ROP

(part 1 of 2)
The pufferfish is an odd little creature with mostly poisonous flesh, which has developed as a primary defense, the ability to inflate itself in order to appear larger to predators. In addition, the spiny pufferfish is covered all over it’s body with short bony barbs. In full defense mode, it looks like nothing so much as a small spiky ball, a sort of aquatic porcupine, attempting to look larger and more combative, more dangerous than it actually is. I was reminded of these qualities this week when I read something apropos of the latest Muslim hissy-fit over Pope Benedicts’ mildly stated observation as regards violence and Islam. I am not quite sure where I read it, or anything but the general thrust of the suggestion, which was in a way, revolutionary.

What if Islam is not a strong, vibrant and attractive faith, growing like some sort of theological kudzu, sweeping all before it? What if it is actually a hollow construct, under stress from a number of directions, seeming strong but in reality fragile, riven throughout with tiny cracks, and teetering on the edge of implosion? What if the frequent explosions of violence at the slightest of critical voices were not a demonstration of power and strength, but of tamped-down fear – fear that if the orthodoxy is questioned or defied, then the whole construct will come crashing down in ruins? What if the whole structure of Islam is actually shivering on its foundations, and the whole bloody-handed constellation of imams and ayatollahs, of shaheeds and jihadists know and fear that, down in the pit of their souls? That the whole thing is a sham, based on the maunderings of a desert bandit, pulled from bits of this or that, for his own aggrandizement? What if the whole jihad against the West is the last spectacular lashing out of those who know in their hearts that if the roots of Islam are ever questioned, then doubt will set in, and the whole edifice come crashing down – and that quietly, here and there, the faithful are slipping away, and ever more would join them but for the threat of death for apostasy.

This is an interesting train of thought; as Eric Hoffer pointed out decades ago in his study of fanatical belief, The True Believer – a certain sort of fanatic is driven by secret doubts of his or her own abilities or qualities. The most violently inclined towards homosexuals, for example, may be someone who may in their deepest and most private part of the mind feel homosexual urges, and is then shamed and horrified by them. The most virulent advocate of racial superiority, for example, may be the one who at heart has doubts about himself – and reacts with special brutality against a member of what is supposed to view as a lesser race who yet exemplifies more superior qualities than himself. For myself, I have always observed that someone who was entirely comfortable in themselves and in their deeply-held beliefs was not threatened by someone who did not share them – and certainly not threatened enough to erupt in threats and violence.

Ages ago, I read Bernard Lewis – The Roots of Muslim Rage, when it first was published in Atlantic Magazine. I made a total pest of myself to my friends, because I ran around with my tattered copy (this was at about the start of the first Gulf War) saying “See! this is what makes them so angry with us!!!” It seemed only the sensible, empathetic way of looking at it then, and still does now: that the Islamic world, once so powerful, glorious, famed for tolerance, scholarship and culture, was diminished and shattered. That men who had been told all their lives that they were the righteous and blessed, should look around and see that their world was diminished, powerless and ridden by disease and ignorance, and should at once seek for a reason that this should be the way of things, that there should be a reason for this. And of course, it is always easier to find a reason – that the rich and powerful should be so because they had cheated, or were empowered by Satan. There could not possibly be any fault in Islam or in those who followed the faith most perfectly for they were chosen and favored by God, in being submissive to him. It was entirely understandable to me, with a great deal of sympathy and regret, that of course, those who thought themselves so chosen must be looking around and observing that most of the lands where Islam ruled were plagued with poverty, disease, ignorance and autocrats. Even those in the Middle East who sat on a lot of oil reserves were not in all that much better a shape. Only so much can be imported and paid for with oil money.

Being carefully raised in the Lutheran tradition and somewhat of a history nut as well, I had been schooled in the history of the Protestant Reformation. I knew very well how the great unified fortress of the medieval Catholic Church began fracturing once the Bible began to be translated from Latin into the various vernaculars spoken across Europe. It was revolutionary not just because ordinary people could read it for themselves, without the intercession of a priestly authority – but because a great many clever people had to sit down and work out for themselves exactly what each word, each phrase, each sentence actually meant. Ambiguities had to be resolved, alternate versions of varying antiquity had to be consulted – there’s nothing like a translation for thrashing out meaning from a text. The authority and power of one holy, catholic and apostolic church shattered on the rock of textual analysis – something that is just now beginning to happen with the Koran. Again in The Atlantic, I found a fascinating article about the work of various scholars, just beginning to analyze the Koran with the same attention and care long given to the Old and New Testaments. (link to article here)

But the Koran may not be translated, examined, analyzed – merely accepted whole and entire, memorized and recited. For what dangerous heresies and doubts might emerge then?

(to be continued)

*Original Atlantic link is for subscribers only

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