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The Perils of DIY Exegesis

Newsweek has a fascinating essay by Ed Husain, the author of the recently released The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left. Unlike some other commentators, Husain is not at all surprised that physicians were involved in the recent attacks in Britain. He notes that the ranks of radical Islamic organizations are filled with activists with a technical education. He offers some speculative thoughts on how this background has affected their approach to Islam:

In the past, Muslims did not pronounce on religious matters without the endorsement of trained theologians, the ulama. The ulama were the bastion of religious knowledge that operated in an informal yet consensual method of intellectual plurality, interpretational elasticity, and maintained a centuries-old chain of transmission of sacred knowledge, known as the ijaza. Before modern-day terrorists turned to destroying buildings and killing innocents, they violently rejected this millennium-old Muslim tradition of learning. The founder of the Wahhabi school killed scholars who disagreed with him in Najd, and as late as the 1980s Islamists assassinated leading ulama in Egypt and Syria. Free from the constraints of traditional learning and the learned, Wahhabi-Islamists developed their theology of terror: those who disagree must be killed. What started as intolerance, ended up as justification for mass killing.

Islamists and jihadist networks lack the support of the ulama. Just as their bombing techniques are amateur and desperate, often destined to failure, so is their reading of scripture and warped justification for suicide bombings and killing humans. They approach the Qu'ran as though it were an engineering manual, with instructions for right and wrong conduct. Literalism and ignorance dominates their readings. This flaw is deepened by the haughty mindset of the engineer or medical doctor that academic achievement, a place at a university, now qualifies him to approach ancient scripture without the guidance of the ulama. To the Islamist engineer, centuries of context, nuance, history, grammar, lexicon, scholarship, and tradition are all lost and redundant. The do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude to religious texts, fostered by doctors and engineers of secular colleges, produces desperate, angry suicide bombers devoid of spiritual guidance.

Reading this, I was reminded of Pope Benedict's comments at Regensberg about the importance of the relationship between faith and reason. It also reminded me that there are those within my own religious tradition who sometimes try to interpret our texts in the way that Husain describes.


Commenting Guidelines

Although the link to the Husain essay is fascinating, I do wonder why J. Peter Nixon seems compelled to add his statement at the end, suggesting that there is any sort of parallel in modern Christiniaty to what is going on within the Islamic world. Although there are Christians around the world who are engaged in violent behavior--and probbaly even a few who supposedly do it in the "name" of Christ--there is no worldwide Christian movement bent on establishing a new transnational Christian political and religious regime--a new Christendom, like in medieval Europe--that uses terrorism deliberately aimed at women, children, and other noncombatants to further its goals, that wishes to deprive more than half the population (i.e., women) of their most basic rights, that wants to turn the clock back to roughly the 14th century (even Pope Benedict's recent announcements would only take us back to the post-war 20th century), and which is so extremely intolerant, xenophobic, and apocolyptic. Political correctness aside, it's the islamists who are nutty as a fruitcake--and we ought to eb able to say it without also feeling the need to apologize for anything ... the last time Christians were anywhere near as wacked out as the islamists, they wore chain mail and drank mead ...

W and Co are probably the greatest recruiters for militant Islam. Just look at the staging of the invasion of Iraq. The pronounced use of "SHOCK AND AWE" a put it in your face attack. Bow down to our power, our superiority, our soverignty over you. We have to keep in mind that Muslims were once a very proud and strong group who ruled many Westerners at some points. It is much more than just religion.

"It also reminded me that there are those within my own religious tradition who sometimes try to interpret our texts in the way that Husain describes."The question is Peter how important are these interpretations and the need to be doctrinally correct? It is a criteria question and the most comprehensive Jesus was on criteria was: I was hungry and you fed prison and you visited me.....So in a place where a woman is the parish director and the guys whose greatest claim to fame is that they can pronounce words of consecration are rendered incidental, maybe we are approaching what a faith community should be like. just can't do subtlety on the Internet anymore. And you can call me Peter or Pete, like most of the folks at the parish do.I didn't think it necessary to point out that the "Islamist" strain within contemporary Islam has few historical parallels. I thought it so obvious as to not be worth pointing out. What was interesting to me was the comment about individuals with technical training reading sacred texts like, well, technical manuals. This is something I do see in many religious traditions today and I wonder from time to time whether it has something to do with the decline of classical and humanistic forms of learning in favor of technical and scientific forms. It was that line of thought that made the article interesting to me.

