I was reading one Right Wing Watch yesterday and saw an article about how a Tea Partier named John Trautman opposes a California mosque because he “doesn’t want terrorist pagans in his back yard.”
Are Muslims Pagans?
I’ve looked elsewhere at the question of whether or not Satanists are Pagans (Tea Partiers and Republicans hate them too, and my answer is “no”) but it never occurred to me to question Islam’s status as a religion; it seems fairly obvious. I mean, first of all, Islam is one of the three forms of Abrahamic monotheism, one of the three religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; they share a common ancestry and like it or not, a common god, even if they know him by different names.
In fact, they are so closely related that one the Byzantine Saint John of Damascus argued that Islam was not a separate religion but a form of heresy – in other words, a heretical form of Christianity. One could, I suppose, argue the same thing about Christianity with regards to Judaism. The polemics are all in place; Nicetas of Byzantium even leveled a charge against Islam Christians ought by now to be familiar with: that their holy book is a forged mythology.
There seems to be a lot of pot calling kettle black involved and there still clearly is and perhaps that’s just an inevitable problem to be associated with three religions each claiming sole possession of some cosmic truth – and God besides.
Honestly, it’s none of my concern what they think about each other. That’s their business unless they start talking about winging around nukes and so forth. Then it becomes an issue of worldwide concern.
And in fact, we’ve come close to that point, closer than ever since the Religious Right began to gain dominance in the American political landscape. Having an apocalyptic religion in charge – one with access to nukes – and believing that their big end-game scenario, the Parousia, will start in the Middle East – that is a frightening reality.
Obviously there is the ongoing problem of definitions. You can’t have polemics without definitions! Not only do you have to define what “religion” is but what qualifies as a religion. There are some Republicans who want to reduce Islam to the status of a cult, even though it’s the world’s second largest religion after Christianity itself. And of course, we have to define Judaism and Christianity as well.
And we have to define “Pagan” and “Paganism.”
I have followed French historian Pierre Chuvin (A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, 1990) in defining Pagans as “people of the place” and Paganism therefore as “religion of the place” – in short, ethnic religion. This is not a modern definition but an attempt to understand what the ancients meant when they used the term “pagan.” I find it a very useful one. As someone once said, what’s important is not how we understand say, the Iliad, but how the ancients understood it.
But back to our problem: Historically, the people of the Arabian Peninsula were Pagans – a polytheistic ethnic group. They were Pagans when Mohammed was born but by the time he had died they had been forcibly converted to Islam (submitted, in other words – Islam means “Submission to God”). The same fate had befallen the polytheistic Israelites and the same fate befell the polytheists of Europe and the Mediterranean littoral when Christianity became ascendant.
All three of these religions are “universal” religions – that is, they claim a God who is a God of everyone, of all the earth and all its peoples. They do not recognize ethnic religions. Ethnic religion must be subsumed by an inherently superior “True” religion. By definition, they cannot any of them lay claim to being Pagan, as Paganism makes much more modest claims – the much maligned “relative” truths of the ethnic group and it’s gods.
That they like to insult each other as some form of “pagan” does not imply that they are indeed Pagan. It is well known that the Jews called everyone else “Gentiles” and the Early Church adopted this term and applied it to their polytheistic neighbors until adopting the term “Pagan” by the time of the Fifth Century Theodosian Code. In post-exilic Israel to be a Gentile was to convert or die. In the Early Church the same choice was offered. Europe was brought to Christianity with the cry “convert or die.” Islam calls such people “Kafir” – which means “unbeliever.” But Islam has two forms of unbelievers: other children of the book and those who have no book.
The Tea Partier in question, John Trautman, was criticizing the build of a mosque. He said “are not only our enemy but pagans. Why would we want them in our backyard?”
We’re already familiar with the polemical attack unleashed by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on Pagans and the rest of today’s “Canaanites”:
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
You can make any word an insult, I suppose, and put it to polemical uses, including Pagan. In the end, the purpose of polemic is to delegitimize the target and privilege your own and the attitude of Tea Partiers and Republicans is clear: Islam and Pagans are on a par, both in some tenuous way responsible for the WTC attack and together guilty of unraveling the fabric of American society. But they are not the same. Islam and Christianity are the same, two peoples of the book separated by a common mythology. Paganism, ancient or modern, has nothing to do with revealed religion or book religion. Paganism is nature-based; Paganism is of the world.
In the end I suppose it isn’t a matter of who is more or less tolerant or enlightened. There is no true sense of tolerance in any of the three religions when it comes to other religions. The end time, for all three, looks for a day when everybody will be forced to “convert or die” so we Pagans would just as soon they can all be kept from “forcing god’s hand” and manufacturing an “end-time” scenario.
I can tell you right now that if that day comes, it won’t be Pagans who manufactured it, or feminists, or lesbians, or “abortionists” – or the ACLU.