Friday, April 28, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Rose-Colored Glasses

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The inimitable Conrad Black sums up a recent conversation with atheist and former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali and reviews her latest book Heretic here.

Hirsi Ali has taken on the unenviable — and probably impossible — task of reforming Islam from the outside.

Black summarizes Ali’s five requirements for Islamic reform:
“... revisions of Mohamed’s semi-divine and infallible status and literalist reading of the Koran, particularly those allegedly revealed to the Prophet at the launch of his most radical phase in Medina in the last 10 years of his life; the de-emphasis of life after death over the present life; the abandonment of the draconian Shariah law derived from the Koran; an end to empowering individuals to enforce that law arbitrarily, and to the frequent and capricious recourse to jihad, holy war.”
Tom: Immanuel Can, nobody other than a subset of Muslims and their liberal western enablers likes what ISIS is up to in the Middle East. But Islam is a religion, not a social club. You can martyr genuinely religious people, you can convert them, you can keep them at a distance perhaps, if you’re strong enough militarily, or you can win over their moderates and disaffected provided you are offering something more compelling.

But can you reform an entire religion, especially from the outside?

Reforming from the Outside

Immanuel Can: Hard to say. It seems highly unlikely that Islam could experience reform from the outside, which is where Hirsi Ali is, now that she’s declared for atheism. But I suppose anything can happen … it just looks incredibly improbable. Usually, “reform” is defined as a sort of modification or moderation of an existing stance, and such things are ordinarily generated by people who are inside and trying to save a movement, not those who have already abandoned it. What say you, Tom?

Tom: It seems to me both Hirsi Ali and Conrad Black are wearing rose-colored glasses about the potential for Islamic reform, but for very different reasons. Islam, like Christendom, is an aggregation: fundamentalist “true believers” alongside political opportunists, moderates, liberals and even agnostics who use the name “Muslim” because it’s safe or convenient. Since each group has a different agenda, if you want to reform Islam, each must be appealed to with different — often contrary — incentives. That’s a tall order.

And of course the “true believers” you will never reform at all. Good luck with that. Unfortunately, it’s that group that is the most dangerous.

Getting Back to Core Truths and Practices

IC: “True believers”. Interesting point. It seems to me to be crucial that we recognize this primary difference between Christianity and Islam: for Christianity, genuine reform has to mean becoming more loving, more generous, more humble, more kind and more forgiving and also praying more fervently for enemies and doing more good to those who abuse us.

Tom: Amen.

IC: But “reform” in Islam has to mean a closer return to the methods, beliefs and character of Mohammed, and to following sharia law with even more fervor, which means becoming more angry and oppressive, and taking up the sword and killing infidels with even less compunction. So despite her good intentions, Ms. Ali is swimming against the stream of what it really means for Islam to “reform”.

Tom: Yes, when both Black and Hirsi Ali use the word “reform”, what they actually mean is “make more compatible with Western societal norms”. They want Islam to con-form to another set of cultural standards. It’s not the best choice of word, really.

Rose-Colored Glasses

Coming back to Mr. Black for a moment, he too seems to me to be wearing rose-colored glasses about Western prospects in this ideological (and increasingly literal) battle. When he says of Islam that they are “not a menace on the scale of Hitler or Stalin, cunning totalitarians at the head of great, militarily powerful, more or less Western nations”, it seems a bit dismissive, but in one sense he’s correct: Hitler and Stalin were “over there”, with armies engaging in traditional warfare under more or less traditional rules. Islam is here, in our midst, in numbers significant enough to eventually change the balance of power and therefore the law, and to do it democratically.

Like many, I think he completely underestimates the seismic nature of the changes to the Western world being brought about by mass immigration.

IC: Very likely. Hitler did not make primary use of immigration, nor did he employ the mechanisms of democracy to destroy democratic goals in the way we are seeing Islam do today — as when, for example, the “freedom” to wear the burqa is demanded on the basis of democratic principles, and women’s oppression is advocated in the name of women’s rights. But this problem will be played out on a secular stage, I think; and Christians will not have much say. Nor will Ms. Ali, I fear, nor her friend, Irshad Manji, another “reformer”. Ms. Manji wrote The Trouble with Islam Today (2005) and directed a film called “Faith Without Fear”, but now lives in a house with bullet-proof glass and a locked mailbox, and cannot appear on campus without bodyguards.

