Monday, September 18, 2006

Piling on the bull

Christopher Hitchens gives Pope Benedict some advice on how not to offend Muslims (note: it can't not be done) and says the pot should examine its own blackness:

Attempting to revive his moribund church on a visit to Germany, where the Roman congregations are increasingly sparse, Joseph Ratzinger (as I shall always think of him) has managed to do a moderate amount of harm—and absolutely no good—to the very tense and distraught discussion now in progress between Europe and Islam. I strongly recommend that you read the full text of his lecture at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday.

After the most perfunctory introduction, Ratzinger goes straight to his choice of quotation, which is taken from 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II. This potentate supposedly once engaged in debate—the precise time and place is unknown—with an unnamed Persian. The subject was Christianity and Islam. The Byzantine asks the Persian to "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." (On the face of it, not a very open-ended inquiry.) But, warming to his own theme, the purple-clad monarch of Constantinople allegedly added that "to convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death."

Now, you do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion. To take Islam's own favorite self-pitying example: It was the Catholic crusaders who sacked and burned Christian Byzantium on their way to Palestine—and that was only after they had methodically set about the Jews, so the Muslim world was actually only the third victim of this barbarity. (Sir Steven Runciman's A History of the Crusades is the best source here.) Yet of all the words he could have chosen, to suggest that religion might wish to break its old connection with conquest, intolerance, and subjugation, Ratzinger had to select an example that was designed to remind his hearers of the crudest excesses of the medieval period. His mention of Manuel II was evidently not accidental or anecdotal. He refers to him repeatedly and returns to him again in the closing paragraph, as if to rub it in.

And of course now we hear, as could have been predicted, the pathetic and unconvincing apologies issued by his spokesmen and finally Ratzinger himself. These will only serve to convince infuriated Muslims that by threatening reprisal, calling for the severing of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and issuing a few more sanguinary fatwas, they can force yet another retreat. The usual things have happened: the shooting of a nun in Somalia and the desecration of Christian churches in Palestine. And so the ecumenical "dialogue" goes on.

To read the bulk of the speech, however, is to realize that, if he had chanced to be born in Turkey or Syria instead of Germany, the bishop of Rome could have become a perfectly orthodox Muslim. He may well distrust Islam because it claims that its own revelation is the absolute and final one, but he describes John, one of the apostles, as having spoken "the final word on the biblical concept of God," and where Muslims believe that Mohammed went into a trance and took dictation from an archangel, Ratzinger accepts as true the equally preposterous legend that St. Paul was commanded to evangelize for Christ during the course of a vision experienced in a dream. He happens to get Mohammed wrong when he says that the prophet only forbade "compulsion in religion" when Islam was weak. (The relevant sura comes from a period of relatively high confidence.) But he could just as easily have cited the many suras that flatly contradict this apparently benign message. The familiar problem is that, if you question another religion's "revelation" and dogma too closely, you invite a tu quoque in respect of your own. Which is just what has happened in the present case.

The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason," which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of "revealed" truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without.

Many American religious conservatives, and a certain blogger we know, like to point out that it is Europe's abandonment of religion that leaves it defenseless against the predations of an agressive Islamist culture. If Benedict is an example of the West's cultural backbone, then I fail to see how a new Western Christian awakening will do much to help Europe. If you are searching for a cultural spine in Europe, you would do better to search among the cartoonists in Denmark than the "defenders of the faith" in Rome or Canterbury.


Blogger Brit said...

Enraging some Muslims is clearly like shooting the proverbial fish, but I'm still left in the dark by comments like "If you are searching for a cultural spine in Europe, you would do better to search among the cartoonists in Denmark than the "defenders of the faith" in Rome or Canterbury."

I hear a lot of that in the blogosphere, both on Judd and post-Judd sites. But it seems to be a purely conceptual notion - armchair punditry based on reading newspaper articles, history books and opinion polls about Sharia.

It's easy enough to say, but what does 'defending your culture from Muslims' actually mean in practical terms?

What if the whole point of your culture is that you don't harangue people or insult them or mess around with them because of their superstitious beliefs.

In Britain, we have cracked down on the extremist Muslim clerics and brought in a whole load of new laws about fermenting terrorism etc, but only reluctantly, and only after 9/11 and 7/7 showed that they were more indeed more serious than the innumerable loonies we've allowed to rave away at Hyde Park Speaker's Corner since time immemorial.

You might describe the delay in bringing in such measures as a lack of backbone. But Speaker's Corner is a cornerstone of British tradition and culture.

We were defending it.

I can't get a grip on what is meant by "defending the culture" if it means more than bringing in legal measures such as the anti-terror laws, if it means something ordinary people on the streets should be doing other than getting on with their business. Well, I can think of a few things, but they are all ugly.

September 19, 2006 2:58 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

It's a very good question, Brit.

Hitchens would make a super Duckian. Although he knows full well that believers are far more likely to be on his side on the WOT and even in perceiving the true nature of Islamicism, he simply can't resist the temptation to stick it to his allies and place everything wrong at the foot of Christianity, especially Catholicism. It doesn't matter a whit what the church is actually saying in 2006 and what our challenges are, out come the gruesome tales of one 15th Century horror after another with the dire warning that they are about to be repeated if stout-hearted rationalists don't maintain a vigilant watch 24/7.

