This too shall pass away?
Abraham Lincoln once told the story of the oriental despot who summoned his wise men and charged them to go away and not to come back until they had formulated a proposition to be carved forever in stone. When they returned, the proposition they offered him was: “And this too shall pass away.”
Most Europeans and Americans assume the uproar over cartoons that first appeared last September in a Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, will eventually pass away. They are largely indifferent. But for many Muslims, depicting the Prophet Muhammad is forbidden. This is an outrage. It’s a fury is fueled by a fundamental question – what went wrong? European and American indifference stems from a different question – who cares? If you try to reconcile these polar opposite responses, you realize – as Mr. Lincoln understood – that “this too shall pass away” is perhaps not true.
What went wrong?
Islamic civilization fell from worldwide leadership in almost every frontier of human knowledge five or six centuries ago to a “poor, weak, and ignorant” backwater that is today dominated by “shabby tyrannies… modern only in their apparatus of repression and terror.”1
This has led to considerable soul-searching among Muslims. Their question is: “What went wrong?” Its expertly explored by Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong? – a survey of why Muslims have blamed their problems on Europeans or Jews and thus fed their sense of victimhood for six centuries. When you understand their question, you see why a cartoon defaming the Prophet Muhammad poured gasoline on the fire.
But you cannot fully account for the outrage without acknowledging the triumph of Christianity. In the Near East, a long memory is an admirable quality. Americans, on the other hand, live without rear view mirrors.2
This is also increasingly true of Europeans, who have forgotten that when they first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western Hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Maya, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders, so were the fabled civilizations of the East: China, India, and Islamic nations were “backward” by comparison with 15th century Europe. How had that happened? Why was it that, although Muslims had pursued alchemy, the study led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that, for centuries, Europeans were the only ones possessed of eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation, and had excelled at metallurgy, shipbuilding, or farming?
[T]he rise of the West was based on the development of faith in progress within Christian theology… the way that faith in progress translated into technical and organizational innovations… the way Christian theology and reason informed political philosophy, sustaining a substantial degree of personal freedom… and the application of reason to commerce, resulting in capitalism within the safe havens provided by responsive states. These were the victories by which the West won.3
Muslims remember these things. Americans and Europeans generally don’t. “It is one of the ironies of our times that nearly all of the values that America holds most dear derive from Europe, even though today’s Europeans no longer hold them. [A]ll those lessons about Judaism and Christianity Americans did not find here in America waiting for us. Just the opposite, they came with the Bibles that were carried in our grandparents’ steamship trunks, and in the lessons they carried in their heads and their hearts from Europe to America.”4
In Europe and America, our collective amnesia raises a question dissimilar from Islam’s. Ours’ is an indifferent “Who cares?” It indicates we are more secularized than ever.5 Why? Our blasé attitude towards religion can be traced to the early 1800s when Auguste Comte (1798-1857) founded a school of thought known as logical positivism. “Positivists” believed the highest achievement in human thinking occurs when only scientific explanations – not religious ones, heaven forbid – are accepted as legitimate and rational.6 Their “metaphysical clubs” mocked the notion of anything beyond (meta) the physical world. They believed in an absolute dichotomy between facts and values and between reason and faith. Facts (reason) were for public matters; values (faith) were relegated to the private life. Religion became inconsequential.
This is the reigning paradigm today in Europe and America. One of the consequences is teased out in Bruce Bower’s new book, While Europe Slept. He explains how indulgent, hands-off policies towards radical Muslim immigrants – including plenty of welfare and no pressure to assimilate – could only happen in a world where we assume that religion is not that important. When religion is relegated to a day called Sunday and place called church, a vacuum is created in the public square.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Western indifference to religion invites extremism. It also ignores Christianity’s rich cultural contributions. At some level, we’re culpable. Lincoln said if we Americans cultivate the moral world within us and fight forgetfulness, perhaps we will endure and escape the damage done by what he called the silent artillery of time. But either way, this is probably not the last we will see of Islamist extremism. And this too shall pass away?
1 For the best review of Islamic history and attitudes, see Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).
2 The best writer on this uniquely American phenomenon is David Brooks and his recent book On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
3 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), xiii.
4 “North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.
5 For more on this, see the latest data from the Human Values Survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research which indicates Europeans and Americans are becoming more secularized. The Latin word “secular” simply means “related to a particular age or generation.” “Secularization” is a philosophy that basically says “all we have is the here and now – there is no sacred or transcendent story that explains all of life for all time.” “Secularism” is a social ideology in which religion and supernatural beliefs are not seen as the key to understanding the world and are instead segregated from matters of governance and reasoning.
6 Comte maintained that humanity progresses through stages of thought. For the positivist, each of these stages represented a positive improvement of the human condition. Comte called the first stage theological, an age when God is seen as the great cause of all things. But the second stage improved on this understanding of the world. It was called the “metaphysical,” and represented a period when rational progress dispensed with theological explanation in favor of more refined philosophical accounts of objects and events. Comte believed that Western thinking was moving past this second stage toward the third – and final – period, which Comte called the “positivist.” This was the highest achievement in human thinking.