Peter,Unfortunately, the Islamist strain most definitely does have historical parallels--within Islam. Despite the political correctness of today's "Religion of peace" mantra, Islam has a far more recent and consistently violent history than Christianity even with the crusades, inquisition, religious wars in Europe, etc. It is a rather tragically unique situation among Muslims--and one that they had better sort out before the rest of the world (hopefully) gets tired of their nihilistic nonsense and puts the entire Islamic world under some sort of international quarantine ... that might be a pipe dream given how cravenly most governments act today, but it is still what will ultimately be necessary. I just hope the world reaches that understanding BEFORE some western city is vaporized by an Islamic atomic.

Robert Reid, I would think you would know better. It is true that Mohammed permitted violence whereas Jesus did not. On the other hand, the Islamic rulers when they ruled Christian countries were kinder to Christians as opposed to the reverse. The modern strain is quite different and I think it is due to the fact that Islam seemed to take a vacation militarily for a couple of centuries. Furthermore, we should constantly keep in mind that Islam had been dominated by Colonial forces for a long time. Much of the resentment stems from that. Finally, Christian violence has been approved by not a few saints and popes. I doubt whether we should feel superior on that score.

Bill,While it is true that the Islamic rulers during the Crusades have a much better image in history than the crusaders themselves, that was some 800 years ago. I emphasized that the violent history of Islam is part of more recent events (certainly from the 19th century mahdi movement in the Sudan forward), and it is the recent and current world that truly matters to what we are discussing--who cares if Muslims were wonderfully tolerant during the 12th century if they're dominated by violent fanatics today? Discussing modern Muslims is like talking about generic germans during the 1930s--yes, Germany had a great tradiiton of art, literature, music, and science which the Nazis had betrayed ... but it was the Nazis who were in power then, calling all the shots (quite literally) and not Goethe, Beethoven, etc. Likewise, the Muslim world today has many good people in it--but they are NOT the ones in charge and they seem especially incapable or unwilling to maintain order in their own house ... hence my expectation that the rest of the civilized world will need to do it for them (assuming most western countries ever decide that western civilization is truly worth defending and fighting for) ... by the way, as for colonialism i do agree that we (meaning the US) are being froced to clean up after Europe's mess--which is what makes it so galling that they now seem to refuse to defend the very civilization that they sought to spread via their 19th century armies ... mea culpas serve their purpose but only AFTER the fighting is over--not while we are still engaged in a deadly struggle against a ruthless enemy.

Robert,There are fundamentalist movements in Islam today and some of them (but not all of them) preach violence. Some of the ones that preach violence (but not all of them) allow terrorism. But this is quite a different thing from saying that violent Islamic fundamentalists are in charge of the Muslim world. They are not. Anywhere. I have to defy you to name a single country where they are.

If Sept 11 teaches us anythiong it is that in the modern world with modern technology a small number of people can do a tremendous amount of harm without needing to actually be part of any government, regular army, etc. That is what I mean by the islamists "being in charge" ... they are the driving force, the energy, even the "excitement" (in a sick and twisted way) for too much of the Islamic "street" (recall the Palestinians dancing in the streets on Sept. 11). No, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc., are not actually in the hands of Islamists--but they have for years tolerated and funded such fanatics. And the islamists have proven that they do not need to run a governemnt to cpature the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world--witness the amazingly endless stream of Muslims who seem willing to kill themselves for their "cause." This is what I mean. As one commentator put it, it is of little comfort to know that 90 percent or so of the world's roughly 1 billion Muslims reject terrorism when that still leaves roughly 10 million potential jihadists. Your own comments, unagidon, underscore the problem in the west--you seem to suggest that there can be "good" fundamentalist Muslims and "bad" fundamentalist Muslims when it is fundamentalist islam itself that is at the heart of the problem. Indeed, the problem will not end until Muslims themselves begin to draw cartoons about Muhammad and read Salman Rushdie, and perhaps even create works of art that place a Koran in a bottle of urine--and not until other Muslims respond to such actions with letters to the editor and even peaceful demonstrations and boycotts ... but not car bombs or suicide vests or beheadings.

