The Fear of Becoming Enlightened
- The Challenge and the Fear of Becoming Enlightened
by Pierre Tristam
Monday, November 28, 2005
Daytona Beach News Journal (Florida)
Since Sept. 11, we've been living under a "clash of civilizations"
doctrine that can be summed up this way: Over there, dogma, orthodoxy,
Islam; over here, democracy, pluralism, Constitution. Over there, dark
continents, dark ages, terrorism; over here, enlightened West,
The doctrine has been used to justify two wars (so far) and a
wholesale shift in the way the United States deploys its aims abroad
and projects them at home. The doctrine draws its power from the
language of freedom -- the language of enlightenment -- both in the
way we've gone about defining ourselves as a culture and in the way
we've gone about defending our right to fight the war on terror on our
terms, but on other people's turfs.
The doctrine is fatally flawed, and its consequences are lethal, both
to American principles at home and to American interests abroad.
There's no connection between the language we're using in defining
ourselves and the reality being imposed at home and abroad. The
language itself has become the mask of its very opposite. If you want
absolutes, if you want black and white, if you want orthodoxy, look no
further than the way American culture politically and legally has been
evolving in the past several years.
That's not to say that those orthodoxies don't exist in the Muslim
world. They do in spades. But the enlightenment ideal is not under
attack from outside our culture. It is under attack from within it, in
a context that increasingly fears pluralism, scorns dissent and erodes
democracy. The very ideas of rational, critical thinking, of progress
by way of challenging assumptions, is being replaced by a faith-based
approach in policy-making and a fundamentalist approach in legal
thinking (what some people call originalism) that is diametrically
opposed to the ideals of enlightenment. If a battle for freedom is
being waged, it is being waged on the wrong front.
First, a look at Islam as a world supposedly so incapable of solving
its crises that only western intervention can help. We should be
honest. Islamdom doesn't have a good reputation these days, and it
brings a lot of the trouble on itself. But any religion in the wrong
hands, beginning with Americans' own Christian creeds, can be violent,
backward and evil. It so happens that few religions can lay claim to
as much beauty of spirit, art, enlightenment and advancement of the
human race as Islam did for the entirety of the Middle Ages, when
nothing in Europe could hold a candle to Islamic civilization, when
Islam was enlightenment before enlightenment was cool.
What was unique about Islam's early and middle period was its great
tolerance for people of other faiths, its love and wealth of learning,
its antipathy for dogma, its realization of pluralism -- in the great
Abassid caliphates of Baghdad from the 9th to the 12th centuries, in
Spain during the same period, in India during the 16th and early part
of the 17th centuries. It's possible to see the Muslim Enlightenment
literally as bookends, in time and geography, with Baghdad in the
early period and the reign of Akbar the Great in the 16th and 17th
centuries in India, who lived up to a famous verse in the Koran that
speaks for all the potential pluralism in Islam: "There can be no
compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (which is
actually a retelling of what Jesus said to his followers: "The truth
will make you free.")
Akbar's enlightened reign in India coincided with Europe's bloodiest
age of religious bigotry and warfare, when the Inquisition was
murdering Jews in Spain and Catholics and Protestants were murdering
each other everywhere else, when beheadings were the preferred method
of Calvinists in sleepy Geneva for adulterous men, when Europe was to
know nine wars of religion in three decades in a warm-up to the
massacres and holocausts of the 17th century. The roads of religious
intolerance are paved with the bones of that occasional oxymoron we
know of as western civilization. And those same roads are conveniently
forgotten by those who would point to a place like the Middle East and
say things like, "Those people have been at each other's throats for
ever." Not quite true. Any notion that the Enlightenment was a western
invention, or that barbarism is an eastern specialty, is a bit misguided.
But it is also true that everything is not relative. The Middle East
today and much of the Islamic world is not a comfortable place to be.
It is often not a defensible place. A United Nations report on Arab
development noted that the 22 countries that form the Arab world
translate about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that
Greece alone translates. The cumulative total of translated books
since 9th century Baghdad is about 100,000, almost the average that
Spain translates in a single year. What that world needs is a dose of
its own past enlightenment. So it's a fair question: If Islam showed
not only the potential but the reality of enlightenment over its
history, why not now, and why shouldn't the West be showing the way
back to enlightenment?
Aside from the obvious fact that enlightenment doesn't spring from the
belly of a B-52, because what's going on now in the Islamic world is
exactly what should be going on: A reformation as momentous and
violent as Europe's reformation was 500 years ago. Islam is trying to
reinvent itself. It is looking for a way out of its morass. The forces
of reform and the reactionary forces of fundamentalism are literally
at each other's throats, the way Catholics and Protestants, and
eventually religion and secularism, were at each other's throats in
Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.
