Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2004 / 14 Teves, 5764
Jay D. Homnick
Is taking two tablets bad for your constitution?
The Talmud says that the more you love your spouse at the moment of conception, the better emerge your children. In that light, it should come as no surprise that the uneasy marriage of religion and politics has produced some scaly offspring. Ordinarily, I prefer to keep my name clear of such contentious matters but, under condition of new annum amity, I offer - not without its amusing side - a musing.
Number One most wanted in the Adult Contemporary category is Osama Bin Ladin, just having released his new audiotape on Al - Jazeera. He perches gracefully atop the CIA hit list, #1 with a bullet. Osama is lamming all right, but he has not lost his Sunni disposition. He exhorts his cohorts to resist the invasion of the "Crusaders" and avenge the humbling of Saddam.
Now certainly Saddam has lost face; with no access to barbarism, he ended up looking pathetic in a scraggly beard. But unless one has a severe lisp, faith was nowhere involved. Mr. Hussein in the best of times was choleric with the clerics and curbed the gaiety of the laity. The only religion he ever observed was worship of the profit. Indeed, his political party was avowedly secularist and sought to intimidate the clergy, leery of their potential as a locus of power.
Unless, lacking a Baath in his oubliette, preying in his own musk, the desperate despot found religion (no atheists in a rathole?), we can safely number Saddam among the skeptics. So we are justified in pondering: why has this tyrant, whose career has been laden with atrocity, become the object of Osama's fervor?
The answer is simple enough: no matter what Bin Ladin and his crew said, this is not about men of the cloth, this is about Arabs vs. Europeans, East vs. West. This is about a society that produces nothing - even its oil was initially scouted and pumped by American companies - resenting the most productive civilization in history. This is about a region whose most prominent scientific figure is Chemical Ali. This is about a community of nations that has never invented so much as a paper clip, trying to bully the people who brought you everything from the telephone to the Internet, from the light bulb to the DVD. This is about a culture whose literature has been moribund for centuries and whose philosophy has been dead for a millenium.
Recent contribution to science: the wing nut as shrapnel. To self-expression: the suicide restaurant bomber. To art: the suicide restaurant bomber pre-bomb video. To fashion: Yassir Arafat's permanent five-o'clock shadow. To design: the burqa. To literature: no actual books, but lots of interesting Scrabble words with j's and q's. To diversity: the burqa comes in black and blue, which many say reflects the condition of the skin beneath.
And militarily? Surely an avenue to provide direction to thuggery, one might think. As it turns out, even the coordinated use of force is too refined a pursuit for their ethnos, no matter how bloody their ethos. How amazing in retrospect is the Biblical prophecy that assigns to Ishmael, father of the Arabs, the cowardly weapon of the crossbow (Genesis 21:20), while crediting Esau, the father of Europe, with the valiant warfare of the sword (ibid 27:40)?
How about this? From the very first day that the Jews organized a provisional under-supplied militia in Israel, they were immediately superior to the standing armies of sovereign Arab states. On July 27, 1917, Jabotinsky formed the Jewish Legion to fight alongside the British. By September 15, the British sent them out as cannon fodder to slow the Turks in the east, but the Jews stood up to the attack for three days until the Turks gave up. By October 31, the Turks surrendered; many historians credit the Jewish Legion's success for breaking the spirit of the Turks. By the time 1948 rolled around, the Jewish Haganah and Irgun armies (which didn't even get along) defeated the forces of all the Arab lands combined.
Now if you are Jewish or otherwise Biblical and inclined to attribute such triumphs to the realm of the miraculous, be my guest; enchanted, I'm sure. But how humiliating is it to be on the receiving end? As the Yeshiva boy in Brownsville in the 1950s famously said after a fist fight with Irish neighborhood toughs, "It is better to give than to receive".
So Osama is no more distinguished in his consternation than the Chicago Cubs fan or anyone whom history seems to have singled out for repeated spankings. To cloak this sort of national (trans-national, actually, pan-Arabic) eczema with the mantle of religion provides the most gossamer sort of fig leaf; no one but CIA analysts gets fooled by that stuff.
It has been ever thus. A culture in the throes of being thrown away, festering on the eve of its defenestration, its lifeblood drying in its dying, is a nasty pernicious thing, imploding and exploding all at once. In its death it needs to be given a wide berth.
All of which nudges us back to the more general overview. Casuists, sophists, and nudniks of various stripes, like to throw the spitball of calumny at the body of religion, hoping it will stick. If we were to credit their argument, we would have to posit an idyllic, utopian world back in the good old days before the Bible. People sat around all day picking posies and peonies. Champagne for breakfast, poetry for lunch, free love for dinner. All until the bucolic gave way to the colic (yes, that clerical choler again).
In truth, of course, people always fought. They fought over land, over wealth, over women, over who had a nicer lawn. They fought over liquor, over opium, over tobacco, over tea. Religion came and civilized men, taught them a path to their humanity. All of the great creativity of man, all the art, all the philanthropy, the bridging of nations and cultures, was forged in the crucible of faith, by people who created for "the eyes of G-d".
Occasionally, the foraging animal within looses his shackles and wreaks a spell of devastation on his environs. Still, it is nothing compared to the raw unrestrained villainy that brought Mankind to the brink of destruction when the atheistic ideologies of Communism and Nazism were allowed a moment to flourish.
Saddest of all is when the wolf of Man's-inhumanity-to-Man tries to don the sheep's clothing of its nemesis, godliness. Hence the Crusades and Inquisitions, ugly blots on the map of humanity's saga. Today the newest subscriber to this charade is Osama and his merry mess of murderous misfits.
The inspired perspective can bring a great boon to politics, helping to mediate between its head and its heart. Yet we must come prepared for opponents who mimic the vocabulary even as they strangle the spirit. Just because they get it wrong does not mean that we should stop trying to get it right.
JWR contributor Jay D. Homnick is the author of many books and essays on Jewish political and religious affairs. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2003, Jay D. Homnick