Letters Fall 2001 Issue #11

The article  Open Letter to Susan Sontag,  by Melissa Byles (Offcourse Issue #11, Fall 2001) elicited the following exchange of letters:


Julia Simpson-Akin wrote to Melissa Byles:

To Melissa Byles:

Your essay was quite interesting. It struck me that it was written in something of a fury, a very similar emotion to that which seemed to inspire the terrorists. Because of that fury, you spoke slightingly of the 'faith' of Islam. Perhaps you can see why the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised three times, "Don't get angry, don't get angry, don't get angry."

I was hurt that someone as clearly intelligent as you could write so condescendingly of my faith, Islam. Why did you think it can all be boiled down the way your boiled it? I don't boil down your faith, and I wouldn't presume to.

Actually, although I abhor terrorism, I tend to agree with the point of view that the terrorists of the Sept. 11th tragedy were not cowards. I think fanaticism is based on incredible arrogance and pride. God hates that, according to the tenets of Islam. People who think they are judges of mankind, allowed to abrogate divinely revealed laws (thereby allowing themselves to wage war against innocent civilians) have appointed themselves 'God', and there can hardly be a more grievious sin. But they don't see it, for their pride. Their pride blinds them. That's not an excuse, just fact.

You may have read a little or a good deal about Islam, but that doesn't mean it is 'brave' or 'intellectual' of you to flippantly condense your knowledge into a few lines.

Thank you for taking the time to hear my side.
Julia Simpson-Akin

  Melissa Byles' reply:

To Julia Simpson-Akin:

It was not my intention to write slightingly or condescendingly about the Islamic faith, and I am sorry you interpreted me that way. I blame myself, for I should have made it clearer that I was referring to the simple, personal faith of those who perpetrated the September 11th slaughter, not to Islam in general. I was not trying to be flippant, and my knowledge of Islam is inadequate. Not knowing Arabic, I have read the Koran in translation: I am aware that this doesn't go far in helping us understand the mentality of fanatics who immolate themselves plus as many others as possible in the name of Islam -- no farther than a reading of the Gospels will help us understand the bloody minds of Pope Urban II, Peter the Hermit and the crusaders.

The other point you make: you tend to agree with Sontag that the terrorists were not cowards. Please notice that I framed that whole argument as a question, and I did this not as a rhetorical ploy, rather because I really don't know the precise meaning of words such as "cowardice," "courage" and "bravery." I have some kind of gut feeling about them, as you probably do, too (is this what you mean by "I tend to agree..."?) But having a gut feeling is not the same as understanding. Socrates, by all acounts a very courageous man, confessed he did not know the meaning of "courage." A short Platonic dialogue, the Laches, discusses the question. After the usual, simplistic definitions are proposed and found wanting or contradictory, this is finally arrived at: "courage is knowledge of what is to be dreaded and what is to be dared." But to know what we should fear and what we should desire, we must first know what is good and what is evil, therefore:"... courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage." Yet, Socrates immediately notes, a person having such knowledge would not only be courageous but possess all the virtues, including temperance, justice and holiness (so much for Sontag's parenthesis about courage being morally neutral.) Therefore, Socrates concludes, if courage is a single virtue, not all, such cannot be its definition. He doesn't have a better one.

Nor do I. I wish, however, to lift and emphasize this from the Socratic dialogue: if human courage is to be distinguished from animal ferocity, it must involve some knowledge of the good, and this cannot be but a knowledge of ultimate, logically irreducible values. Which lands us on faith and on the intractable questions of faith. I hold that a diversity of ultimate human values (not merely of points of view) is good, that tolerance is good, and that proposing to exterminate those who have ultimate values different from one's own is evil. For me these are articles of faith. Those who do not share this minimal faith I call fanatics -- a descriptive term, not one of opprobrium. And now let us briefly examine whether or not fanatics can be properly called cowards.

First let me tentatively define the terms, along Socratic lines. Cowardice is fearing what ought not to be feared, and rashness is daring what ought not to be dared; in this sense, both are opposite to courage. Fanatics fear the existence of people with different, incompatible ultimate values; but since according to my minimal faith -- which I expect you share, Julia, as well as Susan Sontag -- diversity of ultimate values is a good, fanatics fear what ought not to be feared, hence they are cowards. And those who dare to blow themselves up to exterminate people who hold different ultimate values, again according to my minimal faith, dare what ought not to be dared, hence they are rash. Can we agree, then, that the terrorists of September 11th were at once cowards and rash?

