The Challenge and the Fear of Becoming Enlightened

Since Sept. 11, we've been living under a "clash of civilizations" doctrine that can be summed up this way: Over there, dogma, orthodoxy, Islam; over here, democracy, pluralism, Constitution. Over there, dark continents, dark ages, terrorism; over here, enlightened West, enlightenment, freedom.

The doctrine has been used to justify two wars (so far) and a wholesale shift in the way the United States deploys its aims abroad and projects them at home. The doctrine draws its power from the language of freedom -- the language of enlightenment -- both in the way we've gone about defining ourselves as a culture and in the way we've gone about defending our right to fight the war on terror on our terms, but on other people's turfs.

The doctrine is fatally flawed, and its consequences are lethal, both to American principles at home and to American interests abroad. There's no connection between the language we're using in defining ourselves and the reality being imposed at home and abroad. The language itself has become the mask of its very opposite. If you want absolutes, if you want black and white, if you want orthodoxy, look no further than the way American culture politically and legally has been evolving in the past several years.

That's not to say that those orthodoxies don't exist in the Muslim world. They do in spades. But the enlightenment ideal is not under attack from outside our culture. It is under attack from within it, in a context that increasingly fears pluralism, scorns dissent and erodes democracy. The very ideas of rational, critical thinking, of progress by way of challenging assumptions, is being replaced by a faith-based approach in policy-making and a fundamentalist approach in legal thinking (what some people call originalism) that is diametrically opposed to the ideals of enlightenment. If a battle for freedom is being waged, it is being waged on the wrong front.


First, a look at Islam as a world supposedly so incapable of solving its crises that only western intervention can help. We should be honest. Islamdom doesn't have a good reputation these days, and it brings a lot of the trouble on itself. But any religion in the wrong hands, beginning with Americans' own Christian creeds, can be violent, backward and evil. It so happens that few religions can lay claim to as much beauty of spirit, art, enlightenment and advancement of the human race as Islam did for the entirety of the Middle Ages, when nothing in Europe could hold a candle to Islamic civilization, when Islam was enlightenment before enlightenment was cool.

What was unique about Islam's early and middle period was its great tolerance for people of other faiths, its love and wealth of learning, its antipathy for dogma, its realization of pluralism -- in the great Abassid caliphates of Baghdad from the 9th to the 12th centuries, in Spain during the same period, in India during the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries. It's possible to see the Muslim Enlightenment literally as bookends, in time and geography, with Baghdad in the early period and the reign of Akbar the Great in the 16th and 17th centuries in India, who lived up to a famous verse in the Koran that speaks for all the potential pluralism in Islam: "There can be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error" (which is actually a retelling of what Jesus said to his followers: "The truth will make you free.")

Akbar's enlightened reign in India coincided with Europe's bloodiest age of religious bigotry and warfare, when the Inquisition was murdering Jews in Spain and Catholics and Protestants were murdering each other everywhere else, when beheadings were the preferred method of Calvinists in sleepy Geneva for adulterous men, when Europe was to know nine wars of religion in three decades in a warm-up to the massacres and holocausts of the 17th century. The roads of religious intolerance are paved with the bones of that occasional oxymoron we know of as western civilization. And those same roads are conveniently forgotten by those who would point to a place like the Middle East and say things like, "Those people have been at each other's throats for ever." Not quite true. Any notion that the Enlightenment was a western invention, or that barbarism is an eastern specialty, is a bit misguided.

But it is also true that everything is not relative. The Middle East today and much of the Islamic world is not a comfortable place to be. It is often not a defensible place. A United Nations report on Arab development noted that the 22 countries that form the Arab world translate about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece alone translates. The cumulative total of translated books since 9th century Baghdad is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in a single year. What that world needs is a dose of its own past enlightenment. So it's a fair question: If Islam showed not only the potential but the reality of enlightenment over its history, why not now, and why shouldn't the West be showing the way back to enlightenment?

Aside from the obvious fact that enlightenment doesn't spring from the belly of a B-52, because what's going on now in the Islamic world is exactly what should be going on: A reformation as momentous and violent as Europe's reformation was 500 years ago. Islam is trying to reinvent itself. It is looking for a way out of its morass. The forces of reform and the reactionary forces of fundamentalism are literally at each other's throats, the way Catholics and Protestants, and eventually religion and secularism, were at each other's throats in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.

