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"...While Islam is trying to break away from...  rigidity, which has served it so poorly for several centuries, we are embracing it.

While Islam is trying to reclaim the values and ideals of enlightenment on its own terms, we seem to be abandoning those values and closing our own gates of ijtihad.* While Islam is paying the price of fundamentalism and suffering to get away from it, we elect it and put our trust in it. Two separate worlds, two separate battles. But how ironic what they both have in common is the language of enlightenment: They long to speak it again over there, even if they have a very long way to go, while it's becoming more and more of a foreign language over here.

The great Judge Learned Hand once defined the spirit of liberty as "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." We've lost that spirit of liberty, which is not too sure that it is right, and replaced it with a dogma of liberty and self-righteous certainties. Maybe that'll help us win a few wars: The war on terror, the war in Iraq, maybe even the war on drugs and the war on the poor. *But those aren't wars worth winning if we're destroying the meaning of America along the way..."*
Pierre Tristam
November 28, 2005
Daytona Beach News Journal



THE CHALLENGE AND THE FEAR OF

BECOMING ENLIGHTENED
By Pierre Tristam



Since Sept. 11, we've been living under a "clash of civilizations"
doctrine that can be summed up this way: Over there, dogma, orthodoxy,
Islam; over here, democracy, pluralism, Constitution. Over there, dark
continents, dark ages, terrorism; over here, enlightened West,
enlightenment, freedom.

The doctrine has been used to justify two wars (so far) and a wholesale
shift in the way the United States deploys its aims abroad and projects
them at home. The doctrine draws its power from the language of freedom
-- the language of enlightenment -- both in the way we've gone about
defining ourselves as a culture and in the way we've gone about
defending our right to fight the war on terror on our terms, but on
other people's turfs.

The doctrine is fatally flawed, and its consequences are lethal, both to
American principles at home and to American interests abroad. There's no
connection between the language we're using in defining ourselves and
the reality being imposed at home and abroad. The language itself has
become the mask of its very opposite. If you want absolutes, if you want
black and white, if you want orthodoxy, look no further than the way
American culture politically and legally has been evolving in the past
several years.

That's not to say that those orthodoxies don't exist in the Muslim
world. They do in spades. But the enlightenment ideal is not under
attack from outside our culture. It is under attack from within it, in a
context that increasingly fears pluralism, scorns dissent and erodes
democracy. The very ideas of rational, critical thinking, of progress by
way of challenging assumptions, is being replaced by a faith-based
approach in policy-making and a fundamentalist approach in legal
thinking (what some people call originalism) that is diametrically
opposed to the ideals of enlightenment. If a battle for freedom is being
waged, it is being waged on the wrong front.

ISLAM'S TOLERANCE

First, a look at Islam as a world supposedly so incapable of solving its
crises that only western intervention can help. We should be honest.
Islamdom doesn't have a good reputation these days, and it brings a lot
of the trouble on itself. But any religion in the wrong hands, beginning
with Americans' own Christian creeds, can be violent, backward and evil.
It so happens that few religions can lay claim to as much beauty of
spirit, art, enlightenment and advancement of the human race as Islam
did for the entirety of the Middle Ages, when nothing in Europe could
hold a candle to Islamic civilization, when Islam was enlightenment
before enlightenment was cool.

What was unique about Islam's early and middle period was its great
tolerance for people of other faiths, its love and wealth of learning,
its antipathy for dogma, its realization of pluralism -- in the great
Abassid caliphates of Baghdad from the 9th to the 12th centuries, in
Spain during the same period, in India during the 16th and early part of
the 17th centuries. It's possible to see the Muslim Enlightenment
literally as bookends, in time and geography, with Baghdad in the early
period and the reign of Akbar the Great in the 16th and 17th centuries
in India, who lived up to a famous verse in the Koran that speaks for
all the potential pluralism in Islam: "There can be no compulsion in
religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (which is actually a
retelling of what Jesus said to his followers: "The truth will make you
free.")

