January 21, 2011


The Bill O'Reilly Fallacy (Reuel Marc Gerecht, October 16, 2010, New Republic)

This is hardly the place for a disquisition on Sharia, or how it’s evolved over the centuries. Suffice to say, even some Muslim theologians have seen the strain of despotism in Islamic history as being connected to the static and authoritarian nature of Islamic legal practice. Still, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with Shiite and Sunni clerics who were teaching Sharia and opining about daily life, and such schooling didn’t strike me then, and still doesn’t, as a good laboratory for terrorists, which is why, I suspect, so few terrorists have had any proper clerical training. A rigorous Islamic education may make you a killjoy, but it doesn’t make you a terrorist. If the empirical record tells us anything, it’s that a skimpy Islamic education combined with a mediocre—even a decent—Western education seems much more likely to produce an explosive mix.

When Westerners, however well-intentioned, start suggesting that Muslim law supplies the foundation for Islamic terrorism, it immediately conveys to Muslims, even secularized Muslims, that Westerners think all Muslims are disordered, that the only route to salvation runs through a renunciation of their faith (that is, they ought to become the mirror-image of Westerners who go to church every so often. Whatever vestigial pride Muslims may have in their religious law (most Muslims aren’t particularly fastidious or knowledgeable about the Sharia, but nevertheless have an understandable historic affection for it), gets crudely pummeled by such commentators.

The blanket demonization of the Holy Law can lead one to view Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite thinker in the world, and one who tried desperately and selflessly to keep his country from descending into internecine savagery, as a bigot and a terrorist engine. The same would be true for the late Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran’s Green Movement and the nemesis of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s ruler, himself a very mediocre student of the Sharia.

True, the Holy Law applied can be ugly, not least for women. Westerners, especially Europeans, are quite right to be outraged by the importation of Sharia practices to their shores. And Westerners should cast a very dim eye on any financial institution that sets up Sharia-compliant offices that could, if left unchecked, discreetly normalize anti-Semitic practices in big global institutions. Westerners can only hope that progressive Muslim jurists, who briefly sprouted in the nineteenth century, once more gain force among the faithful. But we should not make the great philosophical and historical mistake of seeing even the staunchly conservative clerical elite of the Muslim world as the handmaidens of Islamic terrorism. If, indeed, Islamic terrorism comes to an end, it will probably be because these men have united to say finally and clearly that a devout Muslim’s distaste for Western values and “cultural imperialism” does not, after all, justify murder.

The intellectual peregrinations of Saudi Wahhabism, the mother-ship of Sunni Islamic terrorism, may be frightful, but, even in Saudi Arabia, the best bet for ending this plague may likely be found among the ranks of its reactionary clergy. What Westerners should dream of is not the elimination of the influence of the Sharia in Muslim lands, but the triumph of a more competitive mindset among those who adhere to the Law. If Saudi Arabia, at home and abroad, would just welcome Hanafis, the most open-minded of Sunni Islam’s law schools, it would be an enormous triumph over Wahhabi intolerance and the hatred that spews forth from that oil-rich land.

Free-lancing, perfectly modern rebels like Osama bin Laden, who believe they alone have the right to interpret God’s message, will no doubt storm forth now and then, but they would have a much harder time if the Sunni clergy were arrayed openly and loudly against them. When, for instance, Iran and Lebanon’s Shiites fell in love with holy war and martyrdom, prominent Shiite clerics went the other way. Among the Shiite faithful, suicide bombing had a short run. [...]

Misunderstanding Islam’s internal problems and miscasting the Sharia and its clerical custodians as our primary enemies aren’t, however, the biggest problems with some American conservative commentary. Many conservatives—and liberals—utterly fail to appreciate the extraordinary continuing power of Western, especially American, culture among Muslims. Declinism may be all the rage among trend-chasers in the West, but the apocalyptic tactics of Osama bin Laden and his followers offer, among other things, evidence that we, the West, have been winning the war for the hearts of everyday Muslims. Among Muslims fixed to their computers and televisions, we still embody both hope and hell on earth. As Khomeini put it so well, we remain the satanic whisperer, who seduces men—and especially women—from the righteous path.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2011 12:25 AM
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