As an aside, I should say I would be honoured to meet either of these women. They are extremely courageous persons, and I think we should all pray that their proposed “reforms” should go forward. But it will take divine intervention for that to happen, I think: we should not naturally expect it.

Reforming the Church

But now, what does this case offer us as Christians as we think about “reform” in our churches?

Tom: Well, one obvious point is that you can’t effectively reform something from outside it. The Lord didn’t try to “reform” Judaism from outside, did he? In one sense, he was the ultimate insider. He was “born” King of the Jews. He came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it or even rewrite it. His knowledge and use of the Law were in every way superior to that of the religious authorities. That’s why he attracted attention.

I think he has to be our model in any consideration of Christian reform.

IC: Good point. A second I’d like to make is that reform goes back to the Originator. We don’t “reform” Christianity by adding to it the accretions and innovations of modern life — except to whatever extent the proposed modifications turn back to the basic principles our Lord and Founder laid down for us by precept and example. Nor, of course, do we “preserve” Christianity by resisting change for the sake of some traditional baggage we’ve long held dear. We reform ourselves by becoming more sincerely devoted to Christ himself, and to his project of remaking us in his image; then we reform the Church by making her a more suitable bride for him … no other way. If we are “reforming” with any other goal in view, it’s not reform at all, but rather rejection of our core calling.

Tom: With that I very much agree.

“Incompatible with Modernity”

One thing this dialogue brings out is the ease with which secularists accept the default notion that, with respect to religion, they have a right to change whatever may be, in their view, “incompatible with modernity”. I must admit to some mild amusement contemplating atheism thrashing it out with Islam while we stand on the sidelines, but that’s not a probable scenario. More likely, the increasing unmanageability of Islamism in the West is going to force governments to crack down on everything they perceive to be religious, including Christianity.

Do you see any positives for the Church in the fact that Islam has come to us? I know a lot of Christians who are taking advantage of the opportunity.

IC: I see a lot of positives in the number of people of Middle-Eastern descent who are coming to our shores. They bring with them some amazing cultural and personal assets, to be sure. As people, they have a lot to offer. And having them with us is surely an opening for the gospel.

Tom: Especially when some of the countries they are coming from are not open to it. These are people we might not be able to speak freely with any other way.

The Good Side of Islam

IC: But is Islam itself “good” for us in any way? Hmm. Well, it does put the lie to the old Western liberal myth of the universal equivalence of religions that that has needed to die for a long time. It does challenge modern secularism with severe critiques of Western corruption and of our carelessness about belief and our preoccupation with consumerist egoism. But I think this speaks more to the corruption of the West than to the superiority of anything in Islam. I observe that there is no place on earth where dedication to Islamic principles has brought anything but tyranny, misery, oppression and bloodshed, so I have a hard time seeing any benefit in Islam itself.

What do you think?

Tom: I think I am used to this culture because I grew up in it. But as a Christian, I am no more “at home” amidst Western corruption than I am with the looming prospect of living under a harsh, totalitarian Eastern monotheism, or under whatever draconian changes to our culture are required to accommodate coexistence with its practitioners. I’m not thrilled to see hypersexualized content on my TV or new and obscure symbols on public washroom doors, or to deal with political correctness in my workplace. Equally, I am uninspired by black body bags with eye slots or the sound of the call to prayer.

Or, as someone put it, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”. We’re looking for a city whose designer and builder is God.

Counter All Cultures

IC: Yes. Christianity is inevitably counter-cultural. And it won’t matter much whether the “culture” in question is Islamic or North American. Our Lord’s kingdom is not of this world, and his followers do not fight with the weapons with which secularists and various religions oppose each other. That includes the political arrangements of the day. The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly ones, nor do we kill in the name of our God. We work for the salvation of all — friends and enemies alike — in the name of One who rescued us when we were his enemies. We fear no ideology, secular or Islamic.

They can but kill the body; the soul they cannot have. The Lord secures that.

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