Saturday, March 11, 2006

Regarding Mohammed and the prospects for "respect" 

Eugene Volokh has a post up about the Danish cartoons, and the rage of many Muslims, and the pending request that Western governments apologize for the lawful acts of their own citizens. While I agree entirely with Professor Volokh, who naturally comes down on the side of free speech, I think he -- like most Westerners -- is avoiding the real issue here: that Muslims care a lot that non-Muslims do not regard Mohammed the same way that they do.

At the risk of earning a fatwa, let us speak a simple truth. With regard to Mohammed, there are three sorts of people in the world. First, there are those who have never heard of him, or know too little of him to have an opinion. Disregard them.

Second, there are the Muslims, who believe him to be the messenger of God, the true Prophet.

Finally, there are those of us who know who Mohammed was, and have chosen not to regard him as a prophet, the Messenger of God, or as having any religious significance at all. By definition, the best we can think of Mohammed was that he was a charismatic leader who invoked myths of his own creation to inspire a bunch of Arabian tribes to attack, kill and subjugate peoples within his reach who did not willingly submit to him. In this, the most favorable possible conception of Mohammed to a non-Muslim, he was an imperialist of the first order who launched an extended war -- one that some would say has never ended -- against the Jews and Christians within the reach of his armies, or those of his descendants.

Of course, most non-Muslims who are themselves religious don't merely regard Mohammed as an imperialistic leader of the Arabs. They view him as having made fraudulent claims in the name of God. After all, if they believed his claims they would be Muslims. If they don't believe he was the Messenger of God, then they must believe that he is a liar. Or insane. Mohammed, to religious non-Muslims, is a heretic and a fraud. Who are we kidding by suggesting otherwise? Why do we deny that this is so? Because we are afraid of where this logic -- and I dare you to challenge it -- will lead?

If non-Muslims do not, by definition, believe that Mohammed was telling the truth, it follows rather abruptly that they cannot respect him. This is not surprising. It is merely an honest expression of the exclusive nature of most religious belief. You can believe Jesus Christ or you can believe Mohammed. You cannot believe them both, and therefore you cannot respect them both.

Muslims understand this. They know both that Christians do not "respect" Mohammed according to any usual meaning of that word, and that they do not respect the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. Westerners, whether secular or Judeo-Christian, prefer to promote the analytically indefensible but socially useful idea that we can both believe one thing -- that Jesus Christ was the son of God, for example -- and have "respect" for another thing -- that Mohammed was the Messenger of God.

It is this asymmetry that makes the cartoon controversy so difficult to resolve. Today's New York Times has an interesting article about a conference in Denmark that is working to smooth over differences between Muslims who were offended by the famous cartoons and Westerners who desperately want to live in peace with Muslims. A short passage reveals the gulf:
"Freedom of speech shouldn't be absolute," said Al Habib Ali Aljifri, an Islamic scholar from Yemen, noting that many European countries do not allow anti-Semitic speech. "We must come to an understanding of rules governing freedom of expression." In the Muslim world, the conference on Friday was criticized before it even opened, with some saying no Muslim should have attended.

Sheikh Youssef el-Qardawi, 79, who is based in Qatar and is host of a weekly show on Al Jazeera television, said the trip to Copenhagen looked like surrender. "You have to have a common ground to have a dialogue with your enemy," he said on Al Jazeera. "But after insulting what is sacred to me, they should apologize."

It may be propitious for a religious non-Muslim to apologize -- who really needs to live under fear of a death threat? But it would not be honest. Every time a sincere Christian honors Jesus Christ he reveals what he really believes: that the Muslim's Prophet is a fraud. Should that bother us? I think not. I guarantee that the Sheikh Youssef el-Qardawi has no more respect for anybody who claims that Jesus is the son of God.

Religious people who think deeply about their beliefs will never "respect" the other. To believe otherwise is a fool's errand. Neither the right of freedom of speech nor the right to freely exercise one's own religion -- both of which are sacrosanct to Americans, if not all Europeans -- have anything at all to do with respect. They are rules of engagement that are preferable to war for dealing with people that we do not respect. Get used to it.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Mar 11, 03:35:00 PM:

You pretty much nailed it Tigerhawk. HOWEVER....

I never thought of the chasm between Christianity and Islam in quite those ways before and it has given me a new perspective. I do thank you for being brave!

