Islam and monolithic stereotypes: a response to John Morrissey

I agree with John Morrissey when he writes that ‘fear and hysteria’ characterize much in public discourse around Islam. Indeed, it’s hard to see how anything but fear and hysteria would make a ‘debate’ about Islam and Muslims necessary – the word itself has now become a shibboleth for a quasi-racist fear mongering. That Muslims in Australia encounter this in the streets, media, and in Parliament House itself should be a cause first for shame and then for speaking out.

But what I dispute is that there in any causal relation between Maher, Bolt and Lambie and the older figures that Morrissey cites. I dispute this point partly because I think his examples do not support his claims, but more because his use of those examples is the mirror image of the ‘monolithic stereotypes’ for which he rightly castigates the Right.

On the one hand there are Bolt and Lambie, slandering through ether ignorance or opportunism people who live peacefully in THE community. To what extent are Pascal, Voltaire, and Chesterton similar cases?

Considering Pascal, Morrissey is appalled that someone so smart could accept on face value the claim that Mohummed forbade reading the Koran, since the idea that ‘any prophet concerned with spreading their religion would seek to prevent people reading its sacred text’ is ‘self-evidently ridiculous’. But is it really so ridiculous? Pascal’s information was wrong, but it was not implausible. Catholicism forbade the translation of the bible into vernacular languages. Much of the Buddhist and Hindu canons were written and maintained in a language that only a priestly caste could read. Even if scripture was vernacular, it was often deliberately cryptic: notoriously, in Mark 4:12, Jesus himself claims to speak in parables designed to exclude the non-elect. It is not Pascal who is unable to break out of his imaginative preconceptions here.

I once heard an American Biblical scholar say that he found Leviticus a text completely lacking of aesthetic merit. He had spent a lifetime studying it in his capacity as a linguist and historical anthropologist. An unfavorable aesthetic opinion does not equate to ignorance or bigotry. This should be kept in mind with Voltaire’s comments on the Koran. With a first-hand knowledge of the text in English, he also dismissed Hamlet as ‘a vulgar and barbarous play which would not be supported by the lowest public of France and Italy,’ adding that ‘one would take this work to be a fruit of the inspiration of a drunken savage’. His finding the Koran deficient as art is not a case of Islamophobia, but of full-throttle French neo-classicism, which Voltaire applied as strictly to European as he did Islamic texts.

Knowledge of Islam remained imperfect and corrupted by European prejudice, but rather than ‘instinctive narrow-mindedness persisting (sic) throughout the Enlightenment,’ the eighteenth and nineteenth witnessed an immense effort at intercultural understanding: chairs of Arabic and Islamic studies sprang up all across Europe, translations of Arabic texts became increasingly common. As one historian writes, the ‘image of Muhummad as a wise, tolerant, unmystical, and undogmatic ruler became widespread … it finds expression in writers as diverse as Goethe, Condorcet, and Voltaire’. The writings of Emerson and Thoreau, the representative minds of nineteenth century America, are littered with appreciative references to Islam and Mohammed.

Considering Chesterton, Morrissey’s piece goes from insensitivity to context to outright misrepresentation, accusing Chesterton of having ‘invented’ a fictitious doctrine of ‘oneness of prophethood’ and then boastful ignorance of the Koran. Chesterton does neither. He does not deny the existence of other prophets in the Islamic tradition, but draws attention to the fact Islam does not afford to Mohammed’s disciples the same authority as Christianity does to Christ’s. As a Catholic, Chesterton finds this disquieting, but also powerful, appreciating the ‘sublimity’ of Islamic theology. Rather than bigotry, this is a characterization to which  many Muslims would assent. In fact, Islamic writers even argued that this distinguished Islam as genuine monotheism, as oppose to the crypto-paganism of Christianity with its cult of saints.

The second quotation from Chesterton is further misrepresented.  To start, is it pedantic to note that Chesterton isn’t saying that he never reads the Koran, only that he doesn’t read it nightly? It’s an admission of amateurism, not of proud ignorance.

