Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Have Jews done better under Chistian or Moslem rule?

First off, I want to apologize to my co-bloggers for not having put much up lately. The last couple of days I have been sidetracked at other places, responding to other people's posts. I am, at heart, a denizen of comments sections, and less successful as a first-from-the-post blogger.

Anyway, the question referred to in the title to this post is of course the subject of a number of recent books and dubious arguments by luminaries such as Prof. Bernard Lewis. Wanting to clarify my own thoughts on the matter I attempted to reply to a reviewer, goodmusicman's comment at Goodmusicman was trying to condemn the work of Andrew Bostom and Bat Ye'Or. Unfortunately, I could not post my comment at Amazon under my nom de blog, without first purchasing products with a credit card under this name. So, I will post my lengthy comments here. The abstract reasoning of the argument will not constitute a writing style that appeals to everyone. It is an illustration of my own religious understanding and if it offends the religious or literary sense of readers, I can only hope you will take it in the spirit of an honest, if misguided, attempt at approximating truth. All clarifications and corrections on points of interpretation will be welcome.

Dear goodmusicman,

I think it rather unnuanced of you so strongly to criticize Bat Ye'Or for being anti-Islam, as if you too were not obviously defining yourself against an Other (Christianity), as we must all do to some extent if we are not to condemn ourselves to nihilism, and our own culture to stagnation and death.

Of course you're right that history is not linear (because it remains open-ended) or one-way, and that Jewish experience under Islam and under Christianity has varied according to place and time. While this fact politicizes the motivations behind any summary of the historical experiences, our political goal in criticizing one or another religious-political tradition may be a worthy one, e.g. to make possible a new international compact in the hope that certain politicized religions and certain states can change their ways, making their internal politics more transparent and open, so as to become more predictable and thus to live according to useful rules and procedures for minimizing conflict. In this respect, some cultures may have more work to do than others.

We inevitably do and should try to sum up things like a religion’s attitudes towards the Jews, or other cultural historical innovators, by mapping the general shape and range of experiences that a religion's founding revelations have so far permitted vis a vis other claimants on monotheist truth. Thus we may grasp how expansive, or profound, a founding revelation has been and when it has been a more or less proximate cause in shaping specific historical events and representations. No religion is endlessly mutable; the experiences it makes possible remain tethered to founding revelations and a religion must be challenged in fundamental ways if it seems unable to change to meet the evident needs for a new international compact.

Anyone disinterestedly studying the life and revelations of Mohamed, as recorded in the Islamic holy texts, cannot help but see a great resentment directed towards the non-believers. About half the verses in the Koran condemn the unbeliever in one way or another, as if Mohamed (or is it Allah?) were an unsuccessful religious promoter who became an active warrior marshaling troops, which of course he was. And, as Andrew Bostom notes in his review of Cohen, there are passages in the Islamic holy texts in which Jews, specifically, suffer dehumanization and violence. Now, in comparison, the New Testament also condemns the unbeliever, though not nearly to the same incessant extent as does the Koran, and in some respects it also specifically criticizes the Jews, though not without a good deal of ambiguity (e.g. Matthew 9:17) about what aspects, or how much, of Jewish life are being found insufficient by Christ, or simply incompatible with the new way Christ proposes.

A book like the Gospel of John can of course be read as Judeophobic, but it is not at all obvious to me, given the context of Jesus' personal struggle with his own Jewishness and its inevitable limits for one focused on redeeming sin (a proper Jew, whatever men’s worldly sins, will see himself working to remain among the righteous, and so the need for a redeemer of those who have come to see themselves as more fundamentally trapped in human sin is, perhaps, not well-anticipated within Judaism, or for that matter in Islam). In comparison to the New Testament's ambivalent positioning of Jews as both righteous and as sinners in need of redemption, The Koran and Sunna simply do not allow for the same kind of ambiguity about the place of the Jews, claiming that the Jews, under Satanic influences, have taken monotheism astray in willfully misrepresenting their original Mosaic revelation. (Christ only claims that Jews have forgotten some things Moses told them).

