Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 9 News List

`Exceptionalism'and `quietism':today's hot isms

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICENEW YORK

This year, after the toppling of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a rarely heard word -- quietism -- came through loud and clear.

Scott MacLeod of Time magazine led the way in April by referring to Iraq's "Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who favors the traditional `quietist' role of the clergy in politics." Earlier this month, as Sistani pressed his demand for prompt popular elections on the occupying forces, Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor, told Jim Lehrer on the PBS NewsHour that Sistani "is from that quietist tradition of Najaf that believes that the clerics ought not to get involved too closely in day-to-day governing affairs."

Is this new ism a whispered style of speaking or is it a religious movement? It depends on whether you capitalize it.

Quietism with a capital Q is a mystical form of religion, first propagated in the Guida Spirituale in 1675 by Miguel de Molinos, a Spanish priest, who enjoined his followers to contemplate passively, with such devotions leading to the beatific annihilation of the will. He was condemned as a heretic by the Inquisition and his doctrine was repudiated.

Though Protestants, and especially Quakers, debated the role of the religious person in political life, Quietism became best known as a characteristic of the religions of Asia, India and the Middle East -- often searching for inner peace and becoming one with God, more than becoming active in doing good works or crusading for social justice.

When the word was used to describe that detached attitude in political life -- analogous to Quietism in religion -- it was decapitalized.

"I will not talk to you about politics," wrote a philosopher in 1798, "because you are among the moderates and quietists."

The lower-cased word recently strode upon the world stage to describe the difference in approach within the Shiite clergy in Iraq. In Iran, ayatollahs are just the opposite of quietist, having taken over the government, but in Iraq, most Shiite clerics -- Sistani in the lead -- are supposedly concerned primarily with Islamic morals and values, not with running the country.

The mode of quietism, not the religious mysticism, has made its way into the language to describe an attitude. Anthony Lewis, on the federal courts in the late 1990s: "`Activism?' `Quietism' would be more like it."

The adjective "quiet," from the Latin for "resting," appears in another Middle Eastern context. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uses the word to describe his condition (precondition is redundant) for peace negotiations, meaning "a cessation of terror attacks."

To split hairs, the primary meaning of "quiet" is "silent, hushed." Another meaning is "calm, untroubled" and another is "restrained."

Quietude is a state of tranquillity, with quietist moving from "one in a state of passivity" to its developing "low-key activist." There is as yet no "noisyism."

EXCEPTIONALIST TRIUMPHALISM

Two other old isms are new again. When Howard Dean, governor of Vermont in 2000, signed the bill establishing civil unions for homosexuals, he cautioned that "sometimes signing ceremonies take on the trappings of triumphalism," which he thought "not appropriate in this case."

Last month, in a review of Saving Jessica Lynch, the New York Times columnist Frank Rich noted a change in the nation's mood "toward harder-nosed realism and away from unrestrained triumphalism."

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