We are all guilty of playing the game of trying to position ourselves as members of a minority challenging a tired and oppressive majority zeitgeist. In the States, the game is really fun because believers have the numbers overall and non-believers have the grip on intellectual and cultural life, so there is plenty of scope for everyone to feel sorry for themselves. But there is a difference. Believers tend to hold and cherish values and traditions that they see inherently virtuous regardless of public opinion or the demographic balance. What I will call "the secular project" relies ideologically on an ethos of minority oppression to give it any nobility or zest. Without that, it's just a bunch of self-focussed folks having a good time. Contrast the heart-wrenching tales of love denied by warped and cruel homophobes we hear from gay activists with the in-you-face, free-wheeling saturnalia of the typical Gay Pride parade.

I've noted before that Hitchens loves to use the word moral, and he does so to great effect. But he never bothers to explain what his morality is or where it comes from. It seems to be a collective quality he accords mysteriously to whole groups he sees as victims of some kind of oppression, whether at the hands of Saddam Hussein or Mother Theresa. We know he is crazy about the Kurds because they've had an appalling time, but for all I know they could be murderous liars who would mete out a similar fate to others at the first opportunity. Orrin does the same thing when he blesses every nationalist movement that comes along. If "I'm for the underdog" is all you have to base your sense of geopolitical ethics on, then you end up doing what we do in the Balkans--ask who the minority is today and back them without further question. Same for domestic issues.

Back to Brit's question: What if the whole point of your culture is that you don't harangue people or insult them or mess around with them because of their superstitious beliefs. That ends up being pretty small beer when you are challenged by a force that is into triumphant majorities rather than oppressed minorities. You have to triumph right back in that case and I can't figure out how guys like Hitchens think we can do that if we just keep on defining our freedom and morality as protection from, and rejection of, all the oppressive values and traditions of our own cultural inheritance.

September 19, 2006 6:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


If you read my post very carefully, you'll note that I'm not saying that Europe lacks a backbone, I'm only pointing out alternative places to look for it rather than in the places that American Christians would have you look, ie. the remnants of the Christian churches.

Yes, free speech is part of the culture. To me defending the culture means not apologizing for free speech. The Danish cartoonists practiced free speech, and they were condemned and apologized for by just about every person in Europe with an official title, and many in America as well. The Pope practices free speech, but now he's apologizing to people who give no value to free speech.

We shouldn't apoligize for our culture to people who would take it from us if given the chance.

September 19, 2006 6:08 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...


What if the whole point of your culture is that you don't harangue people or insult them or mess around with them because of their superstitious beliefs.

Sounds awfully Canadian.

But if that's the case, then defending your culture involves enforcing "the whole point" of your culture, something that has been strongly lacking in Europe the last few decades. Defending the culture is not standing idly by while "the whole point" is flagrantly violated.

You provide evidence of this yourself, when you note that the UK is now cracking down on caliphascist imams after the subway bombing. May one not conclude that there was no interest in defending the culture by preventing those imams from insulting others on the basis of their beliefs until there was local violence? Also note that this wasn't just loonies at Speaker's Corner but preaching in the mosques and publishing literature locally and on the internet. Had it only been at Speaker's Corner, I wouldn't have bothered about it either.

September 19, 2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Speakers Corner is just an emblem. I know virtually nothing about Canadian liberal attitudes, so I'm not qualified to answer that first point, but the essence of the British attitude is Elizabethan: "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls."

That's not just about tolerance. It's about an utter disinterest in what goes on in your neighbours’ heads when they are on their knees. Even sex and politics are preferable subjects for discussion at the middle-class dinner table or the working man’s pub. It’s also about a deep mistrust of politicians and authority figures who presume to talk about what anyone else should or shouldn’t believe, or indeed, what they themselves believe (a big difference with America, which famously won’t elect atheists).

There was a documentary on TV recently when an American CIA man described his bemusement, pre-7/7, at being able to walk into shops in Muslim-dominated areas of London and see literature for sale openly calling for the downfall of western civilisation.

That’s a product of the no-windows rule. The question we’re having to face up to now is that while the rule has served us very well up to now, we suddenly live in a world where there is a small but dangerous group of free-riders abusing it, who don’t want to join in with the big multicultural party that is modern, Notting Hill carnival-going, Curry Mile-cruising, Muslim-led cricket team-supporting Britain.

It’s not just that it’s grossly unfair to condemn, with hindsight, no-windows Britain’s lack of action in pre-empting 7/7 and singling Muslims out for special treatment, it’s plain unrealistic.

Part of the problem with this whole debate, especially with the cartoons, is that it operates in a strange gap or valley, where both sides can claim the free speech card, and both the intolerance card. Are the cartoons intolerant of Muslims and their freedom to practice their religion free of insult, or is their protest against the insult intolerant of the cartoonists’ rights to free speech? It’s like those essays we used to write at school to test the paradoxes of liberty: should we allow fascists air-time? If not, are we being fascist?

