all the period’s leading thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet, known to history as Voltaire, then Europe’s two best known philosophes. Zaretsky’s self-described purpose is to “place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment” (p.16-17). Also figuring prominently in Zaretsky’s account are Boswell’s encounters prior to departing for Europe with several leading Scottish luminaries, most notably David Hume, Britain’s best-known religious skeptic. The account further includes the beginning phases of Boswell’s life-long relationship with Johnson, the “most celebrated literary figure in London” (p.71) and, for Boswell, already a “moral and intellectual rock” (p.227).

         But Zaretsky’s title is a delicious double entendre, for his book is simultaneously the intriguing story of Boswell’s personal coming of age in the mid-18th century – his “enlightenment” with a small “e” – amidst the intellectual fervor of his times. The young Boswell searching for himself  was more than a little sycophantic, with an uncommon facility to curry favor with the prominent personalities of his day – an unabashed 18th century celebrity hound.  But Boswell also possessed a fertile, impressionable mind, along with a young man’s zest to experience life in all its facets. Upon leaving for his Grand Tour, moreover, Boswell was already a prolific if not yet entirely polished writer who kept a detailed journal of his travels, much of which survives. In his journal, the introspective Boswell was a “merciless self-critic” (p.97). Yet, Zaretsky writes, Boswell’s ability to re-create conversations and characters in his journals makes him a “remarkable witness to his age” (p.15).  Few individuals “reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment” (p.13).

* * *

        In his prologue, Zaretsky raises the question whether the 18th century Enlightenment should be considered a unified phenomena, centered in France and radiating out from there; or whether it makes more sense to think of separate Enlightenments, such as, for example, both a Scottish and a French Enlightenment. This is a familiar theme to assiduous readers of this blog: in 2013, I reviewed Arthur Hermann’s exuberant claim to a distinct Scottish Enlightenment; and Gertrude Himmelfarb’s more sober argument for distinctive French, English and American Enlightenments. Without answering this always-pertinent question, Zaretsky turns his account to young Boswell’s search for himself and the greatest minds of 18th century Europe.

        Boswell was the son of a prominent Edinburgh judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, a follower of John Knox’s stern brand of Calvinism and an overriding force in young Boswell’s life. Boswell’s effort to break the grip that his father exerted over his life was also in many senses an attempt to break the grip of his Calvinist upbringing. When as a law student in Edinburgh his son developed what Lord Auchinleck considered a most unhealthy interest in theatre — and women working in the theatre — he sent the wayward son from lively and overly liberal Edinburgh to more subdued Glasgow. There, Boswell came under the influence of renowned professor Adam Smith.  Although his arguments for the advantages of laissez faire capitalism came later, Smith was already a sensation across Europe for his view that empathy, or “fellow feeling,” was the key to understanding what makes human beings good.    A few years later, Lord Auchinleck started his son on his Grand Tour across the European continent by insisting that young Boswell study civil law in the Netherlands, as he had done in his student days.

        Throughout his travels, the young Boswell wrestled with the question of religious faith and how it might be reconciled with the demands of reason. The religious skepticism of Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau weighed on him.  But, like Johnson, Boswell was not quite ready to buy into it. For Boswell, reason was “not equal to the task of absorbing the reality of our end, this thought of our death. Instead, religion alone offered respite” (p.241). In an age where death was a “constant and dire presence,” Boswell “stands out for his preoccupation, if not obsession, with his mortal end” (p.15). Boswell’s chronic “hypochondria” – the term used in Boswell’s time for depression — was “closely tied to his preoccupation with his mortality” (p.15).  For Boswell, like Johnson, the defense of traditional religion was “less fear of hell than fear of nothingness – what both men called ‘annihilation’” (p.85).

      Boswell’s fear of the annihilation of death probably helps explain his life long fascination with public executions. Throughout the Grand Tour, he consistently went out of his way to attend these very public 18th century spectacles, “transfixed by the ways in which the victims approached their last moments” (p.15). Boswell’s attraction to public executions, whose official justification was to “educate the public on the consequences of crime” was, Zaretsky notes, “exceptional even among his contemporaries” (p.80). But if the young Boswell feared death, he dove deeply into life and, through his journal, shared his dives with posterity.

        A prodigious drinker and carouser, Boswell seduced women across the continent, often the wives of men he was meeting to discuss the profound issues of life and death. At seemingly every stop along the way, moreover, he patronized establishments practicing the world’s oldest profession, with several bouts of gonorrhea resulting from these frequentations, followed by excruciatingly painful medical treatments. Boswell’s multiple encounters with the opposite sex form a colorful portion of his journal and are no small portion of the reason why the journal continues to fascinate readers to this day.

        But Boswell’s first significant encounter with the opposite sex during the Grand Tour was also his first significant encounter on the continent with an Enlightenment luminary, Elisabeth van Tuyell van Serooskerken, whom the young Scot wisely shortened to “Belle.” Boswell met Belle in Utrecht, the Netherlands, his initial stop on the Grand Tour, where he was ostensibly studying civil law. Belle, who went on to write several epistolary novels under her married name, Isabelle de Charrière, was a sophisticated religious skeptic who understood the “social and moral necessity of religion; but she also understood that true skepticism entailed, as Hume believed, a kind of humility and intellectual modesty” (p.127). Belle was not free of religious doubt, Zaretsky notes, but unlike Boswell, was “free of the temptation to seek certainty” (p.127).   Boswell was attracted to Belle’s “lightning” mind, which, as he wrote a friend, “flashes with so much brilliance [that it] may scorch” (p.117). But Belle was not nearly as smitten by Boswell as he was with her, and her father never bothered to pass to his daughter the marriage proposal that Boswell had presented to him. The two parted when Boswell left Utrecht, seeking to put his unrequited love behind him.

        Boswell headed from the Netherlands to German-speaking Prussia and its king, “enlightened despot” Frederick the Great.  Zaretsky considers Frederick “far more despotic than enlightened” (p.143), but Frederick plainly saw the value to the state of religious tolerance. “Here everyone must be allowed to go to heaven in his own way” (p.145) summarized Frederick’s attitude toward religion.  Frederick proved to be one of the era’s few luminaries who was “indifferent to the Scot’s irrepressible efforts at presenting himself to them” (p.141), and Boswell had little direct time with the Prussian monarch during his six month stay.

          But Boswell managed back-to-back visits with Rousseau and Voltaire in Switzerland, his next destination. Rousseau and Voltaire had both been banished from Catholic France for heretical religious views. Rousseau, who was born in Calvinist Geneva,  was no longer welcome in that city either because of his religious views.  Beyond a shared disdain for organized religion, the former friends disagreed about just about everything else — culture and civilization, theater and literature, politics and education.  Zaretsky’s chapter on these visits, entitled “The Distance Between Môtiers and Ferney” – a reference to the remote Swiss locations where, respectively, Rousseau and Voltaire resided — is in my view the book’s best, with an erudite overview of the two men’s wide ranging thinking, their reactions to their impetuous young visitor, and the enmity that separated them.

         Zaretsky describes Rousseau as a “poet of nature” (p.148), for whom religious doctrines led “not to God, but instead to oppression and war” (p.149).   But Rousseau also questioned his era’s advances in learning and the Enlightenment’s belief in human progress. The more science and the arts advanced, Rousseau argued, the more  contemporary society became consumed by personal gain and greed.  Voltaire, the “high priest of the French Enlightenment” (p.12), was a poet, historian and moralist who had fled from France to England in the 1730s because of his heretical religious views. There, he absorbed the thinking of Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton, whose pragmatic approach and grounded reason he found superior to the abstract reasoning and metaphysical speculation that he associated with Descartes. While not an original or systematic thinker like Locke or Bacon, Voltaire was an “immensely gifted translator of their work and method” (p.172).

         By the time Boswell arrived in Môtiers, the two philosophes were no longer on speaking terms. Rousseau publicly termed Voltaire a “mountebank” and “impious braggart,” a man of “so much talent put to such vile use” (p.158). Voltaire returned the verbal fire with a string of vitriolic epithets, among them “ridiculous,” “depraved,” “pitiful,” and “abominable.” The clash between the two men went beyond epithets and name-calling. Rousseau publicly identified Voltaire as the author of Oath of the Fifty, a “brutal and hilarious critique of Christian scripture” (p.180). Voltaire, for his part, revealed that Rousseau had fathered five children with his partner Thérèse Levasseur, whom the couple subsequently abandoned.

        The enmity between the two men was not an obstacle to Boswell visiting each, although his actual meetings constitute a minor portion of the engrossing chapter. Boswell had an “improbable” five separate meetings with the usually reclusive Rousseau. They were wide-ranging, with the “resolute and relentless” Boswell pursing “questions great and small, philosophical and personal” (p.156). When Boswell pressed Rousseau on how religious faith could be reconciled with reason, however, Rousseau’s answer was, in essence, that’s for you to figure out. Boswell did not fare much better with Voltaire on how he might reconcile reason with religious faith.

          Unlike Rousseau, Voltaire was no recluse. He prided himself on being the “innkeeper of Europe” (p.174), and his residence at Ferney was usually overflowing with visitors. Despite spending several days at Ferney, Boswell managed a single one-on-one meeting with the man he described as the “Monarch of French Literature” (p.176). In a two-hour conversation that reached what Zaretsky terms “epic proportions” (p.178), the men took up the subject of religious faith. “If ever two men disputed with vehemence we did” (p.178), Boswell  wrote afterwards.  The young traveler wrote eight pages on the encounter in a document separate from his journal.  Alas, these eight pages have been lost to history. But we know that the traveler  left the meeting more than a little disappointed that Voltaire could not provide the definitive resolution he was seeking of how to bridge the chasm between reason and faith.

          After a short stay in Italy that included “ruins and galleries . . .brothels and bawdy houses. . .churches and cathedrals” (p.200), Boswell’s last stop on the Grand Tour was the island of Corsica, a distant and exotic location where few Britons had ever visited.  There, he met General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the movement for Corsican independence from the city-state of Genoa, which exercised control over most of the island. Paoli was already attracting attention throughout Europe for his determination to establish a republican government on the island.  Rousseau, who had been asked to write a constitution for an independent Corsica, wrote for Boswell a letter of introduction to Paoli.  During a six-day visit to the island, Paoli treated the mesmerized Boswell increasingly like a son. Paoli “embodied those ancient values that Boswell most admired, though frequently failed to practice: personal integrity and public authority; intellectual lucidity and stoic responsibility” (p.232). Paoli’s leadership of the independence movement demonstrated to Boswell that heroism was still alive, an “especially crucial quality in an age like his of philosophical and religious doubt” (p.217). Upon returning to Britain, Boswell became a vigorous advocate for Paoli and the cause of Corsican independence.

