Suddenly it seems like everybody’s talking about this issue I raised (here and in subsequent blog postings) first with Hamed Abdel-Samad’s claim that Islam is a form of fascism and then with Graeme Wood’s argument in The Atlantic saying much the same thing – that we’re making a mistake to let Islam off the hook as the source of the current problem with ISIS. Now Robert Wright of The New Yorker has published a piece taking Graeme Wood to the woodshed for helping the radicals by taking the same position they do – that they are not only Islamic, but very Islamic.
Wright has published a complaint that Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, a geopolitical view more at home on the political right than on the left, is becoming mainstream. He cites two political journalists, The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, and The Atlantic writer Graeme Wood, both presumed to be liberals, who seem to have taken a putative clash of civilization position. He quotes Roger Cohen as saying “the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world.”
To make sense of what he is saying, let me lay out my understanding of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis as I understand it. I’m not a political scientist or a historian, but I’ve worked in the area of culture theory and have followed the Clash of Civilizations theory debates from early on, so I’m also not coming to this totally out of the blue.
The Cold War was a clash of values between capitalism and communism, between those who stressed the benefits of the free market, particularly its power to generate wealth, and those who wanted to make fairness and equity primary (from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.) Francis Fukuyama declared that history was over, meaning the communist/capitalist clash was over, and capitalism had won. Huntington, though, thought that clash had simply been replaced by another one, this time between cultures. (Culture and civilization have always been difficult to define and the terms are often used interchangeably, as in this case.) Not economic, not ideological, but cultural values will be fought over from now on. Huntington writes as a theorist, not as a political advocate. He sees his work as merely descriptive and he doesn’t take sides.
Without going into details (the Wikipedia article on “Clash of Civilizations” provides a good history and explanation), I agree with critics who complain Huntington has overlooked diversity within civilizations, that none of the world’s great civilizations is uniform, and all affect one another in the age of broad communication, particularly since the advent of the internet.
What I think Robert Wright is saying is that he understands Roger Cohen and Graeme Wood to be advocates of Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory, and a booster for Western values over and against Islamic values. But Wright then stops working in a philosophical, analytical mode, and switches to a political mode. It’s not smart to construct the world in terms of clashes and antagonize Muslims by describing them negatively, he seems to be saying. Better to seek to work cooperatively with the Muslims.
If I understand Wright’s point correctly, he may be right to criticize Roger Cohen, but with Graeme Wood, I think he’s barking up the wrong tree. Roger Cohen uses what is to me an unfortunate choice of words. He says, “Across a wide swath of territory, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, the West has been or is at war, or near-war, with the Muslim world.” If that isn’t a “clash of civilizations” claim, I don’t know what is.
With Graeme Wood, though, I think Wright may have it wrong.
My starting point, remember, was the very active discourse on Islam in Germany, which centered initially on the difficulty of integrating Muslims from rural Anatolia into a largely post-Christian European setting, but has been expanded now that Salafists in Germany are recruiting for ISIS and right-wing groups are forming to resist the so-called islamicization of Germany. One piece of that discourse is represented by Hamed Abdel-Samad, who emigrated to Germany years ago and has emerged as Islam’s harshest critic, along with a number of women committed to fighting destructive patriarchal values among immigrant (chiefly Turkish and Kurdish) communities in Germany’s cities and towns. Those critics all maintain that they remain “culturally Muslim” but at the same time find something inherently wrong with Islam itself.
For this to make sense, you have to accept Abdel-Samad’s definition of Islam as the ideology laid out in the Qur’an and in Hadiths attributed directly to the prophet Mohammed. Initially, Mohammed took a passive stance when he was surrounded by enemies and preached peace. Later, when he began to build his empire through war and conquest, he took a more aggressive stance and began to speak of the importance of punishing non-believers and eliminating opposition. Those who read the Qur’an this way see his development into a more aggressive absolute ruler as the argument against Islam as pacifist.
“Cultural Muslims” like Abdel-Samad and the feminists working with Germany's immigrant community to bring them safely out of a world of honor killings and forced marriages and raise women's consciousness about gender rights in Germany's modern democracy, have left the religion behind and come to define themselves in terms of the spiritual values which have grown up in Islamic countries over the years and which can be attributed to the early period recorded in the Qur’an.
