Wednesday, April 14, 2004

A koan

I'm under no illusion that all the Church needs is to be remade in my image or even "accept me as I am" in all of my choices.
Amy Welborn via Eve Tushnet
I'm somewhat conflicted between my emphasis on distinctions between approval/celebration and disapproval/prohibition and my desire to see religious reform. I used to think that people who couldn't accept their religion's (read: Christianity, Catholicism in particular) position on abortion, homosexuality, the ordination of women or some other issue should just leave their denomination and/or get together with like-minded co-religionists and start their own house of worship. But I changed my mind once I came to the opinion that there could never be lasting peace between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors all over the world without the following changes in mainstream Muslim opinion.
  1. Acknowledgement of and self-recrimination for the violence and oppression of Islamic imperialism akin to postcolonial self-recrimination in the West
  2. Acknowledgement that the rights reserved for non-Muslims by sharia fall short of Western equality before the law
  3. Respect for and adherence to local laws and norms by Muslim migrants to non-Muslim countries
  4. Acceptance that the rights reserved for women by sharia are neither greater than nor better than but differ fundamentally from women's rights in the West in that the latter are based on liberty and equality.
Part of my opposition to the Iraq war (as well as my support for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict palatable to the Palestinian public) was that, aside from its superfluousness, the Islamic world would not engage in the self-examination required for these changes if it felt under siege. Violence is a regrettably necessary part of the war on terror, as it was against al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan, but even more so is the modernization of mainstream Muslim thinking, which will only be held back if America and the West pursue the war on terror with injudicious aggression.

The defeat of terrorism is possible (but not assured) without these changes if the Islamic world goes through an economic miracle like the Asian tigers did; affluence will smooth over the differences that poverty exacerbated, as well as increasing the costs (both opportunity and otherwise) of terrorism. As that is unlikely in the short term (to say the least), I am left with no choice but to hope for the changes I've specified.

Which brings me back to my original point. Seeing as how I want to see changes in how Muslims interpret Islam, how can I object to struggles for change in other religions? My dilemma is that it opens a huge floodgate. If the Christian position on abortion, homosexuality or the ordination of women can be changed, then any Christian position can - salvation by faith, even the existence of God as indeed some have - until Christianity is whittled away, piece by piece, into nothing. Even as a non-Christian who will never convert or at least never accept that "no man cometh unto the Father, but by [Jesus]," I would find that ineluctably doleful as indeed I would find the passing of Islam - or any religion - into history.* Likewise, in "Buddhism Without Beliefs," Stephen Batchelor argues that Buddhism should shed the concepts of reincarnation and karma because they cannot be deductively proven. Batchelor's philosophy could fairly be called Buddhist-influenced or post-Buddhist, but I'm not sure it could be accurately called Buddhism. How much can be cut away until a thing is no longer what it started as? (Which is why I so strongly object to mix-and-match New Age syncretism.)

*I remember reading a counterfactual history proposing that, had Alexander the Great not died when he did, those of us alive now might be enjoying the legacy of Greco-Buddhist cultural hegemony. Alas, we'll never know now, will we...

UPDATE: I'm ignoring a distinction between the changes I'm calling for in Islam and the changes pro-choicers, gays and feminists are calling for in Christianity and the changes Stephen Batchelor is calling for in Buddhism. And that is that the changes I'm calling for in Islam hamstring (no pun intended) the religious rationale for the violence erupting all over the world, violence that could easily become genocidal, as it has recently in Sudan and the Moluccas. In that sense at least, other proposed religious reforms lack the same urgency. In most if not all countries with a Christian plurality (I am excepting the Vatican), though Christians may call for their criminalization, the legality of abortion and homosexuality depends directly on the laws of a secular state rather than the official Christian religious position. Not only are Batchelor's proposed changes far from catching on like wildfire, but they are unlikely to have any wide social impact, let alone inspire violence.

Is that distinction sufficient for consistency between calling for religious reform in the case of violence but not otherwise?