2002 December 09 Monday
Charles Krauthammer on Violence and Islam

Charles Krauthammer argues that what believers decide a religion means in any era is more important than its core texts.

Religions are interpreted by the people of their time and thus change over time. Scripture can be invoked to support almost any position. Islam has its periods of violence and its periods of tolerance. The Ottomans gave refuge to the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492. Today the Arab world is the purveyor of the most vicious anti-Semitic propaganda since Nazi Germany. (Egyptian state television is currently showing a 41-part television series based on the notorious czarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.")

Which stands for the real Islam? The question is not just unanswerable, it is irrelevant. The real issue is not the essence of an abstraction -- who can say what is the real Christianity or the real Judaism? -- but the actions of actual Muslims in the world today.

This has become a fashionable argument to make. But is it correct? I don't think so. Do the various major religions differ from each other in substantial ways because they have different core texts? The answer seems like an obvious "Yes!" and hence the core texts must matter. Think of the core texts is rather like anchors that hold bouys into place. Each anchor is in a different place. There is some slack in the lines and so as the winds blow the bouys can move in different directions. But there is a limit to how far each religion can go. There are differences between them in their core texts that are inevitably going to cause political differences in the behavior of their different groups of believers.

The argument that the core texts doesn't matter is the more optimistic viewpoint. After all, if the core texts are all equally interpretable to support, say, liberal secular tolerant democratic political systems with a sharp separation between government and religion then any culture embracing any religion is equally capable of developing a political culture that is similar to the political cultures of the Western democracies. It also suggests a course of action where Westerners could call on Muslims to change their religious teachings in ways that do not conflict with Islam but which make Islamic societies more able to live side-by-side in peace with the other societies in this world.

By contrast, if the core texts really matter and if the conflicts between the Islamic societies and the rest of the world flow at least in part from core text differences then the prospects for a peaceful resolution of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations become much dimmer. The war becomes a war against Islam itself and the war's duration becomes much longer and larger in scale and shares more characteristics of the Cold War where incompatible ideologies were in conflict.

Jim Hoagland brings up the question of whether values are universal as he examines an argument made by Paul Wolfowitz that a moderate branch of Islam will arise that will be compatible with a world value system

Islamic culture invites submission or revolt and largely ignores the political space between those two alternatives. Submission is best obtained by army and police rule. The system of choice inherent in democracy is anathema to fundamentalist Islam, which has increasingly turned to revolt against the secularized local regimes and the West.

This is the problem with the thesis Wolfowitz subtly argues in his London speech: He holds out the prospect that a reformed and moderate branch of Islam will emerge as a branch of a universal value system built on democracy. There can be no clash of civilizations if values are universal.

To Wolfowitz I say: How can you know that you are correct? The average nature of Islam has varied considerably over the period of its existence. But while there were periods of history when Islam was relatively more successful vis a vis the rest of the world when has Islam ever not required the submission of non-believers to Islamic rule?

Turkey is cited as an example of successful moderate Islam. It would be more correct to say that Turkey is an example of atheist and agnostic generals who spent decades forcing Islam out of public life while allowing a democracy to function. Why is this cause for optimism?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 December 09 01:22 AM  Civilizations Clash Of


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