Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Punching down" and other moral inanities

In the ever-widening world of PC word taboos, there is "punching down", as in one should not "punch down" (i.e. verbally attack or make fun of folk who are less privileged or empowered than oneself). It sees to have originally started in the field of comedy, so the origins of the term probably has some connection to punch line (though possibly not). But if it did, it has rapidly lost any such connection.

Clearly, the notion of "punching down" is deeply connected to the idea that entertainment, culture and literary effort should be moralised in a very particular way. In particular, with a very particular set of rankings. If one meant the point literally, then no comedian earning $X amount annually should ever make fun of any earning $<X annually. The more money you make, the fewer people you could make fun of.

Obviously, that is not what is meant.

If not, why not?

Because we are dealing with entire categories of people who can allegedly be ranked in terms of privilege. This is problematic in so any ways that it is hard to know where to begin. For example, social advantage can play quite differently in otherwise similar societies: the common (and tedious) American assumption that their particular set of social advantages/disadvantages are shared by everyone does not actually work for the rest of the Anglosphere, let alone anyone else. (This is nicely discussed here.)

The second, much bigger problem, is that the proposed categories are way too crude to bear the moral weight being loaded onto them. SF author Larry Corriea zeroes in on this little difficulty:
I only say that because I grew up with all that fancy Portuguese Dairy Farmer Privilege, where I got to have an alcoholic mother and a functionally illiterate father (who is way darker skinned than Tempest), where I got to spend my formative years knee deep in cow shit at 3:00 AM, so that I could later work my way through Utah State (only after getting a scholarship for my freshmen year because I knew a whole lot about cows), to then spend my adult life working corporate drone jobs of increasing difficulty and skill requirements, all while writing on the side while I supported my family, until I could make it as a professional author.
Lecture us more about privilege, Tempest. It’s fascinating.
A comment on Reddit:
The entire punching up/down concept appears to be nothing more than an attempt at a caste system.
Has a certain amount of truth to it. As is so often the case within the PC-universe, we are dealing with a word-obsessed vulgar (very vulgar) Marxism of very broad categories which are nevertheless highly moralised. Comedy is a particularly poor vehicle for such crude categorising, as it so depends on context.

In the specific case of satire, the entire approach is even more wrong-headed as the essence of satire is surely targeting absurdities wherever they lie.

Part of what is going on here is a public discussion about good taste. But, as that is an "elitist" conception, it has to be passed off as "concern for the oppressed/underprivileged/disadvantaged" for people who cannot seem to make a substantive moral judgement if it is not on the oppressor-oppressed axis (from the three-axes model of political discourse). This post seems to be groping towards "folks, it's just bad form". By comparison, this post really cannot get out of the oppressed/oppression rut, to the extent that not getting labels right is "oppression".

One has to live in a very open and tolerant society if issues of labels are matters of "oppression". In fact, it is a rather indecent moral inflation, given the amount of serious oppression that exists in the world today. (Overwhelmingly, of course, outside the West.)

One takes it that satirising Christianity would not be "punching down", but satirising Islam  apparently is, or is likely to be, or something. (Even though Christians are far more likely to be subject to religious persecution in the world today, just not in the West.) This is some of the crudest categorising of all, given the great diversity of perspective among actual Muslims/people of Muslim heritage (Islam being both a religion and a civilisation). As this post alludes to, bundling Muslims/people of Muslim heritage together gives aid and comfort to genuinely oppressive religious forces (who are, as I have said elsewhere, the Nazism of our times).

Murderously oppressive, as instanced in the recent murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger and writer Dr. Avijit Roy; the murder a few months ago of a Bangladeshi sociology professor, Professor Shafiul Islam, who opposed full-face veils; previous murders of (warning--violent images), and assassination attempts on, atheist bloggers and writers: all murders in a single Muslim country by people who think words terribly important--because they want to control public space, to control what can be said--and are very willing to murder to do so.
Torchlight procession in honour of slain writer and in protest at his murder.

There is another indecent moral inflation which struck me when I came across the term "punching down". That is conflating words with violence. If one makes words terribly, terribly important--particularly if one starts using terms which allude to violence ("punching down", "micro-aggression")--then that has the effect of minimising the difference between words and actual violence. The effect is to lower the moral weight of actual violence--moral weight not being an indefinitely expandable resource, given human cognitive limits and time constraints.

It is the difference between saying "you just don't kill people over words and cartoons" and "but we have to consider the particular words and cartoons". No, actually we don't. And that the more PC you are, the less you get that is a sign of how political correctness's serious over-weighting of the importance of words actually degrades, rather than elevates, moral understanding.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here (2)

(Part one of this review was posted here.)

Algerian-American author and academic Karima Bennoune's moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, using interviews from 300 people across almost 30 countries, celebrates the messy diversity of lived reality (Pp10-11), which is precisely what Muslim fundamentalism seeks to deny, control and eliminate beyond its narrow conceptions of "proper" social order. Much of the book is based around testimonies from women of Muslim heritage (remembering that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation). But in telling their stories, Karima Bennoune also stresses the importance of progressive Muslim fathers in giving their daughters space to aspire (Pp110-1).

What it is
Karima Bennoune is telling the stories of the victims and opponents of Muslim fundamentalism. In doing so, she seeks to inform and warn of Muslim fundamentalism's nature and intentions. Muslim fundamentalism:
is one of the most truly transnational fundamentalisms, notable for the ubiquity of its adherents and the sophistication and reach of its vicious armed groups. (p.14).
But to understand this, we have to break free of Western framings that have little to do with the realities within Muslim coummunities and societies:
Some Western observers see Muslim fundamentalists as the stalwart representatives of the local standing up to the global, the Jihad versus McWorld scenario. That is not how they often see it on the ground. Women in Niger complained bitterly to me that fundamentalists were trying to replace the wonderfully colourful local dress--the boubou--with dour veils worn by some in the Arabian peninsula, to de-Africanise their lived Islams. Moroccan anthropologist Hassan Rachik had explained this dynamic when he wrote that the Muslim majority societies currently face two kinds of globalisation, "Western globalisation" and "Islamic globalisation," by which he meant transitional Muslim fundamentalist networks and ideology. In other words, Jihad is McWorld, just a different version of it. (p.15)
Lived Islams is a phrase to remember, particularly when Islamists parade as defenders of "authentic" Islam. Especially as their project is all about a drive to change most Muslim's relationship with their religion. As one Salafi preacher talking to a Western journalist made clear:
SHERIF’S DISMISSAL of non-Salafi Muslims as “infidels” was harsh. Many Muslims won’t even call a Christian or Jew a kafir, since they worship Allah, in their own benighted ways. If Sherif really meant “infidel”—and I never knew a Salafi to joke about such things—he was consigning not just those in downtown Alexandria, but nearly every Muslim in the world, to scorching damnation. I returned to Cairo and asked Hesham whether that judgment might be a tad extreme. He didn’t budge. “The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that not one in a thousand of his followers would join him in Paradise.” So no one should be surprised that the criteria for proper practice of Islam would be extremely strict.
Given the all-encompassing nature of their social agenda, to see Muslim fundamentalists as "anti-imperialist" is to make a profound mistake. As Pakistani documentary filmmaker and women's rights advocate Gulnar Tabassum says:
They have an imperialism of their own which is very much about control and exploitation and abuse of their own people (p.245).
Karima Bennoune goes on to ask:
Why would an "anti-imperialist" blow up the markets of Peshawar were local women shop? Or decimate mosque after mosque full of minority-sect Muslims? (p.245)
Though a "festering anti-Americanism", spread, Gulnar Tabassum says, by the media and government, gives the Taliban cover (p.246).

