2014-10-13

The Politics of the Muslim Controversy

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by Neil Godfrey

Salman Rushdie condemns ‘hate-filled rhetoric’ of Islamic fanaticism, The Telegraph:

It’s hard not to conclude that this hate-filled religious rhetoric, pouring from the mouths of ruthless fanatics into the ears of angry young men, has become the most dangerous new weapon in the world today.

If the rhetoric is the weapon then let’s find out why are we seeing so many taking it up today? Recent generations have seen several enemies — the rhetoric of nationalism, the rhetoric of corporate capitalism, the rhetoric of state socialism — and this is a new one. What has led to its emergence?

A word I dislike greatly, ‘Islamophobia’, has been coined to discredit those who point at these excesses, by labelling them as bigots. . . . 

It is right to feel phobia towards such matters. . . . To feel aversion towards such a force is not bigotry. It is the only possible response to the horror of events.

I can’t, as a citizen, avoid speaking of the horror of the world in this new age of religious mayhem, and of the language that conjures it up and justifies it, so that young men, including young Britons, led towards acts of extreme bestiality, believe themselves to be fighting a just war.

Salman Rushdie does not like the word Islamophobia but at the same time he self-servingly (probably without realizing it) distorts its meaning and the way it is used. I return to this word below where I address a Sam Harris quote.

Salman Rushdie is telling us that it is “language that conjures it up”. The image is one of Islamic violence that has been smouldering for centuries like a vulcanic demon impatiently waiting beneath the surface of a bubbling geothermal mud pool for someone to chant the terrible magic words to unleash it.

Rushdie’s failure to reference any historical thinking, or any political-social understanding, is distressing and a little frightening.

It’s fair to say that more than one religion deserves scrutiny. . . . .

But the overwhelming weight of the problem lies in the world of Islam, and much of it has its roots in the ideological language of blood and war emanating from the Salafist movement within Islam, globally backed by Saudi Arabia.

The problem lies “in the world of Islam”? What are the boundaries of that world? Does that world encompass the Middle East, Arabs, and all Muslims under the one black flag?

Why is it that Buddhism and Hinduism and each of the three Abrahamic religions take their respective turns in history to act the barbarian.

This question is fundamental. Muslims in Myanmar being slaughtered by Buddhists would be wasting their time excoriating Buddhism. Christians don’t typically blame Christianity for the massacres and terror Christians have historically perpetrated (in the name of their God) in the Middle East, the Americas, Europe itself. The Shinto mindset among the Japanese today does not conjure up images of the horrific early to mid twentieth century massacres.”True” Christianity is never blamed for the nineteenth century Chinese rebellion in the name of Christ that resulted in the slaughter of tens of millions. Even though the Boxers boasted the inspiration of Taoist and Buddhist spirits, belief in those ancestral spirits is not generally blamed for the barbaric tortures and deaths inflicted by those Chinese rebels. And so one could go on.

For some reason we tend to identify non-religious reasons for the worst excesses of religious violence in the above cases. So why don’t we do the same with Islam? The Muslims who perpetrate barbarism today also spell out very clearly some non-religious motivations so we do have the opportunity to judge them by the same standard we judge others.

But maybe some blame should be laid at the feet of human ability to believe all of the above unverifiable systems and their related spirit entities. By targeting just one manifestation of religiously justified violence are we not targeting the symptoms instead of the fundamental “disease”?

We are going to have to end up talking with our enemies at some point. To do that is going to require some understanding of the other point of view.

And one from Sam Harris:

We’ve been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.

Here we have disingenuous confusion. All Harris has to do, he would like to believe, is merely express a little honest criticism of a religious doctrine that denies modern liberal values to be branded an Islamophobe. (That is not the Meaning of Islamophobia at all, but we are dealing with rhetoric, not understanding.)

I have up till now posted on the public controversy surrounding the Muslim religion, including many posts on terrorism, attempting to tap into the findings that specialist scholarly research has brought to these questions.

Jerry Coyne posts on these topics, too, but his research seems rarely to have dug any deeper than finding a website that backs his gut feelings fueled by mainstream media. As with my posts on biblical topics and religious origins I prefer to try to bring in a perspective from sound research, including research into the way mass media works, and (hopefully) some consistency of thought. Glance through some of my previous posts to see the range of scholarship these posts have drawn upon.

The Political Agenda

An internationally recognized journalist, Lana Asfour, recently identified the political subtext of so much of today’s hostility expressed towards Muslims. The questions I have raised are to me inevitable responses to the inconsistencies and cloudiness throughout Salmon Rushdie’s and Sam Harris’s complaints. What is it that explains these inconsistencies and ignorant generalizations?

