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Palestine’s disastrous political leadership

By Lorenzo

I recently read Mark S. Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. I heartily recommend the book, which includes various case studies–the comparison of the largely contemporaneous consolidation of state power against claims of kin, clan and lineage in Anglo-Saxon England with Arabia under Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs was particularly striking. Though Weiner seems to have largely missed the role of the Catholic Church’s family revolution (such as banning cousin marriage) in the fading of clan in Latin Christendom.

One of Weiner’s case studies is Palestine where, once again, we learn what a disaster Yasser Arafat was. Because Western colonial authorities came from liberal (in the broad sense) societies where clans were things of the distant past, their rule often had unfortunate effects on existing clan structures. (Though Afghanistan shows that the lack of colonial rule hardly improve matters.) Either way, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report (pdf) identifies “clannism” as both a problem and a response to weak states. As in the rest of the Arab world, Weiner notes that:

Traditionally, social and political power among Palestinians has been rooted in systems of lineage. These kinship systems include not only those of nomadic Bedouin tribesmen and the elite families who served as intermediaries between the Palestinian population and government administrators under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, but also hundreds of extended family groups of hamula, tracing their patrilineal descent to a common ancestor (loc 1342).

Such hamula:

… continue to play an important part in Palestinian politics and the administration of justice.

In particular, clans possess their own tribunals for resolving disputes within their lineage groups, and they abide by time-honored practices for reaching reconciliation and renewal  (islah) between disputing groups under recognised principles of customary law (‘urn). They also observe a strict code of honour (mithaq al-sharaf) that requires members to take revenge (tha’r) against those who have injured their kin (loc 1342).

As Weiner points out:

The viability of a free and independent Palestinian state will depend not only on Israeli political will, but also whether these traditional systems of justice can be replaced with state institutions under democratic public control (loc 1355).

The first Intifada (1987-93) pushed Palestine in the direction of state building:

… it gave rise to a new generation of leaders known as the intifada elite, university-educated activists committed not to the interests of their kin groups but to the principles of nationalism. The intifada elite sought to advance the cause of Palestinian independent by developing the institutional structures of government and civil society. Their deep, grassroots connections gave them the authority and legitimacy to construct a modern, albeit revolutionary, state (loc 1355).

But then Arafat returned from his Tunisian exile in 1994, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Anyone familiar with the history of the Palestinians as, in Abba Eban’s words, the people who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” can guess what happens next:

To bolster his own power, Arafat undermined the institutions forged by the intifada elite and strengthened the power of the clans, which he could control directly through patronage (loc 1355).

Including an election law which, in the words of one scholar:

produced what is was designed to produce: a parliament of clan leaders, largely pliant to the wishes of Arafat and his cabinet (loc 1368).

The second Intifada (2000-2005) (including the Israeli response) then largely completed the process with the result that, as Weiner writes:

… clans now pose a major obstacle to practical institution builders seeking to establish the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority (loc 1368).

A problem that extends to Gaza:

The obstacle has been as vexing to the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza as it has been to the nationalists of Fatah in the West Bank. Although Islam has historically accommodated clan groups, at its heart it sets religious identity against tribal loyalty. Hamas is philosophically committed to this anticlan ideology, which regularly brings it into violent conflict with powerful Gazan families (loc 1382).

Choosing violence and hatred

But both Arafat and Hamas found conflict much easier than peace-building. Especially as it is such an excellent revenue source: the Hamas leadership appears to have become seriously wealthy from its anti-Zionist intransigence.

But choosing violence and hatred because it offers easier political returns goes back to the origins of the Palestinian “struggle”. When Jewish settlers first started coming to Palestine at the time of the Ottoman Empire, they brought capital (physical, financial, human), raising local wages and expanding economic activity. Which then attracted migrants from other areas of the Middle East. (A proportion of Palestinians are also descendants of settlers: hence the UN definition of a Palestinian refugee only requires residence in Mandatory Palestine from 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948.)

Jewish settlers 1880s

The existing Palestinian elite had a choice: come to some mutually beneficial arrangement with the new settlers (Palestine was hardly crowded at the time) or play the ethno-religious hatred game. Some of the Palestinian elite was willing to do the former, even if it was just selling land to the newcomers.

Enter the new Grand Mufti (1921-1937) of Jerusalem, Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini. Already implicated in anti-Jewish violence, he propagated an Arab nationalism that excluded the Jews–yet Jews had been residents of the region longer than Arabs. Hatred and violence pushed the Jews towards creating their own institutions, while defining a new Palestinian identity against Jews. Zionism was based on the principle that Jews were not safe in Europe (which turned out to be true), el-Husseini’s approach made state-Zionism seem an increasingly necessary refuge in the Middle East as well. The 1929 Riots and even more the 1936-39 Arab Revolt further accelerated both processes.

Husseini saluting Muslim Waffen SS

Fleeing a British arrest warrant, el-Husseini ended up in Nazi Germany, actively supporting the Nazi war effort and a policy of expelling all Jews from Muslim countries (including Palestine). His continuing policy of no-compromise and no-place-for-Jews failed to build effective Palestinian institutions but greatly helped motivate the creation of Jewish ones. Culminating in the creation of Israel, the 1947-48 Israeli War of Independence and the fleeing or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (events known to Palestinians as the nabka, the catastrophe). It was record of utter disaster, which lost el-Husseini any credible leadership but never seems to have led to serious reconsideration among Palestinians–it was all the Jews’ fault. His post-nabka All-Palestine Government was a shadow, lasting as long as it was convenient to Egypt and no longer.

