Monday, September 26, 2005

Islam, the Ideology

At the risk of being repetitive let me summarize in a single post the importance of a critical analysis of Islam as an ideology.

First and foremost it is crucially important to differentiate between the philosophy Islam and a demographic group that is often nominally associated with the religion, i.e. Muslims. To collapse all distinctions, assuming that Muslim always means a devout practitioner of Islam and Islam is whatever Muslims do, is to abandon any concern with reality and the complex meaning of words. My Almanac states that Turkey is 99.8% Muslim; yet it is common knowledge that Turkey is one of the most secular countries in the Middle East. Sometimes the demographic label means nothing more than that one’s ancestors once practiced the religion. Many Muslims (like nominal adherents of any religion) are lax or lapsed; or they may practice their religion in a perfunctory or selective manner. These distinctions are important to get a full picture of the vastly divergent people.

When approaching a religious philosophy one consults the texts and examines the mythology, paying special attention to the example of the religion’s founding figure. Reform movements, of course, modify the picture as a secondary factor but one can still proceed in the same manner.

What defines a reformed and moderate version of the religion? First of all, there is an important difference between a lax practice and a moderate version of a religion. For a moderate version we usually see one of several signs: new texts partially superseding the old, major theologians as authorities of reform, separation from other denominations, etc. A textual approach is clearly philosophical and differs from the anthropological/sociological approach used by some historians and commentators of the current scene. That approach also has merit.

At present there is a taboo against a critical analysis of the religion of Islam – especially if there is a possibility that it may result in a negative assessment. I’ve been criticize on several venues for my critical stance or I’ve been urged to make equally critical assessments of other religions. This is not how knowledge is established. A disposition requiring a desirable outcome is nothing more than a prejudice – a positive prejudice – but a pre-judgment nevertheless.

Under the current atmosphere all critical effort has been directed towards the encouragement of Moderate Islam. I’ve argued that secularization has a significant tradition within Islamic countries while Moderate Islam has severe problems; Islam’s structural limitations diminish its prospects as a foundation for a sustained liberal order.

Advocating a new moderate turn instead of secularization makes the religion central (which in important senses had been marginalized until 40 years ago) and demoralizes advocates of secularization. Take the example of our government’s respect for the Koran and the extreme measures the administration takes to show respect for the religion. This demonstrates Islam’s power to Muslims and demoralizes the secularists. Even moderates worry. I remember Irshad Manji responding with dismay to Koran-gate and the initial bi-partisan assumption that Islam be treated with kid-gloves. She worried about a broader message: criticism of Islam is forbidden if it inflames Muslims anywhere in the world. Muslims – particularly devout jihadists – effectively have veto-power over discussions about Islam.

Without the possibility of severe criticism, the prospects for moderate reformers will slip away. During the 13th century, it was the secular doctrines of Aristotle that challenged the Church. During Locke’s time, philosophy continued to moderate religion. This continues even today. No religion is as criticized as Christianity and its many variants.

Is it possible to undertake a critical examination of Islam? In France it is virtually illegal to criticize Islam; in Italy it is illegal and one author is now charged with “vilifying a religion.” We still have our First Amendment rights; but that comes with a civic obligation to exercise those rights and speak out against any injustice or harmful ideas as counseled by our best judgment.

If, as I argue elsewhere, Islam is at its core an illiberal political ideology (it was certainly created as a state-religion), it should be criticized as any such ideology – for example, communism. And like communism during the Cold War, political speech is protected under the First Amendment while actual acts of violence are a proper concern of the state.

We should also remember that the vilification of innocent individuals brought disgrace to the critics of communism. One should avoid such injustice today. As usual, judge people as individuals looking beyond nominal designations to discover the truth. That’s why it is doubly important to realize a philosophical analysis is not a demographic analysis.

There comes a time when a society’s culture is dominated by an ideology or a nation is ruled by a clique driven by an ideology. If one judges a societies’ culture lacking to a significant extent, one’s preferred course of action is avoidance, just as one would if one found an individual’s character objectionable. While I don’t write about foreign policy I generally prefer disengagement and severing ties, as I’ve mentioned on one occasion. Otherwise establishing a deterrent is the wise course of action. I respect those who wish to reform and aid the fledging democracy abroad – indeed, I cheer every success along the way – but in the long-run I hope a less ambitious policy is adopted.

