Monday, January 2, 2012

Patterns of monotheism

Monotheism typically both universalises morality—on the grounds that we are all children of God, all part of the same moral order—and subverts it—by exempting various categories of people, in whole or in part, from moral protections. This subversion itself has persistent tendencies: for example, in matters of sex and gender so that women are typically denied authority, and otherwise constrained (especially by stripping them of control over fertility), while anyone who falls outside of the binary equating of sex-and-gender is subject to varying degrees of denigration, brutality and repression.

Another persistent tendency within monotheism has been a suspicion of pleasure, as diverting attention from God. (This clearly overlaps with its sex-and-gender patterns.) A third has been a strong tendency to the policing of thought and belief.

A common feature in all this is that monotheism has a strong tendency to generate an enormous sense of entitlement in its adherents: a sense of entitlement very much reflected in the various subversions of morality noted above.

An event which brought together many of these tendencies—self-righteous brutality, misogyny, policing thought and belief—was the notorious murder of Hypatia in Alexandria in 415 (whose life and death has recently been the subject of a biopic.)

Almost 1600 years later, and Egypt is going through a monotheist revival where many of these patterns are once again on display. Philosopher Stephen Hicks has drawn attention to the Hypatia comparison. The recent destruction-by-arson of the L’Institut d’Egypte represents an act of destruction—of profound vandalism against truth and scholarship—that both illustrates V. S. Naipaul point that Islamic imperialism is the most alienating and pervasive of all imperialisms, since it alienates those conquered or absorbed by Islam from their own past, and fits in with a wider pattern with monotheism. (For example, the Portuguese destruction of the records of the Thomasine Christians.)

The destruction by arson of the L’Institut d’Egypte and its hundreds of thousands of documents is an attack on scholarship and truth that has gone largely unremarked in the Western media (though the blogosphere has paid more attention): possibly in part because it contradicts various consoling narratives about Islam and about popular revolutions.

The problem with integrating Islam into Western societies (and global societies more generally) is not that it displays patterns not seen elsewhere. It is that commitment within Islam to enduring patterns of monotheism is still so robust (as, for example, Gaza Christians are discovering under the rule of Hamas). As Mark Durie points out this Islamic robustness, and that the robustness is increasing rather than decreasing, is no accident but rests on decades of painstaking grass-roots Islamic activism.

But it easier for such subversion of morality to be so robust in Islam as mainstream Islam has historically been so limited in its universalising of moral protections and so systematic and entrenched in its subversion of morality. But this does not put it outside the patterns of monotheism: far from it.

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