Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Of Mosques and Men IV: what's in a name?

The following remarks are a revised and expanded version of ealier ones written in reply to a combox query.

As revised and expanded, they stand alone as a post, and are offered in the spirit of further clarification.

The first thing that makes me suspicious in this whole affair is the proponents' apparent insensitivity.

Suppose proponents are sincere in their expressions of desire to aid in healing, reconciliation, dialogue promotion, etc., and that their choice of "Cordoba House" as a name for their project is a simple case of innocent cultural tone-deafness (I am thinking of some of those great HSBC ads): why not agree then to move a few blocks further away, as soon as the concern has been voiced?

Quite apart from the proponents' intentions, the building of an Islamic "cultural center" (by the way, the distinction between a "mosque" and a "cultural center" is silly on its face: mosques are cultural centers - akin to the ancient Greek agora or the Medieval cathedral and quite different from the 20th century Christian worship house) on such a scale, so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks, is an affront (to the victims, and to everyone who was touched by the atrocity).

In any case, the name of the proposed cultural center is Cordoba House (or Park51, a project of the Cordoba Initiative). The FAQ Page of the Cordoba Initiative offers the following explanation:

The name Cordoba was chosen carefully to reflect a period of time during which Islam played a monumental role in the enrichment of human civilization and knowledge. A thousand years ago Muslims, Jews, and Christians coexisted and created a prosperous center of intellectual, spiritual, cultural and commercial life in Cordoba, Spain.

This gloss of the historical record strikes me as particularly unfortunate.

Cordoba was a city in which Christians and Jews lived in dhimmitude, i.e., as "protected" groups segregated from what we might call or recognize as political life, the life of the larger community. To invoke Cordoba is to invoke Muslim rule.

Muslim rule means something very specific: it is essentially theocratic and exclusivist.

There is, in other words, no distinction between the temporal and the spiritual - no 'separation of Church and state', as it were - by which I mean to say not that there are no separate institutions in Muslim majority nations, but that the distinction is lacking in theory or in principle.

God's revelation through Mohammad, "The Seal of the Prophets" has been given to the whole world: Islam has been proclaimed and exists de iure over the whole planet; the task of Muslims is to bring every living person into the ummah, the "community of believers" in which the rule of Islam is realized in fact.

We are used in the West to talk unproblematically about "moderate" Muslims and "moderate" Islam. Commentators like Victor Davis Hanson and Thomas Friedman have both written to the effect that the Islamic world needs its own "Enlightenment" - as though it were a simple matter of fathoming notions of equality, democracy and free inquiry (without realizing that the Enlightenment forms of these were really perversions of the classical notions, and directly tending toward the present Western ills of radical secularism, legal positivism, technocracy, but let us grant for the sake of argument that an Islamic "Enlightenment" would be a good thing) - and unthinkable that the intellectual and spiritual elements of such a cultural revolution might be lacking.

Still, any individual might, in the words of an American Farmer (roughly), leave behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, and receive new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He might, in a word, become an American, by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater.

Then, he would count himself among such as Lincoln described:

We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

Any Muslim immigrant might see himself in the place of Lincoln's Europeans, and feel the electric cord in him, and be an American.

Whether Islam can find the intellectual and spiritual wherewithal to embrace the theoretical distinction of spiritual and temporal spheres, and so find a way to conceive itself otherwise than in irreducible opposition to Western civilization, is another matter entirely.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Of Mosques and Men III - some clarifications

More than a few correspondents have asked me to answer, point-blank, whether I support the proposed mosque construction near ground zero in New York.

Here is my reply: no, I do not support the mosque proposal.

I actually think it is ill-conceived and in poor taste, at best.

Frankly, I am rather more than a little offended at the idea.

My earlier remarks (which may be found here and here) apparently gave the impression that I am in favor of the construction.

The unfortunate phrase was, "Let [Muslims] come to lower Manhattan and prove [they can be good citizens] (- and yes, this is something all of us have to prove in America, in each generation)."

His scriptis, I do not find Rauf's idea offensive as such - offensive is the idea of executing the project in such proximity to Ground Zero, and on such a scale.

I am at pains to clarify that, despite my doubts about Islam's compatibility with Western civilization, I cannot as a Catholic (whose ancestors faced and overcame similar and comparably virulent public conviction of their religion's basic, irreducible and insuperable incompatibility with the American way of life) begrudge Muslims in America the chance to prove me wrong.

There are also several questions outstanding, such as:
  1. Is Rauf, a Sufi, really representative of mainstream Muslim thinking?
  2. Is Rauf, a Sufi, an effective dialogoue partner within the Muslim world, itself?
Just a couple.

