October 17, 2011
This is a new one. Former GOP presidential nomination frontrunner Rick Perry has come under some heat for his unconventional and frankly disturbing religious associations. These go beyond the typical guilt by association that plagues politicians who may have encountered some fringe figures in their spiritual pursuits, like Obama’s close association with the controversial and outspoken (and aptly named) Jeremiah Wright or Michele Bachmann’s with the extremely odious Bradlee Dean. I certainly believe these relationships bear scrutiny, but generally not the clutching-the-chest panic they tend to evoke from partisans. Perry, on the other hand, moved into territory that quite frankly can be described as un-American – and by such I’d mean contrary to broad agreements about American political heritage as represented in discussions and interpretations of the Constitution, and nothing more – with the massive prayer rally called “The Response” held in Texas back in August. I don’t need to belabor the obvious here about an elected representative of the people – a governor, no less – endorsing, planning, and leading an exclusive religious festival not as a private citizen but in his capacity as a public servant.
But this is interesting. Evangelist, and from what I can tell, professional crazy person Cindy Jacobs has claimed that “The Response” has lifted a curse from American soil. Part of the purpose of the “The Response” was to pray away the problems that bedevil the country, and no one could be blamed for thinking back to Perry’s earlier state proclamation to pray away the droughts and wildfires that have made Texas, as least as viewed from afar, seem as if it were a land subject to the wrath of some divine power or another. But Jacobs’s claim is new to me: she claims that the sins of the Native Americans – chiefly their cannibalism – cursed the land and that curse, until recently, was affecting the legacy of the European settlers that displaced the native population. This recalls Pat Robertson’s rather confused and contemptible assertion that it was the Haitian Revolution’s pact with the Devil to overturn the French colonial government there that had cursed the land and resulted in Haiti’s horrific earthquake. Now it’s easy to dismiss Jacobs – she’s the fringe of a rather fringe group, and her major claim to notoriety is that she’s prone to make these crazy claims, like her claim that a massive die-off of birds in Arkansas and Louisiana was due to the end of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, the military’s former policy of the forced exclusion of gays and lesbians from service. But the claim itself, and that it would find itself articulated within a specifically evangelical environment, that fascinates me.
Some ritual cannibalism was indeed practiced by Native American peoples prior to European settlements. And not long ago the anthropology community was embroiled in a rather sensational debate about the extent of the cannibalism practiced by a vanished tribe that preceded the Pueblo in the Southwest. But the weirdness here isn’t the lurid fixation with cannibalism itself, but that the sin or crime tainted not the people that practiced it so much as the land they lived on. And not the land so much as the geopolitical entity that inherits that continent.
Our culture is rife with heavily symbolic accounts of the transfer of authority over the land from Natives to Europeans, beginning with the fiction and poetry of the nineteenth century – especially Cooper’s novels and the narrative poems of Longfellow – and the trope of the Vanishing Indian, the peculiar insistence of nineteenth century Americans, including even otherwise astute and sympathetic observers like Thoreau, to insist that the Indians were already prior to the encounter with the West a dying and vanishing race, whose convenient inability to thrive and prosper allowed for European occupation of otherwise soon-to-be-vacated lands. Stories of the transfer of the land from Natives to Europeans continue through our contemporary popular culture, as in the infamous “crying Indian” ad from the 1970′s Keep America Beautiful campaign. And yet in all of those accounts, the Indian vanishes physically but retains some spiritual claim over the landscape, and either approves and guarantees the moral and inevitable nature of European settlement (as we find in Longfellow), or in the case of the TV ad, admonishes its improper stewardship of the transferred lands. Never does the transfer involve our assumption of a primal crime.
If it weren’t for Jacobs’s ties to Perry’s prayer festival and to a prophetic movement that’s become associated with his candidacy, it would be the odd notion of a negligible lunatic, and maybe it is that. But evangelical Christianity has a long history of obsession with geography and spirituality, primarily with that of the Holy Land, so I can’t discount it entirely. Neither do I know what to make of it. Part of it does seem to be a rebuke against secularism, though. If we’re going to be cursed on account of primitive (meaning first, not crude) practices on this continent, the others must be under similar burdens, unless also relieved of that curse by a specifically Christian ceremony – one that deliberate transgresses the original founding compact of the affected nation-state that distinguishes public duties from private obligations of conscience. I think it’s fairly clear here that the sin that far more concerns Jacobs than cannibalism would be the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. Secularism did not permit a sacralization of the American landscape, except in the revisionist histories that see the Constitution in some sort of pre-Bill of Rights dispensation sanctifying a Christian America before the 20th century judicial pronouncements began to pry religion and governance apart. Without that sacralization, the pagan earth that sustained the primitive inhabitants would be the same that sustains our rather shaky secular government, according to this view.
