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.

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