Monday, October 22, 2012

Complexity strikes

One of the frustrating things about trying to have an intelligent debate about matters Islamic is the tendency to simplistic polarisation.  One is the "nothing to see here" version, where raising any concern about trends within Islam and Muslim communities is dismissed as alarmist and likely racist or otherwise bigoted. Any concern or suggestion motivated by same is immediately reconstrued so as to fit into the latter framing.

While I get that this is all about displaying conspicuous virtue, it is also childish and stupid. Both because it is closing one's eyes to real issues and because it leaves the public debate open to being dominated by more extreme views who get credence precisely because they are the only people apparently willing to talk about genuine problems.

Problems such as what journalist Michael J. Totten well-characterises as the terrorists' veto (over free speech).  Part of the massive sense of entitlement that belief in the One God often generates; a sense of entitlement that, in contemporary Islam, repeatedly degenerates into murder. A sense of entitlement both generated and inflamed for reasons of power and authority.

More mundanely, it generates claims against ordinary legal processes and decorum, such as refusing to stand when the judge enters. That Appeals Court threw out all but the first contempt of court conviction on the ground of seeking a "least disruptive" way of maintaining order; which implicitly does generate special claims over normal procedure. (Which then becomes grist for claims of creeping Sharia.)

The second form of simplistic polarisation is the "it is just Islam" approach where Islam is treated as a monolithic thing incapable of evolution or variety. This flies in the face of history and evidence. For example, this study (pdf) which found that anti-Americanism was far more connected to elite competition within Islamic countries than Islamic piety.

An excellent example of such complexity recently occurred in Benghazi where a large angry mob of protestors stormed a militia headquarters; anger apparently sparked by the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed the US Ambassador.  
There has been a wave of hostility towards the militias since US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others Americans died in last week's attack on the Benghazi consulate.
"I don't want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform," said university student Omar Mohammed, who took part in the takeover of the Ansar al-Sharia compound.
Many Libyans have expressed outrage at the attack on the US consulate. Ansar al-Sharia denies being behind it.
"Angry Muslim mob storms militia HQ in outrage over attack in US consulate" does not quite fit into the "it is just Islam" simplicities.

Of course, as one commenter notes here
Intimidating a town that faced down Qaddafi's entire army would be a Herculean task.
Also, it was Qaddafi's murderous threats to Benghazi which prompted the NATO intervention in the first place. 

As political scientist Walter Russell Mead points out in this useful short essay, the complexities of the Middle East have been a constant trial for the US since the days of President Jefferson. He provides a cautionary summary:
Since Thomas Jefferson’s original unhappy encounter with the ambassador of the Barbary States, the U.S. has suffered one setback and disappointment in the Middle East after another. Our good intentions have often gone awry and we seem to sow dragons’ teeth no matter what we do. Yet at the same time, the United States has managed through thick and thin to advance and defend our core interests in the region and over time, some core American values have gained a tenuous foothold. In the Middle East, the United States has a record of failing forward.
It is not a particularly glorious or inspiring track record, but no outside power has done better.
More broadly, it is the lack of simplicities which makes the issues surrounding Islam and Muslim migration so complicated and resorting to self-congratulatory simplicities (in either direction) is the opposite of a useful response.

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