The recent case of a Norwegian left of centre politician who is apparently distressed that his convicted Somali rapist is likely to be deported has caused a minor online stir. I was, however, particularly struck by this statement:
But perhaps the most notable lesson Hauken says he learned is that “rapists are from a world so different from ours.”
“In his culture, sexual abuse is about power, not lust,” Hauken said. “And it’s not considered a gay action to be the one who engages in power and violence.”
“I don’t feel anger against my rapist, because I look at him as a product of an unjust world. A product of an upbringing full of war,” Hauken said.
What this all means, according to Hauken, is that refugees need our help more than ever.
The culture in which the rapist was raised plus generic injustice provided a mitigating prism through which to view what the rapist did. To state the bleeding obvious, a Western male rapist would never be granted any such excuse. The principle here is clear: Western men have moral agency, Muslim men have excuses.
Now, any contemporary postmodern progressive, if directly challenged on this point, is likely to indignantly deny that any such principle is operating. Yet, it is abundantly clear in the pattern of postmodern progressive commentary and indignation that it does.
Especially some are entirely upfront about it, such as academic Miriam Cooke, active in “Middle Eastern Women’s Studies”, who has stated:
When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women.
Now there is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization. What is driving Islamist men is globalization.
(The great thing about the “globalization” bogey is that it means the stick of “Western imperialism” never goes away.) But Cooke’s claims are historical nonsense, since the patterns involved extend deep into Islamic doctrine and history: indeed, to when Islam was the great imperial civilisation.
When Cooke further claims that:
Polygamy can be liberating and empowering
she is showing considerable ignorance of a great deal of social science evidence to the contrary. But it is clear her claims are driven by the need to seem morally Virtuous, not anything even vaguely resembling close attention to history and evidence. One can only agree with writer Kay S. Hymowitz’s statement about the wider travails of contemporary Western feminism:
That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism, and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men.
Consider the (dreadful) term “Islamophobia” which operates to block critical examination of Islam, basically on the grounds that Muslims believe Islam, so a critical examination of Islam is unfair/hostile/the equivalent of racism (i.e. an act of collective aggression against Muslims). If Muslims were treated as full moral agents, no such argument would be entertained for a moment. How can we tell? Because any attempt to apply the same reasoning to Christianity would be dismissed with contempt. Christianity is the dominant Western religion, Westerners are moral agents, so their beliefs (particularly their religious beliefs) are completely fair game for critical examination; indeed, fair game for casual contempt. The beliefs of Muslims, on the other hand, have protected status.
So protected, that their religious beliefs are allegedly so central to the identity of Muslims that critical examination of Islam is a collective aggression against Muslims. Yet, if any particularly problematic element of Islam is raised, it is typically claimed that many/most Muslims don’t believe it. Islam becomes a religion without content–or, at least, without significant problematic content. It is, instead, an apparently no-problem-content marker of protected identity. Yet critical examination of Western culture, Western religion, Western history is de rigueur. So much so, that strong attachment to Western cultures and identities is treated as morally offensive and retrograde.
There is also a perverse numbers game played, where if something is not believed by some large number of Muslims (either all, a large majority, a majority, depending on rhetorical convenience) then it is not a basis for criticising Islam. Needless to say, no such protective numbers game is played with any other religion (particularly not Christianity) nor Western identities generally.
Philosopher Cornell West provides a nice example of the contrast between the protected and the resonsible. In the aftermath of murders in a black church, he argued for the removal of the Confederate flag, claiming that the problem is that:
the vicious legacy of white supremacy is still shot so deep in the culture
Later, reacting to comments on mass sexual assaults in Cologne (and elsewhere), Cornell West decides that, when it comes to Muslims:
every culture has good morality and bad
Flying a flag says something deep and nasty about American culture: mass sexual assaults say nothing about any Muslim culture.
In Europe, the “morally responsible” position that folk have been browbeaten and shamed into is that critical examination of Islam and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities is inherently racist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The locals have to adapt to the newcomers while insistence that Muslims adapt to the patterns of the (highly successful) societies they are coming to is inherently racist, colonialist, xenophobic, out of moral bounds. The Anglophone settler societies of US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are a fair way down the same path. The clear principle being that Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses: hence the former must adapt to the latter.
