Three Discreet Easy Pieces Launching Debate

Keynote Address to the REALIA 2004 Conference

on the Separation of Church and State


Each of the three discreet easy pieces of my key note contains a parable on the relations between reason and power. The first delivers the message of "Mark Twain". This message is not invalidated by the fact that the man who adopted Mark Twain as pen name could not heed it in the end. The second parable is embedded in ancient Mediterranean legends clustering around the roles of the faculty of reason in human affairs. The figure of fair Scheherazade is utilized as exemplar. The third is taken from an incident that occurred in 1989: The issuance of a Fatwa of Condemnation against the writer Salman Rushdie by the ayatollah Khomeini. My hope is that one or the other of these three discreet easy pieces will help launch spirited debate.

1. What's a Mark Twain?

Here and now at the opening of our conference I'm offering my salute to Mark Twain, genius incarnate of America's rugged self-made man. His business was to make us laugh, persevere, live and let live, and think ahead. In a little known work of his, a novel on Joan of Arc, he grapples with church and state. Whether separated, or not, he shows the reader that statecraft requires perfidy and priest craft relies on deception. When united they hold the mind hostage and freedom is lost. Yet in spite of their flaws, church and state are necessary and their separation is of the essence since without it nobody has much of a chance to dream their own dreams, pursue their own thoughts and contribute by example to the modern creed of moral and material progress. Mark Twain whose 'real' name was Sam Clemens, while still in his twenties, launched his writing career a second time, and this time in a serious way. From then on he signed all his work with his new pen name 'Mark Twain'. This signature is the Mark Twain we know, but thereby hangs a story, a warning and a lesson yet to be learned.

Story tells Mark Twain had learned the meaning of his pen name while he was a river boat pilot on the Mississippi. A 'mark twain' was, and still is an exact measure of safety for a river boat to proceed without danger of running aground in the Mississippi's ever shifting shallows and silt banks. To prevent calamity the ship's captain must rely on the pilot whose soundings of the river's depth must insure two fathoms, or two times six feet of water for the boat's passage. A Mark Twain or "heed twice" is two fathoms and signals safety and danger at once. Mark Twain is much more than the writer Samuel Clemens' pen name. These two commando words are nothing less than the writer's prudential philosophy drawn from experience and compressed into a slogan. The utility of the metaphor rests with the fact that it reminds us to cultivate caution and foresight - pronoia - while navigating the shoals and silt drifts of the great river of time, a river which is always yet never the same. Caution and foresight are not the grand American virtues that Whitman propounded; they are the sober and modest ones that are often neglected. Today amidst the turbulences close by and far-flung of a world in crisis, to recall the Mississippi river boat pilot's job to measure twice and fathom the depth of the unseen may seem merely quaint. But heeding the pilot's example improves exponentially the chances for safe passage, including the tenuous relations of church and state.

2. The Fable of Intelligence Seducing Power to Virtue

We are all familiar with some of the tales in the Arabian Thousand and One Nights, an uneven collection of legends and fairy-tales gathered during Islam's Golden Age (circa 900 to 1500 CE) from the East's ancient epic and lyric traditions. The conceptual pre-text of the Thousand and One Nights goes back to pre-Islamic times when Persia, today's Iran, was ruled by the Sassanids, a dynasty with huge imperial ambitions during the crisis-ridden time of the late Roman Empire. Their rule was ended in 651 CE, when the young expansionist Muslim movement of the Arab peninsula in a successful jihad conquered Persia and the larger portion of its annexed territories.

Now to the legend: Scheherazade, the Sassanid kingdom's chancellor's brilliant daughter is marrying the Sassanid king Shahryar under life-threatening conditions that defy attempts at rational explanation. She is entering into this marital arrangement of her own free will knowing the risk she is taking. Her father the chancellor was the kingdom's Richelieu and by position, though not in 'reality', the second most powerful man in the land. King Shahryar, the man he served, was not his idea of a good son in law. The chancellor, at this point in time, desperately wanted to prevent that any of his daughters would marry the king, especially not Scheherazade, the oldest one, whom he had carefully educated and who was much like him in intelligence, diplomatic ability and subtle well-intentioned powers of persuasion. Exhausted by his official duties, he was not able to envision a viable strategy that might prevent the unfolding of untold disaster.

By contrast young Scheherazade, who today is world literature's first grand dame and intellectual history's first self-made woman, asked why and when the good king Shahryar had turned into Shahryar the Destroyer. Was it the sudden disillusionment when he realized that his beloved wife was unfaithful that unsettled his mind? After all, Scheherazade remembered that as soon as he learned of the treachery he deserted the throne and left the country in shock. Abroad, stories tell that Shahryar fell into the snares of vile foreign women who caused him hurt, shame and disgust. Did this experience, once compounded with the betrayal he suffered earlier make him now hatch a plot of brutal revenge? But no matter which explanation comes close to what may have happened to the king, Scheherazade responds to the situation by listening to her inner voice and conscience. Surveying the circumstances with care she realized that it was up to her to conceive a good plan. The dreadful chain of events Shahryar's orders had been setting in motion needed to be interrupted.

