Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: A response to Lindsay Perigo

I agree with Lindsay Perigo [see his Breaking Views blog HEREthat the perpetrators of last week’s slaughter in Paris were ‘savages’. 

However, I take exception to much of what else he says.

His personal attack on the Prophet Mohammed whom he labels a paedophile involves the imposition of 21st-century Western norms and standards on the actions of a man who lived in the Arabian peninsula 14 centuries ago. There were social rules and laws against sexual liaisons with minors in the societies of that time and place, and Mohammed did not break them. Marriage and consummation were often not simultaneous, and estimates of Aisha’s age at the time of consummation vary; whatever it was, it was within the limits of what was then socially acceptable.

This may all sound ghastly to a modern person, but let us remember that things were not so different in mediaeval Europe and indeed in centuries following. Shakespeare’s Juliet was 13. The age of consent to marriage for girls in England (under canon law) was 12 until the mid-18th century. Edgar Allen Poe married a 13-year-old in 19th century America. Standards have changed over time and it is naive – and grossly unfair – to apply the standards of our own time and place to people otherwise located.

Lindsay Perigo quotes Voltaire in mocking Mohammed for having claimed to be visited by God and his messengers. Fair enough, providing the commentator treats all such claims arising from the Abrahamic religions likewise, for there is no difference in this regard between Mohammed and the likes of Moses, King David, Jesus and St Paul; there are no grounds for singling out Mohammed.

In a similar vein, to refer to Islam as a ‘superstition’ is simply to say that it is a religion no different from Christianity or any other. To be quite frank, if it’s ‘absurdities’ you want, the Bible strikes me as a better place to start than the Quran. Islam is demonstrably ‘rational’ in the sense of applying systematic evidence-based reasoning processes within its mindset. Sharia law is a case in point, and was following evidence-based due process at a time when Europeans were still using ‘trial by ordeal’ and ‘confessions’ extracted under torture. True, what constitutes ‘evidence’ in this mindset may differ somewhat from a modern Western conception thereof, but all reasoning processes are based on underlying assumptions and that includes both traditional Islamic thought and 21st-century Western thought. There is an absolutism underlying Lindsay Perigo’s case that needs to be critically examined. We should, of course, compare like with like on the historical timescale, and between the totally irrational, superstition-driven horrors of the Middle Ages in Europe and the comparatively rational order of the great contemporaneous Islamic civilisations there would appear to be little doubt as to whom the ‘superstitious savages’ were. There was certainly no doubt in the minds of a Saracen delegation who witnessed judicial procedures at a French military outpost during the time of the Crusades, describing them as ‘barbaric’.

Many Western commentators including big names such as Voltaire and Churchill have said and written lots of nasty things about Islam, but these outbursts need to be critically evaluated rather than being unquestioningly quoted to back up one’s own prejudices. Islam presented ‘Christendom’ with some viable competition, and so it was little wonder that Western commentators were hostile towards it. (We should also recall the centuries-long Catholic-versus-Protestant Punch and Judy show and the ‘lovely’ things they said about one another, often far more venomous than what they were saying about Islam!) Note Voltaire’s side-swipe at the Turks. Churchill was incensed by the humiliation the great British Empire had suffered at the hands of Muslim militias in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan, and his pique in the face of the insult augmenting the injury comes through strongly in some of his invective.

I share Lindsay Perigo’s outrage at the events of last week – I should hope that we all feel the same way – but would counsel us all to resist the temptation to lash out at Islam or Muslims in general, or vilify historical personages. It adds nothing of any intellectual or ethical value to the discussion – and is exactly what the extremists want us to do, thereby fomenting ill will and bringing their version of Armageddon a step closer. Let’s not do their work for them.

Just one quick point to wrap up. The famous dictum “I may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” are not Voltaire’s words but those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall who is on record as saying in 1935 that “I did not mean to imply that Voltaire used these words verbatim and should be surprised if they are found in any of his works. They are rather a paraphrase of Voltaire's words in the Essay on Tolerance — ‘Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.’" Sounds like good advice.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek is at the American University of Beirut and is a regular contributor to ‘Breaking Views’. Feedback welcome at


PJ said...

