Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Islam and the West: A Medievalist's Ruminations

                                          The Battle of Vienna   September 11, 1683

   This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Lewis' now-famous article, 'The Return of Islam.' Lewis presciently (actually, prophetically) anticipated the return of Islam as a central actor in World Politics; even before Samuel Huntington had ever thought about a 'Clash of Civilizations.' One key element of Lewis' argument was that the Christian, now Post-Christian, West had long ago forgotten what it was like to confront the Islamic World, even though the latter had long been its major adversary. That process of historical amnesia began (eerily enough) on September 11, 1683, when the combined forces of the Hapsburg Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth turned back the armies of Kara Mustafa Pasha, vizier of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV, from the gates of Vienna. Thereafter, the Muslim World began a period of deep decline and decay, just as Europe entered the Age of Science, Enlightenment, Imperialism, and Colonialism. 
     Europe, Lewis observed, had never really 'seen,' understood either Muslims or Islam. As he put it: 'This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times.' Instead, Christendom consistently projected itself and its world view upon the Muslims; in an ongoing habit of that which noted historian Richard Landes has aptly termed, 'Cognitive Egocentrism.' If, prior to 1683, Europe had respected the Muslim World, that was out of respect for its proven military prowess. After their victory in the Battle of Vienna, as the Ottoman Empire slid into receivership, whatever fear or respect Christian Europe bore its erstwhile enemy metamorphosed into benign contempt.
    To continue Lewis' line of thought, one should add that during the subsequent three centuries, the European West (and later the United States) entered into an era of dizzying growth and unparalleled achievement; one that ended in de facto, world domination. During that time, and especially since the end of World War II, West has also undergone a dizzying cultural transformation. Some term it Modernity. Others prefer to call it Post-Modernity. For the present purposes, neither the terminology nor the etiology matter. What does matter is the result. In varying degrees of intensity, Western culture and thought have become profoundly materialist (in the Marxist sense), morally and epistemologically relativist, anti-authority, individualist, and increasingly atheist. At the same time, the (now Post)-Christian West has lost none of its intellectual arrogance. Like their medieval forbears, Western intellectuals (and their mimics in the media), not only assume  that they represent the only possible worldview; but that every other person on earth must, perforce, subscribe thereto by dint of their own humanity. To put it more homely. The Contemporary West is afflicted with Cognitive Egocentrism on steroids.
     In a sense, the West (e.g. Western Europe and United States) hasn't changed all that much. It still assumes that it represents the only path to Man's, now secular and atheist, salvation. There is, however, a key difference. Owing to its deep seated moral relativism (with more than a soupcon of post-colonial guilt), the West cannot find it within its capacity to criticize the Muslim World, even when actions undertaken by Muslims, Muslim States and Organizations and supported by normative Muslim legists and theologians contradict its most cherished values and ideals. However, and paradoxically, Western thinkers are as convinced of their absolute truth as were their Christian ancestors. These two facts seem mutually contradictory. You can't respect others. You can't be truly multi-cultural, if you dogmatically maintain only your point of view. So how do contemporary pundits resolve the conundrum? They simply project their relativist Truth upon everyone else, and deny the existence of any alternative (except, perhaps, as a benighted aberration).
    If we were to confine the discussion so far to the hallowed halls of academe, we could file away this delicious irony under 'Ironic Curiosities,' and go on to another topic. However, we do not have the luxury of confining the discussion to the Ivory Tower. The stakes we are gambling are far too high for detached, ever so sophisticated discussion over drinks. It is important to parse and understand the reality that emerged from the above conundrum. What is it about Islam that the West can't get? The answer(s) to that question can be best be provided by searching not the present, but the Past.
In its blindness to any value system other than its own, lies the weakness of the West and the seeds of its potential destruction. For it has, in the course of the developments outlined above, forgotten the lessons that its medieval progenitors knew well; and which allowed it to survive over the course of 1100 years of confrontation with the Civilization of the Crescent.

