Monday, April 10, 2006

Madeleine Bunting in the fog of unknowing

Madeleine Bunting is at it again. The Enlightenment, I mean. There seems to be a change of tack, though the waters are murky and I can't be sure. She seems to acknowledge that there was such a thing, and associates with it "scientific development, the importance of reason, religious tolerance, the rule of law". However, she makes this association by lamenting that we "devotees" of the Enlightenment are blind to those very qualities in the history of Islam. So I am only assuming here her acknowledgement of its existence.

Working against my assumption is her reiteration of its retrospective 'creation' by the 19th Century, and then a couple of schoolgirl howlers. One, that it had "far more to do with anti-rationalism" evidenced by David Hume and Adam Smith's preference for a "much more empirical approach of observation". Then she goes higher. She erects the straw man ("that the Enlightenment was about atheism") only to demolish it with "In fact, none of the major Enlightenment thinkers were atheists".

I must admit, I really find it difficult to understand what she FOR and what she's AGIN. I sensed a sort of breakthrough when reading the last paragraph.

That the clash of civilisations debate is being cast in the same mould as the struggle against fascism would explain how the Enlightenment has come back into play. It's being used to answer questions such as: what are we? What are our values? That's how it was used to rally an exhausted continent after fascism, but to invoke it now against Islam is a dangerous distortion of history. It draws the dividing line in the wrong place. Many traditions - not just the European Enlightenment - have a history of struggle against fanaticism and intolerance, and they (especially Europe) have fallen lamentably short of those ideals. We can value the Enlightenment without using it to feed an arrogant superiority which blinds us to our allies in other traditions.
What is she saying here? That it was OK to rally forces against Fascism by means of Enlightenment values. These values she lists above as "scientific development, the importance of reason, religious tolerance, the rule of law" and here as "the struggle against fanaticism and intolerance". But it's not OK to rally around those same values against Islam. Because they have been present in Islam and it is merely arrogance on our part to think they are closer to us than to them.

Firstly, notice something about the groups here. While few would take offence at calling Fascism an enemy of the Enlightenment, it does indeed sound outrageous to smear an entire religion with that brush. It goes without saying that we distinguish Germany and Italy, two of the great historical centres of enlightenment, from fascism, a movement native to Italy and Germany, but of short duration and not inherently bound to their character. However, we can and do find the seeds of fascism, not only in the history of these countries, but in the Enlightenment itself. Just as the influence of the Enlightenment can be seen in the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Mao's China and Pol Pot. The Enlightenment is not all light - bright as it can shine, so deep can be its darkness. Yet in the choices made since those cataclysmic events, for the most part, it is the more sunlit paths of the Enlightenment that Western countries have chosen and lived.

Let's look now at the other group, the victims in her story: Islam. When was it that this invocation of the Enlighenment against Islam began. Was it with the massive immigration of the 60s and 70s? No. Was it even after the various terrorist outrages of the 90s? No. It began after September the 11th, and the gradual piercing of our dimness by what certain groups had in fact been saying for quite some time. Groups that, however loosely linked, have certain aims in common, among which is that of extinguishing any glimmer of the Enlightenment first where they live, and second, where we live. Most people are careful to call them Islamists, or Islamofascists. Now, just as we don't say Germans or Italians, but say 'fascism' instead, how would it be if we replaced 'Islam' in Bunting's sentence with 'Islamofascism'. ...
... to invoke it now against Islamofascism is a dangerous distortion of history. It draws the dividing line in the wrong place.
Is it? Does it?

In the aftermath of World War 2, it proved relatively easy to reinstate and maintain those enlightenment values in Germany and Italy mostly because they had been created and developed there for centuries. You could find people who were untainted by the barbarism of the fascist interlude: Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer, for example. The institutions of the old republics could be reinvigorated because they had been solid before. Is this the case in Islamic societies? The traditions of tolerance and independent enquiry, how strong is their presence now? If their great contributions to science occurred over 500 years ago, what has happened since?

One final note. The parentheses:
"they (especially Europe) have fallen lamentably short of those ideals".

Says it all, doesn't it?

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