Warraq Reminds Us of What We Forget

This week, Ibn Warraq, a Muslim dissident, argues in Spiegel: “The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience.” He contrasts the cultures – “the west needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies who keep their women in subjection.”

Well, now the Norwegian Embassy as well as the Danish one has been torched in Damascus; in Beirut not only has the Danish embassy been attacked but the Maronite Catholic church has been stoned; in Gaza, the EU offices have been attacked. Americans are often seen as geographically & culturally challenged, but four-month-old graphics in a Danish newspaper seem only tangentially “punished” by stones to a church in Beirut or raids on EU offices in Gaza. So, we take stock of what we believe, we define our differences. For, surely they see us as “one” because we share the values of the open marketplace of ideas. We optimistically & confidently assume our beliefs can withstand satire & continue to sustain us. And they share, what, a profound sense that anything anywhere that is skeptical or critical of their faith wounds them at their core.

This was eloquently put by Ahmed Younis, national director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in his interview with Jeffrey Brown on Lehrer Thursday. But his eloquence assumes much we do not accept. Our intense individualism may be the base, but we at once value the right of others to disagree and feel that satire & disagreement will not affect us if we are in the right. We cherish our ability to make our own decisions and hold our own values independent of the external, of others.

Stephan Richter respectfully rebuts, concluding:

And, you know, we agree on the principles but not on the application because you still maintain there is one religion that has a higher standard because of its self-perception over all others and can establish a global standard and on that basis it won’t work.

On a show beamed toward the west, Younis ends with assertions that Muslim tolerance is in the tradition Richter defined:

And I think the majority of Muslims would agree with that. And our track record is clear, whether it is the Taliban with Buddhist temples or attacks against Christian communities in Muslim countries, we’re very consistent, religious freedom is for everyone, not just for ourselves.

But such words lose their eloquence when we realize what, exactly, they are meant to represent: when we consider that track record. (A problematic one currently reiterated in “Three Pillars of Wisdom: Finding our footing where lunacy looms large”, VDHanson’s latest.)

As Warraq notes, the treatment of women is central to the two approaches. Of course, these are old notions. We are so obviously body: tainted & fecund, natural & unpredictable, messy. Thoreau is critical of the children and chaotic life of John Field; ah, if they but lived as he did – but we notice Thoreau has none of the demands of family. Some of us doubt that still, quiet pond is a sufficient comfort & see Fields enjoying that baby on his knee or fishing with his son. But Thoreau is right; these demands leave Field less contemplative, less able to master his world, less devoted to the pure absolutes that become blurred, compromised by messy particulars. Sure, we understand Thoreau and, sometimes, envy him. If the burkhas and the suicide bombers, the rote learning of the Madrassas and the hidden life of the messy nursery seem shadowed & lifeless, they also reflect a simplicity we find attractive–surprisingly not unlike that of a Shaker chair.

This is a narrow world, gained at great cost. And a vulnerable one. To be never threatened by the unexpected, the parody, the doubting is not to live – at least not to live in a world governed by nature and populated by others. And, of course, uncertainty is the nature of women, of children, of life. A society that hides and denigrates its women is likely to have little realistic honor of the “life force” – the powerful, messy, regenerative, procreative.

Death transcends messiness. The suicide bombers tell us they do not fear death. Those deeply offended by images & the existence of any non-believer are willing to risk death to assert those ordered & consistent values which give them purpose, define their lives. Surely those with a core belief that requires blanket reverence by others must be constantly on edge, demanding greater and greater assurance that such peace will not be challenged. As women remain, well, women – tempting even in a burkha – then the “other” remains the other, doubting even in silence, troubling even at a distance. So, hiding the other, wiping off the earth embassies, bat mitzvahs brings only momentary peace. Only death itself is stasis. (And burial needs to be quick.)

But the west’s approach is troubled as well. Warraq continues: “How can we expect immigrants to integrate into western society when they are at the same time being taught that the west is decadent, a den of iniquity, the source of all evil, racist, imperialist and to be despised?” He nudges us with the other half of the cartoon dilemma. The cartoons, like 9/11, make us reassess the values we take for granted.