I wonder, then, if we could tie Jacobs’s claim here to the motivation behind Glenn Beck’s rather odd and uncomfortable rally in Jerusalem. The Holy Land has long functioned for evangelical Christians as an historical anchor for what they view as the inevitable and necessary transformation of the created world. It was where Jews were historically supplanted in ecclesiastical importance with Christ himself, and while it is necessary for many Christians that Jerusalem remain Jewish so that historical continuity from Jew to Christian remain forever imminent. But they’re still Jews, and the primal crimes of the land must remain still remain, in this view.
June 29, 2011
Rather than obsess on some apparent contradictions here about modesty, viewing the female body, and how competitive weightlifting is judged, I think this story should best be viewed as demonstrating the at-times remarkable elasticity of secular spaces when inclusiveness is an active virtue.
Even so, given that cultural forces governing the female body – gendered bodies in general – are almost always in conflict somewhere, I would be curious to know what conceptions of modesty would permit this accommodation from the point of view of the weightlifter – even though this is a weightlifting not a bodybuilding competition, it is still the contours of her body that are being observed and evaluated to guarantee appropriate technique even if the actual flesh is covered in tight, elastic clothing. And further, what potential conflicts within the bodybuilder’s immediate cultural milieu and not just between international sporting bodies and requirements of modesty might be involved here. That is, whose definition of modesty and its limits are being legitimized here? I suspect it’s not one that the athlete’s male religious leaders will endorse, but I could be wrong about that.
This is also an opportunity to reflect that despite the framework provided by Islam for the development of various modesty requirements, the nature and extent of those requirements, and the degree and intensity of their acceptance and enforcement has a localized cultural and community basis rather than a broad religious basis.
June 23, 2011
The notion that the 10 Commandments are the font or foundation of our contemporary legal code is largely Christianist wishful thinking. And the movement to monument-ize the twin tablets representing Moses’s transmission of the commandments comes off pretty much as cultural bullying carried out by a rather slim segment of fundamentalist Christians. This article, though written in a rather stilted fashion, elucidates much of the cultural strife that underwrites the movement as a competition between iconic texts, the Constitution for the secularists and the Decalogue for fundamentalists. Two things to note – one, the use of the Commandments as icon is relatively recent, and two, their actual content or their place within Christian theology or practice matters less to the movement than their symbolic force. I think that may explain the rather dismaying silence and even complicity of other Christian groups.
And does anyone ever pause to think about why there’s only ever faint Jewish support for these monuments despite the ostensibly shared religious culture? Although I’m not aware of any official statements from Jewish groups, anti-defamation groups tend to regard these movements in a negative light as potentially disturbing to a carefully policed secular public sphere and therefore as actually threatening.
So whenever one of the more backward states, this time Louisiana, decides to decorate the area about their courthouses with large-scale granite religious kitsch, it’s somewhat distressing if not entirely surprising. The recent efforts to place representations of the commandments in and about courts is interesting, though, for their approach. Rather than simply identify the movement with the importance of Christianity in American society, supporters tend to make a historic-cultural argument that in our largely Christian civilization the commandments have had a profound influence on the creation and support of our legal codes, and therefore the representations of the Commandments have historical, not religious, value when placed in a court. The argument based on the importance of Christianity itself to American institutions and society runs, of course, counter to constitutional prohibitions on the establishment of religion. Some applications of First Amendment law can seem a bit torturous or unclear, but not in this case – the violation is quite apparent. Hence the need for the dodge.
June 23, 2011
I finished Embassytown a little while ago, and although I don’t think I found the second half quite as enjoyable as the setup, it was still well worth the read, as a science fiction novel and as an experimentation in the literary representation of theories of language. Spoilers are certain to follow, so if you’re reading this and don’t want to disturb Mieville’s careful compartmentalization of information necessary to key plot points, then maybe try to skim to the second half where I talk about other things.