It's not black and white. The camps aren't neatly divided between
progressives and reformers. Nor is the presumption true that the
moderates are looking to adopt Western ways. The struggle is within
Islam, for a solution for Islam, not to please the West, look like the
West or get closer to the West. Who will win in Islam is anybody's
guess. Any way you look at it -- in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq
and Lebanon -- where you have elections, the moderates are losing big
at the moment. But at the same time it's also true, as the Iranian
scholar of Islam Reza Aslan argues in a new book on Islam's evolution,
"the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world
today readily accept the fundamental principles of democracy." It just
isn't American-style democracy they necessarily want or need.
So far as the West is concerned, this, as Aslan argues, is the most
important lesson to learn: We are bystanders in this battle within
Islam. We are not players. We are not wanted as players. We should not
so arrogantly pretend to be players, or to think we have the right or
the means to be players. How can we even think something like that
with Sept. 11 behind us? Because the Sept. 11 attacks were not a
declaration of war on the West, the way the lock and load warriors in
the neo-con brigades like to see them.
The attacks were part of that "internal conflict between Muslims," and
they made us, in Aslan's words, "an unwary yet complicit casualty of a
rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter
in its story."
Let's not play into the hands of the fanatics, or confuse the
spectacular with the successful. The best we can do is what Islam did
in its glory period of conquests: Show the light by example. Live up
to our own enlightenment ideals.
What we are doing instead is the very opposite. Through such things as
Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the secret prisons around the world called
black sites, the bloody occupation of Iraq and the seemingly endless
occupation of Afghanistan, we are only proving to the Islamic world
that the secular West is diseased, that the Crusades, the Colonial
period and the broken promises of the post-colonial 20th century were
not a fluke but a pattern.
In Islam's eyes, the West, the secular West especially, doesn't save.
It mucks up. As long as the United States insists on crusading for
freedom in Islam's lands, it will be retarding the more enlightened
movements for reform there.
For all his good intentions, George W. Bush has been fundamentalist
Islam's best friend, and has probably set back the progress of Islamic
Enlightenment for many, many years.
Osama bin Laden might as well pray facing the White House every day,
because without this White House playing right into fundamentalist
Islam's recruiting drives, Osama might well have been nothing more
than a bag of bones attached to a dialysis machine by now, and the
tyrannical Arab world might well have been on its way to following in
the steps of the Soviet Union's disintegration at the end of the
1980s. Instead, we have a disintegration of our own to worry about.
The world of Islam is going through a great reformation. But in some
ways, so is the United States. The world of Islam is divided between
the forces of modernity and the reaction of fundamentalism. But so is
the United States, and I don't mean just because evangelicals are
pulling a few political strings.
The Islamic world is trying to redefine its identity, with the Koran
in the center of the battle. But so is the United States, with the
Constitution, which has always been synonymous with American identity,
at the heart of the battle -- and the Bible trying to make its way
back in there. So what we have between East and West are two distinct
struggles for identity. We delude ourselves into thinking either side
can affect outcomes in the other. The irony is that while the
president is warning us about this ragtag bunch of Islamic nut cases
trying to "destroy our way of life," we're being distracted from a
very serious struggle happening right here that is changing our way of
The more we talk about doing battle for liberty in the world, the more
we are losing it at home by not paying attention to what's happening
at home. The more we continue to ignore that the country is in the
middle of its own identity crisis, the more the forces of reaction and
fundamentalism can redefine the political climate their way, not even
by stealth, but by using the language of enlightenment as a Trojan
horse: Trust us. We are doing this for freedom's sake. We are "the
light of the world," and "whoever follows (us) will never walk in
darkness." That's a quote from the Gospel according to John of course,
but it's also a visual quote from Bush's campaign ads in 2004, if you
remember the famous "wolves" commercial that warns of "an increasingly
dangerous world" and shows a bunch of wolves ready to attack -- if you
don't vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket.
Seventy-two years ago Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we
have to fear is fear itself. These days we're told the only thing we
have to fear is safety. The state of fear is our friend. Perpetual war
is our condition in whose name anything goes. And all the while,
freedom is being redefined as an instrument of state rather than an
individual pursuit guaranteed by state protection.
That sounds strangely familiar. The fundamentalists and the
reactionaries in the Islamic world, are looking to impose a
regressive, power-centered society of control and submission. But what
the reactionaries are doing in the United States isn't that
ideologically different. We are replacing the notion of an
enlightened, progressive society with the notion of a defensive,
If you look at the U.S. Supreme Court, you can actually see that
battle like a spectator at ringside. In one corner, you have Justice
Antonin Scalia, believer in God, the death penalty and originalism, in
In another corner, you have Justice Stephen Breyer, advocate of what
he calls "the Living Constitution," or "Active Liberty," which is
actually the name of the book he's just written to define what he
means, and to answer the book Scalia published a few years ago to mark
his territory. Breyer believes the framers didn't write the
Constitution as a static document to reflect their time only. They
wrote it generally enough to apply universally in the service of two
pragmatic goals: To protect liberty and to expand democracy and the
ability of people to participate in democracy. "They wrote a
Constitution that begins with the words, 'We the People.' The words
are not 'we the people of 1787.' "
Scalia would disagree totally about the idea that the Constitution was
an engine of democratic nation-building. He believes in the
fundamentalist principle that what words say are what they meant at
the time when they were written. "The text is the law, and it is the
text that must be observed," he says.
