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Tempest in a chainak

There’s been enough interest in a side comment I made about Islam in a post several years ago to motivate a flurry of (to my mind) rather odd discussion on a couple of weblogs (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Someone involved emailed me to ask my views and we had an exchange. Since it appears that some people find the issue of interest, and since one of the weblogs is View from the Right, I thought I would make the exchange available. (Chainak, by the way, means “teapot” in some of the Islamic languages.)

CORRESPONDENT:

At VFR there has been an ongoing debate regarding your comment that you believed Islam superior to advanced liberalism.

JK:

As a general understanding of the world, not as an existing movement or social reality. The comment was a throwaway within a general discussion of general possibilities for a better society. Islam excludes less and understandings that exclude less are better than those that exclude more.

CORRESPONDENT:

I’m pretty sure that you are familar with the comments of the Conservative Swede who leapt at Auster’s throat for not disavowing your position.

JK:

I haven’t followed the discussions much since the first comment or two. What’s been said seems to me to miss the point, I suppose in part because of radically different approaches to ideas and their relation to immediate needs.

CORRESPONDENT:

I can agree with your “excludes less” definition and it’s superior nature in the realm of science, for example, or in terms of general philosophical systems such as those of the Rationalist school (i.e. Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz) or Immanuel Kant).

JK:

But if you agree with that I don’t see what the argument is. My mention of Islam in 2004 had to do with Islam as a general understanding, not an existing society or movement, and certainly not as a public enemy. I said:

“Naturally, like other people I have views about which understandings are best. For example, I consider Islam better than contemporary advanced liberalism, the individualistic, nondoctrinal and moralistic Protestantism traditional in America better than Islam, and Catholicism better than Protestantism.”

I was talking about general understandings and not social systems. Also, I wasn’t pushing Islam or anything else. It was a highly theoretical comment. I immediately went on to say:

“You can’t force such issues though. The government of a country should in general recognize and cooperate with the country’s informal, traditional, moral and religious habits and institutions. Those things have to do with what people at bottom believe in and love, and as the philosopher (or whoever) said, ‘you can’t hurry love.’ They precede politics and the attempt to remake them politically is tyrannical.”

The next-to-last sentence, by the way, was intended as a joke. I didn’t literally mean that Diana Ross is a philosopher, or that the lyrics of her songs should be studied in school, or anything of the kind.

CORRESPONDENT:

But the allure of Islam today, however, is precisely because it is existential and not theoretical. The “excludes less”, Pure Idea approach, if you will, is a very selective, if not specious, in relation to Islam. But first let’s deal existentially: Islam, excludes 50% of its own population from attaining what we in the West term equal treatment under the law.Imagine the West without its concept of romantic love (excluded by Islam), in which case, a good part of our literary and musical tradition goes out the window. Conversely, Islam has no understanding or capability of addressing liberalism itself. It not only excludes liberalism it denies it and becomes murderous in the process. This is why imams and mullahs will say that the West has declared war on Islam.

JK:

All that may be so, but it’s not anything I addressed. I claim the right, when I’m talking about some other topic, to refer very briefly to Islam without presenting a full picture of it in all its connections.

CORRESPONDENT:

You are, I believe, overly appreciative of the metaphysical or cosmological component of Islam which offers a pathway to heaven while prescribing and proscribing a systematic way to live that encompasses every aspect of human behavior, including dealing with the infidel. But more to the point, does this particular incarnation of a system of general understanding (Islam), deserve to deemed intrinsically superior in the 21st century to liberlism? The so-called comprehensive, all inclusive nature of Islam leaves out, among other things the ability of mankind to live a life of liberty which allows us in the West to view the world as both awe inspiring and mysterious. These are the spurs for intellectual curiosity and scientific advancement. I think that perhaps you mistake the desire for a general understanding for the actuality of having a general understanding. The failure of Islam today is because it does not offer a general understanding of the world but rather only an ongoing reiteration of itself. In other words, Islam can only repeat to us what it is; it does not tell us anything about the world. As an afterthought, it could be argued that liberalism, being utopian in nature, could offer a better “general understanding of the world” if we remain in the realm of Pure Ideas without movements, consequences or social costs attached.

JK:

I agree that Islam, both as a general understanding and as an existing overall system, has many vices. I also agree that free institutions, and the liberal societies that actually exist, have many virtues.

The relationship between the value of an understanding in itself and how to deal with those who hold it to some degree is of course complicated.

CORRESPONDENT:

Agreed. But that is why I wrote to you.

JK:

Then you wrote to me about a topic I didn’t discuss in the passages under discussion and had no special reason to discuss because my concern was with issues other than Islam.

CORRESPONDENT:

For Jim Kalb to say that he would prefer Islam to advanced liberalism is simply overwrought, pessimistic thinking. It is self-loathing, albeit on a futuristic scale. The need for a transcendent ideal as a guide, no matter how corrupt, no matter how outre, is to enter the realm of the religious fanatic.

JK:

I think my first comment above answers this sufficiently. I suppose I’d add that it’s not really a question of a transcendent ideal as a guide, as a sort of add-on to a social order that already works, as the implications of rejecting the transcendent in principle and treating its exclusion from all social relations as a basic requirement of justice and rationality.

CORRESPONDENT:

To say that liberalism, as part of the Western left, is unbalanced and has no internal check on fanaticism is not I think to be a fanatic oneself. But Islam is the example, par excellence, that has no “internal check” on fanaticism and it has nothing in common with Western liberalism!

JK:

I agree that Islam tends very much toward fanaticism. The concept of God as inscrutable will is a big problem. On the other hand, Islam also has a complex system of concrete rules and precedents that are sacred and so limit the practical consequences that can be drawn from its principles. Liberalism has nothing similar. It’s limitlessly progressive, so in the long run I think liberal principles can give you weirder and more inhuman results.