The king on returning home about three years ago did not resume the duties of government but left them entirely in his old chancellor's able experienced hands. But he imposed a new policy of stringent directives aimed to destroy what to him was the root of all evil at its very source. To stamp out evil, he was convinced by to him self-evident argument, that women must suffer due punishment for their depravity and the kingdom, nay the world, purged by daily ritual executions from the pollution they spread. To enact such punishment from on high without delay became the sole purpose of Shahryar's misrule. Like a slave the chancellor had to submit and execute his master's orders, or else face death. Every day he had to furnish the king with a new certified virgin bride for marriage, its consummation and the young wife's swift execution.

Finding a bride was getting increasingly difficult now that the grisly news of the bridal ordeal had reached the ears of the king's frightened subjects in village and town. The chancellor saw no way to change Shahryar's mind. Still hoping to be able to ameliorate the course of events he watched the country slide toward disaster. Civil strife threatened the kingdom from within and invasion by Rome and neighbors from without. The once strong and powerful Sassanid state was being destroyed by the tyrannical power of its paranoia-crazed king.

Scheherazade understood the situation only too well. Fortunately she has her father's intelligence and deliberates on a course of action that may yet help prevent the impending catastrophe. The goal she had been able to conceive by employing her intelligent mind in rational fashion is threefold and goes far beyond preventing more killings of the country's fair daughters. Her aim is nothing less than a peripeteia, a reversal that brings about the restoration of a just state. What needs to be restored is first of all King Shahryar's soundness of mind and behavior which will in turn free the Kingdom from the threat of its impending destruction. Most important for her on the personal level was saving the institution of marriage from its total perversion. Her aim was to become the good queen at the side of a good king so that government would serve again the life of the people and not be the perverted apparatus for the tyrant's murderous vengeance and death.

Zoroastrianism, the Sassanid kingdom's official religion, did not quite provide a paradigm of such a fine marriage Scheherazade had in mind, but Hinduism's pantheon does. The goddess Sati, familiar throughout the Middle East, may well have been Scheherazade's role model. But never mind how audacious her hopes and how prudential her foresight, she needed courage only the depth of desperation can bring forth. Akin to the Greek goddess Peitho, who helps the demiurge create cosmic harmony, Scheherazade knew the dramatic turnaround needed to make her dream of restoration come true was unlikely to succeed. Yet with courage and clear-eyed foresight she comes to believe that her effort may be worthwhile. Thus she resolves to go ahead and carefully, with many contingencies in mind, plans her actions. By putting her strategy to the test she would soon enough find out whether her approach was effective enough to loosen the grip of the tyrannical king's cruel obsession.

The wedding night passed; for the moment, her plan seemed to work. The young wife kept entertaining her husband night in and night out with her favors and with riveting stories full of suspense, the warp and woof woven from desire, intelligence, memory, hope, and imagination. Dependent on the king's good graces, Scheherazade, time and again, succeeds to dissuade him from pronouncing her death sentence. As long as she and her bed-time stories amaze and amuse him, his tyrannical whim and compulsion are held in check. But will her artful narrations, God willing, do more than entertain the tyrant? Will they be able to teach and tame the insatiable monster now lodged in his soul? Over the span of almost three years - the fabled thousand and one nights - Scheherazade's skill and patient persistence are slowly accomplishing the turnaround. The semblance of normalcy is returning to the royal couple, to the entire court and the beleaguered country.

The Arabian Nights' erotic frisson and fairy tale endings are often said to be the secret of Scheherazade's lasting appeal. This does not do any justice to the underlying legend. Most of all it fails completely to grasp the legend's lesson that clearly teaches what inexorable force paranoia and tyrannical power exert over each other: a timeless lesson repeated since time immemorial. Today Scheherazade operates in our post-modern period as meta-historical figure representing a strain of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern wisdom literature. In this role she is modern literature's avatar of prudent deliberation and foresight. Her voice is an anticipatory echo of the sound made by Adam Smith's invisible hand; she also represents, or foreshadows, Immanuel Kant's concept of practical reason and Hegel's ruse of reason (die List der Vernunft). To go back to antiquity, the figure of Scheherazade is also a variant of Plato's and Hesiod's honey-tongued goddess Peitho as well as the embodiment of Aristotle's intellectual virtue of practical intelligence or phronesis. In all these overlapping figurations she conveys knowledge of a simple and often overlooked fact. This fact is that the human mind is endowed, or 'programmed' as current usage goes, not only with the capability to learn language but also to defend itself successfully against paranoia, the wretched tyranny of logically reasoned beliefs which are based on delusion. Scheherazade's strategy of healing the king's paranoia relied on the skills of the Poet and the Sophist doing together the Philosopher's work.

