Are Muslims the new Catholics?
After witnessing a bout of Islamophobia in, of all places, a Stoic forum, it occurred to me that Muslims today occupy a place in popular demonology equivalent to that held by Catholics in Protestant Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From popular broadsheets to Gothic novels like The Monk, Catholics were favourite bogeymen, and the popular view of Catholics had some uncanny similarities to the way Muslims are often perceived now.
Catholics abroad are bent on attacking our countries; Catholics at home owe loyalty to the Pope,not the King. Muslim nations are "rogue states" (unless we want to buy oil from them). Muslim immigrants are a fifth column whose loyalty is to mad mullahs rather than our democratic governments.
Catholics are always hatching evil plots. Guy Fawkes was the Osama bin-Laden of his day. Muslim clerics are the Jesuits of our day.
Catholics are simultaneously ascetic and licentious. Popular fiction of the day (either Protestant or, in the French case, secularist) often featured philandering priests, poking fun (with some justification) at the contradiction between the celibacy preached by the Church and the sensualism of some of its members. Similarly, Muslims are condemned simultaneously for restricting sexual behaviour and indulging in it. Again, Orientalism aside, there is some justification for this, but we should not forget that it is a nigh-on universal phenomenon found amongst Protestants too.
Catholics are irrational, superstitious and opposed to science and social progress. In the seventeenth century, science was strongly identified with Protestantism (see Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment) and Catholic dogma was seen as its antithesis. Now it is Islam which is seen as a dark force trying to drag us back to pre-Enlightenment days.
On this last
note, here is part of what I posted to the forum.
I agree that there are Islamic groups (and individuals, of course) who
are actively involved in the promotion of dispreferred indifferents,
not to mention thoroughly vicious in their own right (though again, in
Stoicism, another person's vice is at worst a dispreferred indifferent
for you, as was discussed on this list a short time back). Here I am
of course referring to the likes of Hammas, Hizbullah and al-Qaeda, as
well as less colourful and more moderate Islamist groups, including
the party currently ruling my own country of residence (which is
currently facing closure for violating the constitution). Three
questions we need to answer are how great this "danger" is, who it is
a danger for, and whether this danger is inherent to Islam.
1. In some places, there is a definite danger that certain groups of
Muslims have considerable potential to bring about a large number of
dispreferred indifferents, both for their fellow-Muslims (as in
Malaysia) and for non-Muslims (as in Israel). In other cases, we can't
really talk about a "danger", since the damage has already been done.
2. The main danger of Islamic extremism is to other Muslims. A notable
exception is Israel, which is a unique case of a non-Muslim state
established on territory claimed by Muslims. I have yet to see
evidence that other non-Muslim countries are under serious threat from
Islamic extremism. All we have seen is a few acts of terrorism and
civil disorder, and certainly nothing to justify the comparisons I
have seen here with Europe on the brink of WWII, the siege of Vienna
or Thermopylae, all of which involved an adversary of unparalleled
military power, not a bunch of rag-tag terrorists. Israel has been
taking the worst that the Arab world can throw at it for sixty years
now, and is still no closer to destruction than it was in 1948. I
should also note cynically that Islamic terrorism has existed for
decades (anyone here remember Black September?), but it was only when
non-Jews started to be targeted that we started to hear about the
Great Islamic Threat.
Of course "danger" is about _potential_ harms, and it is possible that
some of the people we've been talking about may become more dangerous
in the future, e.g. by acquiring nuclear weapons. Obviously it makes
sense to do what we can to frustrate their ambitions.
3. The crux of the matter seems to be whether there is something in
the very nature of Islam as a religion that makes it dangerous _in a
way that other religions are not_. (As I said in a previous post, you
can take the view that all religions are bad, but that is a completely
different argument.) This argument tends to focus on one or more of
(Quotations below are from the Quran or hadith, but from memory - I
don't have time to look them up right now.)
