11 February 2015

Obama's critics prove his point about religious chauvinism

The President with the foreign-sounding name can't seem to shake the suspicion that he is somehow soft on Islam. Among the proofs of his softness is his alleged recourse to the politics of moral equivalence. For example, in his speech at last week's National Prayer Breakfast Obama warned against Christians climbing a "high horse" from which to judge Islam, since Christians have "committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ" practically from the beginning -- he cited the Crusades and the Inquisition specifically -- and have used their faith to rationalize policies (e.g. racial segregation) that have no basis in Christianity as the President understands it. This cautionary note offended Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist. "It is perverse that Obama feels compelled to lecture the West about not getting too judgmental on our 'high horse' over radical Islam’s medieval barbarism in 2015 because of Christianity’s medieval barbarism in 1215," Goldberg writes. He finds it not only perverse but hypocritical, since it looks to him that Obama is holding Christianity responsible for the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc., when the President seems unwilling to hold Islam responsible for the excesses of today's extremists. On top of all that, he deems Obama's remarks historically inaccurate.

Goldberg gives his readers a revisionist reading of the Inquisition, on the authority of a single historian. It is a fact, apparently, that the Inquisition came into being to take jurisdiction over heresy cases from secular governments. Goldberg describes this as virtually a humanitarian gesture, since it sometimes rescued accused heretics from lynch mobs and innocent people from charges trumped up by local rulers. He'll have to excuse us, however, if we're unimpressed by more humane forms of prosecuting heresy.

As for the Crusades, Goldberg considers them justified as defensive wars against Muslim aggression. While he acknowledges "terrible organized cruelties" on the part of Crusaders, he apparently assumes that Christendom had a right to roll back Muslim conquests dating back centuries before the First Crusade. I think not. Religions have no right to territory. Christianity had no more right to take the "Holy Land" by force than the Muslims had in the first place. I don't mean to say that the Muslim conquest must be respected as inviolable or irreversible, but I do mean to argue that Christianity had no moral entitlement to reclaim the lost lands. There was no morality, no right or wrong, to the Crusades. They were pure tests of force which the Christians ultimately lost, while the present Zionist crusade is a test of force which the Jews are winning. Leaving the rights of religions out of it, we're left with "Franks" trying to conquer Arabs who'd occupied the lands in question for several centuries, and I see no reason not to describe that as Frankish aggression. The pretext for the First Crusade, in any event, was that the land's new Seljuk Turkish rulers weren't allowing Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Does Goldberg really think that's a good reason to go to war?

Goldberg, it seems, can't help but see any criticism of Christianity (or Judaism) as aiding or comforting Islam. It's obvious enough that he, like many Christians and Jews, have an issue not just with Islamism or Islamist extremism, but with Islam itself. Islam remains a scandal for its Abrahamic predecessors because it doesn't just say they're obsolete, as Christianity says of Judaism, but argues that they were wrong virtually all along. That is, Christianity still regards the Old Testament as holy scripture, but Islam claims that both Old and New Testaments are distortions of the original revelations to Moses, Jesus, et al. On the other hand, of course, Christians and Jews regard the Qur'an as a delusional text or an outright lie. Christians and Jews have only recently reconciled after centuries of mutual animosity -- and the reconciliation is arguably fragile in some places -- but reconciliation between Christians and Muslims seems further off with every passing day. It's this accelerating estrangement that Obama presumably hopes to halt by taking religion out of the discussion of terrorism. What Goldberg doesn't seem to get is that Obama's comment on Christian history isn't intended as an argument against fighting the Daesh -- the self-styled Islamic State -- but as an argument for leaving religion out of the war on terror.  If Christians and Jews don't want their religion held responsible for their ancestor's atrocities, the President is telling the Jonah Goldbergs among us, then don't hold Muslims as a whole responsible for their extremists' atrocities. All Goldberg hears is: don't criticize Islam. That violates his sense of duty to prove Islam an inferior religion. In the column in question, he does that by negative implication.

But there’s a very important point to make here that transcends the scoring of easy, albeit deserved, points against Obama’s approach to Islamic extremism (which he will not call Islamic): Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man.Christianity ended greater barbarisms under pagan Rome. The church often fell short of its ideals — which all human things do — but its ideals were indisputably a great advance for humanity.