Furthermore, what Chesterton says is correct. Open the Koran and you won’t find commands to worship idols or slander the prophet. But this is really beside the point – if you read the passage from which that quote is taken, you’ll find that it has as little to do with Islam as it has with Buddhism or the French revolution (which are also mentioned).

This Islamophobia that allegedly fuels current ignoramuses consists of a bad book review from a critic who also dismissed Shakespeare and Dante as barbaric, and a twentieth century Catholic who scrupulously notes his own ignorance, still gets his facts right, and characterises a rival religion with the maximum charity his own will allow.

But why bother trying to argue that some of the long-dead European luminaries were less bigoted than they might first seem? When Muslims are targets of opportunistic slander today, this could seem an irrelevance – or worse, a distraction.

I think the problematic nature of Morrissey’s argument becomes apparent if you look at his concluding statement: ‘It is thus pointless to denounce Lambie as an imbecile or Bolt as a bigot without recognising them as scions of a venerable Western tradition of Islamophobia.’ Flip that statement around and it sounds eerily like a two-bit pundit on Fox News warning about a ‘clash of civilizations’:  ‘It is thus pointless to denounce Osama bin Laden as a fanatic or ISIS as barbaric without recognising them as scions of a venerable Islamic tradition of anti-Westernism.’

In the battlefields of the past you can find unlimited ammunition for any current prejudice. It wouldn’t be hard to marshal a list of ignorant remarks about Christians, Jews, and Hindus made by venerable Muslims throughout the centuries, and then present that list as proof of Islam’s innate totalitarianism.

Civilisational typecasting ascribes ignorant prejudice to an inevitable clash of zeitgeists, rather than individual choice. It inevitably distorts and flattens, making cultures and circumstances more monolithic, impervious, and unchanging than they really are. It despairingly ignores the efforts of scholars and individuals – Richard Burton or Kâtip Çelebi, for instance – who moved, however imperfectly, beyond their own cultures to understand others. Morrissey writes that ‘the whole weight of discourse is pushing against learning, against education, towards comfortable, monolithic stereotypes’. If one accepts this characterization of contemporary discourse, Morrissey’s article, with its own distortions and lack of historicising sympathy, exemplifies the trend rather than fights it.

Positing essentialist civilisational enmities distracts from concrete analyses and productive discussion. I don’t see the twin-tower bombers or the knucklehead teenagers absconding to join ISIS as embodiments of Islam’s deep civilisational DNA. The Middle-East historian Bernard Lewis writes: ‘At no time did the classical [Islamic] jurists offer any approval or legitimacy to what we nowadays call terrorism. Nor indeed is there any evidence of the use of terrorism as it is practiced nowadays … by now widespread terrorism practice of suicide bombing is a development of the twentieth century … [with] no antecedents in Islamic history, and no justification in terms of Islamic theology, law, or tradition.’ Likewise, Bolt and co are inspired by simple, ahistorical opportunism, not some deep connection with Pascal, Voltaire and Chesterton. They are not acting out a tradition. They should not be given that excuse.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Alex Lewis graduated from Melbourne University in 2012 with an honours degree in English and a diploma in Russian.

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  1. The most incredible thing is that it’s possible to have an entire article written about the hysteria around Islam and never trace it back to its source: the Israel/Palestine conflict. The elephant in the room on any discussion of the nightmare of lies and violence the west has allowed itself to sink into rather than tell Israel to cease and desist.