        Boswell’s tour on the continent ended — and Zaretsky’s narrative ends — with a dramatic flourish that Zaretsky likens to episodes in Henry Fielding’s then popular novel Tom Jones. While Boswell was in Italy, Rousseau and Thérèse were forced to flee Môitiers because of hostile reaction to Voltaire’s revelation about the couple’s five children. By chance, David Hume, who had been in Paris, was able to escort Rousseau into exile in England, leaving Thérèse temporarily behind. Boswell somehow got wind of Thérèse’s situation and, sensing an opportunity to win favor with Rousseau, eagerly accepted her request to escort her to England to join her partner.  But over the course of the 11-day trip to England, Boswell and Thérèse “found themselves sharing the same bed. Inevitably, Boswell recounted his sexual prowess in his journal: ‘My powers were excited and I felt myself vigorous’” (p.225). No less inevitably, Zaretsky notes, Boswell also recorded Thérèse’s “more nuanced response: ‘I allow that you are a hardy and vigorous lover, but you have no art’” (p.225).

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       After following Boswell’s encounters across the continent with many of the period’s most illustrious figures, I was disappointed that Zaretsky does not return to the question he raises initially about nature of 18th century Enlightenment.   It would have been interesting to learn what conclusions, if any, he draws from Boswell’s journey. Does the young Scot’s partaking of the thoughts of Voltaire, Rousseau and others, and his championing the cause of Corsican independence, suggest a single movement indifferent to national and cultural boundaries? Or should Boswell best be considered an emissary of a peculiarly Scottish form of Enlightenment? Or was Boswell himself too young, too impressionable – too full of himself – to allow for any broader conclusions to be drawn from his youthful experiences about the nature of the 18th century Enlightenment? These unanswered questions constitute a missed opportunity in an otherwise engaging account of a young man seeking to make sense of the intellectual currents that were riveting his 18th century world and to apply them in his personal life.

Thomas H. Peebles

Florence, Italy

January 25, 2017

 

5 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Intellectual History, Religion

Stopping History

 

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Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind:

On Political Reaction 

            Mark Lilla is one of today’s most brilliant scholars writing on European and American intellectual history and the history of ideas. A professor of humanities at Columbia University and previously a member of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago (as well as a native of Detroit!), Lilla first came to public attention in 2001 with his The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics. This compact work portrayed eight 20th century thinkers who rejected Western liberal democracy and aligned themselves with totalitarian regimes. Some were well known, such as German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger, but more were quite obscure to general readers.  He followed with another thought provoking work, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, a study of “political theology,” the implications of secularism and the degree to which religion and politics have been decoupled in modern Europe.

          In his most recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Lilla probes the elusive and, in his view, understudied mindset of the political reactionary.  The first thing we need to understand about reactionaries, he tells us at the outset, is that they are not conservatives. They are “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings” (p.xii).  The mission of the political reactionary is to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” Lilla writes, quoting a famous line from the first edition of William F. Buckley’s National Review, a publication which he describes as “reactionary” (p.xiii). But the National Review is widely considered as embodying the voice of traditional American conservatism, an indication that the distinction between political reactionary and traditional conservative is not always clear-cut.  Lilla’s notion of political reaction overlaps with other terms such as “anti-modern” and the frequently used “populism.” He mentions both but does not draw out distinctions between them and political reaction.

            For Lilla, political reactionaries have a heightened sense of doom and maintain a more apocalyptic worldview than traditional conservatives. The political reactionary is driven by a nostalgic vision of an idealized, golden past and is likely to blame “elites” for the deplorable current state of affairs. The betrayal of elites is the “linchpin of every reactionary story” (p.xiii), he notes. In a short introduction, Lilla sets forth these definitional parameters and also traces the origins of our concept of political reaction to a certain type of opposition to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment.

          The nostalgia for a lost world “settled like a cloud on European thought after the French Revolution and never fully lifted” (p.xvi), Lilla notes. Whereas conservative Edmund Burke recoiled at the French Revolution’s wholesale uprooting of established institutions and its violence but were willing to admit that France’s ancien régime had grown ossified and required modification, quintessential reactionary Joseph de Maistre mounted a full-throated defense of the ancien régime.   For de Maistre, 1789 “marked the end of a glorious journey, not the beginning of one” (p.xii).

         If the reactionary mind has its roots in counter-revolutionary thinking, it endures today in the absence of political revolution of the type that animated de Maistre. “To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological change, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution,” Lilla writes (p.xiv). For the apocalyptic imagination of the reactionary, “the present, not the past, is a foreign country” (p.137). The reactionary mind is thus a “shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile” (p.xiii).

      The Shipwrecked Mind is not a systematic or historical treatise on the evolution of political reaction. Rather, in a disparate collection of essays, Lilla provides examples of reactionary thinking.  He divides his work into three main sections, “Thinkers,” “Currents,” and “Events.” “Thinkers” portrays three 20th century intellectuals whose works have inspired modern political reaction. “Currents” consists of two essays with catchy titles, “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” and “From Mao to St. Paul;” the former is a study of “theoconservatism,” reactionary religious strains found within traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism; the latter looks at a more leftist nostalgia for a revolutionary past. “Events” contains Lilla’s reflections on the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo publication and a kosher supermarket.  But like the initial “Thinkers” sections, “Currents” and “Events” are above all introductions to the works of reactionary thinkers, most of whom are likely to be unfamiliar to English language readers.

            The Shipwrecked Mind appeared at about the same time as the startling Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, a time when Donald Trump was in the equally startling process of securing the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. Neither Brexit nor the Trump campaign figures directly in Lilla’s analysis and  readers will therefore have to connect the dots themselves between his diagnosis of political reaction and these events. Contemporary France looms larger in his effort to explain the reactionary mind, in part because Lilla was in Paris at the time of the January 2015 terrorist attacks.

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            “Thinkers,” Lilla’s initial section, is similar in format to The Reckless Mind, consisting of portraits of Leo Strauss, Eric Voeglin, and Franz Rosenzweig, three German-born theorists whose work is “infused with modern nostalgia” (p.xvii). Of the three, readers are most likely to be familiar with Strauss (1899-1973), a Jewish refugee from Germany whose parents died in the Holocaust. Strauss taught philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1949 up to his death in 1973. Assiduous tomsbooks readers will recall my review in January 2014 of The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, by Michael and Catherine Zuckert, which dismissed the purported connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war as based on a failure to dig deeply enough into Strauss’ complex, tension ridden views about America and liberal democracy. Like the Zuckerts, Lilla considers the connection between Strauss and the 2003 Iraq war “misplaced” and “unseemly,” but, more than the Zuckerts, finds “quite real” the connection between Strauss’ thinking and that of today’s American political right (p.62).

        Strauss’ salience to political reaction starts with his view that Machiavelli, whom Strauss considered the first modern philosopher, is responsible for a decisive historical break in the Western philosophical tradition. Machiavelli turned philosophy from “pure contemplation and political prudence toward willful mastery of nature” (p.xviii), thereby introducing passion into political and social life. Strauss’ most influential work, Natural Right and History, argued that “natural justice” is the “standard by which political arrangements must be judged” (p.56). After the tumult of the 1960s, some of Strauss’ American disciples began to see this work as an argument that the West is in crisis, unable to defend itself against internal and external enemies. Lilla suggests that Natural Right and History has been misconstrued in the United States as an argument that political liberalism’s rejection of natural rights leads invariably to a relativism indistinguishable from nihilism. This misinterpretation led “Straussians” to the notion that the United States has a “redemptive historical mission — an idea nowhere articulated by Strauss himself” (p.61).

          Voeglin (1901-1985), a contemporary of Strauss, was born in Germany and raised in Austria, from which he fled in 1938 at the time of its Anchluss with Germany.   Like Strauss, he spent most of his academic career in the United States, where he sought to explain the collapse of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism in terms of a “calamitous break in the history of ideas, after which intellectual and political decline set in” (p.xviii). Voeglin argued that in inspiring the liberation of politics from religion, the 18th century Enlightenment gave rise in the 20th century to mass ideological movements such as Marxism, fascism and nationalism.  Voeglin considered these movements “’political religions,’ complete with prophets, priests, and temple sacrifices” (p.31). As Lilla puts it, for Voeglin, when you abandon the Lord, it is “only a matter of time before you start worshipping a Führer” (p.31).

        Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a German Jew who gained fame in his time for backing off at the last moment from a conversion to Christianity – the equivalent of leaving his bride at the altar – and went on to dedicate his life to a revitalization of Jewish thought and practice. Rosenzweig shared an intellectual nostalgia prevalent in pre-World War I Germany that saw the political unification of Germany decades earlier, while giving rise to a wealthy bourgeois culture and the triumph of the modern scientific spirit, as having extinguished something essential that could “only be recaptured through some sort of religious leap.” (p.4). Rosenzweig rejected Judaism’s efforts to reform itself “according to modern notions of historical progress, which were rooted in Christianity” in favor of a new form of thinking that would “turn its back on history in order to recapture the vital transcendent essence of Judaism” (p.xvii-xviii).

          Lilla’s sensitivity to the interaction between religion and politics, the subject of The Stillborn God and the portraits of Voeglin and Rosenzweig here, is again on display in the two essays in the middle “Currents” section. In “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” Lilla explores how, despite doctrinal differences, traditional Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and neo-Orthodox Judaism in the United States came to share a “sweeping condemnation of America’s cultural decline and decadence.”  This “theoconservatism” (p.xix) blames today’s perceived decline and decadence on reform movements within these dominations and what they perceive as secular attacks on religion generally, frequently tracing the attacks to the turbulent 1960s as the significant breaking point in American political and religious history.

         Two works figure prominently in this section, Alastir MacInytre’s 1981 After Virtue, and Brad Gregory’s 2012 The Unintended Reformation. MacIntyre, echoing de Maistre, argued that the Enlightenment had undone a system of morality worked out over centuries, unwittingly preparing the way for “acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that that ‘cannot hope to achieve moral consensus’” (p.74-75). Gregory, inspired by MacIntyre, attributed contemporary decline and decadence in significant part to forces unleashed in the Reformation, undercutting the orderliness and certainty of “medieval Christianity,” his term for pre-Reformation Catholicism. Building on Luther and Calvin, Reformation radicals “denied the need for sacraments or relics,” and left believers unequipped to interpret the Bible on their own, leading to widespread religious conflict. Modern liberalism ended these conflicts but left us with the “hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativististic world of today. And that’s how we got from Luther to Walmart” (p.78-79).