The movement in the plot revolves, as could be expected from the setup, about the descent of Mieville’s aliens, the Arikei, from Language into language – that is, from Mieville’s version of a natural, Adamic language in which signs and referents have an untroubled and concrete link and into our everyday communication with its abstract nouns, heavily figurative modes of communication, and ambiguity. And that descent gets characterized as the transition from simile, a characterization of similarity between two unlike things, to metaphor, an assertion of identity between them. That the transition gets expressed as a shift in these uses of figurative language was hardly surprising given the status of the novel’s main character as a Simile, and given the fascination of so many theories of language with metaphor as language’s central problem, generator of new meanings, and source of its literary or creative dimension. At one point in her life the novel’s protagonist was commissioned to act out a cryptic playlet so that her existence could guarantee that of a new word used for the basis of comparison, thus expanding the vocabulary of Language while retaining its insistence on concrete one-to-one reference. From there, the Arikei, for their survival in the novel, must learn to assert their fundamental identity with the human girl and thereby learn to lie, as they are not human, for the sake of larger metaphorical truths, that both are sentient races, etc.
I was a little surprised, though, that the transition was from simile to metaphor, primarily because we tend to regard the two figures as close to interchangeable – most taxonomies of figurative language class simile as a poorer subset of the larger field of metaphor. Metaphors and metonymy would be a more common juxtaposition over the past century, due to the influence of the same structural linguistics that provides Mieville with the physical laws, and their lapses, of his fictional universe. I think I was hoping to see some of that because Mieville’s representation in the text of the novel of the double-tongued speech of the Arikei has the utterance of one mouth placed beneath a horizontal bar with the utterance of the other on top, and that reminded me so much of Roman Jakobson’s representation of the interaction between two symbolic systems that so much informs the literary-theoretical understanding of metonymy and metaphor.
June 13, 2011
An interesting controversy. And a ridiculous decision on the part of FIFA, the international governing body of professional soccer – well, football as they call it. Basically, just before the Iranian women’s team was set to play an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan last week, they were disqualified for wearing uniforms that might cause the players injuries – that is, for wearing an athletic version of headscarves. The international uproar isn’t helping the already scandal-plagued organization.
I think the case is worth noting because headscarf bans in general get promoted as potentially liberating for the women that they affect, but the liberation of those women is never what actually prompts the bans or serves as their goal, and in fact the bans generally serve to perpetuate or further restrictions on the freedom of those women. I think that’s quite clear in the FIFA case.
Rather than ban the headscarves, it’s more productive, I would think, for those that believe the scarves to be an expression of the oppression of women to advocate instead for the use of headscarves so that women who feel compelled to cover their hair in public can participate as much as possible in public life, and thereby see and experience how other women and other cultures negotiate the demands of modesty and public display. Otherwise, as we see from the FIFA example, they quite literally cannot participate, and therefore forfeit any advancement they may have potentially made on behalf of their gender.
In any case, Fast Company’s Co.Design blog reports on an elegant solution – and what I believe should be the desirable outcome in the situation: a sleekier, even more athletic hijab being offered by ResportOn, a company established by designer Elham Seyed Javad to respond to this very need.
The sports hijab was apparently initially inspired by a taekwondo ban on female Muslims wearing a headscarf beneath a regulation helmet. These are the advancements which serve global civil liberties in the 21st century. If FIFA is able to find this acceptable – and that’s by no means given since the reasons for banning the hijab initially aren’t fully clear and likely more about cultural bigotry or the desire to make women’s soccer more like beach volleyball – but if they do, soccer and sport in general advances, religious liberties advance, personal freedom advances, so does women’s liberation, and finally so does secularism. Hurray! If not, well, we’re in this for the long haul.
May 29, 2011
Now I can’t really claim any expertise in the appropriate application of the Constitution’s establishment clause, but as a supporter and critic of secularism, I do have my sympathies for certain directions in its application. And so I find the court right in its determination here.
