Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Andrew McCarthy, Robert Wright, Moderate Islam and the Fundamentalist Mindset

The face of "real" Christianity?
Not long ago, National Review's Andrew McCarthy wrote something that has stuck in my craw for a few days. He conceded that there are many moderate Muslims while dismissing the possibility of moderate Islam itself. Here he is:

There is no moderate Islam in the mainstream of Muslim life, not in the doctrinal sense. There are millions of moderate Muslims who crave reform. Yet the fact that they seek real reform, rather than what Georgetown is content to call reform, means they are trying to invent something that does not currently exist.

In other words, McCarthy dismisses "millions of moderate Muslims" because -- even though those millions of Muslims live their lives in what we're calling "moderate" fashion -- Islamic doctrines aren't similarly moderate. And that makes little sense: It's like insisting that there are no Catholics who use birth control or Southern Baptists who dance, because the doctrines and practices of those churches prohibit or discourage such practices. We know that's not the case, though.

I have no idea what religion, if any, McCarthy practices and observes. But it seems to me that many of the people who insist that "real Islam" is the ugliest version of itself revealed in the Koran are people who -- like Florida Rev. Terry Jones -- are Christian fundamentalists themselves or, like the broader American conservative movement, often politically allied with fundamentalists.

These are folks who believe that (for lack of a better term) "moderate Christianity" practiced by mainline churches -- like, say, the Episcopal Church -- isn't "real Christianity." Only the closest fidelity to the rules and instructions laid out in scripture is "real." Because they interpret their own faith that way, it's easy to see why they also interpret the faith of others in similar fashion. But that doesn't mean that they're right.

Robert Wright gets at the tension between faith-as-doctrine and faith-as-it-is-lived in the New York Times online today.

The adherents of a given religion, like everyone else, focus on things that confirm their attitudes and ignore things that don’t. And they carry that tunnel vision into their own scripture; if there is hatred in their hearts, they’ll fasten onto the hateful parts of scripture, but if there’s not, they won’t. That’s why American Muslims of good will can describe Islam simply as a religion of love. They see the good parts of scripture, and either don’t see the bad or have ways of minimizing it.

So too with people who see in the Bible a loving and infinitely good God. They can maintain that view only by ignoring or downplaying parts of their scripture.

For example, there are those passages where God hands out the death sentence to infidels. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told to commit genocide — to destroy nearby peoples who worship the wrong Gods, and to make sure to kill all men, women and children. (“You must not let anything that breathes remain alive.”)

As for the New Testament, there’s that moment when Jesus calls a woman and her daughter “dogs” because they aren’t from Israel. In a way that’s the opposite of anti-Semitism — but not in a good way. And speaking of anti-Semitism, the New Testament, like the Koran, has some unflattering things to say about Jews.

Devoted Bible readers who aren’t hateful ignore or downplay all these passages rather than take them as guidance. They put to good use the tunnel vision that is part of human nature.

Well, and right. This should make sense to just about anybody who practices religion at all. But for some reason it doesn't. It seems to be the project of some terror hawks like Andrew McCarthy to define the totality of Islam as the worst possible version of itself. To do that, though, even McCarthy must concede that millions of people live their lives differently -- even though they do that under the "Islam" brand name.

I'm not one to give short shrift to the power of doctrine and ideas -- and as a gay-friendly feminist liberal American, I'm not much interested in living life under sharia law myself -- but the Islam of McCarthy's conception bears only partial resemblance to the real thing. Islam as it is lived is more complex -- maybe more interesting, but on the whole certainly less threatening -- than McCarthy and his ilk depict it. That's not to say that radical elements don't pose a threat; obviously they do. McCarthy, though, paints the Muslim world as monolithic. That's not the case.

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