If we are to understand the Islamic revival, the threat it poses civilization, and the long road ahead, we have to be brutally honest. For this I do not apologize. And if we are to understand the difficulties our fellow countrymen have just discussing this topic, we realize our culture has sunk to a new low, unable to even think in principles – totally reduced to sound-bites, temporal partisan trivia, slogans, and name-calling. It is far more important to focus on the challenges of our own culture. I’ve done this to some extent and hope to move the focus in that direction in the future.

15 Comments:

Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Islam, and all other revealed religions, haven't gotten half the beating they deserve. And one is not a bigot for taking them on critically.

But I still hasten to point out that Islam isn't a fixed, immutable set of doctrines. It is indeed "whatever Muslims do," just the same as Christianity or Judaism are whatever their current adherents say they are.

I think you are quite right that " Islam’s structural limitations diminish its prospects as a foundation for a sustained liberal order." But this is quite different from your contention expressed elsehwere that Islam is inherently totalitarian, like, say, communism.

Judaism, with its incredible lists of capital offenses and prohibitions, would seem to be a poor candidate for sustaining a liberal order as well. Yet it, and its Chistian offspring, managed to be liberalized and civilized. Why not Islam as well?

9/26/05, 11:16 PM  
Blogger John Sobieski said...

Charles, Islam cannot be reformed, because the Qur'an and the Hadiths forbid it. The Qur'an forbids criticism of Allah and Mo. Apostates are to be killed. In the West, they are usually not killed, just terrorized and sometimes killed.

You should read Jihad by Fregosi or the Legacy of Jihad by Bostom to understand that jihad - the propagation of Islam by dawa, sword, money, infiltration and subjugation of Dar al-Harb by deceit (taqiyya), breeding,and all the other tactics of jihad are fundamental to Islam. There is no 'inner struggle' jihad, that was made up over the past 20 or so years to deceive the Infidels.

Jihad is the fundamental pillar of Islam and its goal (ridding the world of all nonbelievers) is absolute and unchallenged. Taqiyya, kitman, and dhimmitude challenges are all used in Dar al-Harb to deceive, harass and scare the Infidels while gaining converts (the most converts are prisoners in America), promoting immigration and breeding will actually be the weapons for the Third Jihad that we are now well into its 50th year of expansion.

In Islam, Muslims cannot acheive peace until the world is for
Islam and Islam only. Any Muslim saying otherwise is ignorant of the scriptures (a lot of them are and this is a good thing that they do not know all about Islam) or they are practicing taqiyya on you.

You may think that charity, the hajj and praying 5 times a day are the fundamentals of Islam. That is false. Those are personal attributes of the individual Muslim, a relatively insignificant aspect to Islam. In fact, they are only briefly discussed in the Qur'an, while killing the infidels and taking their booty is discussed extensively in over 75% of the suras of the Qur'an.

9/27/05, 12:44 AM  
Anonymous Joel Català said...

Well said, axis of Islam.

We must overcome the MSM politically correct doublespeak, and truth must be said as you did.

And finally, evil (and Islam is inherently evil, as Nazism and Communism are) must be exposed and combated.

9/27/05, 5:00 AM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Charles, you keep coming back to a comparison of Islam with Christianity. Of course, that requires we double our work and investigate two religions. It’s common for people to assume that if Christians can embrace a liberal order so too can Muslims. This is true but the question is can they do so because of the religion or despite the religion? Does either religion encourage this, hinder this or is it neutral?

I’ve discussed this in detail here. In terms of doctrine, I don’t think you can say a Christian is contradicting his religion if he’s liberal, socialist, or monarchist. Some Christians may feel otherwise but I can’t see a major political thrust in the doctrines of Jesus. Thus, I’d say it was neutral in regard to doctrine. I’d say all [three monotheistic] religions are inimical to liberty in terms of methodology (submission in faith, authoritarian in doctrine, etc.) but terms of specific content they differ.