The trouble with this twilight zone, this Cartoona Lacuna (there, I’ve coined it), is that arguments get very confusing. My immediate response to the debate was to call a plague on all houses concerned. Amis intelligently bashing Islam for its misogyny is fine by me, dumb insults amounting to “yah yah you dress funny and you’re all terrorists” are just that: dumb.

The Pope has now found himself in the Cartoona Lacuna, and so do the Ducks.

SH: your last paragraph is the very essence of the confusion that exists in that uncanny valley.

September 19, 2006 8:10 AM  
Blogger David said...

In the states, at least, you can walk into any Barnes & Noble and find books calling for the overthrow of western civilization. Heck, you can just read The Daily Duck, which hates the very foundation stone of western civilization.

September 19, 2006 8:50 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't think the famous British tolerance for everything but intolerance (as Time magazine put it back in the '60s), has served it well.

I view the current attitudes in Europe and the UK as a pluperfect repeat of '30s appeasement and head-in-the-sandism.

The confusion revolves around the unique in history situation in which one side wages war and the other side refuses to notice that a war has started.

Mosley was left alone with his thoughts until 1939, then locked up.

September 19, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


But Britain did live through various horrific sectarian conflicts which led to Elizabeth and the no-windows rule (and also arguably, ironically enough, to the USA).

The advantage of the no-windows rule is that you minimise the likelihood of witch-hunts and holocausts. The disadvantage is that things like 7/7 can catch you unawares.

Welcome to the Cartoona Lacuna.

Your all-out religious war solution is easy to say, but that's the only thing easy about it. It's an armchair theory of zero practical application.

September 19, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The Daily Duck, which hates the very foundation stone of western civilization.

No, we just disagree over what the foundation stone is. You can't say that it is solely Judeo-Christianity, since both faiths predate American democracy by millenia. You continue to ignore the very rationalist foundation stones in favor of a purely religious explanation, which defies logic and history.

September 19, 2006 9:48 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...


I don't think that paragraph was confused.

First, it's not the lack of enforcement but the differential enforcement (which I have pointed out elsewhere). It's Ken Livingstone welcoming Qaradawi.

Second, I don't see the contradiction because one side has speech and the other incitement to murder folled by bombs in the subway. It doesn't seem hard to distinguish to me.

September 19, 2006 10:06 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

No, we just disagree over what the foundation stone is.

Right. And Michael Moore loves America.

September 19, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


May one not conclude that there was no interest in defending the culture by preventing those imams from insulting others on the basis of their beliefs until there was local violence?

That's very confusing, when the whole point of our culture is that we don't let our police interfere with people unless they are violent. Therefore, by allowing them to rave in Speaker's Corner until they were violent, we were defending our culture.

I'm not saying there are no flaws in the no-windows system. We've found to our cost that there is room for free-riders, such as the Finsbury Park loonies and George Galloway.

But your 'defending the culture' routine makes no practical sense - it's just an easy thing to say.

September 19, 2006 10:38 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

If you don't want me to dive into the subtext of your latest comment, please provide more text.

September 19, 2006 10:43 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

While minimizing the witchhunts (good), under modern conditions, you maximize the holocausts (bad).

Churchill said, much later, that there was a time when Hitler could have been stopped 'with the stroke of a pen.'

No one could conceive of picking up the pen at the time, just as you cannot conceive of all-out religious war today.

There are people, however, who already are waging all-out religious war, and on you. That their gnat-bites don't bother you so much does not indicate that you may not die of the infection they carry later on.

When Germany marched into the Rhineland, Europe shrugged it off.

September 19, 2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No, I can't conceive of an all-out religious war, and I can't follow your analogy with a war against a geographically-located nation state.

Here's one reason why I can't conceive it.

I could introduce you to plenty more.

September 19, 2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Muslims are generally too poor and backward to be much of a genuine threat. It's possible a city here or there might be lost thanks to some terrorist nutcase. Other than that they only go beyond nuisance level when the local population is mostly Muslim and hence ready to shield and support them.

In the case of state action, Iran has a GDP half of Mexico's and a completely broke-ass military.

The War on Terror was won centuries ago. This isn't even a contest.

September 19, 2006 12:43 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It hasn't been a contest since 1709. Which means exactly nothing.

The important dates for the West and Islam are:

1492, Grenada -- The last time a European power advanced on Islam with the intention of displacing it.

1509, Oman -- A small Portuguese squadron, operating thousands of miles from its base, destroys Muslim seapower in the Indian Ocean. The first techno slaughter of Muslims by Europeans.

1709, Delhi -- Death of the last Muslim to control a genuinely powerful army.

1798, Egypt -- Europe resumes conquest of Muslim lands, this time without the intention of displacing the Muslims in them.

1898, Omdurman -- For the first time, Europe makes war on Muslim theology.

1945, Tokyo -- If provoked enough, Westerners kill everybody.

There's supposed to be a lesson in there somewhere.

September 19, 2006 2:32 PM  

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