  2. Alex,

    Thank you for your piece—you make some excellent criticisms. I’d like to defend myself on the following points, however:

    With regards to Pascal, he does not state that Muhammad forbade translations of the Quran. He states that Muhammad forbade anybody to READ the Quran. The two are quite different. If he’d stated the former, he might have approached the truth, since it is generally accepted that the Quran is untranslatable—not because of any prohibition, but because of the depth of classical Arabic’s subtleties.
    But Pascal’s observations on the Quran are not sullied by even a passing concern with the truth. Throughout the Pensees he posits Islam as not merely incorrect but as both the direct opposite of Christianity and an unwitting proof of it. Hence, according to Pascal, because Muhammad lived and achieved worldly success, Jesus had to die in anguish. Likewise, because the Bible is widely read and understood, the Quran must not be read at all—a blatantly ridiculous proposition. What did he believe Muslims did with the Quran, if not read it? This is not Jesus reserving the deepest truths for those of particular insight. This is Jesus forbidding anybody from spreading his message. Speaking as somebody who otherwise finds the Pensees an exceptionally persuasive apologetic, I see no reason to defend Pascal here.
    As for Voltaire, I don’t doubt that he was in the throes of French chauvinism when he declared that the Quran is without art. But I also don’t see how “he’s only prejudiced because he was prejudiced” is any kind of defence. Nor can you reduce his comments on the Quran to “a bad book review”. One does not simply review a holy text as one reviews the latest Knausgaard novel. Would you consider Richard Dawkins’ treatment of the Old Testament in The God Delusion nothing more than a bad review? No, it’s an attack on the Christian religion founded upon a stubborn refusal to attempt to understand. Similarly, when Voltaire says that the Quran is without art and without order, he is not merely condemning the Quran as a text but the credulity and foolishness of Muslims as well. As Voltaire was quite aware, the beauty of the Quran is, in Muslim belief, one of the key proofs of Islam. The same cannot be said of Leviticus.
    I also believe you go far too easy on Chesterton. Somebody who describes Muslims as “the cruel children of the lonely God” is not being as charitable to a rival religion as their faith allows. Plenty of Christian writers have found a middle-ground between condemning Muhammad as a fraud and tyrant and accepting him as God’s final messenger. Even C.S. Lewis was kinder than Chesterton in this respect. Nor, when Chesterton describes the “loneliness” of the Prophet, is he simply remarking on the comparative absence of discipleship in Islam. It is the foundation of his key criticism of Islam: that it can only produce one kind of man, an egomaniac, and lead to only one kind of political system, tyranny (“Saladin in his tent”) counterposed by the constant threat of violent revolt.
    Besides, even if he was only making a few innocent observations about discipleship and Islam, he’d still be incorrect. The Prophet said that “My companions are like stars; whichever one you follow, you will be guided”, and this is reflected in all the major branches of Islam. In Sunni doctrine, the four rightly-guided Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) are vital sources of tradition and theology and models for all Muslims. For the Shia, Ali, and his eleven male descendants are the infallible Imams, given both spiritual and temporal authority over the ummah. Sufism has a fully developed doctrine of sainthood, whereby a saint is held to be God’s most perfect manifestation. It is wrong to say that Islam’s strict monotheism renders all Muslim figures except for the Prophet of little importance. I’d say that the most likely explanation is that Chesterton didn’t know any Muslims except for the Prophet, so he assumed the rest didn’t really matter all that much.
    So no, Chesterton doesn’t “get his facts right”. He’s comprehensively wrong, acknowledges that he hasn’t bothered to inquire, yet still feels entitled to make a few sweeping observations about Islam’s spiritual, social and political bankruptcy.
    Speaking more generally, I certainly don’t regard Andrew Bolt as the fruit of European civilisation (a horrible thought) and I hope that wasn’t the message conveyed by my piece. I wished to make a much more modest argument: that Bolt’s poisonous combination of ignorance and entitlement has been exhibited by far greater minds than his. I am aware that the Enlightenment and the development of Orientalism led to far greater sympathy for the Prophet and Islam in Europe. As I note in my piece, Voltaire himself did much to address the medieval myths and slander which unfortunately linger to this day. And I also believe that Pascal and Chesterton led a lot of people to find a joy in religion which they might otherwise have been deprived of.
    Your example of ISIS is an instructive one. The truth is that ISIS do emerge from particular historical currents within Islam. It is ISIS who believe they are beyond the grasp of history, fighting a cosmic war to re-establish a mythical caliphate. To reduce them to “ahistorical opportunism” is to play their own game. Moreover, unless we know where ISIS comes from, we can only retaliate against them with missiles. Nor does an ISIS “knucklehead” have to know who the Kharjites are or understand the finer points of Wahabbism (if there are any) to be a product of those movements.
    Similarly, if we strip Bolt, Maher et al of their context and history, it seems as if we simply have to accept them as natural phenomena which may or may not go away. But if we know the intellectual currents on which these people unwittingly draw, it helps us to recognise and combat them. It should strike a note of caution in us, to think that some of the smartest men in history are capable of displaying shocking intellectual laziness when it comes to Islam. It should make us realise the true resilience of Islamophobia and the fact that it has never been the exclusive province of career mediocrities like Bill Maher. Otherwise, we run the risk of making Islamophobia into something “over there”.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comment John,

