Friday, February 16, 2007

Learning experience

I don't want to be rude, but if you are going to write an article about "What the West Can Learn From Islam", I do think you should include, erm, what you think the West can actually learn. A history lesson is nice, and it's always lovely to see the names of the Muslim philosophers of the age when Islam was actually a (fairly minor) force in philosophy dropped, but where are the things the West can learn?

Given that Muslim philosophy bogged down in a dead end of neoplatonism, that its jurisprudence is less developed than ours, and that its structures and influence have produced societies that are dysfunctional and passive, I'd suggest that "not much" is not a totally unfair answer. This is not a question of cultural supremacism. It's just what it is. As Ramadan is pointing out, Islam is profoundly conservative. Is what the West should learn that Medina in 800 or so is a great model for society? That we'd all be happier if we'd just submit to God and allow a strong leader to run the place? If not, what?

And this struck me:

Much is made of pluralism, of equality, of racial nondiscrimination, and yet a great many Western societies have chosen to apply an "ethnic" or "Islamic" label to social problems rather than devising political and social responses to social crises. The upshot is that Muslims, even though they are citizens, are seen as a problem rather than as partners in a solution.

The problem is though that 7/7, for instance, is difficult to define as impelled by a "social crisis". And when people are killing their peers because either they feel kinship with the people of Iraq that our government is involved in mistreating or they do not feel they can accept the values and mores of our culture, such as they are, because of a particular reading of the strictures of their religion, well, is that not a problem with Muslims of a sort? I don't draw the same conclusions from that recognition as, for instance, the haters on the right do, but I recognise that the problem is at least in part rooted in a cultural disjunction. Ramadan is quite jolly about it: he believes that the "tension" in Western societies may well be positive, providing a chance to renew the commitment to diversity.

Well yes. But my "commitment to diversity" does not really stretch as far as a commitment to thinking it's okay to urge the murder of your peers, or to kill them. And I'm not sure that I feel particularly tolerant towards those who want to make women second-class citizens (to the extent of mutilating them even) and want to pull our society back to their idea of paradise on Earth (my idea of paradise would never exclude music or dancing, and I don't see why I have to be particularly tolerant towards those who don't just want that for themselves, but want to impose it on me too).

And can we learn from Islam how to accommodate these tensions? No, actually, we can't. Most Islamic countries deal with minorities by oppressing them severely.

Ramadan ends by saying:

Seeking out what Muslims love, how they love, and the nature of their aspirations can be the beginning of a difficult but respectful encounter.

The question that begs is why the West would want a "difficult encounter"? Europeans have done difficult. It proved very painful for us. These days we have a more relaxed approach to our differences. An acquaintance with Muslim thought will not open a door for you to a new world of experience and interesting ideas. Sorry but it doesn't. A wealth of art, yes. A fresh perspective in some ways, yes. An interesting history, yes. But as a learning experience, it is mostly a cautionary tale.


Anonymous Sour Grapes said...

My experience is pitifully limited, but such as it is, it accords with your final thoughts. I found the insights offered by Naguib Mahfouz, for example, illuminating in that they allowed me to see aspects of Islam through other eyes than my own Scottish Presbyterian pair. There is much to be learned, but not in the sense of "take as a model".

I had toyed with the idea of pointing out how, by embracing everything from Morocco to Indonesia, Islam had shown a capacity for tolerance. But then I was reminded that one's inclusion in the ummah is entirely dependent on one's submission to something supra-national, supra-cultural and supra-racial. So it's not much of a form of tolerance at all.

February 17, 2007 at 3:37 AM  

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