Thank you so much for putting balance into this highly emotive issue, which at its core is a religious battle.

Yes, the murders are despicable, but when "we" do it somehow it is termed "fighting for freedom" or some such euphemism.

The Empire - in its many forms - has throughout history, committed atrocities far worse than this and continues to do so.

We are all hypocrites.

Brian said...

Perigo v Vlaardingerbroek. Slaughter between the lines?
A Comment
The recent varying views between Lindsay and Barend show in both instances they are right. I do hope however that in reading this they will not take the opportunity to become Politicians! Stick with the word.
Firstly i agree with Barend regarding what happened 14 centuries ago is really not very relevant in today’s world. Especially so in a New Zealand that is so embroiled in re writing its past...a mere 160 years to suit the “climate” and ethnic custom of our time! Not thankfully 14 centuries, we owe enough already.
As an 19th century English historian once remarked “It is immoral to judge attitudes and actions of the past by those of today”. Yet it is a recognised fact that the Islam of today is, like its former counterpart of the 7th century; “On the March”. History tells us that by AD 730 the Muslim hordes were hammering virtually on the gates of Paris.
Even Edward Gibbon’s famous remark that if the Battle of Tours had been lost, and the Muslims triumphant “The Pulpits of Western Christendom would have resounded with quotations and readings from the Koran”.
We should engage ourselves in coming up with a strong military answer to this terrorism, irrespective of any bleating outcries from the United Nations. The recent marches in Paris and elsewhere against terrorism (Let’s call it rightly what it is A WAR) are at best a futile albeit genuine gesture by the majority. It gives only added publicity to the terrorists and the reaction to the West’s attempts at quelling terrorism are dissipated due to the very obvious factor that those insurgents are long gone or dead. Another round of suicide bombers are gearing up at this moment for Martyrdom, on behalf of Allah.
The Obama/European Band Aid policies towards Islam by the West are a mere reproduction of the appeasement era of the 1930’s. Only Israel standing as a buffer State has stopped temporally, the complete advancement of a Middle Eastern Muslim world.
The United States has moved away from its dependency upon Middle Eastern oil with its oil extraction fracking process. Hence the reduction in the price at our pumps. (Of interest here, is the total lack of a response from our Green comrades....compared with their outcry when price for oil increases!) A change of President is long overdue in the White House.
Moderate Muslims Yes, no problem with them, but it would go a long way in Western countries if this huge section of their population came out right publically and condemned any form of Islamist terrorism. At the same time they would give a great deal of assurance to us all, if they amended their Holy Koran by removing those passages calling for the extermination of all infidels. At the same time publically adopting tolerance between all nations and religions!
Personally I for one, feel this will never happen, but it remains a viable choice they will have to make before a real war of extermination between the Western Nations and Islam breaks out on this Globe.

Lindsay Perigo said...

I thank Dr. Vlaardingerbroek for his response to my article. Alas, while it is a response, it is no answer.

1) While Mohammed's paedophilia is not the main thrust of my loathing of the savagery of his minions and their religion, I feel constrained to point out that to compare the real-life consummation of his marriage to a nine-year-old—the same age as his granddaughter—with the fictional love between 13-year-old Juliet and a slightly older (we presume) Romeo is preposterous on its face.

2) I agree that the Bible is full of absurdities and savagery, just like the Koran, and that Christianity is just as much a superstition as Islam. But Christianity has long since pulled its head in because of the civilising influence of human beings worthy of the title. It is no excuse for the vileness of contemporary Islam that Christianity was once just as bad.

3) Voltaire did indeed originate the remark attributed to him, in this form: "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." I invite Dr. Vlaardingerbroek to google my essay, Free Speech's Fits and Starts for details. Again, the point is not who said it but that Muslims will never be in tune with it, so alien is it to their relentless, Koran-based kill-the-infidel mindset.

Are Muslims the only savage superstitionists on earth right now? Of course not. But they're the most active and virulent, as their stinking, stupid, savage superstition demands. They and their odious beliefs should be condemned for what they are, and I'm proud to do so at every opportunity, with all the "absolutism" I can muster!