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by Michael Lind
November 11th The Observer
America's religious Right and the West's romantic Left now share an Arcadian, pre-modern vision similar to that of Muslim conservatives, says Michael Lind
Two days after terrorists who believed they were on a mission from God flew hijacked jets into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the ground in Pennsylvania, Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, told Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson on the latter's TV show: 'God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve.'
Robertson expressed his agreement, as Falwell interpreted the attack as God's punishment to Americans for tolerating federal courts that uphold civil liberties. He also blamed 'the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians', saying: 'I point the finger in their face and say, "You helped this happen".'
As this exchange proves, the division between secular civilisation and fanatical religious fundamentalism does not run only between the United States and its radical Muslim enemies - it runs right through American culture. Increasingly, the US is polarised between a growing number of secular, or only nominally religious, individuals and a shrinking, but still large, number of active believers.
By the Nineties, right-wing Protestants, Catholics and Jews were setting aside theological differences to wage political war on secularism and humanism. The extension of the alliance of 'people of faith' to reactionary Muslims who share their opposition to feminism, gay rights, abortion, contraception and freedom from censorship is the logical next step.
Already, pressured by fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics, official US delegations to international family-planning conferences have found themselves opposing European and East Asian delegations on such issues as contraception and abortion - and allied with Muslim theocracies and the Vatican.
In the past two decades many conservative Christians in the US and elsewhere have expressed sympathy for aspects of reactionary Islam.
In 1989, when a caller to Larry King Live asked William J. Bennett, then the drugs tsar, 'Why build prisons? Get tough like Arabia. Behead the damned drug dealers. We're just too darned soft', Bennett replied 'morally, I don't have any problem with that at all' and went on to call for more executions in the US.
The conservative Catholic Pat Buchanan denounced Salman Rushdie for writing 'a defamatory novel, a blasphemous assault on the faith of hundreds of millions'. In 1998, as the Taliban in Afghanistan were banning women from working and forcing them to wear the veil, the Southern Baptist Convention urged wives to 'submit graciously to the servant leadership of their husbands'.
Some US conservative Christian intellectuals have openly flirted with sedition. In 1996 the Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus hosted a symposium in his magazine First Things, in which Religious Right sympathisers, including Judge Robert Bork, argued the US government was so immoral that civil disobedience and even revolution might be legitimate.
Two years earlier, at a Religious Right conference in Florida, former Vice-President Dan Quayle joined the audience in reciting a parody of the US Pledge of Allegiance: 'I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Saviour, for whose Kingdom it stands. One Saviour, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe.'
Today the Christian Right is far more powerful in American politics than for two centuries. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to his nephew Peter Carr: 'Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear.'
Jefferson reassured his nephew that belief in God was not necessary for virtue: 'If [this inquiry] end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others it will procure for you.'
These sentiments did not prevent Jefferson from serving two terms as the third US President. Of Jefferson's rival Alexander Hamilton, the historian Karl-Friedrich Walling writes: 'Nothing distinguishes Hamilton from Oliver Cromwell (with whom his contemporaries sometimes compared him) more than his hatred of puritanism, religious and political. Largely because of the humanity he absorbed from [the atheist] Hume, he was less worried that Americans would become decadent or corrupt than that they would become exceedingly self-righteous, as in fact they have on many occasions in history.'
In 2000, both the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates claimed to be evangelical Protestants who had 'found Jesus'. Al Gore's vice-presidential candidate was an Orthodox Jew who refused to work or travel on the sabbath and claimed that non-believers could not be good citizens. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George Bush Senior asserted that 'on the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth'.
A predecessor in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, asked 78 years earlier about his views on evolution, replied that 'of course, like very other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised'.
In 1912 former President Theodore Roosevelt referred in a speech to 'the great Darwin', and later wrote of his education: 'Thank Heaven, I sat at the feet of Darwin and Huxley...'
Although they now control the Republican Party, ensuring that no supporter of evolutionary biology, biotech research, abortion or gay rights can be nominated as President or Vice-President, Christian conservatives lack the power to impose their vision on society as a whole.