The jihadis use the rhetoric of religion and jihad to create something new in its methods. As an Algerian anti-terrorism expert says "Jihadism is not jihad" (p.169). Or, in the words of Pakistani peace activist Diep Saeeda:
But the next day, they will go to the women's bazaar, explode there, and kill women doing the shopping. So, what kind of ideology is this? (p.241)
Grappling with those sort of questions can be confronting. To the extent that there is appeal in denial and conspiracy theories about who is "really" behind the killings--whether in Algeria (p.172), in Pakistan (p.243) or elsewhere. (Or utterly clueless commentary on the global rise in anti-Jewish violence.)

The tales of suffering, victims and opposition are also tales of endurance and survival. Algerian human rights activist Cherifa Djazairouma--whose mother and niece were shot and wounded by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists while her sister was shot and killed, her brother tortured to death--when asked how she survived the experience replies:
Survive? I don't know if I survived. (p.175)
The prolonged experience of terror changes people. In the words of Algerian writer and journalist Mustapha Benfodil, who was captured and tortured by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists in 1994:
Ten years of terror ... had ended up killing in us a sentiment as human as fear. (p.183)
Karima Bennoune admires the resilience of the Afghans. Her Afghan interlocutors are horrified when she tells them that Algerians used to call the worst of the AIG cadres "Afghans". The Afghans called such itinerant jihadis "Arabs" (p.250).  Yet again, how much the fundamentalist surge has changed lived Islam is remembered by her interlocutors, including how socially freer Afghan society used to be (p.262).

Horia Mosadiq, lead researcher for Amnesty International in Afghanistan, reminds readers that the "peace" of rule by the Taliban was more murderous than the NATO-invasion "war" that overthrew it (p.263). Hence, of course, the massive flow of refugees (5.8 million) back into Afghanistan after the NATO invasion and occupation. But the murderous Taliban rule was largely invisible to the world media, while the NATO war against the Taliban insurgency is highly media visible.

Amnesty reminds us of the situation of women under Taliban rule:
Under the Taliban, women and girls were discriminated against in many ways, for the 'crime' of being born a girl. The Taliban enforced their version of Islamic Sharia law. Women and girls were:
  • Banned from going to school or studying
  • Banned from working
  • Banned from leaving the house without a male chaperone
  • Banned from showing their skin in public
  • Banned from accessing healthcare delivered by men (with women forbidden from working, healthcare was virtually inaccessible)
  • Banned from being involved in politics or speaking publicly.
There were many other ways their rights were denied to them. Women were essentially invisible in public life, imprisoned in their home. In Kabul, residents were ordered to cover their ground and first-floor windows so women inside could not be seen from the street. If a woman left the house, it was in a full body veil (burqa), accompanied by a male relative: she had no independence.
If she disobeyed these discriminatory laws, punishments were harsh. A woman could be flogged for showing an inch or two of skin under her full-body burqa, beaten for attempting to study, stoned to death if she was found guilty of adultery.
Rape and violence against women and girls was rife. Afghan women were brutalised in the law and in nearly every aspect of their daily life. A woman in Kabul had the end of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish, for example, in 1996.
'They shot my father right in front of me. It was nine o'clock at night. They came to our house and told him they had orders to kill him because he allowed me to go to school. The Mujahideen had already stopped me from going to school, but that was not enough. I cannot describe what they did to me after killing my father...'
A fifteen year-old girl in Kabul, 1995
A 1998 report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) goes into detail, supporting Horia Mosadiq's comments:
After taking control of the capital city of Kabul on September 26, 1996, the Taliban issued edicts forbidding women to work outside the home, attend school, or to leave their homes unless accompanied by a husband, father, brother, or son. In public, women must be covered from head to toe in a burqa, a body-length covering with only a mesh opening to see and breathe through. Women are not permitted to wear white (the color of the Taliban flag) socks or white shoes, or shoes that make noise while they are walking. Also, houses and buildings in public view must have their windows painted over if females are present in these places. (p.2) 
The Taliban is...the first faction laying claim to power in Afghanistan which has targeted women for extreme repression and punished them brutally for infractions. To our knowledge, no other regime in the world has methodically and violently forced half of its population into virtual house arrest, prohibiting them on pain or physical punishment from showing their faces, seeking medical care without a male escort, or attending school.
It is also difficult to find another government or would-be government in the world that has deliberately created such poverty by arbitrarily depriving half the population under its control of jobs, schooling, mobility, and health care. Such restrictions are literally life threatening to women and to their children. PHR’s researcher when visiting Kabul in 1998 saw a city of beggars — women who had once been teachers and nurses now moving in the streets like ghosts under their enveloping burqas, selling every possession and begging so as to feed their children. (p.34) 
This notion that the Taliban offered peace and that the Afghan people welcomed it, notwithstanding its price, is a durable, albeit flawed analysis of Afghanistan under the Taliban. As PHR’s health and human rights survey of women indicates, this is not an analysis shared by Afghan women themselves. Women were overwhelmingly horrified by the Taliban and its repressive rule, and many indicated that the period of civil war and rocketing was preferable to a life of begging, hunger, virtual house arrest, imprisonment, and enforced wearing of the burqa. Moreover, Raphel’s insistence that the Taliban is “indigenous” and the implication that it achieved power because of popular support is surprising, given the clear record of military, economic, and political support provided by Pakistan. (p.36)
Another recurring theme is the disastrous consequences of pandering to Muslim fundamentalism. For example, Karima Bennoune's Pakistani interlocutors note how important the "Islamisation" program of Zia ul-Haq's regime was in encouraging fundamentalism (p.241). The British in Egypt played the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular nationalists, Israel played Hamas against Fatah, Sadat and Mubarak played the Muslim Brotherhood against the liberals, the Algerian regime played the FIS against democratic secularists, Pakistan partly created the Taliban as an instrument to dominate Afghanistan and has used jihadis against India, the US funded fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The list goes on.

