25 March 2015

On Islam (pt. 2 — My Own Private Jahiliyyah)

Posted by at 5:05 PM

Whoever was not familiar with Islam's foundational story in August of 2001, was almost certainly familiar with it by October.

The gist of the story:

In the year 610 C.E., at the age of forty, an Arabian caravan merchant named Mohammed ostensibly received a revelation from what he described as the one and only god, whom he called Allah, through the angel Gabriel (this is the same character that announces the coming of the baby Jesus to the virgin Mary in the Christian Gospel of Luke, which had by that time been in circulation for four centuries and change). Gabriel reportedly overwhelmed Mohammed in a cave, commanding the man to recite verses of poetry. Mohammed obeyed and his recitations were then memorized and recorded by his companions over the course of some years, resulting in the book we now know as the Qur'an. 

In the previous post in this what I thought would be a series, I put forth a simple ontological rejection of god(s). The absence of evidence  concerning the supernatural restrains me (and everyone else in the world) from making any positive claims regarding the "meaning" of the cosmos or regarding ultimate reality. In fact it makes those who do make such cosmic claims particularly insufferable to me. I'm embarrassed for such people (Google Fremdschämen). Even in my crude childhood ruminations, my spidey-sense would tingle around people who were so audacious as to speak for God.  It blows my mind that there are so many who think they know what "god" thinks or wants. To me, even in my not-yet-fully-congealed twelve-year-old mind, this felt like high hubris. Public personae run amok. At the heart of the problem is that even if one could unambiguously define a god (an impossibly tricky problem in itself), ... what criteria would one then use to gain access to a god's mind? How do we ascertain its will? If God is metaphorically something that transcends everything, how would I be able to assess someone's claim to know what it wants? How could I learn what, if any, propitiation it requires? 

There will be those, no doubt, who have a ready answer to these questions, of course: "scripture" (i.e., revelation and prophesy). But in that case, two problems present themselves immediately.

First, the concepts of prophesy and special revelation are esoteric by definition. They presuppose that a special instruction has been given by a supposedly "omniscient" god only to a very specific individual (or a group), who then disseminates these wisdoms on down to the people below by enacting exclusivist, inviolable rules for any would-be initiates to use as a liturgical guide to "right opinion" (ortho-doxy). Revelation was only for a select elite. Gods are very picky when it comes to the messengers they will entrust their proclamations to. Two prophets per millenium is just about the average allotment when it comes to prophets, I reckon. A trickle. A drip.  There have been billions and billions of people to choose from in time, yet precious few are ever worthy.  The gods just sit and wait and wait and wait and wait for just the right man to come along.  — "Well, what's wrong with that? God can talk to whoever he wants to." —"God's mysterious ways" are always available as an escape-hatch , catch-all palliative.  It seems a fair-enough notion at first yawn, but on reflection, and on a very fundamental level, the very esotericness to me of any given evangelizing theology serves to render that theology untenable, to render it non sequitur. Put another way, if a god really wanted to make an announcement that was for some reason important enough for the whole world to know about, a mandate reflecting its mind and will, why take an esoteric route? Wouldn't that be counter-productive? If the ultimate purpose of revelation is communication and proliferation of information, cryptic whisperings in the ears of prophets at the rate of one per quincentennial is probably not a very efficient way to go about it. In fact, it is exactly the wrong way. This is a simple truth that is too often overlooked by many religionists, namely, that a god's reliance on elite prophets to get a message across to "all the people" only reveals a god's deficiencies as a communicator. Librettist Tim Rice expressed something like this tacit implication in the closing song of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (sung by the resurrected Judas):
"If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation
Israel [sic] in 4 B.C. had no mass communication ... "

