Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Plague On Both Their Houses: Notes Toward a Renewal of Liberal Anticlericalism


Liberal apologists for Islam now routinely insist that all criticism of the Religion of Peace comes only from bigoted right-wing Christian fundamentalists. At the same time, bigoted right-wing Christian fundamentalists, on cue, give voice to their crude, religiously inspired condemnations of Islam (condemnations which have changed little, if at all, over the centuries) in the same breath as their psychotic rantings against the evils of universal health care, their claims that Barack Obama is a crypto-socialist manchurian-muslim foreign-born wannabe tyrant, and their straight-faced announcements of the time and place of the next "Open Carry Family Picnic & Tea Party" (which all at least have the virtue of originality, after a fashion).

So the question arises: is it possible to oppose the spread of Islam without making common cause with the Sarah Palins, Glenn Becks, and Newt Gingriches of the world? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes. And one does not have to look very far to see how it can be done.

For centuries, anticlericalism has played an important role in the political and cultural life of the West. In fact, anticlericalism has helped to define and shape our very concept of Western modernity. Among the more famous anticlericalists have been James Madison, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, David Hume, Emma Goldmann . . . .

Although sometimes mistakenly thought of in an overly narrow sense as simply anti-Catholicism (or "anti-Papism"), anticlericalism is broadly opposed to the accumulation of power and influence by religious organizations and movements. Anticlericalism also seeks to minimize the extent to which religion intrudes into public life generally.

Thomas Jefferson's anticlericalism, for example, certainly was not limited to opposition to Catholicism. In fact, he was more concerned with seeing to it that Protestant Churches did not become "established" than he was with the more remote threat posed by the Vatican. Jefferson waged a years long struggle in the Virginia legislature to pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (scroll down for an excerpt and a link), and during this time he was opposed by Anglicans and Congregationalists who wished to commit the Commonwealth of Virginia to officially supporting and subsidizing their (and possibly other) Churches.

James Madison was one of those who joined Jefferson in support of religious freedom and against the "establishment" of any Church or Churches in America. On the other hand, Patrick Henry was among those who supported a counterproposal titled "A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion." In the course of the debate (which lasted from 1777 to 1786) Madison wrote: "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?" [from Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785]

While Madison was willing to state that as far as "the institution of Civil Society" is concerned, "Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance," Thomas Paine, however, went much further than such diplomatic neutrality, and in his rightfully celebrated magnum opus, The Age of Reason, he issued a blanket condemnation of what he referred to as "this thing called Christianity."

Modern, Western anticlericalism must be judged as having been quite successful -- so far. Decisively curtailing the social and intellectual influence and political power of Christianity has been crucial to the development of equality, freedom and democracy in the West over the last several centuries. But this success is still only partial, and Christianity (whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) remains a decidedly reactionary force when it comes to such issues as women's rights, gay rights, sexual freedom, sexual education, artistic expression, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion. And we cannot afford to forget that not so long ago, Christianity stood squarely on the side of out-and-out theocratic monarchism against all the basic freedoms and rights we now so cavalierly take for granted.

In the past, Western anticlericalism has been directed exclusively at Christianity, due to the centuries of Christian theocracy that had resulted in a virtual spiritual monopoly among Europeans. But times have changed, and a new theocratic spectre is haunting the West in the form of Islam. It is time for a new, revitalized anticlericalism: an anticlericalism that yields none of the ground already won from Christianity, while at the same time unapologetically opposing the spread of Islam because it poses a clear and present danger to human equality, human rights, and individual liberty.

1. The Problem, Briefly Stated

Question: How much power and influence for Islam is too much?

Answer: By the time you find out, it is already too late.

When Taslima Nasreen dared to write about the violent, and often deadly, persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh, she was forced to flee her native land and to seek refuge in India. But Taslima eventually discovered that even in India, a country that is only 13% Muslim, she was not safe. And so she fled to the United States.

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced into an arranged marriage by her Somalian Muslim parents, she fled to the Netherlands where she found refuge and started a new life, even becoming a member of the Dutch Parliament. But Ayaan eventually discovered that even in the Netherlands, a country that is only 5% Muslim, she was not safe. And so she fled to the United States.