        “From St. Paul to Mao” considers a “small but intriguing movement on the academic far left” which maintains a paradoxical nostalgia for “revolution” or “the future,” and sees “deep affinities” between Saint Paul and modern revolutionaries such as Lenin and Chairman Mao (p.xx).  Jacob Taubes, a peripatetic Swiss-born Jew who taught in New York, Berlin, Jerusalem and Paris, sought to demonstrate in The Political Teachings of Paul that Paul was a “distinctively Jewish fanatic sent to universalize the Bible’s hope of redemption, bringing this revolutionary new idea to the wider world. After Moses, there was never a better Jew than Paul” (p.90). French theorist Alain Badiou, among academia’s last surviving Maoists, argued that Paul was to Jesus as Lenin was to Marx. The far left academic movement’s most prominent theorist is Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s “crown jurist” (p.99), a thinker portrayed in The Reckless Mind who emphasized the importance of human capacity and will rather than principles of natural right in organizing society.

         The third section, “Currents,” considers  France’s simmering cultural war over the place of Islam in French society, particularly in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which Lilla sees as a head-on collision between two forms of political reaction:

On the one side was the nostalgia of the poorly educated killers for an imagined, glorious Muslim past that now inspires dreams of a modern caliphate with global ambitions. On the other was the nostalgia of French intellectuals who saw in the crime a confirmation of their own fatalistic views about the decline of France and the incapacity of Europe to assert itself in the face of a civilizational challenge (p.xx).

        France’s struggle to integrate its Muslim population, Lilla argues, has revived a tradition of cultural despair and nostalgia for a Catholic monarchist past that had flourished in France between the 1789 Revolution and the fall of France in 1940, but fell out of favor after World War II because of its association with the Vichy government and France’s role in the Holocaust. In the early post-war decades in France, it was “permissible for a French writer to be a conservative but not a reactionary, and certainly not a reactionary with a theory of history that condemned what everyone else considered to be modern progress” (p.108). Today, it is once again permissible in France to be a reactionary.

          “Currents” concentrates on two best-selling works that manifest the revival of the French reactionary tradition, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide francais, published in 2014, and Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel, Submission, first published on the very day of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, an “astonishing, almost unimaginable” coincidence (p.116). Le Suicide francais presents a “grandiose, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France” (p.108), with a broad range of culprits contributing to the decline, including feminism, multiculturalism, French business elites, and European Union bureaucrats. But Zemmour reserves particular contempt for France’s Muslim citizens.  Le Suicide francais provides the French right with a “common set of enemies,” stirring an “outraged hopelessness – which in contemporary politics is much more powerful than hope” (p.117).

         Submission is the story of an election in France of a Muslim President in 2022, with the support of France’s mainstream political parties which seek to prevent the far right National Front party from winning the presidency.  In Lilla’s interpretation, the novel serves to express a “recurring European worry that the single-minded pursuit of freedom – freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends – must inevitably lead to disaster” (p.127).  France for Houellebecq “regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self” as a result of wager on history made at the time of the Enlightenment that the more Europeans “extended human freedom, the happier they would be” (p.128-29). For Houellebecq, “by any measure France’s most significant contemporary writer” (p.109), that wager has been lost. “And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God”(p.129).

          Lilla’s section on France ends on this ominous note. But in an “Afterword,” Lilla returns to contemporary Islam, the other party to the head-on collision of competing reactionaries at work in the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and their aftermath.  Islam’s belief in a lost Godden Age is the “most potent and consequential” political nostalgia in operation today (p.140), Lilla contends. According to radical Islamic myth, out of a state of jahiliyya, ignorance and chaos, the Prophet Muhammad was “chosen as the vessel of God’s final revelation, which uplifted all individuals and peoples who accepted it.” But, “astonishingly soon, the élan of this founding generation was lost. And it has never been recovered” (p.140). Today the forces of secularism, individualism, and materialism have “combined to bring about a new jahiliyya that every faithful Muslim must struggle against, just as the Prophet did at the dawn of the seventh century” (p.141).

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          The essays in this collection add up to what Lilla describes as a “modest start” (p.xv) in probing  the reactionary mindset and are intriguing as far as they go. But I finished The Shipwrecked Mind hoping that Lilla will extend this modest start. Utilizing his extensive learning and formidable analytical skills, Lilla is ideally equipped to provide a systematic, historical overview of the reactionary tradition, an overview that would highlight its relationship to the French Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment in particular but to other historical landmarks as well, especially the 1960s. In such a work, Lilla might also provide more definitional rigor to the term “political reactionary” than he does here, elaborating upon its relationship to traditional conservatism, populism, and anti-modernism.  Through what might be a separate work, Lilla is also well placed to help us connect the dots between political reaction and the turmoil generated by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.  In less than six months, moreover, we will also know whether we will need to ask Lilla to connect dots between his sound discussion here of political reaction in contemporary France and a National Front presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

January 5, 2017

 

 

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Filed under Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion

Mid-Life Embrace of Judaism

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Steven Gimbel, Einstein: His Space and Time 

            In Einstein: His Space and Time, Steven Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, offers a highly compact biography of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), well under 200 pages. With numerous Einstein biographies already available, Gimbel’s special angle lies in his emphasis upon Einstein’s Jewish roots – fittingly, since the work is one in the Yale University Press series “Jewish Lives” (and I can’t help wondering whether the editors of the series might be tempted to rename the series “Jewish Lives Matter”). Einstein was born into a Jewish family that Gimbel describes as “anti-observant” rather than simply “non-observant” (p.8). In 1896, as a 17 year old, Einstein repudiated his Jewish heritage at the same time that he renounced his German citizenship. But he embraced Judaism enthusiastically in the 1920s, when he was over 40 years old, realizing that his Jewish heritage was an “inalienable part of who he was and who he was perceived to be” (p.4). As an adult, Einstein lived in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States — along with a short stint in Prague – but disdained the notion of national identity and was never really at home anywhere. In Gimbel’s account, Einstein’s midlife embrace of Judaism provided him with a sense of rootedness he failed to find in national identity or the places he lived.

     Gimbel provides a sharp chronological structure to his overview of Einstein’s life, dividing his book  into four major segments: Einstein’s  early years, from his birth in Ulm, Germany in 1879, to 1905, when he received his PhD degree in physics while working as an examiner in Switzerland’s patent office in Bern; 1905 to 1920, when he rose from the obscurity of a patent officer to international acclaim through his breakthrough theories altering the way we look at space, time, and the universe, to borrow from Gimbel’s subtly clever sub-title; 1920 to 1933, when Einstein embraced Judaism during the Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment in liberal democracy established after the shock of its defeat in World War I; and 1933-55, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Einstein’s decision to leave Germany for the United States, where he remained until  his death.  Gimbel’s discussion of the major theories in physics that made Einstein a world famous scientist in his own day and a nearly mythological figure today is limited and laudably designed to be understandable to the average reader. Some readers may nonetheless find these portions of this concise volume slow going. But few should experience any such challenges in absorbing Gimbel’s highly readable account of how Einstein’s Jewish heritage shaped his views of the world and the universe.

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    Einstein’s father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer.  His mother,  Pauline Koch, was a “stay-at-home mom” in today’s parlance whom Gimbel describes as “[s]trong-willed, strong-minded, and sharp tongued” (p.7-8).  In 1880, when Albert was one year old, his parents moved from Ulm to Munich, where young Albert entered a Catholic school a few years later. He began to play the violin at age six and throughout his life considered music “spiritual in the deepest sense” (p.13). When Einstein was in his teens, his family left Munich to pursue business opportunities in Italy. Einstein finished  secondary school in Aarau Switzerland, at the Arovian cantonal gymnasium.

     To avoid military service, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and surrendered his German passport in 1896, ostentatiously renouncing Judaism at that same time.  Later that year, he enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH in German) in Zurich, studying math and physics. Zurich in Einstein’s university days was a “cosmopolitan playground filled with young people from across the Continent,” where radical new ideas were “in the air, and a sense of openness abounded” (p.22).

     Einstein’s future wife, Mileva Marić, a Serbian national, also enrolled at ETH in 1896. Mileva was the only woman in the math and physics section of the school. She was somewhat like Einstein’s mother, Gimbel indicates, “smart, sarcastic and strong willed” (p.23), with a passion for physics that rivaled that of Einstein. Her friendship with Einstein transformed into romance during their four years together at ETH. Unlike Einstein, however, who was awarded his degree in 1900, Mileva, did not achieve a sufficient level in her studies to warrant a degree. Gimbel describes the Einstein who left ETH in 1900 as a “complicated personality,” brimming with self-confidence and a “strange combination of arrogance and empathy” (p.73). But the young physics graduate searched for work for nearly two years before securing a job as an assistant examiner in the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, where he evaluated patent applications.

     Sometime prior to 1903, Mileva became pregnant and went back to Serbia to have the baby, named Liserl. It is not clear what happened to Liserl. As Gimbel explains:

The custom at that time was for the children of unmarried parents to be adopted, usually by a family member or a close friend.  This seems to have occurred, as news of Liesrl continued in correspondence for a little while.  Mileva moved back to Zurich, where she received word that Liersrl had contracted scarlet fever.  We do not know whether she survived. . . but we do know that Einstein never met his daughter (p.30).

Einstein and Mileva married in 1903, and the couple had two sons, Hans Albert and Edouard.

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     While working in the patent office, Einstein studied at the University of Zurich for the PhD degree, which he earned in 1905. In a chapter entitled “The Miracle Year,” Gimbel explains how, in March, April and May of 1905, Einstein published three groundbreaking papers which provided new, revolutionary ways to view matter, light and space. At that time, Issac Newton’s late 17th century mechanical view of the universe as composed of space, time, motion, mass and energy was the entrenched bedrock of physics upon which to build and expand. Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation had “explained the falling of apples and the orbits of planets, the motion of comets and the rising of the tides” (p.59). His work was considered the “highest expression of the human mind in all recorded history” (p.59).

     Einstein demonstrated in 1905 the centrality of the atom to all of physics. Many physicists in the early 20th century did not accept theories of physics based on the atomic view of matter. Einstein’s work on atoms “got to the basic constituents of matter and accounted for the concepts of heat in thermodynamics” (p.67). In addition, Einstein presented a new picture of light as a force of constant speed. He contended that physics must “take as a starting point that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same for all observers, no matter their state of motion with regard to the source” (p.54). The speed of light is “not only a constant, it is also a limiting velocity. Nothing can move faster than this speed. . . moving faster than the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy, and that is not possible. Nothing can move faster than light in a vacuum” (p.57).

