Saturday, September 01, 2007

The West is sectarian in the Middle East

New York, August 29, 2007

When a nation claims God is on its side beware of evil. This observation is supported by a powerful essay of Columbia University Professor Mark Lulla. “God’s Politics”, an August 19 article in the Sunday Magazine section of the New York Times argues that all messianic religions have a tendency to exploit the Divine in the pursuit of politics.

Lulla is worried about Islam’s fundamentalism but he is not alarmed. The American professor explains that Christians have to study their history to figure out how to react patiently to the violence that emerges from radical Islam. He finds hope in the work of two modern Islamic scholars and urges policy makers to partner with Islamic “renovators”, change agents who mold but do not break, evolve but do not revolt.

The humanities lecturer cautions that Islam is not likely to ever separate religion from politics. He reminds us that Christianity has only lately succeeded to achieve what he calls the “Great Separation” between religion and politics.

Lulla quotes Hobbes, Rousseau and Lock to explain the many steps of reflection over recurring religious wars that have led to the full separation of state and church in the Western world. That radical change was culturally determined and unique. He consequently infers that the change, the “separation”, will not be replicated in the Muslim world. This is an excellent point, but wait, the professor has traditional Western ideas about Islam.

The professor states that the West should welcome a slow evolution from within Islam that will retain the symbiotic connection between Mosque and state. This is how Lulla phrases his very measured expectations of Islam in relation to modernity: “… a number of Muslim thinkers around the world have taken to promoting a 'liberal' Islam. What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent.”

To the Western ear this quote sounds reasonable. But from a Muslim perspective it sounds too judgmental. Does Lulla imply that Islam is not suitable to modern life, not kind to women and children, not tolerant of other faiths and not open to dissent?

Moreover, Lulla fails to see that Islamic fanatism is partly a reaction to what is perceived by Muslims as Christian and Jewish injustice. The placing of a Jewish state in the midst of an Islamic world and the consequent displacing of a Palestinian nation are perceived by the Muslim world as continuation of the crusader politics of the 12th and 13th century. The creation of Christian dominated Lebanon (by France in 1920) is similarly viewed by Muslims as religious hegemony. The US current messianic war in Iraq and the colonial policy of divide-and-rule in the Middle East is viewed by Islam as Judeo-Christian politics.

The Columbia University Scholar sees Muslims living in a “politically intoxicated world” and implies that the West is politically detoxified. Indeed the West is generally secular but often European and US politics in the Middle East have been manipulative, sectarian and unjust.

How can Lulla assume that Americans are secular in politics? Millions of Americans believe that Israel is a fulfillment of religious prophecy, according to a recent Time/CNN pole: “ While only 36 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible is God's Word and should be taken literally, 59 percent say they believe that events predicted in the Book of Revelation will come to pass”.

The professor attributes violence in the Muslim world to messianic theology: “Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin.” A fair reading of Islamic literature reveals a wealth of flexible theology in the works of scholars like al Ghazali, al Pharabi, Ibin Khaldoon and Jalal’ din’ Rumi. The era of Islamic-run Spain represents seven hundred years of interfaith coexistence among Muslims, Christians and Jews. It is from Muslim Spain where much of the European enlightenment took of during the thirteen through fifteenth centuries.

Lulla should be more hopeful about Islam and more concerned about the provocative Middle East foreign policy of the Judeo-Christian “secular” West.

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