It's not black and white. The camps aren't neatly divided between progressives and reformers. Nor is the presumption true that the moderates are looking to adopt Western ways. The struggle is within Islam, for a solution for Islam, not to please the West, look like the West or get closer to the West. Who will win in Islam is anybody's guess. Any way you look at it -- in Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon -- where you have elections, the moderates are losing big at the moment. But at the same time it's also true, as the Iranian scholar of Islam Reza Aslan argues in a new book on Islam's evolution, "the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world today readily accept the fundamental principles of democracy." It just isn't American-style democracy they necessarily want or need.

So far as the West is concerned, this, as Aslan argues, is the most important lesson to learn: We are bystanders in this battle within Islam. We are not players. We are not wanted as players. We should not so arrogantly pretend to be players, or to think we have the right or the means to be players. How can we even think something like that with Sept. 11 behind us? Because the Sept. 11 attacks were not a declaration of war on the West, the way the lock and load warriors in the neo-con brigades like to see them.

The attacks were part of that "internal conflict between Muslims," and they made us, in Aslan's words, "an unwary yet complicit casualty of a rivalry that is raging in Islam over who will write the next chapter in its story."

Let's not play into the hands of the fanatics, or confuse the spectacular with the successful. The best we can do is what Islam did in its glory period of conquests: Show the light by example. Live up to our own enlightenment ideals.

What we are doing instead is the very opposite. Through such things as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the secret prisons around the world called black sites, the bloody occupation of Iraq and the seemingly endless occupation of Afghanistan, we are only proving to the Islamic world that the secular West is diseased, that the Crusades, the Colonial period and the broken promises of the post-colonial 20th century were not a fluke but a pattern.

In Islam's eyes, the West, the secular West especially, doesn't save. It mucks up. As long as the United States insists on crusading for freedom in Islam's lands, it will be retarding the more enlightened movements for reform there.

For all his good intentions, George W. Bush has been fundamentalist Islam's best friend, and has probably set back the progress of Islamic Enlightenment for many, many years.

Osama bin Laden might as well pray facing the White House every day, because without this White House playing right into fundamentalist Islam's recruiting drives, Osama might well have been nothing more than a bag of bones attached to a dialysis machine by now, and the tyrannical Arab world might well have been on its way to following in the steps of the Soviet Union's disintegration at the end of the 1980s. Instead, we have a disintegration of our own to worry about.


The world of Islam is going through a great reformation. But in some ways, so is the United States. The world of Islam is divided between the forces of modernity and the reaction of fundamentalism. But so is the United States, and I don't mean just because evangelicals are pulling a few political strings.

The Islamic world is trying to redefine its identity, with the Koran in the center of the battle. But so is the United States, with the Constitution, which has always been synonymous with American identity, at the heart of the battle -- and the Bible trying to make its way back in there. So what we have between East and West are two distinct struggles for identity. We delude ourselves into thinking either side can affect outcomes in the other. The irony is that while the president is warning us about this ragtag bunch of Islamic nut cases trying to "destroy our way of life," we're being distracted from a very serious struggle happening right here that is changing our way of life.

The more we talk about doing battle for liberty in the world, the more we are losing it at home by not paying attention to what's happening at home. The more we continue to ignore that the country is in the middle of its own identity crisis, the more the forces of reaction and fundamentalism can redefine the political climate their way, not even by stealth, but by using the language of enlightenment as a Trojan horse: Trust us. We are doing this for freedom's sake. We are "the light of the world," and "whoever follows (us) will never walk in darkness." That's a quote from the Gospel according to John of course, but it's also a visual quote from Bush's campaign ads in 2004, if you remember the famous "wolves" commercial that warns of "an increasingly dangerous world" and shows a bunch of wolves ready to attack -- if you don't vote for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

Seventy-two years ago Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These days we're told the only thing we have to fear is safety. The state of fear is our friend. Perpetual war is our condition in whose name anything goes. And all the while, freedom is being redefined as an instrument of state rather than an individual pursuit guaranteed by state protection.

That sounds strangely familiar. The fundamentalists and the reactionaries in the Islamic world, are looking to impose a regressive, power-centered society of control and submission. But what the reactionaries are doing in the United States isn't that ideologically different. We are replacing the notion of an enlightened, progressive society with the notion of a defensive, reactionary society.


If you look at the U.S. Supreme Court, you can actually see that battle like a spectator at ringside. In one corner, you have Justice Antonin Scalia, believer in God, the death penalty and originalism, in that order.

