Friday, June 02, 2006

The " ist" suffix

Andrew Sullivan has coined a neologism: Christianist. Typically, this is a term that no one but himself uses, and I don't see much chance of it catching on, unlike the term he copied, "Islamist". And even that word is losing ground, as the illogic of it becomes clear to everyone except professional hair-splitters.

"Christianist" is Sullivan's attempt to place in a box the Christians he doesn't like because they won't agree with him that homosexuality is wholesome. The fact that this covers about 80% of present Christendom (and 100% of our Christian ancestors) doesn't seem to bother him. Like "patriotic" traitors on the Left, he insists that he is acting out of loyalty - it's just loyalty to a fantasy Christianity, just as leftists worship a fantasy America that exists only in their own mind.

First of all "-ist" is a stupid suffix to use for this purpose. It purports to distinguish a deviation from the norm - this is how "Islamist" came about. Unfortunately, one cannot fool the ear, and an English speaker is well aware that "-ist" in itself has no negative connotation. The innocent words spring to mind: socialist, communist, capitalist, pianist, liturgist, etc. etc. Whatever one may think of the things themselves, the fact is that these words are simple descriptions of what the things are; as a matter of fact, they are what the people in question call themselves. For this reason, "Christianist" will no more catch on than "Islamist" has done, except among those who are laboriously making a point. These words are an attempt by outsiders to pare away some segment of the whole that is causing them trouble. This only works if people within the group will adopt the usage, and so far there has been no success in this direction.

Now, some might say, "But Andrew Sullivan is not an outsider!" I simply dispute this. He IS an outsider in every meaningful sense of the word. He left the Catholic Church several years ago, over its refusal to surrender in the fight against homosexuality and other sexual deviations. He is also an outsider from the great history of Christian thought. At best, he's a heretic, though he pretends to some membership in a sort of nebulous "greater Christian thought" that coincidentally is completely in agreement with his preferences. He is a disgruntled voluptuary with a perpetual itch to scratch; the fact that he can't bring himself to boldly cast off Christianity may be of some help to his soul, but that's for God to sort out. He's like those people Chesterton described, who have walked out of the church, but are still lurking about in its shadow, unable to walk right away and get up into the sunshine. They're hovering around the door, unable either to leave and forget about it, or go inside and help.

The question is, why the urge to coin these new terms, when all they are is a fancy way of saying "bad". An Islamist is a "bad Muslim", just as a "Christianist" is a "bad Christian" - one who perverts the tenets of his religion. But it is not for an outsider to distinguish what is good and bad in someone else's religion. Or rather, he can do so, but only in terms of what the effect is on himself, *as an outsider*. It's one thing to say, "Christianity is a blight on humanity - it brings nothing but war and suffering," as so many do say. But to say, "Christianity is a great religion - just listen to me, a non-Christian, and I will tell you how you ought to practice it," is ridiculous. And yet this is what President Bush has done non-stop with Islam ever since 9/11.

I'm not sure who first used the term "Islamist" - I seem to recall Daniel Pipes using it shortly after 9/11 - but it sprang from queasy political correctness in the West, coupled with a basic decency that believes the best of everyone. Faced with the monstrous evil that had been produced by Mohammedan fanatics, the West had to come up with the necessary words to discuss the problem. "Islam" was the obvious culprit, yet we in the West instinctively flinched from using it. Surely, the thought went, it can't be Islam itself that's to blame? How can something so big (all those millions of adherents) and so permanent (1400 years of history) be irredeemable? How can something be so big and so wrong? As Chesterton said, the mere physical FACT of Islam was enough to overawe the evidence of our senses and our reason. Somehow, Islam had to be salvaged - if it weren't, endless difficulty would block our way forward.

Thus was invented the word "Islamism". A perversion of Islam, not "real" Islam. President Bush was tireless in lecturing both Mohammedans and non-Mohammedans on what "real" Islam taught and meant. Of course, it was all about peace and reconciliation and gentleness - how could it not be? That's what Christianity is all about, and Islam has been around almost as long; surely they must be pretty much the same thing, or else Islam couldn't have lasted the way it has. Five years later, even Bush has had some of this sappy sentimentalism knocked out of him, but he still keeps trying to find his way back to it.

The problem with trying to divide the sheep from the goats in Islam like this, is that the people who know the most about the religion, i.e., the ones who actually believe it, did not oblige by adopting the terminology themselves. I have never heard the term "Islamist" used by anyone but a non-Muslim. Muslims will sometimes protest that their religion is being abused by people who do bad things, and will sometimes say that terrorists are not Muslims, but there is no ability to assimilate the idea of an "Islamist" - a Muslim who has taken certain things that really exist in the religion and has created an unbalanced, deformed version of the original. What Westerners are trying to do is to transplant the Christian idea of a heresy into another religion. It doesn't work. Islam is too inflexible to adapt to such a concept. The urge is to either make excuses for the terrorist - change the subject, and try to throw the blame upon the Other. Or to pretend that the terrorist is no part of Islam, thus keeping the religion pure.

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