Since the time Christianity rose to power in Rome and outlawed all other religions (there were 70+ practiced in Rome), to Locke’s writing on religious toleration, Christians had a poor record on respecting rights – taking full respect for personal religion as an example. However, some Christians (Locke considered himself one) created a sustainable liberal order and found it in harmony with their religion. That’s all I ask for!

This wasn’t automatic. Nothing like this happened in Orthodox Christianity. I’d argue that the key was Aquinas’ acceptance – indeed, championship – of Aristotle (based on the rediscovery, for the Latin Church, of Aristotle and further contributions to Aristotle scholarship by Averroes and Maimonides.) After the schism, Orthodox Christianity went its separate way. Unfortunately, Averroes had little effect within Islam. The evolution of the Roman Church was all but certain; and it took centuries ... and several geniuses.

Islam is quite different as I argue in the link above. See what you think.

9/27/05, 6:46 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I don't know much about Sufism but my general understanding is that it does genuinely interpret jihad as an inner struggle (and I assume, religion as a strictly private matter). I recall reading somewhere at faithfreedom where Ali Sina said that Sufism was a Persian invention several centuries after Muhammad and represented a sort of "uh oh" moment - as in, original Islam is no good - we better reinterpret this thing metaphorically! So I wonder whether Sufism doesn't represent the kind of philosophically based change you're talking about. I know that I would feel a whole lot more confortable if all Muslims converted to Sufism tomorrow!

9/27/05, 6:56 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Whoops - sorry - just got a chance to read your link to your August 8 article, in your comment to Charles. I see that you've already addressed Sufism there.

9/27/05, 11:23 AM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Getting back to your question on totalitarianism, Charles, let’s start the discussion one step at a time.

I’ve argued that Islam, at its core, is an illiberal political ideology stemming from the example of Mohammad as a political and military leader during the culmination of his career. Some have objected that I’ve characterized Islam as totalitarian in nature. From a google search I’ve only characterized Islam as totalitarian in one post and in one respect. This, in general, is not my way of characterizing the threat of Islam. However let’s consider that now.

The first known commentator (to my knowledge) to liken Islam to totalitarianism is Bertrand Russell shortly after he returned from Russia right after the revolution. Actually he likened Bolshevism to Islam and not the other way around. There is a quote that heads one of the chapters of Ibn Warraq’s classic book – I suggest everyone read it.

Is this a fair characterization? One commentator says that it is absurd on the face of it and anyone who suggests otherwise should be dismissed as a crank or worse (sorry, Bertrand!) However, let’s consider it (sorry, Adam!) What is totalitarianism? Some would limit the word to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia but not include Fascist Italy. Others would include Fascist Italy and even Franco’s Spain. If totalitarianism is a dictatorial government that, due to modern technology, can achieve a level of control undreamt of prior to the 20th century, the word isn’t applicable to autocratic governments of the past strictly speaking.

Bernard Lewis makes a point that the historic autocratic governments in the Islamic world had limited means to impose a complete dictatorship. This, he said, led to the heads of state to provide relief and services in exchange for stability of rule. Lewis criticizes the West for providing Muslims access to modern technology and economic power without taking into account that the traditional limits to dictatorial rule are now removed.

If Lewis’ analysis is valid, then there is an assumption that the Islamic disposition is indeed towards totalitarianism or harsh dictatorship, which had been limited by the autocrat's lack of means in centuries past.

This is interesting and I’m not going to imply that the analysis has been proven or refuted. What I do want to say is that it makes it plausible, given that respectable minds describe or imply totalitarianism as natural to Islam; and that we investigate the philosophy and ascertain if it has a tendency, lacks protection against, or strongly urges totalitarian government. This question can’t be dismissed on the face of it as some would absurdly imply.

However, I haven’t disposed of the issue - only stated that it’s a reasonable line of inquiry. Perhaps totalitarianism is not exactly the right word; but if not are we just fine-tuning or are we way off? We’d have to study the religion, the history, and do an attribution analysis to ascertain the religion’s influence in history.