     Einstein’s work on light “revolutionized optics” (p.67). It led Einstein to establish the equivalence of mass and energy, as captured in the famous equation E = MC2, where the mass of the body is a measure of its energy content. Einstein’s three 1905 papers, Gimbel writes, left “no single part of the study of physics, the oldest and most established science, which Eistein did not seek to completely overhaul” (p.59).   Yet, the papers of Einstein’s miracle year failed to attract significant attention, in part because they came from an obscure 26-year-old patent examiner, not a recognized academic physicist.

     Einstein spent the succeeding years looking for a teaching position and over the course of the next decade became an academic vagabond. He found positions in Bern, Zurich, and Prague before returning to Germany in 1914, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin.  1914 was also the fateful year when World War I broke out. At the start of the war, Einstein saw his “worst fears regarding the German character coming true. Not only was there a sense that offensive military adventures were justified in the name of German ascendance, but there was near universal support for them” (p.91).

     Yet, the World War I years were among Einstein’s most productive. One hundred years ago this year, in 1916, Einstein published “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity,” in which his signature theory of relativity jelled — a “radical revision of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself” (p.89). At the heart of the theory was the notion that the “laws of physics should be the same for all observers who are moving at a constant speed in a straight line with respect to each other” (p.54). Gimbel terms Einstein’s insight a “triumph of elegance and imagination . . . Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, space, time, and motion had dominated physics for three hundred years, standing as the single greatest achievement in the history of science. Here was its successor” (p.89).

     Einstein’s theory of relativity attracted world attention in a way that his 1905 papers had not quite done. With the European powers at war with one another, Einstein’s theories of space, time and the universe “caught the fancy of a world tired of thinking about mankind as barbarians and eager to celebrate its creativity and insight. And at the center of it was this curious, unkempt, wisecracking figure who seemed to stand for a different side of humanity” (p.100).

* * *

     As the European powers fought World War I, Einstein began an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, a divorced mother of two daughters. Mileva returned to Zurich with the couple’s two sons after discovering the affair, and she and Einstein divorced in 1919. Months later, Einstein married Elsa. In Elsa, Einstein saw the opposite of Mileva. Whereas Mileva sought to be a gender-barrier-breaking pioneer and Einstein’s intellectual partner, Elsa, with her “simple charm” and “sunny disposition” put her cousin on a pedestal, “never invading his work but instead caring for his more basic needs” (p.95). Until her death in 1936, Elsa assumed a role which Gimbel describes as Einstein’s “business manager,” serving as his gatekeeper and screening the many people “clamoring to have face time, interviews, and collaboration”with  her husband (p.95).

     In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, Einstein became what Gimbel describes as a symbol of “scientific cosmopolitanism. He was adored, inspiring poems and architecturally bizarre buildings. His science, combined with his politics during the war, gave him the status of the wise elder statesman among young rebels. The fact that people did not understand his theory of relativity did not diminish his social capital; to the contrary, it increased it. By being the keeper of the mystery, he was considered the high priest of modernism” (p.113). But a toxic anti-Semitism plagued Weimar Germany from the beginning, from which even non-observant Jews like Einstein were not immune.

* * *

     During the Weimar years, Einstein began to “view his Jewishness in a new light” (p.109). He was able, as Gimbel puts it, to “become Jewish again in his own mind without having to surrender the scientific world view, the personal ethic, or the metaphysical foundations upon which he rested his physical theories. Being Jewish became . . . an inalienable aspect of his being” (p.109). Weimar anti-Semitism no doubt played a role in leading Einstein to the view that the experiences of Jews everywhere had “core commonalities that united them into a nation” (p.121). Einstein’s rediscovery of his Jewish roots in the early 1920s thus awakened his interest in Zionism, with its aspiration for a Jewish community in Palestine, an aspiration which Einstein had previously resisted.

     Zionism was “not a natural fit for Einstein, who, to the core of his being, opposed every form of nationalism” (p.121). Einstein worried that Zionism would “rob Judaism of its moral core. . . If Zionism became a movement that was focused on the idolatry of a particular piece of land, then the emergence of all of the evils that have plagued Jews across the globe for thousands of years would find a new source in Jews themselves” (p.124). But Einstein seemed to modify his views after a trip to Tel Aviv in the 1920s.  The “accomplishments by the Jews in but a few years” in Tel Aviv, Einstein wrote, elicited his “highest admiration. A modern Hebrew city with busy economic and intellectual life shoots up from the bare ground. What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!” (p.137). Unlike many Zionists of the day, however, Einstein emphasized the importance of achieving parity between the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine.

       Einstein’s first trip to the United States took place in 1921, where he traveled with Chaim Weizmann, the famed Zionist leader who later became the first President of the State of Israel.  Unbeknownst to Einstein, Weizmann was using Einstein not only to raise money for the Zionist cause but also to ward off a challenge from American Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis for leadership in the worldwide Zionist movement. Einstein’s trip to America failed to raise anywhere near the amount of money that Weizmann had hoped, but an “unintended result” of the trip was to “strengthen Einstein’s identity as a Jew” (p.130). Einstein wrote that it was in America that he “first discovered the Jewish people. . . [coming] from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe generally. . . I found these people extraordinarily ready for self-sacrifice and practically creative” (p.130).

      Einstein visited the United States frequently during the Weimar years and took part time positions at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, in the early 1930s. Teaching at Cal Tech when Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein chose to remain in the United States. In 1935, he obtained a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained until his death in 1955.

* * *

    Einstein’s years at Princeton are treated cursorily in this short volume, almost as an epilogue.  Gimbal discusses how Einstein’s concern that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb prompted him to co-sign a letter to President Roosevelt, urging Roosevelt to pre-empt the German effort. This led to the Manhattan Project, in which Einstein was not directly involved. Horrified by the actual use of nuclear weaponry in Japan in 1945, Einstein came to regret his limited role in unleashing this awesome force. Supposedly, he remarked, “I could burn my fingers that I wrote that letter to Roosevelt” (p172), although this quotation has not been verified. Gimbal also notes that Einstein became an ardent supporter of civil rights, seeing similarities between the treatment of African Americans in the United States and Jews in Europe. His support for civil rights prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to open a file on him.

* * *

     Einstein’s last years at Princeton were spent writing and speaking for pacifistic causes, working to help Jewish refugees flee Europe, and continuing to work on a grand unified theory of the universe.  On his deathbed, Einstein uttered a single sentence in German, his native tongue, before he passed away.  An American nurse heard his words but could not understand them.  “In death  as in life,” Gimbel concludes, “Albert Einstein left us a mystery” (p.177).

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, Religion, Science

Catapulting Islam Into the 21st Century

HA.1

HA.2

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Heretic:
Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now 

     Ayaan Hirsi Ali became known internationally and acquired celebrity status through her best-selling memoir Infidel, in which she told the spellbinding story of her journey away from the Islamic faith (I reviewed Infidel here in May 2012).  Hirsi Ali was born in 1969 in Somalia and lived in several different places growing up, including Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Rather than acquiesce in a marriage that her family had arranged for her, Hirsi Ali fled to the West, winding up in the Netherlands. She became a political activist there, winning a seat in the Dutch Parliament as a visible and vocal critique of many Islamic practices, particularly those affecting girls and women. But she was also critical of Dutch authorities and their overly tolerant, ineffectual reaction to such practices as female genital mutilation and “honor killings” of girls and young women who bring “shame” upon their families.  Hirsi Ali became a friend of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (a descendant of the painter), who was brutally killed in Amsterdam, ostensibly because of the criticisms of Islam contained in a film he had produced.  After Van Gogh’s death, Hirsi Ali fled to the United States, where she now lives as a highly visible, outspoken (and heavily guarded) critic of present day Islam.

    Hirsi Ali’s most recent book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now represents, she indicates, a “continuation of the personal and intellectual journey” she chronicled in Infidel and her other books (p.54). Here, Hirsi Ali addresses head-on the primary reason she has become a controversial figure: she firmly rejects the conventional liberal view of “jihad,” the wanton and barbaric violence practiced by professed Muslims. In the conventional view, jihad is a grotesque distortion of Islam, the work of a small number of fanatics who have “hijacked” a peaceful faith.

      Not so, Hirsi Ali counters.  Citing chapters and verses of the Qur’an, she contends that violence toward “infidels,” both non-Muslims and non-conforming Muslims, is an integral, inseparable component of a complex faith that counts over a billion followers across the globe. Jihad in the twenty-first century is “not a problem of poverty, insufficient education, or another other social precondition. . . we must move beyond such facile explanations. The imperative for jihad is embedded in Islam itself. It is a religious obligation” (p.176). Far from being un-Islamic, the central tenets of the jihadists are “supported by centuries-old Islamic doctrine” (p.205).

      Hirsi Ali is thus not one to avoid the term “Islamic terrorism.” It is no longer plausible, she contends, to argue that organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic state, ISIS, have “nothing to do with Islam. It is no longer credible to define ‘extremism’ as some disembodied threat, meting out death without any ideological foundation, a problem to be dealt with by purely military methods, preferably drone strikes. We need to tackle the root of the problem of the violence that is plaguing our world today, and that must be the doctrine of Islam itself” (p.190).

      The sanctioning of violence against infidels is in Hirsi Ali’s view only the most visible manifestation of Islam’s incompatibilities with the “key imperatives of modernity: freedom of conscience, tolerance of difference, equality of the sexes, and an investment in life before death” (p.51). Islamic thought rejects these hallmarks of democratically liberal and economically advanced societies, Hirsi Ali argues.  Islam therefore needs a reformation now, not unlike that which Christianity experienced in the 16th century. I would prefer the term “Enlightenment,” referring to the new modes of thinking that emerged in the 18th century. At one point, Hirsi Ali cites two figures associated with the Enlightenment, arguing that Islam “needs a Voltaire” and also has a “dire need” for a John Locke and his “powerful case for religious toleration” (p.209).

      But the terminology is not consequential. What Hirsi Ali advocates is that Islam and the Islamic world modernize. And, surprisingly, Hirsi Ali does not despair: in her view, a genuine Islamic reformation is not as far-fetched and fanciful as one might expect.

* * *

      Hirsi Ali characterizes Islam as, paradoxically, the “most decentralized and yet, at the same time, the most rigid religion in the world. Everyone feels entitled to rule out free discussion” (p.66). Islam has no counterpart to the hierarchal structures of the Catholic Church, starting with the pope and the College of Cardinals. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, the “tribal military and patriarchal values of [Islam’s] origins were enshrined as spiritual values, to be emulated in perpetuity . . . These values pertain especially to honor, male guardianship of women, harshness in war, and the death penalty for leaving Islam” (p.85).

