Sunday, August 07, 2005

Rushdie's anti-absolutism

I walked around stunned in the first few weeks after 9/11, feeling confused and put off by the flood of trite “why do they hate us” speculations. Then, while working out on a stairmaster at the gym one day, I read this essay by Salman Rushdie. It made me begin to think hey, there’s a way forward here.

The piece offered no grand plan to defeat Islamic extremism, no perfect insights into why they hate us. It was a more personal statement, of a kind missing at the time – and, unfortunately, mostly missing ever since in the great divide over the Iraq war – the voice of sensible cosmopolitan humanism, free of the jingoism of the right or the cravenness of the left:

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex. These are tyrants, not Muslims. (Islam is tough on suicides, who are doomed to repeat their deaths through all eternity. However, there needs to be a thorough examination, by Muslims everywhere, of why it is that the faith they love breeds so many violent mutant strains. If the West needs to understand its Unabombers and McVeighs, Islam needs to face up to its bin Ladens.) United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that we should now define ourselves not only by what we are for but by what we are against. I would reverse that proposition, because in the present instance what we are against is a no-brainer. Suicidist assassins ram wide-bodied aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and kill thousands of people: um, I'm against that. But what are we for? What will we risk our lives to defend? Can we unanimously concur that all the items in the above list -- yes, even the short skirts and dancing -- are worth dying for?

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

I wish we could say that, especially in the United States, we had followed this advice. We've made some attempts, but some of our own worst (and absolutistic) impulses were unleashed as well.

Rushdie argues in a piece today that it’s time for an Islamic reformation. The current Muslim clerical establishment is, by and large, invested in a view of the Quran and the faith as existing outside of history, immune to any understanding not of the absolutistic, revelatory kind:

It should be a matter of intense interest to all Muslims that Islam is the only religion whose origins were recorded historically and thus are grounded not in legend but in fact. The Koran was revealed at a time of great change in the Arab world, the seventh-century shift from a matriarchal nomadic culture to an urban patriarchal system. Muhammad, as an orphan, personally suffered the difficulties of this transformation, and it is possible to read the Koran as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world, a conservative plea that became revolutionary because of its appeal to all those whom the new system disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless and, yes, the orphans.

Muhammad was also a successful merchant and heard, on his travels, the Nestorian Christians' desert versions of Bible stories that the Koran mirrors closely (Christ, in the Koran, is born in an oasis, under a palm tree). It ought to be fascinating to Muslims everywhere to see how deeply their beloved book is a product of its place and time, and in how many ways it reflects the Prophet's own experiences.

However, few Muslims have been permitted to study their religious book in this way. The insistence that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical, scholarly discourse all but impossible. Why would God be influenced by the socioeconomics of seventh-century Arabia, after all? Why would the Messenger's personal circumstances have anything to do with the Message?

The traditionalists' refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages. Laws made in the seventh century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st. The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities.

Injecting this notion of historicity into Islam, of course, would be a highly dangerous enterprise. If something like this goes forward, there will be tensions, violent at times, in the dialectic between the Word-of-God absolutists and the historical contextualists, and everyone who finds himself somewhere in between. But let’s not worry about that right now, because there is effectively no “in between.”

This idea mirrors the current debates over the Bible, evolution, etc. The important point is that in the West (or the United States anyway) debates are occurring. They’re often reallllly stupid debates, but we can conduct them without blowing things up.