I find myself now camparing Christianity with OTHER religions in the same manner and wonder why I do not come to the same conclusions as with Islam. For instance compare Christianity with Hinduism and you might at first suspect that you would totally disrespect Hinduism, etc.

However I find that I CAN respect Hindus because they share some of the same basic (important) qualities and values of Christianity like promoting peace toward your neighbor and the good will of mankind.

So it is indeed more to this than just unable to respect each other's prophets. It really does come down to shared values and morals. And Islam promotes diametrically opposed morals and values from most every other major religion in the world today. That is why it stands out.

Get rid of the "jihad" mentality and I think Islam can be reformed and become a respectful religion among the non-Muslims of the world.

But alas that would be gutting the NUMBER ONE basic tenet of Islam itslef yes?

So I don't think its possible.  

By Blogger PeterBoston, at Sat Mar 11, 07:32:00 PM:

I find it impossible to recognize Islam as a serious religion because of Mohammed. The definition of the perfect man is irreconcilable with one who killed on a whim or an insult. I have no idea how Muslim scholars get around using Mohammed's life as a canonical exemplar to build a just and ordered society.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Mar 11, 07:42:00 PM:

There is no question that Islam is a "serious" religion. A bit too serious, if you ask me.  

By Blogger Unknown, at Sat Mar 11, 07:47:00 PM:

This is a fabulous essay, Tigerhawk. It's so good I wish that I had written it. ;-)

I have tended to regard the respect issue something like this. Let's say you have a neighbor who believes that Marie Dressler was the most beautiful movie actress ever to appear on the screen. You, on the other hand, basically consider Ms. Dressler to have been a fine actress but, frankly, a wart hog. You like your neighbor and, additionally, it's obvious that if you express your honest opinion you'll just make your neighbor unhappy and, worse, provoke a violent argument. Maybe literally violent.

Isn't the kindest as well as the most prudent course of action just not to mention Marie Dressler? Has your freedom of speech been abridged?  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Mar 11, 07:57:00 PM:

I think that analogy holds, Dave, for people who aren't religious. The problem is, if you are religious, you have to practice your religion as a matter of conscience. So what does the practice of your religion mean to somebody who thinks it is false? Sure it is impossible to practice a religion faithfully and actually have respect, in the usual meaning of the word, for somebody who says your religion is false? Can't do it.  

By Blogger Unknown, at Sat Mar 11, 08:14:00 PM:

I guess the limit of my respect would be avoiding the subject.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Mar 11, 08:34:00 PM:

Oops. There was a significant typo in my last comment. The first word of the penultimate sentence should be "surely." Surely that makes a different.  

By Blogger Prariepundit, at Sat Mar 11, 09:53:00 PM:

The cartoon tantrums have caused more people to lose respect for Islam. They have generated the opposite result they intended. It is also a little silly for Muslims to call for respect in speech for their religion when people of differnt faiths cannot even speak at all in most Muslim countries. See how much respect you would get preaching Christianity on a street corner in Mecca.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Mar 11, 10:03:00 PM:

charismatic leader who invoked myths of his own creation to inspire a bunch of Arabian tribes to attack, kill and subjugate peoples within his reach who did not willingly submit to him.

Winston Churchill said this a 100 years ago: "Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods
of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the
Prophet rule or live." "...but the influence of the religion
paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde
force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant
and proselytizing faith."

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 12, 01:29:00 PM:

"Surely it is impossible to practice a religion faithfully and actually have respect, in the usual meaning of the word, for somebody who says your religion is false? Can't do it. (TH)

I hope that's not true, because if it is, I'm earning the disrespect of approximately 90% of the people on this planet by believing their religion is false.

To me, respect means to hold something in high regard, to attribute particular merit to something. I don't think it means you have to choose that path or abide by those rules.

I think I have "respect" for religion even though I don't personally need it. I know for a fact it is the means by which literally billions of people derive purpose and hope in their lives. It has been a force for good in countless instances (though I think the jury is out on whether on balance it has inspired more good than evil).

