Monday, April 24, 2006

Putting an End to Intolerance

In an editorial published in FOURTH ESTATE, a publication of the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, under the heading of “End the Intolerance,” one cannot help but notice the distorted logic of the post-modern mind.

I was struck, even though not surprised by the list of three topics that should not be tolerated, namely sexism, racism and homophobia. According to the moral code of this “Brave New World” these three items are sacrosanct. No one, not even within a civilization whose Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, ought to say anything negative about sexism, racism, and homophobia!

The editorial went on mouthing high sounding declarations:

“Society desperately requires intolerance of sexism, racism and homophobia. Communities and individuals need to practice intolerance toward these societal ills, so the future inherits a world where equality is the standard and bigotry is an unacceptable occurrence.”

Now “Society” has become personalized, and it issues edicts that must be obeyed. The trilogy of the unforgivable sins is repeated as a mantra. When it comes to these “sins” both communities and individuals are called upon to “practice intolerance.” Wow! Are we living under a dictatorial regime? What if we do not buy the ideology of the radicals and anarchists? Would they resort to punishing us because we hold to a higher ethic? Are they borrowing the tactics of the morality police of Saudi Arabia, or the Islamic Republic of Iran?

The editor’s homily goes on to admonish us to heed the fundamentals of the “Brave New World.”

“Tolerance is not blindly accepting every person’s opinion as fact. Tolerance is a necessary component of democratic society because it means living harmoniously with one another. No one person’s path to happiness should infringe on anyone else’s path to happiness.”

OK, if “tolerance is not blindly accepting every person’s opinion as fact,” I have made my choice, and respond by saying I don’t accept your pontifications as fact. Your goal is to arrive at happiness, fine. However, I refuse to accept your definition of happiness. What you’ve described as the three sacrosanct commandments surely does not bring us to the bliss of your “Brave New World.”

What I thought was to be a brief homily turned out to be a lengthy sermon:

A primary benefit of democratic living is the pursuit of happiness. How can a person expect to seek happiness when radical right-wingers are telling him or her who to love, what to believe and what to do with his or her body, while not offering any rational explanations in the process?

What a denunciation of these “radical right-wingers!” These words remind me of the vocabulary used by the Communists in their propaganda to silence their opponents. “Radical Right-Wingers!” Just keep on repeating these charges until people begin to believe your falsifications!

The denunciations became concrete, with severe criticisms leveled against Wisconsin’s Assembly banning the gay marriage bill, and “South Dakota’s recent measures to deconstruct Roe v. Wade.”

The secular preacher waxed even more eloquent and began to fire these questions:

How can citizens of a democracy allow their elected representatives to dictate who they should or should not love? How can a state in the land of the free overturn legislation guaranteeing citizens reproductive freedom? Law within a democratic society should never be used to oppress freedom, but to expand it.

The height of arrogance was reached when the “preacher” asked:

What if Dr. King had decided not to speak at a little church in Montgomery, Ala.?

The preacher turned into a magician, by a slight of mouth! By declaring moral equivalence between Martin Luther King’s fight against the residue of slavery in American society, and the sins of “sexism and homophobia,” the editorial committed a grave error. In fact, it might have escaped the editor, that these words constituted an insult to the memory of the Rev. King, as well as to all African-Americans. Their right to freedom is based on the fact that all men and women are created equal by God. No mere humans may deprive them of their basic and inalienable rights.

Our editor’s understanding and definition of what constitutes unforgivable sins, has no relevance in a decent and harmonious society. In fact the prescriptions of the editorial would ultimately lead to moral chaos, and civilization’s return to barbarity.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Dykes of Civilization

by David Warren
Columnist for Ottawa Citizen

I found a book in a junkshop this week, published in Canada, a half-century ago. With a foreword by Vincent Massey -- a dry stick, as he is remembered, but nevertheless our 18th governor-general. The book was published by the Anglican Church of Canada, Jarvis Street, Toronto. This was, in those days, a formidable imprimatur. While my copy is water-stained down the spine, and otherwise bedraggled (I did not pay much), it would have been a respectable thing when new, in 1958. It was published as the Lenten offering of the General Board of Religious Education.