Arafat’s disastrous choices

In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed. By 1969, Arafat became Chairman, a position he held until his death in November 2004. His only real achievement was survival. The War of Attrition (1967-1970) led Arafat’s PLO to disastrous conflict with Jordan. Fleeing to Lebanon, the Palestinian military presence helped destabilise the weak Lebanese state, leading to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Once again, the PLO was driven out, this time to Tunisia in 1982.

Arafat at the UN 1974

The adoption of the PLO’s Ten Point Program neither reassured the Israelis that negotiations could be serious nor united Palestinians, since the Rejectionist Front objected to any implied recognition of Israel. Based in Tunisia, Arafat was far from Palestine and seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Arafat was rescued by the First Intifada, which he seems to had nothing to do with. He negotiated the Oslo Accords, which allowed him to return to Palestine and proceeded, as noted above, to undo the best hope for an effective Palestinian state. Confronted with the consequences of sacrificing state-building for his own personal power, and his own inability to agree to any plausible peace deal with Israel, Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada which, as with all Arafat’s resorts to violence, led to dead Palestinians (and rather fewer dead Israelis) and the Palestinian cause (yet again) going backwards, since it (including the Israeli responses) largely completed the process of reversing the building of effective Palestinian institutions.

Having rejected Israeli Premier Ehud Barak’s peace offer without making any serious counter-offer of his own, it is no wonder that it became bipartisan US policy to wait for Arafat to die. Said death (November 2004) finally allowing the Second Intifada to end.

And so it continues

With an effective Palestinian state even further away, and Arafat’s politics of patronage and corruption having rotted away Fatah‘s credibility, the openly genocidal Hamas decisively won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Which led to the further division of Palestine between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah-dominated West Bank. With Hamas continuing the Arafat strategy of disastrous “victories”.

A case can be made that the Palestinians have disastrous political leadership because they get the leadership they deserve. (In the words of a prominent Egyptian historian ”they don’t want to resolve their own problems”.) But that same leadership either tolerates or approves religious preaching and educational materials that make it that much harder to reach any sort of agreement with Israel–both because it makes Israelis all that much more suspicious and fosters revanchist delusions among Palestinians.  Including making the Palestinian right of return an apparently untouchable totem of Palestinian politics while also clearly a terminal block to any peace agreement. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, declared that:

… it’s better [that Palestinians] die in Syria than give up their right of return.

Yet the current spectacle of ethnic, clan and other mayhem and massacre in Libya, Syria and Iraq (and the fragility of Lebanon) provides a daily grim spectacle of why Israeli Jews would be mad to agree to any state where they became the minority. That even without the memory of what happened to Jewish minorities in the rest of the Middle East.

Yazidi refugees

By contrast with the disastrous record of Palestinian political leadership, the open, argumentative, democratic politics of Israel have been much more successful at, well, just about everything. Including absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim country, when it has clearly been Arab policy to leave Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with. A policy the UN and EU have facilitated in various ways. (For example, Palestinians are the UN’s only hereditary refugees.)

Nothing Hamas ever does, and little Fatah ever does, seemed to be seriously aimed in any way at convincing the Israeli electorate that a peace agreement can be had. By contrast, Nelson Mandela never seems to have lost sight of the fact that South African whites would have to be included in any final settlement. Mandela grasped that true victory was when the whites were no longer the enemy: there is no sign that the Palestinian leadership has ever even remotely grasped that. That contrast says all one has to say about the disastrous Palestinian leadership.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Too many tweets make a twat: ANZAC version

By Lorenzo

SBS sports reporter Scott Mcintyre let loose with a series of anti-ANZAC tweets and then was promptly sacked by SBS for breaching their code of conduct. It is helpful to be clear about the issues involved.

(1) This is not a free speech issue. Scott Mcintyre is not being prosecuted for his tweets, and it would be outrageous if he was.

(2) No one has a right to publicly breach the code of conduct of one’s employer. “Right” here understood as “able to act without penalty”. Australian law is fairly clear on this.

(3) Tone and context matters. The issue is not the facts of Gallipoli or other relevant history (though his cause is not helped by some factual infelicities). Being sacked for stating facts (not received in confidence) would also be outrageous. Being sacked for gratuitously insulting large numbers of fellow citizens is a rather different matter. Showing oneself blind, indifferent or ignorant of context is also an issue; particularly for someone employed as a journalist.

For example:

The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society.

The Ottoman Empire was at war (due to a rather complicated series of interactions) with the British Empire, which we were very much a part of and thought ourselves to be. The Gallipoli invasion was perfectly reasonable under both international law and just law theory. Fairly clearly, Mcintyre was appealing to that sort of moral childishness where war is just “doubleplusungood“, but these things matter. (At the time of the invasion, said Ottoman Empire was responding to Russian advances in the Caucasus by beginning the Armenian genocide–along with the Assyrian and Pontic Greek genocides–building on a previous, and recent, history of massacre.)


Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.

SBS relies significantly on tax-payer funding and still grapples with a lingering identity issue as “ethnic media”. It really does not need this sort of gratuitous undergraduate sneering.

As for:

Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

First, if he is referring to the death toll, actually the biggest Tokyo fire raid killed more people in a single night. Second, it was a purely American action: “this nation” had nothing to do with it except in the sense that it was done by an ally. Australian opinion at the time was overwhelmingly supportive, even grateful, since it meant that the War was over; but we were not then, and have never been since, a nuclear power. The nuclear bombings also likely saved a lot of lives, since the alternative of an invasion of Japan was, on the evidence available, going to kill a lot more people. Context matters, and it is the job of a journalist to understand that context matters.

