Saturday, October 27, 2012

Islam, Homosexuality, and the Bed of Procrustes, Pt. 2

(This is the second part of 'Islam, Homosexuality, and the Bed of Procrustes.' See part 1 here.)

(Note: ideas for this article were consulted with the illustrious Jacob Kovacs.)

Whence, then, my peer's thesis about the content of 'true' or 'real' or 'legitimate' Islam? Edging farther out onto my speculative limb, I'm going to suggest that he was motivated by political imperatives. To wit:

1) Homophobia is bad (contra social conservatives).

2) Islam is not bad (contra social conservatives).

Reconciling the two imperatives to 1) combat homophobia and 2) not combat Islam, he had to presume that:

3) Islam is not homophobic.

I suggest that my peer presumed that 'real' Islam does not support murderous homophobia not because it was empirically true, but because it was ideologically necessary. Upon hearing his student's story of murderous homophobia in Islam, he had to condemn the homophobic violence but couldn't condemn Islam along with it. Ergo, he had to condemn homophobic violence as extrinsic to Islam.

The term for this kind of interpretation is "Procrustean solution" (see Derrida's comments esp.). The term comes from the Greek myth of Procrustes, a bandit who forced people onto his bed: if their legs were too short, he stretched them; if too long, he cut them off. In either case, Procrustes forced the body to fit the bed, rather than finding a bed to fit the body. Similarly, a Procrustean solution forces data into a preconceived interpretation. Rather than looking for evidence in the text first, and only then proposing possible interpretations, it cherry-picks the text for pieces which (out of context) appear to support the presumptive claim.

Religious people, including American Christians, do this all the time: just as conservatives ignore the themes of love and forgiveness in the Gospels when they support American wars, liberals ignore the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and all the stuff Jesus says about "weeping and gnashing of teeth" when they point to the themes of love and forgiveness in the Gospels in support of e.g. gay marriage. Browsing the blogosophere, I came across this post by a progressive Muslim explaining their view that Islam in no way condemns homosexuality. What I found most striking about the post is that, after exhaustive textual citations throughout the piece, the bit where the author actually defends the claim that Islam is not homophobic contains no textual evidence. Rather, the author refers to "science," social progress, and a "long line of divine revelations...which emphasise [sic] human rights, such as gender equality..." The author concludes: "These deeper meanings [of the Quran] are straightforward when you read the the Quran without personal biases pervading the interpretation." I bring up this example because it appears to me to be a scriptural re-interpretation which is transparently motivated by external beliefs about what the text ought to say, rather than evidence from what it does say.

 I suggest that this Procrustean-approach to scriptural interpretation by believers (and by non-believers like my peer, in response) is a necessary consequence of way in which books like the Bible and Koran are popularly viewed. Broadly speaking, it seems that "believe" in the Bible or Koran implies 1-descriptive belief and 2-normative belief. That is, "believing in the Bible/Koran" means that you believe it says something importantly true about the facts of reality (e.g. there is a God, He loves humans, etc.) and something importantly true about how one ought to act (e.g. love and submit to God; don't commit adultery; etc.).

And, if you really believe, instead of just going to church once a month to satisfy social obligations, then you're counting on your scripture to do some seriously heavy lifting. Real believers (and I'm not euphemistically referring to literalists or fundamentalists; I just mean anyone's who's in some sense importantly committed to their religion) need their scripture to say deep, true things about the facts and imperatives of life; and conversely, they need their scripture to not say things which conflict with their own moral intuitions. There's a reason why social liberals go to socially-liberal churches while social-conservatives go to socially-conservative churches, and it ain't an exhaustive review of Biblical text. We see believers' need for scripture to agree with reality in the inter-Christian debates over the age of the Earth and evolution. Similarly, we can see believers' need  for scripture to agree with their moral intuitions in the Christian and Muslim debates over what their respective scriptures do and do not say about homosexuality. (Check out Iran's horrifying/flabbergasting solution to the Gay Question here.)

What I want to observe about all this is how profoundly intellectually dishonest it is. It's dishonest to presume that a religious text carries a coherent and complete position on e.g. homosexuality. Imagine a group of lit. scholars falling over one another to prove whether Moby Dick condones or condemns homosexuality. This example is ridiculous not because Moby Dick has nothing to say about homosexuality, but because good scholars are able to accept ambiguity in the text in a way that many religious believers are not. For a good scholar, there doesn't have to be an unequivocal answer to the question, "What does Moby Dick have to say about homosexuality?" There can be no answer, or several, or an incomplete answer, or a suggested answer open to many interpretations. Good scholarship means investigating a text without going beyond the evidence within the text.

But many believers--because of the heavy load of meaning-bearing they put upon their scripture; because they're not just interested but committed--need their text to be clear. They need it to unambiguously apply to every important situation in an important way. I want to emphasize that I'm not just talking about literalist-fundamentalists: it's equally true for e.g. progressive Christians that they need their Bible to support a pro-gay agenda. They need homophobic conservatives to be not only morally wrong but religiously wrong. It's not enough to cite ethical reasons for why gay marriage is a good thing; they need Jesus to think it's a good thing, too, just as conservatives need Jesus to support war and heteronormativity.

The difference between, say, my admiration of Marx and my father's admiration of Jesus is that I'm comfortable with disclaiming the anti-Semitism in Marx's work on "the Jewish question" even while I still endorse Marx's overall critique of capitalism. But for my dad, everything Jesus said needs to be in some sense true (or at least not false). It's unacceptable for there to be any point on which Jesus was simply wrong. Because the religiously committed demand not just excellence but ultimacy from a text, they sometimes have to distort it, like stretching a nightgown to cover an elephant: they find the meaning they want, whether it's there or not. (I'm using Christian examples because that's what I'm familiar with, but I presume that a similar dynamic exists within Islam.)

All of this strikes me as outstandingly dishonest--not to mention blasphemous, putting man's word into God's mouth. And you don't even need to be religious to do it: witness my peer's appropriation of Islam (an act which I've imitated many times, for similar reasons). It's hard to see how this kind of cynical, self-deceiving approach to scripture takes either God or truth seriously.

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