The book is by Professor Samuel Henry Prince of King’s College, in Halifax. It is entitled: The Dykes of Civilization. The reader today will be taken aback; the word “diesel” may briefly flit through his mind.

Professor Prince meant dykes in the old-fashioned sense, of walls to hold water out or in. As, the dykes of Holland. The dykes to which he specifically refers are those of the Annapolis Valley, in Nova Scotia -- the “Evangeline” country of the once-immortal poet, Longfellow. They were built up by the first French settlers, in the middle of the 17th century; miles and miles of them, to hold out the sea, and reclaim the rich soils of the Grand Pré delta.

Using this literary conceit, the author compares the work of maintaining civilization to the work of maintaining these dykes. It does not matter who built them or when, for the purpose of maintenance -- if the dykes are ignored, they will disintegrate, and salt water will flood into the valley, poisoning the soil.

The late professor identified four main dykes which guard our “cultural and spiritual achievements”. He lists them, thus: “The Ermine (the insignia of Law); the Mantle (the insignia of Education); the Family Crest (insignia of the Home); and the Mitre (insignia of the Church). The Queen’s Bench, the Academic Chair, the Fireside, and the Altar are the guardians of our way of life.”“Perhaps when he wrote that,” I can hear my reader saying, “but surely not today.” I am myself sufficiently reactionary to be unsurprised by this list, though it appears to be in reverse order of importance. But I know many will titter at both the antiquated form, and the antiquated content.

I wrote some years ago in praise of an Ontario schoolbook, entitled Manners, that was passed to my teenaged grandmother, upon her entry into Canada, about 1913. I received several letters from readers unable to suppress their derision. One in particular found the idea that a young lady should have any manners at all, hysterically funny. Having no detectable good manners herself, she couldn’t see why anyone else would need any.

Now, “manners” would fall under all four of Professor Prince’s headings, for while manners may be codified, and recorded in a book, they are inculcated by every social institution. They live, or die.

A civilization is not a thing external, like the instruction manual for a computer. It consists of men and women, and the children they are raising, and their manners are only the outward expression of the civilization they carry, through time. Likewise, barbarism is an inward condition, though it finds outward expression in savage behaviour.

A half-century may seem a very long time to us today, given the speed at which our society is disintegrating. But it is less than one average lifetime, and I myself was actually alive when this Dykes book appeared. To any age that had not suffered a catastrophe, a half-century would seem a short period of historical time.

I, at least, am struck by how recent this book is, and by the memory that the Canada into which I was born was a country where ancient law, moral education, the traditional family, and the Christian church, were publicly upheld, and universally accepted. A civilized country.
Moreover, the author seems perfectly aware of currents in social life that will lead to disintegration. For instance, he stresses the changing view of sex -- that it has come to be regarded not as a means to a profound end, but as an end in itself, existing only for pleasure. He correctly predicts what must come of such a view.

Today is, for Christians, part of the vigil that will end tonight, in which we contemplate a world from which Christ is withdrawn. It is our own world we contemplate: where the dykes have been breached, and those who try to repair them are mocked.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Moderate Muslims Muddy the Waters

By Jacob Thomas

Every Friday issue of The Wall Street Journal has an article on religion that appears under the general headline of “Houses of Worship.” The March 31, 2006, title of the article was “Holier Than Thou: Muslims declare each other apostates--with violent results.” The author, Masood Farivar, is a reporter for Dow Jones Newswires.

I appreciated much of what Mr. Farivar wrote. However, when I reached the last part of his article, I became very disappointed. Unfortunately, his contribution, as well as other ones coming from “moderate” Muslims, tends to muddy the water rather than give an accurate description of the true nature of Islam.