3. Phantasmagoria and Persecution

In 1988, just sixteen years ago, Salman Rushdie published his phantasmagoric confabulation the Satanic Verses. This book is a post-modern novel that under the guise of magical surrealism speaks simple and lasting truths. Rushdie goes to great length to render intelligible the crisis of persons displaced in the maelstrom of post-colonial globalizing trends. He does not sentimentalize and his story telling skills are as entrancing as Scheherazade's. But his spell fell on tin ears in high places.

When ayatollah Ruholla Al-Musavi Al-Khomeini in Teheran heard about the tales concerning the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed Rushdie included in his novel, he was not the least bit amused. Into his tenth year of occupying the position of High Priest and Supreme Ruler of Iran, combining the powers of church and state in his own person, Khomeini, for the entire world to see, was outraged. He insisted that Rushdie's book was a siren call to apostasy, a vile blasphemy and an intolerable insult to all the Muslims in the world. Secularism and doubting the Quran's all-sufficient unquestionable truth seemed to have constituted for Khomeini the source of all evil. In the nearly unbroken tradition of Middle Eastern autocracy, the ayatollah censors and condemns Salman Rushdie's mild-mannered text as evidence for the commission of an unforgivable sin and a capital crime as well. Khomeini does not appear to have left a record where he attempted to justify his personal authority to speak for the Umma (the world community of the faithful), for Islam as a world religion and its many branches, and also as head of the nation state of Iran. The indignation of a Priest-King must have seemed to him fully sufficient as a warrant for a ruling way beyond the borders of his jurisdiction.

Well, in the Satanic Verses, Rushdie does provoke stern Islamic sensibility by having Satan seed the seeds of doubt in the Quranic text itself. These seeds have been removed from authorized versions, but their memory lingers on. Also the Prophet Mohammed is depicted in historically attested fashion as a quick-tempered man whose marital arrangements went beyond the ones sanctioned by the Holy Book. These issues stirred Khomeini's wrath to such an extent that he issues his Fatwa of condemnation against a meek poet for lack of piety.

Let me note for the sake of comparison that nothing in Rushdie's novel rises to the bitter criticism of official Christianity William Blake advances in his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Unlike the prelates of the Church of England, who did not pay much attention to Blake's attack, ayatollah Khomeini is infuriated by Rushdie and thunders from the high-ground of the presumption of infallible righteousness. Perhaps inspired by Mohammed's example, he, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where clerics rule and the Sharia is the law of the land, reveals his intransigence. He promulgates a ruling, a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie and everybody else who was knowingly involved in the publication of The Satanic Verses. Whether this writ was penned by Khomeini or by a team of secretaries, or by learned holy men in Qom Seminary is a question for historians to tackle. I'm assuming that the Fatwa expresses Khomeini's intent for personal as well as political reasons and that he himself may have written or dictated it.

Not just being an authoritative ruling on a point of Islamic law, the Fatwa against Rushdie and his book and its publishers is a truly frightening pronouncement reminiscent in tone to Torquemada as well as the stern decree concerning double predestination issued by the Calvinist Synod of Dort against the Arminians in 1618. But this is where the similarity ends. Khomeini's Fatwa seems, at least to my eyes, to be all at once a priestly decree, an ultimate judgment beyond possibility of appeal, and an imperious death sentence. This death sentence is issued against Rushdie and, pre-emptively, against an unspecified number of unnamed people. Moreover Khomeini's Fatwa casts a curse and recklessly incites to acts of violence across the borders of the globe's sovereign nation states. Thus it not only abets but promotes terrorism while sanctifying it. The Fatwa also serves as a promissory note to assassins and would-be assassins promising they will receive the eternal bliss due to all martyrs dying for the one true faith. Here is the text:


"There is only one God, to whom we shall all return; I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that Salmon Rushdie the author of the book entitled THE SATANIC VERSES which has been compiled, printed and published against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic rule and sanctions. Whosoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, anyone who has access to the author of the book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should refer him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God's blessing be on you all."

Within a year of issuing charter and moral warrant for the terrorist movement, Ruholla Al-Musavi Al-Khomeini died. It took Teheran ten years to officially rescind his Fatwa. During this period Salman Rushdie lived a life even more bizarre than any he had imagined in his fictions. Under the British government's protection he was moved from one safe haven to the next, a routine that was often disrupted by Rushdie's furtive trips to surprise the literate public on the global media stage. Rushdie had already achieved a solid literary reputation but Khomeini's Fatwa conferred on him superstardom and elevated him into the much sought upper heavens of the celebrity stratosphere.

On a more somber note, at least twenty-one people, nineteen on the Indian subcontinent and two in Belgium, have died in direct consequence of Khomeini's Fatwa. The extent to which the Fatwa in the ensuing sixteen years caused terrorist deeds and the number of victims cannot be calculated. My three discreet easy pieces on Twain, Scheherazade and Rushdie reflect on the shadows cast by our current situation; they also invite fresh thought on philosophy's perennial problem of finding ways to align reason and power in state and church while holding demons at bay.