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Against ‘Seriousness’

Rod Dreher comes to Andrew Sullivan’s defense on the subject of taking Islamic violence seriously.


What distinguishes Islam is that its founder practiced violence, whereas Jesus quite obviously favored the exact opposite – nonviolence to the point of accepting one’s own death. Unlike Christianity, but like Judaism, Islam also claims sacred land, and, along with extremist forms of Judaism, the divine right to repel intruders from it. Religion is dangerous enough. A religion founded by a violent figure, with territorial claims, and whose values are at direct odds with modernity is extra-dangerous. Which other major world religion believes that apostates should be killed? Or regards negative depictions of the Prophet as worthy of a death sentence?


This is true, and it’s important to say. It gives Islam the respect of taking it seriously. When a Christian murders, as many have done, sometimes with church sanction, he acts in direct contravention of Christ’s example and command. When a Muslim murders, he sometimes carries out Muhammad’s command, which is to say, Allah’s.

To which I can only say: yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

I have learned to be wary of people who say that their opinions are “serious” and other people’s aren’t. “Serious” people are the ones who “knew” that Iraq had an active nuclear program and who “know,” today, that Iran has similar ambitions and cannot be deterred. “Serious” people are the ones who know that we are at “war” with terrorists, and that other metaphorical understandings of our situation aren’t “serious.” Where the rubber meets the road, “serious” means, “expecting violence.” It isn’t the same thing at all as “knowledgable,” but rather the mirror image in ignorance of the platitudinous cotton candy of multiculturalism that Dreher, Sullivan and I alike disdain.

We don’t need more seriousness. Nor do we need more sugary platitudes. We need knowledge.

Samuel Huntington‘s line – “Islam has bloody borders” – struck me as correct at the time it was made. But correct or not, it was an observation of reality, and consequently subject to empirical verification. You can actually count up inter-communal conflicts and see how many involve Muslims. Then the question becomes: why?

If we were to test the proposition, “Islam is inherently more violent than other religions,” we’d need to compare Islamic civilization across time and space to other civilizations (and control properly for other factors). Are Dreher and Sullivan quite sure of what the result of such a comparison would be? Are they quite sure that, say, things like cousin marriage, or a burgeoning population of underemployed males, or the legacy of Cold War-era arms races, or the coincidence of massive oil wealth in the hands of a particularly puritanical sect on the Arabian peninsula, or the intrusion of Zionism, or the demographic decline of Christian Europe (and Russia), or the ructions of modernization meeting a subordination of women that pre-dates Islam, or . . . well, there’s a long list of theories for why Islam’s borders are bloody now. Are we quite sure that those theories are less-correct than the theory, “they are getting their ideas from a bad book?”

Dreher says that when a Christian “murders,” he acts in direct contravention of divine command. Fine: but what is murder? Is it “murder” to wage war to liberate the Holy Land? Or to obliterate the Cathars? Or to convert the Lithuanians? Or to reconquer Spain? I’m quite sure those who prosecuted those wars in the divine name would have been distinctly puzzled by the suggestion that their actions constituted murder – as opposed to justified killing. And, of course, “murder” is prohibited in every civilized society.

Meanwhile, it’s my people who wrote Psalm 137, a prayer for vengeance that ends with glee at the thought of dashing our enemies’ children’s brains on rocks. And yet, over the sweep of history since the rabbinic period, one would have to call the Jewish people among the least-prone to extreme inter-communal violence. We can debate the reasons for that historical fact, but what it should show at a minimum is that the syllogism, “violent texts are a primary cause of inter-communal violence,” needs some work.

Dreher and Sullivan alike are Christians. I’m not. They assume that Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” means that Christianity has acted as a historic brake on violence. As a Jew, I have to question that assumption. After all, the number of Christian countries in history that have been governed according to principles of non-violence is exactly zero. Someone from a religious tradition whose founding texts articulated rules about when violence is justified or permitted might look at the long history of Christian violence – not just violence by Christians, but violence undertaken with the Church’s encouragement and undertaken in the name of Jesus – and say: gee, maybe saying “turn the other cheek” backfires, makes all violence seem equally sinful, and therefore opens the gate to truly horrific behavior?

I’m not endorsing that view – I’m just saying that there are perfectly logical arguments that can be made that completely reverse the Christian apologetic claim that because Jesus preached non-violence and Muhammad (like Moses) led an army, therefore Christian civilization is inherently less-violent than Muslim (or Jewish?) civilization. Obviously, if you’re a Christian, you’ll find a Christian apologetic argument congenial. But that doesn’t mean it has analytical value.

For that matter, the United States was founded by genocidal racist slave-trading colonialists. Does that mean the Constitution is essentially and irredeemably racist? Isn’t that where the “bad book” theory logically leads?

Again, I’m not saying that religious (or other foundational) texts are irrelevant. I’m certainly not saying that all religious (or political) traditions are the same. I’m saying that the syllogism, “bad book = bad acts,” is highly suspect, and obviously so. There may be a very good argument that Islamic civilization has a distinctive problem with modernity that will be very difficult for it to solve, precisely because of the nature of its founder and the historic understanding of its founding revelation. I would expect to hear that argument from liberal Muslims first and foremost, because they are the ones who would most be interested in solving it.

Which brings me to one last note. In passing, Dreher says:

Obviously many, many Muslims choose less bloodthirsty interpretations of these verses, and this is the sort of thing that non-Muslims should encourage, for the sake of peace.

This is another formulation I think we should properly suspect. There is very, very little that non-Muslims can “encourage” with regard to Muslim interpretation of their sacred texts. We can “encourage” Muslim leaders to silence, jail or kill individuals we consider to be a threat. And by all means, we should ask questions – heck, we should sometimes ask impolite questions if it’s necessary to do so to get real answers. But I think Dreher would be quite offended by the suggestion that the proper role of Muslim leaders is to “encourage” Christians to interpret their own religion in a way that is more congenial to Muslim interests or feelings. Why wouldn’t Muslims feel the same way about Christians “encouraging” them to interpret their holy book the way Christians prefer? And if it would, then isn’t the kind of “encouragement” that Dreher says we should engage in more than likely to backfire?

UPDATE: Dreher’s later post‘s title gets it right: “Uncle Ruslan, a Good American.” Exactly. A good American – because the identity we share is “American,” not Muslim. So it’s not for us to say who is a good Muslim and who isn’t, and to encourage Muslims to be the “right sort” of Muslims from our perspective. But it is for us to say what makes a good American and what doesn’t – and to be as firm (or, if we prefer, as lax) as we like about applying our own standards in that regard, as Americans.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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