Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama in Cairo - one bad take on it

Tom Peters alerted his readers to this take on Obama's speech in the National Catholic Register.

I am unimpressed.

I agree with the Humbly Presumptious one when he says that the President said everything he needed to say.

Hoopes fails to note that so capable a rhetor as the President would know his audience, and his audience would know the next verse of the Qur'an. His explicit quotation had, among its other functions within the speech, an antiphonal purpose.

In the Catholic liturgical tradition, an antiphon is a text fragment that may appear random at first glance, though it is in fact anything but random; it is chosen precisely with a view to calling the hearer's attention to what comes before it and what comes after it in the text from which the fragment in extracted. Antiphons presume that those who hear them are well-versed in sacred scripture.

There was, therefore, a subtext to the President's speech, and the tension created between the explicit and the unstated is the proper hermeneutical key.

In praising Islam's "great tradition of tolerance" the President was calling attention to Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Tours, Jerusalem (BTW, whenever anyone brings up the question of the Crusades, I respond, "Oh, you mean that series of wars the Turks both started and won?"), Constantinople, Buda-Pest and Vienna - not to mention Munich (1970 and 1972), Rome (1973), Tehran (1979), Beirut (1983), etc. etc.

In quoting Surah 5:32, the President was drawing the attention of his audience to 5:33 - and the significance of this is to be found, not in the attribution of a supposed program of weak thought, or an ideological commitment to "relativism", but in the context of the over-arching structure of the speech, which is controlled by two axes -

First, in logical order there is the following:

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security -- because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.
This is clearly to be read in light of 5:33 - the President is saying, essentially, that if you come to our shores and murder our people, we will defend ourselves. It also presses the unspoken question as to how innocent non-Muslims are or can be under certain interpretations of the Qur'an (remember that usul al-fiqh is positive legal science, and the highest science in Islam, above Kalaam, or dialectical reason employed in the pursuit of speculative theological truth - and let this also be a reminder to Catholics interested in "inter-faith dialogue" and other such tripe: talking with Muslim theologians is useless; either we are talking with the lawyers, or we might as well not be talking), and this in turn presses the issue of how Islam is to understand itself.

If we are going to be completely honest, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the Wahabi line is the most internally coherent understanding of Islam. The scholars at Cairo could not fail to be aware of this, nor could they have failed to hear the call to challenge the Wahabi line from within, through critical engagement and rigorous scholarship. This is dangerous, it is true, though the alternative is default Wahabi domination.

Then there is this:
I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
In light of the second, we can see that the President is essentially conditioning the success of the new beginning on Islam's ability to resolve the internal tensions to which he so skillfully alluded during the course of his address. In light of the first, we see that, until such time as Islam does order its house, the United States will be resolute in defense of itself and others.

Now, the final piece to this puzzle is the following:
I know that for many, the face of globalization is contradictory. The Internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence into the home. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and change in communities. In all nations -- including America -- this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we lose control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities -- those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.
Said shortly, Islam need not uncritically embrace modernity, but if it does not find a way to approach modernity that is critical without being inimical, it will continue its slide into darkness and backwardness.

This is not relativism, Mr. hoopes, veiled or otherwise: indeed, it is quite the opposite. We Catholics ought to appreciate the deft and subtle way in which the President invited Islam to embrace a vision in which the dignity and rights of human nature are affirmed in a way that does not commit one to the intellectual program of modernity - a program that ends in contradiction and disintegration, viz., abortion, euthanasia and the apotheosis of the state.

I diagree with the President as profoundly as anyone, and quite possibly, moreso than most, and I fully recognize the danger his social agenda poses to good order and true liberty. As they say, though, even a clock what don't work tells the right time twice a day.

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