All the sins of Western civilisation and Western states must be at the moral forefront at all times. None of the sins of Islamic civilisation have any such relevance. Indeed, are almost certainly the fault of Western imperialism in the first place. Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.
The contrast is particularly stark over hate crimes. If a non-Muslim Westerner commits a violent hate crime, then the postmodern progressive gaze is turned intensely and hostilely on the killer; indeed, on anyone who sounds, looks like or can be vaguely associated with the killer. If a Muslim commits a violent hate crime (a rather more frequent occurrence), then the postmodern progressive gaze is most emphatically not so directed: instead, the killers become moral cyphers in a narrative of Western guilt. Any number of Muslims can kill any number of people (overwhelmingly, of course, fellow Muslims: but that is a recurring historical pattern which goes deep into Islamic history) while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters, or their beliefs. Hence the nonsensical claims that the Islamic State is “not Islamic”.
No one who is acquainted with Islamic doctrine and history could ever make such a claim in good faith. The problem with the Islamic state (indeed, with all the jihadists) is that they are intensely Islamic. If the Islamic State was obviously heretical, if it was obviously not-really-Islamic, it would be far less of a problem because the Muslim world would unite much more effectively against it. It is precisely because it is a manifestation of devout, Sunni literalism that it has such resonance. (On said literalism, see their online magazine Dabiq.)
Australian political scientist David Martin Jones makes an excellent (if very uncomfortable) point when he says it is highly misleading to talk of “radical Islam” and “radical Muslims”. First, because radicalism in Western history was a tradition of intense secularism. Second, because the jihadis, and those on the Caliphate curve generally, do not want to change the religion of Islam: on the contrary, they are literalists seeking to revive Islam in what they conceive of as its purist, most proper, form. They are zealots (and fanatics), they are not radicals.
The true radicals of the Muslim world are the secularists; typically adherents of the modernist Left. But the modernist Left is dying in the West, taken over by the hostile parasite of postmodern progressivism. For the modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. Postmodern progressivism is, by contrast, “post Enlightenment”, which turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment re-booted. And postmodern progressives either ignore Muslim secularists or, if they become too public, denounce them.
A recent example of this being the piling on by various Western intellectuals denouncing Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud when he critiqued attitudes to women in the Arab world. Daoud was demanding that Muslim men in particular be treated as moral agents, that patterns of belief and culture in the Arab world be subject to critical examination. This heresy could clearly not be tolerated, hence the serial denunciations. (Political writer Paul Berman and philosopher Michael Walzer wrote an informative defence of Daoud.)
Algeria is something of a stronghold of the modernist Left in the Muslim world. Originally because Algeria won its independence from France by a relatively standard revolutionary insurgency established a secular, at least notionally socialist, state. The experience of the Algerian Civil War–a violent and brutal struggle between military secularists and organised Islamic zealotry–subsequently re-radicalised many Algerian intellectuals because they were literally on the firing line, subject to death threats and assassinations by said zealots. As the struggle had nothing to do with Western foreign policy,* they tend to be strongly immunized against treating political Islam as some derivative phenomenon. Algerian-American academic Karima Bennoune’s Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is a particularly fine example of these Algerian troublemaking tendencies.
It is particularly revealing that a standard response of postmodern progressives to any hate crime by jihadis is to immediately start worrying about Islamophobia. Indeed, ever since 9/11, postmodern progressives have continually attempted to generate a moral panic about a backlash against Muslims. The issue that engages them far more than killing in the name of Islam is bad Westerners displaying their inherent racist/xenophobic/colonialist tendencies in treating innocent Muslims badly even though, by every empirical measure, it remains a minor issue.
Again, the contrast with Westerners engaging hate crimes is stark: there is absolutely no concern after such events that there might be a backlash against innocent Westerners (particularly not white Westerners). For Westerners have moral agency (indeed, automatically morally suspicious moral agency), Muslims have excuses.
