France vs. ‘The Prettiest Sound on Earth’
President Obama says the Muslim call to prayer is "one of the prettiest sounds on earth at sunset." Meanwhile, millions of Muslims are eager to kill, rape, or enslave you at sunset in the name of their faith. There is no contradiction here; in fact, the relationship may be causal. For we cannot understand the murderous extremism of modern Islam without considering the hypnotic quality of its language.
When Islamists stormed several locations in Paris last November, killing 130 people, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed "shock" at the event, as though she couldn't imagine what might cause someone to do such a thing.
When an Islamist walked into a nightclub in Orlando and killed 49 people, President Obama called it "an act of hate," but claimed the killer's motive was unclear.
Now, once again, France has suffered a massive suicide attack, as a man has driven a truck through holiday crowds in Nice, killing dozens, until he was finally killed. We all knew immediately, from seeing this pattern so often, how the West's leaders would respond: "There is no justification for such horrible acts. We must stand together and reject hatred -- especially hatred directed against Muslims, who are uniformly peace-loving and moderate people. The terrorist was not a real Muslim. No real Muslim would do such a thing."
Muslims, calling themselves Muslims and claiming to be acting in the name of Allah, kill as many infidels as possible. Their supporters or spiritual allies in the Muslim world praise their martyrdom, while the more civilized Muslim commentators insist that the sentiments of the killers do not represent the majority of Muslims, although they often add that non-Muslims should try harder to understand the "root causes" which "drive" some Muslims to commit extreme acts.
In the face of all this Islamism, and the ongoing doctrinal debate within Islam over whether the killers were acting in a manner justifiable on Islamic principles, Western leaders and their bootlicking press steadfastly maintain near-perfect unanimity in denying that the Islamists represent Islam in any way, or that their actions entail any problem for the prospect of integrating millions of Muslim immigrants into Western societies.
More than a thousand German women are sexually molested by Muslim men on New Year's Eve, and the German media, partly under orders from the government, try to hide it, and then deliberately underreport its extent, thus leaving the population insufficiently aware of a public threat. Think about that -- the progressive German government and media knowingly withheld information about criminal behavior that, had it been fully reported immediately, might have prevented hundreds of assaults, in Germany and beyond. In effect, Merkel's government facilitated the mob sexual assault of hundreds of women.
In other words, European women are now, en masse, subject to random acts of molestation by Muslim men, but the perpetrators must never be referred to as Muslims, lest this lead anyone to think that Muslim men are going around molesting women.
A young French woman of my acquaintance told me years ago that there are areas of Paris that women avoid on account of the treatment they will receive there, due to their non-Muslim attire and uncovered heads. If someone told me there were neighborhoods in Saudi Arabia where a French girl should never go, that would be one thing. But that there are areas of Paris where a French girl should never go, and that we are supposed to just quietly accept this -- are we still on planet Earth?
The same, of course, now applies to neighborhoods in Malmö, London, and even Minneapolis. But we must never suggest that the cause of the trouble, the fear, or the sense of restriction and degradation, might be related to the religious inclinations of the perpetrators, although they invariably declare themselves to be Muslims acting on tenets of their faith.
The issue turns on the politically correct refusal to admit that Islam could have an inherently fanatical element, as though such a thought were regressive and culturally insensitive.
But perhaps it is the progressives, with their refusal to acknowledge self-declared jihadists as "real Muslims," who are the culturally insensitive ones. They are denying a sizeable faction of global Islam the violent enthusiasm for Allah that is central to their understanding of their faith, merely because it doesn't comport with our Western, modernized notions of what "real" religious adherence means.
Perhaps our progressives, whose two greatest areas of intellectual deficiency may be religion and common sense, are simply out their depth here. For one of the spiritual founders of their movement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had this issue figured out over two centuries ago.
Consider the Islamist hostage-takers who systematically release captives who can recite verses from the Koran. This is significant, for Islam is the only major religion in which people may be judged believers or infidels on such a basis. Speaking the Arabic words of the holy book -- speaking them aloud, recitation-style -- is essential to proving oneself a genuine Muslim. The sounds of the words themselves, spoken in their original tongue, are essential to the faith.
