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.