Akbar's enlightened reign in India coincided with Europe's bloodiest age
of religious bigotry and warfare, when the Inquisition was murdering
Jews in Spain and Catholics and Protestants were murdering each other
everywhere else, when beheadings were the preferred method of Calvinists
in sleepy Geneva for adulterous men, when Europe was to know nine wars
of religion in three decades in a warm-up to the massacres and
holocausts of the 17th century. The roads of religious intolerance are
paved with the bones of that occasional oxymoron we know of as western
civilization. And those same roads are conveniently forgotten by those
who would point to a place like the Middle East and say things like,
"Those people have been at each other's throats for ever." Not quite
true. Any notion that the Enlightenment was a western invention, or that
barbarism is an eastern specialty, is a bit misguided.

But it is also true that everything is not relative. The Middle East
today and much of the Islamic world is not a comfortable place to be. It
is often not a defensible place. A United Nations report on Arab
development noted that the 22 countries that form the Arab world
translate about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece
alone translates. The cumulative total of translated books since 9th
century Baghdad is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain
translates in a single year. What that world needs is a dose of its own
past enlightenment. So it's a fair question: If Islam showed not only
the potential but the reality of enlightenment over its history, why not
now, and why shouldn't the West be showing the way back to enlightenment?

Aside from the obvious fact that enlightenment doesn't spring from the
belly of a B-52, because what's going on now in the Islamic world is
exactly what should be going on: A reformation as momentous and violent
as Europe's reformation was 500 years ago. Islam is trying to reinvent
itself. It is looking for a way out of its morass. The forces of reform
and the reactionary forces of fundamentalism are literally at each
other's throats, the way Catholics and Protestants, and eventually
religion and secularism, were at each other's throats in Europe between
the 16th and 18th centuries.

It's not black and white. The camps aren't neatly divided between
progressives and reformers. Nor is the presumption true that the
moderates are looking to adopt Western ways. The struggle is within
Islam, for a solution for Islam, not to please the West, look like the
West or get closer to the West. Who will win in Islam is anybody's
guess. Any way you look at it -- in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq and
Lebanon -- where you have elections, the moderates are losing big at the
moment. But at the same time it's also true, as the Iranian scholar of
Islam Reza Aslan argues in a new book on Islam's evolution, "the vast
majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world today readily
accept the fundamental principles of democracy." It just isn't
American-style democracy they necessarily want or need.

So far as the West is concerned, this, as Aslan argues, is the most
important lesson to learn: We are bystanders in this battle within
Islam. We are not players. We are not wanted as players. We should not
so arrogantly pretend to be players, or to think we have the right or
the means to be players. How can we even think something like that with
Sept. 11 behind us? Because the Sept. 11 attacks were not a declaration
of war on the West, the way the lock and load warriors in the neo-con
brigades like to see them.

The attacks were part of that "internal conflict between Muslims," and
they made us, in Aslan's words, "an unwary yet complicit casualty of a
rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in
its story."

Let's not play into the hands of the fanatics, or confuse the
spectacular with the successful. The best we can do is what Islam did in
its glory period of conquests: Show the light by example. Live up to our
own enlightenment ideals.

What we are doing instead is the very opposite. Through such things as
Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the secret prisons around the world called
black sites, the bloody occupation of Iraq and the seemingly endless
occupation of Afghanistan, we are only proving to the Islamic world that
the secular West is diseased, that the Crusades, the Colonial period and
the broken promises of the post-colonial 20th century were not a fluke
but a pattern.

In Islam's eyes, the West, the secular West especially, doesn't save. It
mucks up. As long as the United States insists on crusading for freedom
in Islam's lands, it will be retarding the more enlightened movements
for reform there.

For all his good intentions, George W. Bush has been fundamentalist
Islam's best friend, and has probably set back the progress of Islamic
Enlightenment for many, many years.

