Thursday, September 29, 2011

House of Submission, House of War

Bernard Lewis.  The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.  New York: Modern Library, 2003.  ISBN: 0679642811.

A second essay on terror and holy war.

This book provides a detailed discussion of the historical background from which modern Muslim fundamentalism arose (e.g. organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the religious government of the Ayatollah Khomeini).  It contains many insights, offers many different perspectives, and presents overall a complex, realistic picture of the worldwide phenomenon that is (and has been) Islam.  Lewis is not anti-Muslim at all, but (like most Muslims) he cannot condone the modern guerrilla war on civilians that we in the West have lately dubbed terrorism.  The Islamic thread holding the book together is jihad, the Muslim crusade, which began as actual, literal war with geographical and political conquests (undertaken during the life of Muhammad) and became a metaphor for the believer's struggle to offer his best service to God.  (Remember that Islam means submission to Allah.)

Lewis emphasizes that the Muslim jihad has resisted criticism (as a historical movement) and secularization (no modern Muslim uses jihad the offhanded way we Westerners often use crusade, e.g. as a synonym for cause).  Whereas Christians took up the original crusade relatively late (after suffering as a persecuted minority for centuries) and dropped it relatively early (after several military disasters), the jihad started with Muhammad and was never dropped (in part because it was met, at least initially, with unbroken success).  Today, many Christians are embarrassed by the idea of holy war (which they see as barbaric and somewhat foolish); fewer Muslims are so embarrassed.  Many Christians are concerned with avoiding the unnecessary imposition of their values on other people: they create walls between church and state (which some of them then doubt and want to pull down).  In Muslim culture, there is (ideally) no wall between church and state.  There is no church, really, only the faithful believers, who are united in obedience to God.  In a good Muslim state, the law of Allah is the law of the state, and vice versa.

The Muslim world is conceptually simple.  All people live in one of two "houses" -- the house of Submission (i.e. the house of Islam) or the house of War.  Historically, Islam reaches out to the house of War with violence, with conquest, and with the revelation of a better way to live (which the more enlightened inhabitants of the house of War embrace willingly).  This violence comes with strict rules, however, rules which Lewis (and others, including many Muslim authorities) interpret to forbid the kind of tactics (e.g. suicide missions against civilians) employed by groups like al-Quaeda.  Even with this caveat, I am still not entirely comfortable with it.  But I am not a Muslim, so my opinion matters little, especially to those Muslims who have already decided that I am a servant of the Great Satan (owing to the accident that I was born in the United States and raised as a Christian).  This brings me to an interesting problem.

I have known or at least interacted with various Muslims personally over the years.  Most of them have been really good people (moral, upstanding, respectful, helpful).  I even have several American friends who have converted to Islam (including some who are at least as doubtful about the literal truth of ancient mythology as I am).  What am I to make of these people?  Are they secretly plotting the violent overthrow of my life?  Do they only pretend to value other people, other cultures, other ways of being that do not come to us from the only God and his last Prophet?  As a result of long-standing personal interactions with them, I really, really don't think so.  And yet they react with pain and aversion when the state of Israel comes up in conversation, or when a discussion of the United States' historic involvement in the Middle East gets serious.  What causes my good friends to flinch?  Could it be the same thing that drives many of their co-religionists homicidally crazy?  Lewis answered this question in the affirmative, and it was painful for me.