To offer a "God's ways are mysterious" answer for this esotericism problem at this juncture would only be a feeble escape-hatch maneuver, an evasion, else we be forced to admit that sometimes the gods do not seem to follow the path of least resistance. It may make no sense, yes, but sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a convoluted manifold zigzagging maze instead of a straight line for god. Why make things so complicated? Couldn't gods, being "omnipotent" and "omnipresent" and all, just express themselves clearly and at will? Despite devout claims to perfection in all things, gods seem to be vague and inefficient communicators. Why is that? Could it be that sometimes gods like to do things in really cumbersome ways just to test us (read: "to mess with us")? A god could just be capricious if it wanted to be, I suppose, perhaps, but isn't it strange that a reliably consistent principle that is always at work in the rest of the world, that of parsimony, is somehow always suspended where communication between a god and humans is concerned? Why would a god prefer to beat around a burning bush rather than take a more direct approach such as talking to the people waiting at the foot of the mountain himself? No, the prophet must ascend alone. Hang tight; he'll be right back with the divine goodies. Wink, wink. Are gods really so shy and fastidious? Or maybe it's like in that movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where (G)od's glory is so majestic and so powerful that peoples's heads will explode for merely beholding it. Is that it? (I doubt it.) Since I was a kid I have found all esoteric claims regarding ultimate reality as suspect, from the moment they are voiced. Nothing I have learned since has shown me any different. A simple hermeneutic of suspicion is the best starting point where big weird claims are involved, my experience tells me. 

The second problem is somewhat graver in that it reveals a glaring lapse in the logic of the proposition itself. In short, it is nonsensical to attribute written mandates to divinities that one has yet to adequately define. Logically backward, it's the proverbial cart before the horse. To stress this point I should here rephrase and highlight the topic sentence of the previous post: Because I have no warrant to believe in gods, I simply don't. There are special (I'm told) books that purport to speak for some conception of one or another of these gods. Although these books are endlessly fascinating from many different perspectives, my approach to such a text is unaffected by its 'special' or  'holy' status. I cannot justify upholding the sanctity of any text, and so I simply don't do so.  Easy peasy. The idea never even enters my mind. There's no apprehension or shame about it. No anxiety. No tabú. Since I don't believe in gods, these books have no stigma attached to them at all. They are just books. They are ancient artifacts which merit as much interest and study and reverence as other similarly ancient books, say, The Epic of Gilgamesh, or The Odyssey, and no more. Every text, even a "holy" one, is a human relic that originates in a specific time and place and culture. A holy book tends to contain the dreams, fears, and aspirations of the people who composed it. In view within its verses are glimpses of the lives these people lived, the axes they ground, the heroes they exalted, the foes they reviled, the archetypes they molded and cast and recast (and recast again and again in some cases) ... all of which are linked to a very specific socio-religio-historical Zeitgeist. A holy book is the mythological record of one tribe's ongoing struggle with its concepts of the divine, the numinous, the mysterious. This may not be a trivial thing, but neither is a text to be venerated simply because of its privileged status in a particular liturgical tradition or cultural hierarchy.  This goes for the Tanach, it goes for the New Testament, and it goes for the Qur'an as well. 

Bang! — Into the Fray

Although I've been fascinated by Christian origins in particular—and by history in general —for over two decades now, my interest in Islam didn't really begin until after 9/11. Before then, I knew a few muslims, but I rarely gave it any thought. For me, before 2001, Islam didn't really register as anything but an exotic "other" world religion. I had no opinion to offer; it just never interested me much. In the aftermath of the events in New York City, Arlington, and Shanksville in 2001, however, like everyone else in this country, I was made aware of (and confused by) all the rhetoric that was being bounced around the airwaves and in print regarding the role that religion played in the atrocities of that fateful day. Islam was all of a sudden the talk of the town, whatever town you happened to be in. The $64,000 question was: What part did Islamic faith play in the attacks? To answer it, the hijackers each left behind some video footage of their last will and testament which leaves little room for guesswork. In these they recite their last witness to the camera on the eve of their imminent glory, religious fervor radiating from their every sentence, so it's really a no brainer. "Jihad" (this concept of "struggle" is very important for Islam and will be dealt with in more detail as I proceed) was undoubtedly the reason they did it. They said so. Repeatedly. Every other phrase out of their mouths was a Qur'anic citation. But despite even such overt testimonials to the devotional nature of the holy war that these boys saw themselves fighting in, there were still those who insisted that Islam is "a religion of peace," that religion was only peripheral to the situation, that the nineteen were compelled to do what they did by political reasons rather than religious ones.