While political or strategic expedience was part of what was going on, one also wonders if the baleful effect of the Hegelian fallacy of modernisation theory was not also in play--the presumption that history has a direction, so serious religious belief is a thing of the past; thus "wave of the future" liberals, democrats, nationalists, secularists are the more "serious" threat. It surely plays a role in so many Western intellectuals, journalists and politicians being unable to take religious motives seriously.

One is reminded of the original "Red-Brown" alliance--the Stalinist KPD functionally helping the Nazis to bring down the Weimar Republic on the grounds that as "mere reactionaries" the Nazis were doomed by History. That turned out very badly for the KPD and while, in the longer run, the Soviet Union was able to expand, it only survived the consequences of the Nazi-Soviet Pact through the Anglo-Americans diverting key German forces (such as much of the Luftwaffe) and massively subsidising the Soviet war effort.

The Nazism of our time 
Another theme in the book is that the operational choices of Islamists vary far more than their underlying aims. Which puts into context the dramatic tactical shifts the Tunisian Islamist Party Ennahda has engaged in, for example (Pp272-3). In his 1993 piece Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible, Algerian left-wing educator Salah Chouaki, gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, wrote:
[Egyptian philosopher Fouad] Zakariya identified and analyzed the following pattern: the Islamists occupy the socio-cultural terrain, then the politico-ideological terrain. They exert a multiform pressure on the society and the state. The latter makes concessions to them, and even ends up trying to outdo them so as not to allow itself to appear less Islamist than the Islamists. Thus, the state introduces Islamism in school, in the cultural realm, in institutions, in different spheres – including the economic one – thinking or pretending to think that it is promoting Islam as a religion. The Islamists profit from all of this, re-investing their gains in all manner of renewed pressures which win them yet more ground, and then they repeat this pattern again, at ever higher levels.
It is very much about a "long march through the institutions"; positively Gramscian indeed. All of which reinforces my point that the jihadis are the Islamic equivalent of the Nazis--a modernising revolt against modernity, adopting the operational techniques and total politics of Leninism for a very different political project; emphasising heroic, warrior virtues (whose appeal Susan Sontag memorably analysed in her Fascinating Fascism essay) in an explicitly atavistic project. Though theirs is a project of master believers rather than a master race. Still, Susan Sontag's closing comments are remarkably apposite:
Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.
The jihadis are the SS without the tailoring:
the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. 
Where loading up beheadings and brutality on YouTube replaces uniform aesthetics as the way to make one's statement about valorising violence. For:
fascism—also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners...the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man [believers] (under the parenthood of leaders).
The cult of the homicidal self-immolation of slaughtering "martyrs" is most certainly a fetishism of courage. When German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen infamously said of the destruction of the Twin Towers that it was:
the greatest work of art ever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we, composers, are nothing.
And British artist Damien Wise told the BBC that the attacks were:
visually stunning artwork: The thing about 9/11, is that it's kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. . . . Of course, it's visually stunning and you've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobody would ever have thought possible. . . . So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.
They were vindicating the continuing relevance of Sontag's analysis.

The ambitions of the Muslim fundamentalists are, however, much more grandiose than those of the Nazis. The Nazis "merely" wanted a Lebensraum empire to the Urals which would be (amongst other "purifications") Judenfrei. The Muslim fundamentalists are thinking much more global. In the words of the Islamic State's spokesperson:
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”
What is the "root cause" of a multi-generational ambition for global domination? Or is salvation-through-seeking-global-acceptance-of-submission-to-the-sovereignty-of-Allah its own reward? Both in this world and the next.

Dilemmas of opposition
Secularists in the Islamic world are often in very difficult positions. Fewer more so than Palestinian secularists, caught between Hamas and Israel (p.325). And the corruption of Fatah.

As an aside, Karima Bennoune manages a lovely demolition of Jerry Falwell:
On the tenth anniversary [of 9/11], I thought a lot about the victims, like Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan priest who was a Fire Department chaplain and died in the lobby of Tower One. Father Mike had administered to AIDS patients and alcoholics and was a fan of Celtic rock band Black 47. Rushing to comfort victims of terror, he became one. Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell said of 9/11 a few days later that the feminists and gays and all who tried to secularise America "helped this happen". Though he subsequently apologised, Falwell was clearly unable to understand Father Mike's life or his death (p.265).
Though, in a through-the-looking-glass way, Falwell was right, in that it is a wish to have, and a determination to block, the sorts of social freedoms that Westerners take for granted as experience and aspiration which has so riven the Muslim world. Karima Bennoune is right to wonder why Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left--who are so quick to denounce the politics of Western religious fundamentalism--seem so blind and mute about its (much worse) Muslim equivalents. Leftists of Muslim heritage, such as Fouad Zakaria and Salah Chouaki, can grapple critically with Islamic history:
In each and every case, it is fundamentalism that succeeds in re-orienting the positions that take hold in these spheres in its favor. This is because of the enormous scientific and cultural lag that affects these countries. It is also because the balance of power within religion, as shaped by our history, has erased the brightest pages of our Arabo-Islamic cultural patrimony – those which carry the seeds of rationality and of modernity. This historical dynamic has promoted the domination of the most conservative and obscurantist interpretations.
They are simply (mostly) ignored. Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said on International Day of Peace in 2012 about Boko Haram:
We have an organisation which closes down schools, shoots faculty teachers...and turns most of the north into an educational wasteland. How can we reach children there? We must first get rid of Boko Haram. (p.266)
Karima Bennoune continues:
Movements like Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are so bent on the destruction of human beings that the only possible response is to abhor them--not the individuals in them but their collective political organisation and what it does. (p.266)
Boko Haram being another viciously murderous organisation operating in a social context free of substantive connections to the Cold War, Western intervention or the Israel-Palestine conflict. None of which ever explains why Muslim fundamentalists mainly kill fellow Muslims, use such recurring techniques of massacre, murder and brutality or engage in recurring forms of social and religious repression.  The "root cause" of jihadi terror is Muslim fundamentalism: looking for congenial-to-framings social causes is like looking for the "root cause" of the Holocaust in the unemployment of the early 1930s.

As an aside, the fumbling foreign policy cluelessness of President Obama and his Administration (how is that "reset" with Russia going?: no, actually ISIS is deeply--indeed obsessively--Islamic: as for a jobs program for ISIS, words fail) shows a depressing lack of sense of history. Likely based on a fairly extensive ignorance of it.