1) When Cross and Crescent faced off in the eighth century, both sides were deeply aware that they acted in the name of God, Whose Revelation represented absolute Truth and the sole path for Human Salvation. And while, of course, Muslims would not literally subscribe to the assertion that extra ecclesiam nulla (est) salus (There is no salvation outside of the Church), they would certainly have endorsed the sentiment if formulated around belief in Allah, the mission of Muhammad and the Qur'an as representing the final and perfect expression of God's master plan for man. What both sides had in common was an appreciation of the total, absolute devotion that the other side would have for its beliefs. Both sides appreciated the commitment that would drive a person to sacrifice all he had to do God's Will, as he understood it. Both sides could understand the idea of total sacrifice in testimony to faith in God. One called such a one martyr. The other called him shahid. Both words mean witness, and make the same point (even as they, at different times, understood the specific nuances differently). [Indeed, there each side paid begrudging respect for the other by attributing its successes to the Anti-Christ or the Shaitun.]
Contemporary Western life has no room for Absolute Truth, at least not one that lies outside of wo/man, him/herself. Its worldview is relativist, materialist and dedicated to the proposition that society must strive to fill one's desires. Hence, our society cannot accept the idea that there might be a Truth that not only obligates, but also demands the sacrifice of comfort, convenience, material goods and, yes, even one's Health or Life. Besotted by our self-importance and impressed by our achievements, contemporary culture absolutely refuses to accept the proposition that one might defer to the demands of Faith and Tradition, even (or, especially) when these are both inscrutable and inconvenient. When one adds that worldview to a strong dose of cognitive egocentrism, the result is the inability to accept that anyone else could maintain such beliefs, either. The result is frequently either denial ('They really don't believe that'') and/or social engineering ('If we solve their economic woes, they will not be forced to resort to such things').                                                                          [The most extreme version of this response, though, is also (in my opinion) the most egregious, as it constitutes the ultimate in Western Paternalist Cultural Imperialism. I refer to the bon ton of non-Muslim deciding what is and what is not legitimately Muslim. Properly addressing this deeply disrespectful activity would take me far beyond the limits of a blog post. Suffice it to say that it is the ultimate expression of the double bind that I described above.] 

2) There is another quality of medieval life that is a direct corollary to this first. Both Christianity and Islam are all enveloping ways of life. All of reality is refracted through the prism of each faith (though Islam, based as it is upon a vast legal code, is more all-inclusive). Throughout the Middle Ages, religion provided the all-pervasive context within which people experienced and evaluated their lives. This, of course, is not be any means intended to imply that people were not moved by circumstances or interests, by passions or by privilege. However, they understood these (including their sins and trespasses) against the background and through the mirror of their religiosity. Secularism did not really exist until the turn of the seventeenth century. And, while moderns might smirk at sinners who bequeathed ill-gotten gains to the Church for prayers for the salvation of their souls, we must not forget that they believed therein.
This is a point that even medieval historians forget. Trained to reconstruct (and evaluate) past events and personalities in light of material causes, historiansfrequently fall into the trap of reducing the actions of historical personages to their apparent interests and responses. What they fail to recall is that prior to the advent of secularism, Christians and Muslims understood themselves (or, in some cases, convinced themselves) that their actions accorded with the demands of their faith. As an historian, I am absolutely convinced of the religious sincerity of the overwhelming majority of historical personages whose lives I have studied. Certainly this is so when their actions go against what are, prima facie, their material interests (e.g. the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which wreaked permanent havoc on the Spanish economy). Nevertheless, here too, the Post-Christian West cannot comprehend the kind of all-encompassing worldview that still obtains in broad swaths of the Muslim world.            

3) Medieval historians with an anthropological bent (e. g. Mikhail Bakhtin, Aron Gurevich and Jacques LeGoff) have noted that Medievals (as with members of other Traditional societies) pursued their lives with a sense of intimacy with the past. Biblical events, Foundation Legends were experienced as imminent, even by illiterate peasants (as expressed by the fact that the roots of European Theater lie in the portrayal of Biblical stories). Islam, in particular, cultivated historical awareness. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun is often credited as the founder of Historiography and Sociology. Christians and Muslims alike had long historical memories, and the formative moments of each were relived (in the Eliadean sense) and ever accessible. Consider, for example, the little appreciated fact that the bloody battle for Kosovo, twenty years ago, was for the Serbs revenge for the fall of their kingdom to the Ottoman Muslims in 1389. Or, there is the enduring potency of Ali's victory over the Jews of Khaybar in 628; the invocation of which is a leitmotif of anti-Israel demonstrations 
Needless to say, the hic et nunc quality of modern day life does not jibe with this kind of sense of permanently accessible, identity forming past. If anything, contemporary historical discourse tends to dismiss and debunk, trash and tear up events and figures that were earlier admired. The past, far from being a source of inspiration, is today judged (and severely so) in light of the same constellation of relativist values that creates the cognitive disconnect with traditional societies, such as is most of the Muslim World.

