Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Great Trivializer

I've mentioned Karen Armstrong's book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism several times recently, but I really haven't said enough about it. I won't remedy that in this post, but I nonetheless want to provide an example of the way that Armstrong's broad knowledge of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam illuminates modern history.

Toward the end of the book, Armstrong discusses the Islamic Revolution that ousted the shah and brought a theocratic regime to power in Iran. As those of us old enough to recall the Tehran hostage crisis that began in November 1979 well remember, Iranians in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere continually denounced America as "the Great Satan." Armstrong explains (pp. 301-302) that different understandings of Satan in Christianity and Islam may have caused Americans to misinterpret the message being conveyed:

Americans were shocked to hear their nation described as satanic during and after the Revolution. Even those who were aware of the resentment that so many of the Iranian people had felt for the United States since the 1953 CIA coup, were repelled by this demonic imagery. However mistaken American policy may have been, it did not deserve to be condemned in this way. It confirmed the prevailing belief that the Iranian revolutionaries were all fanatical, hysterical, and unbalanced. But most Western people misunderstood the image of the Great Satan. In Christianity, Satan is a figure of overpowering evil, but in Islam he is a much more manageable figure. The Koran even hints that Satan will be forgiven on the Last Day, such is its confidence in the all-conquering goodness of God. Those Iranians who called America "the Great Satan" were not saying that the United States was diabolically wicked but something more precise. In popular Shiism, the Shaitan, the Tempter, is a rather ludicrous creature, chronically incapable of appreciating the spiritual values of the unseen world. In one story, he is said to have complained to God about the privileges given to humans, but was easily fobbed off with inferior gifts. Instead of prophets, the Shaitan was quite happy with fortune-tellers, his mosque the bazaar, he was most at home in the public baths, and instead of seeking God, his quest was for wine and women. He was, in fact, incurably trivial, trapped forever in the realm of the exterior (zahir) world and unable to see that there was a deeper and more important dimension of existence. For many Iranians, America, the Great Shaitan, was "the Great Trivializer." The bars, casinos, and secularist ethos of West-toxicated North Tehran typified the American ethos, which seemed deliberately to ignore the hidden (batin) realities that alone gave life meaning. Furthermore, America, the Shaitan, had tempted the shah away from the true values of Islam to a life of superficial secularism.

This certainly doesn't transform a negative message into a positive one, but it should remind us of the obvious point that cultural differences can cause us to misinterpret what others are trying to tell us. This is as true of theological differences as it is of linguistic differences. Armstrong's work, which is directed toward the general public, is important in part because it helps those of us who are firmly planted in one religious tradition to begin to understand others. Many of us, myself included, would do well to know much more about Islam than we do. Armstrong's The Battle for God is not a bad place to start.