Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Anthony Galli (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a degree in psychology, with experience in mental health and education. He currently works for a non-profit corporation. His personal website can be accessed at: http://tonygalli.tripod.com
Blues for Allah
After writing a response this past winter to Harris's essays on Islam, I read his new essay The Many Faces of Islam with anticipation. It seems some people emailed him, and he seemed to have seriously considered their critiques. I am sure he has done quite a bit of reading on the subject. He may have read a lot more books on Islam than I have.
Ray Harris has become the resident integral expert on all things Islamic. Has his perspective evolved? Once again, it is necessary to provide a different perspective to round out assertions that still contain many errors.
“One of the five pillars of Islam is loyalty to the Islamic community, the ummah.”
The five pillars of Islam are: testimony of faith (shaha'adah) in Allah and the message, prayer (salat), charity (zakat), periodic fasting (saum), and pilgrimage (hajj). Certainly, each pillar functions to bind Muslims together in a community. Specifically, he may be referring to the shaha'dah, albeit with an idiosyncratic definition. This is an oath to directly worship the one God and submit wholeheartedly to, what Muslims believe, is the will of Allah. It requires the observance of moral principles and involves the same obligations you would expect people to have towards members of family, tribe, or nation. If it meant rejecting contact and friendship with others, Islam would have never expanded, its members would have never learned from other civilizations, nor would they have done extensive trading.
“The term 'Crusader' is now a common pejorative used to refer to Christians as the persecutors of Islam. Of course, this persecution narrative is bizarre when you consider that Islam defeated the polytheists, Jews and the Crusaders and went on to pose a real threat to Christian Europe. Both Egypt and Turkey were once important centres of Christianity – who was persecuting whom?”
What is bizarre is this rewriting of the events of the Crusades. When armies were sent over a thousand miles to take over Jerusalem, it was not done in defense. These soldiers slaughtered thousands of Jews and Pagans, including Christian sects deemed heretical. (Maybe they were just blowing off steam, dealing the trauma of war and being so far away from home and family). Christian pilgrims were not banned from entering Jerusalem under Islamic rule, nor were Christians expelled from the Holy Land. Further, it was under Islamic rule that Jews were able to return to Jerusalem after hundreds of years of exile. There was one ruler from the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty who destroyed churches and synagogues, but his policy was immediately reversed by his successors.
The idea of widespread Christian oppression was mainly propaganda to gain support for a war that had a lot to do with the control of trade-routes, territory, and wealth. The Western centers of Christianity were not directly threatened as was Eastern Europe, except, perhaps, via Spain. At best you could say the Crusader Kingdoms were an altruistic alliance between Eastern Christians and the Holy Roman Empire, but you cannot deny that Christians went on the attack. When the Christians did conquer Jerusalem, it was a very brutal affair that, according to some witnesses, was so bad that the blood in the city streets ran several feet high. It is pretty clear who was persecuting whom.
“Whilst it was largely the radical orthodox who took to the streets a large number of moderate Muslims also condemned the cartoons. In doing so they encouraged the rioters. Very few moderate Muslims actually argued in favour of free speech – the rhetoric was largely about an attack on Islam; a persecutory reflex.”
Is not “radical orthodox” an oxymoron? This just shows the drawbacks to relying on cookie-cutter classifications (I myself am sometimes guilty of this). At any rate, I do not think governments should ban cartoons because it is the right of citizens and media outlets to decide what to censor or allow. Of course, I have my own reasons for disliking the cartoons. First, some of the cartoons were racist (there is a close resemblance between Jewish and Arab caricatures). Second, Jyllands-Posten was hypocritical in not portraying offensive images of Jesus in order to not upset Christians.
This does not mean I am against free speech. If I do not like something, I can simply choose to ignore it. What I do not understand is why liberals assume that this is only about religious fundamentalism. Liberal newspapers in the US that stood in solidarity with Jyllands-Posten would not dare print caricatures of minorities in this country, such as blacks, Latinos, or homosexuals (unless they happen to be Republicans or Christians). Free speech in the US is qualified. There are libel laws, for instance, and recently, these same liberals have advocated for hate speech laws.