Muslim certainty about the true Koranic revelation has been both for better and for worse, from the point of view of Jewish experience under confident (ideologically, if not always spiritually) Muslims, in comparison to often anxious (and hence dangerous) Christians unsure whether their New Testament religion of redeeming sin truly transcends Old Testament Judaism, an uncertainty which has often entailed Christians resenting the surviving presence of the Jew. And yet, Muslim certainty about God's word, in comparison to Christian striving amidst the darkness of sin, might lead someone like Bat Ye'Or to resent one religion, or politics-religion, more than the other, simply in respect of its appeal to a Jewish sense of truth in respect for the incompleteness of our religious knowledge.

The righteous, monotheistic Jew, or a sensitive woman like Bat Ye'Or, experiences Islam and Christianity not just in terms of how either treats the Jews, but also how they treat their other faith competitors and humanity as a whole. While the New Testament has some condemnation of the unbeliever, it does not lay out a worldwide project akin to Jihad and this is reflected in the relatively pacific missionary traditions of Christianity and the Christian imperative to translate the Bible into vernacular tongues, to help create many nations and not just one Umma. (Compare, e.g., Islamic and Christian missions in India.) While Christians as secular agents of Western imperialism and racism have engaged in violence when expanding their civilization, the often violent Jihad, which still goes on all over the place, is promoted in the name of Allah and eternal truth, and is thus without any evident or merely plausible claim to promote a secular civilization or a particular nation in which all faiths may find some value.

In my reading, for what it's worth, there is really no comparison in the level of contempt held for the unbeliever in the Christian and Islamic texts. Nor, in respect to the founding revelations, can one make much of an argument for valuing similarly the ethics of Mohamed, the warrior for Allah, and the Christian contrast of a universal morality with a historically shifting, e.g. "Give unto Caesar", ethics, the contrast of a prophet of divine love in a fallen world. Does Mohammed's revelation, or Sharia law, even provide a basis to distinguish divine morality and worldly ethics? Surely Islam, in contrast to historicizing Christianity, is a throwback to the refusal of early religions to distinguish the two, to assertions that a specific and timeless ethical or ritual code for worldly organization is itself the proper realization of a divine will. But it is a throwback without the old pagan’s tolerance for other tribes having different rituals and ideas about the gods’ will.

To return to your point, sure the incredible antisemitism of today's Islamic world has not always been so fierce. And yes, there is a long history of Christian Judeophobia that became genocidal on several occasions. Yet the great similarity between Christianity and Judaism - for example their emphasis on a revelation unfolding in history as man covenants with God - must be considered. Might a Jew concerned with the monotheistic education of humanity as a whole not reasonably feel more confidence in a brother religion than in a more distant cousin, even if the brother's difficult intimacy and competitiveness poses greater threat to him of extreme violence than does the cousin’s more indifferent sense of superiority? Again, the problem with Christianity, from a Jewish perspective, is the Christian's potential obsession and uncertainty that his revelation really transcends Judaism, a Christian bad faith that makes the continuing presence of the Jew, i.e. the Jew's refusal to give up his faith, and any signs of Jewish worldly success, into a great scandal. That Islam has been, if not today, generally much less bothered by the Jewish question, proudly declaring that it has the final and complete revelation, is not necessarily a mark in Islam’s favor if intellectual and spiritual struggle to advance human self-understanding in history is one's chief concern. In comparison to Christendom, perhaps a Jew may sometimes be physically safer, but spiritually or intellectually poorer, under Islamic regimes. How is this taken into account in this debate? Or are we now too materialistic to bother with such perverse questions?

In any case, if safety is your thing, the fact of the matter is that even with all the history of Christian Judeophobia, it is perhaps only in one of the most Christian countries today, the USA (or is this a reality of the Anglosphere more generally?), that Jews can be seen as just normal people, just another ethnic or religious group. The Christian revelation, with its emphasis on maximizing human reciprocity, has finally been allowed, by some worldly interests and powers, to find a fuller realization in the creation of a free market society (that would not have been possible without the Christian revelation) in which Jews have often come to prosper. In the less historically ambitious Islamic world (less ambitious due to its belief that the final and complete revelation of the eternal truth has already been received), everyone, including the Jews, has been kept much more in their supposedly ordained place, and Islamic society as a whole has not evolved so much over the centuries.

