What is it like to be a Muslim? “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” The truth is that a (genuine, not “moderate”) Muslim (or Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Scientologist, etc.), though unlike a lion he may speak perfectly good English, is someone who has grown up inside his faith and knows nothing else. You cannot understand him, because the only word he wants to use is “everything.”
(I also except those, several of of whom I know, who grew up as rationalists but have made a rational decision to convert to orthodox religions, the mustier and more arbitrary the better—generally because the alternative more and more proclaims itself, per Chesterton, not nothing, still less Reason, but the Whore of Babylon in full professional attire. To these friends, Babylon-worship, essentially idolatrous (and speaking to Maimonides’ point that idol-worship is self-worship) seems unsatisfying for a grownup, but utterly unacceptable for his children. But still—these people are not genuinely religious, though their kids will be.)
A genuinely Muslim Muslim cannot tell us anything about Islam, as the chick within the egg (even a talking chick) can tell us nothing about eggs. The concept of “egg” is not meaningful for her—or to put it differently, it is equivalent to her concept of “universe.” Her universe is two inches in diameter and glows soft-white about half the time. It’s warm, well-nourished, and really rather pleasant.
And perhaps yet there is a point at which she realizes—in some obscure chick-language—“I am in an egg.” Her universe is not the universe. It is just an egg. What a pity, to live one’s whole chicken life inside an impenetrable sphere, two inches in diameter! To be… in fact… to be crushed, in fact, by the pressure of my own growing wings. Already I can barely open my beak. Why was I even born in this egg? With wings and a beak? Why, inside an egg, would I even need a beak? But wait—
For there is one brief moment in which the chick can conceive the concept of an egg. The moment before, egg is universe. The moment after—egg is eggshell.
An eggshell is not an egg, nor will it ever be. I’m sure everyone reading this was once a good 20th-century liberal. Yet we find it a serious, even impossible, struggle, to explain the liberal mind. What, this eggshell? A millimeter thick? Flattened with a footstep? And missing its entire top, whence I dragged my scraggly ass out and sat shivering till my down dried off? This, a universe? My universe? Elizabeth Bishop:
I said to myself: three days and you’ll be seven years old. I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off the round, turning world, into cold, blue-black space. But I felt: you are an I, you are an Elizabeth, you are one of them. Why should you be one, too? I scarcely dared to look to see what it was I was.
As a small fortunate Internet miracle, you can see Charles Stross in precisely this evanescent moment—scarcely daring to look to see what it is he is:
Please don’t deny that you are a believer in this revolutionary ideology — and it is revolutionary; so much so that Republican Democracy, Fascism, and Communism are just minor doctrinal disputes within it. It’s okay to admit it here; I’m a supporter of this ideology, too. None of us are supporters of feudal monarchism; we’re all the inheritors of the early Jacobins. Which makes us revolutionaries.
But it’s important to understand that virtually the entire mainstream of political and social discourse today is radical and revolutionary by historical standards. (Hell, the concept of sociology itself is a construct of the revolutionary philosophers.) This is not an historically normative set of touchstone ideas to run a society on. We’re swimming in the tidal wave set running by an underwater earthquake two centuries ago—and like fish that live their entire lives in water, we are unable to see our circumstances as the anomaly that they are, or to know whether it’s all for the best.
And, as Oliver Cromwell put it, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
Indeed. Unfortunately, it’s one thing to “see what it is you are” three weeks after laying. Or three days before seven. Slightly different when you’re pushing fifty. But better late than never, eh?
Again, as survivors of this insane murderous cult (we can say one thing for the Jacobin of 2013—none of his works has ever been released in human leather) that ate the planet, we all find ourselves wondering how to get our friends out of their eggs. Our difficulty is that we do not understand eggs and have no memory of escaping from an egg—only from an eggshell.
While there is no easy answer, I can’t help but think that this moment in which the chick sees the egg is an essential part of the solution. The truth is that some will escape and some won’t. Probably, most won’t.
But it seems almost inevitable that once anyone understands that he’s inside an egg, his next step will be to figure out what his beak is for. An egg is an eggshell. The world outside it is kind of big and certainly scary. How easy to fall off, into black, turning space! And yet, it’s pretty boring inside an eggshell…