It is now approaching 15 years since 9/11 and what is very clear is that any such backlash against Muslims resident in the West is hugely less significant than violence coming from Muslim communities in Western countries–not only jihadi violence, but attacks on Jews, attacks on queer folk and assaults on women. In the West, attacks on Jews (often by Muslims) are statistically much more sizeable than attacks on Muslims. But the violence by Westerners that doesn’t happen looms as a much larger moral bogey within the Virtuous/postmodern progressive worldview than the violence by Muslims that does happen.
It is not even a case of Westerners having moral agency and Muslims having excuses, it is much more a case of violence by Muslims being studiously ignored (particularly by much of the mainstream media) or, when that can’t be done, then treated as an exercise in Muslims having excuses.
In the case of attacks on Jews, the standard excuse is, of course, Israel: if Muslims were full moral agents Israeli policy would be absolutely no excuse for attacks on Jews as individuals, especially outside Israel; but Muslims do not have such agency, they have excuses. Yet Jew-hatred is rampant throughout the Muslim world–for example, 61% of Malaysians hold anti-Semitic attitudes compared to 13% of Thais–which is precisely why so many Jews fled Islamic countries to Israel and the West (around 850,000: they and their descendants making up a majority of Israel’s Jews).
Thus Muslim culture and experience are used as an excuse, when Western culture and experience never is: well, not at least if you are white. Which is where we came in.
Where does this blatant and deeply persistent double standard come from? (One which is particularly obvious in the tolerance of various levels of Jew-hatred, in contrast to hyper-sensitivity on other forms of racism.) Like most double standards, it comes from the defence of status. In particular, moral status as decent, concerned, compassionate persons with the proper level of intellectual sophistication.
Globally, the equivalent term to Muslim is Westerner, since Islam is a civilisation in its own right, with a 1400 year history. A civilisation with some very strong recurring patterns.
Thus, in the C11th, the Al-Murābiṭūn (Almoravids), Berbers united by religious fervour, swept out of the deserts and mountains and conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Sound familiar?) They were supplanted by the al-Muwaḥḥidun (Almohades), the “monotheists”; Berbers united by religious fervour who swept out of the deserts and mountains, conquered much of the Maghreb and of Al-Andalus seeking a purified, more literal version of Islam. (Again, sound familiar?) The only thing new in Islam about the Islamic State is its use of technology. Yet we see again the pattern of blaming the Islamic State on the West (because Westerners have moral agency) and not seeing it for what it is; a contemporary example of a recurring pattern in Islamic history (because Muslims have excuses).
Despite being members of a grand (indeed, historically highly imperial) civilisation, postmodern progressivism treats Muslims purely as a minority. In many ways, they have become (along possibly with transgenders) the minority; the central minority for postmodern progressivist moral concern. Even outside the West, the global dominance of the West turns the civilisation of Islam into an “as-if” minority. A dominance which is in no way to be understood as in sense a matter of Western achievement, merely of Western sin. Based on what econblogger Noah Smith usefully labels Haan history. In his words:
What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.
Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.
Many countries and civilisations were subject to Western imperialism, while the Middle Eastern experience of Western imperial occupation was relatively brief. Indeed, in the case of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel, a little over three decades (c.1919-c.1956), which are now six decades ago. Yet that, in the contemporary world, only Islam produces serious religious persecution and religiously motivated mass murder, and Muslims are the only migrant communities that generate networks of the homicidally religiously enraged, becomes a non-fact. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.
That Islam has a much longer and more systematic history of imperialism than Latin-Christendom-cum-Western civilisation: over a thousand years of, mostly successful, jihad hugely outweighs in time and territory 170 years of ultimately failed Levantine Crusades; that the Saharan slave trade was every bit as horrible as the Atlantic slave trade (and lasted centuries longer, so was considerably greater in total scale of suffering); that Islam has Othering built into its fundamental premises: none of these burdens of history count, unlike their Western equivalents. For Westerners have moral agency, Muslims have excuses.
Full victims, excellent mascots
So why? Why the obsession with a hugely overblown “Islamophobia” while Muslim persecution Christians (much more serious) becomes a factor without significance?
We might also note in passing that the emptiness of the common progressivist excuse for not paying attention to non-Western sins–“we should concentrate on what we have control over”–is well on display, given the absolute lack of interest in looking a problems within Muslim communities in the West; the sort of “see no evil” response that was a significant factor in the years-long, massive, systematic abuse of vulnerable girls that is the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal.