Lastly, the riots were encouraged by governments in the Middle East and Central Asia, not the sentiments of average Joe Muslim.
“Unlike the Arabs the Turks inherited an already rich culture that dated back to the Persians and Greeks - many influences modified the barren Islam of the Arab tribes.”
I see. Arabs are basically a bunch of sub-human desert dwellers. It is clear about why Harris has such a low opinion of Islam – it is the invention of backward people who thrust their ugly religion on the rest of the world.
His “periphery-center” distinction, in which the farther away from Saudi Arabia you get, the more enlightened the Muslim country, fails on several fronts. Lebanon, despite years of Syrian interference, occupation, civil war, refugee problems, etc. is still more liberal than many Muslim countries. Jordan has also made many advances. Unlike Turkey, fundamentalism seriously threatens Pakistan (and do not tell me the Muslims of the subcontinent did not inherit an already rich culture). Bangladesh is barely scraping by, no doubt due to extreme poverty and flooding problems. Indonesia, while moderate overall, has had militant factions brewing for decades, which is largely an after-effect of the US backed dictator Suharto.
“Interestingly these people [Arab tribes] are the direct descendents of the people who created Islam. If anyone could claim to represent the 'true' Islam surely it is these tribesmen?”
Islam is not about bloodline, except among the Shi'a, the majority of whom are not Arab. Muslims see Islam as universal in scope. Islam was always multi-ethnic, even during its beginnings in Arabia. One of the first converts to Islam was a freed African slave named Bilaal, an Ethiopian chosen by Muhammad to announce the call to prayer because of his sonorous voice. There were also Persian and Syriac peoples who had settled in the more fertile southern portions of the peninsula.
“Mecca is the centre, geographically, spiritually and symbolically. It reserves a peculiar right for itself – to forbid non-Muslims from entering the city. It is the only city, along with Medina, to disbar members of rival faiths.”
They are the only cities with this prohibition, true. But they are not the only religious sites that restrict non-members from entering.
“In contrast Muslims are free to enter any city on the globe.”
Really? I happen to know quite a few Muslims who cannot enter Jerusalem, and not because they are terrorists.
“The denial of Muslim culpability usually takes the form of the retort, 'but the radicals represent a tiny minority.'”
Ironically, the argument that all Muslims are culpable for terrorism arrives out of the same obsession with the Ummah that many Muslims have. It is the fund-raisers, advocates, and perpetrators of terrorism that should be held accountable, not all Muslims.
“In both Indonesia and Malaysia orthodox political parties gain power in local districts and attempt to apply sharia. In one district in Malaysia three men were jailed for converting to Christianity, in another the mayor imposed the hijab on girls in local schools.”
Malaysia is a stable country where Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims have lived together peacefully for decades. I do not agree with jailing apostates (apostasy is an irrelevant and misapplied concept) but the hijab is a red herring. (“Hijab” actually means modesty, but I will revert to the conventional definition of the head scarf). If dress codes in schools are bad, then let's eliminate uniforms in British schools, or in US private schools. Harris buys into the specious notion that women's liberation is synonymous with western fashions. Many young Muslim women now wear American style clothes, but that has not necessarily led to more rights, or more enlightened views among them.
The real problem is not hijab, but the use of harsh penalties to enforce public dress codes, as in his cited example of the woman arrested in Indonesia. The death penalty imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing women to wear burqas resembling bee-keeper suites, is a worse example.
I am not sure why Harris does not mention far more serious crimes against females, such as honor killings or gang rapes. Why no mention of the brave woman, both Muslim and non-Muslim, fighting against these barbaric injustices? If anyone needs our support, it is them.
“The truth is that the orthodox are making substantial gains, even in the moderate Islamic nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. How could this happen if the orthodox were such a tiny minority?”
It is not about numbers, it is about power, and in many instances they have a lot.