In another corner, you have Justice Stephen Breyer, advocate of what he calls "the Living Constitution," or "Active Liberty," which is actually the name of the book he's just written to define what he means, and to answer the book Scalia published a few years ago to mark his territory. Breyer believes the framers didn't write the Constitution as a static document to reflect their time only. They wrote it generally enough to apply universally in the service of two pragmatic goals: To protect liberty and to expand democracy and the ability of people to participate in democracy. "They wrote a Constitution that begins with the words, 'We the People.' The words are not 'we the people of 1787.' "

Scalia would disagree totally about the idea that the Constitution was an engine of democratic nation-building. He believes in the fundamentalist principle that what words say are what they meant at the time when they were written. "The text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed," he says.

Breyer wants the Constitution to reflect the world of 2005. Scalia wants the Constitution to stick to the meanings of 1787.

Scalia thinks Breyer's approach is blasphemous. He calls it "dice-loading," or smuggling new rights that aren't in the original text. Breyer thinks Scalia's approach is "wooden," or that it operates "in a vacuum," whereas "in the real world, institutions and methods of interpretation must be . . . capable of translating the people's will into sound policies."

So who's right? What you have here is not a failure to communicate. What you have are two radically different views of the purpose of both democracy and the Constitution.

Breyer believes in enlightenment's principle of progress. He thinks human beings are perfectible and democracy, guided by the Constitution, is that road to progress. Do we want to be a progressive society or do we not? For Breyer, the language of the Constitution answers the question in a big, enlightened Yes. He would agree with former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in a 1958 opinion that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Breyer would interpret the entire Constitution according to those standards, and he's not afraid to look abroad for ideas about who's maturing more brightly.

Scalia is radically opposed to that view. "I detest that phrase," he said this year about the Earl Warren opinion. "I'm afraid that societies don't always mature. Sometimes they rot." So if the notion of progress is not written into the Constitution, he doesn't want to hear about it.

In Scalia's view, the question of whether we want to be a progressive society is itself unconstitutional. If the death penalty was allowed in the 18th century, it should be allowed now. If it was allowed for juveniles and for mentally retarded people, and it was, it should be allowed now, because the framers couldn't possibly have had capital punishment in mind when they proscribed "cruel and unusual" punishment.

If you follow that sort of thinking, then if Florida wants to bring back branding, mutilation and banishment of criminals, it should be OK because it was so common in the late 18th century even Thomas Jefferson advocated it. And if Jefferson didn't think that sort of barbarism wasn't cruel or unusual back then, does that mean it's OK now? Scalia puts it this way: Maybe it's not OK. But the Constitution does not ban it. Scalia's thinking shows how reasoning metastasizes into dogma.


The parallel is striking. As Islam began its decline several centuries ago the clerics in Islamic law had the very same debates. They had something called "the gates of ijtihad," which is the Arabic word for "independent reasoning." It was the notion of applying Islamic law to contemporary circumstances.

Beginning in the 14th century, Sunni clerics declared the "gates of ijtihad" closed. Scholars and jurists from then on were to rely only on the original meaning of the Koran, and the legal reasonings of the original clerics closest to the prophet Muhammad. Where some forms of Sufism believed all religions were valid, by the 14th century the hard-liners in Islam were circling the wagons against other traditions. Foreigners became suspect, Islam closed ranks and decline began.

Word for word, that form of originalism is the Scalia philosophy, and it is gaining ground not only on the Supreme Court, but also in the unilateralist attitude of the United States as a whole. That explains why we are becoming a harsher, meaner, nastier society than we ought to be and why we're not exactly in a position to be preaching democracy and enlightenment to the rest of the world right now.

While Islam is trying to break away from that rigidity, which has served it so poorly for several centuries, we are embracing it. While Islam is trying to reclaim the values and ideals of enlightenment on its own terms, we seem to be abandoning those values and closing our own gates of ijtihad. While Islam is paying the price of fundamentalism and suffering to get away from it, we elect it and put our trust in it. Two separate worlds, two separate battles. But how ironic what they both have in common is the language of enlightenment: They long to speak it again over there, even if they have a very long way to go, while it's becoming more and more of a foreign language over here.

The great Judge Learned Hand once defined the spirit of liberty as "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." We've lost that spirit of liberty, which is not too sure that it is right, and replaced it with a dogma of liberty and self-righteous certainties. Maybe that'll help us win a few wars: The war on terror, the war in Iraq, maybe even the war on drugs and the war on the poor. But those aren't wars worth winning if we're destroying the meaning of America along the way.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. The essay is adapted from "The Language of Enlightenment," a lecture presented Nov. 14 as part of Stetson University's Values Council Lecture Series.

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