Why these patterns?
Why? Because if you grant a group full moral agency, they cannot be full sacred victims. They are no longer simple moral objects in a grand morality passion narrative, but people like other people, who act and whose acts have consequences. They cannot be “struggled for” in the nice, easy, I don’t have to think awkward thoughts, way. For, as Noah Smith says of the appeal of the Haan history narrative:
What’s important seems to be the constant struggle. In a world pervaded and defined by injustice and wrongness, the only true victory is in resistance.
A feature, not a bug
But it is more than that. Because there is actually considerable cognitive ingenuity involved. Postmodern progressivism is all about queer rights, third wave feminism, opposition to Othering, denial of religious claims within the public space. Yet Muslim migration involves importing wholesale people with near zero commitment to queer rights (indeed, often strongly of the opposite opinion), deeply pervaded by patriarchal and misogynist ideas, with a deep tendency to Other folk (particularly Jews and ex-Muslims) and strongly inclined to make religious claims on the public space; indeed, among whom presumptions of Muslim supremacism are embedded. A religion which valourises violence more than any other contemporary religion and, more to the point, a global religious community which valourises violence more than any other.
In other words, a group profoundly pervaded by ideas which appear to be the opposite of everything postmodern progressivism is supposed to be for. Ideas, moreover, that members of said community have distinct tendencies to act upon to varying degrees.
But that does not make them problematic as sacred victims, it makes them even better sacred victims, even better as moral mascots, as markers of virtue. How so?
If we adopt Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s theory of cults of personality (useful discussion here), we can see how so. In a time, particularly in social milieus, where morality is compulsory, and ostentatious morality a marker of identity and status, how do you show you are truly Moral, truly Virtuous? By embracing contradiction. The more awkward facts you are prepared to ignore or explain away, the clearer your commitment to being one of the Virtuous is (and the less cognitive dissonance you have to deal with). And no group of potential sacred victims generates more awkward facts to ignore or explain away than Muslims.
All that apparent contradiction to what postmodern progressives are supposed to stand for? A feature, not a bug. Indeed, by not “imposing” the Enlightenment values the modernist Left was committed to, one shows how virtuous Post-Enlightenment and postmodern progressive one is. And, especially given that the post-Enlightenment is the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted, the very non-Enlightenment religious identity of Muslims fits very well.
How to get the wider community to go along (to the extent it has)? Economist Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification allows us to see the mechanics of that. The combination of emotional fervour (since people’s sense of status and moral identity is so bound up in this) and moral abuse of dissent imposes reputational costs that people are deterred by–they don’t want to be seen as “bad people”. Especially when becoming sufficiently informed to see through the push takes effort. It is so much easier just to go along. So folk do.
The potential power of such status-driven tribalism is particularly strikingly displayed by the perversion of nutritional science where seizing the scientific-status high ground through (what turned out to be) empirically unsupported claims and sustained assault on dissent profoundly distorted the nutritional advice given by doctors and governments for decades.
Tribalism is a powerful driver of human actions and attitudes, particularly when identity is tied to status. Doctrines themselves can be powerful markers of identity and status (which does not, however, mean the content of doctrines has no effect: ideas still have consequences).
Econblogger Arnold Kling makes a pertinent observation:
I think that progressives are more prone to using the threat of scorn or excommunication, and it is hard not to respond to that. As a thought experiment, I believe that if I were to say, “I think gay marriage is ok” in a room full of conservatives, they would not hold that against me. However, if I you were to say, “I think gay marriage is wrong” in a roomful of progressives, they would give me what-for and never let me forget it.
The Virtuous advance in part due to their greater aggression; their greater intolerance of dissent and lack of civility. Conservatives, and folk more generally, have their identity connected to the wider society they inhabit: which includes folk having varying views. The Virtuous have their identity tied to their sense of being Virtuous, and against the wider society (being “subversive”). Moreover, holding view X is the more Virtuous the more holding view not-X is evil, which makes differing views Vicious and subject to “bad people think that” attack–and without any overarching broader common-social-identity protection.