So why do some average Joe Muslims side with fundamentalists? Harris already elucidated one reason – masses are easily swayed by those who offer a better future. I would add to that a sense of humiliation, arriving from a tendency of Muslims, like Jews, to discern religious meaning from historical events. Obviously, if things are going wrong, it is easy to think it is because your co-religionists are not pious enough. It is reminiscent of orthodox Jews who actually saw the holocaust as a punishment from G-d for not adhering to the Torah.
“The local residents had complained of groups of Lebanese Muslim youths harassing women and behaving in a threatening manner. Things came to a head when three life guards were bashed. A protest rally was organized to urge a greater police presence to curb the problem. This rally was hijacked by white racists who whipped up crowd anger, resulting in a riot and the bashing of innocent bystanders of 'middle-eastern' appearance.”
As far as I know, these youths were hoodlums and thugs. I am sure Harris knows a lot more than I do about this incident, as he is from Australia, but nothing I read said it had anything to do with religion in particular. What is interesting is that he says that the Australian rallies were “hijacked” by racists. I am sure if I said that racism was the norm in his country, he would, rightfully, have a problem with that assessment. Perhaps, then, he should be able to understand why average Joe Muslims say that terrorists have hijacked their religion.
“The really interesting thing about this is that Muslims account for only 1.5% of the Australian population, Buddhists account for 1.8%. As a result of Muslim complaints about persecution the government has created a special Muslim Advisory Council. There is no Buddhist Advisory Council.”
Is the experience of Buddhists in Australia the same as that of Muslims? Is the Australian government supporting countries that are engaged with a war on Buddhist countries?
“What exactly is the West supposed to do about Islamist violence? Pretend it's not there and hope it will go away?”
Here are suggestions for America. 1.) Do a better job inspecting ports and guarding nuclear facilities. 2.) Hire a lot more Arabic language translators. 3.) Cut down on pork barrel military expenditures 4.) Vote for responsible leaders who do not abuse power. Only real threats should come under investigation, rather than vaguely defined enemies (even Greenpeace has come under investigation, not surprising given this administration's environmental policies). 5.) Be more consistent in not supporting human rights abusers. 6.) Take US bases out of Saudi Arabia. 7.) Don't produce, sell, or use weapons of mass destruction. 8.) Work more with the UN, including paying full dues, and do not selfishly manipulate it.
“Islam was the first globalizing power. It was in Africa before the Europeans, it was in India before the British and it reached Indonesia and Malaysia before the Europeans. Islam had succeeded in converting a smorgasbord of cultures, including the Mongols, (often with considerable cultural insensitivity).”
The spread of Hellenism was accomplished by the military exploits of Alexander the Great. And both Rome and the Sassanid Empire were global powers before Muslims were. How about we leave it at this; historically, Muslims are not morally superior to non-Muslims, and vice-versa.
“I see Christianity and Islam as two sides of the same coin. Both have a missionary desire to convert the world to their faith.”
Christianity and Islam do have a lot in common, but Harris overlooks important differences. Even among its most radical members, Islam does not have a large impetus for conversion. The desire is for political control, whether conversions take place is secondary.
“Orthodox Islam accepts slavery. Sharia law has not been changed. Throughout it's history in Africa Islam has benefited from an extensive slave trade. Slavery still exists today in Muslim North Africa. Unlike their Christian counterparts Muslim clerics have not been vocal in condemning slavery. Why? Because the Koran specifically permits slavery.”
Some Muslim clerics do denounce slavery (usually teaching that we should be slaves unto Allah rather than man). No verse in the Qur'an condones slavery, and several verses actually command freeing slaves. There is a history of slavery in Islam, but there is also a history of freeing slaves.
“The communal violence in India is a result of centuries of tension between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Only 20% (this figure is disputed, with some arguing it is less) of Indians were Muslims yet they ruled India for far longer than the British. Kashmir is still a flash point.”
High caste Hindus retained their power during the rise of Islam in India, even during the height of the Moghul Empire. Kashmir is still a flashpoint for reasons discussed in my previous essay. “Centuries of tension” was a deliberation British exaggeration used to divide and conquer the Indian population.
“Islam was largely responsible for the decimation of Buddhism in Northern India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
That is quite exaggerated, but I have already gone over that.
