Monday, August 23, 2010

My Rhetorical McCarthyism beats your Islamophobia

This week, Time magazine published this question on its cover, "Is America Islamophobic?," inspired by the debate over the building of the Ground Zero Mosque. There is, of course, no actual ailment called "Islamophobia," as there is with claustrophobia and arachnophobia.  The latter two are diagnosable irrational fears that people acquire for a variety of reasons.  The first is a rhetorical invention intended to marginalize factions of the American public so that the rest of us will feel shamed into believing we should not take our fellow citizens seriously. It is, in short, an argument stopper, and thus is meant to undermine and not advance rational discourse on a matter of public controversy. This is not say, of course, that there are not people who in fact hold false and bigoted beliefs about Islam, just as there are people who hold false and bigoted beliefs about Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism. But it should go without saying that offering critical comments about a religion or its beliefs and practices is not automatically the result of inaccurate observations and/or bigotry. For if that were the case, then the worst bigots in the world would be the New Atheists who maintain that all religious beliefs and practices are not only false but harmful. Because the New Atheists seem to be the darlings of the Time magazine set, one can only conclude that the difference between a bigot and a respected intellectual is that the former rejects one less belief than the latter.  This results in the amusing judgment that it is intolerant and bigoted to believe one religious belief is true and all others false, but the pinnacle of tolerance to believe that none are true and all are false. This is, of course, perfectly stupid, though considered the height of sophistication by the most cerebral custodians of our public culture. This is why they prefer power over reason; they can only win with the former but not the latter.

If there's one thing you can always count on in contemporary America, it is this:  some enterprising political spin doctor will invent a short-hand insult (disguised as an assessment of your sub-rational motives, as if they can actually be known) in order to insulate his own opinion from legitimate criticism.  In fact, I have a name for it: "Rhetorical McCarthyism." Now, if anyone calls you "Islamophobic," you can then accuse them of "Rhetorical McCarthyism." That evens the playing field so that perhaps a rational discussion may break out. It can happen.

I've not published anything about the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, simply because I'm still trying to think about it in a detached and objective manner. As a strong proponent of religious liberty, I can see the reasonableness of the pro-Mosque position. But as someone who will never forget what happened on September 11, 2001--the consequence of Islamic terrorists putting their beliefs into practice--I fully understand the objections raised against the Mosque. However, when a magazine like Time attempts to paint one side of the debate as consisting of nothing more than bigots moved by an irrational fear, I see Rhetorical McCarthyism.  It is a shameful and undemocractic way to conduct a discussion in a Constitutional republic, since its purpose is to end the discussion rather than to advance it, to shut people up rather than to treat them with equal respect and dignity. It is the plagiarized cultural cliff notes of the intellectually lazy. 


Peter Brown said...

"Homophobia" is precisely another such coinage.


Christopher Lake said...

Frank, thank you for the thoughtful post. What a refreshing change from the shrill soundbites of much of today's media (which you so accurately note here)!

Neil Parille said...

When Mayor Bloomberg said that the Mosque was OK there was a Catholic priest in attendance supporting him. I read recently that Georgetown has an Islamic chappel.

The Catholic Church seems to have a generally positive view of Islam. Apparently John Paul II kissed the Koran (although there is some dispute if he knew what he was doing).

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Neil, no Catholic is perfect. Look at Martin Luther, for example.

Christopher Lake said...


The Church's position on Islam cannot necessarily be gleaned from one Catholic priest or even from one public gesture of Pope John Paul II that, to my knowledge, has never been fully explained. I'm still not clear on even what exactly happened there. If he did kiss the Koran, I would disagree with that gesture, and as a Catholic who wants to be faithful to the Magisterium, I am free to disagree with such a gesture. Popes don't always make wise choices. They just don't teach *heresy*, and John Paul II never taught heresy.

As for his view on Islam, John Paul II does clearly write, in his book, "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," that the Koran "completely reduces divine revelation" and that "Islam is not a religion of redemption." This article addresses well the misconceptions about Pope John Paul II's and Benedict XVI's views on Islam:

Neil Parille said...

Mr. Lake,

I never said that the Church's teaching on Islam could be gleaned by the gestures of the pope.

On the other hand, would John Paul's statements you quote indicate to the non-theologically trained person that it is imperative that Moslems convert to Christianity?