The case concerns efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to control the content of a prayer given at a Memorial Day event at Houston National Cemetery. Reverend Scott Rainey has twice given a prayer at the event sponsored by the National Cemetery Council for Greater Houston, but this year the VA requested to see the prayer Rainey was giving in advance of the ceremony. The director of the cemetery objected to the prayer, which included the Lord’s Prayer and ended by giving thanks to Jesus Christ, on the grounds that it was “specific to one belief.” Upon being asked to keep his prayer “general” and “nondenominational,” Rainey filed suit. A judge has granted Rainey a temporary restraining order that prevents the VA from interfering with Rainey’s prayer on Monday, effectively deciding the case in Rainey’s favor.
The grounds for the VA’s objections are fairly clear – a) while the ceremony is being sponsored by a private trade organization, the Houston National Cemetery is a public space, and a federal one no less, and therefore resolutely secular, and b) while the prayer and the ceremony are clearly intended to honor all the dead, not all soldiers are Christian, and the families and intimates of those non-Christian dead would rightfully feel those they hold in remembrance somewhat excluded from the full honor the ceremony confers. Rainey’s objection is likewise clear: for him the notion that his prayer would not end in an evocation of thanks to Jesus is somewhat inconceivable. It’s the mention of Jesus, one might say, in Rainey’s case that makes it a prayer.
Secularism or freedoms need not be a zero-sum game. Freedoms for and from religion when expressed need not mean that someone else has less of it him or herself. But in this case there does seem to be a conflict between the rights of those who honor and remember the non-Christian soldiers buried at Houston and Rainey’s right to express himself according to the dictates of his conscience. I think Rainey’s rights trump here because of a limited success, we might say, of secularism. Honoring the dead has few secular analogues; cross-culturally the behavior is fundamentally religious. Religion and its expressions are inherently sectarian. To a certain extent it’s pleasing to believe that there are certain basic spiritual beliefs and practices that we all share and that could form a basis for a “general” and “nondenominational” service, but common grounds only exist where previous accommodations to the religions of other cultures with which one comes into account have been made – and of course to religions that bear strong family resemblances. Protestant Christianity finds that it can tolerate accommodations to Catholic and to Jewish faiths at increasing degrees of attenuation. Muslim, sure. Hindu faith? Buddhist? Animist? Atheist? Here our notions of religious practice begin to break down as we attempt to conceive how those accommodations might take place. Philosophically it is possible to connect Hindu and Christian godheads in terms of a variety of shared characteristics, but approaches to prayer, honoring the dead, etc., don’t have close analogs.* And with Buddhism we continue further out.
May 24, 2011
The resilience in forcing the subject of an incremental progressive change and the adept use of social media in ensuring that the message is clearly and consistently in view throughout the media coverage are both laudable.
Manal al-Sherif has been arrested, released, and then re-arrested for attempting to drive as a woman in Saudi Arabia. Her driving and the resulting arrest come in the context of a very successful Facebook page and accompanying video on YouTube (image above) making the case for allowing women the right to drive and asking women to make the attempt jointly on June 17th. The Facebook page has not only encouraged supporters but also a large, vociferous backlash against the effort, making al-Sherif’s efforts double courageous.
Interesting enough from an American perspective, there are no actual laws against women driving in Saudi Arabia. Instead the act is forbidden by religious fatwa that is nonetheless enforced by the civil authorities. Al-Sherif has apparently been sentenced to five days in jail on multiple charges.
April 19, 2011
Here’s part one. And sadly I think there will need to be a part 3. Plus an additional post specifically on the whole Sharia law paranoia that’s gripped the imagination of the not-particularly-intelligent-or-imaginative. The whole thing is so long, and the arguments against Islam addressed so baseless, that you may very well want to wait until part three is ready, but I had to write this to get it down before moving on to more compelling arguments. It might be useful background at points for someone interested in but not fully engaged in arguments about secularism, secularization, and religions in the public sphere.
So here goes.
Secularism is a product of social developments in Protestant Europe and the political thinking that prodded and was prodded by them. At first a way for competing Christian persuasions to get along, it became an integral component to modernization, liberalization, and the development of the individual self as the primary arena of moral conflict and suasion, and it never quite lost its mooring in the Protestant ethics of individual choice and progress toward perfection. It is this vaporous religious substance trailing secularism that allows Robert Bellah to diagnose the presence in American civic life the persistence of an attenuated Protestantism that he calls America’s “civil religion” and that remains in the public sphere, for good or for ill, in subtle tension with our Constitutional tradition of resisting any appearance of the establishment of an official state religion.
