"My wife doesn't understand me," is a corny line that is probably now used more in films than in real life. It makes us laugh, partly because it is a cliché, but mainly because we all know that his wife understands him only too well. Her understanding is the problem; he is no longer a hero or a man of mystery.
"Misunderstanders" of Islam, as Robert Spencer calls them, abound. Some of them blow themselves up on tube trains, stone rape victims or fly planes into buildings. This is not the true Islam, we are told, but a misunderstanding of it. Some infidels are puzzled by this, and have tried to understand the true Islam by reading the Koran, the Hadith and the Sira. They have seen that Islam does indeed command the killing of infidels, and, in some circumstances, of rape victims. When they point this out to Muslims they are told that they too have misunderstood.
There is a lot of misunderstanding going on. Errant husbands, Mohammed, Islam, and now the Archbishop of Canterbury - all misunderstood. The Archbishop recently "[took] responsibility for any misunderstanding", a statement I puzzle to understand. Nor do I understand the following passage, from the recent lecture that caused all the trouble:
Perhaps it helps to see the universalist vision of law as guaranteeing equal accountability and access primarily in a negative rather than a positive sense—that is, to see it as a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination and guaranteed the freedom to demand reasons for any actions on the part of others for actions and policies that infringe self-determination.
I don't understand this one either:
Earlier on, I proposed that the criterion for recognising and collaborating with communal religious discipline should be connected with whether a communal jurisdiction actively interfered with liberties guaranteed by the wider society in such a way as definitively to block access to the exercise of those liberties; clearly the refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.
I'm in good company, it seems. Theodore Dalrymple is also baffled, and has raised the possibility that the fault lies not with the audience, but with the Archbishop himself:
British intellectual life has long harbored a strain of militantly self-satisfied foolishness, and the present archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a perfect exemplar of the tendency. In an interview with the BBC on February 7, the archbishop said that it “seems unavoidable” that some aspects of sharia, or Islamic law, would be adopted in Britain: unavoidable, presumably, in the sense in which omertà seems unavoidable in the island of Sicily.
Rarely does philosophical inanity dovetail so neatly into total ignorance of concrete social realities: it is as though the archbishop were the product of the coupling of Goldilocks and Neville Chamberlain. Those more charitably inclined point out that the archbishop is an erudite man, a professor of theology who reads in eight languages and who was addressing a highly sophisticated audience, employing nuanced, subtle, caveat-laden arguments. He was not speaking in newspaper headlines, nor did he expect to make any headlines with his remarks.
Charity is a virtue, of course, but so is clarity: and it is the latter virtue that the archbishop so signally lacks. He assumes that the benevolence of his manner will disguise the weakness of his thought, and that his opacity will be mistaken for profundity.
There is only one word for a society in which such discourse can pass for intellectual subtlety and sophistication, and lead to career advancement: decadent.
Strangely enough, I understood every word of that. Could it be that moral and verbal clarity go together? Could it be that certain words, beliefs and actions are not so much misunderstood as plain wrong?