Guilt and Innocence vs. Honour and Shame

Richard Landes is an American writer and medieval historian specialising in millennialism. He is associate professor of history at Boston University and the author of several books including Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford University Press).” (Source, HERE)

Landes published recently an article in British newspaper The Telegraph is which he rightly criticises the inability of ‘liberal intellectuals’ (by which he means ‘journalists, academics, talking heads, mainstream politicians’) to confront’ what he describes as ‘Islam’s honour-shame culture’.

The starting point in his analysis is the serious problem of the segregation between Muslim immigrants and their host European nations:

The disconnect referred to in the article constitutes one of the most worrying developments in Western culture over the last decade: between a elite that controls much of the discussion in the public sphere (journalists, academics, talking heads, mainstream politicians) and who fear being called Islamophobes and racists more than they fear Islamist racists, and a population of people who, whenever they voice concern about the behavior of the Muslim neighbors, are told not to be Islamophobic racists. The problems are knotty and painful to disentangle. Here’s my outline of an approach. (For a longer version of the following essay, see my blog, The Augean Stables.)

Then Landes goes on to describe in very dark colours and with very broad strokes, the honour-shame culture of Islam (he uses in text a very sloppy manner the term ‘Islamism’, which refers rather to Islamic integrism). He seems to be, with this subject, a little bit outside of his area of expertise.

After going on in this manner for a long time, the author contrasts it, in a short paragraph that contains itself further criticism of Islam, only elevated praise for the (supposedly) enlightened Western culture. Thus, he says:

We in the modern (and post-modern) West, who first forged these remarkable rules of self-restraint and created so rich, so variegated, so tolerant a culture, have a right to demand that Islam adopt these rules, certainly those who live in and benefit from the civil polities we have created. Indeed, if we treasure these values of tolerance, and freedom, and generosity towards the “other,” we owe it to ourselves and to the Muslims in our midst, to make this demand. Anything else, including the fantasy that this is not a problem, is cultural suicide.

The only actual criticism he has on the west is of the already mentioned fear of left wing European intellectuals of criticising Islam. He says:

Our journalist and academic talking heads are subject to a different kind of Islamophobia: an inordinate fear of criticising Islam. And as a result they betray their own real constituencies, those of us committed to the rules civil polities. We cannot defend modern, tolerant, liberal political culture with such fearful people dominating the public sphere.

* * *

I imagine the readers of this blog will be divided in terms of their reactions to this article, depending on their (illegitimate) Islamophobic sentiments or of their (legitimate) displease at the inability or unwillingness of certain members of our elites to discuss openly about the perceived danger of European Islamisation.

I consider it as a positive fact that Landes, in his discussion of the attitude of Western intellectuals to the presence of Islam in their context, takes us away from the usual concentration on the ‘trees’, which does not allow us to see the proverbial ‘woods’. By bringing in the discussion the different ‘colours of worldview’, as some call them, in this case honour & shame vs. (the unnamed) guilt & innocence (the third one, not discussed here, being that of power & fear), the author gives us a new way of looking at the cultural dynamics behind the so-called ‘clash of civilisations.

A serious analysis of this problem from the point of view of cultural anthropology could help us get a fresh perspective and, maybe, imagine more effective solutions that the ones tried (and proven wrong) already.

Yet, the author effectively undermines the usefulness of this fresh approach by adopting an exclusively negative view, a mere caricature, of the honour & shame culture, whilst his short description of his own (guilt & innocence) type of culture is exclusively positive. This disbalanced and subjective analysis is then used as a weapon against those who do not share his view, which transforms this text into a piece of mere propaganda.

That is quite obvious when, in his text, he describes the Oslo ‘Peace’ process [mind the sneaky quote signs] as a ‘they [Arabs] win, we [Westerners] lose’ type of process. What justice is there in this statement, when through the said accord, in exchange for peace, Palestinians agreed to receive a significantly smaller percentage of the land given initially to them at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 (out of the 100% they owned before that date).

Moreover, given the well-known general sensitivity of many Americans to the slightest criticism about their country, their government or their way of life, especially after 9/11, I find it ironic for this American author to criticise the Arab Muslims for their ‘thin skin’ in terms of cultural and religious sensitivities. We may say, with the Bible, ‘doctor, heal yourself’ first.

Many of the problems of Muslim communities that Landes raises in this text, that reads rather like an indictment, than an analysis, are legitimate and worth discussing: the intolerance towards people of other faiths, the easy use of violence, let alone suicide bombing, to name just a few, are serious matters that need to be addressed adequately. Yet, the way he does it, does not give Muslims any chance for dialogue, except if they completely agree with him, which nobody in their right minds can expect. Ironically, again, the author, who is very eager to accuse Muslims of not being open to dialogue, seems to be himself guilty of the same. As Christ used to advise us, we should first take care of the beam in our eye, before being able to look at the speck in the eye of another.

As many (legitimate or illegitimate) criticisms as one may have about the Muslim culture, from the point of view of Christian anthropology, since not only Christian believers but also believers in Islam, together will all other human beings, bear the image of God, one cannot argue that everything in a given culture is bad. We are all a mixture, in diverse ratios, of sublime and abominable traits; and so are our cultures. Moreover, this faulty epistemic analysis becomes also morally doubtful when one uses it as a weapon against a culture that is different from their own.

On the other side, as many (legitimate or imaginary) qualities as one may see in their own particular culture, the realisation of the theological truth of human fallenness should warn us of the risk of becoming blind to our own cultural weaknesses. That is why we desperately need to see ourselves though the eyes of the ‘other’, including the eyes of the Muslim. An exclusively positive view of the culture of their own group, may easily lead people to vanity and even, as it seems to be the case with Landes, to being utterly unjust to other cultures. As the Golden Rule suggests, we should ‘do unto others what we want them to do unto us’.


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