In his Essay on the Origin of Languages (John H. Moran translation, 1966), Rousseau criticizes modern European languages for evolving toward practical, rational functionality, and hence away from the quasi-melodic or "natural" representation of passions and imagery, which he believes to be the original purpose of speech. In contrast with the inherently musical characteristics of early language, which allowed ancient generals to move whole armies, and poets whole cities, with mere intonation, most modern languages are not calibrated to communicate easily (without shouting) in large crowds or across long distances. Ours are languages for "murmuring on couches" (p. 73), or for silent reading -- for logic and reflection -- and are therefore less suited to sweeping pronouncements that transport the masses into ecstasies of unreflective action, as powerful music can do.
He cites Arabic as the prime example of a current tongue that has retained its emotional, non-rational core, and therefore speaks first to the passions, rather than to reason. It persuades the feelings, creating what Rousseau calls "moral impressions," merely through its inherent accents and rhythm -- "one of the prettiest sounds on earth at sunset." Hence it is a most effective language for rallying men to immoderate enthusiasm for a cause, against sober judgment.
And this leads Rousseau to a most striking observation, one which, given its eighteenth-century vintage, never ceases to startle my graduate students when they first encounter it:
Thus, if one who read a little Arabic and enjoyed leafing through the Koran were to hear Mohammed personally preach in that eloquent, rhythmic tongue, with that sonorous and persuasive voice, seducing first the ears, then the heart, every sentence alive with enthusiasm, he would prostrate himself, crying: "Great prophet, messenger of God, lead us to glory, to martyrdom; we will conquer or die for you." Fanaticism always seems ridiculous to us, because there is no voice among us to make it understood. (pp. 49-50, cosmetically edited)
Fanatical tendencies or commands are moderated by the inherently logical, unmusical character of modern languages, which is why "fanaticism seems ridiculous to us." Arabic's intrinsic musical elements, however -- not its grammar and vocabulary, but its melody and rhythm -- actually heighten those tendencies.
Judaism and Christianity had their immoderate or fanatical historical elements, of course. But those religions are grounded in rationalistic languages with their intrinsic appeal to the mind. Urges toward intolerant enthusiasm were therefore responsive, in time, to the rational restraints modernity imposes on all men in the name of civil coexistence. Adherents to religions born of prosaic, logic-based languages may be swayed by practical reason to see the benefit of moderating the extreme urges of belief.
Mohammed, on the other hand, rouses his adherents in the musical voice of enthusiasm and emotional persuasion -- the voice of fanaticism, as Rousseau identified it in 1781. Rational self-restraint, which is necessary in order to quell religious intolerance as modernity requires, is an unnatural fit in a faith proclaimed in Arabic, perhaps the only surviving major language calibrated to "seduce first the ears, then the heart," rather than the logical mind. This might help to explain why "grassroots" jihadism as a mass movement finds its most fertile soil in regions where Arabic is still widely used, rather than in, say, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, but also (until recently) the least Islamist and most tolerant. (It might also explain our own fanatical religion, progressivism, which has achieved a similar effect from the opposite direction, by systematically weakening the rational grounding of our languages.)
Rousseau, a Genevan, wrote his account in French. Today, the descendants of his primary audience are reeling yet again from the empirical evidence that continues to support his theory. France has become the symbolic heart of global jihad. She faces increasingly restrictive, terrifying prospects of everyday life lived under the cloud of religious fanaticism.
The French people's response to these outrages -- to the seepage of their sovereignty, the periodic sacrifice of dozens of lives on the altar of political correctness, and women's fears of entering Parisian neighborhoods -- will also be symbolic, and send a powerful message to whatever is left of the civilized world. Will the message be yet another in a long line of capitulations to progressive calls to tolerate the intolerable?
The answer is important, as grand symbolic statements often are. We are all Frenchmen today, and it is indeed sunset for modernity.