Thursday, February 19, 2015

An Echo and a Critique of a Critique

psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

After posting those pieces on this blog on Hamed Abdel-Samad’s Islamic Fascism the past few days, I went in search of counterarguments, hoping to find something I overlooked, and perhaps convince me I'm barking up the wrong tree.  I know there are arguments out there being made right and left that “radical Islam” no more represents Islam than “radical Christianity” represents Christianity.  The Ku Klux Klan does not convey the message of Jesus.  I don’t need persuading of that.  But I am not finding arguments against Abdel-Samad’s claim that you can’t call yourself a Muslim without claiming the Qur’an is infallible and unchanging, and to read the Qur’an is to see what ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and all the other so-called radicals see – right there in black and white.  There are plenty of assertions that Islam is the "religion of peace," yes.  But no serious arguments so far that it's the violence-prone radicals who are getting it wrong and the peaceniks who are getting it right.  God love the peaceniks.  I want them to be right.  I want them to find a way to defang the ugly parts of the Qur'an, or to claim those urging a return to the caliphate are reading the texts wrong, or simply to say, as Abdel-Samad does, the text needs to stay in the 7th century and Muslims need to find a way to get modern.  But, unlike with other religious scriptures which allow for cherry-picking, the Qur’an says in the text that a literal interpretation is the only interpretation.  And a careful reading of the text will read it says what the radicals say it says.

I found a critical book review of Islamic Fascism by Daniel Bax, the home editor of the “alternative” Berlin newspaper, die Tageszeitung, but that turned out to be more of an ad hominem attack on Abdel-Samad and an incomplete appreciation of the points he was making, rather than a serious criticism and decided to critique Bax's review.

This critique of a critique is of little interest to English-speaking audiences, and I decided at first not to post it.  But then, this morning, I came across this article in The Atlantic, by Graeme Wood, which underlines the arguments Abdel-Samad has been making, that we are doing ourselves no favors by pretending we don’t have a problem with Islam itself, and I decided to just go ahead and get my protest registered against the view that Islam is benign.  

Obama repeated again today the old mantra that the violence in the Middle East has nothing to do with Islam.  I understand that to argue against that polemic looks for all the world like a fool's errand. Muslims are not going to want to hear they are following a killer ideology any more than Christians do.  It seems politically savvy to foster the delusion that their religion is whatever they say it is.  A patronizing approach, to be sure, but pretty good Realpolitik.

But I'm not a politician, and I leave that approach to the politicians.  I prefer to describe what I see and challenge people who think I'm wrong to show me the error of my ways.

So I'm going to do both - include that review of the review here - and include a link to that brilliant Atlantic article.  If you only have time for one, by all means read the Atlantic article.

And next time you raise a glass to a better future, drink to the success of the future Voltaires and the Humes and the Kants and the Descartes and the Francis Bacons and the Diderots and the Thomas Jeffersons and the John Lockes and the Rousseaus being born all over the Muslim world today.  May they grow up to make the world a better place.  (They're being born outside the Muslim world, as well, obviously, but I'm thinking of the ones who can speak to their surroundings from a culturally Muslim perspective.)

Daniel Wood's Atlantic article, “What ISIS really wants" is available here.  

 My critique of Daniel Bax's review, "Caution, Explicit Content Follows!" - follows:

If you want to find people who take issue with Hamed Abdel-Samad’s argument that there is something inherently different about Islam that makes it not merely a misguided ideology but a pernicious one, you don’t have to go very far.  Leaving aside the millions of Muslims for whom Islam is at the heart of all that is meaningful and holy, who read into the Qur’an all things bright and beautiful, and who feel he’s wrong to let the militants represent their faith, there are also people who criticize him on rational grounds.  One such is Daniel Bax, the home editor of the lefty Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung, usually called TAZ.  Wonderful institution.  Alternative journalism.  A lefty daily owned by its readers.  Interested in the environmental and social issues.  Supported by the Green Party but not afraid to bite the hand that feeds it when it feels biting is warranted. 

So imagine my disappointment when I came across this review of Abdel-Samad’s book by TAZ’s home editor, Daniel Bax. A truly awful review.