I don't think I have to believe it myself to respect it any more than I think it's impossible to respect the opinions of those with whom I disagree on any number of other issues. For example, I opposed the war in Iraq, but I thought many in the pro-invasion camp made lucid, logical arguments in favor of it. History will eventually show that one or the other side was right, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the folks who held the opposing view were evil or deluded.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Islam, I don't think the issue is simply respect. I think too many Muslims expect submission to their rules without any reciprocal consideration on their side.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Mar 12, 08:53:00 PM:

You don't need to believe in a religion's deities or prophets to respect it.

Historical Christian antisemitism is based on the idea that if Jews decided not to believe in Jesus, they had to be disrespecting the religion and denying G-d.

How about simply respecting a religion if it leads people to good values?

OTOH, I think I will vomit if I hear the BBC refer to the Prophet Muhammed one more time. Not my Prophet.  

By Blogger Gordon Smith, at Sun Mar 12, 11:23:00 PM:

The respect you're referring to is some sort of Platonic Ideal Form, right Hawk?

If we consider degrees of respect, rather than an all-or-nothing variety, then it becomes easier to quantify how much respect you have for individuals based on their humanity, their behavior, their suffering, their faith, their values, or their taste in menswear.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Mar 12, 11:26:00 PM:

A couple of notes. I'm not suggesting that anyone, religious or otherwise, should go out of their way to show disrespect for another's religion. But that's just part of the general idea that we should all strive to be polite to each other.

I also suppose that it is possible for somebody with no real opinions -- a non-religious person who has not decided that they are an athiest, for example -- to say that they respect anybody with deeply held convictions, or anybody who leads a righteous life.

But, if you are a genuinely religious person with deep convictions about your own religion, doesn't it follow that people who believe otherwise are wrong, at least in your eyes? Now, you might be able to respect these people who hold these wrong beliefs, but how can you respect the beliefs themselves if you believe them to be wrong? If you are Christian, know about Mohammed, know that he claimed to be the Messenger of God, and yet still do not convert to Islam, it simply must be because you do not believe Mohammed, or do not believe the people who claimed that he said what he said and did what he claimed he did. In the eyes of the Christian who knows about Mohammed but does not follow him, either Mohammed was lying or deluded or his followers who wrote down his words were lying or deluded. How could it be otherwise?

I simply do not see how it is possible, without torturing the meaning of the word "respect" into some general requirement that we all act politely.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Mar 12, 11:37:00 PM:

One can certainly respect a person without respecting all his opinions. For example, I judge that on the basis of your writing, Screwy, I would respect you. But that does not mean that I have respect for many of your beliefs. I think you have a lot of wrong opinions, and you no doubt think the same of me.

Ordinarily, that's fine. Few people, or at least few Americans, are so invested in their political views (even in today's climate) that they hinge their entire assessment of a person based on a tiny fraction of their opinions. I'm OK with the idea that most of my friends do not respect my political beliefs, even if they respect me as a person. Not a problem.

Now, if I were a devout Christian, which I am not (I'm sort of a one Sunday a month doubting Christian), I do not see how I could sustain my faith without believing that Mohammed was a liar, deluded, or misrepresented by his followers. It is not polite to say it, but who are we really kidding? There is no fourth basis to explain why all Christians who are at all familiar with Islam have not converted. It must be because they think that The Holy Koran, for one reason or another, is a crock.

I'd be delighted if somebody would show me a way out of this conclusion, but I can't see it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Mar 13, 06:56:00 AM:

I like the proposal Anon made above: "How about simply respecting a religion if it leads people to good values?"

I don't think arriving at that conclusion requires that you twist the meaning of the word "respect" into a requirement that we act politely. It requires you to assign merit based on whether or not the belief system you're assessing leads to decent behavior or not.

To me, paying "respect" entails that assignment of merit. It does not entail swallowing the tenents of the belief system whole. Thus, I can find Christianity worthy of respect without believing the Jesus is the way, the truth, the light, etc.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Mon Mar 13, 08:48:00 AM:

TH - you're spot on. My take is that those who are commenting on the "definition" of respect are not themselves devout. In effect, they don't get your point.

A devout non-Muslim thinks exactly what you said. He or she does not respect Islam or the Koran, or frankly any other set of beliefs that doesn't conform to theirs. As a matter of good manners, he or she might be polite to the other. Similarly, a devout Muslim feels the same absence of respect for the non devout Muslim.

The major difference is that most devout non Muslims stopped forced conversion a few centuries ago. They focus on convinced conversion of those who are uncertain of their beliefs at the most.