Regarding the nonsense about ISIS et al being "not Islamic", a comment on a typically sensible piece by Julian Sanchez is on point:
Arguing ISIS isn’t Muslim is like arguing the Habsburg or Swedish army in the 30 Years War wasn’t Christian.
Even their execution videos are laden with Islamic references. An Egyptian journalist is quite blunt about the genuine dilemmas within Islam:
Was Abu Bakr [first Caliph] morally wrong to burn that man [Fuja'ah Al-Sulami] alive? Nobody dares to say so. So we are left in this vicious circle, and you can expect more barbarity, because all this barbarity is sacred. It is sacred. This barbarity is wrapped in religion. It is immersed in religion. It is all based on religion. Your mission [as a cleric] is to say that while it is part of our religion, the interpretation is wrong. Do not tell people that Islam has nothing to do with this.
The suggestions of those interviewed about what to do about Muslim fundamentalism are many and varied (p.332). What Karima Bennoune herself seeks is popular mobilisation against Muslim fundamentalism and an empowering of civil society (Pp 332-3). Both their violence and their ideology need to be opposed:
there can be no successful strategy to combat terrorism that does not involve a commitment to ending the relentless fundamentalist attacks on civilians in Muslim majority contexts...
...the problem is also the discriminatory and hateful ideology that underlies it, the yeast that makes its beer. (p.336).
There are no useful "moderate" Islamist allies or partners for peace. There is:
a need to sometimes be uncompromising in facing off with fundamentalism. The attempts by some governments, by some academics, by some in civil society, and even by some Western feminists to accommodate some Muslim fundamentalist views about things like equality and the role of religion in public life help advance Islamist goals and undermine the people whose efforts are chronicled in this book (p.341).
Karima Bennoune cites Salah Chouaki, the aforementioned Algerian left-wing educator gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, who wrote in his 1993 article Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible:
There is an unresolvable contradiction between support for the idea of a modern society and the belief...that it is possible to ‘domesticate’ the totalitarian monster of fundamentalism. ...
The best way to defend Islam is to put it out of the reach of all political manipulation. The best way to defend the modern state is to put it out of the reach of all exploitation of religion for political ends. (p.341)
As Karima Bennoune writes:
The world is messy and defies simple paradigms. That is what the fundamentalists cannot tolerate, but their opponents must. (p.312)
Why Western progressives are unlikely to listen
Which, sadly, is why what Karima Bennoune writes is likely to have so little resonance among the very people she so desperately wants to get through to. What she tells is too "messy" for their preferred framings, which are typically far too bound up in their sense of identity to be breached.

Modern liberals, progressivists and folk of the Left engage in highly moralised political discourse--and as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has famously argued, morality binds and blinds. It is easy to set up an "echo chamber" effect, where folk lapse into a collective moral narcissism, where one's sense of Virtue becomes one's reality principle.

Muslim fundamentalism comes from a different civilisation. It is a basic proposition of modern progressive Virtue that cultural differences are never problematic. (Unless, of course, it is Western cultural difference.)

Moreover, Muslims who look different and seek to be ostentatiously different are much better moral mascots (to use Thomas Sowell's phrase) or sacred victims (to use Jonathan Haidt's) than people of Muslim heritage who want to be "Western"--in appearance, aspirations, rights and prosperity. For obvious difference can be subject to obvious discomfort and discrimination. While seeking to be "like us" goes against the principle that Western-Civilisation-is-Responsible-for-Everything-Bad (or, at least, everything Bad-to-be-cared-about).

That the first victims of the Muslim fundamentalists are people just like Western progressives is precisely the problem: Muslim leftists, liberals and secularists are getting in the way precisely because they seek "Western" rights and advantages. When it comes to Virtuous "Othering", the more "other" the more Virtuous. In the words of Algerian feminist sociologist Marienne Helie-Lucas:
It seems to be presumed [that] Muslims do not deserve equal access to...freedom of thought and freedom of conscience (p.91).
By seeking such, they are massively undermining the fundamental principle of progressive Virtue that Western-Civilisation-is-the-Source-of-the-Bad(-that-we-care-about). Which has a corollary--Islam (as a faith or a civilisation) is never the-cause-of-anything-Bad (or never of anything Bad-to-be-cared-about). In France, for example, polling found that while those of right-wing sympathies have a more positive attitude to Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism than those of left-wing sympathies, there is one major religion where the those of left-wing sympathies have a more positive attitude than those of right-wing sympathies--Islam. Which is also the major religion with least positive attitudes towards it overall. This is not xenophobic "othering" (Buddhism rates very favourably), it is a very specific reaction.

One suspects that Karima Bennoune is far too naive about what drives so much of Western "progressive" opinion nowadays. Their inability to deal in any useful way with this reality helps the slow Islamist take-over of Muslim identity, making this sort of analysis all that more plausible.

Karima Bennoune freely admits her bemusement to hostile reactions from Western progressives to her attempts to inform folk of the politics of an Islamist (Anwar al-Awlaki) who was being used as a cause celebre in the West:
I struggled to understand why the Western Left was defending the Muslim Far Right and not me or, more importantly, their victims (p.24).
In part, this is another baleful effect of the progressivist obsession with the sins of the Jewish state. The Virtuous take on the Israel-Palestinian conflict relies quite fundamentally on not looking under the lid of Palestinian politics and society (particularly regarding Hamas): or, if one does, blaming it all on the Jews (aka Israel).

The blindness to the reality of Muslim fundamentalism is just continuing and extending the habit of refusing to look under the lid (or, if one does, blaming the Jews/the US/the West) because Western Civilisation-is-the-Source-of-Everything-Bad-to-be-cared-about.

In the name of authenticity, much of Western "progressive" opinion collaborates with a movement which seeks to profoundly alter the relationship of Muslims with their religion and in the name of anti-imperialism it functionally collaborates with a movement pushing a deeply oppressive cultural and social imperialism. All because it adherents are so wrapped up in congenial framings and Virtue-mongering that they refuse to do what they so ostentatiously allege we should all do--take the experience of people from other cultures seriously.

They desperately need to start looking and listening, to lifting the lid of what is going on within Muslim communities; to do so, that is, if they care about more than their own overblown binding (and blinding) sense of Virtue. Reading Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here would be a great place to start.

ADDENDA: The Obama Administration apparently excluded reform Muslims from its Extremism summit. But included Islamists.

The Copenhagen "lone wolf" killer had a very well-attended funeral.