The author began by mentioning the plight of the Afghani Muslim who had converted to the Christian faith.

The international uproar over the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity charged with apostasy, has drawn attention away from a far more common and nefarious practice infecting religious practice in Islam: the accusation of heresy leveled by Muslims against fellow Muslims, a practice known as takfir. Historically, little more than a rhetorical device, takfir has in recent years grown into a deadly weapon in the hands of Muslim extremists bent on purging Islam of just about anyone who does not subscribe to their views. Today jihadist terrorists in Iraq have begun to use takfir as a rallying cry for violence against the Shiites.”

It is quite likely that most readers of the WSJ have never heard the word takfir. It is derived from an Arabic verb kafara “to be an infidel, or to blaspheme God.” The first time I heard of takfir was in connection with the name of a radical Islamist group in the United Kingdom, “Al-Hijra wal-Takfir.” The followers of this extremist group claim to follow in the foot steps of the Prophet who left Mecca in 622 A.D. and settled in Medina. That event, known in Arabic as Hijra (migration,) signified Muhammad’s separating himself from the kafirs (unbelievers) of Mecca, in order to settle in a pure milieu where he could freely spread Islam.

Mr. Farivar explained the serious consequences that result, when some Muslims accuse other Muslims of heresy:

The concept of religious censure is not unique to Islam, of course, but under Islamic law the charge of apostasy may not only condemn the person to hell but require his immediate death, if he does not repent.”

Then he went on to give a historical account of a group of Muslims who anathemised everyone who disagreed with them. He referred to “the emergence in the late seventh century of a radical group known as Khawarij, whose members argued that committing a simple sin constituted heresy.” Actually, the case of the Khawarij, known also in English as the Kharijites, is much more complex, and needs further explanation.

When Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, assumed the position of the fourth caliph in 655, Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, revolted against him claiming that Ali was involved in the murder of Uthman, the third caliph. In the fight that ensued, the forces of Ali who held the upper hand were led to accept an offer for a truce that came from the other side. Some of Ali’s supporters did not agree with him, and left his camp. They were called the Khawarej, an Arabic word that signifies leaving a group. They became the prototypes for Islamic radicals. They assassinated Ali in 661. They went on to declare all Muslims (whether Sunnis or Shi’ites) who did not follow them, as unbelievers. They wrought havoc for a long time among the Muslims of the Middle East. This explains the similarity between these seventh century Khawarej and present-day Takfiris.

Mr. Farivar continued:

Until recently, mainstream Muslims dismissed the takfiris as a fringe group, the extreme of the extreme. But with wanton terrorist acts on the rise, a response seemed required. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan--themselves targets of apostasy charges--have denounced the takfiris.”

Mainstream Muslim thinkers have also started speaking up. In the U.S., Mr. Siddiqi has led a group of prominent Muslim religious scholars in issuing a fatwa denouncing extremist interpretations of the Koran and hadith. In Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abd al-Muhsin Al-Abikan, an eminent religious scholar, has given a series of high-profile interviews calling for a campaign to combat takfir culture among Muslims.

“Whether these arguments stem the tide of takfir-inspired violence remains to be seen. The lack of a central synod or council to define Islamic orthodoxy makes it difficult to issue a broad pronouncement discouraging the practice. What passes for sound belief in one country or one historical period may be seen as a heresy in another.

That is not to say that there is no orthodoxy or, just as important, that religious leaders lack clout. They might want to remind the faithful, especially now, of the Prophet's tolerant teachings. As Sheikh Al-Abikan put it: “The authority to declare takfir is God's alone, and no man has that authority.’”

