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Nothing shows up the shallowness of the American neo-conservatives better than the choice of a French Catholic, Professor Alain Besancon, to fire a first salvo against Islam in the May issue of their flagship journal, Commentary. His essay, “What Kind of Religion is Islam,” re-states the millennium-old Christian case against Muslim theology, while barely hinting at why theology has any bearing on the civilizational conflict now under way. Nonetheless, a Rubicon has been crossed, for Islam itself has become the issue, rather than terrorism, dictatorship, slavery in the Sudan or mistreatment of women.
Until now the conservative establishment carefully toed the White House line, namely that “this is a war against terrorism, not against Islam.” As Washington’s visions for Iraq’s future vanish like a desert mirage, the basic premises of its policy may be re-thought. In that respect, the fact that Besancon has surfaced among the neo-conservatives is news indeed, although both the regular media and the weblogs have failed to take note of it.
Something like this was inevitable after years in which American conservatives sought to shoehorn the problems of the Islamic world into the box of the Western enlightenment (“freedom” vs “tyranny”). Muslims who abhorred the entente cordiale of evangelical Protestants and Jewish conservatives, though, should be entitled to a bit of Schadenfreude. Where are the great intellectual lights among the Jews and Protestants? Apart from complaints about the Prophet Mohammed’s marriage to a nine-year-old and suchlike, the Evangelicals have trouble explaining why they dislike Islam.
The secular literati who became the Jewish neo-conservatives have a tin ear for religion. Commentary’s long-time editor, Norman Podhoretz, reduced the mission of the Jewish prophets to a “war against idolatry” in his recent book, observing that Islam has even stricter rules against worshiping images than does Judaism. In short, by Podhoretz’s simple-minded standard, Islam is a better version of his own religion (Oil On The Flames Of Civilizational War, Dec 1, 2003).
In a nutshell, Islam, according to Besancon, is not one of the three Abrahamic religions, but a pagan throwback, not a “revealed religion” in the sense of Judaism and Christianity, but a reversion to the “natural religion” of the pagan world. He writes: “In Islam, God gave a law to man by means of a unilateral pact, in an act of sublime condescension. This law has nothing in common with the law of Sinai, by which Israel joined in partnership with God, or with the law of the Spirit about which Paul speaks in the New Testament. Rather, the law of Islam is wholly external to man, and it precludes any notion of imitating God as is urged in the Bible (‘be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’). There is some similarity here with pagan conceptions and specifically with pagan ethics. Predestination, in the Muslim understanding, is not so different from the ancient notion of fatum.”
Rosenzweig had characterized Allah as a capricious Oriental tyrant who can reorder the universe at his whim. Besancon takes note of “the characteristic Islamic denial of the stability and consistency of nature – the world is not governed by an unchanging natural law. Atoms, physical properties, matter itself: these endure only for an instant, being created anew at every moment by God – it is no wonder that to many Westerners the Muslim cosmos has seemed a borderland between dream and reality.” This, argues Besancon, makes Muslim faith an entirely different entity than that of Jews or Christians: “In Islam – the will of God extends, as it were, to the secondary causes as well as to the primary ones, suffusing all of life. Religious and moral obligation can thus take on an intensity and an all-encompassing sweep that, at least in Christian terms, would be regarded as trespassing any reasonable limit – outsiders may well be struck by the religious zeal of the Muslim world towards a God whom they recognize as being also their God. But this God is in fact separate and distinct, and so is the relation between Him and the believing Muslim. Christians are accustomed to distinguish the worship of false gods – that is, idolatry – from the worship of the true God. To treat Islam suitably, it becomes necessary to forge a new concept altogether, and one that is difficult to grasp – namely, an idolatry of the God of Israel.”
Muslims, Besancon concludes, misappropriate the identity of the God of Israel, put an entirely different God in His place, and worship it as if it were an idol. That is worlds apart from Norman Podhoretz’s naive conclusion that Islam, in consequence of its prohibition against images, opposes idolatry even more fiercely than Judaism. Now that the neo-conservatives have taken instruction in matters of theology, what policy consequences might ensue? Will they continue to counsel President George W Bush that democracy can be whipped up Iraqi-style like a round of instant falafel? If the remote, arbitrary, crypto-pagan god of Islam bears no imitation, as Besancon puts it, what political conclusions should one draw? The Straussians would answer with Immanuel Kant that a constitution could be devised for a race of devils if only they were sensible. If we believe Besancon, Islam is neither devilish nor sensible, and the old moral calculus of the Western Enlightenment simply is irrelevant to the Muslim world. Perhaps the last spark of Catholic combativeness against Islam will fall on dry tinder among American Protestants and Jews. No man is a prophet in his own country. Besancon drew the ire of the Church in October 1999, when he told a synod of bishops in Rome that Catholics should stop using “faulty expressions such as ‘the three revealed religions’, ‘the three religions of Abraham’ and ‘the three religions of the Book’ to refer to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The National Catholic Reporter commented October 22, 1999, ‘This last point was viewed by some as an especially remarkable statement, given that the pope himself has used the language of Christians and Muslims as brothers in Abraham at least five times – in a homily in Ankara, Turkey, in 1979; in a radio address to the peoples of Asia in 1981; in an address to Muslim workers in Mainz, Germany in 1980; in an address to a Rome colloquium in 1985; and in a homily in Gambia in 1992’.”
Tragedies are tragedies precisely because the protagonist has no choice but to walk into a trap that he cannot possibly anticipate. We now are in the second act of the great tragedy of the 21st century, in which the terrible secrets hidden from the actors gradually are revealed to them. Buy another packet of crisps and stay in your seat: this is where it gets interesting.
Numerous Asia Times Online readers have raised pertinent issues regarding my contrast of Islam on one hand and on the other Judaism and Christianity in Why Islam Baffles America (Apr 15, 2004) and Horror and Humiliation in Fallujah (Apr 26, 2004). Rabbi Moshe Reiss observes that while Judaism and Christianity are closer theologically, Islam and Judaism are more similar in ritual. He is quite right, but the experience of the Islamic and Jewish beliefs still may be quite different. Few Muslim prayer books exist, because the five-times-daily prayer consists of relatively few repeated lines which easily may be committed to memory. Much of the prayer service consists of stylized physical movements, which during my attendance at Muslim services reminded me of a close-order drill. The few Muslim prayer books available at booksellers on the Internet run to 30 or 40 pages. Hundreds of Jewish prayer books are sold on the Internet, and they typically run to between 500 and 1,000 pages. I reiterate the mainstream Jewish and mainstream Muslim prayer (leaving out fringe elements such as the Sufis) are an entirely different thing, and will address readers’ questions in more detail in the near future.