(This is an essay I constructed some time ago, for the Daily Brief – but in light of ongoing events in the Middle East is still quite relevant, and worthy of being recycled to a larger audience.)
The pufferfish is an odd little creature with mostly poisonous flesh, which has developed as a primary defense, the ability to inflate itself in order to appear larger to predators. In addition, the spiny pufferfish is covered all over it’s body with short bony barbs. In full defense mode, it looks like nothing so much as a small spiky ball, a sort of aquatic porcupine, attempting to look larger and more combative, more dangerous than it actually is. I was reminded of these qualities a some years ago, when I read something apropos of an Islamic hissy-fit over Pope Benedicts’ mildly stated observation as regards violence and Islam. I am not quite sure where I read it, or anything but the general thrust of the suggestion, which was in a way, revolutionary.
What if Islam is not a strong, vibrant and attractive faith, growing like some sort of theological kudzu, sweeping all before it? What if it is actually a hollow construct, under stress from a number of directions, seeming strong but in reality fragile, riven throughout with tiny cracks, and teetering on the edge of implosion? What if the frequent explosions of violence at the slightest of critical voices were not a demonstration of power and strength, but of tamped-down fear … fear that if the orthodoxy is questioned or defied, then the whole construct will come crashing down in ruins? What if the whole structure of Islam is actually shivering on its foundations, and the whole bloody-handed constellation of imams and ayatollahs, of shaheeds and jihadists know and fear that, down in the pit of their souls? That the whole thing is a sham, based on the maunderings of a desert bandit, pulled from bits of this or that, for his own aggrandizement? What if the whole jihad against the West is the last spectacular lashing out of those who know in their hearts that if the roots of Islam are ever questioned, then doubt will set in, and the whole edifice come crashing down… and that quietly, here and there, the faithful are slipping away, and ever more would join them but for the threat of death for apostasy.
This is an interesting train of thought; as Eric Hoffer pointed out decades ago in his study of fanatical belief, “The True Believer”… a certain sort of fanatic is driven by secret doubts of his or her own abilities or qualities. The most violently inclined towards homosexuals, for example, may be someone who may in their deepest and most private part of the mind feel homosexual urges, and is then shamed and horrified by them. The most virulent advocate of racial superiority, for example, may be the one who at heart has doubts about himself … and reacts with special brutality against a member of what is viewed as a lesser race who yet exemplifies more superior qualities than himself. For myself, I have always observed that someone who was entirely comfortable in themselves and in their deeply-held beliefs was not threatened by someone who did not share them… and certainly not threatened enough to erupt in threats and violence.
Ages ago, I read Bernard Lewis’ “The Roots of Moslem Rage”, when it first was published in “Atlantic Magazine. I made a total pest of myself to my friends, because I ran around with my tattered copy (this was at about the start of the first Gulf War) saying “See… this is what makes them so angry with us!!!” It seemed only the sensible, empathetic way of looking at it then, and still does now: that the Islamic world, once so powerful, glorious, famed for tolerance, scholarship and culture, was diminished and shattered. That men who had been told all their lives that they were the righteous and blessed, should look around and see that their world was diminished, powerless and ridden by disease and ignorance, and should at once seek for a reason that this should be the way of things, that there should be a reason for this. And of course, it is always easier to find a reason: the rich and powerful should be so because they had cheated, or were empowered by Satan. There could not possibly be any fault in Islam or in those who followed the faith most perfectly for they were chosen and favored by God, in being submissive to him. It was entirely understandable to me, with a great deal of sympathy and regret, that of course, those who thought themselves so chosen must be looking around and observing that most of the lands where Islam ruled were plagued with poverty, disease, ignorance and autocrats. Even those in the Middle East who sat on a lot of oil reserves were not in all that much better a shape. Only so much can be imported and paid for with oil money.
Being carefully raised in the Lutheran tradition and somewhat of a history nut as well, I had been schooled in the history of the Protestant Reformation. I knew very well how the great unified fortress of the medieval Catholic Church began fracturing once the Bible began to be translated from Latin into the various vernaculars spoken across Europe. It was revolutionary not just because ordinary people could read it for themselves, without the intercession of a priestly authority… but because a great many clever people had to sit down and work out for themselves exactly what each word, each phrase, each sentence actually meant. Ambiguities had to be resolved, alternate versions of varying antiquity had to be consulted. There’s nothing like a translation for thrashing out meaning from a text. The authority and power of one holy, catholic and apostolic church shattered on the rock of textual analysis … something that might be starting to happen with the Koran. I read a fascinating article about the work of Christoph Luxemberg, his analysis of Koranic texts and his dangerous speculation about various possible sources in Aramaic. (link to article here. More on that topic here.)
