Saturday, July 08, 2006

Shaw on Islam? Part II: Can I Get a Witness?

In my previous 'Shaw on Islam' post, I reviewed my attempts to document two quotes seemingly endorsing Islam attributed to George Bernard Shaw.
As I noted there, I found few references to them except for a number of Islamic sites and only the sketchiest references. [D tried tracking down the cited source, The Genuine Islam, and could find nothing conclusive. He will hopefully supply a report later.] I am thus left at 'maybe he did, maybe he didn't' and as yet have no answer to the first of the two questions I mentioned.
As per the title of this post, I'd love to find a definitive answer to the question of whether there is published documentation of the quotes. If anyone can direct me to something more conclusive than what we've got already, please make free!

My second question, I distilled to 'What was the writer thinking?' Obviously I can't pretend to know exactly what was on his mind when he chose to bring up the quotes. But I can surmise that his intent was to lend support to his faith and make it appealing to others by pointing out a great Western scholar who appears, after thorough study, to have endorsed it. In this post, I will attempt to explain why I don't consider him successful from an academic or common sense standpoint. Whether he was successful in terms of increasing esteem for Islam among the readership of the newspaper, I can't say. I suspect the reaction of a good percentage was "Y'mean that CNN feller?"

The most basic failing of this method of evangelism is, of course, the lack of documentation. As one who once had to track down a copy of Mythlore years before the Internet and the current Tolkien craze put that publication on the map, I can empathize with the difficulty posed by obscure primary sources. But you can't just pull quotes out of thin air. The recent media scandals revolving around plagiarism, faulty sourcing, and fiction presented as fact ought to have made that clear. Unless a quote is so widely known that there is no question as to its source (and perhaps even then--there is no shortage of misquotes and false attributions out there,) it's prudent to verify the primary source first. In this case we have citations that have apparently been kicked around from website to website--but nobody's bothered to check the primary source and some don't even seem to be certain what sort of publication it is. It is somewhat reminiscent of the persistent rumor launched by Lady Hope of Darwin's deathbed recant of his theory. (Boller, Paul F. and John George, They Never Said It. Barnes & Noble, 1989.)

Even if we presume authenticity of the quotes, however, it would be wise to consider their originator before running with them. First of all though Shaw may have been a great scholar, he was by no means infallible. His list of widely known 'endorsements' included, for a time at least, the major fascist movements of his day. Second, one of Shaw's claims to fame was his gift as a satirist. A quote that appeared in a few of the directories I researched was, "Americans adore me and will go on adoring me until I say something nice about them." Indeed, when Shaw praised you, it was a good idea to brace for the backhand. Some of his 'endorsements' had a double edge. Note that the first quote says nothing of the moral superiority of Islam (which, for a religion, is really the only thing that matters.) It merely praises the capacity of Islam to dominate. The second quote, again, praises the religion's 'vitality' and 'assimilating capacity'--not its theological soundness or purity of spirit. Faint praise, from a religious standpoint. Moreover, it's not the sort of remark likely to predispose the intended subjects of that 'assimilating capacity' to welcome it with enthusiasm.

Finally, Shaw's relentless consistency makes him a dangerous choice for Celebrity Spokesman. His good friend, G.K. Chesterton, described him thus:
The thing which weak-minded revolutionists and weak-minded Conservatives really hate (and fear) in [Shaw], is exactly this, that his scales, such as they are, are held even, and that his law, such as it is, is justly enforced. . . If he dislikes lawlessness, he dislikes the lawlessness of Socialists as much as that of Individualists. If he dislikes the fever of patriotism, he dislikes it in Boers and Irishmen as well as in Englishmen. If he dislikes the vows and bonds of marriage, he dislikes still more the fiercer bonds and wilder vows that are made by lawless love. If he laughs at the authority of priests, he laughs louder at the pomposity of men of science. If he condemns the irresponsibility of faith, he condemns with a sane consistency the irresponsibility of art. He has pleased all the bohemians by saying that women are equal to men; but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women. He is almost mechanically just; he has something of the terrible quality of the machine.(Chesterton, Heretics, ch. IV. Many thanks to Enbrethiliel of Sancta Sanctis, who graciously supplied the quote despite my quibbles over her Quizilla quiz! The entire chapter is reproduced online here.) One can imagine Shaw enthusing over a pet philosophy like Tom Cruise over Scientology, but the difference is that Shaw was also capable of demolishing the weaknesses in that philosophy with scathing criticism. And when those weaknesses were brought to his attention, he was known to do so.

Interestingly enough, while I was trolling for verification of the original quotes, another reputed (but unfortunately unsourced) quote by Shaw came up on several (mostly Islamic, but also one Hindu) sites. It was, "Islam is the best religion with the worst followers."



From today's readings:
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."
2 Corinthians 12:9 NAB

Update 1/09: Go here for the latest update or click the full thread below.

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