Is it not reasonable to proceed this way?

P.S. Thanks for the resonable comments over at Tom's

9/27/05, 5:20 PM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Lots of comments directed towards what I've said -- but I will just make a few points in reply.

Axis states that the Quran and Hadiths forbid reform of Islam. But the interpretation of what they say is what can be reformed...it is as simple as that. I assume that most of you posting here are also familiar with Luxenberg's arguments concerning the mistranslation of the Qur'an -- it seems to me impossible to deny that there may be well-founded reasons for re-interpretation, that's helpful but not necessary for my point. Humans, including Muslisms, are capable of astounding feats of rationalization, interpetation, and bringing meanings to texts which may or may not be there.

Discussing whether or not some particular episode, e.g. "inner struggle jihad," is an example of genuine reform or not is relevant to the question of the current state of Islam, but not relevant to my much more general point.

Jason, in his first reply to me, suggests I'm doubling the work by asking for a comparison with Judeo-Christianity (if I may lump them together here). But my request is entirely relevant. For example, the Old Testament appears to be quite straightforward that those who preach "false" religions are to be executed, adulterers stoned, etc. And the New Testament agrees that all the O.T. laws are to be upheld. Despite this, the vast majority of Christians and Jews interpret these seemingly plain laws in a non-literal way and have ore or less reached an accomodation with the requirements of liberty (but consider the tiny Christian Reconstructionist minority & Dominion Theology -- not all have made this accomodation).

So again, if Christians can learn to do this, why can't Muslims? (The rest of Jason's post seems largely sensible to me, but doesn't address this basic question.)

Jason's second reply to me addresses the issue of whether Islam is inherently totalitarian, and I read it as Jason backing down (at least a bit) from that bold position.

If your point is that the words of the Qur'an are more easily interpreted as illiberal than liberal (at least relative to modern western standards) then I'd not disagree. If your point is that Islam, as currently practiced by most Muslims, is strongly illiberal, then I'd strongly agree. If your point is that Islam as espoused in madrasses tends to be irrational and hate-filled, I think you are right. But none of these contradict the point I am making.

9/27/05, 7:40 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

Why is the term 'totalitarian" strictly limited to the connotation of governement or state control anyway? My dictionary also defines totalitarian as "completely authoritarian, autocratic, dictatorial". The notion that the Koran is the final and immutable word of God, the everyday minitiae that Islam regulates - down to how to wipe one's ass, Sharia law as an eternal system of jurisprudence - all of this connotes what I understand to be totalitarian. But, even if I acknowledge that other religions have historically been similarly authoritarian - there is the small issue of apostasy. What is more autocratic or totalitarian ( and I confess to ignorance re the precise definitions of these terms) than religiously-sanctioned killing off of the unbelievers - or even the believing critics?? Yes, I know the Roman Catholic Church did such things. (But then that's why I'm an ex-Catholic). But Christianity has survived without the Catholic Church. When did Jesus ever kill his critics? There is no precedence for totalitarianism in (true) Christianity as far as I can tell. But Muhammad DID kill off his critics! And Muhammad's critics are still killed with impunity today. Which is why I do not necessarily link the concept of 'totalitariansim' with state governement. What about the concept of the Ummah? The ummah transcends state boundaries. Yet members of the ummah can cross state boundaries and assasinate Islam's critics. And get away with it! (Get away with it because such assassination is understood as acceptable by Islam's adherents, no matter where they live geographically). What could possibly be MORE totalitarian than that?

Charles - I typed all of this and then when I previewed I saw your post. As it took a few minutes to type, I am posting it anyway. :-)

But, as an addendum - I note that you are citing the Old Testament in the context of some of the things I am talking about here - namely apostasy and the killing of non-believers. How do those Old testament passages relate to the New testament where Christians are concerned? I guess I am asking - for Christians, does the New Testament essentially "abrogate" the Old testament? (I realize that Christians don't use the term 'abrogation' but hopefully you get my drift and can make an appropriate comparison with islam).