Take for example, JP's adress to Moslem youth in Morroco:

Compare the number of times the alleged similarity between Christianity and Islam is mentioned versus the differences.

Christopher Lake said...


Out of curiosity, did you read the article to which I linked in my last comment? The article contained references to a number of relatively recent (i.e. the '90s to 2006) Papal statements on Islam.

I'm not sure why one would necessarily have to be "theologically trained" to understand the serious implications of John Paul II's statements, in "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," (and quoted in the aforementioned article) on the very real, important differences between Christianity and Islam.

If I were a Muslim, and I read JPII's statements that the Koran "completely reduces Divine Revelation" and that "Islam is not a religion of redemption," I think that I would quite easily understand that a.) There are radical differences between Islam and Catholic Christianity, b.) The Pope believes that the Bible is Divine Revelation, and the Koran is seriously problematic, and c.) Those who do not have the Bible, are at best, in an extremely spiritually impoverished state, and at worst, are spiritually lost.

Neil, I returned to the Catholic Church from Reformed (Calvinistic) Baptist Christianity. To say that Reformed Baptists do not have a positive view of the spiritual state of Muslims would be an extreme understatement. In that light, it has taken some work (and humility and willingness to listen!) for me to understand how the Catholic Church approaches Islam and Muslims, in official Catholic teaching and in public gestures.

The general Reformed Baptist approach to non-Christian religions can tend to be one of polemics. Now, the Catholic Church has been, and still can be, at times, polemical in engaging Islam as a religion. There is a place for polemics. There is a place for highlighting differences between religions. There is also a place for dialogue, for seeing and acknowledging both the differences *and the similarities* between religions.

JPII's speech to the Muslim youth of Morocco was obviously intended to highlight the similarities between Christians and Muslims-- because at that point, historically speaking, the differences had already been "highlighted," often in a distorted, and literally violent, way *for centuries*. The Pope judged that this speech was a chance to build bridges between young Muslims and Christians, not *ignoring* the real differences but looking at the similarities that, until that point, had been little acknowledged by Christians *or* Muslims.

Was the Pope's speech ultimately more helpful or harmful to Christian evangelization of Muslims? We will all know the final answer in eternity. As a Catholic laymen, I am reluctant to second-guess the Pope, though I don't always agree with every single decision that the Pope makes. I am fairly sure of one thing though-- if JPII had used that speech as an opportunity to make the same statements about Islam that he makes in "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," he very likely would not have made it through the entire speech, violence may have occurred, and he would have lost an opportunity to speak to the Muslim youth of Morocco about their faith and the Christian faith. Only eternity will tell us how many Muslim hearts may have been opened to considering the claims of Christ and the Catholic Church by that speech. St. Paul also used polemics *and* dialogue in various, and sometimes, respective, circumstances.

Christopher Lake said...


Out of curiosity, did you read the article, to which I linked, in my last comment? It contained a number of statements on Islam from both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

I'm not sure why any literate Muslim would have to be a particularly "theologically trained person" in order to read and understand JPII's statements (found in the aforementioned article, quoted from his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope") that the Koran "completely reduces Divine Revelation" and that "Islam is not a religion of redemption."

If I were a Muslim and read those statements, I think that I would get a distinct, perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps touching (or possibly enraging!) sense that the author was quite interested in my conversion to Christianity!

On John Paul II's speech to the Muslim youth of Morocco, it was a speech given at a particular historical moment in time, and it must be read and understood in that context. At that point, the real religious differences between Christians and Muslims had been "highlighted," historically, in a sometimes distorted, and often literally physically violent, manner *for centuries*.

JPII judged that this speech was an historic opportunity for him to speak to young Muslims as a worldwide Christian leader. If he had used the speech to make the same statements about Islam that he makes in his book, he very likely would not have been allowed to finish the speech, physical violence might have occurred, and he would have lost a chance to speak to Moroccan youth about their faith and the Christian faith. He *did* mention Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Who can know, other than God alone, how many hearts of Muslims were stirred to investigate the claims of Christ and the Catholic Church by that speech?

Christopher Lake said...

Hmm, I had received a message that my next-to-last comment was too lengthy, so I reposted a shortened version. Now, it seems that they both posted! Sorry about that!

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Neil, no Catholic is perfect. Look at Martin Luther, for example."

That was funny!!

Your humor beats the PC's "Rhetorical McCarthyism".