vrijdag 18 maart 2016

The whole world – or just a small part?

The relationship of Western culture to the bordercrossing and sometimes terrorist ambitions of Islam is more complex than is often thought. There is a strong inner relationship between the universalist orientations of the West and of Islam. That’s my conclusion after reading an enlightening article by the Arabist Maurice Blessing.

This conclusion is reached by the observation that 1. both the West and Islam start from a universalist, transnational ideal; 2. this ideal is not satisfied with less than global universalism; and 3. to achieve that goal the use of force is justified.

The presence of a universalist ideal appeared in the West since the time that Christianity got solid foothold there. From that moment it was its declared objective to from the West further Christianize the world. Think of the Catholic  and Protestant missionaries who certainly at the time of the 18th and 19th century imperialism, took it for their task (‘the white man’s burden’) to spread the Christian message to the farthest corners of the earth. When Christianity began to make way for the values of the French Revolution, such as democracy and human rights, the universalist fervor was no less.

In the case of Islam, according to Blessing, there is a religious commitment to ‘higher spheres’ that by its nature can accept no limits that prevent its spread. Because of that universalist orientation Islam can not but consider all national, particularistic borders as void and meaningless. Not only of non-Islamic countries, but also of Islamic countries, as evidenced by the change of the name ISIS (‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’, so tied to a limited territory) in IS (‘Islamic State’). Loyalty should not be shown to human citizenship but to Allah. And Islam does not go for less than the whole world.

The conviction of having a universally applicable message was sufficient legitimacy for Christians to proceed to conversion under pressure. For example, of Jews in Spain, or of Indians in South America. And later, for the secular revolutionaries of the RAF and the Red Brigades to perpetrate their attacks. To the revolutionary Muslims it is sufficient justification for committing acts of terrorism around the world and for the destruction of national heritage.

Thus revolutionary fervor, stemming from the sincere belief to have a beneficial or even spiritual message for everyone, might point to greater affinity between Islam and the West then we usually tend to assume. A – not unimportant – contemporary difference is that the West has tempered the use of violence by attributing the monopoly of violence precisely to the national state. Such a concession to the national state radical Islam will not easily do, says Blessing. Indeed, Islamic terror is the very protest against this domestication of Islam and its binding to national borders.

But even with that difference the congeniality in universalist orientation between the West and Islam remains striking. Expanding your ideal all over the earth, as a necessary part of the ideal’s concept, appears to be an inseparable characteristic of both Christianity/Enlightenment and Islam. Could it have to do with a certain Greek conception of truth? That something called ‘truth’ only deserves the name if it has proven to be ‘universally valid’? Well, then you must first conquer the world.

Whatever you may say of the Jewish tradition – that it inspires people to discrimination against Israeli Arabs and encourages colonization of the West Bank –for roughly two thousand years it is a fact that Jewish attention is directed particularisticly, namely towards the welfare of the Jewish group. You might find that  narrow-minded, but maybe nicely modest as well.

In any case, the urge to missionate or conquer the world, including the immense brutality that goes with it, is foreign to the Jewish tradition. Except of course if you believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

Also see Borders and Countries without borders