[An adapted extract on jihadism as the Nazism of our time is at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here (1)

At the beginning of her moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, Algerian-American author and academic Karima Bennoune makes her identity as a woman of the Left very clear, almost ostentatiously so. I found this a little irritating, but as I read further it became much clearer why she did this; for a recurring theme in the book is how Western liberals, progressives and people of the Left have continually betrayed those who are threatened, have been victimised by or oppose Islamic fundamentalism within Muslim countries and communities. Early on, she writes:
One of the characteristics of left-of-centre Western responses to Muslim fundamentalism has often been to talk about something else whenever the topic comes up. The anniversary of September 11 is a time to criticise the U.S. government. An Afghan woman having her nose cut off by the Taliban becomes a platform for saying that there is violence against women everywhere. (p.24)
Nor will they allow women of Muslim heritage to tell them differently:
Yanar Mohammed [Iraqi women's right activist] tells me that because of her open criticism of fundamentalists, she has increasingly limited opportunities to speak to the media, and progressive groups in the West no longer invite her. There seems to be an unwritten rule on the Western left that women of Muslim heritage are only allowed to criticize the violence of Western men. (Pp249-50)
Being against, for example, the US invasion of Iraq is not enough. Algerian feminist historian Anissa Helie wrote an article (The U.S. Occupation and Rising Religious Extremism: the Double Threat to Women in Iraq) criticising simplistic rhetoric emanating from the Western Left:
Western mainstream media and human rights organizations tend to describe these militants' acts of violence using terms such as "insurgency." There is also a tendency within some leftist and feminist circles to label Muslim extremists - who kill, rape, kidnap women and girls and openly target civilians - as "the resistance." This is highly problematic in that the word "resistance" has a revolutionary, heroic connotation that leaves unchallenged the political agenda pursued by fundamentalist factions in Iraq. In the U.K., leading voices from the left further romanticize the Iraqi "armed resistance against imperialism," even comparing it to independence struggles in Vietnam and Algeria. It is worth remembering that there are plenty of unarmed civilians, as well as groups of every political affiliation, that reject the U.S. occupation yet do not engage in violence or human rights violations. Islamist fighters should not be confused with national liberation movements. 
The "resistance" label is politically misleading in the Iraqi context, at least as far as Muslim fundamentalist groups are concerned. It is inadequate because the emphasis is narrowly placed on a rejection of U.S. occupation. Despite the anti-imperialist claims made by the leaders of armed groups, it seems very unlikely that if or when U.S. troops withdraw, persecution of women or religious and sexual minorities will stop - because what is really at stake is a theocratic agenda. Referring to "resistance fighters" is also dangerous because it valorizes and glorifies Muslim right-wing militants. It renders invisible the authoritarian nature of extreme-right movements that use religion, culture and ethnicity to impose their project of society onto people. 
What we have in Iraq is violence. What we have is a struggle for power, with various forces using extremely violent means - and different discourses. Some use dialectics of "democracy" and "importing freedom," while others use the "resisting imperialism" rhetoric.The current situation in Iraq sadly illustrates the knee-jerk thoughtlessness with which some progressive constituencies in the West adopt a language that blurs complex political realities. Even more worrisome is the increasing tendency for left-identified individuals and groups to lend support to right-wing Muslims on the basis of their (alleged) anti-imperialist stand. Growing numbers of activists embrace short-sighted strategies, insisting for example that the Western "antiwar movement must not lose sight of the fact that its main enemy is at home-and any resistance to that enemy deserves our unconditional support."[ What is alarming about this statement is the immediate allegiance to unconditional support, without regard to the ideologies, practices, and acts of violence of those groups. 
In Muslim contexts, as elsewhere, there are progressive and reactionary voices. Somehow, these political standpoints become blurred as segments of the Western left seem to adopt the strategy of "the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend," even though Khomeini's post-revolutionary Iran should have taught us that it is indeed misguided to confuse anti-women, anti-minorities, anti-diversity voices with those of feminists or progressive advocates. This ideological confusion is not lost on Muslim fundamentalists - who are anything but politically naïve. In fact, their soft-spoken leaders actively take advantage of a misplaced white guilt to expand their hold on the West. The bloody hands threaten and the educated intellectuals charm: such is the division of labor for these extremists.
After quoting from the above passage, Karima Bennoune writes:
Sadly, someone on the left in the West can always be counted on to attack women of Muslim heritage who raise such concerns. Corinna Mullin, a lecturer in Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, accused Helie in an online response of Orientalism and "mimicking Bush." Meanwhile, Iraq's fundamentalist armed groups, whom Helie "dared" censure, were hunting gay men and blowing up the Iraqi Red Crescent, Iraqi Chaldean churches, and lines of young men waiting in line to get desperately needed jobs as policemen. How could the U.S. occupation ever justify these crimes?  (p249)
And using the accusation of "Orientalism" against an Algerian feminist talking about her own civilisation; really? But I suppose thoughtcrime is thoughtcrime.

It is not as if the aims of the Muslim fundamentalists are in any way mysterious. Karima Bennoune quotes a statement by Tunisian Salafists:
Democracy is an impious concept...because its principles are based on liberties that include the right not to believe in God, which is punishable by death in Islam...How can we think that an unbeliever can be the equal of a Muslim, or that a woman can be the equal of a man? (p.294)
Muslim fundamentalism is a movement that even sanctifies sadism:
Algerian fundamentalists claimed that the more the victims suffered, the wider the doors of paradise would open for their jihadi killers. In other words, terrorism was an end, not just a means (p.239).
Algerian war correspondent Selima Tlemcani clarifies this embracing of terrorism as an end in itself when she explains how fundamentalists (mis)use the writings of Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328):
The awful genius of the fundamentalists was to use religion as the justification for the most sacrilegious behaviour. "They always found verses to take out of context to justify what they did. They said in communiques: 'We will protect the children we kill from growing up an living in an impious society of apostates.'" (p.137)
As for so-called "lone wolves" (which we have recently seen Brooklyn, Sydney and Copenhagen),  comments by "Shirin", a Pakistani queer activist, are surely apposite (and extends well beyond the specific context of violence against sexual and gender minorities):
In the current environment, Shirin worries not only by the Taliban but also fundamentalist lone wolves, "some righteously indignant observant-in-his-own-head, very faithful Muslim person who says, 'Who are these bad women?' That is all it would take." Extremism has magnified the risk of such responses, she suggests by putting forward "the legitimacy of violence as an honorable thing". In the light of putatively "honourable" violence, almost no one faces more risk from fundamentalists that LGBT/queer people of Muslim heritage. (p.104)
Such preaching about "honourable violence" is, for example, part of the background to the Danish attack. This is not just a matter of what is going on in Islamic countries, but also within Muslim communities in the West.

The struggle within Islam
What is very clear from this enlightening study is not only that most of the victims of Muslim fundamentalism are fellow Muslims (that has always been obvious if one paid any attention at all) but that most of their opponents are also Muslims; both Muslims in the sense of followers of Islam and Muslim in the sense of being of Muslim heritage (remembering that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation). People who fight for values worth supporting; those who:
do this not by mouthing platitudes about "Islam-religion-of-peace" but in many cases by putting their lives on the line to fight fundamentalism (p.9).
Karima Bennoune is trying to break through Western framings--both those which see Islam per se as the problem and those focused on battling anti-Muslim discrimination, searching for "legitimate grievances" to "explain" the violence, or even valorising the violence as "anti-imperialist". She explains the need to break through such framings clearly in this Ted talk (summary transcript here).