Still, since it is principlally the Christian and secualr (yes secular) "religions that were responsible for most of the recent genocides, we whould not be too condescending towards Islam. We need to acknowledge the problem and deal with it -- forcefully, by the way. We can't sweep the problem under the rug.

In this sense, Stalin and the Soviet Union did the west a favor by brutally repressing a huge swath of the Muslim world until its dissolution in 1989.

It is no accident that Tito's death eventually led to the Yugo Civil War, and that the fall of the Soviet Union helped to unleash this next religious clash (within a few years). Titanic religious battles are embedded in history and are not over by any means...

Remember that post 9/11 New Yorker cartoon? "I miss the commies."  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Mon Mar 13, 12:39:00 PM:

A fascinating post. As a number of the comments suggest, it depends on the meaning of "respect."

I'm a Reformed Episcopalian -- a liturgical calvinist -- someone who does a lousy job of living up to my profession but sure wants to improve on that score. I think I'm a plausible representative of the religious non-Muslim you're writing about.

I believe the propositions set forth in the Nicene Creed (as they are supported by God's Word writ) and think the principle of non-contradiction is unshakeable (i.e., I'm no postmodernist), so I certainly reject the propositional claims of Islam as false.

And yet: I believe that salvation is altogether by grace through faith (see Ephesians 2:1-10), and I remember how I thought before I became a Christian 11 years ago. The natural posture of the unregenerate person is hostility toward the Gospel. Because of that perspective, I don't see Islam as essentially different from any other non-Christian view of the world (including views that are not theistic).

It is true, in a sense, that you cannot respect a proposition you disagree with. Whether you can respect a person you disagree with is a different matter. If you have the interest and patience to read through what is a mutually polite -- and I dare say respectful -- debate among two US Christians (I'm one of them) and a UK Muslim about whether Jesus claimed to be divine, go to http://architectureandmorality.blogspot.com and read the post for March 5, 2006 (sorry, no permalink) and the comments. I, for one, have learned a lot from the exchange of analysis of the texts we discussed. None of it has changed my views, but there's now a bright and articulate Muslim in the UK with whom I'd really like to sit down and have a scotch (well, better make it a cup of tea).  

By Blogger Thomas von der Trave, at Mon Mar 13, 03:08:00 PM:

Just as a side note, the tenents of a religion might be the misspelled tenants of its sacred spaces, but if we’re talking about its articles of faith, we’d better speak of its tenets.

As for respect, it is not religious people alone who must decide whether or not they can respect the prophet of Islam. By definition, Tigerhawk is correct that for a Christian who at least nominally holds that Jesus was the son of God and is the savior of the world to simultaneously “respect” Mahomet as the prophet of Islam entails a sort of schizophrenia or at best a tactical dishonesty in the interest of “can’t we all just get along.” If Mahomet had come to reinforce Christianity and proclaim the central beliefs of the faithful, he could be seen as a Christian saint or seer, if not a prophet. But he came to reinterpret, overthrow and supersede those central beliefs. He demotes Jesus to one in a long line of Muslim (!) prophets going back all the way to Abraham. More, he declares himself to be the pinnacle in that line and the last. The two sets of belief are irreconcilable, if belief is still to have meaning. Our forefathers clearly recognized that and this is why it took the devolution into post-Christianity to allow mosques to be built in the heart of Christendom.

Yet there is as much of a problem “respecting” Mahomet for a secularist as there is for the religious. If we throw out the claims of divine inspiration on all sides, disbelieve equally in the apotheosis of Christ and the final prophecy of Mahomet, we are left with ethical and biographical data upon which to make our judgments. And here, too, Mahomet must be found lacking when compared with almost any other religious figure. The problem of his “special revelations” alone - the wonderful propensity of his god to send down suras endorsing whatever lust or desire captured his momentary fancy - is enough to give pause to the most neutral of observers.