I could of course, like everyone else, speculate plenty of political motives, ones involving retribution for the sins of U.S. foreign policy viz the Middle East, for instance. During those early aftermath days, in fact, I remember being prone to say things like: "it would not have happened but for our lopsided support of Israel." I remember paraphrasing Malcolm X's "the chickens are coming home to roost" a couple of times in reference to my speculations. After all, the videos do mention the boys' solidarity with the Palestinian cause against Israel, and their condemning the presence of Westerners in what is traditional Arab/caliphate sacred land. There is plenty of elbow room there for at least some minimum of geopolitical vengeance to come into play. Religion happens within a context of cultural background, after all. No saint is an island. But to deny that it was a religious impulse, specifically, at the root of the crimes of 9/11, is to take leave of reality, I think. Religion was their point of departure. The terrorists videoed testaments don't evince much by way of "power-to-the-people" rhetoric. Their concerns were not the plight of the world's poor, as far as I can see. These guys weren't voicing any of the revolutionary angst about post-colonialist exploitation that one would expect from a self-styled leftist vanguard. This was not about social justice. This was not a "power to the people" impulse at all. This was about divine justice. It was all "power to Allah" rhetoric. It was a clear, direct, defiant, ostentatious, and overtly religious challenge to infidels (the West). There's no escaping this fact as I see it. One can of course argue that the hijacker's particular version of Islam was an aberration, that it is far from normative, that their interpretation is just an egregious anomaly, just an outlier sample in an otherwise serene curve, but even then one cannot deny that the destruction these boys caused that day was first and foremost an expression of their religious devotion. One cannot gloss that over. It is how these boys saw themselves and it is how they intended for the world to see them. They went out of their way to make videos so that there would be no doubt about it. No honest discussion can proceed without acknowledging this. This was a religious act.

9/11 terrorist's video testimonial
Because the evidence for it is so overwhelming, one clever circumlocution I've seen employed to trivialize this intrinsic religiosity is an equivocation, a conflation of the impression that most mainstream North Américan Christians have of the notorious Westboro Baptists (who are unanimously regarded as loony), on the one hand, with the way we should view the suicide hijackers' fanaticism, on the other— i.e. the implication here being that we should see their idiosyncratic theology and barbarism as those of a lunatic fringe that no one in the Muslim world really takes seriously.  In other words, we are urged to think that workaday Muslims view the ideas of these radical terrorist extremists in the same light as Christians view those of the Westboro Baptists. But is this true? Are these two hateful groups really analogous?  Are they equally 'hateful'? I dare say not. Don't get me wrong; I think that Fred Phelps was a real fucktard (a word I don't wield lightly); make no mistake about that. But in the final analysis, where the rubber meets the road, Phelps and his activist church were/are as harmless as sheep. They may be hateful to the core, but they don't go around shooting gay people. There's a limit to their ire; they only get as far as publicly speaking their ugly and stupid and spiteful words, but no further. They stay well within the bounds of the law. 'Being infuriatingly annoying and rude' is the worst crime that one could charge the Phelps gang with. Can we then really compare them to suicide bombers? Is that fair? There's something just a little more serious about terrorism than just standing on street corners holding up placards ranting about sodomites or whatever else Leviticus finds abominable. More than annoying and impotent words, these folks bring sticks and stones, and they're hell-bent on breaking bones. No. Only a stupid and facile Facebook meme mentality could dare to compare the posturing exhibitionism of the Westboro Baptists to the murderous acts of armed and dangerous fanatics like Al Qaeda or ISIL. It's just ludicrous.  It's not enough to be just crazy or wrong or rude. Some people are crazy and rude and they are really dangerous to boot. A bonus, let's say. It's important to not lose sight of this distinction. Were it not for the stridency of their protests, were it not for the offensiveness of protesting at veterans' funerals, the Westboro hate-mongers would be as innocuous (and as ignored in the press) as the little old Catholic ladies protesting outside the venue the last time I saw a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at Gammage Auditorium. The Phelps are worse for all their mean-spiritedness, of course, but they have as much chance of affecting any kind of change as those old ladies do, in the end. People around the world don't rally behind the Phelps in any way. Even die-hard homophobes would wince at the thought of behaving this way at a memorial for a fallen soldier. The same could not be said of the terrorist groups in question, though. They do have real followings, and they would use any means at their disposal to achieve their aims. This is not polemical ranting on my part; radical islamists have said as much; it is what they openly and relentlessly repeat at every foto-op