“Islam also decimated much of the indigenous Persian culture, with many Zoroastrians (Parsees) fleeing to India”.
Harris is right on that score. And the sad irony is that Zoroastrianism, via Christianity, had an undeniable influence on Islam.
“What if the majority opinion turns out to favour the orthodox view and vote for Islamist parties?”
That is the right of sovereign nations. Or do we only allow them to vote when they pick who we want, and invade them when they do not? What alternative is there other than restricting their voting rights? Until there is some sort of global government in place, or even a reformed UN, it is impossible to directly control every country America and its allies do not like. If that makes me an isolationist, I can only counter that not getting involved in Iraq is also an isolationist argument of sorts.
Let's look at the case of Iran. The revolution was initially an idealistic movement led by both secular and religious people. In other words, it was populist. Unfortunately, once fundamentalists came into power, Iran turned into a horrible theocracy. The young generation now, many of whom were born after the revolution and have no memory of the rule of Shah Reza Palavi, hate this government. Although Khatami was part of the conservative establishment, and lost most of his reform battles, there was at least someone in the government who represented liberal Iranians. With the win of Ahmadinejad, things have taken a turn for the worse, which the war on terror no doubt exacerbated. Still, the situation is not hopeless for Iranians. If the US can avoid going to war with Iran, there is still a chance things there can change without western countries coming in to do nation-building.
“But the question progressives must answer is would it have been better if the communist bloc was allowed to dominate?”
Certainly not the Soviet regime! If that is what progressives are supposed to believe, I must not be a progressive.
The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was the first democratic Muslim state in the world, even before Turkey. Its standards were higher than many western states. It gave women the right to vote before America did, and created one of the finest state universities in the world. It was because of the interference of the Soviet Union that it collapsed two years after its founding.
“Both Islam and Christianity are offshoots of Judaism, each making an exclusivist claim about the final Prophetic authority; Jesus or Mohammed.”
Christians today, generally, do not view Jesus Christ as a prophet (hence the appellation “Christ,” or savior). Even by the time of the Council of Nicaea, the view of Bishops was that Jesus was the divine logos (the holy truth). The logos was considered the vehicle through which God created the universe. At the time there were two interpretations of Jesus as logos: 1.) Jesus is God and is, paradoxically, His only begotten son, or 2.) Jesus is the highest created being, but not equal to God. Suffice to say, view number one was voted in and has defined Christian theology ever since. It is Muslims who view Jesus as a prophet. For Christians, Jesus was not the messenger, but the message incarnate. Jews agree with neither of them. Christianity and Islam are sister traditions with Judaism, which has also evolved in its own way, rather than mere offshoots.
“Globalization is inevitable. If it had not been Christian Europe who had discovered the final continent, the Americas, then it may easily have been Islam.”
I agree that it is inevitable. The main issue is how it occurs, and if it can be mitigated for mutual benefit. America would surely be different today had Muslims discovered it before Europeans did. It would be different had the Chinese gained a foothold in South America, or if imperial Japan explored the West coast. That is for historians to speculate. I care more about real history, the real present, and the real future.
“Much of this [debate] is taking place in Western countries where freedom of speech is protected (which is why the defence of freedom of speech is so important).”
Ignoring the history of debates within Islam is to perpetuate the myth of western superiority. On the flip side to his criticism of liberals being taken in by naïve anti-colonial sentiments, I am surprised by how many liberals are taken in the “white man's burden” paradigm.
And what does free-speech mean? Terrorists can, and do, exploit such freedoms to recruit new members into their ranks. Free-speech is not absolute anymore than the free market is entirely free (and certainly not equal). Freedom only makes sense in the context of fairness. An open forum for debate should include equal opportunities for different viewpoints (although in the US the fairness doctrine has been eroded).
Free-speech applies in the realm of ideas and knowledge. That does not mean advertisers have the right to make deliberately false claims. It does not allow for plagiarism or trademark infringement. It does not protect the recording of illegal activities, such as child-pornography. It does not mean one can threaten the life of the President. It does not mean one has the right to give away military secrets. There are limits to expression.