Which goes back to it not being a free speech issue. If Scott Mcintyre was being hounded merely for having different opinions than others, then it would become a free speech issue. But that is not why he was sacked.

(4) Whether SBS’s response was proportionate is a reasonable question. Suspending Scott Mcintyre without pay would definitely have been a reasonable response. Sacking perhaps was too strong,* but one can understand why SBS did not want the issue hanging around during the Gallipoli centenary.

(5) The objections to “mythologising” history are mostly bunk. Progressives regularly mythologise history–notably indigenous history (Stolen Generations anyone? Secret Women’s Business?)–and, for that matter, current events (Israel-Palestine). It is what people with strong emotional connections to events do. The objections regarding the “ANZAC myth” are clearly far more about objecting to other people‘s mythologising. When it comes to the public space, the Virtuous are not sharing folk.

(6) PC is not about civility. This is perfectly obvious to anyone with their wits about them, but the way gratuitous insult is invisible when it was a PC-acceptable target is, yet again, in evidence. One can criticise or demur from the treatment of matters ANZAC without sneering, being misleading or getting one’s facts wrong. Which likely has the further advantage of not embarrassing one’s employer: they might even have a code of conduct to try and avoid precisely such.

(A slightly different take is here.)

 * Though that also depends on whether he is teachable (i.e. would learn from the experience).


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

“Over-valued” is the wrong metric about “bubbles”–housing or otherwise.

By Lorenzo

Thinking about asset price stability is pervaded by incorrect framings. Particularly if folk start throwing around the term “bubble”.

Not the fault of the central banks

One incorrect framing is “the central banks did it”; with the finger usually pointed at low interest rates and clams of “easy money” fuelling “bubbles”.  Low interest rates are not a sign of “loose money”. Judging the stance of monetary policy from interest rates is deeply problematic. In Milton Friedman’s words:

Initially, higher monetary growth would reduce short-term interest rates even further. As the economy revives, however, interest rates would start to rise. That is the standard pattern and explains why it is so misleading to judge monetary policy by interest rates. Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

This is hardly surprising, as nominal interest rates include inflationary expectations, so will be higher if inflationary expectations are higher. During the Great Moderation, inflation and interest rates were low: in what world is low inflation a sign of “loose monetary conditions”? To quote Milton Friedman again:

After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.

Apparently, they don’t. Yes, low real interest rates  combined with strong income expectations will lead to more use of credit, particularly to purchase assets. But central banks have no influence over real interest rates and maintaining strong (or at least stable) income expectations is what they are supposed to do. Failure to do the latter is what led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

So, low real interest rates (not the fault of central banks) + strong income expectation (what we want them to do) => more use of credit to purchase assets.

Does that mean we get surges in asset prices?  No, because there is the little thing called the supply side. Prices are a matter of supply AND demand.  If the supply of assets responds to the surges in demand, there are no price effects.

If the assets are slow to construct, you might get some price surges, but they are unlikely to persist once supply catches up with demand. If, however, supply permanently lags demand, then the price surges can persist (as demand is continually outpacing supply). Such as, for example, from land rationing in housing markets blocking supply from catching up to demand. (Remembering that houses are large decaying structures, the enduring asset is the land the house is on.)

About housing and “bubbles”

We live in an age of low real interest rates. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has been doing an excellent job in maintaining income expectations. (No recession since the early 1990s). All our State and Territory Governments, aided and abetted by many of our local governments, land-ration. We are relatively high immigration country (and we are good at cherry-picking our migrants). Of course our housing prices have surged, and surged, and surged.

So, is it a “housing bubble”, allegedly one of the worst seen? The problem is the word “bubble”.  By “bubble” people typically mean that (asset) prices surge upwards, then collapse pretty quickly. The problem is that the term bubble has no useful predictive value. If we could reliably predict turning points (of prices) there would be no such “bubbles”, because people would generally not purchase at a price that were reliably expected to collapse. So, the entire notion depends on unknown turning points.

The same goes with notions of “overvalued” assets. If that means anything, it means that future prices are expected to be lower. But, if that is a general expectation, they will not reach that price in the first place.

Expectations matter a lot to asset prices, because assets are things which are expected to provide enduring benefits–either as a store of value, or a producer of income, or both–over more than one time period. And we have no information from future time periods, only expectations about them based on already existing information.

Asking the right question

The question which people are fumbling towards asking is the one they should focus on directly: how stable are these prices? How vulnerable are they to new information? That is an excellent question.

In the case of new technology, very vulnerable: because, well, it is new, and thus has large amount of uncertainty (in the Knightian sense of unable to be reliably calculated). Hence new technology is a great generator of asset price instability (pdf), of asset boom and busts. One of the features of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was new technology in the finance industry.

If the asset prices are built on strong income expectations, they will be very vulnerable to any sudden fall in income expectations. That is, the central bank screwing up. They will be particularly vulnerable to that if the asset purchasing is highly leveraged.

If the asset prices are built on supply constraints, they will be vulnerable to any sudden removal of said supply constraints.

They will also be vulnerable to any sudden shift in specific demand for that asset not covered above.  For example, in the case of housing, a drop in immigration.

So, does Australia have various housing bubbles? That is the wrong question, focusing on unknowable turning points based on not yet existing information. The correct question is: are Australian house prices vulnerable to sudden downward shifts?