There are several dozen others where those came from.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Of Mosques and Men, cont'd

The loudest parties in the ongoing national discussion of the proposed mosque at ground zero in New York seem to have gravitated to one of two major positions, which may be summarily stated as follows:
  1. Of course they ought to build the mosque (not really a mosque at all, but a "cultural center"): anyone who says different is ignorant, angry, prejudiced, or some combination of these, or something else bad.
  2. Of course they ought not build the mosque: it is insensitive to the families of the victims for them even to suggest such a thing, which, incidentally, poses a security risk.
This is a very sad state of affairs, and a sad commentary on the health of our national discourse, for both positions are obviously misguided, irrelevant, and vascillanting between maudlin and silliness.

First of all, it would have been impossible to use government power of any kind at any level in order to stop the construction of the mosque, simply because it would be a mosque: impossible, that is, for a people who - with a straight face - profess commitment to the kind of religious liberty guaranteed in our Constitution.

So, they can build the mosque.

Should they?

Well, I certainly do think the proposal is insensitive - although I do not think it is meant as a deliberate insult to the memory of the fallen, and one of the most frustrating recurrences throughout this whole debate has been the careless use of the accusation of "insensitivity" as though mere insensitivity were the equivalent of deliberate insult.

At this point, the most telling element of the whole discussion comes into view: we used to be of sterner stuff, and the 1st amendment supposes that we are.

That amendment is given (like the rest of our Constitution) for a society of persons who are capable of political freedom because they are capable of self government and rational public deliberation of all matters intersting the common weal, including religion.

The first amendment is not given (pace Jefferson) as a wall of separation between Church and State (nor do I think the Danbury Baptists agreed with him, either); rather, it is given in order to secure the place of religion, including vigorous religious debate, in the public square -and the debate over the placement of the proposed mosque is at once literal and physical proof of this.

Does Islam have a problem with violence?

The answer to that question is in lower Manhattan.

Is Islam compatible with Western civilization?

Frankly, I am doubtful: but America is the place for the question to be raised - and calmly, reasonably, frankly and respectfully debated.

Can Muslims be good Americans?

Let them come to lower Manhattan and prove it: America owes Muslims neither more nor less than it owed Catholics.


Of Mosques and Men

As you know, I have more than a passing interest in religions' PR efforts.

So, let me begin by saying that, if the Imam behind the Ground Zero mosque-building (GZM) proposal really wanted to "improve the image" of his religion (as an old and dear friend recently suggested to me that he might), he might offer some of his $100 million in funding to rebuild St. Nick's at Ground Zero (you know, the Greek Orthodox church that was the only house of worship to be completely destroyed by the collapse of the towers), or at least come out publicly in support of fast-tracking for the St. Nick's project (which, to the best of my knowledge, he has not done).

Just so we're crystal clear: I do not think Rauf is required by justice to do any such thing, or even by plain good manners to make the offer.

Just some considerations.

Really, though, the whole question of "image" is ephemeral, almost by definition.

The real question is whether there is, in any meaningful sense, a "brotherhood of religions", as that same old and dear friend also suggested to me the other day.

There may be some meaningful sense in which there is such a fraternity, but usually terms such as "the brotherhood of religions" are shorthand for the idea that every religion at heart promotes universal peace, reconciliation, justice, harmony and love.


Only Christianity does that.

Christianity also tells me that it is a sin to use or to threaten violence in order to win converts, a sin to punish people for unbelief.

Christianity tells me that these things are sins, not because they go against explicit precepts and injunctions found in the Holy Scriptures (although they do), but because they are unreasonable.

This is important: one need not accept Christianity in order to recognize that such things are wrong - though recognizing that they are wrong brings one (whether one wants to admit it or not) closer to Christianity.

Now, Islam does not work quite the same way.

Take the question of "peace":

Does Islam promote peace?

Frankly, this is a loaded question.

When English authors employ the word, "peace" they are more or less consciously wording a concept represented by the Christian political and theological authors with the Latin, pax.

Arabic is the language of Islam.

The Arabic word most often translated to English as "peace" is salaam, which is, like pax, a technical, juridical term.

In the Christian tradition, pax (peace) is the presence of "justice". Justice, in its turn, is the condition of concord in society achieved through the rule of law. Law is a dictate of reason promulgated by competent authority and ordered to the common good. Reason is a peculiarly human faculty, by the proper exercise of which human nature may attain to an understanding of Divine ordinance.

Salaam, on the other hand - and as far as I understand it - refers to the state of absolute submission to the manifest will of the one God. Now, "submission" in this case renders the Arabic word (another juridical term) islam, from which the Muslim religion has its proper name; the Arabic for "one God" is Allah, and the Arabic for "manifest will" is Qur’an, which is also the name of the Muslims’ holy book, often transliterated as Koran.

