Friday, January 12, 2007

Signs of the Times - Part II

This post was to be uploaded the day after the January 5th post, "Signs of the Times - Part I," but I was hampered by chores and haunted by misgivings. But here it is, in between chores (I'm sitting in a waiting room where Liz is undergoing treatment) and with some lingering misgivings.

A demographic death-spiral and the moral and cultural disorientations that have lately been the ideological fashion have combined to all but insure that Islam will be the dominant religious force in Europe within a few short decades. As Mark Steyn puts it, "every Continental under the age of 40 – okay, make that 60, if not 75 – is all but guaranteed to end his days living in an Islamified Eurabia." Press reports suggest that majority Muslim enclaves now exist in Europe over which law enforcement personnel have effectively relinquished control and where non-Muslims and especially Jews enter at their own risk. In any case, Jews are once again having to look over their shoulders in Europe. The secular humanism that thought itself the inevitable heir to the European legacy in the post-Christian era has produced what Steyn calls "the gaping nullity of contemporary European identity."

If consummated, this process will undoubtedly bring to an end Europe's love affair with diversity, which has had such a sentimental appeal for those who considered the task of preserving the West's religious and cultural heritage to be both morally inconvenient and politically embarrassing.

The U.S. is not, happily, in the same situation. So it was of relatively little cultural consequence when an incoming Congressional Representative from Minnesota, Keith Ellison, took his oath of office by placing his hand on the book he regards as the supreme religious authority, the Quran. Neither the cooing nor the catcalls caught the minor meaning of the event. This was the first use of the Muslim scriptures in such a ceremony, but the refusal to be sworn in on the Bible is not unprecedented.

Some years ago, Mr. Ellison found a new religious home in Islam by way of his conversion to the Nation of Islam. There's nothing wrong with that; a person's religious convictions are to be respected. Religious freedom is the primary political freedom. Any and all who find Islam's truth-claims worthy of their adherence have every right, within the normal limits of civility, to affirm those claims and to proclaim their validity from the rooftops. (If this right was respected in Muslim societies, where for the most part it is not, the world would be a better place.)

While the use of the Islamic holy book is unremarkable in one sense, it is not entirely unproblematic. We need to seize every occasion circumstance offers to reflect on the historical and cultural currents at work in our world, and, however minor by comparison with other events, this is one such occasion. The accusation flies at the drop of a hat, of course, but it is not "Islamophobic" to ask a few questions about it.

Question #1. When next someone insists on taking the oath of office on, say, Mary Baker Eddy's, Science and Health, or Plato's Republic, or Darwin's Origin of the Species, or Hitler's Mein Kamph, or a paperback edition of collected Doonesbury cartoons, on what basis will the demand be judged out of bounds?

Like the marriage fiasco: by rendering cultural norms infinitely malleable and subordinating them to individual preference, we effectively dismantle the shared polity by reference to which a truly vibrant pluralistic society can flourish. Once we refuse to build on foundations, there's nothing left but shifting sand.

Question #2. When one takes an oath to meet his or her responsibilities as a public official in a Western pluralistic democracy, is there reason to be concerned if the oath is sworn on a book that explicitly rejects the "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's" that has long served as the bedrock of the West's distinction between political and religious authority -- a book that purports to reveal the final and unalterable will of Allah for the human race, that demands the religious control of political life, and that commands its adherents to convert (if possible) and subdue (if necessary) all non-Muslims to Islamic rule?

Question #3. What is to be made of the fact that, in this case and in Europe, Muslim politicians are finding a political home among those whose policies are most antithetical to the longstanding moral and cultural traditions of western culture?

In the early years of Mr. Ellison's conversion, he expressed his new religious enthusiasm with an air of racial superiority and in terms that were explicitly anti-Semitic. He has just successfully run for office as a member in good standing of the Democratic party. Had a conservative Republican humbly repented of sentiments analogous to those of Mr. Ellison's early days as a Muslim, the chances of his being elected, especially in a liberal congressional district, would have been nil. Yet these things proved no handicap for Mr. Ellison. Why? Mr. Ellison is a member of both a racial and a religious minority. These qualities have the power to absolve many otherwise politically fatal offenses for liberals of a certain stripe.

To describe Islamic thought as illiberal is neither inaccurate nor insulting, especially if the Quran is used as the measure of such things. (Nor is it to confuse it with traditional western conservatism, which is, for the most part, a truer heir of the classical liberal tradition than is today's libertine Left.) Islam is and has always been illiberal precisely in the sense that the future for which it hopes is a replica of its former glories, real or imagined. How, then, do we account for the alliance between an unapologetically illiberal religious tradition and political parties that increasingly espouse hyper-liberal and assertively secular points of view?

Europe is the alchemical retort in which this political concoction is being brewed. It is there where a seemingly unlikely alliance is emerging between the secular Left, on one hand, and, on the other, a politically emboldened Islam which makes no secret of its determination to refashion European culture along Muslim lines. Who would have predicted such an alliance? It begs for explanation.

The principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend at least helps to explain such things. Hatred of George Bush, of American hegemony, of "capitalism" ("globalization"), of "the Christian right," and sundry other effigies ritually hoisted aloft by jihadists and Leftists alike has an enormously unifying and galvanizing effect. In Europe the unifying effect of this sort of shared antipathy is almost certainly a factor in the alliance.

The Norwegian journalist, Fjordman, an insightful commentator on European cultural developments, recently characterized the situation this way:
Leftists and Muslims have a mutual short-term interest in keeping the Leftist parties in power, and a mutual long-term interest in weakening the traditional culture of Europe. During this third Islamic Jihad, the third Islamic attempt to conquer and subdue the West, Leftists all over Europe seem to be opening the gates of Europe from within. "You want to conquer Europe? That's ok. Just vote for us and help us get rid of capitalism and eradicate the Christian heritage of Europe, and we'll let you in. In the meantime, you can enjoy some welfare goodies, and we will ban opposition to this undertaking as racism and hate speech."
Bat Ye’or, the well-known author of Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide and Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, offers this summary of the European Left:
The Left shares a visceral anti-Americanism and a totalitarian propensity with the general Arab population. ... But above all, the Left uses these immigrants to help destroy the traditional Judeo-Christian values of a vacillating, demographically impoverished Europe plagued by anti-Semitism.
None of this, let me emphasize, applies to Mr. Ellison. He has apparently conducted himself with political restraint and equanimity. As I said, the freshman Congressman's use of the Quran in his swearing-in ceremony is simply an occasion for reflecting on historical and cultural trends.

I know little of Mr. Ellison's political views except what can be inferred from his party affiliation. While the Republican party is hardly a repository of Christian truth, the Democratic party's commitment to abortion on demand (from conception to the moment of birth), to the creation and destruction of embryonic life for medical research, and to policies that will unquestionably lead to the functional destruction of institution of marriage, make it an odd political home for any serious traditionalist, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

That said, however, and giving Mr. Ellison the benefit of the doubt, let's just say that if he has managed to buck the Quran's demand that all political life be forcefully subordinated to Islamic law, and if he has belatedly bucked the vulgar anti-Semitism with which even "moderate" Islam is today rife, then he just might have the force of character to buck his party's vacuous moral relativism and anthropological naivete. Were he able to do this, then Mr. Ellison would become a very good public servant indeed. One hopes he does and wishes him well.

It is, admittedly, a long list of ifs, but there are also other reasons for hope. Reports suggest (if I'm not mistaken) that Congressman Ellison was raised a Catholic by a devout mother. Those of us who believe that the culture that protects the freedom of religion -- and that imposes no religious test for participation in its political life -- will soon cease to do these things if it fails to publicly acknowledge its debt to the religious tradition that fostered these protections in the first place -- those of us who believe this may be permitted to hope that what Walker Percy said about a successful hypothetical novelist might be true as well of a successful young Minnesota politician:
“Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young Communist at Columbia and I'll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialect.”


Grateful2God...! said...

Dear Friend -

While I understand the point you made under Question #1, just for the record the comparison of a Christian Scientist swearing an oath on Mary Baker Eddy's "Science and Health" is inaccurate. The Bible is the Bible to Christian Scientists - the central book of their Christianity - and Science and Health is a book treasured for its illumination of the spiritual and healing meaning of the Scriptures. Science and Health does not replace the Bible in the Christian Scientist's mind, but aids and abets the understanding of its infinite spiriutal resources. So there would be no cause for a Christian Scientist to forsake the Bible for Science and Health in the same way that a Muslim might wish to replace the Scriptures with the Koran.

All the best!

Anonymous said...

What many people do not understand about members of Congress being sworn in is that there is an official swearing in - conducted as a group in the House or Senate chamber, where no religious book of any type is allowed to be used, and where an oath is taken to the Constitution of the United States, not to any religion. Afterwards, in private ceremonies that many use for a photo op with family, friends and supporters, members of Congress take a "ceremonial" unofficial oath for the cameras. There is no requirement to use any book, religious or otherwise, in fact the Constitution forbids any such requirement as a "religious test." Historically, members of Congress in this unofficial, private ceremony, have used the Bible, the Tanack, the Book of Mormon, the New York Times, photos of their families, or nothing at all. Now Congressman Ellison, who has publicly and clearly renounced violence and terrorism of any form, chose to use a Qur'an. This is not something to be feared, it is something of which to be proud, as it shows that America is a country that respects religious freedom, that does not fear someone just because of some political hack columnist calling it the end of civilization, that we are truly a multicultural society. As Christians, this is a prime example of following the Great Commandment to love our neighbor, and following Christ's teachings of inclusiveness.