Friday, June 5, 2009

Faith Based Diplomacy

[Note: I would have liked to post the following thoughts on the day of the Cairo speech, but I was unable to do so because my satellite collection to the internet was down, thanks to the mean spirited mischievousness of the alleged Divinity, who has been hurling rain and thunder down upon these parts with reckless abandon.]

With Cairo in lockdown, President Obama gave an eloquent and inspiring speech, short on details and full of weasel words. No surprise in that! As expected, the neo-cons and other friends of the Israeli Right have reacted cautiously but critically; they don’t dare tear into Obama now. As expected too, pro-Obama liberals (are there any other kind?) reacted enthusiastically-- pointing out, correctly, that Obama went further than any American president ever has in saying sensible things, and that his style and approach was better by many orders of magnitude than George W. Bush’s. At the same time, knowledgeable people at home and abroad have voiced skepticism that Obama’s words – “moderate” words, I might add -- will be followed by the deeds they imply. After all, the evidence so far on Obama’s style of governance is not encouraging. He talks a good earful and he has an abundance of political capital to spend. But when it comes to spending it, his first instinct is to go “bipartisan” or, what comes to the same thing in the current lingo, “pragmatic” -- keeping things pretty much on the track they were on before the Cheney-Bush criminal enterprise took a hard right turn. Obama’s (actually, Wall Street’s) economic recovery policies and his (actually, the insurance and pharmaceutical corporation’s) plans for health care reform are examples. So is his “stewardship” of the endless and already lost Bush wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why expect anything better when it comes to setting things right with “the Muslim world”? Whatever Obama might like to do – and I continue to believe that he knows better than his actions suggest – the constraints he faces are enormously powerful, and he has so far been singularly unwilling to spend political capital to counter them.

However, there is one very salutary thing Obama could have easily done in Cairo that he did not. He could have inserted the adjective “historically” into the phrase “the Muslim world.”

Is it not odd that “the West,” a cultural and political configuration, or the United States, a country, is nowadays unthinkingly juxtaposed with “Islam,” a community of co-religionists! I think this is insulting to “Muslims,” even if many of them seem to welcome it. People living in historically Muslim lands or descended from people who did deserve better. But in a political culture like ours, where religion -- along with military service (but that’s another story) -- is deemed worthy of unlimited respect in public discourse, don’t expect very many people outside the “hard” left, or what’s left of it, to agree.

To be sure, George W. Bush did once use the word “crusade,” suggesting to those with a sense of history that 9/11 marked a return to the late medieval struggles of Islam and Christianity. But his handlers soon corrected the mistake. They understood that, in today’s world, it makes little sense to invoke long out-dated notions of Christendom. Nowadays, no one this side of George Bush thinks that “the Christian world” -- or, in an ecumenical (and anti-Muslim) spirit, “the Judaeo-Christian world” -- is a meaningful designation. This is because, when it comes to us, everyone who still has the sense they were born (not “born again”) with realizes, without always realizing that they do, that only very indoctrinated or very deluded or very ignorant people genuinely believe what their ancestors did. Certainly, no one who accepts rational standards for belief acceptance does. The particular beliefs the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- advance are just too outlandish to be taken seriously. So is the core belief they share – in the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, perfectly good Being, who created all that is, and who takes a personal interest in what goes on “down” here on earth.

Of course, the West, especially the United States, is full of self-declared Christians and Jews and, in recent decades, self-declared Muslims too. But I would hazard that apart from the truly benighted, none of them really takes any of the nonsense they claim they believe seriously. Professed believers, the sensible ones anyway, if they are sincere, are in a state of self-deception, of “bad faith.” The West, especially the United States, abounds with believers in bad faith.

If there is a real divide in the world today, it is not between Islam and Christianity (or Christianity plus Judaism) but between those who are Muslims or Christians or Jews in bad faith – ironically, they’re the more sensible ones! – and the true believers, who have yet to assimilate lessons drawn conclusively by Enlightened thinkers more than two and a half centuries ago. In addition to the multitudes in bad faith, there are also alarmingly many true believers in “the West,” especially in our United States. But, fortunately, not so many as there were when notions like “Christendom” still made sense.

Is the historically Muslim world really so far behind? No doubt, there are pressures throughout that part of the world, similar to those in this part, that encourage professions of (bad) faith. With the Left in eclipse and imperialist predations on the rise, add on too the sad development that Islam, or at least “fundamentalist” versions of it, has become the “anti-imperialism of fools,” in much the way that, in another time and place, anti-Semitism became, as August Bebel famously put it, “the socialism of fools.” No doubt too, the ignorance and resentment that produce true believers in the ostensibly enlightened West also operate in the historically Muslim world. It would not be surprising if, after years of domination by maleficent Western powers, ignorance and resentment are even more virulent there than here. But this is hardly a state of affairs to encourage, much less to assimilate into the common sense of our political culture. That’s just what we do when we speak of “the Muslim world” without inserting “historically” into the phrase. If we can talk about the West as a cultural and historical unity; we should be able to talk about the historically Muslim world in a similar way. To do otherwise is to pander to backwardness.

That’s what Obama did, enlisting almost universal praise (even from “progressives” and even from “Muslims”). How easy it would have been for him, when speaking of his father, to emphasize that, though descended from Muslims, his father was a thoroughly secular man. It might not have been politic – at least for his principal audiences at home and abroad. But it would have been courageous – and right. But then what can we expect from someone who, plainly knowing better, declares himself a Christian. As Edmund Gibbon, referring to the world of Roman antiquity before the onslaught of Christianity, put it long ago: for the magistrate all religions are equally useful. [He also noted that they are all equally true to the benighted masses, and equally false to the learned (whom he called “philosophers”).]

How relevant is it that many “Muslims” welcome being identified religiously? I think it is appropriate to answer that question rhetorically: how relevant is it that many women welcome being objectified sexually or otherwise demeaned?

Liberals invented freedom of religion – in the modern sense, where religion is a matter of private conscience only, without political significance. By now, they have won over all right-thinking people. In this respect, we are all liberals now. We all believe that people should be free to believe even the most outlandish nonsense, and to live according to whatever rules they please. But it is one thing to protect religion from state and societal interference, and something else to encourage it in the “private sphere.” Unfortunately, encouraging it or, at least, legitimating it is what liberals, Democrats especially, have been doing with a vengeance ever since that day in 2004 when Karl Rove drove John Kerry to defeat by cynically calling out hordes of true believers. And it is what liberals of all political parties have been doing in more “moderate” ways for decades. Enough already!

Christians talk about loving the sinner, hating the sin. The time is long past due for liberals to recover the venerable and once widely shared conviction of everyone on the political Left, liberals included, that, for as long as they are in our midst, we should love the believers, but militate against, not pander to, their inexcusably preposterous beliefs.

So, one and a half cheers for Obama – for a speech that, for all its fair and balanced “moderation,” pushed the “reset” button on relations between the United States and “the Muslim world.” It would have been two cheers, if he had spoken of the historically Muslim world instead. For anything more than that, for the full three cheers, words, no matter how well or poorly chosen, are not enough – not in a part of the world where, for the best of reasons, skepticism still reigns and where, as everywhere, actions speak louder than words.

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