Anyone who studies Islam seriously -- its teachings, its history, and its contemporary implementations throughout the world today -- must conclude that Islam is an intrinsically totalitarian and expansionistic ideology that poses a direct threat to basic freedoms and human rights. Far from promoting bigotry or opposing freedom of religion, anticlericalist opposition to Islam embraces the sacred principle:
that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
[Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom, written in 1777 and adopted into law by Virginia Legislature in 1786]
Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul has written (in his book Beyond Belief, as well as elsewhere) that not only is Islam intrinsically imperialistic, but "There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs....Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past." Naipaul's thesis is that Islam has far outstripped any form of Western colonialism in terms of the cultural devastation wrought in those parts of the world that have been conquered "in the name of the most merciful, the most compassionate bla bla bla ...." The very word, "Islam", after all, means nothing more and nothing less than "submission."

2. Are All The Enemies Of My Enemies Necessarily My Friends?

Xenophobia: Muslim immigrants in Europe have been the target of right-wing xenophobia for decades. Two of the more famous players in this game have been the British National Front (founded in 1967) and Jean Marie le Pen's Front National (founded in 1972). Both of those groups follow the formula of appealing to racist sentiments among the white working class. These racist appeals are directed primarily against Muslim immigrants. Both groups also play on the resentment engendered by the decline and fall of the British and French Empires, respectively.

But the problem with Islam is not that it is "foreign" or "non-white" or "non-European" or "non-Western." The problem with Islam is that it is totalitarian. And Europe has produced its own indigenous totalitarian ideologies, Fascism and Communism, which are no less totalitarian by virtue of being the inventions of white, Western, Europeans. And Europe has historically, well into the early modern period, been dominated by "our own" religious totalitarianism in the form of Christian theocracy.

Meanwhile, in the United States the same xenophobic right-wing tendency that howls about Muslim immigrants in Europe is just as up in arms about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, even though these are good Christians!

Religious intolerance: In the United States, Christian fundamentalists are among the loudest critics of "Islamofascism" and "Islamification". Evangelical Christian preacher Franklin Graham (Billy's eldest son) has been predictably excoriated for stating simple truths about Islam such as
"The persecution or elimination of non-Muslims has been a cornerstone of Islamic conquests and rule for centuries. The Koran provides ample evidence that Islam encourages violence in order to win converts and to reach the ultimate goal of an Islamic world. Conversions from Islam to any other faith are often punishable by death."
["My View Of Islam" by Franklin Graham]
Now the truth is still true regardless of whose mouth it comes out of. But in the same open letter clarifying his "View of Islam", Graham also declares that
"As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. I believe in Jesus' statement: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me." Christians accept this as the only way to God."
And even though he will never admit it, what Graham states about the Koran providing "ample evidence of that Islam encourages violence," is just as true with respect to the Bible and Christianity. And, in practice, violence and coercion have played almost as large a role in the spread and growth of Christianity as they have in Islam.

Defense of Freedom: Anticlericalists should oppose the spread of Islam on the grounds that it poses a threat to the core principles of personal liberty, human equality, human rights, and democracy. This principled position has nothing whatsoever to do with racism, cultural chauvinism, or religious bigotry. After all, the same kind of criticism now legitimately directed at Islam has historically been leveled at Christianity by those fighting for greater freedom and progressive social change.

It might be helpful to remember that legitimate criticisms of Christianity, especially the harsh and sweeping criticisms coming from the most uncompromising anticlericalists, have always been met with the ridiculous claim that such criticism amounts to "persecution". To this day, Christians in the United States cry "discrimination!" wherever and whenever the basic principle of separation of church and state, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is scrupulously implemented.

And now Muslims (and their "progressive" apologists) have taken a page right out of the playbook of the Church: every legitimate criticism of Islam is met with knee-jerk accusations of "racism" and "hate speech". The spread of Islam, which poses the greatest threat to religious freedom in the world today, is promoted and justified in the name of .... religious freedom!

Finally, for now, a very brief note on the question: how real is the threat posed by Islam in the United States?

The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) claims that there are 7 million Muslims in the US (a little more than 2% of the population). Siraj Wahhaj, who sits on the Board of CAIR, is a Brooklyn born imam who once told an audience of Muslims in New Jersey (in 1992) that "if 6-8 million Muslims unite in America, the country will come to us." It's also interesting to note that in 1995 Wahhaj testified as a character witness for Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing.

Future installments in the series A Plague On Both Their Houses are tentatively planned to include:

3. Islam + Democracy = Totalitarianism
Srsly. "To be honest, the people prefer the Taliban." Afghan Tribal Elder

4. A Very Brief History of Anticlericalism
More on Thomas Paine, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Jose Marti, David Hume, etc.

5. Liberal Anticlericalism vs. Racist Anglo-Saxon Anti-Papism
The Ku Klux Klan were anti-Catholic, but they were hardly liberal anticlericals.

6. What about other religions?
Why opposing "all religions" is a dead end -- and an act of intellectual cowardice.