The unspoken corollary is that Islam was never a force for the improvement of man, its ideals no advance for humanity. Meanwhile, Goldberg joins the school of thought arguing that Christianity contributed something more than mythology to western civilization. It's argued increasingly that liberalism and egalitarianism are offspring of Christianity -- that Christianity asserted the equality of people as souls when previously no culture had any notion of human equality at any level, while Islam is credited at most with preserving classical learning and advancing it somewhat in certain areas without contributing anything unique and progressive to the world's intellectual heritage. As one book reviewer notes, it's harder than apologists think to prove how Christianity actually caused such radical changes in thinking. Goldberg's column is less intellectually ambitious and seems to contradict itself. He credits Christianity with transforming the classical world into something else, but also argues that Christianity and "medievalism" are two different things. If medievalism is what comes after classicalism, then Christianity must have had some role in the making of medievalism. Maybe Goldberg wants to blame all the bad parts of medievalism on medieval Europe's barbarian heritage, but he doesn't say so in his column. The point of the column seems to be to defend something indisputably good and just in Christianity that justifies its adversarial (but presumably permanently defensive) stance against Islam and entitles it to resist (a presumably permanently medieval) Islam by any means necessary.

There probably is some hypersensitivity to Islamophobia in liberal culture. We saw a little of it earlier today in a rush to identify the murder of three Muslims in North Carolina as an Islamophobic hate crime. As soon as the suspect was identified, reporters searched for proof of Islamophobia and found a statement proposing atheism as the solution to the Middle East's problem. In time, investigators clarified that the killings were provoked by a dispute over parking space. Real Islamophobes might be excused for comparing this clumsy rush to judgment to a perceived reluctance in some media to identify Islamic or Islamist sentiments as motives for any crime in this country. In an ideal world we could address all the root causes of violence perpetrated by adherents of a particular religion, be the perpetrators Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, or other, without the perceived supremacy or inferiority of religions being at stake. It's all too evident, perhaps especially to a none-of-the-above observer, that many Christians can't confront Islamism without asserting the inferiority of Islam as a whole to their own faith, whether or not they can prove that Islam is a necessary or sufficient cause of Islamist violence. And while I still resist the idea that antagonism toward Islam is inherently bigoted, since Islam is a value system as subject to intellectual scrutiny as any other, I have to concede that levels of bigotry toward mostly darker, often poorer, and radically foreign people are inextricable from many people's hostility toward Islam. Here's a simple test. If you're going to attack Islam only to prove that Christianity or Judaism is a better religion, you're probably a religious bigot and you have no high horse to sit on. Jonah Goldberg will certainly disagree. He claims that "the West" has earned the right to "sit in the saddle" to judge the Islamist terrorists of the 21st century. But if Christianity earned westerners like Goldberg that right, then it's too bad that he forgot its founder's advice: judge not, lest ye be judged.


Anonymous said...

The Nazis had a belief. Their belief was that they were racially superior. They felt this gave them a right to invade, occupy and settle Austria, Poland and other parts of Europe. They practiced genocide. For this, we tend to think of Adolf Hitler - leader of the Nazis - as one of the most evil men to ever live. And yet...

The Jews have a belief that they are racially superior. They believe this gives them the right to invade, occupy and settle the West Bank, the Gaza strip and other parts of Palestine. If you accept their bible as literal history, then they too have a history of practicing genocide.

Where is the moral difference between the Nazis and the Jews? Think about it.

Anonymous said...

"The pretext for the First Crusade, in any event, was that the land's new Seljuk Turkish rulers weren't allowing Christian pilgrims to visit the holy places in Jerusalem and elsewhere."

I have seen news footage of Jewish woman, trying to pray at the Wailing Wall, being chased off with stones thrown at them by Conservative Jewish extremists. So shouldn't we go to war against Israel and Islam - since the conservative jews won't allow women the right to practice their religion and pray? And since the muslims won't let jews onto the temple mount. (probably won't let christians either, but I don't know that for a fact.)

Samuel Wilson said...

7:46 -- the obvious difference, if you want to compare the Nazis with Israel, is quantitative. Nothing Israel has done to the Palestinians, however atrocious, reaches the level of genocide. So the comparison is like that between Islam and Christendom: one group "isn't like that anymore" while the other still is or, in the case of the Germans, very recently was.

7:57 -- Who's "we" in this case? The Crusades were wars waged by a religion, being declared by Popes. They offer no example for modern nations to follow, and Jonah Goldberg, for his part, didn't acknowledge denial of access as the immediate cause of the First Crusade. Worse, he seems to accept that Christianity was entitled to roll back Islam's territorial conquests many centuries after they were accomplished. It seems that the other Abrahamic religions have never really accepted the legitimacy of Islamic states in the "Holy Land," just as Muslims refuse to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state today.

Anonymous said...

But, assuming you accept their old testament as a historical document - which they do - they committed genocide against the canaanites and philistines.