CORRESPONDENT:

This is getting to the crux of my overall point: advanced liberalism, even if you deem it our most degraded form of social cohesion, still functions better than Islam because it is still within the paradigm of Western thought.

JK:

That’s not a point I intended to contest, taking “advanced liberalism” to mean the actually-existing system of public life in Western countries.

CORRESPONDENT:

For isn’t Kalb really saying that when the going gets extraordinarily tough, end of the road tough, he’s embracing Islam?

JK:

I have no idea why. “12x12=169” I think is superior as an understanding to “12x12=some rock I saw last week.” At least it’s in the ballpark. That doesn’t mean I’ll embrace it when the going gets tough.

CORRESPONDENT:

Fair enough. Perhaps you wouldn’t embrace either 12x12=169 or Islam. But if you told an irate, murderous employee who had worked twelve days for twelve hours each day that you just did not know for certain what total number of hours he could expect to be paid for that individual could say “how about 169?” and your answer would be? (Probably,169.)

JK:

Quite possibly, in that particular situation.

CORRESPONDENT:

We may not go along with that whole argument and its implications, in particular, the argument does not free Kalb of the possible imputation of being willing to surrender to Islam in order to escape from liberalism.

JK:

I suppose if I say that in general there are things that are more important than family ties it would be hard for me to free myself of the possible imputation that I’d be willing to torture my whole family to death if I thought it would be generally advantageous and was pushed to the limit. So what?

CORRESPONDENT [quoting Larry Auster]:

Let us imagine a community of Christians living in a city in a Europe in which Christianity has been effectively banned. This Europe has homosexual marriage, and requires churches to perform homosexual marriages, so that the still-believing, orthodox churches have officially shut their doors to escape this requirement. Meanwhile the Moslems are outside the city gates, trying to take over. They promise the Christians within the walls dhimmi status, freedom to follow their religion (with of course, all the dhimmi restrictions such as not being allowed to ring church bells, not being allowed to repair churches, having to pay jizya and get slapped on the face while paying it, and so on and so on), if the Christians will open the gates and help the Moslems take over. What should the Christians do? If Jim Kalb were their leader, what would he do? If I or David G. were their leader, what would we do?

JK:

Presumably at some point a lot of Larry’s friends would support the Muslims, at the point perhaps when the liberals decide that tolerance and re-education require recalcitrant antifeminists to undergo sex-change operations and homophobes training in the gay lifestyle that includes participatory lab sessions. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything that suggests the exact point at which I myself would throw in the towel.

CORRESPONDENT:

Wow, turnabout is fair play! (Pun intended.) I’ll leave this to LA. Another way to view the dilemma might be: In the extreme, would Kalb (and his adherents) be willing to die a martyr or would he opt for Islam and its transcendent civilizing function that he deems to superior to advanced liberalism?

JK:

It’s hard to imagine a situation in which I would be justified in accepting Islam, apart of course from a radical change in my view of the world.

CORRESPONDENT:

Then in LA’s hypothetical scenario you would not give the key to the gates to the Muslim hordes?

JK:

In that scenario as described I don’t think so.

CORRESPONDENT:

As I understand the CS, he has it right, that, at least for Kalb, the key question of existence has been reduced to “is this good for Christianity?”

JK:

How?

CORRESPONDENT:

Once again, I drew this conclusion from your own words [in a reply to a comment on the 2004 post] to the effect that Islam at least theoretically has a place for Christianity while advanced liberalism does not, hence it is superior because it excludes less.

JK:

My earlier reply seems adequate:

It’s true in the 2004 discussion in a reply to someone who was quoting papal encyclicals I referred to the limited tolerance of Christianity within Islam. That doesn’t mean my original comment or my view of Islam and liberalism was based on that issue. As I continued to say, the basic point is that Islam accepts more of truth as a whole.

CORRESPONDENT:

Mr. Kalb, I am just not certain what truth you refer to unless it’s the transcendent principle component or the all encompassing system that I referred to earlier.

JK:

The general truth that the world cannot be understood as purely a system of human desire and technical skill on the one hand and neutral resources on the other. It has a pre-existing order we are part of that we should recognize and accept. That pre-existing order includes transcendent aspects, but also other things, for example distinctions and connections among men, women, children and the generations, and their mutual relations in the family and associated institutions. Islam oversimplifies that pre-existing order, and makes it comparatively brutal and tyrannical, at bottom because it tends to believe in arbitrary divine will more than natural law, but at least it recognizes it to some degree.

CORRESPONDENT:

A significant expression of traditional conservatism (Kalb’s) ultimately lacks an instinct for survival and proves to be to be just another dead-end when pushed to its logical conclusions.

JK:

Don’t see this at all. To say that there is something good to be said about a public enemy is not to say he is not a public enemy and should not be viewed as such.

CORRESPONDENT:

A good point if we are talking about Bonnie and Clyde. Not so good when we are dealing with an enemy whose goal is ending civilized life as we know it. Plus, you did not say that Islam has some good points—you said that Islam was superior to advanced liberalism. Do you, or do you not, stand by that statement? If you do, can you really not see the implications for your brand of traditional conservatism when pressed to make a decision between us and them?

JK:

Islam is a whole civilization. We have been dealing with it for 1400 years and I suppose will be dealing with it for a great many years to come. How can we carry on even a hostile relationship in a sensible way to something so vast and enduring if every comment about it, even a passing comment in the context of a discussion of some other issue, has to be polemical?

I don’t see anything to change in what I said. But in your first comment up above you appear to agree with what I said in its intended meaning so I’m not sure why that should matter to you.

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