You see, the track record of our government in the Middle East is not that great.  Terrified by every shadow of a threat against our power in a region we don't control, we supported anyone carrying gun against our perceived enemies (e.g. Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom we attempted to play against one another; and Osama bin Laden, whom we supported against the Soviets).  We didn't really care if these people were nice to the rest of the neighborhood or not: it turns out, they weren't.  Not only that, we didn't even support our allies reliably: when the last Shah of Iran agreed to be our puppet (as the locals saw it), we repaid his loyalty by refusing to offer any kind of aid whatsoever; when his government collapsed, we were so eager to pander to his successors that we let him go into exile outside our borders.  By associating with thugs (Hussein, bin Laden, etc.) and then treating our allies like dirt (even the relatively harmless ones, like the Shah), we pretty much killed our reputation with a sizable population of foreign Muslims.  These people fail to understand how it is acceptable for the United States to blow them up (or send some local thugs to blow them up), but not for them to retaliate (in some way: not all of them fly planes into buildings full of innocents).  They don't see how it isn't hypocritical of us to claim the moral high ground as agents of freedom and justice and then throw our support to the likes of Saddam (whom we don't even support reliably).  This does not mean that jihad is not a problematic concept, or that al-Qaeda was justified in attacking the Towers.  Far from it.  But it does reveal that calling such attacks unprovoked is a little naive.  We knew there were religious people in the Middle East.  We knew their sacred texts preached holy war.  We knew they had a history of fighting for honor and religion.  We knew they were outfitted with weapons and training (a lot of it from us).  We knew that, and we went and kicked the beehive anyway.  Is the honey really worth it?

For me, the most shocking and scary thing about Islam (including the "malfunctioning" Islam branded as terrorism in the West) is how normal it is.  I grew up in a conservative Christian environment: though many Christians would deny me fellowship as a Mormon, I spent a good portion of my life living in their company, learning from their textbooks (including the King James Bible), and aspiring to be like them.  I wanted to break down the wall between church and state, putting prayer in the schools and the government in the marriage bed.  I thought the United States of America was a nation that depended on God the way the idealized house of Islam depends on Allah.  I thought life would be better worldwide if all people converted to Christianity (and ultimately to Mormonism, the truest form of Christianity).  I was not overtly violent in my enthusiasm to convert the world, but how much of that was historical accident?  Many Mormons of the nineteenth century were violent (as some Christians have always been), and I personally was never provoked.  What if someone had treated my leaders (religious or political) with blatant disrespect and bombed my house?  Who knows how I might have reacted, especially if someone whose authority I respected had responded with a pious American, Christian, or Mormon version of the original 1996 ultimatum published to the West by al-Qaeda?  The more I think about the 9/11 attacks, the more it seemed to me that I am in no way categorically different from the Muslim terrorists whose violence I naturally abhor.  If the shoe were on the other foot, who knows what awful crimes I might have laid on the altar for the United States of America, for Christendom, for my God?

The attacks of 9/11 were one of many factors that ultimately forced me to re-examine my loyalty to all human institutions (and my relationship to God).  As a result, I have become simultaneously less violent and less trusting.  The good guys look a lot like the bad guys to me.  We are all simply human, doing what we think the situation demands (in the Middle East this means blowing stuff up) and spinning stories to justify it.


  1. "I wanted to break down the wall between church and state, putting prayer in the schools and the federal government in the marriage bed."

    Prayers were said daily (before meals mostly) and the Bible was read at least weekly when I attended first and second grade in a Tennessee public school, and these customs were then abruptly stopped after the Supreme Court decided they were unconstitutional around 1962. You might want to read about this at Such had been the custom since the establishment of those schools, I believe. The vast majority of the people where I lived were not happy when this new prohibition was discovered in the Constitution, as I recall. And, of course, marriage is not mentioned in the Constitution, but had been between man and woman in all states since the country was settled by Europeans until very recently, as is amply demonstrated by the marriage records kept (and now being indexed by so many LDS). So when you speak of wanting to break down the wall between church and state, I assume you mean the wall that was erected in 1962?

    I am not sure what you mean by wanting to put the federal government in the marriage bed, as marriage was not mentioned in the Constitution and has traditionally been left to the states to define. When the federal government has gotten involved (see it has usually been disastrous for Mormons. Of course, people are always upset when a state (or federal) judge suddenly discovers new controversial provisions in a constitution written over a hundred years earlier, with no one imagining such provisions to have existed prior to such a discovery. The most recent concern has been whether gay-marriage states can force traditional-marriage states to recognize gay marriages, I believe, and all that that recognition entails.