In any case, the Qur'an is the source and ultimate authority in and for law under Islam - for it is the revelation of the Seal of the Prophets, Mohammad.

Peace, according to the Muslim religion, is the absolute rule of Islam, or absolute submission to the will of Allah, as made manifest through His revelation, which is Law.

It would seem to follow, therefore, that there is no salaam where there is no islam, no "peace" outside the complete subjection of each and every living person’s will, to the will of Allah as made manifest in the Koran.

In other words, there can be no "peace" until everyone living has submitted to the dictates of the Muslim religion. Once the Law has been proclaimed, to refrain from an act of submission is, quite literally, to place oneself outside the law, i.e. to be an outlaw.

On the other hand, and as we have seen, peace in the Christian tradition (pax) is the presence of justice, which is the condition of social concord through rule of law, and that law is the perfection of reason (ratio), by which human nature participates in the Divine order.

There seems, therefore, to be little to justify translating both the Christian pax and the Islamic salaam with the English "peace".

"Law", after all, is for Christians the participation of human reason in the Divine order, while for Muslims, law is ultimately the manifestation of Divine will, a will that one cannot hope to understand and to which one must only submit.

The question whether Islam is a religion of peace is therefore not even a real question: it only seems to be capable of being raised because of an inappropriate use of a single word in English to translate two different words from two different languages, words that function as technical juridical terms in disparate and conflicting cultural systems.

I could go on.

Incidentally, that universal peace, reconciliation, justice, harmony and love are the real and exclusive teachings of Christianity (all of them together, I mean; you will always be able to find one or another of them in one or another of the world's religions), is not the reason I am a Christian.

I am a Christian because Christianity is true (N.B. the things Christianity teaches are true, but when I say, "Christianity is true," I mean something more than that - though that is a subject for another time).


Saturday, August 14, 2010

A farewell speech

While here on the beach, my thoughts were diverted from the gyneaceum that is the bathing resort where I go for my little swimming, or from the mess that is the Italian political situation (not to speak of the American one), or still from the more elevated thoughts my Bible studies prompt in me, by a beautiful example of style and humor published in the opinion newspaper I read.

Click and find the surprise of how a man of action can turn into words his sense of virtue.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A little reflection from the beach

I'm out of Rome, in a little beach town where I use to spend the month of August.

Not to do anything special: a little swimming in the morning, and for the rest of the day what I usually do, i.e. cultivate my studies.

This year I brought with me my Bible and a few books about the Bible.

As a matter of fact, I must confess that, being an old style Catholic, I am more confident with the doctrine and the philosophical reflection on it than with the Sacred Scriptures. For what concern these, I am mostly confident with them through their use in the liturgy.

It isn't that I didn't do my amount of reading in Bible studies. And I definitely have my liking and disliking among Bible scholars. The ones I dislike make the scriptures into something speaking about those who wrote them; the ones I like make them into something of enduring significance, hence speaking of and to us.

Here it is what makes me an old style Catholic, over against the contemporary protestant like trend toward a direct reading of Scriptures: in acknowledging that such a reading needs a guide.

It is hard to crack the code, so to speak, of Scriptures: especially the Old Testament, to see how and why the New Testament makes no sense without it. Or, if it makes sense, it is because it implies it, even though its reader might not be aware of it.

The Christian reader must learn the essential imagery the Old Testament writers employ. Speaking from the beach, one example is sufficient.

On the beach the sea looks rather tame. For the Old Testament writers the sea was the untamed element par excellence. It was God who tamed it, setting limits to it.

Isn't it, such a natural image of chaos, also a nice metaphor for human passions? And though, we pretend to do away with God and at the same time to keep our passions in sufficient control to make social life possible!

Possibly to be continued.


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A further reply to the specification

Dear HP,

Whenever I hear someone ask whether the President really is "post racial", my concern has more to do with what a given interlocutor might mean by the term, than with anything else.

I think the more constructive question to ask would sound something like, "Is America in 2010 post-racial?" and the answer there must be: sic et non.

To be sure, it is pertinent to this discussion that America elected a black man (a mulatto or mixed-race man, if you will - but if the POTUS self-identifies as a black man, I can extend him the courtesy of following his suit) to the nation's highest office, and all through the hard fought, 15-month campaign, no one ever seriously asked whether America is "ready" for a black president.

When former President Jimmy Carter suggested that popular opposition to the proposed health care reform was based on lingering racial hatred or at least inability to accept a black president, the incumbent POTUS went on a popular national talk show and responded, saying, "I think it's important to realize I was actually black before the election."

Indeed, Obama's personal story is in many regards beautiful, in many controversial, and always powerfully moving even if it is not always compelling.

