false friends

Every student of French or German is familiar with the phrase “false friends.” False friends are those words one comes across that look enough like some English word that the unwise student will assume that they mean the same thing. For instance, ‘aire’ – which, of course, means area in French.

LI sometimes thinks that this is the era of false friends in the political and moral sphere. If there is one thing that the neo-conservative movement has implanted like a bad seed in the sphere of political discourse, it is this parasitic creeping into figures and ideas that are good, liberal and humane, and the distorting of them for ends that are violent, oppressive, and exploitative.

Case in point: there is a heartening portrait, in the NYT today, of a woman who is subjecting Islam to a withering Enlightenment critique.

“Three weeks ago, Dr. Wafa Sultan was a largely unknown Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles, nursing a deep anger and despair about her fellow Muslims.

Today, thanks to an unusually blunt and provocative interview on Al Jazeera television on Feb. 21, she is an international sensation, hailed as a fresh voice of reason by some, and by others as a heretic and infidel who deserves to die.”
Sultan’s journey into sanity began with her experience in Syria:

“Dr. Sultan grew up in a large traditional Muslim family in Banias, Syria, a small city on the Mediterranean about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. Her father was a grain trader and a devout Muslim, and she followed the faith's strictures into adulthood.

But, she said, her life changed in 1979 when she was a medical student at the University of Aleppo, in northern Syria. At that time, the radical Muslim Brotherhood was using terrorism to try to undermine the government of President Hafez al-Assad. Gunmen of the Muslim Brotherhood burst into a classroom at the university and killed her professor as she watched, she said.

"They shot hundreds of bullets into him, shouting, 'God is great!' " she said. "At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god."”

A rational human being! or at least one whose search for another god begins in the right moral circumstances.

Yet I fear that Sultan is going to be adopted, lock stock and barrel, by those who have no real desire to criticize religion and every desire to promote and old and decayed colonial project: the breaking of a culture by dissolving its glue, so to speak. The difference should be clear – it is the difference between therapy and kidnapping. Alas, the school of kidnappers – the false friends – are all around us. So one can foresee, with a sinking heart, that her smart remarks comparing the reaction to oppression by the Jews and by the Muslims will probably not lead to an auto-critique by either group:

“Perhaps her most provocative words on Al Jazeera were those comparing how the Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking of the Holocaust, she said, "The Jews have come from the tragedy and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling."

She went on, "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people."

Her views caught the ear of the American Jewish Congress, which has invited her to speak in May at a conference in Israel. "We have been discussing with her the importance of her message and trying to devise the right venue for her to address Jewish leaders," said Neil B. Goldstein, executive director of the organization.”

Hopefully, the AJC will hear her golden words on apartheid and the ridiculous sops
thrown to the theocratic party in Israel – for instance, the administration of the marriage laws by Orthodox rabbis, or the enforcement of Sabbath shutdowns of business, etc., etc. But why is it that we doubt that this will be the brunt of the message? It should be. We like Sultan’s title for her upcoming book, in any case: "The Escaped Prisoner: When God Is a Monster." And we know how these things work. The thugs are already calling her up and threatening her. The liberals (moi, for instance) will point out that, indeed, the Moslem world does seem to be under assault by Western powers (Chechnya, Iraq). A divide will grow as absolute loyalty is demanded, even as the enlightenment moment is one of radical relativism. Etc. It is all so predictable.

Anyway, we wonder whether Sultan's book bears a title that will be bought in Kentucky, where the governor, your usual corrupt GOP autocrat, has decided to lift his popularity by pushing through a law mandating the display of the ten commandments in all state offices – hell, soon it will be tattooed on his kids’ faces. So, in the spirit of being a true friend to the assault on those religions that promote the idea of a personal God, there is another book that is, surprisingly, lodged in the best seller lists: "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why."
Last week WAPO profiled Bart Ehrman, the author of that little treatise. Once a fundy, Ehrman journeyed into the light by studying his Bible. In truth, we don’t actually believe his conclusion – that Jesus was a legend. Or, rather, legend and biography, in the ancient Meditteranean world, are interconnected in more complicated ways than are allowed by the American mind. Jesus’s legend is much like the legend of Tino Riini, the capo di capo in Sicily, in the 80s – testimony about what Riini did and when is scrambled, and would be even if Riini’s men didn’t help the process along by breaking the legs and torturing to death the testifiers.
“"Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord," he tells a packed auditorium here at the University of North Carolina, where he chairs the department of religious studies. "But there could be a fourth option -- legend."
Ehrman's latest book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year. A slender book of textual criticism, currently at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list, it casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well, gospel.

Example: A crowd readies itself to stone an adulterous woman to death. Jesus leans down, doodles in the dust. Says, let the one without sin cast the first stone. The crowd melts away. It's one of the most famous stories in the Bible.
And it's most likely fiction, says Ehrman, seconding other scholars who say scribes added the episode to the biblical canon centuries after the life of Christ.”

Ehrman obviously doesn’t like fiction. Ourselves, we remember Oscar Wilde’s remark – or rather, the remark he attributes to a fictitious interlocutor – that he has never gotten over the death of Lucien de Rubempre. Unfortunately, in the current state of these United States, Ingersoll’s village atheism is more relevant than Wildean aestheticism.


Brian Miller said…
It's interesting. Over at Ophelia's place, there seem to be a few who feel that skeptical secular "liberals" need to join up with our own Mullahs, which are a better species of Mullah, to battle the foreign Mullahs (who happen to own that precisous Texas Tea that is really intended by GAWD ALMIGHTY to be OUR'S anyway, don't you know?)in a Cage Match to the Death, because Our Mullahs are better and more democratice, somehow. I don;t understand this argument, myself. A pox on ALL Mullahs is my choice.
roger said…
Damn, Brian, not ALL mullahs! LI is planning on setting up as an ubermullah any day now. It is our only shot at an affordable health plan that includes dental. Don't shoot us down yet! Wait until we tell you about the benificent OM, which will bring you happiness, sexual fullfillment, and fill all your sales quotas for a tithe that is half the tithe of your regular church.

You'll love it. Trust me.
Vermin Direct, LLC said…
Brian, the principle is sound. In order to save secular political liberalism, we must abandon most of the principles. Some opportunistically snarky commentators might compare that to destroying a village, which is what it takes to raise a child and a squirrel, in order to save it. The best way to redact and redeem liberalism is through an alliance with people who loathe every bit of it -- in order to defeat the enemy we subsidized in an effort to fight a previous evil. At Vermin Direct, LLC, the brand specialists who helped make Crofton Steelware what it is today, we are on the cutting edge, if you will, of the surgery to save liberalism in this manner. If the purity of your personal cause keeps you from joining us, we can understand, and we won't condemn you for being objectively pro-evil. It's enough that you know in your heart what you have done. But if you care to fight evil, we welcome the assistance. You can make your check payable to the Hillary Clinton for Preznit Committee.
Brian Miller said…
Vermin Direct-you slay me! Do you have your own blog? Maybe roger could offer to share his?
roger said…
Brian, I have it on good authority that VD, like Zorro, shares with no man. He's here, he's there, the mark of his sword is blazed on the open door of the rich landowner's safe, and the rich landowner's only daughter isn't anywhere to be found -- could it be her, in the distance, clinging to that man in the black clothes on the galloping steed?
Myself, I am more the town drunkard of the Internet, glued to the barrail and desperately cadging for another drink.