      Islam in Hirsi Ali’s view upends the core Western view that individuals should, within certain limits, decide for themselves how to live and what to believe.  Islam has “very clear and restrictive rules about how one should live and it expects all Muslims to enforce those rules” (p.162). The “comprehensive nature of commanding right and forbidding wrong is uniquely Islamic,” she argues. Because Islam does not confine itself to a separate religious sphere, it is “deeply embedded in political, economic and personal as well as religious life” (p.156). Islam is a “political religion many of whose fundamental tenets are irreconcilably inimical to our way of life” (p.213).

    Hirisi-Ali’s analysis discounts the traditional division of Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects. This division is important to understand geo-political realities and the sectarian violence in today’s Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria, along with the growing regional rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.  But the division does not help in understanding Hirsi Ali’s point that jihad-like violence toward “infidels,” including non-conforming Muslims, is embedded into and is an integral part of both Shiite and Sunni Islam.

       The more salient distinction is between what Hirsi Ali terms “Medina” and “Mecca” Muslims. Medina was the city where the Prophet Muhammad and his small band of 7th century followers gave a more militant cast to their faith, forcing polytheist non-believers – “infidels” — either to convert to Islam or die (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they paid a special tax).  Medina Muslims aim to emulate the Prophet Muhammad’s warlike conduct after his move to Medina. They are more rigid and tribal than Mecca Muslims, seeking the forcible imposition of Islamic law, sharia, as their religious duty.  Although not all Media Muslims are violence-prone jihadists, jihad fits comfortably into their worldview. Even if Medina Muslims do not themselves engage in violence, “they do not hesitate to condone it . . . Medina Muslims believe that the murder of an infidel is an imperative if he refuses to convert voluntarily to Islam” (p.15). For Medina Muslims, other faiths and other interpretations of Islam are “simply not valid” (p.40).

      The good news is that Medina Muslims are a minority within the Islamic world. Mecca Muslims, the clear majority, are “loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly, but are not inclined to practice violence” (p.16). But the bad news is that Mecca Muslims are “too passive, indolent, and – crucially – lacking in the intellectual vigor to stand up to the Medina Muslims” (p.49). Winning their support for the reformation which Hirsi Ali envisions will be crucial but far from easy.

      Moreover, reform is “simply not a legitimate concept in Islamic doctrine,” Hirsi Ali argues. The “only accepted and proper goal of a Muslim ‘reformer’ is a return to first principles” (p.64).  Reform in the Islamic world has been narrowly focused on such questions as whether a Muslim could pray on an airplane, a technological innovation unknown to the Prophet Muhammad. But the “larger idea of ‘reform,’ in the sense of fundamentally calling into question central tenets of Islamic doctrine, has been conspicuous by its absence.  Islam even has its own pejorative term for theological troublemakers: ‘those who indulge in innovations and follow their passions’” (p.212-13).

    Hirsi Ali’s case for an Islamic reformation revolves around five central tenets of Islam that she considers incompatible with modernity and need to be modified if not abolished as part of the reformation she advocates.  She sometimes refers to her recommendations on these five tenets as “theses,” in reference to the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door in 1517, when he provided his indictment against the Catholic Church. But more often she terms her recommendations simply “amendments.”

* * *

      Hirsi Ali’s five amendments are:

1. Ensure that the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an are open to interpretation and criticism — The “crucial first step” in the process of modification and reform of Islam will be to “acknowledge the humanity of the Prophet himself and the role of human beings in creating Islam’s sacred texts”(p.105).

2. Give priority to this life, not the afterlife — Islam’s “afterlife fixation” erodes the “intellectual and moral incentives that are essential for ‘making it’ in the modern world” (p.124); until Islam stops fixating on the afterlife, Muslims “cannot get on with the business of living in this world” (p.127).

3. Shackle sharia and end its supremacy over secular law — “What separated Muslims from the infidels . . . was the God-given nature of their laws. And because these laws came ultimately from Muhammad’s divine revelations, they were fixed and could not be changed. Thus the law code dating from the seventh century continues to be followed today in nations and regions that adhere to sharia” (p.133-34).

4. End the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law — Unlike the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, which had to work hard to persuade family members to denounce one another to the authorities, the “power of the Muslim system is that that the authorities do not need to be involved. Social control begins at home” (p.154); consequently, “every small act, every minor infraction has the potential to become a major religious crime” (p.165).

5. Abandon the call to jihad — The concept of jihad should be “decommissioned” (p.205); clerics, imams, scholars and national leaders around the world need to declare jihad “haram,” forbidden (p.206).

     Hirsi Ali contends that these amendments can take place “without causing the entire structure [of the Islamic faith] to collapse” (p.73). Her amendments will “actually strengthen Islam by making it easier for Muslims to live in harmony with the modern world” (p.73).  She acknowledges that medieval Christianity knew practices similar to those targeted in all but her 4th amendment (the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law has no analogue in hierarchical medieval Catholicism).  Reform-minded Islamic experts might quibble about some of Hirsi Ali’s wording and emphasis. I found it surprising that altering Islam’s view of women does not merit a separate amendment. Improvement in the status of women in Hirsi Ali’s analysis is rather an outgrowth of her 3rd amendment, shackling sharia: “there is no more obvious incompatibility between Islam and modernity than the subordinate role assigned to women in sharia law” (p.225).

     Hirsi Ali is far from the first to call for an Islamic reformation.  She nonetheless convinced me that reform of Islamic doctrine and the Islamic worldview along the lines of her five amendments would go far to render Islam a more tolerant religion, capable of coexisting with the world’s other faiths.  But  how does Islam catapult from the 16th century into to the 21st? Hirsi Ali’s response is vague, underscoring that her book is more polemical than practical — it is not a roadmap to the Islamic reformation.

* * *

      Realization of her five amendments will be “exceedingly difficult” (p.73), Hirsi Ali acknowledges. The struggle for the reformation of Islam is a “war of ideas” which cannot be fought “solely by military means” (p.220).  It must be led by a relatively small number of “dissidents” and “modifying Muslims” within the Muslim world who reject the Medina Muslims’ efforts to return to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The prize over which the dissidents and the Medina Muslims fight is the “hearts and minds of the largely passive Mecca Muslims” (p.223). The availability of new information technology is critical in empowering those who seek to oppose the Medina Muslims.

      The Western world should “provide assistance and, where necessary, security to those dissidents and reformers who are carrying out [the] formidable task” of seeking to reform Islam from within Muslim majority countries (p.250), Hirsi Ali writes. They should be defended and supported in the West in a manner analogous to the way the West defended and supported Soviet dissidents during the Cold War.  Such dissidents are “ultimately allies of human freedom though they may differ with Westerners on matters of public policy” and are “unlikely to agree with Westerners on every matter of foreign policy” (p.249).

     But the heart of Hirsi Ali’s message is that Westerners must change the way they think about Islam. We must:

no longer accept limitations on criticism of Islam. We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ’racist’. . . Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance. If we do in fact support diversity, women’s rights, and gay rights, then we cannot in good conscience give Islam a free pass on the grounds of multicultural sensitivity (p.27-28).

In Western countries, she argues at several points, Muslims “must accommodate themselves to Western liberal ideals” (p.213), rather than the other way around.

* * *

      In addition to its vagueness on how to bring about the Islamic reformation in Muslim majority countries, two additional shortcomings undermine the cogency of Hirsi Ali’s otherwise trenchant critique.  Hirsi Ali has a full section devoted to what she terms “Christophobia,” an antipathy toward Christianity which she says pervades Islamic countries across the globe and dwarfs what we often term “Islamophobia,” discrimination in the West against individuals because of their Muslim backgrounds and unequal treatment of Muslim religious institutions. She discounts Islamophobia as overstated and overblown by journalists.  But in a book targeting Westerners it is myopic to dismiss Islamophobia as inconsequential.  Anyone following current presidential elections in the United States or immigration issues in Europe knows that the phenomena of Islamophobia needs to be treated as a serious concern in Western societies. Hirsi Ali misses an opportunity to provide Westerners with her guidance about how they might work out the tension between acknowledging the often-illiberal substantive content of Islamic beliefs and practices without encouraging or succumbing to anti-Islamic hysteria, Islamophobia.  Hirsi Ali has more stature than just about anyone I can think of to provide such guidance.  That might be a worthwhile subject of her next book.

      Finally, at the end of her analysis, Hirsi Ali argues that Christianity and Judaism underwent a process of “repeated blasphemy” to evolve and grow into modernity (p.233-34). Those who wanted to uphold the status quo in Christianity and Judaism made the same arguments as those of present-day Muslims: that “they were offended, that the new thinking was blasphemy” (p.233).  The idea of blasphemy as an instrument of Islamic reform is an interesting one, but it appears only as an afterthought at the  end of Hirsi Ali’s book. The idea might have had serious clout if she had given it more prominence in the book and shown how it relates to her other arguments for reform. This too might be a worthwhile subject of another provocative Hirsi Ali book.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
August 9, 2016

7 Comments

Filed under Religion

Introducing Doubt into Weak, Unstable Minds

spinoza

Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell:
Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age 

              17th century Amsterdam was known as a liberal and tolerant city, as it is today. But tolerance during what was sometimes called the Dutch Golden age had its limits and, in 1670, an anonymously-published Tractus Theologico-Politicus, or Theological-Political Treatise, crossed well over the line of what the city’s dominant Dutch Reformed Protestant authorities deemed appropriate. Over the next four years, those authorities sought to convince various local governing bodies within the United Provinces of the Netherlands, as it was then known, to ban the Treatise. During this time, the text’s author was somehow identified as one Baruch de Spinoza who, two decades previously, had been ignominiously ex-communicated from Amsterdam’s thriving Portuguese-Jewish community.

       In December 1673, the Treatise was published together with another work, Lodwjik Meijer’s Philosophy, Interpreter of Holy Scripture, in a single volume that bore the false title of a medical treatise. This ruse provided a sufficient basis for Holland’s highest court, the Hof, to enjoin dissemination of both. Describing the two as “harmful poison” which “overflow with blasphemies against God” and appeared designed to “introduce doubt into weak, unstable minds” (p.230), the court officially banned the two works throughout the United Provinces. Shortly thereafter, an implacable foe described the Treatise as having been “[f]orged in hell by the apostate Jew working together with the devil” (p.231).

             This description provides Steven Nadler with the title to his cogent and captivating analysis of the apostate Jew Spinoza’s heretical thinking, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. In a work which should appeal to general readers and specialists alike, Nadler also ably captures the 17th century Dutch Golden Age environment in which the Treatise and Meijer’s now largely forgotten work appeared and then officially disappeared. Nadler characterizes the Treatise as “one of the most important and influential books in the history of philosophy, in religious and political thought, and even in Bible studies” (p.240). Further, while often overlooked in books on the history of political thought, the Treatise also has a “proud and well-deserved place in the rise of democratic theory, civil liberties, and political liberalism. The ideas of the Treatise inspired republican revolutionaries in England, America and France” (p.240).