Bax calls Abdel-Samad’s book, Islamic Fascism, “not a serious analysis, but a platitude-laden polemic against political Islam.”  He starts his criticism by suggesting that Abdel-Samad is making too much of the fatwa against him, and very ungenerously suggests that “some people use the fact that they have at some point been threatened by one Islamist or another as a kind of seal of approval or badge of honour,” describes him as “overblown, pretentious and dubious,” and suggests journalists and anybody in the German media who call him an expert on Islam are doing so only by “graciously turn(ing) a blind eye to the obvious contradictions and inconsistencies” out of a belief that “that's what people are like in the Middle East; they have a tendency to exaggerate.”  The only qualification Abdel-Samad has for being called an Islam expert, according to Bax, himself supposedly an Islam expert, is that he is Egyptian.  Bax totally ignores the fact that Abdel-Samad grew up with an imam as a father, was in Islamic studies at the University of Erfurt and has appeared in countless venues in the media debating Islamic scholars and has published two books dealing with Islam before this one.

When Bax finally finishes with the ad hominem attacks and gets to the heart of the issue, he complains that Abdel-Samad “does not make much of a distinction between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, the Mullah regime in Iran and the Wahabbis (sic – it is spelled correctly in the original German version) in Saudi Arabia – they're all religious fascists in one way or another.”  Well, yes!  That’s the point.  Abdel-Samad’s goal was not to do an in-depth study of modern radical movements, but to make the point that they all share something in common – Islam in its original form is radical and violent.  Bax then argues that Saudi Arabia was behind the military coup in Egypt which overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood because it was against democracy and this somehow means Abdel-Samad is looking at the world in black and white terms.  Never mind that Abdel-Samad makes a great deal out of the fact that the Brotherhood was overthrown precisely because it was so obviously anti-democratic. 

Bax goes on to claim that Abdel-Samad “ignores the current status of research…on the subject of anti-Semitism in Arab nations,” but he doesn’t explain how that is relevant or give any examples to support the claim.

About the only criticism of Abdel-Samad’s thesis that holds water, in my view, is that it is not original, that others have used the term “islamofascism” before him.  How that invalidates anything Abdel-Samad has to say when he goes about making his own case for this assertion is not clear.   Ditto for the claim that all Abrahamic religions are inherently fascistic.  That claim, says Bax, has been made before by cultural scholar Jan Assmann.  Assmann’s argument was weak, Bax suggests, because he doesn’t explain why other religions, in India and in Japan, for example, also have fascism in their histories.   What, one wonders, is the point here? 

When Bax finally gets to the heart of the matter, to the questions most people are asking about Abdel-Samad’s thesis, you begin to wonder if he even read the book.  First off, other monotheistic religions have allowed themselves to be pacified; why not Islam? he asks.  (I rest my case.)  And secondly, most of the violence of the twentieth century was not caused by religion but by overblown nationalism, by which I assume he means German fascism and authoritarian regimes, by which I take it he is referring to Stalinism.  Well, yes!  Abdel-Samad’s point is not that religion caused the wars; his point is that Islam is, like Nazism and Stalinism, a form of fascism and that there was considerable sympathy in the Muslim world during the Second World War for the Nazi cause.

Bax then argues that it’s the Muslim Brotherhood which is now being victimized by violence and complains that Abdel-Samad took the wrong side, and shows entirely too much sympathy for the military.  Bax appears to be unaware that Abdel-Samad has said of the struggle for democracy in Egypt that it is like peeling an onion.  When you remove the neo-colonialists (Mubarak), the next most powerful force takes over, the Muslim Brotherhood.  They then have to be peeled away, as well.  He never claimed that the onion only has two layers.   Bax claims that Abdel-Samad’s criticism of the army was too feeble.  They used “inappropriate means.”   And “this is not the way to deter terrorists.”  That’s true.  That’s pretty mild.  But what, I wonder, does this have to do with Abdel-Samad’s claim that Islam is fascistic?  “His own definition of fascism is much more applicable to the current military regime in Egypt than to the Muslim Brotherhood,” Bax claims.  A cheap shot.  It’s totalitarian, to be sure.  But worse than the Muslim Brotherhood?  According to whom?  Beside the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, I mean.

Finally, Bax criticizes Abdel-Samad for his position that modern day Islamic fascism must be fought militarily.  That, says Bax, reveals the “ice-cold causticity of an extremist” and makes him “hard and belligerent.”   One wonders if Bax will be at the head of the line when the opponents of the Islamic State approach them with olive branches.

Bax concludes with:  “(S)ome detractors of political Islam have much more in common with the fundamentalists they criticise than they realize.”  Which brings us back to the ad hominem attacks where this book review of Islamic Fascism started.

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