May 22, 2001

Letters to the Editor

Civility begets civility

To the Editor:

Why should David Horowitz be welcomed with civility when he displayed none?

I don't think Mr. Horowitz would receive the same sort of reaction if he didn't use a rhetorical style meant to provoke people's emotions and insult them. Nobody should be expected to sit quietly while a speaker makes light of slavery and its after effects. Thankfully, slavery was abolished a long time ago, but Jim Crow laws, segregation, and ingrained racism have prolonged its influence in America. Yes, issues like reparations need a levelheaded academic assessment, but the emotional contexts to issues are no less important than rational ones. No one should expect a civil response to uncivil, personal provocation, especially with no space for dialogue.

Also, what the heck is it with Libertarians/Objectivists/Conservatives complaining about a lack of tolerance at the U of C? I don't see it. Horowitz successfully printed his ad, a bajillion responses have been printed, including many from the conservative side. The Maroon chose to celebrate Women's Week with another creepy, supposedly humorous column bashing women. The Criterion is well known on campus, despite its offering of unsubstantiated, nonsensical articles like "How Feminism is Destroying Civilization." Feminists like me do read this stuff. Also, the U of C is well known for conservative scholarship and the administration makes some very conservative arguments to defend some poor labor practices. Are you just dissatisfied because some of us aren't down with the Libertarian cause? No one's stopping you from building your very own desert compound.

Elizabeth Brandt


Religious justification stands alone

To the Editor:

In Sener Akturk's two articulate and passionately written columns, "The history and validity of religions," (May 2) and "Socialism and Islam united," (May 8) the author repeatedly makes the case that religion, as a source of not only equality but what he calls in the case of Islam "radical egalitarianism," provides the basis for countering the injustice of oppressive political regimes. Drawing his data from scriptural sources, Akturk points to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as effective examples of the struggle between the forces of equality and those of exploitation. He juxtaposes these examples against what he calls "classical Marxist hostility to religion," implicitly claiming that the struggle of socialists for a fairer society is wholly compatible, if not identical to, that of the religious leaders he mentions.

I do not wish to engage the author in a debate about the compatibility of Socialism and religion. Rather, I would like to offer a critique of Akturk's dismissal of Marxist thought on religion, finding it basically uninformed of the techniques and genealogy of the discipline he purports to provide an example of, namely, the History of Religions. Akturk writes that "the classical Marxist dismissed religion as a mere superstition, and, as such, he dismissed the history of religions as the intriguing spread of superstition and adherence to the evil of capitalism." While this may be an accurate paraphrase of Marx himself, whose writings on religion were comparatively miniscule to his commentary on economics and politics, it is certainly not uniformly true for those historians of religion who have followed in his footsteps and worked in his shadow. What Akturk fails to note is that by refusing to allow religion to justify itself on its own terms, Marx opened the door for the History of Religions to develop a critical stance toward its subject. Admittedly, Marx was not alone in this effort: both Ludwig Feuerbach before him and Sigmund Freud after him provided alternative foundational critical stances, as did Emile Durkheim, whose own sympathy for religious practice was seemingly undermined by the deterministic sociological approach taken in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Even Max Weber, who in Cold War America was elevated as the paradigmatic anti-Marx, takes a stance on religion not wholly objectionable to contemporary Marxist scholars by pointing out an intrinsic link between capitalism and the religion of the American bourgeoisie in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Granted, all of these thinkers (and there are of course many more who refuse to understand religion on its own terms) took unique stances, but they are all (save for Feuerbach) indebted to Marx, whose initial gumption in criticizing religious belief and practice was, regardless of his own feelings on the matter, the casting down of formidable methodological gauntlet.

In addition, Marx and his subsequent interlocutors have issued another challenge to scholars of religion and historians, namely that of empirical and material accountability. While Akturk emphasizes in his columns the doctrinal egalitarianism of Islam and since he does not make a distinction between formulations of egalitarianism, I assume he means something along the lines of freedom and autonomy for all citizens, both at the ideological core of the French Revolution he cites as evocative of the early Islamic conquests he fails to note that Islam as it is practiced today in numerous places around the world is profoundly anti-egalitarian: Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Sudan all provide disturbing examples. Forced veiling, restriction of political speech considered un-Islamic, and the allowance of slavery or institutional anti-Semitism can not be considered egalitarian, or, for that matter, in accordance with the scripture on which Akturk bases his conception of Islam. Lest I be accused of participating in the "overtly biased and prejudiced" commentary on Islam in the West, let me also point to Hinduism, Roman Catholicism, most "mainline" Protestant denominations, Evangelical Protestantism and Orthodox Judaism as possessing decidedly anti-egalitarian elements, all of which place restrictions on the activities of their adherents, render judgments on those outside of their communities, and rely on different forms of hierarchy in the dissemination of their messages. (The neo-Marxist scholar would chime in here to point out that these ideological expressions are fundamental aspects of religious practice in any of its manifestations)

In the end, the problem with Akturk's analysis is not that he paints a wholly incorrect picture of Islamic thought, though it would do him well to recognize a priori that Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or any religion for that matter is not monolithic. Nor is his implicit insistence to confront and dismantle inequality anything but morally impressive. But for someone who decries elitism as the source of injustice, it seems odd that his analysis of religion has nothing to do with the experience of those actually practicing religion and everything to do with those in a position of authority within it. He claims that in the case of Islam, a deviation from its egalitarian doctrine "has to do with ignorance and incomprehension." This is simply an unsatisfactory historical explanation. By focusing on scriptural doctrine as the deciding feature of religion per se, he is actually practicing an elitist theology at the expense of an egalitarian history, claiming all the while that the durability of religion is a testament to the persistence of religion to confront inequality. But what if we consider that same durability to be the product of successful attempts to thwart equality, preserve hierarchy, and, in doing so, promulgate tradition? Disregarding Marx's contribution to the History of Religions ensures that that question will ultimately go unanswered.

Joshua Adams

Graduate student in The Divinity School