The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

Islamists vs. Islam
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 14 2001 3:53 PM

The Sept. 11 Canon: Week 2

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Let's back up a little bit. I agree with Ted: We are being a bit reductionist. I'm suspicious of sweeping generalizations about "the Muslim polity" and "the Arabs." As Chris Caldwell pointed out last week, self-pity may be a characteristic of Osama Bin Laden and Islamists, but that doesn't make it a characteristic of Islam, Arabs, or Muslims.

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The real question that confronts us, I think, is to what extent religion determines national character. (And secondarily, to what extent "national character" exists.) Are we facing a clash of civilizations? Judith and Chris Caldwell seem to think so. So does Slate's Emily Yoffe, who dismisses the idea that al-Qaida is a "tiny band of crazed fanatics."

I'm doubtful. The most famous proponent of the clash of civilizations, Samuel Huntington (who was influenced by Bernard Lewis), looks at the world and sees that Muslim countries "are generally less advanced economically; they seem much less likely to develop stable democratic political systems. The Velvet Curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology as the most significant dividing line in Europe." The clear implication: Islam is to blame for economic and political backwardness.

But early in the 20th century the same was thought of Catholicism. Max Weber opened his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with this observation: "A glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed religious composition brings to light with remarkable frequency … the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labour, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant." Weber's explanation for this was, in part, that Catholic theology prevented its adherents from having an affinity for capitalism.

Today, that aspect of Weber's argument is widely dismissed. But I see echoes of it in our discussion of Islam, even though I tried to avoid it in my first entry. (I didn't mean to imply that I am a critic of Islam, though I can see why Judith took it that way.) Do I think that religion has an effect on societies? Of course. But I don't want us to be overly deterministic.

Take, for example, this observation from Chris Caldwell: "For all Osama Bin Laden's moaning about the Crusader impulse, it has probably been eight centuries since a Christian last wept over Islam's subjugation of the historically Christian lands of Syria, Anatolia, and North Africa." True. But this is a human, not an Islamic, impulse. Why does Islam look back to its glory days? Because they're over. The same impulse drives many Southerners to obsess over the Lost Cause. All historical losers wonder, "Why me?"

And Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists (but not Islam) are historical losers. They can't bring back the seventh century, no matter how hard they try. President Bush tries to hurt Bin Laden by calling him "The Evil One." But it's Bernard Lewis, in The Multiple Identities of the Middle East, who really knows how to hit a terrorist in the mouth:

The common Muslim blessing is "In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate." Jews and Christians use the same or similar terms for the divine attributes. But the war-god of the terrorists knows neither mercy nor compassion, and projects an image that is both cruel and vindictive. He is also weak, needing to hire human hitmen to find and kill his enemies, and paying them with promises of carnal delights in paradise.

Your god is cruel, vindictive, and weak. How's that for an insult?

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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