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Saturday, 21 August 2010


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This was a pretty ordinary post - not bad, but ordinary - until you pulled out the animal husbandry! Nice move.

Basically, he wants Muslims to become assimilated Reform Jews, or maybe Conservative ones, without acknowledging (a la Douthat) that adoption of Enlightenment values and Christian folkways by Jews was not merely the result of the innate attractiveness of these practices, but a combination of attraction, oppression and semi-voluntary dispersion. Nor acknowledging that, historically, the voices calling loudest for Jews to adapt were also calling for them to disappear.


"Basically, he wants Muslims to become assimilated Reform Jews"

I don't think that's what he wants, but I don't think he knows what he wants.

"Nor acknowledging that, historically, the voices calling loudest for Jews to adapt were also calling for them to disappear."

Actually, he seems to be calling for exactly this: Islamic Islam has to be marginalized and attacked in order for the purely theoretical (but really, some of my best friends are) un-Islamic moderate Islam to emerge. I think, while he makes some gestures towards post-Enlightenment values, ie "the separation of secular public life from privately held religious beliefs," what he's really imagining is an Islam that keeps to itself and understands that it will never be in charge.

There's a lot of "purity and danger" stuff here, too. In this line, "or do we embrace them ... and hope that we can co-opt them before they co-opt us?", McCarthy seems to be totemically frightened of Islam, as if its mere presence could lead to cultural contamination.

On literal interpretation of sacred texts, my take is that it's not so much unwise as it is impossible. With complex multi-vocal foundational anthologies, not only do people have to decide which parts to pay attention to which parts to nod glancingly at and which parts to ignore, that have to decide how and using what tools they should interpret the parts they do pay attention to. I've had contemporary Muslims argue with me that polygamy is not really Islamic, because Mohammed was practical man working to reform an existing society, who wanted to promote monogamy, but knew that he needed to form alliances and could only push things so far. That strikes me as just as literal a reading of the texts as the more standard "four wives for anyone who can manage it", but one that views historical context as necessary to a literal understanding.

Matthew Merlino

I confess from the start to a horrible ignorance of Islam theology, so I can't judge the truth-value of his claim that a "concrete theology of 'moderate Islam' does not exist."

But *if* that is true, then McCarthy's points are fine -- but, he is then an Islamophobe (much in the same way that I'm a proud fundamentalist-Christian-ophobe and Hasidic- and Conservative-Jewophobe).

What he seems to be saying is that the actual living moderate Muslims are those who, unguided by any Islamic beliefs, have tempered their Islamic beliefs. Again, that's only true if he's right that there's no moderate Islamic theology (which I suspect isn't right -- just from my rudimentary knowledge of Sufi, for instance).

Ahistoricality's example of the Jews is interesting. Spinoza, a thinker who was a profound influence on the Enlightenment, was born a Jew, but who rejected his Judaism as it rejected him. The Jews of his time weren't liberal and tolerant, and Jewish heretics were dealt with violently. (There is some rumor that an attempt on Spinoza's life was funded by his former synagogue.)

What McCarthy is not willing to admit is that every religion, in order to fit into American political culture, has to become non-literal and reformist. Those groups most at odds with American values -- fundamentalist Christians, Hasidic Jews, 19th c. Mormons, cults -- are the most literal, or at least, most literally conservative, faith groups out there.

In the end, the best reply to McCarthy would be from someone who actually knows Islamic theology and can speak to this idea that there are no moderate trends or traditions in the philosophy. I'd imagine that those medieval Muslims who translated Aristotle and invented algebra and allowed religious tolerance were informed by some theology or influenced it.

Jon H

I suspect McCarthy is hung up on the lack of a central authority.

ie, even if there are moderate Muslims, they can't impose their vision of Islam universally, thus squelching the conservatives and/or extremists.

He wants a moderate Islamic Pope to issue an Islamic Vatican 2, basically. Since he can't have that, he sees any Muslim activity, even if moderate, as subject to being infiltrated, overruled, or overwhelmed by hostile hard-liners.

Matthew Merlino

Jon, not sure that's his problem. He seems to have no problem with moderate Jewish or Christian theology, neither of which has a central authority.

But here's something that gives the lie to his entire argument: a theological work entitled *The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists* by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl (see interview at ). El Fadl argues that Wahhabism is a cult-like anomaly that only rose to power due to the power and riches of the Saudi royal family. However, I don't think McCarthy is saying that Wahhabi is the only extreme form of Islam -- in fact, his entire argument is that all Muslim theology is extremist. In any case, El Fadl seems to uncover many historical strains of Muslim theology that are moderate. He was a Bush appointee, too, so McCarthy should be well aware of his work (which suggests that he's arguing in bad faith).


The Jews of his time weren't liberal and tolerant, and Jewish heretics were dealt with violently. (There is some rumor that an attempt on Spinoza's life was funded by his former synagogue.)

Extrapolating the beliefs of "Jews of his time" from a rumor and a non-violent edict of excommunication -- the origins of which are still obscure -- is beyond bizzare.

Oddly enough, McCarthy's piece seems to have been used as the first draft for yesterday's Thomas Friedman memo, deleting the self-pity and adding the trademark Friedman travel narrative.

What Friedman (and McCarthy) don't remember is that the transition from Unitary Christianity to mutually tolerant Christianities in Western Europe (and their colonies) was a centuries-long, unspeakably violent process that was, arguably, not complete until the 20th century.

Matthew Merlino

Ummmm . . . you might want to look into what happened when a Jew of Spinoza's time tried to return to the synagogue to avoid a full excommunication: beatings and ritual humiliation. I don't want to make stupid generalizations about European Jews in the 16th-19th centuries, but I think it's wrong to see the Jewish communities in Europe as some sort of liberal or moderate group. As you yourself wrote, some Jewish moderates were the result of conscious theological interpretation; some were the result of fear of Christians; some were the result of real Christian violence. But Spinoza, in order to be a proto-Enlightenment thinker (early proponent of republican democracy, for instance), had to leave the synagogue and alienate himself from the Jewish community -- and from the Christian community as well.

Rich Puchalsky

Alternate interpretation: Andy McCarthy is a hatemonger who is seizing his chance to spread hate, for his own personal gain. The arguments that he uses are meaningless babble and neither he nor his audience cares. Why over-interpret?

Matthew Merlino

Or, he's not, and they're not.

Rich Puchalsky

"That includes everyone from imam Feisal Rauf, the project’s sharia-touting sponsor, to President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg, and the rest of the Islamist-smitten Left, [...]"

Or, maybe it's better to read, and not habitually over-read.

James T

Hey, if there's no such thing as moderate Islam, what's the point of the term 'Islamist'?


"Or, maybe it's better to read, and not habitually over-read."

Or maybe you should read the koran, so at worst you can be an educated useless infidel.

"ah, my name is Rich, I helped you guys fight the Christian and Jewish Right, why are you cutting my head off?"

"Because we don't need your help any more, and you don't have your Jihad Pass!" hold still!"

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