Charles - just before posting I noticed something else that you wrote. You said that the NT agrees that all of the OT laws are to be upheld, (There's something wrong with my cut and paste function so I can't C&P). But, I would appreciate it if you would back that claim up, i.e. Where does the NT claim that the OT laws are to be upheld?

9/27/05, 8:08 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

And Jason - in your Aug 8 post your main criticism of Sufism appears to be its incompatibility with reason. Why is that a problem? If Sufism is a completely private affair (and I don't know enough about it to know if that is genuinely the case but lets assume that to be the case) then why, precisely, should it be a problem? Eastern traditions like Buddhism appear to me to be completely antithetical to reason - they deal completely with direct personal transcendence or something like that (as opposed to "faith") - but they don't have much to do with reason, and yet they are not a problem. In short, I would appreciate it if you would explain why it is that you view Sufism's incompatibility with logic and reason as representing any sort of problem for us as (liberal) westerners .

9/27/05, 8:26 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

I see excellent comments that suggest we are not very far from each other with respect to many important facts of reality but I think our rhetoric or emphasis may give the impression that we are more at odds with each other than not.

In most of my writing I generally refer to the significantly greater hurdles that Islam puts in the way of reform. They seem formidable to me not in the sense that some Muslims can't clear the hurdles; but in the sense that one can create a vibrant practice with wide approval that is stable over the long-term and allows a rights-based liberal society. But sometimes I’m brief, and given the current reality, I just say there is no Moderate Islam. But I tend to want to add “of any consequence or lasting appeal that can dissuade Salafist jiahdist from their dreams of conquest and triumphant expansionism.” In the long-run I tend to add the qualifiers and nuance you seem to look for but I still believe conceptual summary has an important purpose.

Thus, I think we just talk slightly differently. Let's take another example. When I say collectivism resulted in the massive horrors of the 20th century, is that unfair? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean I assume the simplest manifestation. Not everyone who is a collectivist is a mass killer. Not every society motivated by the collectivist dream immediately becomes a gulag. Obviously there are degrees, other factors, different views on what collectivism entails, etc. But the idea of collectivism - that an individual doesn’t have rights - removes an important protection that enables horrors. Thus, the simple summary statement – collectivism created vast horrors – is a pithy grasp of an essential truth. But not being a Platonist, I’d say the essence, while being primary, isn’t everything. So I’m not backing off, just adding nuance and clarity.

I agree with Caroline, the more general notion of totalitarianism is the useful concept – it makes the word a category in political philosophy and not just a historical label. Good point! And some good points about Islam. I just wanted to argue against another fellow who elsewhere said it wasn’t even plausible at the outset by anyone except some cranks. I think I’ve established the minimum.

Sufism is an interesting example I don’t know enough about. From what I read it is an eclectic combination of various traditions (someone called it an umbrella term) and has regional variations. When the mystical or irrational is confined to purely private matters – like one’s belief in the afterlife – it matters little to me as it is none of my business. But Al Gahzali (sp?) attacked reason in general and harmed the cause of philosophy in Islamic societies. He wanted to gain respect for Islam at the expense of reason – and he deprive the next generation of philosophy’s council. So, I agree with your point about the personal level if it remains a personal matter.

As a matter of fact, I believe Christians (most at least) have been able to do something like this. Religion is a personal private matter for most people here in the USA.

9/27/05, 9:32 PM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Again many ideas and I'll only reply to a few of them...

Caroline -- you suggest a difference between "true Christianity" and true Islam. But I can't say what "true" Christianity is, and neither can you, I think. The number of interpretations (by Christians) of what true Christianity is mind-boggling. Some interpretations (e.g. from some fundamentalists, and certainly from the Christian Reconstructionists) are thoroughly totalitarian -- and so far as I can see they derive their interpretations from fairly straightforward readings of the Bible.

Regarding your question, here's a quote from Jesus that seems to endorse OT laws:

"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (Matt 5:17-18)

Some Christians find this a compelling endorsement of all the old Mosaic laws, some find it an endorsement of only some of them, and some interpret it as some sort of cancelling of the OT laws. The variety of rationalizations and arguments is bewildering.