Both framings make the real struggle within Islamic societies and communities invisible. A struggle whose death toll is in the hundreds of thousands and whose victims number many millions. As Karima Bennoune writes:
Muslim fundamentalism is the kind of unifying topic that often reduces large part of the American political spectrum to proceeding by parody. Either the right-wing hysterics are putting up billboards on 1-75 south of Detroit decrying "Sharia in America," or the left-wingers who have been drinking a certain kind of multicultural Kool-Aid are there to tell us what they call Sharia really is, or can be if you just reinterpret it a little. One of my favourite examples of this, posted on the website of the Center for American Progress on International Women's Day 2011 and called "Setting the Record Straight on Sharia," is a glowing interview with a veiled American Muslim law professor who reassures us that Sharia is simply about "ideals of justice, fairness and the good life." She advocates its use in the United States. The piece does not say a word about the purported application of Sharia has meant for the lives of women (and men) around the world.
Such floggings and amputations in Iran or the litany of executions from a memorial website for the multitude of victims of the Iranian Revolution and the theocratic state it gave birth to.

Karima Bennoune is haunted by the deaths, sorrows and the stories of the victims and opponents of fundamentalism in danger. As she says, people may ask:
"Why don't the Muslims speak out?" But almost no one was listening to those who did (p.6).
In interviewing 300 people across four continents (North America, Europe, Africa, Asia) and almost 30 countries, she spent years being, in her words, "the woman who made people cry" as they related their stories and their losses; dead fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives: violence seen, violence suffered, violence lived in fear of, in expectation of: the lives lost, restricted, haunted, blighted. But also ennobled by striking heroism.  

The failure of people on the Western Right to see the Muslim opponents of Muslim fundamentalism Karima Bennoune perhaps expects. It is the failure of "her" people--Western liberals, progressives, leftists--to do so which grieves and frustrates her far more. After all, the dead, the blighted and the openly opposing are so often people exactly like them--academics, unionists, journalists, women's activists. By not seeing what a personal, moral and social disaster Islamic fundamentalism both threatens and imposes, they are betraying Muslim liberals, progressives, leftists, secularists: and, of course ordinary Muslims. Particularly so when allowing fundamentalists to parade as manifestations of what is "authentically" Muslim or Islamic.

Including in very perverse ways:
In the West, it is sometimes assumed that Muslims generally condone Terrorism. The Right often presumes this because it views Muslim culture as inherently violent. The Left at times imagines this because it interprets fundamentalist terrorism as simply a reflection of legitimate grievances. (p.236)
Yet Muslims are the most likely targets of such violence.  Consider the case of 22 year old Amel Zenoune-Zouani, taken off a bus and murdered on January 26, 1997 on the outskirts of Sidi Moussa in Algeria. Her killers, from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) told the passengers after they had killed here:
If you go to school, if you go to university, the day will come when we will kill of all of you like this.
"Western" education, particularly education of women, is one of their "grievances". As the Taliban have since demonstrated with murder and violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Boko Haram has demonstrated with murder and violence in Nigeria, as the Islamic State has demonstrated with murder and violence in Syria and Iraq.

The perspective from Algeria
That Karima Bennoune was born and raised in Algeria, living during the horrors of the Algerian Civil  War (1991-2002), when her own father was threatened with death for teaching Darwin, gives her both  personal experience, and a very revealing perspective, for understanding Muslim fundamentalism. For here was a brutal and violent program of terror and assassination in a country which had not been place of Cold War struggles, nor subject to Western intervention, nor in anyway seriously touched by the Israel-Palestine conflict. A Muslim country, which had had a secular (notionally socialist) government for decades. (Though one whose President had fostered fundamentalist movements to help stay in power: playing footsie with the fundamentalists always comes back and bites you.) Yet all the horrors we have come to associate with jihadi violence were played out there. Including gang rapes which are recurring feature of jihadi violence (p.308) and killing of journalists, cartoonists, commentators. In a struggle largely ignored then and even more so since:
Algerian psychologist and women's rights advocate Charifa Bouatta says there is still tremendous anger at those internationally--the Left, human rights advocates--who could have been the allies of progressive antifundamentalists but were not. "No one said, 'We are with you.' " (p.4)
There were lots of dead Muslim journalist precursors to the Charlie Hebdo killings. Which make the claims about offended "Muslim" sensibilities all the more otiose. As British anti-fundamentalist Muslim Maajid Nawaz has tweeted:
So, if the appeasers of jihadism ask people not to offend terrorists by drawing cartoons, what should Jews do not to offend? Cease to exist?
A recurring refrain from those interviewed, in country after country, is that they no longer see or recognise the Islam of their youth; laments about how much what one can do has been narrowed. The Charlie Hebdo killings, like so any before, were part of a continuing, violent and brutal war to redefine, and hugely narrow, what it means to be Muslim.

Defining fundamentalism
Events elsewhere were not completely separate to the Algerian struggle: as Karima Bennoune points out, veterans of the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan provided some of the Islamist cadre (p.250). While Saudi and Gulf money helped fund fundamentalism, as it has across the globe. But they were hardly enough to create the violence, the networks or the ambitions of the Muslim fundamentalists. Especially as Islamism, al-Islāmīyah, political Islam, goes back decades, to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, whose slogan:
Allah is our objective; the Qur'an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.
is a succinct statement of Islamist belief.

Karima Bennoune uses Algerian sociologist Marienne Helen-Lucas's definition of fundamentalisms:
political movements of the extreme right, which in a context of globalisation...manipulate order to achieve their political aims (p.14).
So holds events to be:
a clash of right wings, not a clash of civilisations (p.6).
The terms "Left" and "Right" have far more rhetorical power than analytical utility, but as persuasion is precisely what Karima Bennoune seeks, that works for her. As she writes:
In the face of much of the politically correct Western rhetoric in recent years, Cherifa [Kheddar, Algerian human rights activist] insists that, "instead of just battling terrorism, you must fight fundamentalism. Fundamentalism makes the bed of terrorism." This is not just an ideological point, but a very practical one. "They will not lack recruits, these groups, as long as there are young people indoctrinated in the universities, in their communities". (p.175)
Karima Bennoune is horrified by any attempt to portray what the fundamentalists push as "authentic Islam". After citing the above definition she writes:
This way of understanding the phenomenon underlies the fact that these movements are primarily political rather than spiritual. Similarly, Chahla Chafiq [Iranian sociologist] told me that she uses the term Islamism to describe an Islam that ideologizes religion to create a totalitarian political platform. This is not an inherently Muslim approach, or one which Muslim majority societies naturally tend. There are many other Islams, as this book indicates (p14).
As Karima Bennoune points out, the fundamentalists want to radically change people's relationship with their religion.

When one examines the phenomena of jihadism, of what the jihadis are about, it is clear that they are not traditionalists; they are radically atavistic, but also modernist, seeking to wipe away tradition. As purifying reformers, they represent a recurring pattern in Islamic history. As activists who prove themselves adept at adapting technology to their ends, they are as modern as any political movement.

