Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Dysfunctional World

Anyone who follows the developments in the Arab Islamic world will be struck by the complete absence of self-knowledge and introspection that characterizes these vexed cultures. Almost every problem is attributed to hostile external forces. The poverty and underdevelopment that plague most of the Arab world are the result of malicious machinations of Americans and Jews. This is no less true of the disaster in Darfur. Last week UPI reported that the Sudanese foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail had told journalists in Cairo that his government possessed "information that confirms media reports of Israeli support (for the rebels in Darfur)." He added that he was "sure the next few days will reveal a lot of Israeli contacts with the rebels."

Arab-Islamic World Is a Hostage of Its Own Delusions, by Leon de Winter, in Outlook Today.

For too many pan-Arabist politicians, the possibility of foreign intervention in Sudan is a greater problem than the currently overwhelming humanitarian disaster in that nation -- never mind the issue of whether Arab militias are actually fomenting genocide. Indeed, as Julie Flint wrote on this page, an audience recently offered Khartoum's ambassador in Beirut loud applause when he stated that allegations against Sudan were part of a worldwide conspiracy against all Arabs. Indeed, for too many Islamists throughout the world, martyrdom has become its own nihilist reward.

Severed Heads and the Arab World's Foul Predicament, by Charles Paul Freund, in The Daily Star.

It's been said that what the Muslim world needs is a Martin Luther. I say it would do better with a John Locke. An intellectual but religious man deeply disturbed by the social chaos of war and revolution in his homeland and religious extremism run amok all around him, he wrote "Essay Concerning Human Understanding."

He does not set reason about revelation; he is an anti-fanatic without being an atheist altar-smasher. He addressed fundamental matters of religion and morality with an eye toward living in a world where social harmony was broken, and tradition had failed. He enlisted reason as a primary agent of thinking, and freed the mind from the medieval notion that rationality consists of studying tradition.

The essential stuff is in Chapter XVIII. Traditional revelation may make us know propositions knowable also by reason, but not with the same certainty that reason doth ... Even original revelation cannot be admitted against the clear evidence of reason ... Revelation in matters where reason cannot judge, or but probably, ought to be hearkened to ... In matters where reason can afford certain knowledge, that is to be hearkened to ... If the boundaries be not set between faith and reason, no enthusiasm or extravagancy in religion can be contradicted ....

One reason change comes to Islam with glacial slowness is not simply that it's legal code and worldview is based on an ancient revelation, but that that revelation has been interpreted via an evolved methodology. The methodology, more than the revelation, is what keeps reform from breaking through.

Without it, one could easily pit the Qur'an against the Qur'an, taking each troublesome verse in some different light to make it conform to a modern standard. Reformers have tried to do that.

For instance, the Tunisian Law of Personal Status (1956) addressed polygamy in a Qur'anic context. The traditional law permitted a man to marry up to four wives. Tunisian reformers found this offensive to modern mores, and attempted to abolish it based on the very Qur'anic verse that permitted it, 4:3: "Marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice then one only ... It is more likely that ye will not do justice."

No one besides the Prophet was sufficiently perfect to treat two or more wives with complete equality and justice, they reasoned; hence, realistically, the latter part of the verse supplants the former part.

But this was roundly rejected by Muslim legal scholars because it was not sustained by any cohesive legal methodology. It was an argument of convenience, for the sake of one verse, one law. An injection of Locke -- a native, Muslim Locke -- would be a first step toward prying open the gates of unalterable law in the Middle East while respecting the tradition of it. Locke has methodology.

The word "self-evident" appears in English for the first time in Locke's essay. Less than a century later, Thomas Jefferson enshrined the word in the Declaration of Independence. Human freedom begins with a firm first step out of religious fanaticism.