But there are also differences even between “religious Muslims,” some of whom cherry-pick the Qur’an for the peaceful parts and others of whom, the radical Islamists, cherry-pick it for its fascist parts, its focus on the imposition of an absolutist Caliphate, violence and martyrdom as a strategy for ultimate world domination, infallibility, and inviolability of the person and even the name of the Prophet Mohammed. What should not be missed, though, in all of this, is the extent of the diversity even within the Muslim world. This diversity matches to a significant degree the same kind of diversity in other civilizations, down to the contrast between literalists on the one hand and those who read religion as poetry and history as metaphor. This diversity should serve as a counter-argument to Huntington’s tendency to see civilizations are essentially monolithic and opposed to one another. The lines, in other words, should be drawn horizontally, between subgroups of civilizations, not vertically, between civilizations themselves.
And that’s how I read the Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic, as well – through an Abdel-Samad filter. I assumed both are saying that though there is a problem with Islam, there is no problem with Muslim individuals, who are as capable as anybody of assuming the values of humanism and democracy. The fact that they have not done so in great numbers means nothing. The fact that Muslims, or African Americans, or Australian indigenous peoples have not won a whole lot of Nobel Prizes doesn’t mean that they are not capable of it; it means they have not had the benefit of the grounding in the kind of education and critical thinking that develops Nobel Prize winners.
Robert Wright’s reading of Wood fails to see his nuanced thinking, in other words. What Wood (and Abdel-Samad) are after is recognizing the power of Islam as an idea – specifically aggressive absolutist Islam as inspiration for the kind of people drawn to fascist power and claims to certain truth. Wood begins by complaining that Obama repeatedly refers to ISIS as “not Islamic,” and suggests that this analytical error has “contributed to significant strategic errors,” namely that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, by declaring he had reinstated the caliphate, was drawing in thousands of dreamers. (I am reminded of the “next year in Jerusalem” line spoken at Passover over centuries of Jewish exile, and remember the joy after the Six-Day War when Jerusalem was back in Jewish hands. Some ideas are overwhelmingly powerful.)
Wood never speaks of the radicals of ISIS as representative of Islamic Civilization. On the contrary, he compares them more to the “dystopian alternate reality” of people like David Koresh and Jim Jones. He knows they represent a very small portion of the Muslim world; it’s just that they have a colossal power base. But this means it is anything but what Huntington would like to call a battle between Western and Islamic civilizations. It is a battle between radical fundamentalists using what is there in the Qur’an to support their views on the one hand, and non-radical Muslims and others inside and outside of the Muslim world, who would rather live in peace. And that includes a great many Muslims who would join across “civilizational” lines with people of Asian, Christian, Jewish, non-religious European “civilizational” lines to build on humanist democratic values. I realize I am overlooking the arguments over whether critical thinking, gender equity, and other humanist democratic values can come directly to Asia and the Middle East without Western baggage, but the point still remains – in fighting ISIS, one is not fighting Muslims. One is not even fighting Islam as it may come to be; one is fighting it as it is currently understood by radical fundamentalists.
These are inordinately complex issues. Some question whether Islam is even amenable to change, as Christianity was when faced by the Enlightenment, for one thing. Then there is the fact that those fighting ISIS include both Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side. And the fact that Al Qaeda and ISIS are now on opposite sides. And that ISIS is actually at the center of a Sunni/Shiite Civil War, that Saudi Arabia, the chief Sunni state and the chief sponsor of the Sunni madrasa which fostered the kind of radicalism that built up Al Qaeda, is a strong, some would say the chief, sponsor of the fight against ISIS. Jordan, with its penchant for neutrality, experienced tremendous nationalism and a desire to fight when one of their pilots was burned alive by ISIS. Egypt, the home of the Muslim Brotherhood, another Sunni group with tyrannical fundamentalist instincts, is also fighting ISIS. There is no justification to call this a “war of civilizations.” Not even close. More than anything, it is actually an intra-Muslim world conflict.
And of all these complex issues, the most complex of all is the question of whether there is an “essential” Islam, as Abdel-Samad claims there is and Wood seems to be arguing if there isn’t, there might as well be. There are two counter-arguments to the claim that Islam is essentially bad. One is that you have cherry-picked wrong, that it is “essentially good” (and then it becomes a power issue -who gets to cherry-pick what). The other is that one should not judge Islam by what it says it is but by what it demonstrates itself to be, that it is the “lived Islam” that we should focus on, not the theoretical (Qur’an-based) Islam. And that leads us to more complex questions, like how and why there are more books translated into modern Greek than into modern Arabic, despite the huge disparity in population. And the fact that women's rights are perfectly shoddy in virtually all the so-called Islamic countries. And to what degree are those countries that way because of Western imperialism and to what degree (remember the refusal to accept the printing press for 300 years after it was invented) are they retrograde for Islamic and self-inflicted reasons.