Absolutely: if the RBA screws up income expectations, if there is a major drop in immigration, if State and Territory governments suddenly abolish land rationing–from which they garner a lot of tax revenue plus grateful home-owning and -buying voters while political parties get a lot of funding from developers who (in a land rationing policy regime) simply have to have access to officials to operate their businesses and are willing to pay for it. (Ironically, that it is such a universal practice among our State and Territory governments actually makes its price effects more resilient, as there is unlikely to be negative signalling across markets.)

So, how likely do you think any of them are? Not very I would have thought. Ironically, the most likely is the RBA screwing up; and the most likely scenario for that is that it makes the mistake of paying attention to (via) the “it’s your fault!” bubble-manics and does what no central bank should ever do–get into the “bubble-popping” game. Especially as the most likely effect thereof is to make the leveraging problem worse (pdf); potentially much, much worse.

So, do Australian housing prices make much more sense now? Isn’t to useful to frame the questions in the right way? Bubble-mania, it will rot your analysis.


[Cross-posted from Thinking out Aloud.]

The nonsense debate over whether the Islamic State is Islamic

By Lorenzo

Despite claims that political correctness is merely about politeness and not offending folk, the Virtue-signalling that underlies political correctness corrupts public debate in various ways–it puts a criteria (status-as-Virtuous) above facts, it elevates intent over consequences and it sets up various taboos and ludicrous moral distinctions. Such as, for example, the claim that there is some great moral difference between “coloured people” and “people of colour”.

It also creates fundamentally silly public debates, such as over whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is, as it obsessively claims to be, Islamic.

Pernicious identity

Is ISIS mainstream Islam? Clearly not; it regards itself as being at war with mainstream Islam that has allowed itself to be corrupted by unbelief. Is it supported by most Muslims? Also, clearly not. But Islam, like Christianity, is a broad religion with a long history. Just because something is not mainstream, and is supported by only a minority of believers, does not mean it is not of that religion, or grounded in a particular variant or strain within it.

Note that this debate over what is “really” Islamic is not a debate which has anywhere near the same salience regarding Christianity or Judaism. It is a manifestation of an “essentialist” claim that would be derided if used elsewhere–the sort of folk who worry about what is “really” or “authentically” Muslim or Islamic would typically be very hostile to debates about what was “really” or “authentically” English, British, Australian, Western etc and likely to be highly contemptuous of attempts to exclude folk who do bad things from being Christian, Jewish, Western etc on the basis of some claim that they were not “authentically” such.

Islam is the easiest religion in the world to join: simply publicly make the profession of faith, the Shahada, (“there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is messenger of God”) and one has submitted and become a Muslim. There are various fringe groups that many Muslims do not regard as Muslim (the Alawites, for example) because of various doctrinal additions they adhere to, but that is a common feature of religions. (How many Christians do not regard Mormons as really Christian?)

Islam is a hard religion to leave–the traditional penalty for apostasy is death. That, in itself, just makes it a monotheistic religion, as Christianity and Judaism have historically embraced the “apostasy warrants death” view.  The difference with contemporary Christianity and Judaism is that many Muslims still believe apostasy warrants death and various Islamic countries still make such apostasy a crime (up to, an including, the death penalty).

If adherents to ISIS profess their belief in Islam (as they clearly do) and are not apostates (as they clearly aren’t) then they are Muslim. Just as ISIS is clearly a manifestation of Islam as a civilisation. (Of Islamdom, so to speak.) Indeed, ISIS itself is part of a long history of violent, purifying movements that claim to go back to the “original” and “authentic” Islam (such as the AlmoravidsAlmohadsSafavids, etc).

Graeme Wood’s long essay in the Atlantic about ISIS made its Islamic nature and concerns very clear.  It has provoked various responses, such as by Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman, which itself led to a response by historian Tom Holland also in the New Statesman, which has led to further responses. Such as this blog post.

Both Mehdi Hasan’s piece, and the response to Tom Holland, want to claim that if something is not mainstream, orthodox or supported by a majority of Muslims, then it is not Islamic. As any historian will tell you, that is a nonsense restriction. Something can be not mainstream, not orthodox, not supported by a majority, yet clearly be of that religion. If one simply wants to make clear about ISIS not being mainstream, orthodox, or supported by a majority of Muslims, then there is lots of evidence for that. It is making the extra claim that it is “not Islamic” which is the nonsense, which is going a step too far.

Why go there? Some reasons are alluded to in the blog post responding to Tom Holland–the desire not to taint all Muslims with the sins of some Muslims. First, note that this touching concern is not a general one–Western civilisation, for example, is clearly regarded as tainted by any bad thing any state or group therein has done. (Indeed, all white folk are apparently tainted by any bad thing any white person has done.) Second, this is almost childishly simple-minded: of course such a broad religion as Islam has many strains within it. This is attempting to ignore the reality of Islam in favour of some childish, cardboard-cut-out version of it. (And we are back to Virtue-signalling setting up a criteria above truth.)

Medhi Hasan’s piece essentially ignores the entire history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism. Which also means ignoring decades of resistance and opposition within Islam (both as a religion and a civilisation) by Muslims and people of Muslim heritage to political Islam/Islamism/Muslim fundamentalism. Mention is made of most of ISIS’s victims being Muslim–which is most emphatically true of political Islam in general–but that decades-long specific history of opposition is glossed over or ignored.

Why? First, because it gets in the way of “blame the West”. It is strange how Muslim deaths due to Western actions are supposed to inspire support for ISIS, yet apparently Muslim deaths by ISIS only count as a sign of ISIS not being Islamic. Looking at the decades-long history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism tells a much more complicated story than “blame the West”. However inconvenient that might be, for example, for Virtue-signalling.

