TCS Daily

A Leonardo, Not a Luther

By Stephen Schwartz - June 1, 2004 12:00 AM

To east and west, the debate over the nature and future of Islam -- a global religious community of at least a billion -- continues. At times the word "debate" is an obvious misnomer; young Nick Berg seems to have wanted to debate their faith with Muslims he encountered, but he ran into a bunch for whom discussion was the last thing on their minds. Rather, as in the mold of the anarchist terrorists of a century past in Europe and the Americas, his captors preferred "propaganda by the deed."

Nor was debate allowed the murdered American contractors mutilated and dragged through the streets of Fallujah, then hanged from the river bridges there; or the dead in the Madrid metro massacre, or the thousands of victims on September 11.

Given such a series of events, it is hardly surprising that "dialogue" in the prison at Abu Ghraib, between American military guards and individuals about whom, in reality, the world knows nothing, became abusive, humiliating, and brutal. As Americans, however, we can be certain that transgressors of the human rights of those in the custody of our military will be investigated and exposed, and result in punishment.

When France carried out such practices during its "dirty war" in Algeria, cold decisions came from the top political and military levels, and were supported by leftist as well as rightist leaders -- almost none of whom were ever called to account. Just what was Francois Mitterrand's position during the Algerian war? On November 5, 1954, almost a half century ago, the socialist leader declared, of the Algerian nationalists, "against the separatists, there can only be war." A month later, Mitterrand described his war as "merciless." Think of that word "separatists," and remember, the French employed full-scale torture in Algeria, not with the aim, if mistaken in means, of suppressing terrorists bent on sabotaging the liberation of an Islamic country from a dictatorship, but with the intent of perpetuating their colonization of an Islamic country, by the implantation of their own excess population. Can even the brainless Michael Moore dare to accuse the Bush administration of seeking to replace the Iraqis with American colonizers, of wishing to make Iraq the 51st state? (Not that there aren't a few Iraqis, at least, who would welcome such an outcome...)

But as in previous columns, I am tempted to digress, this time from the matter of debate over Islam. It should be clear to all thinking people, and people of good will, that the issue of "Muslim silence" affects debate and discussion among Muslims themselves as well as between Muslims and the Judeo-Christian world. Islam once gloried in debate, and held itself out, with justification, as superior to Christianity precisely because it encouraged legal and theological disputation and pluralism. In Judaism, the theological form of reasoning known as kalam is the same as the Islamic form of theological reasoning known as kalam. If you don't believe me, try googling the words "Jewish Muslim kalam" and see what you find.

A Muslim Reformation?

Today, it is common to hear Westerners, who have read a few polemical articles and imagine themselves great experts on Islam, calling for "an Islamic Reformation," and an "Islamic Luther." Other such are horrified to hear the argument, which is quite widespread among informed non-Muslim scholars as well as Muslims, that Islam already has a movement comparable to the Reformation, and had its Luther, or better, its John Calvin, in the form of Wahhabism and its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. That is, the Islamic Reformation exists in the ultraextremist cult that is the state sect in Saudi Arabia and the inspirer of al-Qaida. Wahhabis themselves are quite pleased by the comparison. Is this really so difficult to understand?

Calvin believed that a community of the elect had been chosen by God and made up the Calvinist congregation. Before the arrival of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the Hanafi-Sunni Muslims of the Ottoman empire believed (as Hanafi-Sunnis still believe) that Allah would judge individuals on their faith, and that salvation could not be claimed in this life. Is Calvinism, with its insistence on its adherents' election, so easily distinguished from Wahhabism, with exactly the same fanatical belief in its acolytes' own goodness? Both produced iconoclasm and theocracy. Is it not fascinating that the followers of Calvin and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab both fostered the rejection of pleasure, song and dance, decoration of sacred buildings, and spiritual culture beyond simple prayer?

We are told incessantly that without "our Protestant heritage" Americans would not be free. Have Americans really become so thoroughly indoctrinated in this simplistic and bigoted a view of our history, according to which every liberty is due to the influence of "Anglo-Saxonism" and "the Protestant ethic," as to have forgotten that decades before Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was slaying Sufis in Arabia, Puritan Massachusetts hanged a Catholic woman as a witch? (Look up the case of Ann "Goody" Glover on google, if you don't believe me.)

Or that Roger Williams had to flee Puritan Massachusetts to shelter among the Narragansett Indians, on his way to found an oasis of religious liberty in Rhode Island? Or that Catholics were deprived of rights in nearly all the early Anglo-American colonies, except for Maryland? Can we today imagine Boston without a Catholic archdiocese? Yet there was no Catholic bishop in Boston until 1808. Early America happened to be a place where adherents of the Roman Catholic church, libeled for generations as subservient to the Pope -- a slander whose echo we hear subtly repeated today, in discussions about the suitability of Catholic political candidates -- were in truth courageous heroes of religious liberty.

In New England, with the exception of Rhode Island, the Congregational Churches long enjoyed an absolute monopoly on faith, and in most of the southern colonies, the Church of England had the same status. New Hampshire permitted nobody but Protestants to hold office or teach school until 1877, 14 years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended the slavery of Blacks! The Carolinas, by contrast, have the honor of proclaiming freedom of religion to "Jews, heathen, and dissenters," beginning in 1669, under the original colonial charter written by John Locke, although it was not ratified. England itself, worshipped as the mother of our liberties, denied full rights to Catholics until 1829!

