Thursday, September 28, 2006

Reading List

It is a fact that Islam has not always been characterized by the totalitarian dictatorships that currently rule it. As Bernard Lewis points out, the Ottoman sultan historically had to consult with a large number of advisors -- former high officials, sundry faction leaders, religious figures and so on. Really, it sounds a fair bit like Italian fascism. Lewis is making the point that "The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or the Assad family in Syria or the more friendly dictatorship of Mubarak in Egypt--all of these have no roots whatsoever in the Arab or in the Islamic past." Lewis does know what he's talking about. Understatement.

Here's my theory. The Sultan had to consult with these various vested interests not because of any inherent love of consultation embodied within Moslem culture. Rather, the power wielded by these other leaders was too great to risk offending. Loyalties were not to the idea of some centralized guarantor of justice, but rather to one's own power base, and more specifically to one's own power. The threat of rebellion was ever-present. Consultation was the bone to the dogs, the mordida, the nod and lip-service paid to prevent uprisings and chaos.

How is this situation different than that of, say, feudal England? -- where powerful lords were vassals and owed fealty to a king, but to a king who was just another, albeit a more powerful, lord? Half of Shakespeare's plays wouldn't have been written, if it weren't for the native British spirit of rebellion. How is it that British tribalism contributed to the Enlightenment, brought about democracy, and lead to the greatest potential for prosperity, health and happiness that humanity has known in lo these thousands of years? Whereas Moslem tribalism led to stagnation, poverty and a culture of hatred, blame and futility?

There is no variability in human nature. East, Middle East and West are all populated by people -- the same coarse clay gives form to us all. There is no identified factor in any given language that requires one sort of society or another. Geography plays its roll in shaping customs, but great trading empires have arisen from both fertile and from stony ground. So what makes the difference?

We call it the West, but we call it Christendom. We call it the Middle East, and we call it Islam. The Bible, then, and the Koran. Forget about theology. What impact have these books had on shaping the present world? Models for violence in each, and for peaceful conduct. Great poetry, that has greatly moved those open to such things. Etc. I won't get into theology or doctrine. It's not a we're better than they are argument. It's the fact that whatever the present reality, each of these two civilizations has a founding document. We Americans should understand this better then any other nation -- aside from the Jews. We were invented by the Constitution. Of course it's a chicken or egg thing, but you see the point. And given a relative equality of initial status -- barbarism, feudalism, a thirst for blood and for gold -- which civilization has provided for the greater good?

A loaded question. We favor the familiar. Conservatives, here, will give the predictable answer. Liberals can only be liberals, can only continue to exist at all, in this civilization. So their verbal answer is irrelevant. Their very existence speaks to the matter. It has to do with the rather odd concept of freedom. Lewis speaks of the puzzlement that old-time Moslems experienced over this strange Western concept. The confusion was finally resolved by equating it with justice. A fair analogy. Rather insightful, actually. But not a mathematical, or logical, identity.

Many societies have justice. We might baldly state that no society can long survive without it. Hitlerism lasted twelve years. The Soviet Empire lasted some seventy years. Red China is coming up on sixty years. Pick a trouble spot in the world. It will become calm again, when justice is restored. Thus, the rage, the turmoil of the so-called Arab street. They look at their crappy lives, and their hearts are filled with envy. This leads to blame, and the scapegoats are, of course, the Greater and Lesser Satans. But their lives are crappy because they have crappy leaders. Leaders are crappy because they do not rightly minister to the needs of justice.

Freedom, on the other hand, is a rare and fragile flower, that cannot flourish without the nourishing soil of justice. It isn't just about statutes of law -- the means by which justice makes itself known. Laws are a consensus, and are the body that house the spirit of justice. There is no ordinance, though, that can give life to freedom. Either you have it or you don't. Either you get it or you don't. Islam doesn't get it. Islam, as you know, means submission. Freedom doesn't submit. As you have discerned through your own ruminations, new-time Moslems -- at least the Islamist faction, the masked-face of the enemy -- are no longer confused about freedom. It's bad.

We might make a catalogue of the characteristics of God, and of Allah. I won't. Such a list would seem self-serving. For our purposes, there is only one characteristic that is relevant. I challenge you to find any equivalent, any counterpart to a famous American, uh, slogan -- "Let freedom ring!" It's in our songs. It fell from the sonorous lips of Martin Luther King. It refers to the inscription on the Liberty Bell. Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. And that, of course, comes from the Bible. Leviticus 25:10.

Religions are many things. In this discussion, they are the shapers of civilizations. The theme of Islam is called five times daily from high minarets. The message boils down to a single word. Submit. Proclaim liberty. Submit. West, Middle East. Bible, Koran. Freedom, justice. Of course there really isn't any such thing as freedom, any more than justice. So the difference is as much a suggestion as a requirement. But in the real world -- not the world of fevered imagination, or fanciful historical romanticism, or distorted political polemics -- reality presses itself forward into our faces in a way that cannot be ignored. Toppling towers and toppling heads. Or what we have here: unfocused, self-indulgent, foolish ... and free.

I can speak only for myself, now. My family is gone. But a question has been echoing in our ears for three and a half thousand years, and it deserves an answer. If it seems evil, to you, to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom you will serve. There are gods across the waters that you might serve. There are gods grown up around you, with something, and much, to offer. But the God -- or rather the book that has brought us here, even in this day and age, has blessed us beyond the blessing of any other people. This is no small thing. It is great. If we must submit, wouldn't this God seem the wisest choice? -- given our blessings over those of others? Other gods might offer a freedom, of sorts. And there may indeed be found a vaccine for AIDS. But I'm trying to avoid romance.

No. I am not preaching. Far be it from me to do so. Do as thou wilt. My theme here is specific. We're better than they are? The Bible is better than the Koran? Well ... yes. But my theme has been that we are vessels shaped from the same clay. There are potters, and blueprints, and we know the purpose of the pots not so much by their shapes -- for they are almost identical -- as by what comes out of them. I won't argue the point. I'll just ask a final question. Have you been noticing all the chamber pots in the news, recently?


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