Also while Jesus didn't kill his enemies, he did, in some places, seem to suggest that he'd do this later. Or maybe not, depending on the interpretation.

Jason -- yes, we seem to be converging on some common ground. I suggest that your qualifier "of any consequence or lasting appeal that can dissuade Salafist jiahdist from their dreams of conquest and triumphant expansionism" is absolutley crucial and completely changes what you are saying. I suspect Adam (over on Palmer's blog) would have far less difficulty with your arguments were this qualifier always clear. But this qualifier also suggests you might have some common ground with (some) versions of Islam, whereas without the qualifier you clearly wouldn't.

Your analogy with collectivism seems relevant but again I think it supports my point. Collectivism (as practiced by Nazis & Communists) was indeed responsible for the "massive horrors of the 20th century." But it doesn't follow that collectivism per se is bloodthirsty, for only a subset is. As an example of non-blood-drenched collectivism, long before Soviet times many Russian peasant villages established, on their own, communes and lived a communist lifestyle...collectivist w/o wholesle butchery. Objectionable to me but still quite a different thing from Naziism and Marxism with their grandiose schemes of world domination.

9/28/05, 12:17 PM  
Blogger Jason_Pappas said...

Your feedback is invaluable, Charles. Let me see if I can summarize a key difference, however. I think it’s how we center our knowledge.

I start with the ideology of Islam, that I see as originating as an illiberal political ideology. It is necessarily religious because of the times of its creation. I see the ideology as practiced to different degrees and with different emphasis. Thus, the moderate practice is a partial practice in my description. A purely moderate theology, on the other hand, would have to jettison the Medinan period or, with severe mental contortions, twist it into something else. I have doubts about such a project succeeding on a global ongoing basis within the religion.

You start with the demographic group and accept the widest possible common denominator. Thus, there are militant and moderate sub-divisions. The theology of the moderates is implicit in their way of practice and perhaps at times even explicit in their doctrine.

Thus, we see the same danger, single out with warm regards the same valiant voices of moderation, but we use different conceptual language to center our knowledge with regard to what is primary and what is additional. Do you think that is a fair description of the difference in our approaches?

9/28/05, 3:09 PM  
Blogger Always On Watch said...

Jason: At present there is a taboo against a critical analysis of the religion of Islam – especially if there is a possibility that it may result in a negative assessment.

But it is negative assessment which leads to reform! The Protestant Reformation resulted from a powerfully negative assessment of the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately led to the separation of church and state as individuals had to reconcile their personal faith with allegiance to civil government.

By not allowing for critical assessment, moderates and reformists receive no encouragement: Take the example of our government’s respect for the Koran and the extreme measures the administration takes to show respect for the religion. This demonstrates Islam’s power to Muslims and demoralizes the secularists. Even moderates worry....Without the possibility of severe criticism, the prospects for moderate reformers will slip away.

Will the media allow for the criticism which is necessary for the secularization of Islam? (One of my recent blog articles deals with the matter of Saudi investment in our media) If open criticism isn't allowed, the most stringent rules of the Koran and the Hadiths will dominate. It takes only a few extremists to exert oppressive control, and terrorism is a powerful tool in that regard. The concepts of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb are inherent in Islam. Big problem there if government and religion are not separate functions because it then becomes the nations responsibility to see to it that the whole world becomes Dar al-Islam.

Many Muslims regard Turkey as the betrayer of Islam because Turkey underwent secularization. Fundamentalist Muslims condemn Turkey as apostate.

Ultimately, fundamentalism (us-against-them, we know and they don't) entwined with governmental and military force is oppressive and totalitarian. It's fine for individuals to believe that they have found "the way," but when those believers start killing those who don't believe the same, freedom is gone.

9/29/05, 7:54 AM  
Blogger Charles N. Steele said...

Jason -- in sum, re "centering;" it's my contention that Islam (and other religions) have no fixed center. Your contention (I think) is that there's a clearly defined & fixed center.

I think the discussion is useful; we are all making our arguments more precise, if nothing else.

9/29/05, 7:17 PM  

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