[W]hat is the overriding agenda? Trashing Islam is about disseminating simplistic ideas that lend support to precise political goals, and it allows supporters of certain aspects of US foreign policy to justify past, present, and future mistakes. If American voters can be given the impression that most Muslims are sexist, homophobic, intolerant fanatics who murder and behead at the drop of a hat, then they may just believe that it is necessary to invade countries in which Muslims are the majority – it hardly matters which country, as long as wrecking its political, economic, and social fabric serves the primary goals of controlling oil resources, profiting from the arms trade, and allowing Israel to feel safe (irrespective of whether its feelings of insecurity correspond to reality).

The primary example of this in recent times was going to war in Iraq in 2003, which took place despite the largest international anti-war protests that have ever taken place, and which directly contributed to creating extremists on the ground. The perfectly rational idea that the overwhelming majority of Muslims want peace, political freedom, economic comfort, and education for their children, is far too dangerous for leaders, their advisers, and the powerful pundits who support them and disseminate a particular message, as it would require them to look reality in the eye and make decisions based on it. (Lana Asfour, Why is Ben Affleck defending Islam?)

 

8 Comments

  • Greg Pandatshang
    2014-10-13 15:16:44 UTC - 15:16 | Permalink

    1) Razib Khan has a lot of good writing, albeit not terrible conclusive writing, on this topic, which I hope you’ve seen: http://www.unz.com/gnxp/isis-willing-executioners/

    2) my (highly subjective) impression is that Islam is the most this-worldly of the major religions. It encourages people to live successful lives by human standards. I think, as a result of this, it’s harder for Muslims to avoid giving the impression that individuals’ self-serving actions are religiously licit. Whether there’s any reality at all to this beyond the PR problem is something that I don’t have much of an opinion on.

    3) I think some of us sometimes think that we have plenty of data to get a sense of “what Islam is like” in general, but I’d say the opposite is true. We have lots of data points (individual Muslims, Muslim-majority countries, Muslim minority populations) but they are very far from being independent of each other. On the contrary, Muslim-majority countries are limited to a few regions of the world. Individuals and minority groups are shaped by the matrix culture in which they reside. What we would need to make a sound judgment of Islam’s political tendencies would be a natural experiment along the lines of North and South Korea, except with many comparable instances. That kind of data is very rare in political science.

    Since we don’t have that kind of data, we can say, based on survey results that a lot of people in, for example, Egypt, have illiberal (and, to me, distasteful) political and socio-political standards. We have only hunches to go on, though, on the crucial question of what Eygptians would be like if they were not mostly Muslims.

    4) Insider and outsider perspectives can be a healthy heuristic if we are willing to take responsibility for ourselves rather than using responsibility as a cudgel to beat the outsiders. What I mean is, for me personally, I’m a Buddhist. It was with relish, then, that I denounced the Buddhist-themed persecution of Rohingyas in Burma by Buddhist monks and their followers (although I personally have almost no soapbox, so I could only complain to the small number of people who follow me on Twitter). This was easy for me to do, as it ought to be, because I see the Buddhist-themed anti-Rohingya rhetoric as lipstic on a pig, and that pig is really state-condoned violent ethnic nationalism. I have no real reason to feel conflicted in criticisng this so-called Buddhism. Now, from an outsider perspective, as Razib has argued, there’s no point in arguing about what the “real Buddhism” is, or the “real Islam” or the “real Christianity” for that matter. But, for me, as an insider, it does matter, and from my perspective, no, Buddhism does not support pogroms against vulnerable locals of a different religion.

    So, it would be churlish of me not to criticise the attacks on Rohingyas. I wish our Buddhist public figures would be more vocal about that. It should be a slam dunk for those that are not Burmese, and it’s an opportunity to exercise courage for the Burmese ones.

    It doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to expect individual Sunni Muslims to denounce Osama bin Laden and Isis and all that with the same degree of enthusiasm. And I’m not alleging that they don’t. My point is, rather, assuming for sake of argument that there is a particular Muslim who denounces those things only grudgingly, who is thinking in the back of his mind, “Yes, but … but …”, then I don’t think it’s my place to be judgmental about that. But, I think it’s very much worth being curious and trying to find out exactly what is going on: where would that sense of conflict come from?

