The Corner

The one and only.

The Middle East’s Peculiar Institution


A couple of comments on the events in the Middle East got me thinking. First, Razib Khan, writing about Syria, made the analogy between the Sunni rebels and the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan, an armed force seeking to restore the natural order (in Syria, that means overthrowing the Alawites). Then on Friday’s Diane Rehm Show, NYT reporter Thom Shanker, in response to a caller saying, in effect, “What is up with these people, anyway?” answered that we’re not much better, comparing today’s rioting in the Islamic world to Klan lynchings.

Anyway, that helped me see that the debate over Islam moves along similar lines as the antebellum debate over slavery. In both cases, one side wants mainly to ensure that long-standing practices increasingly seen as retrograde and barbaric are confined to those places where they are firmly rooted, and not allowed to spread elsewhere, in the hope that they will disappear over time. As Lincoln put it during one of the debates with Douglas, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists.” Yes, there are those who advocate more proactive measures, abolitionists and nation-builders, respectively, but they do not represent the dominant tendency.

On the other hand, there are those who understand containment of their peculiar institution would stifle it. As Lincoln said in his “House Divided” speech:

[The Union] will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

They are abetted by those who fail to see the irreconcilable differences, who just want us all to get along, and if the slavery/Islam thing is really, really important to some people, well, just give them what they want — what’s the harm?

The past week’s unrest (and the earlier Mohammed-cartoon riots and all the rest) represent the Islamic attempt at a Dred Scott decision — i.e., in both cases sweeping away rules (whether the Missouri Compromise prohibitions on slavery or the First Amendment guarantee of free speech) that seek to limit the spread of the peculiar institution in question. The analogy would appear pretty strong: Just as post offices in the South were prohibited from distributing anti-slavery material, web sites in the Middle East may not question the historicity of the Koran. Just as a mob murdered abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy in a free state, filmamker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim in Amsterdam.

And it’s no coincidence that the partisan reactions to these challenges are the same. On the Republican side, minority factions want rollback, while the dominant share want containment, secure “in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.” Likewise, a faction of Democrats actively promotes or promoted slavery and Islamism, while the rest were/are clueless appeasers, failing to understand that eventually we had to become all one thing, or all the other.

This is not an argument for Sherman’s March to the Nile, as viscerally gratifying as that might be. Containment failed with regard to slavery, but there’s every reason to believe that it can succeed with radical Islam. But containment can’t work if we ditch the Missouri Compromise — or the First Amendment.