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The Incoherence

Washington Diarist

Everywhere I turn, I meet opinions about Islam. I confess that I do not have one myself. I am not sure how to form one. The notion itself seems a little fatuous. Since I know what it is to know a tradition, I know what it is not to know a tradition. I read the Koran a long time ago, and like all scriptures that are read as if they are books this scripture left me respectfully bewildered. In my studies of medieval Jewish philosophy, I was introduced to the mutakallimun: I never quite got a fix on the highly active intellects of Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina, but I pondered avidly the clash between the wild unreason of Al-Ghazali and the wild reason of Ibn-Rushd, between The Incoherence of the Philosophers and The Incoherence of the Incoherence. In Ibn Khaldun I found more intellectual grandeur than in almost any medieval work that I knew. Massignon's volumes on Al-Hallaj were as exciting as anything in Scholem. But that (and a few standard works of history) is about it. All these sources I read in translation. I do not possess any of the languages in which Islam lives. I have no way of knowing what is happening in the madrassas. The true peace that stole upon me one afternoon at the Sultan Hassan mosque in Cairo was just a kindness to a stranger. And yet I have no interest in the public intellectuals—are there any private intellectuals?—swarming around the cameras and the opinion pages now, peddling the surahs that accord with their politics. I recognize this trawling through a tradition for edification and expedience from my own community. But a religion cannot be adequately comprehended from the standpoint of politics, not even a politicized religion. Anyway, every great religion must give sustenance to every kind of soul, and so must contain everything. I have never heard of a religion that does not prohibit murder, and I have never heard of a religion that has not justified murder.

BUT THIS CANNOT be the end of the matter. If I cannot have a conviction about Islam, I can have a conviction about murder. And I do not have to master Arabic or Farsi or Urdu or Pashto to grasp that there is a current in Islam that is furiously justifying and planning and committing murder. No, it was not Islam that took the towers down; but it was not Episcopalianism, either. The terrorists are waging a war of ideas, and the ideas upon which they are acting are ideas in the Islamic tradition. This seems perfectly plain. But it is not perfectly plain: there are those who wish to deny the religious character of Al Qaeda's violence, so as to transform bin Ladenism into another variety of anti-colonial protest. Thus Tariq Ali, in the hilarious October 4 issue of the London Review of Books, the one with the parade of progressive professors adrift in an ether of representations and signifiers, has referred to the butchers in New York as "propagandists of the deed," so as to cleanse them of their embarrassingly theological reasons and to confer upon them the profane glamour of revolution, of Bakunin and Berkman and Vautrin and Hyacinth Robinson—a Western aura for the adversaries of the West. Must it really be pointed out that Mohammed Atta and his colleagues were not animated by an inflamed secularism, that they were not driven to their crime by a hatred of tyrannical government? But nothing changes a regressive creed into a progressive creed so quickly as the appearance within it of antiAmericanism. Despise the United States and you can despise your women, too.

BUT THIS ALSO cannot be the end of the matter. Osama bin Laden may be fighting a religious war against the United States, but the United States is not fighting a religious war against Osama bin Laden. Much has been written recently about the essential difference between the fundamentalist dispensation in religion and the American dispensation in religion. They tolerate only those who believe in God as they do, but we tolerate also those who do not believe in God as we do. This is certainly the case; but it is philosophically and historically imprecise. We tolerate also those who do not believe in God at all. This is not a war about how to pray, it is a war about how to live. There are godless and godful Americans in uniform being deployed in Central Asia, and they have been dispatched to those punishing places to act on behalf of a wounded society for which metaphysics is not a condition for justice. Sometimes, indeed, metaphysics is an impediment to justice. The history of warfare demonstrates this: the just wars have generally not been the religious wars.

IT IS TRUE that the American innovation in religion has been to call democracy divine. "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free": is there a more perfect expression of the New World's improvement upon the Old World than the equation between holiness and freedom in the concluding stanza of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"? The anthem has been moistening many eyes in the weeks since the black day. My own eyes included, and I do not believe that he died to make men holy. So it is worth remembering that the religious motive for democracy holds only for the religious, and we are not all religious, and we are all democratic. I would say even this: democracy understood as obedience to God is democracy misunderstood. Democracy represents a rupture in the theological account of authority. It promotes the reality of freedom over the explanation of freedom. Did God make us free? There are those who think so. But if we are free, then we are free also against God. And for this reason, too, let us die to make men free.

SUCH IRRELIGIOUS (but not anti-religious) thoughts are more practical than they seem. In the current discussion of Islam and politics, two possibilities are proposed for the societies of the Islamic world. Against the indecent religious thinking of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, expert after expert testifies to the decent religious thinking of other figures in contemporary Islam. Does this Koranic verse enjoin war? Then that Koranic verse enjoins peace. The unchallenged premise of both sides in this debate is that the social and political arrangements of the Islamic world must forever establish themselves in holy writ. There is rule by radical imams and there is rule by moderate imams. What about rule by no imams at all? In Turkey, in Iran, in Egypt, in Pakistan, in Jordan, in Indonesia, and elsewhere, there are many men and women who wish only to get on with a free and prosperous life, and who are prepared to endure the dislocations of the liberal rupture. Those dislocations are severe, even if we no longer recall them vividly in the West; and the fundamentalisms of the Islamic world may be understood as an attempt to avoid them at all costs. The sanctity-soaked reactionaries are desperate to persuade their societies that modernization is apocalypse. (In this respect, their dogma does not differ significantly from the dogma of certain academic theorists that modernization is imperialism.) Now they will try to persuade their societies that Operation Enduring Freedom is apocalypse. But they are about to experience the wrath of the unapocalyptic. With God or without God, with God and without God.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.