Monday, December 06, 2004

The Scottish Enlightenment

Interesting post at Harry's Place about Scotland before the Enlightenment. Scotland was - and sometimes still feels on a bad day - the most Calvinistic country on the face of the planet and prior to the Enlightenment, we have - as Marcus reminds us - the infamous case of young Thomas Aikenhead who was put to death for atheism as late as 1697. Yet in the next 50 years or so, the intolerant power of the Church of Scotland had waned so much that by the time David Hume had published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the church took no action against him on the grounds that they were powerless to do so, since he wasn't a member.

Marcus then goes on to draw a parallel between Scotland's relatively rapid transition to modernity and the situation in the Arab world today. Now, I agree up to a point with this: I've been thinking for some time that the Scottish example should be a good refutation for "Islamophobia"; I imagine that if you took the Calvinists' claim to epistemological infallibility, add some hot weather and the proliferation of small arms, you'd get on the streets of Glasgow scenes similar to those seen in Beruit, Bahgdad, or Jerusalem.

But there's much else to disagree with - and I do so on the basis that, contrary to received opinion, religious fundamentalism is always and everywhere a modern phenomenon. The Pope declared himself to be infallible in the 19th century around about the same time that Protestant Evangelicals produced the doctrine of the verbal inerrancy of the scriptures. Both of these doctrines claimed a cloak of antiquity but were in fact innovations - produced, I would suggest, as a defence against the onslaught of modernity.

The situation with Islamic fundamentalism is similar to this, I think. The Iranian theocracy, for example, while claiming an ancient precedence, is a model of a state which is no older than the 1970s, as Eric Hobsbawn has pointed out. Other barbarisms, such as the stoning of adulterers, are often thought to represent a backward attachment to a pre-modern scripturalism, which will be dispelled in due course as the "Enlightenment" gains ground in the Middle East. But, like the Iranian theocracy, this too is a practice which is not sanctioned by the Koran (it states that adulterers should receive a thousand lashes); it is the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) that has stoning as the punishment for adultery.

In other words, if I'm right and fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, the experience of it will not dissolve like Scottish Calvinism as it withered in the winds of philosophical enquiry and technological change. Rather, like other types of fundamentalism, it is a product of modernity - rather than some kind of pre-industrial hang-over that can be just shaken off. Moreover, as well as being a reaction to ideas as in the Christian example - Islamicism is also a reaction to the disorientating impact of rapid industrialisation and all that brings; displacement, confusion, huge income inequalities and political oppression.

Hitherto, the primary repository for anti-capitalist discontent has been communism - but the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the secular opposition to capitalism largely in disarray, leaving radical Islamicism as the only alternative in many parts of the world. So, any lasting solution to this problem will take, I would argue, more than just fighting opposition where it appears; it will also have to address the reasons why so many people rush to the opposition in the first place. In other words, the Middle East doesn't just need political democracy, it needs social democracy as well. Problem is, I don't know if the Americans do that...

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