In the non-Western world, a key question for some time after the ebb of colonialism has been whether secularism is irredeemably a Western phenomenon – requiring too much of a Protestant worldview and ethic to be adaptable to other contexts – or whether its principles have become sufficiently general and universal that they might prove beneficial to all societies. My personal feeling is more the latter than the former, but I’m not going to get into that now. Instead I want to examine the recent liveliness of the other side of the question. One of the unexpected if now unremarkable consequences of the ebb of colonialism is the thorough cosmopolitanism of the West. And this is no longer a purely urban phenomenon, though it is certainly most concentrated and relatively problem-free in more urban areas. The question being asked now, in a variety of registers and with a various sophistication, is whether secularism can accommodate the non-Protestant.
Well, yes, of course it can. The two major problems for American secularism have been Catholicism and Judaism, and we seem to have reached a point where despite occasional difficulties, Jews and Catholics are largely considered citizens without much suspicion that the Catholic is under the authority of the foreign power of the Vatican or that the Jew places ethnicity higher than civic authority. But these religions were well in place in the Western world before our colonial adventures. What’s prompting the question now is the realization that Islam is a presence in American communities and the perception of Islam elsewhere as a geopolitical problem for the project of secularization. So is Islam here in America a threat to our secularism?
I think the instant response for most is that any answer yes to the question must be driven by Islamaphobic bigotry, and by and large that would be right. The always odious Bryan Fisher, for example, has stated that Islam does not qualify for First Amendment rights of the free exercise of religion because when the Bill of Rights was written solely to protect Christianity and its various observances. And that’s such obvious ignorance and distortion. It’s quite clear that the authors of the Bill of Rights and its antecedents had a conception of religion in general very much in line with our contemporary conception of religion as a cultural phenomenon variously expressed throughout all human societies, and that quite literally First Amendment protections encompassed, as Thomas Jefferson once put it, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Another of these recently emerged and easily dismissed attempts to place Islam outside of the pale is the notion that Islam is not a religion, but instead is a political cult with a theology, “a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion,” according to Tennessee’s dimwitted Lieutenant Governor and failed candidate for the Tennessee GOP nod for the governor’s race. The Tea Party favorite was speaking in response to the shameful efforts of some Tennesseans to prevent the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s entirely possible to view Christianity in exactly the same manner. In fact, one of Carl Schmitt’s primary contributions to political philosophy is his notion that the entire modern state is a Christian political cult, in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” And violence is of course in modernity exclusively the legitimate domain of that state.
Regardless of one’s take on Schmitt’s notions of sovereignty, it’s not far off the mark to note that secularism itself as a secularization of Protestant theological concepts would mean that its refusal to accommodate, well, any form of religious expression might have to do more with the political continuation of Christianity than anything else, regardless of what happens outside the historical bounds of Christendom.
But I digress. Religion like so many human endeavors doesn’t afford tidy definitions, nor do all religions boil down to a specific set of categorical behaviors – the insistence, for instance, on confessional beliefs as the defining core of religious expression (“If you are X religion, then what do you believe?”) is itself a primarily Protestant concern fairly unintelligible in other religious contexts. So we assign the term religion instead according to family-likenesses of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, and in that arrangement Islam is clearly a religion, and quite resembles its older cousins Christianity and Judaism.
Religion plays an important role in societies, in their culture, and certainly in their politics, but religion is not integral to either society nor culture, even if it may seem at times not completely distinguishable. And Islam, like its cousins Christianity and Judaism, is what we term a “world” religion – a religion that is sufficiently free from cultural and ethical markers to be exportable to other groups, situations, and societies. And it has done so. There is no single Islamic politics, though there may be and are many approaches to politics that come with some Islamic rhetoric attached. Which makes it no different than Christianity or Judaism.
If it is in truth a religion and not a political cult, maybe it’s a religion with a significant enough difference from Christian sects or Judaism that would make it untenable in a secular society. That’s the approach seems to be the lowest common denominator in the recent flare-ups of Islamophobia, the most recent and prominent expression of it coming from Herman Cain, one of the many less-than-serious candidates for the G.O.P. presidential nomination for 2012. He stated, when asked why he’s uncomfortable around Muslims, that based on his “limited knowledge” of the religion he believes “they have an objective to convert all infidels or kill them” – that they have the First Amendment right to practice their religion, but that they are a unique threat because of a drive to enforce their way of life on everyone else.