Second, because something the critics within Islam of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically do not do, is try and deny that it is Islamic. They are all too aware of its religious nature, its religious claims, its attempt to hijack Islamic identity.

Indeed, it is Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism’s claim that to be the “true”, “authentic” Islam which is so telling about its Islamic nature. The claim that it is not Islamic is mere propaganda, and pretty transparent mere propaganda at that.

Denying agency

One can also see the pernicious effects of Virtue-signalling at work in the juxtaposition of the notion that we should respect folk of different cultural backgrounds and then ignore the history of, in this case, an entire civilisation. Except as a victim-foil to Western history. It is preserving Muslims as sacred victims.

As an aside, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of teaching each other bigotry and techniques of bigotry. “No rights for queers, pagans and apostates” was something Christianity learnt from Judaism and both passed on to Islam. The techniques of dhimmi treatment was Islam extending, formalising, regularising and theologising the treatment of Jews in the Christian Eastern Roman Empire. From which systemisation, the Catholic Church, at the Fourth Lateran Council, adopted the idea of special clothing for Jews (to which it, of course, added Muslims where Sharia specified Christians). Anti-black racism was pioneered by North African Muslim writers to justify mass enslaving (rather than converting, so making them ineligible to be slaves) of sub-Saharan Africans and continues to exist within the Arab world. But to grasp the back-and-forth history, one has to see Islam as a civilisation in its own right; not reduce Muslims to dependant causal puppets, merely reacting to Western actions.

One can see a socio-political point in trying to excise Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism from Islam, but such strategy is not truth. Nor is it remotely plausible outside those who are keen on Virtue-signalling. (Including, of course, the view that Islam is inherently virtuous.) This is just another version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In the West, people of Muslim heritage who are critics of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically find they are subject to various ways of “managing” them; typically to preserve a positive image of Islam. The notion that there is a single Islamic identity (and it requires protection) actually ends up doing much of the work of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism for it, since they are so insistent that there is only one “authentic” Islam, which they represent.

The response to that is not to make the (false) claim that adherents of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism are not Islamic, but to contest the claim that Islam is just one identity. To pretend that Islam is entirely unproblematic, that there are no problematic or awkward ideas within it, is not the clever, adult thing to do; it is childish. It puts Virtue-signalling over truth. (It also feeds into Islamist/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalist claims about true Islam as social harmony, a cure to social alienation.)  Muslims are not children and we should not implicitly, or explicitly, treat them as such.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

Why, in the PC universe, there is a paucity of bad Muslims.

By Lorenzo

Jeffrey Herf (Professor of History, University of Maryland) recently suggested that President Obama apply the same standards to Christianity and Islam. This is a delightfully naive suggestion.

First, there seems to be a belief among various Western leaders that criticising any strain within Islam is somehow a criticism of all Muslims. This is, of course, pathetically condescending, but is an understandable result of the application of identity politics to Muslims as an undifferentiated group.

Second, the Obama Administration–whose utterances make sense if treated as the faculty lounge mutterings of a mediocre university Sociology department–is clearly pervaded by the use of such identity politics as a device for signalling virtue.

Third, considering strains within Islam as problematic leads naturally, and awkwardly, to critical analysis of the ideology of the Iranian regime. And that would not be helpful, to say the least, to the Administration’s (apparently increasingly desperate) desire to achieve some sort of over-arching deal with Iran. (That is, the Iranian regime which most Iranians have come to loathe.)

Invisible Islamism

In the PC universe, as instanced by the rhetoric of the Obama Administration, there is no such thing as bad Muslims, because if you are really bad then you are not really Muslim–hence the Islamic State is “not Islamic“, it is a perversion of a great (un-named) religion. Conversely, Jews are not victims because they are Jews, they are unlucky victims of “random” attack. Yet, three Muslims are killed, and the President is all about folk not being targeted for their religion. This refusal to talk in terms of Islamic origins and Islamic motives is clearly considered and continuing policy.

This is part of a much wider pattern, where Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left (with a few honourable exceptions) refuse to talk seriously about (often even notice) Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism, much to the deep and abiding frustration of their confreres in the Islamic world. When individual Muslims do bad things, their Muslim identity is often downplayed or ignored.

Critics of political correctness delight in pointing out such absurdities and contradictions, but they do not understand: those contradictions and absurdities are not a bug, they are a feature.

Signalling virtue

First, the point of political correctness is to signal virtue (or, rather, Virtue with a very capital ‘V’). Precisely because the point is to signal Virtue, by adapting Xavier Marquez‘s theory of cults of personality as loyalty signalling, we can see how the willingness to embrace absurdities and contradictions just demonstrates how committed to being Virtuous you are.

Marquez’s theory of cults of personality is quite straightforward. How do you signal loyalty in a situation where loyalty is compulsory? You go completely over the top. You show yourself willing to engage in positively nauseating public displays of flattery and adulation.

So, how do you signal Virtue in a situation where moralised discourse is compulsory? You get really, really finicky about the use of language and commitment to various moral mascots (to use Thomas Sowell’s expression) or sacred victims (to use Jonathan Haidt’s analysis).

Thus, just as cults of personality have flattery inflation, political correctness has Virtue inflation. Leading to what has been rather nicely (if amusingly nastily) described as look-at-me-I’m-the-most-special-snowflake factionalism. As Patricia Arquette discovered, when she made a short, passionate speech at the Oscars for equal pay for women. And immediately the “I’m the more special snowflake” Virtue inflation erupted. The heterosexual white woman had  failed to check her privilege and to get the moral ordering correct. Outraged denunciations thundered forth (all via).