  • buttle
    2014-10-18 04:35:42 UTC - 04:35 | Permalink

    “Trashing Islam is about disseminating simplistic ideas that lend support to precise political goals”

    Doesn’t this works the other way too? When the president repeatedly claims that the IS has nothing to do with islam isn’t he disseminating a simplistic idea (i’d call that a blatant lie…) to advance his precise political goals?
    What would be the precise political goal of Maher, Harris, Coyne (MHC) and how do they differ from the goals of Affleck or Aslan? Surely these goals can’t include a preemptive war on terror like the 2003 invasion of Iraq that they never supported.

    “it hardly matters which country”

    Does this implies that Maher, Harris or Coyne could possibly approve of a military occupation of Turkey, Morocco or Kazakstan? That sounds positively ridiculous. Even if a majority of ignoramuses could support such a position, does it mean that we all need to shut up about the sectarian violence, human right violations, brainwashing of children that goes on in muslim countries because of their islamic belief system? That would be a very ankward kind of “peace”, and with a very high price tag…

    “The perfectly rational idea that the overwhelming majority of Muslims want peace, political freedom, economic comfort, and education for their children, is far too dangerous for leaders, their advisers, and the powerful pundits who support them and disseminate a particular message”

    What if they are not an overwhelming majority, or even worse, what if they are only a sizable minority? Isn’t it an equally rational idea that the overwhelming majority of 1850’s or 1950’s Southerners wanted peace, political freedom, economic comfort and education for their children? Yet we don’t call bigots and racists the wealthier and more informed Northerners of the time that were pointing out the failure to grant those same freedoms to the non-white population.

    If Asfour is so sure that a qualified majority of contemporary Americans can easily be steered by bad ideas into waging pointless and bloody wars (which admittedly could be true) doesn’t this suggest her that less educated countries are at least as (and probably more) likely to commit atrocities because of bad ideas? Surely they don’t have genetically smarter people, nor better leaders. Shouldn’t it be then allowed, and even a moral imperative, to at least criticize those ideas as sharply as possible?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-10-18 05:49:14 UTC - 05:49 | Permalink

      “Trashing Islam is about disseminating simplistic ideas that lend support to precise political goals”

      Doesn’t this works the other way too? When the president repeatedly claims that the IS has nothing to do with islam isn’t he disseminating a simplistic idea (i’d call that a blatant lie…) to advance his precise political goals?

      What would be the precise political goal of Maher, Harris, Coyne (MHC) and how do they differ from the goals of Affleck or Aslan? Surely these goals can’t include a preemptive war on terror like the 2003 invasion of Iraq that they never supported.

      Yes of course it is wrong to claim that IS has “nothing to do with Islam” because IS does justify itself with Islamic texts just as surely as most Muslims condemn IS by means of other Islamic texts. That’s the nature of religion: some people use it to justify war and others use it to justify peace; some use it to repress women and children, different races and those of minority sexualities while others use it to liberate.

      So we need to ask what has led some Muslims to embrace a hostile interpretation of their religion. The answers are not hard to find if we really want to listen.

      Politicians who insist their wars are not targeting Islam per se are by and large wanting to tell the truth: they want to avoid encouraging domestic divisions and hostilities among their populations. They don’t want to incite attacks on Muslims and inevitable retaliation in their own home bases.

      I don’t know what Affleck’s or Aslan’s political goals would be but I can say mine have been from the beginning to do a complete turnabout on our policies towards many Middle Eastern countries. As for dealing with the IS, this problem is a direct result of our policies in Iraq and Syria. Recently the father of a man whom IS beheaded came out and said we are going to have to talk with IS and negotiate some time. I agree — unless we want to continue bombing and spreading “collateral damage” and inevitably produce further people to fight in the future.

      “it hardly matters which country”

      Does this implies that Maher, Harris or Coyne could possibly approve of a military occupation of Turkey, Morocco or Kazakstan? That sounds positively ridiculous. Even if a majority of ignoramuses could support such a position, does it mean that we all need to shut up about the sectarian violence, human right violations, brainwashing of children that goes on in muslim countries because of their islamic belief system? That would be a very ankward kind of “peace”, and with a very high price tag…

      If you read the rest of the sentence from which you’ve isolated those words and quoted out of context you would see the answer to your question and realize your comment is just silly.