    If your argument is “that Bolt’s poisonous combination of ignorance and entitlement has been exhibited by far greater minds than his,” then I don’t have anything to add or disagree with. What motivated my piece was an impression that you were positing a live tradition between all those minds, that they formed a discourse that “is pushing against learning, against education, towards comfortable, monolithic stereotypes”.

    My intent had been to dispute this, and to argue that while Bolt, Lambi etc are bigots, a closer consideration of the context and intention of Pascal and Voltaire shows them not to be analogous cases (on the case of Chesterton you might be right), and that to link them together as a ‘venerable’ scion is severely anachronistic. Those figures weren’t failures of intelligence and decency in the same way that Bolt and Co are. For instance, Pascal was using the best information available – it just happened to be incorrect. Bolt and Lambi have centuries of scholarship available at their fingertips, but chooses not to consult it.

    My intention wasn’t to defend what Pascal wrote, but to argue that what he wrote isn’t an example of willful moral and intellectual stupidity. I never said that Pascal claimed Mohummed forbade translation, or that Pascal had his facts right. But though although the idea that Mohummed forbade the reading of Koran is false, but it is anachronistic to call it ‘self-evidently ridiculous’. Pascal would have cited the Catholic Church’s history as an example. At various councils, the Church banned the laity owning a bible, reading it, or translating it, for the obvious reason that this control over scripture provided immense authority. Since Catholics had been doing it, it wouldn’t have been prima-facie unreasonable to believe that Muslims were too, especially if you had it on word of an eminent authority (in Pascal’s case the being Grotius).

    – “What did he believe Muslims did with the Quran, if not read it?”
    The same thing that Protestants accused Catholics of doing with their engraved Latin bibles, that is, fetishize them as sacred objects while taking orders from a glorified heretic.

    I think these significantly complicate the picture of Pascal. Maybe they don’t absolve him of the same charge that Bolt would easily be indicted for, and if we way everything up and consider his historical/intellectual contexts, he’d still be at fault.

    Voltaire has a prejudice about what he likes in art. He likes order, irony, symmetry, and dislikes vigorous expressions of enthusiasm and much that could be called ‘epic’. He criticizes the Koran for the same reasons he criticizes some of the giants of Western literature. This is not an example of a great mind suffering “a few palpitations when Islam is concerned” but a comprehensive aesthetic doctrine applied equally to everything. When it came to existing Islam, Voltaire could express admiration for existing Islamic civilization, and for Mohummed as a law-giver. He could also be harshly critical, but no more so than he was of most religion. Voltaire might be religion-phobic, but he doesn’t single out Muslims or Islam for special abuse, or hold it uniquely responsible for violence, as Islamophobia general does.

    – “he is not merely condemning the Quran as a text but the credulity and foolishness of Muslims as well.”
    I don’t think this is at all what Voltaire is implying. He was enough of a relativist to recognize that different texts were for different peoples. Indeed, in the same essay he writes “If his book is bad for our times and for us, it was very good for his contemporaries.” He would say that it was a text composed by and for the tastes of people at a certain level of civilizational sophistication: appropriate for them, but not for a modern Frenchman. This is condescending, but it isn’t Islamophobic. He says the same thing, as I mentioned, about Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. Is this bigotry that should be condemned? If it is, we’d have to indite most of the 18th century France for bigotry, on the grounds that they condemned the Iliad, the Old Testament, and Shakespeare in the same terms that Voltaire did the Koran.

