Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Europe, Orthodoxy and Islam

Pastorius has developed a real talent for asking questions that take me till 3:00 AM to answer. His latest is in the post titled "Those Primitive Religious People All Look The Same To Me" which relates to this quote from the High Level Advisory Group's "Dialogue Between Peoples and Cultures in the Euro-Mediterranean Area"

"... the enlarged Europe will move beyond the traditional relationship between Western Judeo-Christian Culture and Islam by incorporating people of Orthodox religion and culture: in addition to strengthening the role of Orthodoxy within the EU and beyond, this incorporation will transform the dialogue into a "trialogue". Furthermore, Orthodoxy sometimes leads to behavior which is surprisingly similar with that of Islam - particularly in relation to secularisation - which will have a major impact on, even radically change, the relationship between the enlarged Union and the Arab-Muslim world..."

Pastorius comments:
Now Jack, I believe you are a fan of Orthodoxy. And, while I don't know much about it, Orthodoxy seems to be a fine branch of Christianity, more formal and grounded in liturgy than American Protestant Christianity (which I like), however, at the same time, more likely to substitute ritual and tradition for an emphasis on a relationship with God. But, what do you think of this idea?

It doesn't seem workable to me. What are they going to do, run government-funded commercials on European television promoting the benefits of orthodoxy?

And what do they mean by saying Orthodoxy leads to behavior similar to that of Islam? Man that's a loaded statement. Do they mean that Orthodoxy leads to a Jihad mentality? To seeing the world, like the Taliban, in terms of black and white, so that anything which is not of Allah, be it art, architecture, or Western products, should be destroyed?

Do they mean that Orthodoxy might help Europeans swallow such behavior as Saudi Arabia posting, on their official state website, that "Jews" are not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia?

I am inclined to believe that for the European bureaucrats on the delegation that drafted this paper, their statement does not mean anything of the like. Because they do not, in the least, consider any of those frightening developments to be the consequences of Islamic culture. I'm guessing they buy the common panacea that Jihad is not "true Islam", that Jihad means merely to struggle within oneself.

Instead, I am inclined to believe that, once again, for Europe, it's all about the fashion. I'll bet they look at those Orthodox women and see that they are inclined to dress in black, and that they often wear head coverings, and they think to themselves, "Ahem, now is that a Muslim women, or an Orthodox women? All those primitive religious people look the same to me."

What do you think?

I don't know that I could be called a fan of Orthodoxy, since the Orthodox exclude me and my fellow protestants from communion, but I do acknowledge a greater affinity for this branch of Christianity than, say, for the average sub-Baptist Bible Fellowship that predominates the American religious scene. But to answer Pastorius' question, here is the email with which I replied:

Unfortunately there is not sufficient elaboration in the article to know exactly what they meant by the comparison between Orthodoxy and Islam. In my initial reading I had thought the reference was to the Orthodox Christians in Palestine, which would mean a basic similarity in their anti-Israeli stance. While this would certainly be an accurate observation (many Palestinian Christians refer to their Muslim fellow-Arabs as "brothers"), on a closer reading of the text it is clear that this is not what was intended. The Orthodox populations in question are evidently from the former Soviet Bloc countries that are now considering membership in the EU -- what Rumsfeld has referred to as New Europe.

In light of the second point, which refers to the Balkan region and which you do not quote, it seemed possible that the Orthodox in question were the Serbian people. This would also make a certain amount of sense in that the Serbs have been at war with their Muslim neighbors and can be said to have adopted similarly militant tactics. But it is difficult to see how this interpretation would square with the phrase "particularly in relation to secularisation" since Serbia is almost completely secularized.

So, I think your analysis that this is a secular culture looking with bemusement at all religions is probably pretty fair. The similarities in this case would be that both Orthodoxy and Islam have been resistant to modernization and both tend to be predominantly ethnic in distinction from the more cosmopolitan vision of Europe that is being advocated in this paper.

One point that may have occurred to you, but which you don't mention, is that this comparison is made specifically to de-emphasize the Jihad element of Islam. That is, it is not so much that the authors don't believe that this represents a real aspect of Islamic culture, but that they strongly suspect it does and want to hide that fact from themselves and their readers. Obviously, I have no direct evidence for this assertion, but some of the statements made in the executive summary and the earlier part of the article suggest this possibility to my imagination.

