March 1, 2006
Of Technology and AshesBy Andrew Sumereau
Because many in the West regard religious faith with distaste, as the incoherent superstition and prejudice of backward peoples, religious illiteracy has become one of the most serious obstacles to success in the war on terror. In confronting the mindset of Islam, the inability of western intellectuals to comprehend the worldview of a religious culture, something so foreign to the experience of their everyday lives, has often proven disastrous.
Ironically, the sad truth is that when confronted by committed people of faith, cosmopolitan sophisticates betray themselves as the most provincial of people. Thus, while the suitability or aptitude of theoretical Muslims to embrace democracy or modernity is discussed at great length by many enlightened opinion—makers, extraordinarily little attention is focused on the problem of basic communication and understanding between people with radically different spiritual worldviews.
They can't speak the language. They get everything half—right... and half—wrong.
Experts on the cable networks, talk—radio, and opinion columns endlessly discuss the political implications of Iraq, Iran, Israel, Sudan, democracy, terror and jihad, and one is struck by how rarely the vitally important subject of religious culture is considered. In the infrequent instances when it is broached, it is almost an afterthought, as if it is merely a secondary irritant rather than the essential cause of the conflict.
Lamentably, in dealing with the rest of the world, much of the West is simply reluctant to acknowledge the vast difference which exists between things as they are, and things as they wish them to be. (This state of affairs exists with our relations with most nations; China and Russia spring to mind most readily.)
The habit of seeing everything through secular western eyes inhibits the capacity for right action. This is not to say that credence must be given to a craven and dishonest breast—beating of the post—9/11 'why do they hate us' mentality. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of what is most necessary: an honest assessment of what previously were referred to as 'first things' as historically understood by philosophers, churchman, and simple folk alike.
Champions over the centuries of democracy, capitalism, and Western technological advancement have long understood and appreciated the Judeo—Christian philosophical underpinnings of that advancement. Contrastingly, critics of the West often highlight this connection if only negatively, to denigrate those ideals or to obfuscate the inevitable consequences drawn from the implication. Of course, theology, philosophy, ritual, tradition all have profound impact on our lives. Yet, curiously, calling attention to the obvious strengths (and weaknesses) of Western religion and culture while ignoring the contrary impulse of Islam is the prevailing mindset.
It is all part of the double standard so familiar in other instances. The NewYork Times' recent sensitivity to the religious feelings of Muslims towards editorial cartoons is amazing considering their frequent withering attacks on all things Christian, their relentless cheerleading for sacrilegious 'art', and their devout reverence for all things gay. And the Times is not alone. Interestingly, to the fearful and ignorant mainstream media, the 'religion of peace' gets kid—glove treatment; the Prince of Peace gets the hammer.
Eighty years ago, in writing about what he considered the Christian heresy of Mohammedism, Hillaire Belloc anticipated the eventual growth and development of Islam with the clarity of a prophet. He acknowledged the anti—technological aspects of Islamic culture and its disastrous economic effects on Islamic nations, the innate backwardness of an insular culture set against the stupendous advances of the West. Furthermore he insisted that beyond the absence of any cultural incentives for innovation, there was a positive aversion to progress. Surely, it is difficult to establish a booming economy when lending, borrowing, and many other routine financial transactions are regarded as sinful usury. But further, he related the success of Islam as a reactionary religion successful mostly in its force of arms, a fighting creed from the inception that almost succeeded in routing the West sixteen centuries ago.
Little has changed.
So where are we now? The elite are cowed. Sophisticated urbanites in Europe and America pause uneasily over the morning paper's reports from the Middle East only to hurriedly turn the page to ruminate over the Oscar probabilities of Brokeback Mountain or delight in Paris Hilton's latest escapade. Religion, to the New York Times crowd, is something to deride, a disease of unenlightened minds.
Or, on second thought, a thing to cynically appease, to massage as one approaches an oncoming election.
Religion is something from which the enlightened have all, unofficially of course, moved on. This explains the dilemma of the blindsided Danish press. As Joe Sobran recently wrote,
One doesn't have to go overseas to see this phenomenon of incompatible worldviews. The abortion debate is exhibit A in the domestic communication divide. One side, through the prism of morality, natural law and revealed religion, views abortion as the heinous act of a mother and a doctor conspiring to kill her baby. The other side views the act as the simple medical procedure of removing unwanted tissue, a therapeutic choice in the pursuit of health. Of such differences arise passions.
What many of the West consider evolutionary progress, from women's rights to universal suffrage, from gay marriage to pornography on demand, from birth—controlled smaller families to euthanasia, the unsophisticated millions of the world regard as perils to their immortal souls. Of flat—screen TVs, cell—phone upgrades, new hybrid automobiles, ever—faster travel, an ever—growing gross national product, it does not take a jihadist to find alternative philosophies to which such desirables are anathema. Indifference to the purported wonders of our age can be found in every culture and nation. Our growing Amish communities can attest to that.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Billions will observe the day by acknowledging the ephemeral nature of our mortal existence. To the worldly and sophisticated, oblivious to the language of faith and love, the self—denial, purification, and expiation of the Lenten season must seem nonsensical. But any sincere attempt to seek understanding would no doubt be scorned. The willful ignorance of how religious faith infuses the lives of most of the world's people is probably the most dangerous education gap we have.
The problem remains. As technology shrinks the world, and the people of the world interact as never before, how does a predominant Western culture that regards, 'irreverent,' 'iconoclastic,' and 'edgy' as terms of praise deal with nations and cultures that are intolerant of sacrilege?
Andrew Sumereau is a frequent contributor.