Reading your revealing letter, I share your anguish over the recent turn of events in the Middle East and North Africa. But I do not know what to make of your words — “I’m tough, etc.”
I am least perturbed by hard questioning of Islam, or for that matter of any subject. If one’s faith is so fragile that hard questions might fragment it, then being relieved of such a faith should be better than holding on to it. My faith, however, is made of sterner stuff.
In taking your agnosticism similarly, I presume that none of my hard questioning will make you take refuge or comfort in some metaphysical explanation of politics or allude to supernatural causes. Your agnosticism demands that explanations of politics are material, that good and evil are viewed in terms of a utilitarian calculus. Since religion in general remains resistant to material explanations, it is best consigned to the domain of the irrational.
Yet you are tormented by the irrational. As you pose questions about Islam and Muslims, you are fearful — rightly, I may add — about “apocalyptically minded madmen like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad” in possession of nuclear weapons and unleashing another Holocaust.
You are dismissive of religion, and yet you want to know about “Islamic ideology.” But what you want to know about Islam and the Quran — you caution me that a “few gentle quotations from the Koran don’t count” — is confirmation of your view about religion in general and, in particular, Islam at this time in our history.
Bear with me, Roger, for I am not going to take an easy way out from your questions. I will come back to them, Muhammad, Islam, Quran, etc., and to what I set forth in my previous letter, by reminding you of thinking historically, or putting these matters in historical context. We barely began our conversation when you turned from politics to religion, and the questions you have posed cannot be answered, if they are to be meaningful, in the sort of “yes/no” or “agree/disagree” manner of a market study or an opinion poll.
As an agnostic you are, not surprisingly, sceptical of theology as speculation about what is unknown and unknowable, i.e. God; and you “see religions anthropologically and psychoanalytically.” Religion is consequential to you only to the extent it is part of our human experience, and explained naturally or rationally.
Your anguish is how to respond within the requirements of agnosticism to what constitutes the irrationality of Islam and Muslims. Both defy reason as you understand it — rational in the manner that a modern man explains the solar system, and understands his place and that of the earth in the vastness of “sextillions of stars in multiple universes.”
But this anguish is paradoxically unreasonable. The utilitarian calculus of an agnostic should dictate the response to those Muslims, with, as you write, their “unremitting rage against the West” resulting from technological inferiority. The threat is real, it continues to grow according to the material evidence available, and an agnostic’s response — unburdened by any qualm of a non-utilitarian nature in consideration of religion — should be either proportionate or greater to eliminate that threat.
Any moral equivocation, given the reality of the threat — no matter whether it is from an Ahmadinejad in possession of nuclear weapons or a Muslim suicide bomber convinced his martyrdom will instantly be rewarded with entrance to paradise (where seventy-two virgins will entertain his every whim into eternity) — should be viewed by an agnostic as irrational.
So why the anguish? Is it because, Roger, you are squeezed between two sets of irrationality — the moral equivocation in the West on the one side, and the irrationality of Islam and Muslims on the other?
Or could it be that this anguish has revealed a part of you, however miniscule, that remains credulous about man’s belief in the supernatural? When non-utilitarian moral consideration enters to influence man’s conduct, then the accounting is based on some higher principle derived from religion or metaphysics.
It will be ten years since 9/11, and the West remains divided about how to effectively and conclusively deal with those Muslims, or Islamists, who declared war against the West — as well as governments and states in the Arab-Muslim world that lend support materially to Islamists, or will not decisively eliminate them within their domain. Why is this so?
The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) states that “Islam is not the enemy.” A few paragraphs earlier, the authors of the Report write: “The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology[.]”