The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

The Church Is the State 
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 7 2001 5:20 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 1

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Ted,

Advertisement

I agree: Armstrong's book is an appetizer, an unsatisfying dish that makes you hungry for more. That's the nature of such a short book on such a large topic, and I found myself wishing that she had narrowed her focus. As you note, too much of the book reads like an encyclopedia entry, crammed with facts but difficult to wade through. Having said that, I turned to this book soon after Sept. 11 because of the "short" promise of its title. I wanted breadth and not depth, and I wanted it fast. In that sense, the book succeeds.

You complain that Armstrong focuses too much on politics, but that reflects the theme of her book, the idea she continually revisits to tie the "one damn fact after another" together: To Muslims, the political is sacred, history is sacramental, and the (impossible) dream of a perfect Islamic state is the equivalent of the Christian yearning for the coming of the Kingdom of God. To Muslims, Armstrong writes, "state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself," and politics was "the theatre of their religious quest."

Armstrong didn't intend this, but in the aftermath of Sept. 11, in some ways that's as nightmarish as anything in Germs. I was scared whenever I came across sentences like these (emphasis mine):

"If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life's ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy."

The "quest for an ideal form of Muslim government should not be viewed as aberrant but as an essentially and typically religious activity."

Is this a holy war? I hope not. But Armstrong's book—quite unintentionally—makes it clear why some (or even many) Muslims might view it as one. If the political is sacramental, any war can be construed as a holy war. Victory provides evidence that God was on your side. (It's not an outrageous concept. Kurt Warner seems to believe that Jesus Christ wants the St. Louis Rams to win the Super Bowl. It seems less ridiculous to believe that God wants you to prevail in a conflict that takes place off the football field.)

Perhaps recognizing the dangers in such an inherently political theology, Armstrong prescribes as much as she describes. She's sympathetic to the virtues of religion (as am I), and she wants Islam to promote the virtues she favors. She emphasizes the Quranic ideals of social justice and religious tolerance. She notes that the Quran grants women the rights of inheritance and divorce. She pooh-poohs more restrictive traditions that arose a few generations after Muhammad's death. She insists that the Islamic ideal of tawhid—the divine unity of the personal and the social—doesn't preclude secular governments.

Maybe so. But there's still enough in Armstrong's book to keep you up at night. Bernard Lewis notes, in a book we'll discuss later, that it took centuries of bloody religious warfare for Christendom to recognize the value of the separation of church and state. Let's hope Islam doesn't need as much convincing.

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.