As Karima Bennoune sets out in detail, theirs is a very political program to take over Muslim identity and to (re)define what is "authentically" Muslim: a program prosecuted by violence, indoctrination, advocacy, and playing on Western sensitivities and delusions: particularly those of "progressive" Western opinion.

The battle over women
Many of the people she interviews are women, as survivors, witnesses and because of the centrality of women to the struggle against Muslim fundamentalism. As Thoraya Obeid--Saudi, PhD holder, retired UN director--notes:
fundamentalisms across the spectrum are always "related to women", especially to women's reproductive rights and sexuality. "This is where they feel their power. Women went out to work, they couldn't control it. It is the last stronghold of men over women." (Pp108-9)
When it comes to Muslim fundamentalists, some are violent, some are not; all seek to narrow society and religion and restrict rights, particularly those of women (Pp17-8). Women are the first victims, the frontline and often those most important in the fight against fundamentalism (Pp81-2). All of this being justified by the invocation of God. When Karima Bennoune tried to settle her father's estate and protested about the very discriminatory inheritance laws, the legal official just pointed skywards and said:
Madam, you cannot argue with God. (p.88).

The struggle to restrict and control women is all about enforcing very particular view of what is "authentically" Islamic. Thus, women's rights in Hamas-controlled Gaza are going backwards (Pp114-5).

With the veil, and often very restrictive versions of the veil, being pushed as "authentic Islam". As Karima Bennoune writes, putting the issue of veiling (particularly niqab and burqa) in terms of "choice":
does not change the meaning of covering, and such "choices" increasingly happen in contexts infused with fundamentalist teachings about purity and shamefulness of women's bodies. (p.119)
The context is key:
To me, this justification of "choice" misses the point about the overwhelming politics of the presentation of the human form. (p.119)
Where not being veiled is being a "bad" Muslim or a "loose" woman.
This has been a process of radical change, not the preservation of tradition. The assumption made too often in the debate in the West about this is that protecting the veiled is protecting some sort of cultural status quo, when in most contexts the veil itself, and the more restrictive veils in particular, are themselves assaults on the preexisting cultural status quo. (p.120)
Karima Bennoune is seriously unimpressed with Western feminists "falling in love" with the veil (p.121). Mahnaz Afkhami--the first (and only) Iranian Minister for Women's Affairs, Iran being (under the Shah) the second country in the world to have such a Minister--urges people to look past language to deeds. She remembers:
the double-talk of the fundamentalists in Iran in 1977-78. They spoke the language of women's rights in highly sophisticated ways, which she thinks was dazzling to some Western feminists. When the mullahs railed against the use of women as sexual objects, they actually meant that "women should be veiled from head to toe." This, she finds, is a lesson to be drawn from what happened in Iran--that you have to evaluate fundamentalist groups based on deeds, not just words. (p.207).
In a 1963 fatwa, Ayatollah Khomeini had liked women's participation in politics to prostitution; revolutionary expedience led him to change the fatwa (p.207). But women's rights still went backwards in the Islamic Republic.

The centrality of Iran
Like many observers, Karima Bennuone regards the Iranian Islamic Revolution as a crucial moment in the evolution of Muslim fundamentalism (p.199). It created a Muslim fundamentalism with the logistical capabilities of a modern state (p.191), reflected in such things as the systematic killing of Iranian governments foes in exile (p.190).

Roya Boroumand, daughter of Abdorrhman Boroumand, a founder of the pro-democracy opposition killed in his apartment in Paris in April 1991, notes that Muslims opposed the fundamentalists long before the Twin Towers fell:
"We did try, and we got killed. People got killed. Clerics got killed. The bulk of the victims of the early years were people who were fighting fundamentalism." She desperately wants non-Iranians to understand this. (p.194)
She and her sister Ladan started the Omid website, documenting the victims of the regime, and a human rights advocacy group, the Abdorrhman Boroumand Foundation (ABF). As Roya Boroumand says of the Iranian regime:
It wants to be a theocracy but it is a totalitarian ideology that has been smart enough to take the cover of religion so it couldn't be attacked. It's the smartest totalitarian ideology. (p.198)
Khomeini declared that one of the roles of the Revolutionary Guards was to "familiarise people with the traditions". As Roya Boroumand asks:
What kind of traditions are these that people are not familiar with? (p.200)
Muslim fundamentalism is very much about creating a notion of "authentic Islam". One that rather too many folk in the West buy into. There are plenty of very religious Muslims who virulently oppose this attempted capture of their religion, such as Kourosh Sehati, a periodically imprisoned activist for a secular state (Pp 204-5). Karia Bennoune also provides insight into the struggles and dilemmas of queer Iranians, living under a regime which continues to execute them (Pp 202-3).

Mahnaz Afkhami, who has been a exile for decades, active in international human rights organisations, argues that Leftist academics have to accept responsibility for making fundamentalists palatable for Western perspectives (p.209).

Intimidation within Western societies
Fundamentalist advocacy and intimidation reaches within Muslim diasporas in the West (Pp58-60). Such as the Somali emigre community in Minnesota. Those who wish to speak out against fundamentalist advocacy and recruitment come under pressure from the mosques against doing so (p.218). Fighting this of type of reputational war is gruelling, but to tackle extremism, one must first acknowledge it (p.221).

When Western political leaders do notice, public "debate" remains trapped within Western political framings disconnected from realities within Islam and Muslim communities. So, Karima Bennoune dissects a March 2011 Congressional inquiry (entitled "The Extent of Radicalisation in the American Muslim Community and the Community's Response") which suffered from the classic gets-in-the-way framing: the Right playing into the hands of both anti-Islam activists and Muslim fundamentalists who claim that the kafir vilify them, while the Left talked as if Muslim fundamentalism was a non-problem (p.219-220). What is not acknowledged cannot be opposed.

As a result of activism within the Somali community, Somali elders did end up issuing a blunt statement against the jihadis (Pp223-4). Zuhur Ahmed, who broadcast her own radio show while studying to be a doctor, argues that Muslim fundamentalism appeals to disoriented and vulnerable, while it changes their religion. She is another who points out how different this is from the Islam of her childhood (p.232).

Which and whose human rights
A human rights activist herself, one of the themes of the book is Karima Bennoune's frustration with many human rights organisations. As she notes, many international human rights organisations ignore the victims of fundamentalists (p.163.). Being the victims of "non-state actors" seems to confuse them. Thus Amnesty International finds it easier to say nothing about terrorism (p.237). She criticises Human Rights Watch (HRW) for being clueless about what Islamism actually implies (p.296).