Let's say you're a Jew who likes women, all women, not only Jewish women; should you prefer to live under and witness Islam-Sharia's (relatively pre-ordained) or Christianity's (more open) treatment of women? or must the general question, and its claim on wisdom, again dissolve before our respect for "nuance"? or is perhaps the call for “nuance” from so much of the (pseudo) intellectual left today really just a desire for an uncommitted nihilism?

The great majority of Islamic thinkers today, even many in the West, often seem incapable or unwilling to adapt to a global, free-market, modernity without a fight to restrain secular modernity in the name of Islam and Sharia. For all I know, liberals may yet succeed in modernizing Islam, i.e. protecting a secular multifaith order detached from privatized religion and protected from politicized religion (i.e. Orthodox Islam); but as yet there is a long way to go. On the other hand, musicman's argument that the modern separation of Church and State is a product of "the Enlightenment" and not a continuation of Christ's imperative to separate what is owed Caesar and what is owed God strikes me as historically and religiously misconceived in a number of ways. For example, I see the "Enlightenment" as having been an attempt, by intellectuals in declining nations, to understand and codify in secular terms the imperial, scientific, and mercantile success of Protestant countries like 17-18th century England that arose at the expense of once dominant powers like Catholic France, i.e. an attempt to codify the reason and faith behind already well-established Protestant and Gnostic movements within Christian civilization.

Should Jews look relatively favorably on an Islamic history of relative stability and order, even if it has entailed dhimmitude and everyone remaining stuck in medieval conditions? Since Christianity, and not merely “the Enlightenment”, has been the key to unfolding today’s secular modernity and freedoms, has Christianity - with all its difficult and sometimes deadly historical trials pitting, in more ways than one, a fallen humanity against a gospel of love – been obviously a disaster for the Jews?

To sum up: while, historically, many Moslems have not been as anxious as Christians to convert or eliminate the Jews (better, thinks many a Muslim ruler, to keep and tax the dhimmis, since they are often more productive or differently knowledgeable than Moslems), this has been according to the logic of a culture in which opportunities for growth, and an evolving and fuller human self-understanding, have been much more limited for everyone. And when this Islamic culture has had to come face-to-face with the modern world, we get the nightmare antisemitism of a country like Egypt today, a nightmare fostered by its leading universities and media. (And as for free and voluntary conversions, surely Jews have been more likely to find truth in Christianity than in Islam over the years.)

You, musicman, criticize the "unnuanced" position of Andrew Bostom. But yours is hardly more nuanced from the perspective of a Jew or Christian today seeking a sacred basis on which a new international compact may be formed. And to say that things could change tomorrow and life in, say, Arabia (if they let Jews in) may yet become more appealing for Jews than life in, say, today's Europe, is not a fair counter to those who wrongly imply that history is linear, one-way, and that we can know where it is going (e.g. West). We don't know where it is going, but the perspective of the present teaches us something more than could have been known in, say, the year 1200, about the possibilities inherent in a tradition of revelation. And in today's light of secular modernity, Islam seems always to have been destined to fall into a crisis greater even than the crisis of today’s Christian West. Given what we know today about the emergence of, and attitudes towards, free-market modernity, what kind of Jew can reasonably hope for a better future in a society predominantly Islamic rather than Christian? Jews writing history do us no service if their work works to obscure our safer bet, whatever the writer's professional motivations in an academic world full of a desire to express and expiate guilt for white Western historical success relative to those societies that have become immersed, sometimes unwillingly, in the West's claims to have discovered the ethical innovations that will advance humanity as a whole.

1 comment:

Ypp said...

Best of all jews did under Cherokee indians, because those did not kill a single jew. Also not bad was Greenland. Most of all jews suffered in Europe, simply because most jews lived in Europe.