Breyer wants the Constitution to reflect the world of 2005. Scalia
wants the Constitution to stick to the meanings of 1787.
Scalia thinks Breyer's approach is blasphemous. He calls it
"dice-loading," or smuggling new rights that aren't in the original
text. Breyer thinks Scalia's approach is "wooden," or that it operates
"in a vacuum," whereas "in the real world, institutions and methods of
interpretation must be . . . capable of translating the people's will
into sound policies."
So who's right? What you have here is not a failure to communicate.
What you have are two radically different views of the purpose of both
democracy and the Constitution.
Breyer believes in enlightenment's principle of progress. He thinks
human beings are perfectible and democracy, guided by the
Constitution, is that road to progress. Do we want to be a progressive
society or do we not? For Breyer, the language of the Constitution
answers the question in a big, enlightened Yes. He would agree with
former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in a 1958 opinion that the
Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments "must draw its
meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress
of a maturing society." Breyer would interpret the entire Constitution
according to those standards, and he's not afraid to look abroad for
ideas about who's maturing more brightly.
Scalia is radically opposed to that view. "I detest that phrase," he
said this year about the Earl Warren opinion. "I'm afraid that
societies don't always mature. Sometimes they rot." So if the notion
of progress is not written into the Constitution, he doesn't want to
hear about it.
In Scalia's view, the question of whether we want to be a progressive
society is itself unconstitutional. If the death penalty was allowed
in the 18th century, it should be allowed now. If it was allowed for
juveniles and for mentally retarded people, and it was, it should be
allowed now, because the framers couldn't possibly have had capital
punishment in mind when they proscribed "cruel and unusual" punishment.
If you follow that sort of thinking, then if Florida wants to bring
back branding, mutilation and banishment of criminals, it should be OK
because it was so common in the late 18th century even Thomas
Jefferson advocated it. And if Jefferson didn't think that sort of
barbarism wasn't cruel or unusual back then, does that mean it's OK
now? Scalia puts it this way: Maybe it's not OK. But the Constitution
does not ban it. Scalia's thinking shows how reasoning metastasizes
GATES OF IJTIHAD
The parallel is striking. As Islam began its decline several centuries
ago the clerics in Islamic law had the very same debates. They had
something called "the gates of ijtihad," which is the Arabic word for
"independent reasoning." It was the notion of applying Islamic law to
Beginning in the 14th century, Sunni clerics declared the "gates of
ijtihad" closed. Scholars and jurists from then on were to rely only
on the original meaning of the Koran, and the legal reasonings of the
original clerics closest to the prophet Muhammad. Where some forms of
Sufism believed all religions were valid, by the 14th century the
hard-liners in Islam were circling the wagons against other
traditions. Foreigners became suspect, Islam closed ranks and decline
Word for word, that form of originalism is the Scalia philosophy, and
it is gaining ground not only on the Supreme Court, but also in the
unilateralist attitude of the United States as a whole. That explains
why we are becoming a harsher, meaner, nastier society than we ought
to be and why we're not exactly in a position to be preaching
democracy and enlightenment to the rest of the world right now.
While Islam is trying to break away from that rigidity, which has
served it so poorly for several centuries, we are embracing it. While
Islam is trying to reclaim the values and ideals of enlightenment on
its own terms, we seem to be abandoning those values and closing our
own gates of ijtihad. While Islam is paying the price of
fundamentalism and suffering to get away from it, we elect it and put
our trust in it. Two separate worlds, two separate battles. But how
ironic what they both have in common is the language of enlightenment:
They long to speak it again over there, even if they have a very long
way to go, while it's becoming more and more of a foreign language
The great Judge Learned Hand once defined the spirit of liberty as
"the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." We've lost that
spirit of liberty, which is not too sure that it is right, and
replaced it with a dogma of liberty and self-righteous certainties.
Maybe that'll help us win a few wars: The war on terror, the war in
Iraq, maybe even the war on drugs and the war on the poor. But those
aren't wars worth winning if we're destroying the meaning of America
along the way.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. The essay is adapted from
"The Language of Enlightenment," a lecture presented Nov. 14 as part
of Stetson University's Values Council Lecture Series. The complete
text is available at www.pierretristam.com.
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