Robert,Muslims as a religion never went through a "Reformation" or an "Enlightenment" and never embraced a secularization of society that brackets out religious behavior from other behavior or segments society into areas where religious rules exist and where non-religious rules exist (like "the market").What you are proposing is to do all of this for them, to secularize them by force in the way that it took us hundreds of years to secularize ourselves. Since you live in US society, you think that it is self evident and reasonable to do this and this is certainly a case where your American political assumptions are trumping your Catholic ethic, since strictly speaking Catholicism doesn't recognize this secular split either.Your fear of terrorists may be well placed, but you want to react to your fear by demonizing an entire civlization because some people claiming to represent this civilization are engaging in terrorism. You throw around big numbers like 10,000,000 just as the radio programs you listen to do to incite this fear. But you don't ask the question of whether a general attack on Islam will cause a much larger reaction or whether it will solve the problem. The point is, even if your fears were well placed, it does not follow that your solution is. And Iraq proves this.

My bad (in math): whether it's 10 percent (roughly 100 million Muslims) or just 1 percent (10 million, even if 99 percent oppose terrorism) the potential for damage is too great.

Unagidon,I do not propose attacking the Muslim world at all. Instead, I propose quarantining it until the Muslims come to their senses and at least enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st. A quarantine would only involve limited military action against any ship, plane, car, etc., that attempted to move beyond a Muslim country's borders--no action inside any Muslim country would be required at all. A well-monitored trade would be permitted--they sell us oil, well sell them food, medicine, etc. But no travel, no immigration. Muslims in the west would be permitted to return to a Muslim country, if they wish--but they would then not be allowed to leave again. I realize, of course, that this is not going to happen (the French and the Russians would quickly start taking bribes to undermine the effort) but it might be what is necessary if any western city is ever destroyed by an atomic bomb (and that is what this is all about--not the resposne that I feel is required today but an extreme response certainly and one taken ONLY if the west ever suffers a catastrophic terrorist attack with nuclear or biological/chemical weapons.

Robert,By your terms, then, I suppose we would have to deport all Muslims now currently in the West?I have a better idea. Why not treat terrorism as the police problem that it is? Why not promote democracy in Muslim countries via t the support of other countries (including the Muslim countries that now play by the rules) that is, through diplomatic cooperation? Why not force Israel to stop building settlements in the West bank? All of these would seem to be cheaper than building a million mile wall around a civilization. There is something about your approach that looks to me like you think that some sort of massive violence is the only way to show a serious attitude in the face of serious fear.

Unagidon,As with another thread, this will be my last post on this subject because (as I noted elswhere) these Commonweal posts tend to become one-on-one debates ... First, the quarantine idea is not a serious, practical proposal--just my musings on a summer afternoon (as should have been evident by the tongue-in-cheek reference to France and Russia).Second, combatting modern terrorism has proved itself to be far, far beyond a policing approach, not when hostile governments are covertly aiding or accommodating the terrorists.Third, it is difficult to know which Muslim countries "play by the rules" given that Algeria definitely tried to elect an islamist government back in the 1980s or 90s, Turkey elected the closest thing to an islamist government that its army would allow, and the Palestinians elected an outright terrorist organization to lead them the first chance they got.Finally, for the Muslim world there is NO solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict short of the total destruction of Israel as a nation state, so we need to move beyond suggestions that we address that problem first or thinking that ANY negotiated solution would ever last in that region. Not all problems have solutions and this is clearly one example. Finally, I would add that the proper application of massive amounts of violence has proved rather useful throughout history in stopping the Turks at the gates of Vienna, gaining American independence, defeating Napoleon, preserving the Union and ending slavery, destroying Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, etc., etc. So if it works--don't knock it!