The prime directive of Islam, of all stripes, is to bring all of mankind to submit to the Will of Allah, as received by Muhammad and passed on through the ages. Optimally, submission means acceptance of Islam. Less than optimal is a situation in which the world is ruled by Islamic Law, Shari'ah, but wherein non-Muslims exist as tolerated, protected minorities (dhimmi). The process by which areas not regulated by Shari'ah (Dar-al-Harb; the House of War) are made part of the 'House of Islam' (dar al Islam), is 'struggle' (jihad). Desiring this outcome is a principled, understandable position for a faith community which recognizes only One Truth, imparted by the One God. Many strains of Islam (especially within the Shi'a) have a strong messianic component, which infuses the drive to spread the Word of the Prophet with powerful millennial force. In the binary worldview that characterizes Orthodox Islam, one can easily understand how the three forces noted above (absolute commitment to God and His exclusive Truth, an integrated religious outlook and a profound connection and identification with the formative events and figures of Islamic history (Muhammad, Ali, Salah-a-Din, Suleiman, Khaybar, Karbala, and so on) can combine into a prodigious wave of religious fervor. We are, as Lewis predicted forty years ago, in the midst of just such a wave (whether all Muslims support the timing, or not).
The difference, the potentially tragic difference, is that the Christian West now lacks every one of those qualities that once allowed it to stand against Muslim attempts to fulfill its own, principled mission (from the Battle of Tours in 732 to the Victory of Jan Subieski at the gates of Vienna in 1683). It no longer believes in Truth. It values nothing beyond the individual's needs, rights and desires. It holds its own history in contempt. And, arrogantly contemptuous as it is of the fabled 'other,' it refuses to acknowledge that that 'other' subscribes to a very different value system. That refusal contains the seeds of the West's undoing. For, if it does not learn to respect the 'other,' it may end up facilitating the dream of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha---only three hundred fifty years later.  

[Note: Related to this discussion is my professional conviction that the conflict over Eretz Yisrael is, and always has been, religious and civilizational. That, however, requires a separate discussion.]   


LureneKathleen said...

Interesting, but I lately have wanted to keep it terse: Egypt's great pyramids existed tens of centuries before Mohammed was born. Islam/the Arab world would change dramatically if they reflected on this fact more often. The Arabs are are smart. Islam doped them in 625 or thereabout, sadly.

rlandes said...

contribution to the final bracketed note:

on triumphalist Islam (the problem for the whole world)

on the combo of religious and honor-shame emotions in responding to creation of israel:

David Mescheloff said...

Thought provoking in too many ways to respond to in a brief comment. (For one, think about the cognitive egocentrism that appears to be characteristic of various contemporary Orthodox Jewish groups, including one that claims it "listens attentively" to views other than its own.) (For another, think about the "anti-authority" aspects of Orthodox Jewish groups of recent decades, even "the Orthodox Caucus" you knew so well.) (For another, think of the after-shocks of WWII still reverberating through "the West", with a sort of civilizational post-traumatic stress syndrome.) (Then there are the "smaller" developments that have had a wide-ranging effect on "the West", such as wide-spread effective techniques of contraception.) (And consider that undefined general term you have been using, "the West": Western culture is so richly varied that I think you would do well to define more specifically which aspects of it and which "leading groups" in it are the ones to whom you are referring.) Just one brief non-parenthetic comment: You suggest that we are "in the midst of just such a wave [of Muslim religious fervor]". It seems to me that we cannot know whether or not that is true. For all we know - and there are concrete indicators of this - we are only at the beginning of such a wave...

gorfdorf said...

Western Civilization has lost it's grip on the primacy of the needs of the community over the individual. Perhaps our materialism is rooted in a collective amnesia for one of the raisons d'etre of most world religions.

Ken Gorfinkle