* * *

        It is not difficult to see why the Treatise’s pronouncements on religion and theology rankled Amsterdam’s ecclesiastical authorities. Spinoza’s work, as Nadler summarizes it, “denied the divinity of the Bible, ruled out the possibility of miracles, identified God’s providence with the laws of nature, deflated the revelations of the prophets, and reduced religion to a simple moral code” (p.222). For Spinoza, religion as practiced in the 17th century was “nothing more than organized superstition” (p.31). In the Treatise, Spinoza presented his case for what he considered “true religion,” which had “nothing to do with theology or elaborate church liturgy; it consists only in obeying the Golden Rule” (p.xii). Spinoza saw God not as the “providential, awe-inspiring deity of Abraham” but quite simply the “fundamental, eternal, infinite substance of reality and the first cause of all things” (p.13). It is “not what you believe but what you do that matters,” Spinoza argued in the Treatise. Religion requires us to “know and love God by pursuing the knowledge of nature and to love human beings as ourselves, by acting toward them with charity and justice . . . In short, the divine law commands only virtue” (p.156-57).

          More than any other work, the Treatise laid the foundation for modern critical and historical approaches to the Bible. Perhaps Spinoza’s “most influential, and (to his contemporaries) most shocking conclusion in the Treatise is that Holy Scripture is, in fact, a work of human literature” (p.32), Nadler contends. With “astonishing boldness” (p.131), Spinoza’s Treatise proposed a scientific approach to scripture, working methodically with textual and historical material. Spinoza thus “ushered in modern biblical source scholarship” (p.107). Spinoza’s attack on the belief in miracles also shocked 17th century sensibilities. For Spinoza, miracles were an “‘absurdity’ and the belief in them sheer ‘folly’” (p.83).

        Separating philosophy from religion was the “ultimate goal” (p.207) of the Treatise, Nadler argues, so that “philosophers might be free to pursue secular wisdom unimpeded by ecclesiastic authority” (p.65). The subtitle which Spinoza gave to his Treatise revealed his intention to demonstrate that “freedom to philosophize may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself” (p.207). The end of philosophy is truth and knowledge, whereas the end of religion is pious behavior and obedience. Philosophical truth and religious faith thus have “nothing in common with one another, and one must not serve as the rule of the other. Philosophy should not have to answer to religion, no more than religion should have to be consistent with any philosophical system” (p.65). Spinoza’s plea for the freedom of philosophizing became a political argument for a civil state almost unimaginable in the 17th century, in which sectarian religious authorities were tightly confined, with “no influence over public affairs, including intellectual and cultural matters” (p.187).

            In the Treatise’s chapters on governance, Spinoza’s appeal for the separation of philosophy from religion led him to an extended argument for freedom of thought and expression. Spinoza advanced the audacious argument for his day that state efforts to control belief and opinions should be regarded as “tyrannical” (p.208). Matters of opinion and belief belong to “individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should wish to” (p.208), Spinoza argued. He advocated freedom of opinion and belief on utilitarian grounds as “necessary for progress in the discovery of truth and the growth of creativity” (p.209). The state can pursue no safer course, Spinoza wrote in the penultimate paragraph of the Treatise, than to “regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks” (p.213-14).

           Spinoza thus argued in the Treatise that the purposes of the state are best served by something closely resembling modern liberal democracy. Democracy, Spinoza wrote, represents the “most natural form of state, approaching most closely to that freedom which nature grants to every man. For in a democratic state nobody transfers his natural right to another so completely that thereafter he is not to be consulted; he transfers it to the majority of the entire community of which he is a part” (p.195). In Spinoza’s ideal commonwealth, the “right to determine what is in the common interest, issue laws, and enforce them is given to the people-at-large” (p.193). Under the auspices of the state, the people have the “opportunity to increase their freedom and virtue” (p.197).

           It is unclear how Spinoza was identified as the author of the Treatise. Once recognized, Spinoza was particularly disappointed that many of his closest associates and most liberal allies, those who had the most to gain in the campaign for religious tolerance in 17th century Holland and across Europe, sought to put distance between themselves and the Treatise. Rather than opening the door to greater liberty to philosophize, as he had hoped, Spinoza “seems mainly to have succeeded in mobilizing the entire world, including Dutch liberals, against himself” (p.240) and in bringing the Dutch Golden Age to a close, Nadler wryly observes.

* * *

         Surprisingly, Nadler indicates that until recently Spinoza has been largely ignored in the study of 17th century political philosophers. While it is very difficult to see how this could have been the case, today Spinoza is anything but underappreciated. Few of Nadler’s readers are likely to take issue with his portrayal of Spinoza as “certainly the most original, radical, and controversial figure of his time . . . [whose] philosophical, political, and religious ideas laid the foundation for much of what we now regard as ‘modern’” (p. xv). Nadler’s incisive dissection of the Treatise and his illuminating depiction of the 17th century environment in which it appeared should provide an added boost to the attention and respect accorded to Amsterdam’s apostate Jew.

Thomas H. Peebles
Silver Spring, Maryland
May 23, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Religion, Rule of Law, Uncategorized

What’s The Matter with New York?

Norman Podhoretz, Why Are Jews Liberals?

[Introduction: this comment dates from 2009, with a revised last paragraph to consider current political realities.]

At several points in Why Are Jews Liberals,  Norman Podhoretz quotes an adage that American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” i.e. despite affluent life-styles and dwindling anti-Semitism in the United States, most Jews remain comfortable supporting relatively progressive political positions and Democratic candidates.  In every presidential election since 1928, with the single exception of 1980, when Ronald Reagan bested incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Jewish vote:

the Democratic candidate has scored a landslide among Jewish voters even when defeated by a landslide among the electorate as a whole (George McGovern in 1972).  No Democratic candidate in all those elections (again, except Carter) has attracted less than 60 perceont of the Jewish vote, and the overall average since 1928 is a stunning 75 percent (p.258-59).

Podhoretz devotes this volume to trying to figure out why American Jews retain their affinity for what he considers an apostate Democratic Party – or, closer to the mark,  expressing his frustration that he has not been able to figure out why.  Look at the way you live, he seems to be shouting at his fellow Jews: why the hell are you not voting for lower taxes for job-creating gazillionaires and an end to all that stifling government regulation?  Why all this social justice nonsense and misguided concern for the downtrodden?   As discussed in my August post on neo-conservatism,  Podhoretz, started to the left of the Democratic party as a 1940s New York radical.  In his left wing phase as a young man, Podhoretz surely was imbued with the broad notions of economic determinism that underlie Marxist thought.  In this volume, Podhoretz appears to have reverted to that same determinism as an aging righty.

Podhoretz admits that the Democratic Party was the natural place for Jews in the New Deal era, and may have remained so until about 1967.  While anti-Semitism was found in all political circles, it was clearly stronger on the conservative and Republican side in the 1930s to 1950s, not to mention what the conservative alliance with the Nazis brought to Germany and Europe.   But Israel’s victory in the six-day War in June 1967 changed all that, at least for Podhoretz.  Gradually, anti-Semitism became more visible on the political left, in the African-American community in the United States, and throughout the Islamic world.   From roughly 1967 onward, support for Israel became the prism through which Podhoretz saw politics and the world.

Indeed, Podhoretz comes close to being a single-issue commentator, with Israel being his issue.  Such commentators are almost by definition impatient and often contemptuous of those who do not elevate the issue to the same priority level.  It is not surprising, then, that Podhoretz spends a good portion of the latter portion of this book heaping scorn on those who seek an “evenhanded” approach to the Palestinian imbroglio and Middle East politics generally (and Podhoretz uses “quotation marks” throughout this book as a vehicle to heap scorn).

Podhoretz grades American presidents and candidates on the extent of their support for Israel, beginning with Kennedy and Johnson.  Not all Democrats receive failing grades – he praises Al Gore in particular – and not all Republicans get top marks.    George H.W. Bush, for example, does not score high.  But on the whole, in Podhoretz’ view, Republicans have been firmer friends and more solid allies than Democrats.  Attitudes toward Israel among Republicans range from “solid to fervent” while, Podhoretz claims, on the Democratic side they range from “unsympathetic to overtly hostile” (p.294).  Still, Jews continue to vote Democratic in astounding numbers.

Podhoretz feels an affinity for Evangelical Christians and the so-called religious right that, he readily admits, escapes most fellow Jews.  These Christians are among the most fervent of Israeli supporters in the United States today.  Some Evangelical Christians’ support for Israel can have an apocalyptic tinge, he acknowledges, based on the belief that a strong and independent Israel must be in place at the time of Christ’s second coming, when Jews will be converted to Christianity.  But Jews should worry about this later, Podhoretz counsels.  He quotes the advice to a Jewish friend of Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel:

When we’re in Jerusalem and the messiah is coming down the street, one of us is going to have a very major theological adjustment to make.  But until that time, let’s walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people, because Israel needs our help (p.187).

 Nor should Jews be concerned that Evangelical Christians and the religious right seek to Christianize America or institute Christian prayers in public schools.  These concerns are exaggerated, Podhoretz advises, vestiges of Jews’ “ancestral fear of Christianity” (p.186).

Podhoretz dismisses the theory that Jewish liberalism is grounded in “Jewish values” or the “spirit” of the Jewish “religious tradition” (p.274-75—the quotation marks are Podhoretz’, indicating his scorn for these notions).  He seizes upon the views of Rabbi Sidney Schwartz of the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, who in 2008 found it obvious that “social justice is the primary mandate of Judaism.”  To Schwartz, it was equally obvious that there is “no attitude or behavior as universally shared by American Jews as their commitment to the ideals of tolerance, peace, and justice for all people” (p.276).  To Podhoretz , such views are no more than “moral self-gratulation” (although my computer doesn’t recognize the word “gratulation,” giving me the big red underline,  fortunately Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does and tells me that it is an archaic form of “congratulation”).

At the end of his book, Podhoretz provides a stark view of the liberal-conservative divide in the United States.  With a few exceptions, Podhoretz asserts that:

What the Left mainly sees when it looks at America is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social, and political.  By sharp contrast, the Right sees a complex of traditions, principles, and institutions that have made it possible for more freedom and – even factoring in periodic economic downturns – more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society known to humans.  It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating, and defending against attack (p.294).

This Manichean passage might be written off as a rhetorical flourish.  In 2009, however, I found it to be a breathtaking appeal to fellow conservatives to dig in and resist “precisely” any and all suggestions from Rabbi Schwartz and other whiny, carping liberals that public policy might dare to seek “tolerance, peace, and justice for all people.”