All part of the PC universe, where there is a deep moral difference between “coloured people” and “people of colour”. For, by keeping up with the latest usage, one signals commitment to Virtue.

Sometimes, such Virtue inflation really does simply inflate (via):

Open House is a safe space for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexual, Asexual, Genderf–k, Polyamourous, Bondage/Disciple, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism (LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM) communities and for people of sexually or gender dissident communities.

Why not just say “queer”? Indeed, the more confronting the exoticism of a group (especially to previous moral and cultural usages), the better they function as differentiating markers of Virtue.

Which is where swallowing absurdity and self-contradiction comes in. Just as the adherent of a cult of personality goes over the top to signal loyalty to the ruler, so an adherent of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue accepts contradiction and absurdity to show their commitment to Virtue.

Which makes contemporary Islam (infected with Islamism) perfect as a marker of Virtue. To be truly Virtuous, one must understand when misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred and being anti-democratic count, and when they do not. One must understand when to See No Evil and when to see Only Evil. So, precisely because Islamism is so misogynist, so full of queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, so willing to engage in massacre, it makes “See No Evil” treatment of Muslims such a splendid marker of Virtue.  Treating Islamism–with its misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, recurring slaughter–as ideally as a non-Muslim event (or otherwise a non-morally-significant-event) becomes part of signalling Virtue.


As Jonathan Haidt notes, sacredness involves abandoning trade-offs. The sacred victims are not placed with other mere mortals within a web of trade-offs between moral principles, but elevated to a special moral purity. So, Islam (or at least Muslim identity) purifies and ennobles in a way that Christian belief and identity most emphatically do not. As we can see in President Obama’s selective silences.

Those irritating Jews

Jew-hatred, for example, becomes something of a non-issue for the Virtuous (unless specifically pressed on the subject), as it is nowadays overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in the West. Under the See No Muslim Evil approach, it becomes impossible to see that Israel is primarily not hated because of its treatment of the Palestinians; overwhelmingly it is hated because it is successful Jews–something Israel cannot do anything about, except to disappear. But to critically examine Muslim Jew-hatred would wildly get in the way of using Muslims as moral mascots and sacred victims, so such Jew-hatred (to the extent that it gets noticed at all) gets blamed on the Jews, using the fig-leaf of “anti-Zionism”. Thus, nothing bad is to be inferred about the security guards outside Jewish schools and synagogues–except about Jews (via the Jewish state).

Who thereby become the only hate-target group to be blamed for being hated, via the fig-leaf of “anti-Zionism”. (Which much of the European elite are happy to buy into, as they have never forgiven the Jews for the Holocaust, of which the Jewish state is a permanent reminder–the Holocaust does so get in the way of the European elite’s pretensions to be the moral elite and arbiters for the globe and Jews are such a small, and declining, percentage of Europe’s population.) To blame anyone but the Jew(ish state), would be to fatally undermine the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue.

Thus, to notice that Israel has (to put it mildly) a much better record on queer rights than its Arab neighbours, including its Palestinian neighbours, becomes “pinkwashng“. To quote a Hamas leader saying, for example:

You do not live like human beings. You do not (even) live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?

Is to be not playing the Ostentatious Virtue game.

Refusing to acknowledge that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation, Muslims are Virtuously defined by their religion (or some useful conception thereof), so that to criticise Islam is somehow to denigrate all Muslims. A principle not applied to, for example, Christians.

Lumping all Muslims together in a common identity does a great deal of the Islamists’ work for them, as the Islamists are so very much about Islam as a single, completely trumping, identity. But, as Ostentatious Virtue puts such huge moral weight on belief, that provides another convergence between Islamism and Ostentatious Virtue. As does a sufficiently anodyne notion of “anti-imperialism”–provided one is prepared to completely toss over any notion of anti-fascism–and a shared propensity to collective moral narcissism.

Totalitarian Othering

To take the menace of Islamism seriously would fatally undermines the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue. So, Islamism’s ideology is ignored (or misrepresented). A useful instancing summary of said ideology is here:

In the Holy Quran, Allah (SWT) has promised the Muslim nation the authority to rule over the world based on only one condition. That condition is to follow His orders in absolute manner and not to associate any partners with Him. Because Allah (SWT) has said “Verily, Allah forgives not the partners should be set up with Him (in worship), but He forgives except that (anything else) to whom He pleases, and whoever sets up partners with Allah (in worship), he has indeed invented a tremendous sin.” …

Once the Jews and Christians have realized that it is no longer possible for them to make the Muslims worship idols, they have invented idols in the name of various ideologies (such as Democracy, Regional Nationalism etc.) to derail the Muslims from their Fundamental Belief. They have forced others to accept their ideologies through deceptive tricks, and even by applying military force where necessary. Apart from that they, have masked their Idols in the names of “Society”, “State Governance” etc, in such a manner that unless a Muslim is highly conscious, it is not possible for him to unveil these masks. In vain he unknowingly gets trapped in the web of conspiracies of Jews and Christians. …

A practical example is the most prevailing social order of this present world -DEMOCRACY- The fundamental guiding principle of Democracy (Stimulated by Former U.S.A. President Abraham Lincoln) is “Democracy for the people of the people by the people”. Thus, to accept Democracy is to believe that people are sovereign and the source of ALL power. Let us take a look at some statements given by majority of political scientists. From among them Austin has said “LAW IS THE WILL OF SOVEREIGN” and Jan Boda has said “IT IS THE DUTY OF THE SOVEREIGN TO MAKE LAW”. So we can understand from their statements that if the people are sovereign and the source of all power then the authority is in their hand to make law in a Democratic system. Whereas on the other hand, Allah (SWT) (the Creator of people and the Great Lord of the Cosmopolitan) has declared that “And to Allah belongs the sovereignty of the heaven and the earth, and to Allah is the return (of all).” …

But not many people realize the clear meaning of the above Verses that, Democracy and Islam directly contradict each other. Nevertheless few people are aware of the fact that they will lose their Imaan upon accepting the ideologies (such as Democracy) of the Jews and Christians.