Activism by people of Muslim heritage is too often ignored or mocked. On March 8, 1995, for International Women's Day, the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women (RAFD--it also means refuse in Arabic--staged a mock trial of the Algerian fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and its leaders (Pp186-7). An attempt to dramatise assassination, massacre and terror, the mock trial did not receive the media support one might have expected:
The left-leaning French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur put sarcastic quotation marks around the words "testimony of the dead" in describing the account of fundamentalist killings offered at the 1995 tribunal, lampooned the event's "theatrical" tone and even criticized the presence of police outside to protect the participants, not withstanding the terrible threat to them. So much for international solidarity. (p.187)
Karima Bennoune herself found that people, possibly especially women, of Muslim heritage speaking up against terrorism was too "off-message" when she tried to get her "Why I Hate Al-Qaeda" manifesto published on the tenth anniversary of 9/11--one left-wing paper telling her it was irrelevant because of the Arab Spring (Pp265-6). As she says:
I want to stand with those who refuse to equivocate (p.266).
But equivocation is the refuge of those whose framings cannot cope with too much reality:
Often when people mouth platitudes about Islam-religion-of-peace, my eyes glaze over. Have they slept through the last few decades? ... The best way to defend Islam is to display the peaceful practice, and to defend those who do. This requires unabashed challenge of fundamentalism. (p.331)
There is more than one Islam: but too many Westerners find accepting the opposition of people of Muslim heritage to Muslim fundamentalism, and the nature of Muslim fundamentalism, far too confronting to their preferred framings of events.

(Which is discussed further in part 2 of this review.)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Justification versus motivation

As more than one commentator has pointed out, much of the contemporary intellectual and political Western elite does not understand, or give much weight to, religious motives. Using religion to justify actions they have a more of a grip on, than doing things for religious motives.

The controversy over President Obama's prayer breakfast comments show this quite well.  In the most controversial passage, he slides from motivation to justification:
Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
For the Crusades and the Inquisition, religious motives were definitely crucial. US slavery and Jim Crow were justified within explicitly Christian frameworks, but were hardly motivated by Christianity. By comparison, attempts to reintroduce slavery in Sudan and the Islamic State seem to be substantially motivated by religious claims.

In overwhelmingly Christian societies, in times when Christianity remained the dominating moral framework, almost anything was justified within explicitly Christian frameworks--thus, both slavery and the opposition to it; both Jim Crow and the opposition to it. Use of religious justifications tell us almost nothing, except that religious framings have resonance in that society: or, at least, among the target audience. Indeed, given that opposition to slavery and Jim Crow had a larger dose of altruism than support thereof, the opposition likely had a stronger dose of religious motivation.

Which is why, for example, Ta-nehisi Coates defence of President Obama's comments, and his pushback against the President's critics, falls flat. Coates writes about justification rather than motivation. Indeed, he implicitly denies that the Islamic State is about religious motives:
Now, Christianity did not "cause" slavery, anymore than Christianity "caused" the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion's share of American history.
Yes, ISIS uses religious justifications, but to imply that all they are about is religious justifications is nonsense on stilts. I have called volunteering to fight for ISIS psychopathic sex tourism, but I did not mean to imply by that religious motivation is not important. It is not merely that Medinan Islam is the framing for their actions, it is quite clear that religion is a very powerful motivator for their actions. A particular conception of Islam, to be sure, but one well within the historical parameters of that faith. Islam is not always like this; not even close. But it is recurrently like this.

Even regarding the Crusades, the Christianity-Islam analogy is dubious. There were four great areas of crusading activity: the Prussian and Livonian marches, Iberia, the Levant and North Africa. The Crusades on the Prussian and Livonian marches were straight aggression against pagans, both motivated and justified by religion (with some anti-Orthodox aggression added in). The Crusades in Spain were part of the Reconquista--the reconquest of Iberia after the Muslim conquest. The Crusades in the Levant (Outremer) were a (belated) response to the Muslim advance through Anatolia after the Eastern Roman disaster of the Battle of Manzikert. Like the North African crusades, they were attacks on formerly Christian lands. Indeed, none of the anti-Muslim crusades were other than attacks on formerly Christian lands, conquered by Muslim religious aggression. All part of how very lost in the modern secular mind The Lost History of Christianity is (which philosopher Michael Walzer provides an excellent example of).

The reverse is not remotely true. Historically, religiously motivated Christian attacks on Islam are dwarfed by religiously motivated Islamic attacks on Christendom. Which remains very much true.  Apart from anything else, in the contemporary world, Christian persecution of Muslims is dwarfed by Muslim persecution of Christians.

Moreover, most contemporary Christians do not live in Europe and North America. How much are the Crusades and the Inquisition part of "their" history for African and Asian Christians?  It is one thing to point out that Christians-as-people and Muslims-as-people are, as people, equivalent in their capacity for violence and brutality.  It is quite another to pretend that Islam has not been the more violently aggressive religion, nor that it is not so in the contemporary world.

Much of the pushback against President Obama's remarks are precisely due to folk comparing contemporary Christianity with contemporary Islam and thinking that the President's remarks miss the point. Even in their selective sense of history, the remarks rather do. But, in their gliding over the difference between justification and motivation, they do so even more.

Ta-nehisi Coates definitely wants to move away from considering religious motivation:
That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct.
But if you see what ISIS does as merely justified by religion, rather than also motivated by it, you miss much of the point. And one can see how contemporary Christians could be offended by the President's remarks without any spectre of racism: Ta-nehisi Coates seems much more comfortable importing bad-faith-about-racism motives to fellow Americans than religious motives to foreign Muslims; in large part because, one suspects, because he is not comfortable with the notion of religious motives: still less where taking them seriously might lead us.

He much prefers to put religion back in a box:
Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.
You see, it's all about us, really.  As if the contemporary West--or, for that matter, contemporary Christianity--has not learned anything. Thereby missing the point hugely. Yes, of course, humans are capable of much brutality (there is plenty of brutality in Western history, including modern Western history). But they are also capable of getting better, of learning, of increasingly listening to, and acting on, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Which is why the joyous, uploaded-to-Youtube, brutality of ISIS or Boko Haram is so confronting: it is so very atavistic. They really do want to take us to a world where C7th Arabia is the epitome of moral and social understanding, and to do so for religious reasons and religious motives. They appeal to folk precisely because they provide religious justification and motives for, most flagrantly, enthusiastic brutality. But also that promise of an end to alienation, to grand unifying purpose, that intense political--and especially religious--movements provide. One cannot analyse them solely in religious terms, but if you do not understand the seriousness of their religious motivations, you do not understand them.

And, no, it is not all about us. People are not being massacred, enslaved and oppressed for us to draw banal moral lessons. That is just looking at us so we do not have to look at the uncomfortable them. Where near sins and past sins are so much more comfortable lessons for virtue than present brutalities.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

ADDENDA: This Atlantic piece is particularly clear on the seriousness of the religious motivations behind the Islamic State.