A few days ago my son had a birthday. It happens that this birthday falls on the same day of the year as that of my mother’s sister, Aunt Muriel. This Aunt was very good to me when I was a child. I lived for quite long stretches at her house, which was, and still is, in the Witton district of Birmingham, an old industrial city in the English midlands. (Samuel Johnson, who came from nearby Lichfield, boasted of his hometown that: “We are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”
Witton is a district of red-brick 19th-century rowhouses. In my childhood it was a white working-class neighborhood, with many small factories, mostly devoted to different kinds of metal-bashing. Aunt Muriel worked as “tea-girl” for one of these places, and used to take me with her on her daily trips there, to brew up tea for the workers at lunchtime. Her husband, Uncle Fred, worked at another place, manufacturing electrical equipment.
They are both retired now, but still live in the same house, in the same street. Witton is no longer white working class. In the 1970s most of the other white people moved out. Their houses were bought by what English people refer to as “Asian” immigrants — in this case, mainly Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Muriel and Fred are not quite the last white people in their street, but whites are certainly in a small minority now.
Because of the coincidence of birthdays, I phone Aunt Muriel on that day and we have a long chat. It’s family stuff mostly, of course, but at one point I expressed some concern about how they were coping. Both of them are old, and beginning to have difficulty moving around. Aunt Muriel, a cheerful soul, was upbeat about it. “Oh, we’re all right. And the neighbors are marvelous. We get so many offers to help with shopping, gardening, everything. From the Asians, that is. They’re really very kind. Nothing from the English neighbors!”
Those “Asian” neighbors are solidly Muslim, of course — there is in fact quite a grand mosque nearby. Aunt Muriel’s remark set me to thinking. I suppose it needs some discounting for “Stockholm Syndrome” — for the feeling, I mean, that: “Since we’re stuck among all these Muslims, we might as well look for their good points and make the best of it.” Still, I know my aunt well enough to know that she wouldn’t speak like that if there weren’t something to it. I guess her Muslim neighbors really are kind; or at least, much more kind than unkind.
Do we, the United States, the West, have an argument with Islam? We surely have an argument with a lot of Muslims. A gang of Muslim fanatics murdered 3,000 of us last September. The media in Muslim countries are full of anti-Americanism. Furthermore, most Muslim countries practice forms of government completely at odds with the political ideas cherished by Americans. They are despotic, intolerant, and obscurantist. Even the folkways of Muslim countries look to be unpleasant: They seem to conform to the pattern of so-called “shame” cultures, in which the rightness and wrongness of deeds are judged not by some inner moral compass, but by the reactions of onlookers.
And then there is the dreadful anti-Semitism with which Islam seems to be riddled. From professors of theology at Saudi universities to New York City cab drivers, it sometimes seems you only have to scratch a Muslim to find an anti-Semite of the vicious, irrational kind that largely disappeared from the Christian world half a century ago.
Sophisticated Muslims tell you that this is really just anti-Zionism, a reaction to the indignities suffered by their coreligionists in Palestine. You can believe that if you want to. I don’t. It just doesn’t seem like that. Muslim anti-Semites say “Zionist” when they’re being very careful, but mostly they just say “Jew.” Besides, Israel is an ethno-state, a Jewish homeland. To target your feelings precisely against that nation, leaving aside the Jews of other lands (most of whom, in any case, support Israel to some degree) is a job of emotional fine-tuning very few human beings are actually capable of. I am sure there are anti-Zionists who are not anti-Semitic (there is in fact a Judaic sect, the Neturei Karta, who are anti-Zionist), but I am also sure their numbers are small — among Muslims, I think, vanishingly small. And certainly Muslim anti-Semitism pre-dates the founding of the modern state of Israel.
So what are we to think of Islam? Is it a cruel, dark religion full of hate, whose most characteristic political expression is corrupt dictatorship? If so, why are all those Muslims being so nice to my Aunt Muriel? Seeking enlightenment, I tried reading the Koran. This didn’t get me very far. Frankly, I found the thing unreadable. It seems to have no narrative thread, like the Gospels or the historical books of the Old Testament. It reads, in fact, like the boring bits of the Bible: Deuteronomy, or Revelations, or one of the more tiresome prophets.
