Monday, November 13, 2006

A cardinal singularly unromantic about Islam

Back in its June/July issue, First Things published an essay on Islam by George Cardinal Pell of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia. Finally available online, the article, entitled, "Islam and Us," begins with five paragraphs reviewing the reasons optimists seize upon for assuring us that Islam and Western democracies can pleacefully coexist. These reasons include the familiar arguments by specialists that jihad is primarily a matter of 'spiritual striving' within a "religion of peace"; that the Qur'an and Shari'a (Islamic law) and Islam itself are a matter of diverse interpretation within the myriad variations of Muslim typologies (Sunni, Shiite, Sufi, Indonesian, Balkan, Iranian, Nigerian, etc.); that cultural achievements of Islam in the Middle Ages and toleration extended to Jewish and Christian subjects as "people of the Book" should minimize concerns in the great scheme of things about Islam as a source of terrorism (which ought to be blamed, rather, on such factors as tribalism, interethnic enmity, long-term colonialism and Western domination, poverty, etc.); that Indonesia and Turkey provide examples of successful Muslim societies and that Australia and the United States provide success stories of stable assimilation; and that the totalitarian examples of Islamicist rule exemplified by countries such as Afghanistan under the Taliban will inevitably prove unsustainable in the face of our common humanity.

The balance of the article, however, falls on the pessimistic side of the equasion, beginning with an analysis of the Qur'an itself, then tracing the history of Muslim rule in Spain and Portugal, and the effect of Islamic rule on the economic and cultural development of Muslim countries themselves. The perspective, for a prelate of the Cardinal's stature, is uncommonly politically incorrect, and one that badly needs to be factored into the equasion of current assessments. Here are just a few excerpts from this part of the article:
On the pessimistic side of the equation, concern begins with the Koran itself. I started, in a recent reading of the Koran, to note invocations to violence—and abandoned the exercise after fifty or sixty pages, as there are so many of them. In coming to an appreciation of the true meaning of jihad, for example, it is important to bear in mind the difference between the suras written during Muhammad’s thirteen years in Mecca and those written after he had based himself at Medina. Irenic interpretations of the Koran typically draw heavily on the suras written in Mecca, when Muhammad was without military power and still hoped to win people through preaching and religious activity. After emigrating to Medina, Muhammad formed an alliance with two Yemeni tribes and the spread of Islam through conquest and coercion began. One calculation is that Muhammad engaged in seventy-eight battles, only one of which, the Battle of the Ditch, was defensive. The suras from the Medina period reflect this decisive change.

The predominant grammatical form in which jihad is used in the Koran carries the sense of fighting or waging war. A different form of the verb in Arabic means “striving” or “struggling,” and English translations sometimes use this form as a way of euphemistically rendering the Koran’s incitements to war against unbelievers. But in any case, the so-called “verses of the sword” (sura 9:5 and 9:36), coming as they do in what scholars generally believe to be one of the last suras revealed to Muhammad, are taken to abrogate a large number of earlier verses on the subject (over 140, according to one radical website). The suggestion that jihad is primarily a matter of spiritual striving is also contemptuously rejected by some Islamic writers on the subject. One writer warns that “the temptation to reinterpret both text and history to suit ‘politically correct’ requirements is the first trap to be avoided,” before going on to complain that “there are some Muslims today, for instance, who will convert jihad into a holy bath rather than a holy war, as if it is nothing more than an injunction to cleanse yourself from within.”

The Christian and Jewish sources of the Koran are an important basis for dialogue and mutual understanding, although there are difficulties. Perhaps foremost among them is the understanding of God. It is true that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam claim Abraham as their father and the God of Abraham as their God. I accept, with reservations, the claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God, but this has been disputed, not only by Christians but by Muslims as well. It is difficult to recognize the God of the New Testament in the God of the Koran, and two very different concepts of the human person have emerged from the Christian and Muslim understandings of God. This has had significant consequences for the different cultures that Christianity and Islam have given rise to, and for the scope of what is possible within them.

The history of Muslim relations with Christians and Jews does not offer reasons for optimism in the way that some people easily assume. The claims of Muslim tolerance of Christian and Jewish minorities are largely mythical, as the history of Islamic conquest and domination in the Middle East, the Iberian peninsula, and the Balkans makes abundantly clear. In the territory of modern-day Spain and Portugal, which was ruled by Muslims from 716 and not finally cleared of Muslim rule until the surrender of Granada in 1491, Christians and Jews were tolerated only as dhimmis, subject to punitive taxation, legal discrimination, and a range of minor and major humiliations. If a dhimmi harmed a Muslim, his entire community would forfeit protection and be freely subject to pillage, enslavement, and murder. Harsh reprisals, including mutilations, deportations and crucifixions, were imposed on Christians who appealed for help to the Christian kings or who were suspected of having converted to Islam opportunistically. Raiding parties were sent out several times every year against the Spanish kingdoms in the north, and also against France and Italy, for loot and slaves. The caliph in Andalusia maintained an army of tens of thousand of Christian slaves from all over Europe, and also kept a harem of captured Christian women. The Jewish community in the Iberian peninsula suffered similar sorts of discriminations and penalties, including restrictions on how they could dress. A pogrom in Granada in 1066 annihilated the Jewish population there and killed over five thousand people.

Arab rule in Spain and Portugal was a disaster for Christians and Jews, as was Turkish rule in the Balkans. The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans commenced in the mid-fifteenth century and was completed over the following two hundred years. Churches were destroyed or converted into mosques, and the Jewish and Christians populations became subject to forcible relocation and slavery. The extension or withdrawal of protection depended entirely on the disposition of the Ottoman ruler of the time. Christians who refused to apostatize were taxed and subject to conscript labor. Where the practice of the faith was not strictly prohibited, it was frustrated—for example, by making the only legal market day Sunday. Violent persecution was a constant threat. One scholar estimates that before the Greek war of independence in 1828, the Ottomans executed eleven patriarchs of Constantinople, nearly one hundred bishops, and several thousand priests, deacons and monks. Lay people were prohibited from practicing certain professions and trades, even sometimes from riding a horse with a saddle, and until the early eighteenth century their adolescent sons lived under the threat of the military enslavement and forced conversion which provided possibly one million janissary soldiers to the Ottomans during their rule. Under Byzantine rule the peninsula enjoyed a high level of economic productivity and cultural development. This was swept away by the Ottoman conquest and replaced with a general and protracted decline in productivity.

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