They are finding new allies, however, on the environmental Left. Quayle's former chief of staff, William Kristol, a crusader against abortion and gay rights and editor of Rupert Murdoch's Washington magazine The Weekly Standard, has teamed up with the radical leftist Jeremy Rifkin to persuade Congress to ban therapeutic cloning, which is legal in Europe. Under pressure from the Religious Right, George W. Bush has already crippled stem-cell research in the US, causing research projects and some scientists to move to Britain and other countries.
Rifkin and other leftists have also joined the Southern Baptists in an effort to outlaw the patenting of plant and animal genes.
Will Protestant and Catholic abortion clinic bombers soon be comrades-in-arms of Greenpeace activists who destroy genetically modified crops? The fundamentalist-green alliance against technology and scientific research is not surprising. For the past quarter-century, Darwinian sociobiology has been attacked by the Left, which believes human nature is infinitely malleable, and by the Religious Right, which believes the Hebrew Creation myth.
Both the Religious Right and a large part of the romantic Left share an Arcadian vision, similar to that of secular fascists and Muslim conservatives, of a premodern, rural community of spiritual people who have not been alienated by secularism and capitalism from nature and God.
This alliance of fundamentalists and greens has found a spokesman in former Vice-President Al Gore. Gore, a born-again Baptist, fused Christian and environmentalist clichés in his 1992 bestseller, Earth in the Balance. Calling environmental problems an 'ungodly crisis,' Gore echoes Right and Left by attacking 'the froth and frenzy of industrial civilisation'. Praising ecological activists as 'resistance fighters,' he predicts 'a kind of global civil war between those who refuse to consider the consequences of civilisation's relentless advance and those who refuse to be silent partners in the destruction'.
The greatest villain in history, he says, is Sir Francis Bacon. Bacon's 'moral confusion-the confusion at the heart of much modern science-came from his assumption, echoing Plato, that human intellect could safely analyse and understand the natural world without reference to any moral principles defining our relationship and duties to both God and God's creation.' Gore calls for science to be supervised by religious elites who would be qualified to carry out those duties.
The dismissal of Darwin by Bush and the denunciation of Bacon by Gore prove how far the US has drifted from the enlightened humanism of the American founders. Jefferson claimed his rival, Hamilton, asked him at a dinner party at Jefferson's home to identify three busts on his wall. They were his 'trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced,' Sir Isaac Newton, Bacon, and John Locke, the host said.
Jefferson claimed Hamilton's greatest man of all time was Julius Caesar. Evidently neither Jefferson nor Hamilton considered Moses or Jesus, whom they considered mortals. That oversight was remedied during the 2000 campaign, when Bush Senior, asked to name his favourite philosopher, replied: 'Jesus Christ.'
Humanist civilisation, then, is threatened today both from beyond its borders and inside them. The liberal democracies can resist Muslim terrorism, if they are willing to pay the price. The greatest long-term threat to secularism, democracy and science may come from within, from the emerging coalition of the Religious Right and the romantic Left, brought together by a loathing of the open society they share with each other - and with Osama bin laden.
· Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, with Ted Halstead, of The Radical Center.
Honest intellectuals must shed their spiritual turbans
by Ibn Warraq
November 10, 2001
Aldous Huxley once defined an intellectual as someone who had found something in life more important than sex: a witty but inadequate definition, since it would make all impotent men and frigid women intellectuals. A better definition would be a freethinker, not in the narrow sense of someone who does not accept the dogmas of traditional religion, but in the wider sense of someone who has the will to find out, who exhibits rational doubt about prevailing intellectual fashions, and who is unafraid to apply critical thought to any subject. If the intellectual is really committed to the notion of truth and free inquiry, then he or she cannot stop the inquiring mind at the gates of any religion - let alone Islam. And yet, that is precisely what has happened with Islam, criticism of which in our present intellectual climate is taboo.
The reason why many intellectuals have continued to treat Islam as a taboo subject are many and various, including:
· Political correctness leading to Islamic correctness;
· The fear of playing into the hands of racists or reactionaries to the detriment of the west's Muslim minorities;
· Commercial or economic motives;
· Feelings of post-colonial guilt (where the entire planet's problems are attributed to the west's wicked ways and intentions);
· Plain physical fear; · and intellectual terrorism of writers such as Edward Said.