I don’t know that this really signifies, though. Other people’s scriptures are always a tough read. I had a go at some Buddhist scriptures once; they were pretty darn boring, too. The Analects of Confucius, which I actually have read all the way through, is in my opinion a seriously dull book. The thing about scriptures is that they are not to be taken like any other book. You have to soak yourself in them, preferably from early childhood. For best results, you have to memorize them — as devout Muslims do the Koran, and as gentlemen in Imperial China used to do with the Analects. One of those latter, the 11th-century scholar Cheng Yi, reported that: “At times when I read the Analects my hands unconsciously begin to dance and my feet to stamp.” Reading the scriptures of your religion is not like reading a novel or a poem. It is another kind of experience, one not available to outsiders. (I suspect, in fact, that any text can come to seem profound if you sufficiently internalize it. For a college production, I once had to memorize Samuel Beckett’s monologue-story Imagination Dead Imagine. From the lofty, and perhaps somewhat jaundiced, perspective of middle age, I am inclined to think that the thing is complete gibberish. At the time, however, I recall being quite swept away by it, and thought that if I could only fathom its deeper meanings, the whole secret of life would be revealed to me.)
Lacking the will to do a full textual analysis of Muslim scripture, can I perhaps argue from its well-known tenets that Islam is a nutso religion, that requires its adherents to believe absurd things? No, in all honesty, I can’t. As with the scriptures, the tenets of other people’s religions are difficult to approach in a fair and balanced way. The tenets of my religion assert that when I take communion I am ingesting the actual flesh and actual blood of an itinerant preacher who died 1,973 years ago in a backwater outpost of the Roman Empire. Personally, I am used to the idea, but I can quite see that it might seem preposterous to an outsider. That Muhammad was God’s messenger does not seem a priori any less probable than that Jesus Christ was His son. As a matter of fact, from what I know of Islam, it appears if anything to be less cumbered with superstitious extravagances than are other religions. Weeping statues, saintly apparitions, huge rocks floating in midair (like the one that features in Burmese Buddhism) or temples that disappear when you try to approach them (the Hindus have at least two of those) — all this folderol seems to be absent from Islam. It is an austere, abstract faith, that cleaves closely to its Book — like the sterner forms of Protestantism.
Lacking textual or philosophical grounds for a case against Islam, can I adduce some social or historical ones? After all, as I pointed out above, there are no very successful Islamic nations, and have not been any since the Middle Ages. Having Islam as your country’s dominant religion seems to be a sure guarantee of intellectual, political, economic and military stagnation — at the very best (Malaysia, Indonesia) of a low-energy style of crony capitalism. Yet I am not sure there is a case to be made here, either. Christianity is the dominant religion in some pretty awful places — several African countries, for instance. Armenia and Ethiopia are not dazzling successes. Christianity was the dominant religion in Russia for 900 years, but apparently did nothing to inoculate the poor Russians against the horrors of Leninism. (Similarly with Cambodia and Buddhism.) Until 30 years ago, Spain and Portugal were as poverty-stricken and uncreative as today’s Egypt or Syria, yet they were devoutly Christian. On the historical evidence, it seems as if any set of horrors you care to name — certainly including anti-Semitism! — can befall a nation professing any religion.
But what about the fatalistic aspect of Islam: Insh’Allah, it’s the will of God, nothing you can do about it, best just calm yourself, sit down, and write some poetry. Doesn’t that work against enterprise and self-fulfillment? Well, perhaps it does; but then so must Calvinism, which is even more deterministic. Yet in early-modern Switzerland and Holland, Calvinism was an engine of constitutional development and intellectual advance, and it was a key component in the success of the first American colonies.