Perhaps our irritation with “Piss Christ” and hundreds of other minor & silly incidents–often meant as provocations and called art–should have been stronger. We should have been more willing to assert an appropriate anger that what we valued—religion or culture or history or sex or merely human dignity—was trashed. We knew our willingness to allow another’s speech did not mean accepting content. Still, whether it was a rap song about “whores” or a painting showing contempt for the symbols of a faith or the vulgarity of performance art or the “issues” history that left fact behind or the trivializing of great works of art, we became uncomfortable. And we found it easier to distance ourselves – to discuss “meaning” while avoiding the quite accessible meaning. We could play these games, but we were (and we knew we were) ignoring many an elephant in the middle of many a room. We distanced ourselves from the values the critics or artists or merely rebellious trounced, arguing those were somehow different from what we believed.

I suspect this tension may be in part what the study Michael Hiteshew discussed earlier found. We are quite good at rationalizing, at saying our candidate really meant something quite different. Or of saying that the other side is contradictory within itself, is meaningless. We can only do that so long before we accept nothing as meaning and meaning as nothing. The tension between honoring & respecting our core values and honoring & accepting the right of others to mock & criticize requires considerable mental effort, considerable restraint. Sometimes we are just, well, lazy. Many of us, in our society which so honors both, thought around them, eventually forgetting the values as the circles went farther and farther afield. Out there, distanced, neither contempt nor the value seemed really important.

We became people who didn’t find ourselves – our values – worthy. And I suspect, again, attitudes toward women are a pretty good barometer. What is our value? And certainly that messiness, again, makes the body problematic. At the turn of the century, several writers discuss this at length (Kate Chopin-the mother of six-& Henry Adams perhaps most profoundly). The mind, the ego, the self – all these are captured, contained, compromised by the domestic, the demands of motherhood. And so, the messiness of life is arraigned against the individual will that wants to assert an order, a will on a recalcitrant nature. But others (ironically the gay & childless Willa Cather, the laconic Edgar Lee Masters, the mythic Faulkner) while acknowledging chaos also find joy in the power of messy, procreative nature, of unpredictable, generative women. But Adams’ description of ours, the most sexless society in history, seemed more true the more sex seemed to move to the center.

Values held while mocked, willed identity that also accepts the compromises of domesticity, were hard to sustain. Perhaps it is the very openness of our culture to those cartoons that have led to a loss of will. The west, having accepted the importance of free exchange and of skepticism, has also been clearly if unconsciously making its own choices. A continent that feels no need to either defend nor reproduce itself, a large & powerful country whose citizens dwell upon their unworthiness to hold the reins of such power – these, too, are people who have turned from life.

Last week, I was struck by a quite young & quite conservative columnist, Nathanael Blake, whose “Pro-Life on Campus” was at Town Hall: “The difference is that the West does not contemplate suicide with violence, but with the caresses of impotent copulation. The dream of barren sexuality is a dream of death.” For that has been the dream of the west & the dream of the twentieth century. (And with modern science, as with so much, we are offered complex choices. Surely, birth control is a good – but our worship of barren sexuality denies the greatest of affirmations.)

This Muslim dissident looks us (and himself, for the “we” is his birthright and the core of these western values) in the eye; Warraq says this ship must not sink for its loss would be a tragedy beyond our own boundaries: “When the Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square (in 1989), they brought with them not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty.” The weight Winthrop placed on his followers reappears, yet again. Our responsibility is for something larger than we are; that open marketplace is not ours but the great gift our culture (a culture well worth defending) gives to all.

Warraq concludes: “Freedom of expression is our western heritage and we must defend it or it will die from totalitarian attacks. It is also much needed in the Islamic world. By defending our values, we are teaching the Islamic world a valuable lesson, we are helping them by submitting their cherished traditions to Enlightenment values.”

The task is not easy: to retain values shelled daily while respecting criticism of that very core. This is the choice of openness over closure, real values over cynicism, engagement over solipsism. Nor can we leave those values vulnerable in the marketplace of ideas. As we develop defenses, what may seem an endless task will also be exhilaratinga: we often find their true value in the heat of that defense.

Many of us have found our voices in the last few years. Attacks clarify; despite the tragedy of destroyed embassies & stoned churches the “cartoon war” helps us define both the respect our coarsened culture seldom feels and the high value we place on freedom of speech, separation of church & state, separation of speech & government. So, we defend both our values and our willingness to see them challenged. That is, if we want to choose life.

Thanks to A&L. & Kersten for the Spiegel icon.