I’m sure Muslims welcome conversion. Everyone would like to see others brought over to their point of view, particularly if they believe that point of view to offer considerable spiritual benefits. And every group is engaged in a political struggle at some level to place demands upon the public to further a specific spiritual agenda, hence the continual back-and-forth in the public sphere between Christian fundamentalism and secularists. There are points, then, when I wonder to what extent and at what points is secularism merely a political strategy of realism and achievable goals. Let’s take American groups that are aggressive proselytizers (which Muslims are not): Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, both groups which have significantly higher numbers than American Muslims. Is it the secular modus vivendi that prevents them from threatening violent action against reluctant converts? If anything, I think that the relative lack of proselytizing efforts on behalf of American Muslims may be due to the perception that they would then be likely on the receiving end of the ensuing violence.
So, to sum up: the arguments that Muslims cannot participate in a modern secular liberal state because a) secularism never intended for the presence of Islam, b) Islam is not a religion, or c) that Islam is constitutionally incapable of participating in secular society are all quite unfounded, at least to the extent that any of these arguments would distinguish Islam as particularly unsuitable. And certainly to address these issues seems a bit pointless, as anyone who knows – even casually – American Muslims on a personal level recognizes that these objections are groundless and largely based in ignorance and hysterical fear.
But that brings me to what I’ll address in part 3. Although the arguments above don’t hold water, I do find the argument worth considering if ultimately not compelling that secularism itself as currently configured is deficient in accommodating the presence of Muslim communities.
April 10, 2011
One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.
A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.
So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.
When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.
At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.
I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.
We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”
I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.
Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.
April 2, 2010
This is William Blake’s “Holy Thursday” from Songs of Innocence:
’Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey headed beadles walk’d before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow
O what a multitude they seem’d these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands
Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door
The poem refers to the annual London ritual of bringing the children of the charity schools to St. Paul on Holy Thursday. The charity schools housed and trained – educated not being exactly the right word here – orphans and children whose parents were too poor or entrapped in debt, which at the time involved lengthy prison stays, to care for them. The ritual was to display on the behalf of the London citizenry their civic virtue of Christian charity, and as well I’d imagine the ritual would serve as a living metaphor for each citizen’s fragile metaphysical state and dependence upon the grace and charity of the Church and Savior.
Blake’s ironic take is to show the powerless children from the lowest economic and social status in full possession of a strong spiritual import and power, though he tempers those “harmonious thunderings” at the end when he turns from bends the “mighty wind” of the children’s song into a tepid sentimentality about children as angels and beggars at one’s door.
The consideration of those efforts to turn innocent spiritual power into cheap profit produces the companion poem, same title, in Songs of Experience:
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!
And their sun does never shine,
And their fields are bleak and bare,
And their ways are filled with thorns:
It is eternal winter there.
For where’er the sun does shine,
And where’er the rain does fall,
Babes should never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.
The children, the poem insists, are victims of a usurious scheme to cheaply cloth and house them while they’re trained to feed industrial London’s insatiable appetite for child labor. Blake wants us to see the ill treatment of the children as an affront to the holiness of the ritual’s occasion. Charity schools were parish concerns, though maintained largely not for spiritual reasons so much as for the benefit of a public sentiment that would prefer to see the children used to generate some profit, and not, as Blake would have it, simply bask and grow while sheltered in the relative security of England’s wealth. Or at the least not be traumatized by poverty and enslavement, because children occupy a special place of holiness in Christianity: they are powerless and becoming. In Blake that lack of power and the blessing on it becomes a particular kind of power — a harmony and a wind or a river — when viewed as a representative ideal.
Just that. I was moved to look back at Blake’s poems because of the day and because of the horrifying response of defenders of the Catholic Church, and now the Vatican itself, to the growing scandal surrounding Pope Benedict. I’m not going to get into it, except to say that I find efforts to blame the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests on gays or hippies to be the most craven, low, and amoral kind of response. But if want to read about the depth to which the Church has sunk and its defenders are willing to, you can go here and keep reading. I think if we keep the day at all, we should think about the moral obligation of those whose dependency places them in our trust and the particular power they have to sanctify or condemn. And now look, it’s Good Friday.