For instance, this statement about culture:
"Culture is by nature egalitarian, giving equal weight to all its forms: it is therefore both the basis of and vehicle for an equitable relationship. But in no other area is there such scope for both misunderstanding and understanding: it is therefore the ideal area for equals to work together to clarify and enrich a Euro-Mediterranean relationship still littered with obstacles (mutual perceptions, role of the media, etc.) and denials (of rights, dignity, liberty, equality, etc.). Why should this relationship be made a priority? Certainly not to prevent a very hypothetical clash of civilisations, but rather in the certainty that the principal complementarities of the two halves of the Euro-Mediterranean area will, in the next half century, have been integrated into their day-to-day life: what we now have to do is prepare the ground for this." [emphasis mine]

To fully unpack this statement, and others like it throughout the article, would require a thorough discussion of the history of European thought, which we obviously do not have time for. But briefly this thinking divides cultures into three basic categories, often called Pre-modern, Modern and Post-modern.

The temporal element is crucial to this division, implying as it does a progression and, therefore, a necessary evolution of thought. This coincides with the "certainty that the ... two halves ... will have been integrated" in the quote above. The idea is to disallow the notion that ideas are to be judged on the basis of their truth, but rather to be accepted on the basis of their currency. Since I reject this notion, I prefer not to use the terminology and simply classify the three groups as Sacramental, Secular and Skeptical respectively. This has, admittedly, a somewhat Christocentric bias, since it would put groups like Islam and, say, the animist of Sudan in the Sacramental category, which is not a description they would probably approve. But since I do, in fact, see such cultures as essentially deviant from Christian truth, I am not particularly averse to this consequence.

The Sacramental or Pre-modern culture views all aspects of life as essentially integrated and related directly to a design of the universe as a whole. This design is usually expressed as the Will of God, although some cultures, such as Buddhism and Taoism, have a more impersonal view of the divine nature. In this view such disparate concerns as sexuality, politics, art and agriculture, though they can be discussed separately, are ultimately interrelated to each other and united under the divine plan. Thus the search for truth in one area has consequences in all other areas, and often implies very strict responsibilities that many people desire to escape. I could give examples, but I think most people can come up with plenty of their own without much prompting.

The Secular, or Modern, worldview was essentially designed to provide an escape from the responsibilities of Sacramentalism, without abandoning its comforting capacity to order existence. The main theme of secularism has been a mechanical view of the universe which operates on principles accessible to human reason. On this view of things, everything that occurs has a causal explanation but, lacking an intelligent will, makes no inconvenient demands upon human behavior. Initially, of course, it was thought that ethical standards could be derived from the nature of man, but such projects had a tendency to result in such disasters a the French Revolution and ultimately culminated in the concentration camps and gulags of the 20th century.

This failure, among other things, led to the view or set of views known as Post-modernism, which I have dubbed Skepticism. The post-modern critique of Modernism is based on the insight that Modernism's claim to Universal Truth was just as subjective and prejudicial as the earlier religious views it attempted to transcend. Every theory attempting to order life in accordance with some "meta-narrative" is questionable and is generally assumed to have its a basis in a will to dominance over others. Thus the post-modern ethic is based, not on Divine Will or its paler cousin Reason, but on such tropes as Cooperation, Understanding and, somewhat less robustly, Multi-Culturalism. An avoidance of conflict is thus a chief characteristic of this view, often resulting in the sort of denial seen in the quote cited above.

The curious thing about this view is that, though it pretends to a moral superiority over such retrograde cultures as Christianity and Islam, it cannot, by its very nature, directly confront them. To do so would be to admit the existence of some commonly accessible vantage point from which to offer its critique, in other words a meta-narrative, which is anathema to the whole project of this brand of Skepticism. At best it can note the putative "denials (of rights, dignity, liberty, equality, etc.)" which it ascribes to all such primitivisms. But such a critique relies on the moral inhibitions of the critiqued cultures to motivate them to respond accordingly. When it encounters a culture that rejects the very basis of the critique, such as militant Islam, this Skepticism really has no alternative but to retreat into condescending hauteur.

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