Cultural Masochism

by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

In a column for December 23, not yet online, about "the war we’re in," Joe Sobran makes a correct point with questionable evidence. Allow me to preface my friendly criticism by noting the obvious. Whatever critical observation I offer is intended to generate useful discussion. My questions do not arise from any negative opinion about a courageous and gifted essayist, who has suffered at least as much as I at the hands of the same enemies. I would furthermore be flattered if Joe chose to address my points in one of his commentaries for the new year.

Having stated my obvious good will, let me go on and raise my queries. Joe would have us believe that is futile to try to convince Muslims or Jews to become like Western Christians because their religious cultures are fundamentally different. He therefore urges our government to avoid political missionizing, or what Republicans used to dismiss as "nation-building," before the neocons took over their diminutive minds.

The problem is, the evidence that Joe cites to underscore this difference is for the most part not particularly cogent; nor does it seem to have the significance that he attaches to it. Quoting a Muslim who has converted to Catholicism, Daniel Ali, Joe explains that Islam is hugely dissimilar from Western religion because it treats the power of Allah as something unbounded: "Allah is not only omnipotent but free even to contradict himself and the laws of logic." Indeed the Muslim Deity can will that which pleases Him, even if it contradicts what He had commanded as morally proper. Moreover, although Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet (and incidentally in the Virgin Birth), they reject categorically the divinity of Christ and the Trinity. Although these assertions are true, much of the traditional Christian world, including non-Thomist Catholics and many Protestant denominations, would agree with the view of the divine will ascribed to Muslim theology. If Joe were to read John Calvin or William of Ockham, neither of whom would be his cup of tea but who clearly represented Western Christian traditions, he would find some of the same tendencies that he finds peculiar to Islam, e.g., the emphasis on a divine will that bestows moral laws but is not unconditionally bound by the order it establishes. Thus the Nominalists understood the combination of revelation and moral reason with which men lived as simply the "ordered power" that God had granted, without limiting the fullness of His sovereignty. As for Mohammed’s unwillingness to accept the Trinity, why blame Muslims for not believing in what most nominal Christians in the US neither understand nor even pretend to embrace? A look at the Gallup polls on American religious beliefs would make Joe think with regard to the Trinity that he is living in Mecca rather than in Washington.

What makes Muslim communities hard for Western Christians to deal with is not their rejection of the Trinity or their concept of divine omnipotence but the fact that they behave unpleasantly. Thus in the Italian town of Eboli Muslim residents are walking around without hands because of the attempt of other Muslims to apply Koranic punishments for theft. Even more ghastly incidents have occurred when Muslims decided to punish women who were thought to be unfaithful to their spouses. Moreover, Islamicists relate to their Christian host countries in ways that are diametrically opposed to the multicultural indulgence that they themselves receive. While the California school system treats Judeo-Christian biblical narratives as mere "myths," it presents the miracles of Mohammed and the Koran as serious religious beliefs and showers on Ramadan the attention it is now forbidden to devote to Christmas. The response of Muslim preachers to sympathetic treatment, particularly in Europe, has been to vent hostility on the Christian world and to affirm the need to convert the infidel population. Meanwhile in Africa and Asia, Christians are subject not to theological disputes from Muslims but to enslavement or forced conversion.

Joe’s treatment of Rabbinic beliefs and their impact on Israeli society are even more open to question. Although Joe cites the well-established arguments of Israel Shahak, that the Talmud makes invidious legal and moral distinctions between Jews and non-Jews and heaps insults on the person of Jesus, he goes too far in treating Israeli society as being captive to such attitudes. Do most Israelis, as Joe suggests, take anti-Christian Talmudic teachings as their guideline for dealing with other people? Again no one but a liberal or neocon would deny that Jews, like Japanese or Armenians, are more ethnocentric than white bread WASPs. Nor would I question that among the very Orthodox the unpalatable double standard and contempt for Jesus that Joe highlights may continue to prevail. But what he never demonstrates is that these values are now the dominant Israeli ones.

By the way, the tasteless remarks about Jesus that Shahak cites (in Jewish History, Jewish Religion) were produced by Babylonian Jews many centuries after Jesus’ death and never had for Jews the binding character of dogma or law. In all likelihood these slurs reflected and strengthened an already ingrained dislike for what Rabbinic Jews saw as a successful Jewish heresy. Nonetheless, one should not exaggerate the effect of these outbursts in shaping Jewish thinking through the ages. If Christians were not persecuting them, Jewish communities did not dwell on these isolated Rabbinic mutterings about the Christian savior. In Muslim countries, Christophobia was not an issue, and I have yet to meet an Asian or North African Jew who holds a negative opinion about Jesus. To believe that most Israeli Jews, who are Sephardim and who in any case are not likely to study the criticized Talmudic passages, are nonetheless fixated on them may be a bit of a stretch.

Such views undoubtedly influenced ghettoized Jews who studied Rabbinic texts and despised their Christian persecutors, but it is hard to imagine that Israelis formulate their foreign policy on the basis of such considerations. What may be more important is that neither Jews nor Muslims feel any religious compunctions about hating their perceived enemies. But then those compunctions were less in evidence in the Christian past, when Christians were happy to express "sectarian" beliefs.

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