As filmmaker Jamie Palmer points out, this tribalism undermines the willingness to make elementary moral distinctions, due to:
an insufferable belief in the Left’s own moral superiority, an article of faith the Left is extremely reluctant to question. To be on the Left, it is held, is to care about others; to be on the Right is to care about nobody but oneself. This assumed monopoly of truth and virtue carries the assumption that those who contest Left-wing axioms harbor debased motives. Meanwhile, organizations on the Left—particularly those in the NGO sector—are held to be above reproach and are consequently excused from any meaningful scrutiny.
This tribal reflex has sometimes prevented the Left from making the most important and elementary moral distinction of all, which is not between the political Right and Left, but between democrats and authoritarians. It has often given Left-wing dictators the benefit of the doubt while expressing furious indignation against those on the democratic Right who point out those dictators’ shortcomings. If the Right turns out to have been correct about something, then one frequently hears the objection that this is “for the wrong reasons.”
So, where does that all end up? With Westerners having moral agency–since status only really works if it status over others; thus focusing on the wickedness and evil of the West and Westerners allows one to morally lord over all those wicked Westerners who do not follow the Path of Virtue–while Muslims have excuses, in order to be the perfect moral mascots and sacred victims.
The entire exercise of status through Virtue asserted against Western society, as well as its history, and those who embrace its achievements, thus operates to generate contempt for fellow citizens and the wider society we share: not a pattern likely to be socially adaptive in the long run.
In reality, the Virtuous typically have far more in common with Western conservatives and libertarians, as well as the working class Westerners that they are so busy despising for their unreconstructed patriotism, than with the Muslims they are so ostentatiously solicitous for. (Though not with the ex-Muslims they ignore.) Indeed, nothing that cutting edge Virtuous academics or other activists produce is likely to be treated with other than contempt by most Muslims, who have their own rich traditions of intellectual endeavour to tap into.
But the Virtuous refuse to look under the black box of Islam, and the internal dynamics of Muslim communities, so that reality is not even on their radar. If Muslims have excuses, not moral agency, they cannot be a problem, can they? But it is a recurring blindness of the smugly arrogant throughout history to think that others will be their controllable pawns. [It is one thing to engage in the Curley effect with folk like oneself, it is quite another to do so with folk very different from oneself.]
There is a further awkwardness: looking at the problems within Muslim communities and Muslim societies may put the actual difficulties postmodern progressives face as well-educated Westerners in an unfortunate perspective. The more the modernist Left objective of a prosperity-and-rights-for-all is achieved, the less actual suffering or oppression the game of status-through-subversive-Virtue has to work with: hence the creation of ever greater mountains of moral angst out of ever small molehills (e.g. micro-aggressions) and the entrepreneurial search for more (Western) things to be outraged over (cultural appropriation, anyone?). The more Western achievements are acknowledged, the more pathetic their moral grandstanding becomes. And then where would they be?
The entire game of Virtuous status-and-contempt is deeply intellectually dishonest and increasingly socially disastrous. But you can’t be truly Virtuous by worrying about consistency and consequences. For, after all, being “subversive” means never having to take serious responsibility for anything; except one’s ostentatious moral fervour, however hypocritical and overblown that may become.
ADDENDA: Commenter Paul raises an excellent point, regarding the surge in commentary on Indian misogyny after the particularly brutal rape of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi. (See, for example, this Guardian piece.) What is striking is the space given to Indian women to strongly critique Indian culture: for example, this piece on CNN, this on the Huffington Post. The sort of local feminist critique that is studiously ignored when it comes to Muslim cultures (or even denounced) was given prominent platforms when non-Muslim men and social attitudes were at issue. The contrast with the reaction to mass sexual assaults in Cologne and elsewhere, the Rotherham sexual exploitation scandal, is stark.(Leaving aside whether Indian men and culture have been slandered.) So, apparently non-Westerners can have moral agency, not excuses; if they are not Muslims and so do not reach the apex of standing as moral mascots and sacred victims.
[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud]
* The struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan intensified Islamic militancy, provided experienced and energised recruits for the Islamic insurgency, but as the US provided only about a third of the funding (the Saudis matched US contributions and private fund-raising raised a similar amount again) while much of the organising was done via Pakistan or Islamic networks blaming the West for that is drawing a long bow, to say the least. After all, the original cause was the Soviet invasion.