It is indeed helpful to read that “in the U.S., Mr. Siddiqi has led a group of prominent Muslim religious scholars in issuing a fatwa denouncing extremist interpretations of the Koran and hadith.” However, a “mainstream” reading of the Sacred Text of Islam reveals a very negative view of non-Muslims. Consider for example, the accusatory texts from the Qur’an:

"Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews We forbade them good things which were (before) made lawful unto them and because of their much hindering from Allah's way." Surah 4: 160

"O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not 'Three' --- Cease! (it is) better for you! Allah is only One God. Far it is removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is sufficient as Defender." Surah 4: 171

Above all, we should not forget that in the very first Surah of the Qur’an, known as
Al-Fatiha, mention is made of the Jews and Christians in a derogatory way:

Ihdina as-Sirata’l Mustaqeem, Sirata’l al-Latheen an‘Amta ‘Aleyhem, Ghayra’l
Maghdoobi ‘Aleyhem, wala’Dalleen.”

“Lead us in the Right Path, the Path of those whom Thou hast blessed; and not in {the path of} those upon whom Thy wrath has come; nor of those who have gone astray” (Chapter 1:6, 7)
[Translation is mine JT]

Muslim commentators explain that the Jews are “those upon whom” the wrath of God has come; as for Christians they are the ones who have gone astray. This chapter, which is in the form of an invocation addressed to Allah, is memorized by most Muslims. It defines their relation not only to Allah, but to the “Others” as well. It is ingrained in their memory that, while the grace of Allah has been abundantly given to them, those “Others” are either lost, or are the objects of Allah’s wrath!

The mass media and our political leaders incessantly tell us that mainline Islam is “tolerant” and “magnanimous.” They may refer to texts in the Qur’an that teach freedom of religion. Most of us have heard ad nauseam, the following verse:

“There is no compulsion in religion...” Surah 2: 256a

However, this verse must be understood in the light of history. Ask those communities that have endured 1400 years of Islamic domination about the true meaning of “La Ikraha fi’l-Deen,” i.e. the No Compulsion clause. They will tell you about the awful status of dhimmitude that they and their forefathers suffered. Sure, the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) were allowed to remain in their faith, but were subjected to the most humiliating conditions. Just read the books of Bat Ye’or to learn about this most degrading institution that was inflicted on the original inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa. And please don’t forget to learn about the Ottoman’s abominable Devshirme, whereby thousands of young boys from the Balkans were forcibly taken from their parents, Islamized, and enrolled in the special corps of the Janissaries!

I return to the title of my essay, “Moderate Muslims Muddy the Waters.” Please read the last paragraph again:

That is not to say that there is no orthodoxy or, just as important, that religious leaders lack clout. They might want to remind the faithful, especially now, of the Prophet's tolerant teachings. As Sheikh Al-Abikan put it: “The authority to declare takfir is God's alone, and no man has that authority.’”

These words of summing-up are very deceptive. To quote Sheikh Al-Abikan’s words may fool the naïve, but they are no different than the mantra, ‘Al-Islam hua al-Hall’ i.e. Islam is the Solution!

“The authority to declare takfir is God’s alone.” What a pious statement. It reminds me of the ruse of Mu’awiya’s camp back in 661! When his soldiers were losing in their confrontation with Ali’s forces, they suddenly lifted copies of the Qur’an on their spears and shouted, “Let God decide.” Pure and unadulterated exhibition of piety! But Allah had already spoken his final word, and this word must be interpreted by mere humans. The umpires that Ali and Mu’awiya agreed upon were not impartial. They deposed Ali, and confirmed his opponent as the lawful caliph of the Islamic Umma. Chaos broke loose as a result. Just read the accounts of the violent crimes committed by the Khawarej, to learn about the consequences of empty and vapid slogans!

It is up to moderate Muslims, if they are to be believed, to initiate a new hermeneutic of the Sacred Texts of Islam, and devise ways where those texts and teachings that declare gloom and doom of the “Others,” are interpreted as belonging to the distant past, and are no longer valid today. In our globalized and interdependent world, there is no room for any type of takfiri ideologies. I am waiting eagerly for true moderates who don’t engage in muddying the waters; but acknowledge the mistakes of the Islamic past.