But according to Moslem orthodoxy, the Koran may not be translated, examined, analyzed… merely accepted whole and entire, memorized and recited. For what dangerous heresies and doubts might emerge then? Might the Islamic faith militant, exemplified by Bin Laden and his merry chums, sympathizers and apologists be ridden by a secret terror of their own… that Islam is not growing, powerful, and omnipotent, but flawed at the root, and dying by degrees… a dangerous-looking but essentially hollow show, like the pufferfish? Is it a hollow faith, crumbling by insidious degrees, as it’s commonly assumed tenents are being examined in the spirit of skeptical scholarship? The ferocious reaction to any departure from orthodoxy suggests that the most fanatical believers may fear so, very deeply. Even the scholar of linguistics, Christoph Luxemberg, in his study of influences of the Aramaic language on the Koran must publish under a pseudonym… for his suggestion that translations of the Koran must consider the Aramaic in teasing out exact meanings is as explosive as what devotees of the Prophet strap about themselves, or pack into automobiles as their response to the insults of another extant belief system. And again, the violent response suggests that something more is going on here, something deep and dangerous… but the very violence of the response is enough to make a curious person wonder why… Why so touchy?
Some years ago, NPR aired another one of those poor-mouthing stories about the sad plight of Hispanic female converts to Islam and how they must cope with family disapproval, and—horrors! How people look at them funny when they wear a headscarf! NPR seems to love this sort of story, they bang on (and on, and on and on!) about the Poor Muslim having to Cope In Heartlessly Hostile America about as often as they do about the Poor Palestinians Having to Cope with the Brutal Israeli Occupation, demanding our sympathies as if their listening audience were some sort of psychic ATM… swipe the story-card through the slot, here’s another twenty bucks worth of Sympathy for the Chosen Victim Class. I’d love to hear a story, for once about Amish or Mennonite women having to endure other people giving them the stink-eye because of their somewhat distinctive and defiantly old-fashioned dress-sense, but that’s just me. And I am also left to wonder… what about converts from Islam?
I googled that topic, when I originally drafted this essay; “Islam+converts+from” and got a couple of stories and a query “Do you mean “Converts to Islam”? Well, no, I meant exactly what I typed in… but considering that conversion from Islam means a death sentence as an apostate… talk about a story that most major news media don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole, and a subject which converts themselves would also mainly prefer to remain untouched. Since exposure as a convert means the death penalty for apostasy, one can hardly blame such converts for being extremely circumspect. Missionaries and ministers to converts also must feel the same need for a similarly subterranean profile… but there are still a trickle of accounts and witnesses, mostly from religious organizations. A story which intrigued me when I first read it was about conversions to Christianity among the Berbers of Algeria… that very quietly, many local Berbers were rejecting Islam as a horrific death cult; in fact, they were reclaiming their heritage as Christians, which they had been up until the Moslem conquests of the 8th century. (St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica was a Berber Christian.)
There is currently a Christian evangelist in Iran, currently under a death sentance. Some years past there was briefly famous Afghan convert, and a handful of others, leaving one to wonder how many other converts there are in the shadows, seeking no notice of themselves for fear of being murdered. One also wonders how many outwardly conforming Moslems have quietly declared apostasy in their hearts, going through the outward motions for the sake of their families and a bit of peace and quiet, or have moved to another city, or country and just let the whole thing lapse. There’s probably no way to work out the numbers, but it is food for thought.
Especially since life under a strict Wahabi Islamic rule seems desperately unappealing: Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban and Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors looked more like a sort of religious concentration camp, with every pleasure in life, small and large being banned, constrained and forced underground.
This is only a speculation, a working out of various themes and memes in my own mind. But it is different way to look at the whole structure of Islam, and a way to account for the hostility on display every time the followers of the Prophet feel disregarded and to have been offended. Might it possibly be that the disporportionate reactions among the Moslem faithful are those of frightened men who feel power trickling out of their fingers, like grains from a handful of sand?