The representative power of Obama's story will, I think, bear comparison with that of one of our favorites: TR.

His scriptis, I disagree with Obama on just about every question of policy - and that is the point: his election proves that, beyond its resolution in principle, America is post-racial in at least one extremely important existential sense, but we continue to talk about it as though the issue were not resolved in principle.


A specification

To LD and to whomever it may concern.

Perhaps my remark about Obama repudiating his mother and grandparents was too scathing. Not a good one. I didn't mean it as a personal repudiation, but as a racial one, and it came from these lines of an interview to Barbara Walters:

BARBARA WALTERS, "THE VIEW": Your mother was white. 


WALTERS: Would it be helpful or why don't you say I am not a black president, I am biracial? 

Here was Obama's telling response:

OBAMA: You know, when I was young and going through the identity crises that any teenager goes through, I wrote a whole book about this…Part of what I realized was that if the -- if the world saw me as African-American then that wasn't something that I needed to run away from. That's something that I could go ahead and embrace. 

OK, I realize, as you made me remark in a previous occasion, that being Italian I might not have the required American sensibility to racial matters. I can understand that in the USA it is enough to be half black to appear all black. And this is what Obama embraced.

What I wanted to say with my remark is that in this way he embraced racial America, and, being thus incapable to represent a post racial America, rekindled racial matters rather than assuaging them.

Sorry that I made it sound as a "personal dig", as you say. It is true that I don't like the guy, but for a political argument this is not here nor there.


A few brief considerations in reply to the HP

Alright, HP: the main thrust of your point is taken.

I do not agree, and would not say, that the President has "renegaded" his mother and her parents.

He has said some moving things about his mother, on the record.

He just does not want to make an issue of it, to which I say, "Fine. After all, you, POTUS, are the one who ran for and was elected to the office, not your family."

Let others in the media say what they will.

I am in Col. (eventually Gen.l) Chamberlain's camp.

I do not think it matters to America who your father (by extension, your mother) was - though this is different from the crucial point that one have a father and a mother, who are such before and beyond the grip of the state, but I digress...

Yours strikes me as a personal dig that 1) does not stick and 2) distracts from your main point, with which I agree, if it is as I have understood it: that Martin Luther King jr's vision of and program for achieving racial harmony is the right one, and that the is demonstrable from within America, herself.


Let me post the following, again, for our edification and delight:


Monday, August 02, 2010

Two kinds of religion

This could be an interesting question to ask: how come the presidential candidate who presented himself as post-racial and post-partisan turned out to be as president not only the most partisan imaginable but also so racial that the "racist" name calling is more burning than in decades?

The easiest answer is that the presidential candidate image was a total construct: i.e. a fake.

It might be true, but it doesn't help in answering deeper questions: like those concerning the creeping civil war going on in America and in Europe.

So I don't want to focus on POTUS, but on two or three ways of looking at the racial issues.

One was that of Martin Luther King Jr.: he was a Christian, and not only reminded Americans of their being all children of God, but also called for forgiveness, as the way not to forget but to overcome past wrongs without falling into retaliations, wrongs of opposing color.

On the other side there were movements such as the Black Panthers – of which there is again talk nowadays.

A third side were the guilt ridden liberals, who recognized that racial discrimination went against the grain of their belief in the essential equality of all men, but forgot about the root of equality in God: those called by Tom Wolf radical chic, who would invite a token Black Panther to their fashionable parties.

Now it seems that with the first mulatto President of the United States (such he is, however he wants to renegade his mother and grandparents) we are thrown back to that.

Where is the fault?

Let me try this answer: in POTUS's inadequate understanding of religion, of which he has given many signs.

He has been able to gain the presidency back to the democrats by statements that recognized the importance of religion, so neutralizing the sting of the accusation moved to them by the center and the right of being all secularized and godless.

What came out, though, was that religion is nothing else for him than some kind of pious feeling concerning God and the meaning of life that whatever tradition can give. This was shown especially in his Cairo speech.

Now, that is a very partial view of what religion is about. It is, instead, also about what makes for justice among people, and can make, should justice have failed, for an appeasement.

Here there are several kind of answers, which show that not all the so called religions are the same. I'll focus on two, that more concern us.

There is the one pointed out by Martin Luther King, that of reciprocal forgiveness. Let's call it, if you like, conservative, because it requires a recognition in the tradition of an evidence of love that makes men virtuous.

The other one, let's call it liberal, doesn't demand that men be virtuous, but only that they follow the rules, by which some power from above equalizes (in the name of God or of the State) all men.

No doubt about which POTUS follows. My question is rather which is the one you would pick.


Summer Hiatus

Dear readers,

Chronicles will be very slow throughout August.

Thanks to all, and best wishes for a Summer well spent!