So it seems to me that the difficulty of professing to “respect” someone whose morals and ethics seem so far removed from what the secularists claim as their moral ground is at least as great as that of Christians or Jews asked to “respect” a prophet whose every word and action denies their central articles of faith.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Mon Mar 13, 04:01:00 PM:

I realized upon rereading your post that I ducked what was probably the central question: do I respect Mohammed? I am inclined to be circumspect and continue to duck that question. I'm certainly not doing so out of either fear of a fatwa or a desire to be PC. I finally remembered a text that Christians need to bear in mind in these contexts: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and RESPECT, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." 1 Pet. 3:15-16 (NIV) (emphasis added)  

By Blogger Thomas von der Trave, at Mon Mar 13, 04:19:00 PM:

I for one have no fear of stating unequivocally that I do not respect Mahomet or Islam. I do respect the right of others to believe any nonsense they please, so long as it does not affect my right to disbelieve. And so long as they do not demand special consideration or rights because of their belief.

Wearing my religious hat, I affirm that Mahomet was a false prophet, a herectic, a servant of the Evil One and a man of violence and hatred.

As a secularist (i.e. one who believes that the strength of religious life in the West depends directly on the separation of church and state), I aver that Mahomet was a man of base morals, a thief, a rapist, a pedophile, a tyrant, a robber, brigand and low opportunist.

Either way, I don't respect him any more than I do L. Ron Hubbard.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Mon Mar 13, 05:44:00 PM:

Lest there be any doubt, I affirm without hesitation that Mohammed is one of the many men and women whom God, for His own good purposes and glory, never visited with His particular grace -- i.e., never quickened to saving faith in Jesus Christ -- and who consequently must bear the just penalty for their sins.

I don't see saying much beyond that, in light of the call to a gentle apologia.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 14, 04:55:00 AM:

After an unpromising start in which he priggishly exposes a typo, Cato makes two excellent points. The first is that the difficulty of reconciling opposing viewpoints is shared by the religious and secular alike.

The second point is that the biographical data we have on Mohammed himself hardly inspires respect.

I still believe it is possible to "respect" a person's beliefs without buying into them yourself or granting equal validity to all. But in order for that premise to make sense, you have to define "respect" in a way that differs significantly from "agree."  

By Blogger Thomas von der Trave, at Tue Mar 14, 02:53:00 PM:

Betty, as a lifelong teacher (and gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche) I notice solecisms and try to improve them with humor. Sorry if I came across as petty or priggish. Some people appreciate the chance to polish their etyma.

The other day an otherwise intelligent lawyer (oxymoron?) on Fox News said over and over again that his client "didn't meant to do that." O tempores, o advocati! Compared to that, the common mistake (why is it necessarily a "typo"?) of tenent/tenant for tenet seems downright learned.

In any case I meant no disrespect.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Tue Mar 14, 05:26:00 PM:

Well, you apparently feel some disrespect for lawyers (a group that includes Tigerhawk, btw). Are you trying up live up to your epigram, Porcius?  

By Blogger Thomas von der Trave, at Tue Mar 14, 07:56:00 PM:

Which, er, epithet do you mean, ScurvyOaks? "The Censor" is my favorite. (In the original sense of setting standards, not quashing speech.)

It would be good if Latin were still a language requirement for both doctors and lawyers, to name just two groups. Then maybe they wouldn't pronounce sine die as "sigh-knee daih"!  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Wed Mar 15, 10:51:00 AM:

I wrote epigram because I meant, er, epigram. I have in mind the following from Plutarch: "Porcius, who snarls at all in every place, With his gray eyes, and his fiery face, Even after death will scarce admitted be Into the infernal realms by Hecate."

Thought for the day: Semper ubi sub ubi. :)  

By Blogger Thomas von der Trave, at Wed Mar 15, 02:24:00 PM:

Ah, I hadn't heard that one, ScurvyOaks. I'll have to have a chat with my old friend Plutarch.

Thanks for the new line, I may just use it on my blog.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Mar 15, 04:12:00 PM:

Hinduism has 32 million Gods. It is pan-theistic. Which allows Hindus to easily reconcile their religious beliefs with those of others. Jesus is yet another prophet to them. Mohammad is yet another messenger to them. They know of thousands more.

That is why there is a saying that in India no religion ever dies. It is only absorbed into the next one.

That is why today 800 million hindus, 140 million muslims, 30 million christians and 30 million sikhs speaking 18 official languages and 1600 dialects coexist in India.

So, it IS possible to reconcile your beliefs with other religions if you believe your's is not the ONLY right belief.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Wed Mar 15, 05:16:00 PM:

My pleasure, Cato. And I'll sign off from this string with a borrowed and adapted exit line:

Al Qaeda delenda est!  

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