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Islam and “the Sword”

Ross Douthat has an uncharacteristically ignorant post on Islam in yesterday’s New York Times. Douthat wants to contest the Trumpists in his own party that identify Islam with violence. He argues that there is a place for Islam in the modern world, as another religion, but — he concludes — “it has to give up the sword.” This is misleading on two grounds.

First of all, historically, the Muslim world was one of the most peaceful and lawful civilizations that ever existed. To be sure, there were innumerable wars, but they were mostly at the borders. Such crimes as sexual violence, theft and murder were relatively few, certainly when compared to the West. As one symptomatic example: in the West, the nobility wore swords, but not in the Muslim world. This began to change in the nineteenth century with the full-scale Western incursions. It’s the West that is truly violent, and where Europe has increasingly backed off, the US has upped the ante. America has essentially been committing mass murder against Muslims, and this began before Bush’s invasion of Iraq. It is America that needs to give up the sword.

The second reason flows from the first. The reason the Muslim world had less crime than Europe and America is that it was more communal and self-policing. This is a clue to understanding why the Islamic world has not been fully integrated into the world capitalist system. The capitalist world considers itself ethical — virtuous, Christian, Jewish — but this is to a great extent hypocritical. In our world most social relations are determined by the market. What we consider “good” is paying one’s debts, discharging one’s obligations, etc. This is not as clear in a world in which ethical considerations do remain uppermost. One can see this in the great films being produced today in the Muslim world, for example those of Kiorastami or Ceylan. Money does not play the role that it plays in the West, especially America; rather its place is still being questioned. The best path to building a truly global civilization lies in learning from cultures like Islam, not welcoming them to the great, vacuous, antinomian clamor that we call “civilization,” so long as they leave their imagined swords at the door.

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Eli Zaretsky

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