Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Gormless Madeleine

Everyone (Harry and Norm) is linking to one of the funniest (funny-cry, not funny-ha-ha) articles written for a long time: Madeleine Bunting wondering what all this sudden Enlightenment-evoking was all about. Is it just Islamophobia?

Then I began bumping into the subject with Muslim intellectuals who were acutely aware of how this legacy was being used (implicitly or explicitly) against Islam. It was as if the debate had shifted from the Reformation - why hasn't Islam had one? (it dawned on such questioners that a)the Christian Reformation led to several centuries of appalling bloodshed and b)there's a good argument that Wahabi Islam is precisely Islam's reformation) - to another tack: why hasn't Islam had an Enlightenment?

These Muslims then argue that the Enlightenment was a process of European definition in the face of the Ottoman Empire; it was shaped in opposition to Islam and hence has an inbuilt anti-Islamic bias. Montesquieu's 'Persian Letters' is a good example of this.
It is an urban myth started by Edward Said that the West defined itself merely in opposition to Islam, and made of Muslims the 'other', the perpetual outsider. Now, it may well be true that the Ottoman Empire offered a splendid example of how not to run a state (Montesquieu: "government should be set up so that no man need be afraid of another"), but it just wasn't about them. By the late 18th Century, they just didn't matter enough.

Of course, the Enlightenment is being used against them. They (or their representatives who make the noise) do nothing but rail against most of the consequences of the Enlightenment: free speech, the separation of powers, the separation of the private and public, equality before the law, rational enquiry and empiricism. However, the real problem is not the mullahs, but those who have benefited so greatly from all this: us. People like Madeleine Bunting, who don't understand what they have been granted and are consequently so ignorant and gormless as to ask, "why do people think an understanding of rationality which is over 200 years old is useful now?".

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