“In contrast the progressive Muslim is likely to draw attention to the persecution narrative and instead point to Muslim culpability, urging Muslims to stop playing the victim and to get on with the process of reform. The Canadian Muslim lesbian, Irshad Manji states it bluntly…”
I happen to be a big fan of her work, and I agree that some Muslims have a superiority/inferiority complex. But is it me, or does the media only fawn over Muslims who are the most brazen in criticizing their faith? Perhaps it is easier to accept those Muslims who say what they want to hear.
Muslims, on the whole, are not uniquely singled out for persecution more than others. Currently, it is a given that in the war on terror Muslims are put under intense scrutiny, subject to negative stereotypes, and sometimes abuse. This typically happens to minority populations during difficult times. Average Joe Muslim is caught in the unenviable position of deciding who is a bigger threat – a powerful and untrustworthy government that is supposed to protect them, or terrorists who threaten both their lives and their reputation.
“This is the time to be demanding of Muslims and to ask them where they stand. This is the time to shift the chaff from the wheat and ask the Muslim spokesperson who they represent.”
If you are a scholar or a reporter, go ahead, be rude about it. Go after spokespersons. I would like to know myself where they stand. But average Joe Muslims do have every reason to feel afraid for their family and community if all they are considered guilty until proven innocent.
“Karen Armstrong is regarded by many as a lightweight and an apologist. She is not taken seriously. She is a writer you might read if you were a beginner. She is certainly not a 'yellow' thinker. In fact her response to the cartoon controversy betrayed a classic 'green' relativist position.”
Who considers her a lightweight? Daniel Pipes and the Neo-cons? Whether she is right or wrong, her field of expertise is in religious studies. That is not true of Irshad Manji, despite her feminist credentials.
“Here's the real deal; progressive Muslim women do not wear the hijab. Simple as that.”
So women who wear a scarf are not real progressives. It does not matter what they actually think. I suppose omen all over the world are oppressed because of the personal decision of some western Muslims to wear the hijab.
“But this is the type of compromise we see from so-called progressive Westerners who surrender the progressive agenda to appease orthodox Muslims under the mistaken belief they are being tolerant of cultural diversity.”
He does not acknowledge those females who still choose the hijab when their parents do not force them to, or even discourage it. France is not Algeria; it is not up to the French government to dictate Islamic fashions. At least, that is what one would expect in a democracy. France is not perfect, it makes mistakes. Forced secularization, in many cases, does not work.
What bothers me is that there is so much attention paid to what women are wearing at all. True, in an enlightened society, men would not frighten, demean, or objectify women. Men should always have self-control, even with constant exposure to naked women. The reality is that it will take a long time to change the biology of millions of years of evolution, so the best we can do is punish outright actions of hostility. Laws do not address more subtle issues of gender relations. If women want to observe modesty, that does not make them backward. If women want to wear miniskirts, that is also their right, and does not necessarily mean they are shallow. How about this – the integral community should not use women's issues as a political football and get on with the business of advocating for human rights.
“It is not only that Islam doesn't have a word for freedom, it doesn't have a word for citizen either. The idea of the citizen arose in Ancient Greece and was developed further in Roman times. The citizen was meant to have certain rights and duties and to exhibit civic virtues. The closest word in Arabic is muwatin, which means compatriot. In fact the Arabic world has not had the same idea as the Greek concept of polis.
What Islam did was provide a cause with which a disparate collection of tribal groups could unite. It is a vision in which religion, government and society are all subject to the Koran. There is no separation of church and state, no separation of the legislative arm from the judicial arm and no separation of executive power from legislative power. There is also no secular polis separate from the wider religious community, the ummah. Fellow Muslims are compatriots (and infidels of course, are not).”
The West invented freedom? There is a notion of free-will in Islam, which Muslim philosophers, like their Christian counterparts, developed in dialectical tension with the will of an omnipotent God. You could easily make a case that the idea of free-will was picked up from the Greeks, though it makes no sense for the Qur'an to emphasize individual responsibility without some notion of choice.