I can hear the angry e-mails clattering into my inbox already. Derb has sold out to multiculturalism! He thinks Islam is just as good as Christianity! I haven’t, and I don’t. I do not believe that Muhammad was God’s messenger. I do believe that Christianity has a scope and depth not possessed by other faiths. A quick search of the Koran with keyword “free” suggests that there is nothing in it equivalent to John 8:32 (“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”). All I am saying is that I don’t see that the backwardness, cruelty, ignorance and intolerance of the Arab world, or Pakistan, or Iran, follow necessarily from Islam.
I don’t feel sure, in fact, that the teachings of a religion have any necessary consequence for the destinies of believer communities. Steve Sailer has remarked that if a Martian’s entire knowledge of the world came from reading the Bible, he would be bound to deduce, after hearing the thundering, angry voice of the Old Testament Jehovah, and reading of the conquests of Joshua, Gideon and David, followed by the gentle words of Christ and St. Paul, that those warlike, fighting Jews must have been kicking around the meek, cheek-turning Christians for the last 2,000 years. This is not… exactly what has been happening.
Texts are never as important as the attitudes people bring to them. It is a commonplace of political science — I think Aristotle noticed it — that a state may have a very democratic constitution, and yet be a tyranny, or vice versa. (Mainland China is, if you judge only by her constitution, a perfect democracy, with a full range of civil liberties. Britain, on the same grounds, is an absolute monarchy.) There are lots of passages in the Bible I politely ignore — that stuff in Leviticus about the proper way to acquire slaves, for example.
What is really important in determining the destinies and character of peoples is culture, tradition, ingrained folkways. Most of the time, religion does not so much mould those things as wrap itself around them. The fondness of the Germanic peoples for moots, parliaments, althings, debates and elections seems to pre-date Christianity; the feistiness and confidence of Jewish women can be spotted far back in the Old Testament, in the stories of Sarah and Deborah, way before Judaism achieved a settled form. I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet, that Arabs were excluding their women from public affairs long before Muhammad came along. I wouldn’t be very surprised to learnt that they were being beastly to Jews, too.
In our current conflict, our enemies are all Muslims. I don’t believe that our enemy is Islam, though. Islam came up in a primitive, tribal society that has never since enjoyed any real political progress. The Arabs are still primitive and tribal today; but their failure to create modern nation-states arises from their ancient habits of thought, behavior and social exchange, and from geographical constraints, not from anything in Islam. Indeed, those Arab countries — Iraq, Syria — that are established on secular principles are even more degraded and corrupt than the theocracies.
And though a religion must work with the human material it finds, it can be uplifting and improving. The English novelist Evelyn Waugh was a convert to Catholicism. He remained an awful person, though: rude, selfish, and a crashing snob. When one of his friends chided him for not being a better Christian, Waugh replied: “My dear fellow, you can’t imagine. Without my faith, I should be scarcely human.” So it is, I believe, with humanity at large. Religion doesn’t make us perfect, and of course we all know that horrible things are done in the name of God. On balance, though, we are better off with religion than without it. As bad as we may sometimes be with it, without it we should be scarcely human.
A coherent and well-established religion like Islam is an asset to the human race, with the potential to soften the hearts and enlighten the minds of believers. It might be the instrument for lifting those believers out of the pit of lies, cruelty, intolerance and stagnation into which their tribal cultures seem have dragged them. If today Islam is showing an ugly face to the world, that is not a reason to give up on Islam. Christianity showed a pretty ugly face during the Thirty Years War (not to mention the Crusades). A few generations later it was ending the slave trade, providing spiritual fuel for a mighty commercial civilization, and bringing education and medicine to places that never had either.
Instead of mocking or dismissing Islam, we should appeal to believers to look to the nobler and more generous texts in their scriptures, the texts that emphasize a common humanity. We have nothing to gain from alienating honest Muslims, any more than they have anything to gain by being enemies of the West. If we can remember the first, and persuade them of the second, there might be some prospect of cutting off significant support to the legions of glittering-eyed Koran-waving murderers the world is currently infested with, and of averting the destructive clash that we are all, slowly but surely, coming to believe inevitable.