Category Archives: rational criticism

My hand shakes; I want to interrupt, to shout

Zeven Hoofdzonden (detail), attr. Jheronimus Bosch, c. 1485 or after. Museo del Prado

Zeven Hoofdzonden (detail), attr. Jheronimus Bosch, c. 1485 or after. Museo del Prado

Dogmatism, writes Dalrymple,

is the reaction of those who want to know best but suspect that the metaphysical foundations of their supposed knowledge are shaky. Ambiguity disturbs them: how can there be rational criticism founded on argument and evidence, when at the same time there is no disputing taste? The solution to the tension is to stand behind a stockade of indubitable truth.

The search for certainty

is much more important than the search for truth. I know a man, an eminent writer, who has changed his opinion many times in his long life, often by 180°, but never admits to having done so. He has held every successive opinion with angry intransigence. Challenges by people of another opinion make him turn red with rage: they do not merely differ from him in opinion, they are attacking him personally. It is not true that bigotry is the exclusive province of the ignorant and stupid; there is the clever and well-informed variety, the more dangerous because the less easily recognised.

Dalrymple does not exclude himself.

When someone expresses an opinion that is very different from my own, I often feel a mounting tension, though the subject may be one that, if I am honest with myself, is of little importance or consequence to me. Certainly it cannot harm me that someone thinks differently from me about it; yet my heart begins to beat wildly, and I am sure that my blood pressure has risen. I feel an excitation, I tell myself to keep calm but I don’t succeed; my hand shakes; I want to interrupt, to shout. I am not defending truth, but my opinion. Generally I succeed in controlling myself, but occasionally I do not, especially when my interlocutor is young. I immediately feel ashamed of myself afterwards; I even feel ashamed that, at my age, I am still so little capable of detachment.

Islam has nothing to say to the modern world

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 14.25.23For the second time in living memory, writes Dalrymple,

we find ourselves obliged by historical circumstances to examine doctrinal philosophies that, from the abstract intellectual point of view, are not worth examining. They belong, rather, to the history of human folly and credulity: which is itself, of course, an inexhaustibly interesting and important subject.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 14.43.06The first was Marxism; the second Islamism. Which of us, Dalrymple asks,

would have guessed thirty years ago that an inflamed and inflammatory Islamic doctrine would soon replace Marxism as the greatest challenger to liberal democracy? The vacuum left by the collapse of one totalitarian doctrine is soon filled by another.

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 14.44.55Dalrymple hopes that Islamism

will pass from the world stage as quickly as it arrived on it. In the meantime, however, it can cause a great deal of havoc, and will not disappear spontaneously, without opposition, much of which must be conducted on the intellectual plane.

Yet

Western intellectuals have failed to examine Islam and its founder in the same light as they would examine any other religious doctrine of comparable importance.

Dalrymple believes that all forms of Islam are

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 14.47.53very vulnerable in the modern world to rational criticism, which is why the Islamists are so ferocious in trying to suppress such criticism. They have instinctively understood that Islam itself, while strong, is exceedingly brittle, as communism once was. They understand that, at the present time in human history, it is all or nothing. They are thus more clear-sighted than moderate Moslems.

The problem with Islam may be rooted

Image (latterly effaced) of Mohammed on frieze, Birch Memorial Clocktower (1917), Ipoh, Perak

Image (latterly effaced) of Mohammed on frieze, Birch Memorial Clocktower (1917), Ipoh, Perak

in its doctrines, its history and its founder.

Mohammed

connived at armed robbery, mass murder and the abduction of women. Of course, autres temps, autres mœurs, and it may be that, on the whole, he sometimes behaved better than his peers.

He was

a political genius: he understood what motivated men, and he developed a system of belief and practice, of social pressure and ideological terror, that meant that Islamisation once established was irreversible, at least until the present day. Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine was that a country, once communist, could not become non-communist; how puny, historically, was the communist achievement beside that of Islam!

Part of private quarters (1578) of Sultan Murad III

Part of private quarters (1578) of Sultan Murad III

Islamic civilisation has many attractive qualities . At least at its summit, the Ottoman civilisation was

exquisite, and in the decorative arts was Western Europe’s superior for centuries.

But the quality of a civilisation

does not establish the truth of the doctrines current in it, nor the suitability of those doctrines for living in the modern world.

Judged by the abysmal standards of fifteenth century Europe, Islam

looks quite tolerant; but judged from the modern, post-Enlightenment perspective, it looks primitive.

Its attitude towards polytheists and atheists is

doctrinally abominable.

Islam

Screen Shot 2015-11-15 at 14.46.00has nothing whatever to say to the modern world, and as yet has no doctrinal means of dealing constructively with the inevitable diversity of human religion and philosophy, beyond the violent imposition of uniformity or second-class citizenship.

Can Moslems of moderate temperament find some way of reconciling their faith with the exigencies of the modern world?

The problem is that this reconciliation cannot be a mere modus vivendi; it has to be intellectually coherent and satisfying to last. Personally, I am not optimistic. Islamism is a last gasp, not a renaissance, of the religion. But last gasps can last a surprisingly long time.