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Oil on the flames of civilizational war

"The coming millennium will go down in world history as a struggle between Orient and Occident, between the church and Islam, between the Germanic peoples and the Arabs," proclaimed Franz Rosenzweig in 1920. These ominous words appear in a collection of the German-Jewish theologian's writings about Islam, published in Berlin earlier this year. It is the most dangerous book I have read in a generation, for Rosenzweig (1886-1929) considered Islam a pagan "parody", "caricature" and "plagiarism" of Christianity and Judaism.

"Why publish a book of Rosenzweig's writings on Islam now? Doesn't that pour oil onto the fire in which the Western world sees the lands of Islam as a feared and despised enemy?" asks the book's co-editor Gesine Palmer, a theologian associated with the German Evangelical Church. A fair question: for good or ill, the Rosenzweig revival is a hallmark of civilizational war.

By coincidence, the neo-conservative icon Leo Strauss was a Rosenzweig protege, having spent 1922-1925 at the latter's Frankfurt Lehrhaus for Jewish education. Later Strauss rejected Rosenzweig in favor of what he called classical political rationalism. In so doing, I argued previously, (Neo-cons in a religious bind, June 5), Strauss became "irrelevant to what neo-conservatives call World War IV because it is a civilizational war, that is to say, a religious war".

But Rosenzweig is fearfully relevant. As Palmer observes, "He made his prognosis at just the moment in history to which Osama bin Laden referred in his videotape of October 7, 2001, when he spoke of the "debasement and disgrace" that Islam suffered for "more than 80 years". It seems extraordinary for a German writer to have foreseen precisely at this moment that the end of the Ottoman Empire would not herald the end of Islam's world significance, but rather its beginning.

Palmer and co-editor Yossef Schwartz of Hebrew University view the text as if it were an unexploded shell left over from World War I, and set out to defuse it. To make a long story short, they reduce Rosenzweig's critique of Islam to a mere philosophical construct, claiming that his philosophical system needed a pigeonhole for a pagan alternative to Judeo-Christian thought, and he found Islam handy. "To belittle Islam implied belittling idealism, such that Rosenzweig used the foreign religious doctrine in order to dismiss a near-to-hand philosophical belief," writes Schwartz. Contrary to the editors' stated intentions, the book will in fact pour oil on the fire. Rosenzweig's critique of Islam resonates with other movements in the present world conflict.

Koranic criticism is one of these (You Say You Want a Reformation, August 5). Archeologists claim to have discovered alternative variants of the Koran, undermining the foundational Muslim belief that the Archangel Gabriel dictated the Muslim holy book to Mohammed. Philologists have weighed in as well. Pakistan banned the July 28 issue of Newsweek because it reported a German scholar's claim that today's Arabic Koran is a mistranslation of an Aramaic original. That is the now-notorious case of the supposed "virgins" waiting in Paradise for holy martyrs who in fact only might be white raisins.

Another factor is anti-Islamic agitation among American evangelicals, who wield considerable power but little intellectual influence. Rosenzweig, however, has enormous authority among just the sort of intellectuals who think that born-again Christians are bigoted bumpkins. A whole Rosenzweig industry has sprung up in academia, run by left-wing theologians who admire Rosenzweig's steadfast opposition to Zionism. His closest collaborator Martin Buber wanted a bi-national as opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine. Rosenzweig had no political motive to attack Islam; he did so purely on philosophical and theological grounds.

Mix these elements together, and the iron fist of religious war pokes through the velvet glove of enlightened ecumenism. Since Voltaire and Lessing, the enlightened view has held that minor details distinguish the "three great monotheistic religions". Rosenzweig, however, provides sophisticated intellectual support for the anti-Islamic gut instinct of American Christians.

Most of the German-language material in the Palmer-Schwartz collection can be found easily in Rosenzweig's book The Star of Redemption, available in English translation. Few Americans have the training to read it, for Rosenzweig writes in the extinct dialect of Kantian idealism. What he says about Islam, however, is reasonably straightforward. I translate from the present edition and summarize below.

Judaism began with a people, and then became a congregation, and eventually a religion, Rosenzweig argues. Christianity began with a congregation into which it then selected its people, the "new Israel". Islam, he avers, was concocted as an institutionalized religion to begin with, as a parody of Judaism and Christianity. This, however, had dreadful consequences. "Mohammed took over the notion of Revelation from the outside, which left him stuck with the pagan idea of creation as a matter of course," Rosenzweig wrote.

Allah merely is the apotheosized image of an Oriental despot, emphatically not the Judeo-Christian God of love. Rosenzweig altogether repudiates the notion of Islamic culture. As a caricature, Islam is entirely sterile: "Islam never created an Islamic art, but rather took into its service pre-Islamic art ... The pre-Islamic state, namely the Oriental state in its Byzantine form, made Islam into its state religion; the pre-Islamic spirit of the Koran adopted either pre-Islamic rationalism or mysticism and orthodoxy. In Europe, by contrast, in Christian Europe, there arose something new: Christian art, and a Christian state."

Love requires the Judeo-Christian God to create the world. By contrast, "the God of Mohammed is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily. By contrast, it is most characteristic of rabbinic theology that it formulates our concept of the divine power to create in the question as to whether God created the world out of love or out of righteousness."

Allah's creation for Rosenzweig is a mere act of "magic". Muslim theology "presumes that Allah creates every isolated thing at every moment. Providence thus is shattered into infinitely many individual acts of creation, with no connection to each other, each of which has the importance of the entire creation. That has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. Every individual thing is created from scratch at every moment. Islam cannot be salvaged from this frightful providence of Allah ... despite its vehement, haughty insistence upon the idea of the God's unity, Islam slips back into a kind of monistic paganism, if you will permit the expression. God competes with God at every moment, as if it were the colorfully contending heavenful of gods of polytheism."

By paganism Rosenzweig refers to a specific mindset as well as a political system which crushes individual identity into the whole. In the pagan state, he wrote in the Star, "The individual does not stand in relation to the state in the way that a part stands in relation to the whole. On the contrary, the state is all, and its electricity pulses through the veins of every individual." Unfortunately, Palmer and Schwartz do not include in their edition this and other relevant passages about paganism in general.

They may be located easily through the relevant index headings in the Star. In another location (Mahathir is right: the Jews do rule the world, October 28) I cited Rosenzweig on the subject of divine humility, the attribute of the Judeo-Christian God that requires the state to respect the humblest individual citizen. That is what Americans want, and in its arrogance and condescension, the United States presumes that everyone else wants the same thing. But do the people of the Islamic countries want the sort of freedom the US beneficently offers them? Do they want freedom for their children to experiment with sex and drugs after the Western fashion? Would they in fact prefer the all-embracing Islamic state, which orders the lives of its subject and tolerates no such deviancy? That is what Germany chose in 1933. Sadly, the German Evangelical church has some expertise in this matter. At least Rosenzweig attempts to address Muslims on their own terms, rather than treat them as if they were suburban Methodists.

Franz Rosenzweig, Ausgewaehlte Schriften zum Islam, Gesine Palmer and Yossef Schwartz, editors Philo Verlag: Berlin 2003, Paperbound; 153 pages, US$20.

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Dec 2, 2003



 

 
   
       
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