Osama bin Laden might as well pray facing the White House every day,
because without this White House playing right into fundamentalist
Islam's recruiting drives, Osama might well have been nothing more than
a bag of bones attached to a dialysis machine by now, and the tyrannical
Arab world might well have been on its way to following in the steps of
the Soviet Union's disintegration at the end of the 1980s. Instead, we
have a disintegration of our own to worry about.

DUAL TRANSFORMATIONS

The world of Islam is going through a great reformation. But in some
ways, so is the United States. The world of Islam is divided between the
forces of modernity and the reaction of fundamentalism. But so is the
United States, and I don't mean just because evangelicals are pulling a
few political strings.

The Islamic world is trying to redefine its identity, with the Koran in
the center of the battle. But so is the United States, with the
Constitution, which has always been synonymous with American identity,
at the heart of the battle -- and the Bible trying to make its way back
in there. So what we have between East and West are two distinct
struggles for identity. We delude ourselves into thinking either side
can affect outcomes in the other. The irony is that while the president
is warning us about this ragtag bunch of Islamic nut cases trying to
"destroy our way of life," we're being distracted from a very serious
struggle happening right here that is changing our way of life.

The more we talk about doing battle for liberty in the world, the more
we are losing it at home by not paying attention to what's happening at
home. The more we continue to ignore that the country is in the middle
of its own identity crisis, the more the forces of reaction and
fundamentalism can redefine the political climate their way, not even by
stealth, but by using the language of enlightenment as a Trojan horse:
Trust us. We are doing this for freedom's sake. We are "the light of the
world," and "whoever follows (us) will never walk in darkness." That's a
quote from the Gospel according to John of course, but it's also a
visual quote from Bush's campaign ads in 2004, if you remember the
famous "wolves" commercial that warns of "an increasingly dangerous
world" and shows a bunch of wolves ready to attack -- if you don't vote
for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Seventy-two years ago Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we have
to fear is fear itself. These days we're told the only thing we have to
fear is safety. The state of fear is our friend. Perpetual war is our
condition in whose name anything goes. And all the while, freedom is
being redefined as an instrument of state rather than an individual
pursuit guaranteed by state protection.

That sounds strangely familiar. The fundamentalists and the
reactionaries in the Islamic world, are looking to impose a regressive,
power-centered society of control and submission. But what the
reactionaries are doing in the United States isn't that ideologically
different. We are replacing the notion of an enlightened, progressive
society with the notion of a defensive, reactionary society.

ACTIVE LIBERTY

If you look at the U.S. Supreme Court, you can actually see that battle
like a spectator at ringside. In one corner, you have Justice Antonin
Scalia, believer in God, the death penalty and originalism, in that order.

In another corner, you have Justice Stephen Breyer, advocate of what he
calls "the Living Constitution," or "Active Liberty," which is actually
the name of the book he's just written to define what he means, and to
answer the book Scalia published a few years ago to mark his territory.
Breyer believes the framers didn't write the Constitution as a static
document to reflect their time only. They wrote it generally enough to
apply universally in the service of two pragmatic goals: To protect
liberty and to expand democracy and the ability of people to participate
in democracy. "They wrote a Constitution that begins with the words, 'We
the People.' The words are not 'we the people of 1787.' "

Scalia would disagree totally about the idea that the Constitution was
an engine of democratic nation-building. He believes in the
fundamentalist principle that what words say are what they meant at the
time when they were written. "The text is the law, and it is the text
that must be observed," he says.

Breyer wants the Constitution to reflect the world of 2005. Scalia wants
the Constitution to stick to the meanings of 1787.

Scalia thinks Breyer's approach is blasphemous. He calls it
"dice-loading," or smuggling new rights that aren't in the original
text. Breyer thinks Scalia's approach is "wooden," or that it operates
"in a vacuum," whereas "in the real world, institutions and methods of
interpretation must be . . . capable of translating the people's will
into sound policies."

So who's right? What you have here is not a failure to communicate. What
you have are two radically different views of the purpose of both
democracy and the Constitution.