I know Robert Wright by reputation, chiefly from his bloggingheads.tv days, and I know he is a good thinker and has an impressive list of books to his name, two with God in the title. I would have thought he'd perhaps want to engage in this debate over what is Islam, and I'm disappointed he chose instead to make the political argument that we should be pragmatic and politically correct. That we should not say or do anything to encourage the radicals. Tiptoe carefully so as not to step on any Muslim toes.
Wright, like many others, worries that by calling ISIS Islamic, one is only playing into their hands and making them stronger. To label them Islamic, the argument goes, is to make other Muslims who love Islam want to be in their number. Instead of driving home the point that one can be opposed to Islam but solidly in support of the right of Muslim people to full participation in modern democracy, fairness and equality, Wright worries that we may be providing right wingers with ammunition. By saying bad things about Islam, he suggests, we give them an opportunity to say, “Look at that. Even the liberals at the New York Times and The Atlantic agree with us that we are at war with Islam,” and the clear and terribly wrong implication to that is that we are at war with Muslims. No. That’s wrong. One needs to keep making the distinction clear. Muslims can be culturally Muslim. They can even be religiously Muslim but advocate a peaceful Islam. What we are fighting, Muslims, as well as anybody else with decent values, is Islam as Abdel-Hamad and Wood define it, as an insidious force. Just because this is a nuanced argument does not mean it is too difficult for the world to come to terms with.
Wing nut Christians, those who think there is no need to work for peace on earth because the Rapture is right around the corner, are usually too uninformed about the world to do much damage, although they do buy a lot of television time and reach into the homes of millions of vulnerable people. But wing nut Muslims pose a much greater danger at present. And here, I think Roger Cohen makes the point very well. I dismissed him earlier for failing to distinguish between Islam and Muslims, but to give him his due, he makes the point that it's a whole lot of Muslims we are talking about - even tens of millions. And his latest article makes the point that we're by no means talking only about ISIS when we speak of Islam-inspired mischief.
Still, even tens of millions are not the majority, or even a critical mass. When people like Abdel-Samad speak of wing-nut Islam as the “essential” Islam, wing nut Christians say, “See! Muslims are the enemy!” à la Huntington, and we are usually too cowardly (or bored) to say, “No, wing-nut-ism is the enemy – and that means we're talking about you guys and your essentialist Christian nonsense as well as ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Boko Haram and all the radical Muslims. You’re all from the same deck of cards. Now let’s get to work on diffusing the power of angry religion to ruin our lives, Christians, Muslims, whoever wants to join in. Whether you are a Muslim who wants to stress the peaceful nature of the Qur’an and admit you don’t read the it literally, a Christian who speaks of the “salvific power of the Eucharist” and rejects both literalism and church hierarchy, or a non-believer in religion, doesn’t matter, we can all agree any religion with exclusivist truth claims is not the way to go. Keep your eye on the donut. The problem is not civilization. The problem is the closed mind, of which fundamentalist religion is one manifestation.
What Wright is suggesting is actually a terrible insult to Muslims. To suggest that they can’t see the difference between their brand of peaceful Islam and the radical brand of violent Islam, and for that reason we need to be careful when criticizing Islam is to sell them short. Those who argue Islam is essentially violent can usually accept that this Islam can be modified as Christianity was modified and modernized when the Enlightenment came along. And they can find common ground with those who argue Islam is essentially peaceful and merely misunderstood by the radicals and opponents of Islam who happen to find themselves on the same side for now.
Wright seems to have no intellectual argument, in other words. Merely a political one. And his appeal is to those who are afraid that the truth will wreak havoc with our lives. Better, he is suggesting, to lie a little and make those we disagree with think we are on their side. Or, to put less harsh words in his mouth, to use diplomacy and tact, instead of honest opinion.
The problem with that is that truth comes out eventually. Lying or dissembling is always a short-term solution to problems at best. When insincerity is exposed, when it becomes obvious to Muslims that we were supporting Islam only for political expediency, those who follow Wright’s proposed strategy will be come to be seen as hypocrites and liars.
Human rights is what we're after, not play-nice and "who am I to tell you you can't beat your wife?"
"As long as you don't hit her in the face?" you say?
Why not stick to the message. Take a look at what motivates you. If it doesn't lead in that direction, call a spade a spade - and let it go.