Today's date:
Winter 2002


Slumbering Islam

From an interview with (the late) philosopher Leszek Kolakowski at All Souls College Oxford in 1991 just after the publication of his book, Modernity on Endless Trial.

Oxford - Indifference is the main form of tolerance in the West. Our tolerant attitude is often little more than lack of interest or disbelief; we are as indifferent to our own beliefs as to those of others.

But, the intolerance of Christianity is not the only alternative to such a nihilstic attitude in the West. After the religious wars of the 16th century a certain tolerance, combined with commitment to a set of beliefs, took root in Christian culture.

Individuals and groups can be strongly committed to their religious values and at the same time practice tolerance toward others. Christianity cannot renounce its claims to superiority, of course. It is bound to make claims to truth, but there is no reason in principle why Christianity cannot accept plurality of religions without renouncing its own claims to truth. One cannot say with consistency that this is my religion, and it is as good as any other.
That is absurd. In what sense, then, is it mine?

Despite the miserable record of repressions and persecutions, there is in Christianity a history of toleration that was preached for the sake of preserving Christian values.

Medieval Islamic culture produced great achievements in the history of civilization, in philosophy, poetry, architecture, mathematics and medicine.

To be sure, there were pogroms against the Jews and genocide during the First World War in the Ottoman Empire. But it is wrong to think that the history of Islam, whether in the Ottoman period or earlier in Spain to take two exceptions, is the history of systematic persecution and extermination of religious minorities.
One cannot say with any certainty that it is the destiny of Islam to be bellicose, aggressive and repressive.

Nonetheless, for reasons I cannot explain, at a certain moment Islamic civilization fell into slumber. Culturally speaking, Islam has not been very fertile in recent times.

The meaning of today's Islamic renaissance, which is a renaissance of religious fanaticism and aggressivity, is not clear. It may be more related to the rise of petro-power, and the resultant economic imbalances and resentments in the Islamic world, than to religious invigoration.

In any event, this occult fundamentalism has proven an efficient device to channel the frustrations and aggressivity of nationalism.

The central point of conflict with Western civilization, the point of departure between our two cultures, is the institutional separation of the secular and the sacred. Theocratic nationalism confronts the secular states of the West in international relations. As long as there are theocratic states, there will be conflict with the West. That is inevitable.

Yet, since the rest of the world doesn't live in the 12th century, such religious totalitarianism must sooner or later be exhausted. Indeed, the clash with the demands of modernization will lead to a loosening of rigid theocracy.

Islamic theocracy can no more ultimately resist the autonomy of reason required by technological progress than could Christian theocracy. Islam cannot have both. A medieval religious regime will only mean medieval material and technological conditions.