I just finished reading Thomas F. Madden's Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World, and I'm planning to write a couple posts shortly reviewing the book and the ideas it presents. As a prelude of sorts, however, I'd like to revisit some thinking I did a while back:
A month or so ago I finally had the chance to read Steven Vincent's account of life outside the green zone in post-war Iraq: In The Red Zone. It's a very fair book, and worth a read whether you support the war in Iraq or not. The author, since then killed in Iraq by militants, was a New York art reporter who watched the attacks on 9-11 and supported the Iraq war. Having supported the war, he felt like he should go over and see what was really happening over there. The book has the advantage of being writing from a culture writer's point of view rather than a political writer's. And although Vincent starts out as an enthusiastic supporter of the project, he ends unsure whether it's possible for democracy to flourish in Iraq. (I'd be curious to read later work by him and see what he thought of the elections and the provisional constitution, both of which post date his book.)
This reminded me of my long held intention to read more about Islam, so I pull off the shelf the copy of Living Islam (now apparently out of print) by Ahbar S Ahmed which I'd bought on remainder some nine years ago and had been meaning to read ever since. Living Islam is half cultural history, half apologia (think a very, very light weight version of Letters To A Young Catholic with lots of pictures and basic intro information.)
To round things off, I'm currently reading Thomas F. Madden's The New Concise History of the Crusades.
Now, one of the things that struck Vincent in touring Iraq is that some of what he discovered were the best allies of a democratic Iraq were people that most conservatives would be hesitant to ally with. For instance, the Iraqi Communist Party was, contrary to the history of most of their comrades, one of the few political parties not maintaining a militia to enforce their will by violence. Similarly, radical secularist feminists tended to be the advocates for what American conservatives would consider to be standard human rights for women. Meanwhile Sistani, the voice of moderate to conservative religion on the Shia side, had an on-again off-again relationship with ideas of democracy, much less religious freedom.
All of which led me (slowly as usual) to some thinking on ecumenism. Now, I'm used to thinking of ecumenism in terms of Christian doctrine. In this sense, those groups which take Christian revelation most seriously are often 'closer' to Catholicism than those which see Christian revelation as a non-authoritative step (one among many) in the conversation between God and creation. I've got used to, generally, seeing the more orthodox or conservative elements of a given Christian tradition as 'more faithful' and the less orthodox ones as 'less faithful'. (I don't mean strictly adherence to scripture here. Indeed, I'd see the Orthodox as 'more faithful' to the Christian revelation than any Protestant denomination specifically because they have retained the Church's understanding of the correct relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Within the Protestant spectrum, I would see those who have remained most faithful to both Scripture and Tradition as most faithful to historic Christianity, though I'd see those who accept scripture along as more faithful that those who do not feel strictly bound by either Scripture or Tradition
Similarly, looking at Judaism, I tend to admire the more conservative elements of Judaism over the heavily 'reformed' groups, in that they seem to have remained most faithful to God's original revelation to Israel. Since Judaism is, at root, fully true (though not encompassing all truth) it seems clear that more strict adherence to that core is 'better' than less strict adherence.
But what, then, is one to make of Islam? Some conservative Catholics seem to look at our desire to see the Middle East become more secular and say: "Secularization has brought divorce, fornication, abortion, pornography and a host of other moral horrors into the mainstream. Why should we think that Islamic countries ought to follow us down the devil's road to secular hedonism?"
Certainly, no good Christian would actively suggest that Muslims practice fornication, abortion, etc. However, while the fallen nature of humanity may mean that ceasing to publicly execute people for fornication will result in more fornication, that does not mean ending the practice of executing fornicators is the same thing as encouraging fornication.
The difficulty in knowing which horse to back in the world of Islam is that from a Catholic point of view, Islam does not merely lack the whole truth, but also contains elements (indeed, major elements) which are directly contrary to truth. (And it seems, from an Islamic point of view, the same would have to be said about Catholicism.) So while in a the sense that 'anything worth doing is worth doing well' it might seem that the most orthodox understanding of Islam is the one that we should admire -- since being a firm believer in Islam means firmly believing not only some things that are true, but also others that are false -- in fact an orthodox Muslim is in firmer opposition to Catholicism than a 'liberal' Muslim.
One of the dangers of discussing another religion is lack of context. Perhaps what looks to me from the outside to be 'orthodox' Islam is in fact (by the standards of other Muslims) a radically imbalanced form of Islam, in the same way that someone looking at Christianity from the outside might assume that "Bible alone" Christians were more 'orthodox' than Catholics and Orthodox are. Indeed, I wonder if this is an impossible question to answer for someone who doesn't accept the truth of Islam. I think, at best, from the outside one could identify that line of thought which is most historically consistent in an religion. I am fairly confident that such an outside observer would identify Orthodoxy and Catholicism as the forms of Christianity with the most ancient lineage.
But from the point of view of Catholicism, which asserts that while containing some truth Islam contains major tenets which are false, should we see the most historically prevalent form of Islam as the "best" form of Islam? Should we encourage the form which, through liberalizing of the original Koranic meaning, comes closer to a Catholic understanding of the human person, morality, and man's mission in the world? (Or at least is less of a threat to them.) Should we smile on any form of Islam at all?
From the point of view of basic human rights, it seems that 'liberal Islam' is the friend of Catholicism, not orthodox or historic Islam. But then, conservatism is, in this sense, a relative term. Modern orthodox Catholicism might be described as 'liberal' in comparison to 1300 AD Catholicism.
I've read a number of secular commentators say that "Islam needs a Martin Luther" -- though I suspect that what they actually mean is, "Islam needs a Bishop Spong" -- and it is certainly the case that both for political stability in the Middle East and for Christian missionaries to have more of a chance to reach that part of the world, it would be of great help to us as outsiders if a much more "liberal" and "moderate" form of Islam were to take hold. And yet it grates against me to wish against others modernizing trends which I oppose when applied to my own faith. Though I do not think that the Koran is the word of God, it hardly seems right to encourage people to take what they believe to be the word of God and change it in order to make it fit the spirit of the age.