Three years later, I find the passage less breathtaking and fully in keeping with the general Republican game plan in effect since President Obama took office earlier in 2009: oppose everything that the President and his party favor, even when they adopt ideas that Republicans once favored (e.g. individual mandate to support health care); or just might be good for the country (e.g. some increases in taxes as part of deficit reduction).  Podhoretz is plainly more than comfortable marching in lockstep with today’s Republican Party.  I for one am grateful that the majority of his fellow American Jews do not feel bound by his smug economic determinism and do not appear ready to march with him.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

September 5, 2012

4 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics, Religion

Sober Sons of Abraham

Hassan Quazwini, American Crescent:

A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice,

and

the Future of Islam and America

[Introductory note:  This is a comment I wrote originally in 2010; it has been revised extensively for this forum.]

I was attracted to “American Crescent” in part because its author, Hassan Quazwini, has made his career in Dearborn, Michigan, another suburb of Detroit just across town from the one where I grew up.  Dearborn today has one of the highest proportions of Arab-Americans in the United States (and is sometimes termed “Dearbornstan”).  Quazwini presently serves as Imam at Dearborn’s Islamic Center of America, the largest Muslim congregation in the United States.  His odyssey to Dearborn started in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, from which his Shiite father and family fled in the 1970s, first to Kuwait, then to Iran.  In 1992, Quazwini left for the United States, living in initially in the Los Angeles area before migrating to Dearborn. Quazwini responded positively to presidential candidate Governor George W. Bush’s appeal in the 2000 presidential elections for his support with a pivotal group in a pivotal state.  In 2003, Quazwini broke openly with President Bush over the latter’s decision to go to war with Iraq.

In “American Crescent,” Quazwini delivers an impassioned argument that Islam fits comfortably into America’s religious pluralism.  The question whether Islam and democracy are compatible is “no longer open,” he says (p.202).  Quazwini’s faith in the American dream appears from his book as strong as his Islamic faith:

Muslims embrace Americans’ generosity and add to it.  They value America’s commitment to education and come from all over the world to take part.  They accept that their neighbors won’t necessarily worship the same way they do, or at all, and they appreciate the American idea of pluralism.  If one were to draw a circle on a piece of paper representing Islam’s values and the boundaries of what it permits, that circle would fit easily within the larger circle of what the American legal system, and its cultural standards, permit.  However you wish to view Islam, nothing about it disserves the American way of life (p.202).

Quazwini spoke out strongly after the September 11th attacks, indicating that Muslims were “as appalled by the 9/11 attacks as any other Americans.”  Those who carried out these horrendous acts were quite simply “not Muslims” (p.132).

After terrorism, my greatest concerns about Islam are its treatment of women and homosexuals, and the anti-Semitism associated with wide swaths of Islamic thought.  Quazwimi addresses each of these fundamental human rights issues, but with a euphemistic, “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” gloss.  “Islam holds that men and women are absolutely equal, but that they have different talents and should focus their efforts accordingly” (p.59).  Islam’s position on homosexuality is “essentially the same as that of Judaism and Christianity,” acknowledging that in Middle East culture there is “strong disapproval of homosexuality” (p.246).  As to Judaism, Quazwini laments that “too few” Muslims will join him in his “utmost respect” for the Jewish faith, confessing to admire Jews for their ability to assimilate into mainstream America (p.153).

I’m viscerally drawn to a “we’re-all-sons-of-Abraham” approach.  I thus found Quazwani’s embrace of America and American religious pluralism highly endearing and a good rejoinder to the anti-Islamic currents circulating in parts of our country.  He presents a sound case that America’s religious pluralism is broad enough to embrace most forms of Islam.  Moreover, I found implicit support in “American Crescent” for my view that integration of Muslims into the American mainstream is significantly less complicated than parallel integration in Europe.

Yet, Quazwani’s tip toeing around Islamic views of women, homosexuals and Jews is a reminder that rooted deeply into Islamic thought are tenets which I hope would be rejected by all but the most marginal of America’s other religions.  America’s non-Muslim sons and daughters of Abraham should accord Islam the respect which one of the world’s great religious traditions merits.  But they need to do so soberly, without illusions.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

July 1, 2012

1 Comment

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Is Europe Burning?

[Introductory Note:  I have again spliced together two short commentaries which I wrote earlier: on Phillips in 2009 and on Caldwell in 2010.  I owe reading of both to my college friend Tom Fagan.  Tom pointed me to Phillips’ book, which I fortuitously found in a used bookshop for $2.  A little later, Tom sent me Caldwell’s book as a holiday present.  Two thought-provoking books for a total of $2.  That’s an excellent return on a modest investment.  Thanks, Tom]

 

Christopher Caldwell, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: 

Immigration, Islam, and the West

and

Melanie Phillips, Londonistan

Europe’s fiscal and financial crisis undoubtedly constitutes its foremost contemporary challenge.  But the challenge of integrating ever-growing Muslim populations into its cultural mainstream is not far behind – and in many ways is linked to European economic woes.  These two books address Western Europe’s efforts to find a place for Islam.  Christopher Caldwell surveys approaches across Europe, while   Melanie Phillips focuses exclusively on Great Britain.

Caldwell’s title is an allusion to Edmund Burke’s 1790 “Reflections on the Revolution in France.”  Caldwell starts with a 1968 speech by British Tory parliamentarian Enoch Powell on April 20, 1968, two short weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in the United States.  In this speech, Powell decried rising immigration into Britain.  He forecast American-style urban ghettoes and said that watching immigration into his country was like “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre” (p.5).  I was living in London at the time, and remember well Powell’s speech, which was the subject of much discussion with my British friends.  Although the term “politically correct” was not yet in use, it was very clear to me and my friends — all of us wise and worldly 20 somethings — that Powell’s ideas were most incorrect politically.  My recollection is that we almost unanimously compared Powell, an erudite classics scholar, to the retrograde Southern racists whom we assumed were responsible for King’s death.  Since that time, however, as Caldwell states, all British discussion of immigration may be reduced to whether Powell was right.

Caldwell traces how both Britain and continental European countries increased immigration in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century, without sufficient forethought of the consequences.  He outlines the differences between European countries, with varying rationale for opening borders and diverse approaches toward absorbing and welcoming immigrant populations.  Caldwell considers judiciously both sides of the arguments that Muslims can be integrated into these countries, but leaves no doubt that in his view such integration is a steep, uphill battle across Europe, not least because a certain part of the European Muslim population is “dedicated to Europe’s destruction by armed violence” (p.172).

Caldwell describes two models for immigrant assimilation, British and French.  Britain’s model is “multicultural,” holding that one may “keep one’s culture as long as one [obeys] the law of the land” (p.151).  Caldwell prefers the French model, which holds that immigrants “should become French in their cultural loyalties” (p. 151).  Despite – some would say because of — its multi-cultural model, Britain remains “by far, the European country with the most serious dangers of violence and political extremism” (p.301).  France’s republican traditions, by contrast, “give it the best chance of fully assimilating the children and grandchildren of immigrants.  It is the only country where a European equivalent of the American dream is likely,” Caldwell concludes (p.301).

Although Caldwell’s purpose is not to compare European and American approaches to immigration, he regards Hispanic immigration to the United States as an altogether different phenomenon from Muslim immigration to Europe — far more benign, far less threatening to our culture.  Latin American immigrants come with a European language, he says, which is “inevitably discarded for English by the second generation.”   Latinos’ “cultural peculiarities” are “generally antiquated versions of American ones” (p.12).  They have “less money, higher labor-force participation, more authoritarian family structures, lower divorce rates” than native white Americans.  Their culture, in its broad outlines “is like the American working class culture of forty years ago”  (p.12).

I would have liked more discussion in Caldwell’s book about non-Muslim immigration to Europe.  Are the prospects for integration of West Indians, sub-Saharan non-Muslim Africans, and Asians from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and China as bleak as those for Muslim immigrants?  It was immigrants from all these places, not simply Muslim countries, which prompted Powell’s 1968 remarks. But Caldwell’s critique of the effect of Muslim immigration on today’s Europe, while provocative, is well-reasoned and cogent.

In “Londonistan,” British journalist Melanie Phillips comes across as Enoch Powell on steroids.  She would surely agree with Caldwell that Great Britain today is “by far,” the country most vulnerable to Islamic violence and political extremism, and would not hesitate to attribute Britain’s vulnerability precisely to the multi-cultural model of assimilation which Caldwell describes.  Phillips starts with the July 2005 London bombings, which revealed a society initially in denial that these attacks had been carried out by home-grown Muslims, “suburban boys who had been educated at British schools and had degrees, jobs and comfortable families” (p.viii).  As denial faded, Phillips found Britain pitifully unable to confront the threat posed by the violent ideology she terms “Islamism”:  a “particular interpretation of authentic Islamic principles” (p.168) that is the “dominant contemporary political force within Islam. . .. an ideology that seeks to destroy Christianity and its values” (p.141).

In Phillips’ view, Britain’s ability to counter Islamism is undermined by a flabby and permissive social culture dominated by “secular nihilists” who disdain the country’s Judeo-Christian values.  Secular nihilists are infatuated with the “doctrine of multiculturalism,” and obsessed with the rights of victims and minorities.  Phillips contends that an unquestioning tolerance for non-Western cultures, militant feminism, exaltation of gay rights, and a judiciary which has supplemented the common law with more general human rights norms have, taken together, rendered Britain ineffectual in countering the grave threat to its existence growing in its midst.  Today’s Britain is “locked into such a spiral of decadence, self-loathing and sentimentality that it is incapable of seeing that it is setting itself up for cultural immolation,” (p.189), Phillips warns direly, echoing Powell’s 1968 clarion call.  Ironically, “self-styled progressives of the British left” have aligned themselves with Islamism – “which denies female equality and preaches death to gays” — to advance their common goal, “the destruction of Western society and its foundation values” (p.xxiii).

I agree with Phillips’ core message that tolerance is no virtue in dealing with violent Islamism and that the West needs to defend its democratic values unapologetically.  But she loses me when she radiates out from this core to suggest that secular Enlightenment values – secularism, equality, respect for minority rights – are incompatible with taking a strong stand against what she terms Islamism.  Phillips’ analysis seems at times to gravitate toward the comments of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, who inanely attributed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in the United States to “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.”

Further, there is irony in Phillips railing against many of the manifestations of modernity in today’s Britain, when the most common prescription for bringing Islam out of the dark ages and into the 21st century is some form of Muslim Enlightenment – development of a secular sense and a more general spirit of free inquiry, with recognition of equality for women and homosexuals.  Phillips’ strong condemnation of the anti-Semitism which pervades much of the Muslim world is to be lauded.  But she is far less critical of the subordinate role of women in Islamic societies and I had to wonder whether this was because excessive feminism figures so prominently among the reasons she contends that Britain is incapable of countering Islamism.

