Friday, May 16, 2008

Those people seem to be especially pious

In a couple of American op-ed articles the claim has been made that Barack Obama should not be viewed as a potential American leader who can reach out to the Muslim world, just because his father was a Muslim. In fact, say these pundits (no compliment here), Obama as president would be a complicating factor in American foreign policy: he would be regarded as an apostate and therefore subject to prosecution and the death penalty for apostasy. Edward Luttwack, a longtime purveyor of specious generalizations on very complex subjects (Roman military policy for instance), says for instance:

Because no government is likely to allow the prosecution of a President Obama — not even those of Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only two countries where Islamic religious courts dominate over secular law — another provision of Muslim law is perhaps more relevant: it prohibits punishment for any Muslim who kills any apostate, and effectively prohibits interference with such a killing.

At the very least, that would complicate the security planning of state visits by President Obama to Muslim countries, because the very act of protecting him would be sinful for Islamic security guards. More broadly, most citizens of the Islamic world would be horrified by the fact of Senator Obama’s conversion to Christianity once it became widely known — as it would, no doubt, should he win the White House. This would compromise the ability of governments in Muslim nations to cooperate with the United States in the fight against terrorism, as well as American efforts to export democracy and human rights abroad.

This is nonsense, as Juan Cole, a real expert in Shiite Islam, points out on his website Informed Comment. His commentary is well worth looking at.

Cole's discussion raised another point which has often occurred to me but which seldom seems to enter into intellectual discourse, whether it's about current events or historical phenomena. Cole says:
Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don't pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae.
That line reminded me of a conversation with a friend a long time ago. I had grown up in an area where Protestants were the majority but there was a large minority of Catholics. Catholics were regarded as being unusually pious. After all, they went to Mass every Sunday, had their own version of the Lord's Prayer which they insisted upon, and sent their kids to Catholic schools -- except of course when it was too expensive or inconvenient. My friend had grown up in a Catholic-majority area, where being a Catholic was pretty important to local identity, but it was the minority Protestants who were thought to be pious, since they seemed to be the ones going to church on regular basis, not the Catholics, who were just baptized and married in church.

Reading a short general description of what North American Catholics and Protestants were supposed to believe would do nothing to reveal the realities we had grown up with.

Educated people who want to be well informed often fall into a trap simply because they are open-minded and when studying religion that is not familiar to them, go to the library and pick up a book by a member of that religion, usually a member of the clergy or an academic theologian. Those people, however honest and outreaching they are, will probably give their readers what they consider the right slant, but a narrow one, on a very varied tradition, mostly followed -- or not -- by people who have never been to theological school and never considered entering the clergy for a second.

About 15 years ago I read a book on the history of Buddhism -- unfortunately I can't remember its name -- which tried to give the basic facts in about 200 pages. I came away from it very impressed by the variety of that tradition. In fact, I realized a general truth. Any big-time religion must contain a tremendous variety within it or it would never have become a big-time religion in the first place.

This insight, if accepted, should be especially useful for my students in the Crusade and Jihad class. Just because someone is labeled a Muslim or Christian, don't leap to assume that you know what that means for their social and political attitudes and priorities. Look and see what they really were, if the sources allow. Maybe some of the people you are studying weren't unusually pious after all.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Matthew Gabriele said...

I like the Templar of Tyre's description of the Fall of Acre for just this reason. Look at how he lambastes the "troublemaking" Christians from Europe, who come in and harass the local Muslims, giving the sultan a reason to attack.

There's also a strong suggestion that Ibn Shadadd (in his _Rare & Excellent History of Saladin_) doth protest too much about Saladin's piety, and devotion to jihad.

Anyway, spot on, Prof. Muhlberger.

3:17 PM  

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