    Anyway, I have lived through quite a bit of this history now, and I hope you will not be turning my "history" into your "myth" too hastily. I must say, a lot of your personal history appears to be a bit imagined to me, having witnessed it somewhat closely. I certainly do not recall you being so interested in politics as you profess to have been here. To me you always seemed to be a model of meek and humble politeness with no desire to force anything on anyone - of course, I am referring to you after age 6 or so. You were a bit of a tyrant as a preschooler towards your sweet anxious-to-do-the-right-thing mother.

  2. I am sure I was as tyrannical as any of my sons as a toddler. That is history, at least.

    I admit that my political ideas were hazy. I should probably just say "government" rather than try to add adjectives like "federal" or "state" (which I learned about in school but didn't really understand in any meaningful way).

    I was generally in favor of making people do whatever their local communities wanted them to do. If we all pray, then they should pray. If we all wear blue, then they should wear blue. Of course it would be better if they just agreed to wear it, but sometimes force was warranted. (I think I was more open to police obliging others to do stuff, at least in theory, as a kid.)

    Bottom line: I wanted to bring God into politics. To some degree, I do still, but my way of doing so now is very, very different.

  3. In general, I would say I was ideologically something of a benevolent fascist as a kid. I didn't want to force people to do stuff myself (with the exception of my mom when I was really little, of course), but I thought that some things just had to be forced (i.e. that homosexuals should not marry or public prayer be banned for the same reason I should not have a cookie until I have finished eating dinner).

    I still think this way, only the list of things that have to be forced has gotten shorter (and might vanish entirely at some point).

    I wasn't really political, in a cerebral sense. Some of the confusion you see here comes from the fact that my childish approach to politics was the same as my childish approach to religion (and everything). It was hopelessly romantic. I wanted everything to be magically wonderful, and anything that didn't fit needed to be "taken care of" (by government? by God? by God's servants in government? as a kid, I didn't draw too fine a line between these three entities: the distinction between God, church, and state was fuzzy to me).

    I thought that church leaders spoke for God (meaning that they said what God would say). If they asked me to do something, it was as if God asked me to do it. In the same way, government leaders could speak for God, though I knew (from interacting with other people) that they might occasionally ask me to do something I should not do. But as long as church leaders agreed with what government leaders said, both spoke for God. Naturally, they wanted what God wanted and worked to bring about his will in society.

    So I worked to break down the wall between church and state because I was not aware that it existed (or could exist). I could not conceive of how differently people view God (just as I could not conceive that God is not a personal entity, with a personal agenda that he pushes the same way a politician would).

    It all comes back to the coercion thing. As a kid, I was (ultimately) all about recognizing and accepting authority. I wanted to live up to leaders, who spoke for God, who was a real being with coherent opinions. If they spoke for God in favor of policy x (whatever that was: from my perspective as a loyal supporter, facts were secondary to obedience), I was in favor of policy x (which I had no historical understanding of, as you point out).

    I was living in a fantasy world. For me, it was myth. I did not know the history.

  4. Regarding school prayer, I was not concerned with history (which I didn't know) or fair usage of power (which I did not understand). I thought things would naturally get better if people prayed in school. I didn't realize that Muslims and Jews don't pray like Christians. I didn't realize that many Christians don't pray like Mormons (and even take violent exception to participation in Mormon prayers: at UGA, one of my fundie classmates adamantly told our anthropology class that he would never take part in a Mormon prayer; if a Mormon said it, he wanted no part of it. He looked really, really angry as he said this). For me, prayer in the schools was a simple thing, because I had a simple mind (that didn't see things like different religions in America, and people who just will not like me or play with me, no matter how I try to show that I am harmless).

    Today, I am not for federal laws banning prayers. So maybe I have not changed too much from a historical perspective: I might support the same law now that I would have supported then. But my mythical stance has changed dramatically. I am not into organizing (or campaigning for) public prayers, since I think they would cause more problems than they might solve (as various sectarians feel morally obliged to abstain loudly, angrily, or even violently).