As for anger, no, I was not angry with the terrorists, and definitely not with Islam, when I wrote the short piece for Of(f)course. The terrible events left me first shocked, then stunned, and finally saddened and mournful, but not angry. If anger there was, it was an intellectual anger (does such a monster exist?) directed at Susan Sontag, because I expected better from her. Thank you, Julia, for giving me the opportunity to explore and explain what I meant earlier. I hope you agree that dialogue is one of the highest goods.

Melissa Byles

  And Julia Simpson-Akin replies:

Dear Melissa,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and gentle reply to my reaction. I wish that some part of it had been interwoven into your published essay, for it does indeed mitigate the impact of a part of that article. Such is the power of the written word, and sometimes less -- being more -- can cause a certain effect that might have been unintended. Neither you nor I can know for certain whether the terrorists had their minds focused on dark-eyed maidens of Paradise when they perpetuated their atrocities,and for others who have not gone into any length of study of Islam, it may seem as if ultimate hedonism in the Hereafter is what that faith is all about (mainly for men!).

Whereas that is far from the truth. Some minds cannot understand joy save in the most simplistic sense. For a dog, joy might be in having a bone. The Quran is full of allegories, which the Sufis caught onto swiftly, themselves writing love poems in allegory which disguised yearning for the Creator.

I followed your argument with great interest. However, I still cannot follow you to the point of accepting the terrorists' actions as cowardly. That does not mean their actions were courageous, heavens, no! Maybe I have trouble with the argument that fanaticism is about fear. In the case of these terrorists, I think it is about arrogance. I have known fanatics. (I am using the name descriptively too, for lack of a better word.) I have not known all fanatics, but I know how fanatic Muslims think. They are jealous, true, but they are usually bull-headed and strangely ignorant (even while possibly being learned in books). They won't listen to anything else and they interpret sacred text as they please.

I always find such people arrogant and full of pride. It always felt to me their intolerance came from pride, not fear of what they didn't understand. They are always more concerned with seeking out other peoples' alleged 'faults' in the name of Islam than rooting out their own. They argue and get angry easily, a sure sign of lack of belief. Sadly, there are too many such people among the Muslims, though Islam is a religion of tolerance, mercy and gentleness.

By your argument, these fanatics would presumably fear the USA. But they do not even fear God, so why would they fear the West? Yes, I see the sour grapes syndrome, but I just don't see the cowardliness -- because they killed themselves, and that must be hard. One must have incredible self-righteous arrogance to do that.

However, I am not saying you are not right. I could be wrong. My main concern was not to describe Islam in a brief or shallow manner.

The terrorists' killing themselves reminds me, in some degree, of a man that the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) indicated would end up in hell. The prophets' companions were amazed, because the guy was fighting alongside them in holy war and was very 'brave.' Someone kept a close eye on this man. As the battle wound down, he was not martyred -- he got the better of everyone. But he wanted so badly to be martyred! Finally he was seen (by the person following) to throw himself upon a spear, thereby killing himself.

Such a one couldn't be called courageous by Plato's standards. I did appreciate your further comments on our difficulty in knowing what courage is. It is curious that so often we do not feel courage when we are commended for having it!

Thank you for your generous reply. You have got me onto a very interesting train of thought.

Julia Simpson-Akin

  From Julia Simpson:

Dear Offcourse,

I don't know whether or not you want to add to the letter exchange on Melissa's essay, but I thought I would forward you the letter that my friend Colin Pink sent to me. He is a British playwright whose plays were recently produced by the Luminous Theater Group in New York.

Credit to Melissa for introducing such an interesting subject!

Julia Simpson

From Colin Pink to Julia:

Hi Julia,

I read your exchange with Melissa with great interest.

I tend to think the terrorists actions were not so much an expression of courage or cowardice but more an act of desperation. I think these people have become convinced that they must take desperate actions because of the situation they perceive themselves to be in.

The Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, who made a study of the fanatics who committed the saren gas attack on the Tokyo subway, wrote an interesting article about the 11/09 attack. I think to be a fanatic means one has got out of touch with reality. I'm sure they don't personally think of themselves as arrogant (though I agree they are) but rather devout, but that just goes to show how when someone gets obsessed how out of touch with reality they become.

I think Murakami's point, though I can't remember it clearly, was that fanatics want a reassuring simple solution to the predicament of living. Something which in a sense liberates them from a sense of personal responsibility both for their own lives and the lives of those around them. Cult leaders provide such a solution but one with a heavy price.


Melissa Byles' article

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