Islam and Enlightenment

Let me start by saying that I was not and am not a supporter of the Iraq war, and personally I’m an old-fashioned skeptic about religion. But I was appalled to hear Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading Islamic scholar, declare on an NPR interview show on Tuesday that the Pope’s statements “themselves are acts of violence.”

Interviewer Diane Rehm wanted to make sure what she’d heard. She asked him, “You’re saying that the language itself is an act of violence?” “Of course it is,” Nasr replied. Discussing the violent reaction to the Pope’s quotation, he declared, “He who uses the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Later in the show, Rehm read a quotation from a column by Anne Applebaum, who wrote that westerners of all political stripes “can all unite in our support for freedom of speech - surely the Pope is allowed to quote from medieval texts - and of the press. And we can also unite, loudly, in our condemnation of violent, unprovoked attacks on churches, embassies and elderly nuns.”

Asked for his reaction, Nasr said that such violence was “not unprovoked–it is provoked.” “Because words are violence?” asked Rehm. “Of course,” replied Nasr, “of course.”

I want to be careful not to pick out obscure members or adherents of any philosophy and draw large conclusions from them. But Nasr is not so obscure. He’s a distinguished professor at a leading American university. He holds a Ph.D. in the history of science and philosophy from Harvard and is the author of more than 20 books, from publishers including Oxford University Press. His university held a conference honoring him, titled Beacon of Knowledge. The website of the Seyyed Hossein Nasr Foundation declares him “one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, religious and comparative studies in the world today.” So it seems fair to say that Nasr is not an oddity; he’s a recognized Islamic scholar.

And that’s why it’s so shocking to hear the claim that words “are acts of violence” from such a distinguished scholar. A scholar, we might note, who teaches at George Washington University, named in honor of the great Enlightenment statesman. I don’t want to believe that we are faced with a clash of civilizations, much less World War III. But if Islamic scholars who teach at great American universities believe that violent attacks “on churches, embassies and elderly nuns” are “provoked” by the words of a religious leader in a university speech a thousand miles away, then we certainly have a clash of world views.

The west went through the wars of religion and emerged with a modern understanding of toleration. We have learned through bitter experience that we can worship God without forcing everyone else to worship in the same way. We allow our neighbors to practice their religion, we practice our own or none at all, we criticize views we deem unsound, and we accept that our own views and faith will also be subject to criticism.

What we forswear is violence in response to words. In the present crisis we should seek peaceful dialogue between Muslims and Christians, not to mention Jews and freethinkers and all the others who share our world. But we who live in Enlightenment societies should not apologize for the fact that freedom of thought and freedom of speech sometimes lead to hurtful words.

Instead, we should reaffirm our own commitment to free speech - “hate speech” laws, anyone? - and urge Muslims to appreciate the benefits of liberal values, such as liberty and prosperity and social harmony. And we should hold Muslim leaders to the same standards we expect of western leaders, both civil and religious: we expect them to condemn, yes, “unprovoked” violence.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.