Phillips recommends requiring a civil marriage certificate before an Imam could perform a marriage ceremony, thereby, she hopes, halting the drift toward parallel Sharia jurisdiction where polygamy is recognized; instituting tough controls on immigration “while Britain assimilates the people it has already got” (p.188); and teaching Muslims “what being a minority means” (p.189).  These measures may be reasonable but the likelihood that they will make any serious dent in Islamism seems at least as dubious as the outreach efforts to moderate Muslims which she belittles throughout her book.  Like everyone else struggling with the issue of assimilation of the Muslim population into Western European societies, Phillips falls short in specific solutions.  Finding such solutions ranks among the most pressing challenges facing contemporary Europe.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

June 5, 2012

2 Comments

Filed under History, Politics, Religion

The Limits of Toleration

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel,

and

Irshad Manji, The Trouble with Islam Today

[Introduction: This is a commentary I wrote in September 2008.  At that time Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book was on the best-seller list, and her general profile has risen even further since 2008.  Today, she lives in the United States and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.   Although less well-known, Irshad Manji’s profile has also risen since 2008.  She too recently migrated to the United States, from her native Canada.  She is presently director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, which aims to “challenge political correctness, intellectual conformity and self-censorship.”  She is a frequent “talking head” on a diverse range of TV news programs.  I have edited the original commentary only minimally, adding notably the reference in the final paragraph to the “Arab spring”]

“I believe that Islam is no different from the world’s other major religions; that it has a strong humanistic component; and that many, hopefully most, of its adherents are altogether capable of living harmoniously with persons of other faiths.”  Thomas H. Peebles, 9/12/06 (email correspondence to friends)

Was I hopelessly naïve when I wrote the above, or just ignorant?  In my defense, I did not have the benefit of having read “Infidel,” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, nor had I read Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble with Islam Today” — two books about contemporary Islam, written by brilliant young Muslim women.  Ali’s is a poignant, riveting personal memoir, whereas Manji offers an analytical prescription for changing Islam, well captured in her subtitle, “A Muslim’s Call for Reform of Her Faith.”  Ali’s book was difficult to put down, and left me inspired yet emotionally drained at the end.  Initially, Manji’s book rubbed me the wrong way.  She seemed too glib and perhaps a little too full of herself.  But by the end, I developed a respect for her too.  In her breezy, informal style, Manji conveys a wealth of knowledge and insight about Islam and the Islamic world.  Among her contributions, she shows that the Muslim Holy Book does not support the anti-Semitism that seems endemic in many parts of the Muslim world (p.21, 39).  But Ali’s book is more complex, unsettling, and challenging – a spellbinding story that contains powerful messages about freedom and its limits, democracy, and human rights.

I was reading both books with the hope of validating the views which I went out on a limb to express in 2006, quoted above; or, to quote from the “discussion questions” for book clubs inserted at the end of Ali’s book, using both to help me reexamine whether Islam is “compatible with Western values and culture” (book club questions are a feature I had never seen before, then found again at the end of Manji’s book).  Manji’s answer to the book club question is a definite “maybe.”  Throughout, she leaves no doubt that a more open, less dogmatic Islam, although difficult, is attainable.

Much of Ali’s book, by contrast, lays out the case that Islam is altogether incompatible with Western values.  Muslim culture, based on the Koran, is “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women, and harsh in war,” she writes (p.272).  I had the sense she was killing me not so softly when she belittled those Westerners who argue that Islam is a peaceful and humane religion.  Looking at “reality, at real cultures and governments,” Ali sees that “it simply isn’t so” (p.349).  Westerners swallow these arguments, she says, “because they have learned not to examine the religions and cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist.”  Ouch!  That hurt.

But, surprisingly, a close reading of Ali’s book reveals that for her, too, Islam is at least potentially compatible with Western values: Ali proffers a highly tentative maybe, rather than Manji’s definite maybe.  The key for both is that the Muslim world needs to undergo its own version of the Enlightenment, similar to that of Western Europe and North America in the 18th century, when the notion of a secular state that promotes equality and encourages tolerance began to take hold.  Manji’s book throughout is a plea for what she calls a “reformation” in Islam (p.30).

Ali too uses the word “reformation,” which she describes as moving “from the world of faith to the world of reason” (p.347).  “In the past fifty years,” she observes, the Muslim world has been “catapulted into modernity.”  Muslims “don’t have to take six hundred years to go through a reformation in the way they think about equality and individual rights” (p.350).  Just as the West freed itself from the “grip of violent organized religion,” Ali assumes that the “same process could occur among the millions of Muslims,” infusing traditions that are “rigid and inhumane with the values of progress and modernity” (p.272-73).  Surely, she says, now it is “Islam’s turn to be tested” (p.282).

Still, overall, Manji’s vision is far more optimistic, in large measure because she was brought up in a Muslim family in dour but diverse British Columbia, Canada, where the more stifling aspects of Muslim culture are counterbalanced by the province’s general openness.  Growing up amidst war, dictatorship and rigid patriarchy in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya afforded Ali no such advantage.  Ali’s description of her youth in these countries is chilling in many respects, never more so than her description of the genital mutilation she was forced to undergo as a girl.  But this is simply the most graphic example of a suffocating Muslim culture that subjugates women and leaves little room for free inquiry for either sex.  And it is striking that Ali dwells far more on the intellectual rather than economic impoverishment she encountered as she moved between four different countries as a girl.

Similarly, when Ali moved to the Netherlands to avoid an arranged marriage, she was captivated far more by the country’s spirit of openness and free inquiry than by its material prosperity (and we can argue well into the night on whether there is a connection between the two: do you need one to have the other? if so, which is the chicken, which is the egg?).  In the portion of her book on the Netherlands, where she transforms from outsider to insider, Ali found a “post-religious,” highly secular society, where people “openly disbelieved every aspect of religion” and “God was mocked everywhere” (p.239).  She also found Holland to be a “post-patriotic” society, “uncomfortable with the symbols of Dutchness,” where being Dutch seemed to mean “absolutely nothing“ and nationalism was seen as “almost the same thing as racism” (p.257).  Nobody, she emphasized, “seemed proud of being Dutch” (p.257).

Despite its openness – or maybe because of its openness – Ali perceives clear limitations to Holland’s ability to absorb and integrate outsiders.  When massive immigration to the Netherlands began in the 1980s, there was a “sense among the Dutch that society should behave with decency and understanding toward these people and accept their differences and beliefs” (p.246).  But the result was that “immigrants lived apart, socialized apart.  They went to separate schools – special Muslim schools or ordinary schools in the inner city, which other families fled” (p.246).  While the Dutch contributed generously to international aid organizations, they were “also ignoring the silent suffering of Muslim women and children in their own background” (p.246).

For Ali, the Dutch form of toleration – that paradigm Western value – subverts individual freedom when applied to Muslim women.  To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964convention line, Ali contends that toleration of a system that systematically subjugates women and deprives them of their rights is no virtue.  Indeed, the chapters in her book on the Netherlands might have been titled “The Limits of Tolerance.”  Manji reaches a similar conclusion.  She says that as Westerners “bow down before multiculturalism, we often act as if anything goes.”  The “ultimate paradox,” she says, is that in order to defend Western tolerance and diversity, “we’ll need to be less tolerant” (p.199).  This is also Ali’s “ultimate paradox”: Western tolerance should not extend to systemic human rights abuses practiced in minority cultures.  Thus stated, the principle seems self-evident, but Ali’s example of the Dutch Ministry of Justice’s refusal to record honor killings of women because it would “stigmatize one group in society” (p.295-96) shows how well meaning, tolerant officials can have difficulty applying it.

In this vein, in his introduction to Ali’s book, the late Christopher Hitchins contends “without equivocation” that:

[i]f Muslims want to immigrate to open and developed societies in order to better themselves, it is they who must expect to do the adapting.  We no longer allow Jews to run separate Orthodox courts in their communities, or permit Mormons to practice polygamy or racial discrimination or child marriage.  That is the price of ‘inclusion,’ and a very reasonable one (p.xviii-xix; emphasis in original).

Does anyone disagree?

Even with these reservations and insights into the limits of toleration, perhaps the most striking aspect of Ali’s book is her affirmation of the superiority of Western values over those of the societies she grew up in.  Having made her journey from the “world of faith” to the “world of reason,” she has particular credibility when she says she knows that:

one of those worlds is simply better than the other.  Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values . . .Life is better in Europe [and I hope she would include North America] than it is in the Muslim world because human relations are better, and one reason human relations are better is that in the West, life on earth is valued in the here and now, and individuals enjoy rights and freedoms that are recognized, and protected by the state (p.346).

Manji, who grew up in a Western culture and could take its individual liberty and spirit of inquiry for granted, is just as emphatic.  She opens her book by paying homage to the freedoms afforded her in the West: “to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged and rethink” (p.19).  Unlike Ali, she never had to choose between Islam and the West.  As she puts it, “the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively.” Manji not only reaffirms the superiority of Western values but also sees Western Muslims as “poised to demonstrate the possibilities of reforming Islam” (p.186); or, as she puts it at the beginning of her book, having the capacity to restore Islam’s “better angels” (p.4).  Muslims in the West have the “luxury of exercising civil liberties, especially free expression to change tribal tendencies,” Manji asserts.  “Are we leveraging that freedom? Are enough non-Muslims challenging us to do so?” (p.186).

But only a miniscule portion of the world’s Muslim population lives in Europe and North America.  Most still live in predominantly Muslim countries and unless these countries undergo sweeping transformation, reform of Islam is unlikely to be widespread.  And here Manji’s analysis conveys a better sense of the diversity and dynamism within the Islamic world.   Somalia and Saudi Arabia are not the only models.  Manji cites  Turkey, flawed in many ways but nonetheless the Muslim world’s most mature and secular democracy (p.156).  Today, she would be likely to cite the democratic sentiments so widely manifested in the “Arab Spring” — although she would probably want to add a word about how the Arab Spring also demonstrates the difficulty of utilizing those sentiments to build sustainable democratic institutions.  Indeed that very difficulty demonstrates that there is still today, as in 2008, a long way to go before a Muslim Enlightenment takes hold in the Islamic world.  But if counterparts as articulate and clear-eyed as Ali and Manji can be empowered in that part of the world, it would be imprudent to discount this possibility as hopelessly naïve.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

May 7, 2012

10 Comments

Filed under Gender Issues, Politics, Religion