It is sad to say, instead of awaring Muslims of this fact, a group of people from among the Muslims, some hypocrites in the disguise of preachers of Islam, are making every effort to make the Muslims believe that “Democracy” is in congruence with Islam and it is the best system in the present situation of the world. With their misguided speech and explanations, these hypocrites are ruining and diminishing the main pillar of Imaan and Aqeedah of Muslims (Tawheed). Due to this, people who claim to be Muslims cannot understand that these ideologies are rather double-faced and controversial the Islam and with one’s Imaan. They fail to understand that it is an outright act of shirk to involve oneself in the work of constitutions based on such ideologies!

To describe such for what it is–a totalitarian project of social and global domination–is to violently contradict the game of See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue.  To notice the pervasive and vicious Othering involved is even more so.

Hence the antipathy to apostates such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali–by insisting on applying general moral principles to the lives of (in particular) women in Muslim communities, she utterly gets in the way of treating Muslims as a group as moral mascots and sacred victims. Thereby ignoring real victims; the oppression and misery hidden away in God-locked communities, themselves full of intense Othering.

Which means that the See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue becomes an exercise in systematic denial of realty, of the facts of the matter. Said denial being not just a river in Egypt, but a basic underpinning of the Obama Administration’s Middle Eastern policy.

This is not at all likely to end well.

But it manifests elsewhere. Thus Ayaan Hirsi Ali found that the Dutch government–which collected all sorts of statistics on violence–did not statistically identify (dis)honour killings because, in the words of civil servants in the Ministry of Justice:

We don’t register murders based on a category of motivation. It would stigmatise one group in society. (p.296).

Just contemplate the moral calculus involved in that decision for a moment.

But the same concern over status as Virtuous versus actual lived lives and real (rather than “sacred”) victims manifested in the Rotherham scandal, where racism (correctly understood as concern for one’s status as Virtuous) seriously got in the way of doing anything about real victims.

It really is about a Virtual morality substituting for an elementary decency one.

Women killed by Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria in the 1990s.

Oh, and just to be clear. Yes, I am saying that the self-righteous adherents of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue in the West care more about their own sense of warm inner glow, moral vanity and collective sense of Virtue than the brutal realities of massacre and oppression that Islamists has been engaged in for decades now, because they give those deaths and oppressions so little practical significance.

Worse, they passively or actively collaborate in the Islamist hijacking of Muslim identity (such as completely failing to put the Charlie Hebdo attack in the context of a decades-long campaign of murder and assassination against Muslim, and Muslim heritage, writers and journalists), burbling on about–utterly undifferentiated–”Muslim” sensibilities: a pattern that goes back to responses to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Given the manifold victims of Islamism, we can see that Muslim lives do not count if they get in the way of the game of Ostentatious Virtue; a game of never-mind-the-lived-reality-of-others, feel one’s Virtue.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

“Punching down” and other moral inanities

By Lorenzo

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 from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Nazism of our time

By Lorenzo

A recurring theme of Algerian-American law academic’s Karima Bennoune‘s moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism 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, the Algerian regime played the FIS against democratic secularists, Israel played Hamas against FatahSadat and Mubarak played the Muslim Brotherhood against the liberals, 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 nature of the project

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 by Karima Bennoune (300 people in 30 countries) 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)

But they are master belief totalitarians; which it is why it is necessary for decent folk to see them for what they are and revile their entire awful project. Reading Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is an excellent step in intellectual hygiene and celebrating a certain basic moral decency.


[This is an adapted extract from my two-part review of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, published here and here.]

Justification versus motivation

By Lorenzo

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 from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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

The revealing differences of returns to origins

By Lorenzo

Attempts to compare Christianity and Islam often involve citing Scriptures or specific doctrines. The problem with doing so is that, within any faith, people often ignore inconvenient Scriptures or doctrines, vary dramatically in how they read them, in what Scriptures and doctrines they focus on, etc. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: as witnessed by the Theological Incorrectness phenomenon.

I tend to be more impressed by historical patterns, as they indicate what social logics are operating within a religion and what persistence (if any) they have.

Contemporary Islam and Christianity both have very significant movements within them which seek to return to the origins of the religion. A comparison of such is quite revealing.

I am not talking here of religious fundamentalism, which is a modern, even modernist, movement. Modernism seeks to eliminate the detritus of the past on the basis that new is (always) better. While fundamentalism may be about “seeking the fundamentals”, in practice it is very modernist.

I mean attempts to go back to the origins of the faith in life and spirit. In their rejection of tradition, such movements can overlap with fundamentalism, but they are not identical.

Of course, in one sense it is impossible to return to the origins of any religion; the river of history has moved on, changing context and understanding. Thus, once the European Enlightenment happened, Westerners could never really be actively pre-Enlightenment, only Counter-Enlightenment.  Nevertheless, the desire to return to origins of faith can be a powerful one.