Said not only taught an entire generation of Arabs the wonderful art of self-pity (if only those wicked Zionists, imperialists and colonialists would leave us alone, we would be great, we would not have been humiliated, we would not be backward) but intimidated feeble western academics, and even weaker, invariably leftish, intellectuals into accepting that any criticism of Islam was to be dismissed as orientalism, and hence invalid.
But the first duty of the intellectual is to tell the truth. Truth is not much in fashion in this postmodern age when continental charlatans have infected Anglo-American intellectuals with the thought that objective knowledge is not only undesirable but unobtainable. I believe that to abandon the idea of truth not only leads to political fascism, but stops dead all intellectual inquiry. To give up the notion of truth means forsaking the goal of acquiring knowledge. But man, as Aristotle put it, by nature strives to know. Truth, science, intellectual inquiry and rationality are inextrica bly bound together. Relativism, and its illegitimate offspring, multiculturalism, are not conducive to the critical examination of Islam.
Said wrote a polemical book, Orientalism (1978), whose pernicious influence is still felt in all departments of Islamic studies, where any critical discussion of Islam is ruled out a priori . For Said, orientalists are involved in an evil conspiracy to denigrate Islam, to maintain its people in a state of permanent subjugation and are a threat to Islam's future. These orientalists are seeking knowledge of oriental peoples only in order to dominate them; most are in the service of imperialism.
Said's thesis was swallowed whole by western intellectuals, since it accords well with the deep anti-westernism of many of them. This anti-westernism resurfaces regularly in Said's prose, as it did in his comments in the Guardian after September 11. The studied moral evasiveness, callous ness and plain nastiness of Said's article, with its refusal to condemn outright the attacks on America or show any sympathy for the victims or Americans, leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth of anyone whose moral sensibilities have not been blunted by political and Islamic correctness. In the face of all evidence, Said still argues that it was US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere that brought about these attacks.
The unfortunate result is that academics can no longer do their work honestly. A scholar working on recently discovered Koranic manuscripts showed some of his startling conclusions to a distinguished colleague, a world expert on the Koran. The latter did not ask, "What is the evidence, what are your arguments, is it true?" The colleague simply warned him that his thesis was unacceptable because it would upset Muslims.
Very recently, professor Josef van Ess, a scholar whose works are essential to the study of Islamic theology, cut short his research, fearing it would not meet the approval of Sunni Islam. Gunter Luling was hounded out of the profession by German universities because he proposed the radical thesis that at least a third of the Koran was originally a pre-Islamic, Christian hymnody, and thus had nothing to do with Mohammed. One German Arabist says academics are now wearing "a turban spiritually in their mind", practicing "Islamic scholarship" rather than scholarship on Islam. Where biblical criticism has made important advances since the 16th century, when Spinoza demonstrated that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses,, the Koran is virtually unknown as a human document susceptible to analysis by the instruments and techniques of biblical criticism.
Western scholars need to defend unflinchingly our right to examine Islam, to explain its rise and fall by the normal mechanisms of human history, according to the objective standards of historical methodology.
Democracy depends on freedom of thought and free discussion. The notion of infallibility is profoundly undemocratic and unscientific. It is perverse for the western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and wilfully ignore books such as Anwar Shaikh's Islam - The Arab Imperialism, or my Why I am Not a Muslim. How do they think reformation will come about if not with criticism?
The proposed new legislation by the Labour government to protect Muslims, while well-intentioned, is woefully misguided. It will mean publishers will be even more reluctant to take on works critical of Islam. If we stifle rational discussion of Islam, what will emerge will be the very thing that political correctness and the government seek to avoid: virulent, racist populism. If there are further terrorist acts then irrational xenophobia will be the only means of expression available. We also cannot allow Muslims subjectively to decide what constitutes "incitement to religious hatred", since any legitimate criticism of Islam will then be shouted down as religious hatred.
Only in a democracy where freedom of inquiry is protected will science progress. Hastily conceived laws risk smothering the golden thread of rationalism running through western civilisation.
© Ibn Warraq 2001.
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