The Greek concept of polis, as I understand it, was a meeting ground for members of the city-state. It was an open forum for sharing ideas among those able to participate in political affairs. It was not an area free of religion. Indeed, in the market place, consecrations in front of effigies were usually done before doing business. But there was a growing philosophical openness that allowed people to question the gods, which eventually lead to Socrates to get the death penalty on the charges of atheism and corrupting the youth.
The reality of ancient Greece is that vast majority of people were not citizens. One had to be a male of a certain age and had to own property. Still, it was a very advanced ideal in which those who were citizens were considered equals. Based on the characteristics mentioned above, it appears that Muslims had a similar ideal during Islamic Empires at certain points of their development. First, Islam made education a norm among its members. Second, the Sunni, that is, the majority of Muslims, have been against the rule of a hereditary line of successors. Currently, neither condition is being met in most Muslim countries.
“The mosque is still the centre of authority in Islam, even powerful dictators fear the mosque.”
The mosque is a communal prayer center, and it is also where business and community affairs are conducted. The center of authority in Islam is the Qur'an, the hadith, and those who those who interpret them. What dictators fear is insurrection, which is required of the Ummah when they are being oppressed.
“It is simplistic cant [sic?] to suggest it is all the West's fault. How so? Western technology and capital investment has helped transform many Muslim economies. And where have the oil rich Arab states chosen to invest their funds? In the West rather than in infrastructure and education.”
The West is not the cause for all the problems in the world, nor is the West the only reason there are problems in Muslim countries. This is more of a caricature than an argument, not unlike Wilber's MGM straw-man that Harris himself has critiqued. And the last part is simply untrue. Arab states have been investing in infrastructure and education for decades. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have put a lot of money into infrastructure (it takes a lot of money to create comfortable living conditions in a desert). The problem is that the Saudis are funding radical madrassahs, and poorer countries are reluctant to refuse because they are often the only resource for impoverished populations.
“If India can throw off the shackles of its colonialist past to become an emerging economic power then why can't the ME – given especially, that the ME has a vital, strategic resource it can use to raise capital? What of the trillions of dollars of oil revenue?”
India did become isolationist after its independence (though unofficially aligned with the Soviet Union). There is a reason they chose the symbol of the chakra (wheel) for its flag, as this was a rallying call during the quite India campaign. Unfortunately, India built a weak economy, due to poor management polices from the government, which only worsened the gulf between rich and poor. However, India's independence gave it advantages. The US sanctions imposed during its nuclear standoff affected India less than Pakistan. When the IT revolution hit, India was in a perfect position. They already had an educational base, western companies desired cheaper white collar workers, and the Indian government was moving towards privatization. Whether this benefits India in the long run remains to be seen.
I do not know how the Middle East will achieve something comparable, but I do agree that it is possible. Maybe, just maybe, when the dust settles from the war on terrorism, some sort of Marshal Plan will be implemented. Their oil revenue is already being invested (and not just in Islamic banking, but interest banking as well). These monarchies may be corrupt and decadent, but they are not stupid. They know oil is going to run out eventually.
Ultimately, reforming a religion, like any institution, is the responsibility of its own sensitive, bright, and informed members. If the integral community gets involved it should make a fair and accurate assessment. Maybe along with the other integral categories (business, science, art, etc.) there will emerge an Integral Islamica. Or maybe not. Maybe some new integral religion will subsume it. However it comes about, it serves no one's interest to make a sloppy analysis.
Does this make me an apologist? I will quote Reza Aslan on this one:
“No one speaks for God – not even the prophets (who speak about God). There are those who call it an apology, but that is hardly a bad thing. An apology is a defense, and there is no higher calling than to defend one's faith, especially from ignorance and hate, and thus to help shape the story of that faith, a story which, in this case, began fourteen centuries ago, at the end of the sixth century C.E., in the sacred city of Mecca, the land that gave birth to Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Abd al-Muttalib: the Prophet and Messenger of God. May peace and blessings be upon him.”
May there be may an end to al Qaeda and better times ahead for us all! Insha' Allah.