Returning to origins

The dominant such return-to-origins movement within Christianity is Pentecostalism. It is phenomenally successful–from a few hundred adherents around 1900, it had about 250 million by 2000: at that rate of growth (a large assumption), there will be a billion Pentecostals by the middle of this century.

If you seek to go back to original Christianity, what do you do? A lot of preaching, a lot of attention to the Gospels’ you seek to have the experience of the Holy Spirit indwelling (hence Pentecostal, from the original Pentecost), speak in tongues, and engage in congregational togetherness. There is a strong aspect of collective self-help in Pentecostalism, as there was in early Christianity. Hence much of its appeal to the wretched of the Earth, both the materially wretched and the spiritually wretched.

If you want to go back to original Islam, what do you do? If you are following the received Muhammad of Medina–the flight to which is the Islamic Year Zero–then you seek to conquer territory to establish Sharia rule, destroy the holy places and religmous artefacts of non-believers, massacre male unbelievers and enslave their women and children and behead those who write nasty things about you. Which should all sound terribly familiar. How much of this follows the received example of the Prophet? All of it.

Islamic history is full of violent, purifying movements who seek to follow the example of the Prophet and go forth and conquer. They have the Medinan Suras and the life of the Prophet (“the walking Quran“) as conqueror and ruler to inspire them.

The Meccan-Medinan cycle

Islam also has extended periods of intellectual and artistic ferment and tolerance. The Islam of the Meccan Suras. The Islam of pragmatic tolerance, of live and let live (as long as Muslim dominance is not threatened). The Islam of the Umayyad (661-750) and early Abbasid Caliphates (750-C11th), of early al-Andalus, of the Central Asian Enlightenment, of the great Mughals.

 The problem is, Meccan Islam is always followed by Medinan Islam. Cosmopolitan al-Andalus was overwhelmed by the Almoravids and Almohades. The Seljuq Turk advance imposed a much more rigid and intolerant version of Islam. An anti-tolerance counter-reaction which became even more intense in response to the Mongol onslaught, finishing off the Central Asian Enlightenment. Islam under stress typically reacts by being much more Medinan.

Alas, stress can simply mean slights to Muslim self-image (particularly male self-image); as historian Bernard Lewis famously discussed in his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage.

Nor is stress necessary for the switch to occur. Even the periods of tolerance were punctuated by episodes of massacre and repression: either because some ruler shifted to the Medinan approach or due to clerical incitement. Or such “Meccan” periods are simply ended by such shifts. The period of Mughal tolerance came to an end when Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) took the throne, though it had been declining somewhat under his father, Shah Jahan (r.1628-1658). The death of Meccan Islam is always an in-house killing: it is murdered by Muslims, not outsiders.

Needless to say, the jihadis are Medinan Islam.

It is not good enough to point to Meccan Islam and say “that is Islam”. Medinan Islam is also Islam: and Islam regularly returns to it. The contrast between Pentecostalism and the jihadis does tell us something about the difference between Christianity (particularly Christianity in the contemporary world) and Islam.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The revolutionary status quo Power

By Lorenzo

Based on a comment I originally made here.

The US is at once both a revolutionary and a status quo Power.

It is a revolutionary Power in the straightforward sense that it is the only contemporary state seriously trying to export its revolution, apart from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is also a revolutionary Power in a somewhat more subtle sense, in that it produces so much of the technology that continues to transform the world. Which puts the US in a similar situation during its Pax Americana, as Britain during the Pax Britannica: being the premier source of transforming technology while trying to foster international stability.

But the US is also a status quo Power, in that the current arrangement of world affairs suits its interests–as the major economic, financial, trading and military Power. It tends to act as the central manager of the international system–its performance as such is very much affected by its own interests, because that’s what Powers do. But precisely because the US has a bigger stake in international stability than any other polity else, it tends to be more active in trying to maintain that stability.

But being a status quo Power is not very compatible with being a revolutionary Power. And even more so, vice versa. It would be hard to argue that its attempts to export its Revolution to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush have been exactly stabilising, even as it sought to create a (new) stability.

A hardy perennial in (failed) US policies has been ignorance of history. Both the US as status quo Power and US as revolutionary Power tend to encourage history-fails. A status quo Power has a tendency to live in an eternal now. A revolutionary Power has a tendency to fixate on its own framing of social patterns and desirable outcomes. Add to that American exceptionalism, and you have a recipe for serial history-fails.

As has been particularly obvious in US interventions in the Middle East.

As Somaliland shows (the successful, formerly British, bit of the former Somalia), a House of Elders (in other words, a House of Lords) would very likely have been sensible policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as it would have connected government into traditional social structures. But hereditary and religious legislators, can’t have that! Because we’re Americans and we don’t think like that! Our Revolution is explicitly about no hereditary government, and separation of church and state, so a House of Elders (or Shura Council, or whatever) becomes unthinkable and unthought.

And holding a vote on whether to restore the king in Afghanistan (pdf) would also have been sensible policy. But we’re Americans and we don’t think like that!

Yes, but those folk you’re trying to help: they’re not Americans and they don’t think like you. Alas, American exceptionalism and the US-as-revolutionary-Power trumps trying to understand the local societies in their own terms and building something that might work for them.

Similarly, Iraq should have been divided into three, as any “Iraqi” identity was too shallow to survive any serious stress. But the US is a too much of a status quo power (and a little too ignorant of Middle Eastern history) to think like that either.

Being at the same time a status quo and a revolutionary power is a difficult double. Alas, it is also very well set up to create serial policy failure.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]