      “The perfectly rational idea that the overwhelming majority of Muslims want peace, political freedom, economic comfort, and education for their children, is far too dangerous for leaders, their advisers, and the powerful pundits who support them and disseminate a particular message”

      What if they are not an overwhelming majority, or even worse, what if they are only a sizable minority? Isn’t it an equally rational idea that the overwhelming majority of 1850′s or 1950′s Southerners wanted peace, political freedom, economic comfort and education for their children? Yet we don’t call bigots and racists the wealthier and more informed Northerners of the time that were pointing out the failure to grant those same freedoms to the non-white population.

      If Asfour is so sure that a qualified majority of contemporary Americans can easily be steered by bad ideas into waging pointless and bloody wars (which admittedly could be true) doesn’t this suggest her that less educated countries are at least as (and probably more) likely to commit atrocities because of bad ideas? Surely they don’t have genetically smarter people, nor better leaders. Shouldn’t it be then allowed, and even a moral imperative, to at least criticize those ideas as sharply as possible?

      Reputable polling and population statistics confirm that they are indeed the overwhelming majority.

      I don’t know why you are so confident that “less educated countries” are more likely to “commit atrocities”. I don’t think historical records would confirm that assumption. Remember the 9/11 terrorists and Osama bin Laden were all very highly educated. You have to be very highly educated to develop and deploy the technology to snuff out an entire city of civilians with single push of a button.

      Of course “bad ideas” should be criticized — whether bad ideas justified by Islam or bad ideas expounded by those who attack Islam out of ignorance and fear.

  • David Ashton
    2015-08-13 22:37:25 UTC - 22:37 | Permalink

    Trouble with some of these “terms” ending in “-phobia” or “-ism” is that they have no precise meaning and are used solely as pejorative labels to insult or silence people. Doublepluscrimethink (Orwell).

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-08-13 22:42:04 UTC - 22:42 | Permalink

      The meaning of Islamophobia is discussed at http://vridar.org/2013/05/02/islamophobia-origin-and-meaning-of-the-word/

      I don’t see a problem with words like “racism” or “anti-semitism” or “xenophobia” — they point to real social problems, yes?

      Some of us have arachnophobia etc etc but no-one considers them mentally ill.

      • David Ashton
        2015-08-14 11:30:05 UTC - 11:30 | Permalink

        The problem is precisely that these four words are used with such a wide range of “meanings” or connotations.

        E.g. Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism, Zionism is Racism, Anti-Semitism is Racism. Therefore Zionism is Anti-Zionism, QED.

        I do not find my homosexual friends and relatives abhorrent, but I do consider felching disgusting, promiscuous bare-backing dangerous, excessive buggery medically problematic (with or without the aid of drugs or oils), and the recent Gay Pride penis-flashng in Brighton, observed by my eldest daughter recently, impolite to passing holiday-makers with children. I do not conceal these opinions, but don’t lose any sleep over them.

        Of course, there are problems connected with “race”, “other” peoples, sexual behaviors, especially with violence and incitement to violence. “Religious sectarianism is on the rise in Britain’s Muslim community and threatens to spill over into violent crime and terrorism,” – The Times, August 14, page 1.

        I believe in free speech for all and violence for none, and prefer rational debate to name-calling and pigeon-holing. A rational case can be made for average differences in intelligence among various human population groups, for significant average differences (apart from the reproductive organs) between human males and females, for immigration controls, and for different evaluations of cultures (while supporting co-existence). What would be gained from calling me “racist”, “sexist” or “xenophobic”, and thereby refusing me a “public platform” anywhere?

        “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends/allies…. Allah guides not the people of the evil-doers.” Hopefully the Islamic Ummah will one day experience an enlightenment, when the Qur’an, Hadith and Sira can be freely subjected to a freedom of analysis and criticism comparable to that which you and I exercise in the “west”.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2015-08-14 13:22:21 UTC - 13:22 | Permalink

          Haven’t people always played word games to justify and mislead all sorts of nonsense and evil. It doesn’t matter what the words are. Yes, Zionism is a racist ideology But when people make wrong claims about anti-semitism then those wrong arguments can be addressed. If we use other words don’t we invite confusion? I don’t have to use the words “anti-zionism” or “zionism” to criticize certain actions and policies of the state of Israel to still be labelled an anti-semite — just for criticizing Israel.

          • David Ashton
            2015-08-14 16:10:04 UTC - 16:10 | Permalink

            ALL such word-games should be avoided so far as possible, and criticized when they occur. I am not sure myself whether the elastic pejorative “racism” should be applied even to Zionism.

            Unlike (say) AIPAC and Hamas, Tel Aviv and Tehran, you and I will perhaps just have to agree to disagree, peacefully and courteously, about this.

            I am sorry Coyne avoids debate.

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