Breyer believes in enlightenment's principle of progress. He thinks
human beings are perfectible and democracy, guided by the Constitution,
is that road to progress. Do we want to be a progressive society or do
we not? For Breyer, the language of the Constitution answers the
question in a big, enlightened Yes. He would agree with former Chief
Justice Earl Warren, who said in a 1958 opinion that the Eighth
Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments "must draw its meaning
from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a
maturing society." Breyer would interpret the entire Constitution
according to those standards, and he's not afraid to look abroad for
ideas about who's maturing more brightly.

Scalia is radically opposed to that view. "I detest that phrase," he
said this year about the Earl Warren opinion. "I'm afraid that societies
don't always mature. Sometimes they rot." So if the notion of progress
is not written into the Constitution, he doesn't want to hear about it.

In Scalia's view, the question of whether we want to be a progressive
society is itself unconstitutional. If the death penalty was allowed in
the 18th century, it should be allowed now. If it was allowed for
juveniles and for mentally retarded people, and it was, it should be
allowed now, because the framers couldn't possibly have had capital
punishment in mind when they proscribed "cruel and unusual" punishment.

If you follow that sort of thinking, then if Florida wants to bring back
branding, mutilation and banishment of criminals, it should be OK
because it was so common in the late 18th century even Thomas Jefferson
advocated it. And if Jefferson didn't think that sort of barbarism
wasn't cruel or unusual back then, does that mean it's OK now? Scalia
puts it this way: Maybe it's not OK. But the Constitution does not ban
it. Scalia's thinking shows how reasoning metastasizes into dogma.

GATES OF IJTIHAD

The parallel is striking. As Islam began its decline several centuries
ago the clerics in Islamic law had the very same debates. They had
something called "the gates of ijtihad," which is the Arabic word for
"independent reasoning." It was the notion of applying Islamic law to
contemporary circumstances.

Beginning in the 14th century, Sunni clerics declared the "gates of
ijtihad" closed. Scholars and jurists from then on were to rely only on
the original meaning of the Koran, and the legal reasonings of the
original clerics closest to the prophet Muhammad. Where some forms of
Sufism believed all religions were valid, by the 14th century the
hard-liners in Islam were circling the wagons against other traditions.
Foreigners became suspect, Islam closed ranks and decline began.

Word for word, that form of originalism is the Scalia philosophy, and it
is gaining ground not only on the Supreme Court, but also in the
unilateralist attitude of the United States as a whole. That explains
why we are becoming a harsher, meaner, nastier society than we ought to
be and why we're not exactly in a position to be preaching democracy and
enlightenment to the rest of the world right now.

While Islam is trying to break away from that rigidity, which has served
it so poorly for several centuries, we are embracing it. While Islam is
trying to reclaim the values and ideals of enlightenment on its own
terms, we seem to be abandoning those values and closing our own gates
of ijtihad. While Islam is paying the price of fundamentalism and
suffering to get away from it, we elect it and put our trust in it. Two
separate worlds, two separate battles. But how ironic what they both
have in common is the language of enlightenment: They long to speak it
again over there, even if they have a very long way to go, while it's
becoming more and more of a foreign language over here.

The great Judge Learned Hand once defined the spirit of liberty as "the
spirit which is not too sure that it is right." We've lost that spirit
of liberty, which is not too sure that it is right, and replaced it with
a dogma of liberty and self-righteous certainties. Maybe that'll help us
win a few wars: The war on terror, the war in Iraq, maybe even the war
on drugs and the war on the poor. But those aren't wars worth winning if
we're destroying the meaning of America along the way.

[Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. The essay is adapted
from "The Language of Enlightenment," a lecture presented Nov. 14 as
part of Stetson University's Values Council Lecture Series. The complete
text is available at www.pierretristam.com]

Daytona Beach News Journal, November 28, 2005
courtesy: Dr. Robert D. Crane
 

 

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