Thursday, September 21, 2006

taking up the Pope's gauntlet

If the purpose of the Pope's speech was to stimulate debate, then it was indeed a success. As with the Cartoon StupidStorm, the short term initial wave of violent reaction by the extremist minority has given way to substantial and thought-provoking analysis. Said analysis, not incidentally, also enjoys the same total media blackout as the post-cartoon analysis did.

Paramount among the reasoned responses to the Pope is Tariq Ramadan's essay, which argues that the real context of the Pope's address was to emphatically place Islam within the category of Other with which no true dialog can be undertaken. Ramadan argues,

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the crisis is that the real debate launched by Benedict XVI seems to have eluded most commentators, and particularly Muslim commentators. In his academic address, he develops a dual thesis, accompanied by two messages. He reminds those rationalist secularists who would like to rid the Enlightenment of its references to Christianity that these references are an integral component of European identity; it will be impossible for them to engage in interfaith dialogue if they cannot accept the Christian underpinnings of their own identity (whether they are believers or not). Then, in taking up the question of faith and reason, and in emphasizing the privileged relationship between the Greek rationalist tradition and the Christian religion, the pope attempts to set out a European identity that would be Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason. Islam, which has apparently had no such relationship with reason, would thus be foreign to the European identity that has been built atop this heritage. A few years ago, then-Cardinal Ratzinger set forth his opposition to the integration of Turkey into Europe on a similar basis. Muslim Turkey never was and never will be able to claim an authentically European culture. It is another thing; it is the Other.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Muslims are Orcs.

And as we know, Orcs are a mindless horde. They cannot be reasoned with, because they lack reason. Therefore, any attempt at dialouge with Islam is utterly futile. Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, highlights that subtext in the Pope's address clearly:

What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilisations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam.

And we see that attitude towards Islam reflected in the foreign policy of the present Administration, in fact. Hossein Derakshan, reknowned Iranian blogger, points out that Iran is developing nukes for the most obvious reasons: security. But security guarantees to Iran in return for cessation of its program are beyond the pale? Meanwhile, Syrian's Assad cultivates Hizbollah as a counterweight to Israel's regional dominance. Are there no common interests between his nation and ours? The expectation of the West towards muslim nations is as towards a dog: do as you are told, or be punished - be obedient, and you may be given some scraps.

And if muslims are orcs, then Europe is Minas Tirith, which must be defended. The question of Turkey's admittance to the European Union is the flashpoint for this subtext. In the face of lengthy polemical diatribes that invoke the West without ever defining it, it is not surprising that Turkey itself is reconsidering it's own allegiances - and the strategic position for the "West" will be the poorer for it.

Let us take up the substance of the Pope's charge. What does Islam have to say about Reason? In a tremendously insightful comment on my previous post, reader jr786 writes:

Interestingly, for a Pope so well read in Islam he seems to have forgotten that Koran 18: 60-82 deals explicitly with the limits of human reason and its finite, conditioned interpretation of events. The message for Muslims is to strive for knowledge and truth and not to be misled into thinking that reason is the highest form of human achievement.

Qur'an 18 is Sura al-Kahf, one of the most mystical and powerful - and exceedingly difficult and symbolic - surahs in the Qur'an. In it, the prophet Moses follows a chosen servant of Allah, and learns the limits of his own rational faculties. The lesson is that all knowledge is not within reach of the human intellect, and that reason can take you a certain distance, but not all the way. Ultimately, super-rationality is an illusion.

And the Qur'an, far from being (as the Pope implies) a spartan text filled with trivial daily injunctions and strictures, is a deep well when it comes to broader philosophical issues. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in one of his typically erudite essays entitled, "The Qur'an and Hadith as source and inspiration of Islamic philosophy" gives this overview:

One might say that the reality of the Islamic revelation and participation in this reality transformed the very instrument of philosophizing in the Islamic world. The theoretical intellect (al-aql a1-no ari) of the Islamic philosophers is no longer that of Aristotle although his very terminology is translated into Arabic. The theoretical intellect, which is the epistemological instrument of all philosophical activity, is Islamicized in a subtle way that is not always detectable through only the analysis of the technical vocabulary involved. The Islamicized understanding of the intellect, however, becomes evident when one reads the discussion of the meaning of aql or intellect in a major philosopher such as Mulla Sadra when he is commenting upon certain verses of the Qur'an containing this term or upon the section on aql from the collection of Shiite Hadith of al-Kulayni entitled Usul al-kafi. The subtle change that took place from the Greek idea of the "intellect" (noun) to the Islamic view of the intellect (al-aql) can also be seen much earlier in the works of even the Islamic Peripatetics such as Ibn Sina where the Active Intellect (al-aql al fa dl) is equated with the Holy Spirit (al-ruh al-qudus).

Ultimately, a reading of Islam that derives the conclusion that it is hostile to reason is fundamentally a polemic, not a debate. In other words, it is anti-reason itself. Did the Pope really desire debate? It looks more like he wanted to ensure that there could be none.

Ramadan concludes his essay with this call to action:

Muslims must demonstrate, in a manner that is both reasonable and free of emotional reactions, that they share the core values upon which Europe and the West are founded.

Neither Europe nor the West can survive, if we continue to attempt to define ourselves by excluding, and by distancing ourselves from, the Other — from Islam, from the Muslims — whom we fear.


  1. Ramadan is right, of course,but then this is how things are always framed by Popes and/or Christian religio-cultural supremacists. I disagree, however, with his insistence that Muslims 'must' do, think, or say anytthing in regard to Euro-Christian sensibilities. Rather we should remember that for them, historically, the only good Muslim/Native/Wog was always Dead/Converted/Erased. What, precisely, is so different today?
    Aziz is also correct in saying that the Euro-Christian cultural supremacists desire complete submission by Muslims, as they have always and bloodily and mercilessly demanded from subject peoples. Again, why are we to believe that anything has changed? The real tragedy is that the United States has picked up the sword, a phrase beloved of the Christians, and gone Crusading in the Euros' stead.
    Muslims do not have to justify, defend or otherwise explain Islam to anyone whose intention is to disparage or insult. Debate? If well-intentioned, certainly, but as equals, never as slaves. Peaceful co-existence? May it please G-d, but this is clearly not the Vatican's project, nor that of its bigoted, Islam-bashing followers.
    The dynamic at work is as follows: Islam is violent, it demands forced conversion. The Muslims are all the same, they are an ontology unto themselves. They will ultimately attack and forcib ly convert us to 'Mahommedanism'. Therefore, we are right to attack them first. Thus reason.

  2. I'm afraid I can't be bothered to read the pope's speech too carefully, but my impression is that he takes the contradictory position you'd expect him to: he confuses reason with Christian revelation, briefly attacks Islam as being incompatible with reason, and attacks reason that isn't rooted in Christian revelation. It's an arguement that any fundimenalist of any religion could agree with, if you only swap Christian revelation for their own revelation.

    But out of context it seems to be attacking Islam as unreasonable, an arguement that secularists might agree with, but which the Pope didn't really mean the way it sounded. At its base he really said that his revelation is good and true and yours isn't. But that's the message of most religion to all others, it shouldn't be news at all, and, I think, should command no headlines, outrage or response.

  3. But then the Emperor quoted probably wasn't a good spokesman for that point of view either. So this is hopelessly muddled.

  4. Actually I was talking to Aziz, not Jerry.

    Another point is that the Pope's speech probably was well crafted, with awareness of exactly the sort of reaction it would get. The extremists are being played, and it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.