3.1. Jihad. It is frequently claimed that all Muslims are under a
religious obligation to forcibly convert or kill all non-Muslims. This
is quite absurd, given the oft-quoted line from the Quran: "There can
be no compulsion in religion." Jihad _is_ incumbent on all Muslims but
only in two senses: (i) the "greater jihad", or struggle for
self-improvement; (ii) the "lesser jihad", or fighting the enemies of
Islam _when a war actually exists_. Such a war cannot be a war of
aggression: "God does not love the aggressor." (This is the theory, of
course; in practice, Muslim rulers have been just as expansionist as
rulers of other faiths.) Even terrorist groups are careful to frame
their actions as a defensive response to what they present as
incursions on Muslim soil, a case reminiscent of the Romans' habit of
portraying every war of conquest they waged as a response to
aggression on the part of those they conquered. Even the lesser jihad
has to be fought under strict rules (which current terrorists violate
blatantly); for example, one may not attack those with whom one has
made a treaty (unless there is evidence that they are planning to
break the treaty themselves), nor may one kill women, children, old
people, cripples or even able-bodied men who are working in the fields
or drinking water. "If one kills an innocent person, one has killed
all of humanity." To cut a long story short, the actions of
contemporary jihadis are evil and, to an extent, dangerous, but this
kind of jihad is not an inherent feature of Islam.
3.2. Oppression of Women. Western criticism of the status of women in
Muslim societies is of course justified (though sometimes ignorant of
the facts of any one particular society;e.g. there is a tendency to
take Saudi Arabia as typical whereas in fact it is an extreme case).
But again, we need to ask if this is intrinsic to Islam, and again I
think the answer has to be "no", or at least "not entirely". The Quran
states explicitly that the rights of a husband and wife are equal with
the sole exception that a man may remarry immediately after divorce,
while a woman has to wait until it is clear that she is not pregnant
by her former husband. Male and female believers are equal in the
sight of God, who has no gender (except for grammatical gender, since
"lah" is a masculine noun in Arabic). On the other hand, the Quran
does contain some verses which contradict this, such as the one which
says that men may manage the affairs of their wives, since they
provide for their material welfare (though not of course exclusively -
Mohammed's first wife, Khadija, was his employer). On the notorious
verse that appears to give men permission to beat their wives, there
is much debate, this focussing on the meaning of the word "darp" or
"daraba", which is sanctioned as a last resort when a wife is
"rebellious" (another hotly disputed word). This normally means "blow"
but could equally mean "slap" or "divorce". In contrast, there are
several hadiths explicitly condemning the beating of women. e.g. "How
can you beat your wife like a camel one moment then make love to her
the next?" or "If a man beats his wife, I [Mohammed] will stand
witness against him on the Day of Judgement."
To cut a long story short, I'd say that the inferior status of women
in Muslim societies is, like the inferior status of women in Christian
or Buddhist societies until recently, the result mainly of having a
predominantly agricultural economy where land is owned by men;
religion simply serves to back up the status quo. It's a nigh-on
universal rule: agriculture + metallurgy = feudalism + patriarchy.
3.3. Dogma and Intellectual Stagnation. Islam is portrayed as being
dogmatic, superstitious and opposed to science, the arts and political
freedom. It occupies a place in modern demonology similar to that of
Catholicism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Protestant Europe.
It follows from this view that Islam is not primarily a physical
threat but an intellectual one, with the potential to drag us back to
pre-Enlightenment times. As a critique of many current Islamic
societies, this carries considerable weight: these societies want some
of the benefits of the modern world, like cars, vaccines and mobile
phones, but don't want to pay the price, which is freedom of inquiry,
tolerance of different ideas and a generally scientific worldview. (To
be fair, this is a prominent attitude in America too!)
However, again we need to ask if this is intrinsic to Islam, and again
the waters are muddy. On the one hand, the belief that the Quran is
the final and undisputable word of God would seem to put the dampers
on intellectual inquiry, and throughout history many Muslim writers
have used this belief to dismiss new opinions and knowledge as
"bi'dah" (heretical innovation). On the other hand, Mohammed himself
said "Seek knowledge, even if you need to go as far as China," and of
course we have the so-called "Islamic Renaissance" (roughly from the
8th to the 13th century) during which the Muslim world was a hot-house
of scientific, medical, economic and artistic activity while Western
Christians still hadn't got the idea of washing themselves regularly.
(King John tried to import the Byzantine custom of steam baths, but
his subjects took it as proof of his wickedness - he sinned so
gravely, he needed to be baptised every day!) What caused the end of
this intellectual flourishing is a matter of debate: some scholars
blame the effects of barbarian invasions (notably the Mongols in the
East and Spanish in the West) while others point to the increasing
centralisation of Muslim states and their concomitant need for
religious and intellectual conformity. In any case, it is obvious that
while Islam, like any religion, can be used to stifle dissent and
innovation, it does not inevitably lead to this.
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