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Jack Kerwick / March 15, 2011

Islam Perceived versus Islam Itself

Republican Peter King is at the center of controversy. The New York congressman is calling for investigations into “the radicalization” of American Muslims. While King deserves credit for the seriousness with which he treats the Islamic threat, inasmuch as he insists on following the conventional wisdom in identifying the problem as one of radical Islam, he doesn’t, unfortunately, treat it seriously enough.

Radicals are by definition extreme, and extremists are by definition on the fringes of whatever larger group it is to which they belong. It is understandable that there should be a wish on the part of Americans and others to believe that those Muslims who would seek to subjugate, convert, and/or murder us are Islam’s misfits, aberrations who, as such, bear little if anything in common with the overwhelming majority of Muslims who are peaceful and “moderate.” Yet however understandable this impulse to wish away reality may be, it is a species of wishful thinking all the same, and because of both its ubiquity and the nature of the reality that it denies, its consequences promise to be ruinous.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the study of knowledge. Those who specialize in it – epistemologists – inquire into the possibility, origins, and character of human knowledge. Some standard epistemological questions are questions like: What is knowledge? Is it attainable? Is there a distinction between knowledge, on the one hand, and belief or opinion on the other? Are cannons of knowledge universal and objective, or particular and relative?

Now, because investigations into how we know what are inseparable from those into what we know, epistemology is intertwined with another philosophical discipline, which is called metaphysics. Metaphysicians are interested in exploring the nature of ultimate reality. What’s really real? This is the question that arrests the attention of the metaphysician.

In the eighteenth century, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant achieved what those in the field and intellectual historians have since recognized as a “Copernican-like” revolution in philosophy. Copernicus revolutionized astronomy inasmuch as he subverted the prevailing Ptolemaic model that positioned the Earth at the center of the solar system with the sun and other heavenly bodies revolving around it. It isn’t the sun that revolves around the Earth, Copernicus showed, but the Earth that revolves around the sun. Similarly, Kant argued that knowledge consists, not in the mind’s conforming itself to the objects of the external world, as had been supposed, but in the mind’s constructing objects in accordance with its own internal structures or “categories.”

Time, space, causality, substance, and identity are features, not of the external world – the world outside the mind – but of the mind itself. The senses feed the mind material upon which it then in turn imposes its own forms. Just as a person who was born, say, with a perceptual apparatus that constrained him from perceiving any color other than red would perceive everything in variations of red and, thus, assume that the world really is red, so we assume that the world really is as we perceive it to be. But this assumption is false. The world that we perceive is what Kant calls “the phenomenal” world; in contrast, the world as it is in itself, the world as it exists unperceived, is “the noumenal” world. We can speak only to the former. Of the latter, we can say nothing because we can know nothing.

In listening to our standard national debate – if we can call it that – over Islam and its relationship to the West, I can’t help calling Kant to mind. The Islamic world that is the focus of that debate is not “the thing in itself,” as Kant characterized the noumenal world, but an idea of Americans’ own making, the product of the categories through which we insist on viewing our surroundings.

The difference, however, between human beings as Kant considered them and ourselves is that we have a choice as to whether we will reckon with reality as it is in itself. Like any other tradition, especially one that has survived for well over a dozen centuries, Islam lends itself to multiple readings. Still, these readings are far from being radically discontinuous with one another, and they all converge, or claim to converge, upon a sacred text: the Holy Quran.

One doesn’t need to be a student of Islam to know that neither within the Quran nor the tradition from which it springs and which it in turn continues to shape is there any warrant for, say, the distinction between “radical Islam” and “moderate Islam” that Peter King and legions of others uncritically endorse. Though it is not intended as such, a genuinely devout Muslim will regard as offensive the suggestion that his religiosity is moderate. For that matter, no practitioner of any religion could help but to feel insulted by it (when was the last time you heard anyone describe himself as a “moderate” Christian?).

The impulse to divide them into “radicals” and “moderates” is the same impulse that leads other Americans and Westerners to account for our conflict with Muslims either in terms of our foreign policy – e.g. our support for Israel and our presence in Saudi Arabia – or the oppression and poverty under which most of the inhabitants of the Islamic world labor. This impulse is the wish to view this struggle in accordance with those concepts that constitute our collective mind, particularly the idea that our enemies are like us in seeing themselves as waging, fundamentally, a political or ideological battle.

If we would but recognize that our way of seeing things isn’t necessarily congruent with the way things are, we just might discover the limitations of our perspective and the respects in which we could enrich it.

More importantly, the realization that our categories are not the Islamic fundamentalist’s could be the first crucial step in saving lives.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D., blogs at www.jackkerwick.com Contact him at [email protected]

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