Americans have lately been perturbed by the arguments of Samuel Huntington, according to whom, "There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society," a dream that can be shared only by those who "dream in English." No place in this scheme for the Catholics of Maryland, to begin with. But how does this impend on the question of the future of Islam?

The Future of Islam

I am a Sufi, and I have been brutally defamed for allegedly forsaking Judaism (I did not -- my mother was not Jewish and I had no religious upbringing of any kind, as if it is anybody's business but mine). I have been assailed for not using a Sufi name when I sign my articles, as if that would change their content, and as if such issues were not matters of my own private choice. My Sufism is extremely complicated, and I do not choose to parade it in public, at least not at this point. But here again I am compelled to digress, for I am also a child of California, which will doubly damn me in the eyes of those who think of the West Coast as a wasteland of religious inconstancy; and I confess to having spent a good deal of time in the company of certain New Age Sufis, though I was never one myself. More importantly, however, as a California writer I speak Spanish, and with other Californians I look to Catholic Mexico and Spain, not to Protestant New England, for the origins of my local culture.

We Californians didn't need Protestant colonization, or the Congregational churches, to make California the seventh largest economy in the world, if taken separately from the rest of the U.S. That was made possible by Hispanic Catholic missionaries and farm laborers, and Chinese railroad workers and their descendants, Asian-American computer experts, among others who do not share Anglo-Protestant origins. And for those of you who believe South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have succeeded because they adopted "Anglo-Protestant" values, try investigating the status of women, so often thrown as a reproach against every Muslim in the world, in those East Asian societies. I believe the Confucian and Buddhist traditions of social conformity and fatalism are far more opposed to entrepreneurial, capitalist success than anything in Islam, and yet the East Asian tigers somehow managed to become extremely prosperous... and among them happens to be Muslim Malaysia, with Indonesia not that far behind.

The belief that America is great because it is Protestant is something we all need to outgrow, the sooner the better -- and before that, we need to give up the idea that progress in the Islamic countries will only take place if they imitate the Reformation and find themselves another Luther. First of all, there is no such thing as a rule of uniform global progress, following the same straight line everywhere. But here's a question to chew on: was life better in Elizabethan England than in Renaissance Italy? Not for Jews. Jews were slain in the streets of London while their relatives printed the Talmud in Venice; later, the Jewish Talmud was burned in Italy, but was printed freely and never burned in Muslim Turkey.

Islam needs to find its way to progress and prosperity, but in my view that way lies through a Renaissance, not a Reformation, and by way of a Leonardo, not a Luther. Luther and his Reformation led to the kind of religious wars we all seek to avoid today, if we have any sense.

In addition, a Catholic conservative of my acquaintance recently pointed out that he and his religious Jewish associates have come to regret the triumph of secularism in their cultures. "We are turning back from secularism to religion in public life," he commented. "Do we really think we can demand that the Muslims follow the same mistaken path we took, embracing total secularism, banning religion from public life, and then groping their way back to it? What progress would that represent?"

I have spent considerable time among Catholics in Spain (most significantly in Mallorca, which is pious, conservative, and rich -- and always was, even before the arrival of the tourist boom), and I have lived among the Muslims of the Balkans, and in the final reckoning I found them almost indistinguishable from one another. Yes, their faith may be quite intense; yes, they see faith and culture as united; yes, they give their children names from a religious inventory. But even given the suffering and poverty of the Balkan lands, their cultures are alike in grace and generosity, when they are allowed to stay out of the way of scheming politicians. Such evil men killed hundreds of thousands in the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, and in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But politics, not religion, was to blame in both cases.

What does a Muslim Renaissance mean? It means the restoration of the Islamic pluralism that was abolished in Mecca and Medina in the 1920s, less than a century ago, when Wahhabism conquered the Holy Sites. Before then, all of the hundreds of Islamic legal schools, and all of the differing sects, and all of the Sufi orders, were represented in Mecca, and the Hajj pilgrimage, rather than being a drab experience that today leaves many of the faithful in tears, was a celebration of Islamic diversity. In those days, also, Christian churches were open in Jiddah, and Jewish synagogues were found all over Yemen. Indeed, today only Saudi Arabia bars non-Muslims, and even non-Wahhabi Muslims, from openly practicing their faith. The rest of the Gulf states allow Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist worship; and Bahrein still has a synagogue.

The high road for Islam involves a Renaissance, not a Reformation, and a Leonardo, not a Luther. Did Leonardo need Henry VIII's demand for divorce, or Luther's incitements to mass murder of the Jews and rebellious peasants, to find his way forward in science, art, and design? Of course not. Indeed, trade with Muslim Turkey did quite a bit to make the Italian Renaissance possible.

I believe an Islamic Renaissance will come, and an Islamic Leonardo will come, fit to stand alongside the Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists of the past, and that Wahhabism and everything like it will be defeated. I also believe that many Westerners will be surprised when they find out that ordinary Muslims are not very different from ordinary Catholics, and represent no danger to them. How tragic it is that all this seems so far away today; yet is so near.


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