It's a silly analogy. The Phelps, by comparison, have a threadbare following of maybe a few dozen people, mostly family members and their friends. If we take the whole of Christendom and measure their influence, roughly .000037% (that is, almost 4 hundred-thousandths of one percent) of Christians would support their weird theology and or conduct. This is a negligible fraction. A blip. For all intents and purposes, it is zero percent. By contrast, how extensive is Islamism relative to a more "normative" moderate Islam? Luckily, we actually have some statistical data on this. There have been polls conducted, the most famous of which is the Pew poll that Sam Harris notoriously featured in his book The End of Faith, which seem to show that in traditionally Muslim countries a significant number of people believe that it is sometimes appropriate to  resort to violence on non-combatants in defense of one's religion.  As few as 13% and as many as 28% of the populations of many nations condone violence of some kind, be it toward blasphemers or to more pedestrian things like cartoon depictions of Mohammed.  13% –28% is not zero percent.  It's a significant fraction. Worldwide, this could potentially mean that there are between 220 and 476 million people who potentially approve of violence in the name of religion. This is roughly the current population of the United States of America. Mind you, this is based on polling in relatively moderate Muslim nations. The percentage in countries that did not participate in the polls (who are known to be more extreme in their implementations of Shariah than the participating nations), are almost certainly higher. 

But let's grant for the sake of argument that it is only a very small fraction of the global Muslim population that is so Jihad-minded. Even it this were the case, its minority status would not be a good reason to dismiss them as inconsequential. History shows again and again that the black swans of any given era are under the control of just a few aggressive individuals. It is those few alphas who can muster and exert the force required to wrest control from 'the many' that eventually wind up doing so. Numbers are almost irrelevant once a bloodbath is in motion. All it takes is one guy with a mission. 

Sure, "most" Muslims are peaceful individuals who just want to live their lives, who want to pray their five times a day, who want to play with their kids on weekends. "Most" Germans under the Third Reich were likewise peaceful individuals who just wanted to live and let live. The Japanese people in Nagasaki were peacefully living their lives while NanKing was being raped. In most cases of imperial delusion, the peaceful majority proves to be irrelevant to the respective courses that the history of a nation takes. All it takes is one bold asshole or two to drive the political agendas of their time and place. It's a sad truth about humans that they yearn to conquer the world. It's another sad truth about humans how easy they are to herd.

An indelible detail about 9/11 remains in my mind's eye. Watching what they thought was Goliath taking a fall, all the vicarious little Davids of the world suddenly overflowed with delight.Throngs of people, both young and old, festively cheering and dancing in the streets, gleeful in their hatred, the images being broadcast on television news were images of people that I could not for the life of me understand. That it could be seen as a cause for joy, that it resonated with so many people, so many in fact that they spilled out onto the streets to express their rapt approval, was a moment of epiphany for me. This calling for a violent revolution is no anomaly. For the first time, some idea of just how significant a portion of the world feels about the West entered my consciousness, not in some abstract academic inductive sense, but in the very real experience of watching people react so viscerally and so approvingly to what for me was a heinous crime. For a way higher number of people than I was comfortable with realizing, 9/11 was a joyous occasion.  A celebration.  This was no anomaly.  These images showed me a seething pervasive undercurrent. That the people engaged in this violence is a minority voice becomes irrelevant in light of the fact that it is precisely this small fraction that is armed and committed to the use of violence. All it takes is one asshole with a bomb.

The use of violence is the key here. 

Discovering just how deep a commitment and a primacy are bestowed on Islam by its adherents, so deep that people could even forego sense and sensibility to uphold it, was cathartic for me.  Like many others during that time, I resolved to learn about this religio-political phenomenon. When I searched for moderate voices within Islam, however, they weren't quite forthcoming. There was a silence there (it's finally better now,  a decade on, but not much) that piqued my interest.   It was the silence of people who would rather not get involved. I get why ... at least now I do, but I didn't then. Either way, this silence began to feel effectively like the silence of complicit inaction.  With so few moderates speaking, I would have to educate myself, I guess.

What religious ideas would compel people to behave in such a sociopathic manner in their name?  What would compel people to prioritize their religious commitments even above their concern for human well-being?

This became the focus of my study on Islam.

For now ...
Other posts in this series:
Pt. 1 — Pt. 2 — Pt. 3 — Pt. 4



1 - for this calculation I'm postulating around 1000 members for the Westboro Baptists. I am admittedly pulling these numbers out of the air just to make a rough percentage estimate, I don't know exactly how many there are, in fact, but I think it's reasonable educated guesses, in fact it is generous, and any margin or error in either direction would not change the tiny percentage much, given the size of the greater population that these radicals are on the fringe of.
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