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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Challenge and the Fear of Becoming Enlightened

Published on Monday, November 28, 2005 by the Daytona Beach News Journal (Florida)
by Pierre Tristam

Since Sept. 11, we've been living under a "clash of civilizations" doctrine that can be summed up this way: Over there, dogma, orthodoxy, Islam; over here, democracy, pluralism, Constitution. Over there, dark continents, dark ages, terrorism; over here, enlightened West, enlightenment, freedom.

The doctrine has been used to justify two wars (so far) and a wholesale shift in the way the United States deploys its aims abroad and projects them at home. The doctrine draws its power from the language of freedom -- the language of enlightenment -- both in the way we've gone about defining ourselves as a culture and in the way we've gone about defending our right to fight the war on terror on our terms, but on other people's turfs.

The doctrine is fatally flawed, and its consequences are lethal, both to American principles at home and to American interests abroad. There's no connection between the language we're using in defining ourselves and the reality being imposed at home and abroad. The language itself has become the mask of its very opposite. If you want absolutes, if you want black and white, if you want orthodoxy, look no further than the way American culture politically and legally has been evolving in the past several years.

That's not to say that those orthodoxies don't exist in the Muslim world. They do in spades. But the enlightenment ideal is not under attack from outside our culture. It is under attack from within it, in a context that increasingly fears pluralism, scorns dissent and erodes democracy. The very ideas of rational, critical thinking, of progress by way of challenging assumptions, is being replaced by a faith-based approach in policy-making and a fundamentalist approach in legal thinking (what some people call originalism) that is diametrically opposed to the ideals of enlightenment. If a battle for freedom is being waged, it is being waged on the wrong front.


First, a look at Islam as a world supposedly so incapable of solving its crises that only western intervention can help. We should be honest. Islamdom doesn't have a good reputation these days, and it brings a lot of the trouble on itself. But any religion in the wrong hands, beginning with Americans' own Christian creeds, can be violent, backward and evil. It so happens that few religions can lay claim to as much beauty of spirit, art, enlightenment and advancement of the human race as Islam did for the entirety of the Middle Ages, when nothing in Europe could hold a candle to Islamic civilization, when Islam was enlightenment before enlightenment was cool.

What was unique about Islam's early and middle period was its great tolerance for people of other faiths, its love and wealth of learning, its antipathy for dogma, its realization of pluralism -- in the great Abassid caliphates of Baghdad from the 9th to the 12th centuries, in Spain during the same period, in India during the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries. It's possible to see the Muslim Enlightenment literally as bookends, in time and geography, with Baghdad in the early period and the reign of Akbar the Great in the 16th and 17th centuries in India, who lived up to a famous verse in the Koran that speaks for all the potential pluralism in Islam: "There can be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (which is actually a retelling of what Jesus said to his followers: "The truth will make you free.")

read the rest:
Challenge and the Fear of Becoming Enlightened


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