    As for your contention about how to treat holy texts, we might have to disagree here. In my opinion, that some texts and their devotees proclaim their own sacredness doesn’t make people bigots for simply reading them as one would any other book.

    I’m not sure why I ended up trying to defend Chesterton, whose mixture of incontinent wit and intellectual glibness I usually find pretty infuriating. Reading more of him on Islam, I take back that he “get’s his fact’s right” or responds with “maximum charity” – his crank speculations on Islamic history and society are moronic and depressingly characteristic.

    I wrote that Chesterton is probably drawing “attention to the fact Islam does not afford to Mohammed’s disciples the same authority as Christianity does to Christ’s”. If this is what Chesterton meant (and maybe I am being charitable here) I would still maintain that he is far from “comprehensively wrong”. The Koran is recited by alone. The New Testament by a group. No disciple of Mohammed is given the weight Christianity affords to Paul, James, John, or Peter, all of whom authored books now considered part of Christian scripture. If Chesterton had bothered to read the Koran (as you suggest he hadn’t), he wouldn’t have found the hadith you mentioned, but he might have been struck by verses at 18:102 and 110, speak fiercely against worshipping anyone but God, even if they are God’s servants. My understanding is that while Islam accepts the prophet’s disciples as models of behavior, the idea of praying to them (or to Mohammed) as a Christian might to a saint is strictly forbidden.

    But on the whole you’re probably right. Chesterton is typically Islamaphobic in that he blames Islamic doctrine for a range of political problems (ie the Mahdi) without evidence, in a way that he would never do with Christianity.

    One final point. You argue that ‘ISIS do emerge from particular historical currents within Islam’, but I’d argue that ISIS is connected to Islam in the same way that Igor Strelkov’s separatist movement in the Ukraine is to Christianity or Burma’s 969 movement to Buddhism: contingently, not essentially. Political instability and recent history create those phenomena more than religion, which is the language groups like that speak in but not what bring them into existence in the first place.

    I think Bolt and Maher are a parallel case. If they were in Australia 40 years ago, they’d be talking about Asians; Europe 90 years go, Jews; America 150 years ago, Irish immigrants. It pays them to do what they do. Their target changes from period to period. They are not motivated by an anti-Muslim zeitgeist that blows from the Crusaders to the present, just as the Moorish invasion of Spain and ISIS today are not powered by the same historic force. Muslims just currently happen to be the group that they can pull an audience by slandering.

    – “…the smartest men in history are capable of displaying shocking intellectual laziness when it comes to Islam. It should make us realise the true resilience of Islamophobia…”

    To my ear, this makes Islamaphobia sound like some kind of transhistorical brain-parasite that can get into anyone’s head and make them start talking rubbish, no matter how smart they are. I have tired to deconstruct this and argue instead that the contemporary Islamophobia of certain pundits is better seen as a current manifestation of the fact that prejudice pays (and always has), rather than a resurgence of an ancient enmity. Trying to forge a string of disparate historical opinions together trikes me as dubious in the same way that anti-Islamic pundits are when they select disparate examples selected from a huge swath of history seeking to prove the existence of “Islam’s innate tendency towards violence” or some-such. That is certainly not to say that such pundits should be written off as inevitable “natural” phenomena that permits no remedy.

    I’m aware that this is an increasingly academic distinction to make, and deciding on it one way or another doesn’t change the fact that prejudice and willful ignorance exists today.

  4. Hi Alex
    I’ve just come here after reading an article you wrote for the drum in 2014. The writing here and there are excellent and very persuasive. (Sounds like an interesting argument you and John were engaged in (if tangential to the concerns for Islam/Islamophobia of most)).

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