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 Contact him at [email protected].

Who We Are

The Patriot Post is a highly acclaimed weekday digest of news analysis, policy and opinion written from the heartland — as opposed to the MSM’s ubiquitous Beltway echo chambers — for grassroots leaders nationwide. More

What We Offer

On the Web

We provide solid conservative perspective on the most important issues, including analysis, opinion columns, headline summaries, memes, cartoons and much more.

Via Email

Choose our full-length Digest or our quick-reading Snapshot for a summary of important news. We also offer Cartoons & Memes on Monday and Alexander’s column on Wednesday.

Our Mission

The Patriot Post is steadfast in our mission to extend the endowment of Liberty to the next generation by advocating for individual rights and responsibilities, supporting the restoration of constitutional limits on government and the judiciary, and promoting free enterprise, national defense and traditional American values. We are a rock-solid conservative touchstone for the expanding ranks of grassroots Americans Patriots from all walks of life. Our mission and operation budgets are not financed by any political or special interest groups, and to protect our editorial integrity, we accept no advertising. We are sustained solely by you. Please support The Patriot Fund today!

The Patriot Post and Patriot Foundation Trust, in keeping with our Military Mission of Service to our uniformed service members and veterans, are proud to support and promote the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, both the Honoring the Sacrifice and Warrior Freedom Service Dogs aiding wounded veterans, the National Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, the Folds of Honor outreach, and Officer Christian Fellowship, the Air University Foundation, and Naval War College Foundation, and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. "Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for his friends." (John 15:13)


“Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!” —George Washington

Please join us in prayer for our nation — that righteous leaders would rise and prevail and we would be united as Americans. Pray also for the protection of our Military Patriots, Veterans, First Responders, and their families. Please lift up your Patriot team and our mission to support and defend our Republic's Founding Principle of Liberty, that the fires of freedom would be ignited in the hearts and minds of our countrymen.

The Patriot Post is protected speech, as enumerated in the First Amendment and enforced by the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, in accordance with the endowed and unalienable Rights of All Mankind.

Copyright © 2024 The Patriot Post. All Rights Reserved.

The Patriot Post does not support Internet Explorer. We recommend installing the latest version of Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, or Google Chrome.