Martin E. Marty: Irony and "Islamofascism"

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com]

Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim excrescences that issue in terrorism are coming to be called "Islamofascism" among those who want to see the "War on Terror" be part of "World War III" (or IV). Roger Scruton, author of A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, heads his August 17 Wall Street Journal column "Islamofascism," and subheads it: "Beware a religion without irony." He does not tell us to beware of Christianity and Judaism. They are evidently "with" irony.

Ironically, he cites the rarest ironist, Soren Kierkegaard, as having argued that Christianity is "informed by a spirit of irony." Scruton defines the term boldly: "Irony means accepting 'the other,' as someone other than you." Such an ironic posture is the basis of "every real negotiation, every offer of peace, every acceptance of the other." Is this "accepting 'the other'" a mark of Christian history? I'm a friendly enough "insider" student of Christian history for a half century, and have not found such acceptance of the other to be characteristic of the Christian tradition.

From the first "Christian" decade, the Jew was the unaccepted "other," as were the Romans. When the formerly persecuted Christians took over the Empire, they immediately began persecuting the pagan as "the other." For 1,400 years Christians in power hunted the heretic as "the other." Were Crusaders and Inquisitors acceptant negotiators? Western and Eastern Christians and then Catholics and Protestants did not accept "the other."

Islam has rarely been "a religion with irony." To his credit, Scruton acknowledges Ottoman Turks for their few moments of openness and, laudably, does not "give up hope for a tolerant Islam." But his contrast includes some more deceptive advertising. Note how he inserts the adjective "secular" here: "Christians and Jews are heirs to a long tradition of secular government, which began under the Roman Empire and was renewed at the Enlightenment: Human societies should be governed by human laws, and these laws must take precedence over religious edicts. The primary duty of citizens is to obey the state; ... all religions must bow down to the sovereign authority if they are to exist within its jurisdiction." Okay. But when did Christians teach or practice that, unless theirs was the established religion within a polity? I will grant the point that a civil society like our own "subordinates" religion, and we'd not be a republic did we not do so.

Once more: "Beware a religion without irony." Ironically, it is not precisely the Christian religion that Scruton credits with being ironic; no, it is the "secular" tradition. Christians are "heirs to a long tradition of secular government." Scruton does not say that Christianity and Judaism produced the tradition of secular government; Christians ordinarily resisted the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, though they creatively exploited the latter, as in the case of the United States. That many Muslims and many passages in the Qur'an have created gross problems in the civil order throughout history is plain. That is a subject for another day, another column.
Ironically, many Christians today who want to "take America back" and Christianize the public order are simply critical of the gifts of "secular government" and the Enlightenment. Beware also such a "religion without irony."

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