Monday, July 31, 2006

Orthodoxy and Islam

I'm sort of conflicted over how to feel about Islam. On one hand, I recognize the difficulties faced by Christians living in majority-Muslim or Islamic cultures. (As I'm using the terms, I try to dstinguish between Muslim and Islamic. A Muslim friend of mine once explained that there is a distinction. If I understand correctly, "Islamic" would refer to a government like that found in Iran, where the intent is to govern by Islamic law, while "Muslim" could refer to any nation that happens to have a majority population of Muslims, regardless of the style of government.) On the other hand, I also sympathize with the struggle of Muslim civilizations against Western imperialism. This is not to say that I have some burning desire to live under an Islamic regime. I just find Western interference in the affairs of other nations distasteful, and I respect Islam as one of a few organized forces that is able to combat it (to some degree).

When I look at Orthodoxy, I see a fairly wide range of viewpoints. On one hand, I was just introduced to the writings of Serge Trifkovic, who although reportedly Serbian Orthodox, seems to fit in very well with American Conservatism. He argues that Islam is inherently radical, inherently inclined to dominate, and can never be anything else. In what I've read by him, he seems to say nothing of Orthodoxy one way or the other, and he seems a good deal more defensive of Western Christendom than I would have expected. What happened to, "better the Turkish turban than the papal mitre?" (I'm not sure I've got the quote correctly, but it was a common sentiment among late Byzantines--that the Turks might be bad, but they were better than Western Christians.) Yes, the Serbians and other Baltic Christians suffered under Islam, but can anyone deny, especially now, that they suffered as well under Western domination? He also seems to omit from the picture what Muslims have experienced at the hands of Westerners, as if that is irrelevant to the acts of Islamist terrorists today.

On the other hand, you have the Moscow Patriarchate, which seems to work closely with Muslim leaders in Russia and to support Russia's greater cooperation with states like Iran than we typically find in the West. Although Russia allows freedom of religion, the paradigm is different from what we tend to expect in America. Orthodoxy is the dominant religion, while other traditional religions are allowed their place. There are Muslim countries as well that take a similar approach (in reverse, of course), to varying degrees. Indeed, Russia has a long history of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, not necessarily always peaceful, but they seem to have learned some important lessons that the West has not.

Perhaps a better comparison, though, as the opposite pole from Trifkovic, is Israel Adam Shamir, a Russian-Israeli Jew who converted to Orthodoxy. His writings are quite affirmative of Islam, which he views as a Christian heresy. (This is his view, I should stress, but it agrees substantially with the early Christian polemic against Islam, which I have also been reading recently.) Interestingly, there are some points on which Shamir and Trifkovic would probably agree, since they both seem to favor strong nationalism, and Shamir has sympathized with American paleo-conservatives on several points. But Shamir's main concern is to oppose the New World Order, and that includes championing those who resist Western influence, particularly if they do so on the basis of religious values rather than secular.

Something else I've been reading lately is a collection of lives of New Martyrs under Ottoman rule. The portrayal of Islam is clearly negative--a materialistic religion that alternates flattery with torture to force Christians to convert, that nominally respects personal choice in religion but takes every opportunity to force a decision, whether by offering Christians convicted of various crimes a choice between conversion and death for their offenses, or by accepting even the most spurious testimony to the effect that a Christian has chosen to convert. (In most of the lives, the choice of Islam or death is set up on the premise that the martyr is a Muslim seeking to apostasize. In some cases, this is truly the case; more often, their status as Muslim is ill-founded.) Of course, one could infer that these martyrs were the exceptional cases--that more often Christians were allowed to maintain their faith without violent consequences. Or perhaps it was more often the case that Christians in fact did convert to Islam, even if it was only to attain a better social standing, and these lives were intended at least in part to show that repentance was possible and desirable. It's hard to say, though from the contents of the lives themselves--they comment on these particular martyrs, not on the fates of others.

And then, of course, there is the present situation in Palestine (broadly speaking, to include the territory between the Med and the Jordan and parts north and south). Here, the Christians have dwindled to a small minority, and their lot often falls with that of their Muslim neighbors. I read of one Orthodox Christian who ran for office under the party of Hamas, because it was the least corrupt option. More recently, I read that in the wake of the Israeli strikes against Lebanon, approval of Hizbullah is around 80% among Christians and Sunnis, as well as Shiites. Is this because they want to live under Islamic rule, or is it just because the greater oppressor seems to be Israel, and these Islamist groups are the only ones able to stand up against it?

I'm not sure what to do with all of this, but it certainly is an interesting mix.


Jim N. said...

better the Turkish turban than the papal mitre?

I was just looking through Stephen Runcimen's 'The Fall of Constantinople' to verify, but I can't find it. If memory serves, it was a high ranking Byzantine official that made that statement. I'm sure he believed it. Not long after the conquest by the Muslims the Sultan decided he particularly liked this official's handsome teenage boys and requested their company to fulfil his lusts. When the official refused, the Sultan had the boys beheaded in front of their father.

I wonder if he just shrugged his shoulders and repeated to himself 'better the Turkish turban than the papal mitre' then? Probably not.

I personally fall into the 'there are peaceful Muslims but Islam is not a peaceful religion' camp. My understanding from Orthodox living in the Palestinian areas is that they get along with with Muslims surrounding them, but they also have a common enemy in Israel. However, when an Orthodox man fell in love with and impregnated a Muslim woman, her family promptly killed her and burned down several houses of the man's family. It was in the news a year ago or so.

So.... ??

Trevor said...

I suppose he probably didn't (assuming this actually happened), but he might still have thought the Turks better than the alternative. Who knows? But it seems like the sentiment went beyond one person. At least the Turks could be chalked off as the heathens that they were. The Western Christians should have known better. And considering that the West considers its meddling to this day, while the Ottoman Empire is no more, perhaps he was right about which was the greater threat.

You're probably right about the common enemy. Even some Sephardic Jews look back longingly to the days of Ottoman rule, when supposedly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Palestinian neighbors lived together in peace. I doubt it was all roses and rainbows, but compared with the the current plight of indigenous Palestinians, it probably looks like a better alternative. And of course, my enemy's enemy is my friend, right?

But the flip side is also true--a common enemy might in some ways force Christians and Muslims together, but oppression can also bring out the worst in people. The space between "at least they're not X" and "they're just like all the other non-Y" is not necessarily that great. And again, it seems from the martyr lives like the problem was mostly when boundaries were crossed. It was one thing to let Christians live their separate lives. It was another to let Muslims cross the line.