The Higher Criticism

By skepticlawyer

Until I was published, I had not experienced that phenomenon known as ‘the literary festival’ or the ‘science fiction convention’ or the ‘[insert favoured genre here] convention’. They are–for one who hasn’t encountered them before–strange beasts, not entirely to be trusted. Like all large, loosely organised events, they are prone to ideological capture, something I soon learnt to my cost (viz, ‘help, I’m the only non-leftie in the room!’).

Seldom, however, do they descend to the level of ideological cant evinced by the Wiscon Science Fiction Convention in its treatment of leading science fiction author Elizabeth Moon. Here is Russell Blackford’s account of events:

Here is the thoughtful, rather temperately-worded blog piece by Elizabeth Moon that led to her being disinvited as a guest of honour at the feminist science fiction convention, Wiscon 35 (to be held in May next year in Madison, Wisconsin). Moon is actually much less temperate about people like me, i.e. baby boomers, than she is about Muslims (I have no idea what her opening sentences are all about, but do read on). However, her remarks on Muslims in America were apparently considered so inflammatory that she was no longer a viable guest of honour for a relatively small convention held in a relatively small American city.

Like Russell, I agree that Moon’s piece is temperate and thoughtful. I disagree with much of what she says, but that’s because she’s coming from a position that I’d describe as ‘liberal left’. I think, for example, that she mischaracterizes libertarians, although I do concede that there is some terrible hypocrisy in the Tea Party movement, especially over welfare (en brief, many conservative Tea Partiers think they should be paid welfare for their large families, and that single mothers should not). One thing I do find extraordinary: the criticism of her for closing the thread and deleting comments after she was subjected to abuse. Believe me, anyone who does that here will get me doing my ‘libertarian property dance’ and will be SOONED into submission. Our blog, our rules.

However, not only was she disinvited by Wiscon:

Her post was, apparently, “an anti-Muslim rant”. No, actually, it wasn’t; as anyone who reads it—and whose cognition is not stuck somewhere within their own posterior—can tell for themselves.

Moon’s piece promulgates a mild form of assimilation policy, one that would be familiar to many Australians (and Americans). She is intelligently critical of Islam from an explicitly feminist perspective. Lorenzo (who I quoted above) makes the following observation:

[S]he moves on to the point that creating a nation of immigrants means that immigrants have some responsibility to fit in. Living in a country with a considerably higher proportion of foreign-born citizens than the US (25% of Australian residents are foreign-born compared to 14% of US residents), I take her point, one that is expressed moderately sensibly.

Moon argues:

Public schooling was viewed as a way to educate immigrant children into the existing American culture–to break down their “native” culture and avoid the kind of culture clashes (between religions and national origins) people brought with them from the old country. Refusal to send children to public schools was once considered a refusal of the duties of citizenship (this changed in the ’60s/’70s, with the white flight from public schools as an attempt was made to create racial balance.)   English-language-only instruction was one method used–there was to be one language all citizens understood, so that anyone from any background could communicate with anyone else…to avoid the tight little enclaves that people naturally retreat to because it’s more comfortable.  Was this ideal?  No, but in a couple of generations, nearly all immigrants’ grandchildren were able to speak English, even if their kids dropped out of school.

There is nothing particularly out there in this argument. Here is the classical liberal F.A. Hayek on the same issue (from The Constitution of Liberty, p 377):

There is a need for certain common standards of values, and, although too great emphasis on this need may lead to very illiberal consequences, peaceful co-existence would be clearly impossible without any such standards. If in long-settled communities with a predominantly indigenous population, this is not likely to be a serious problem, there are instances, such as in the United States during the period of large immigration, where it may well be one.

And–just to make sure all sides of politics are covered–here is the social democratic Joseph Raz (from The Morality of Freedom, p 423):

One particular troubling problem concerns the treatment of communities whose culture does not support autonomy. These may be immigrant communities, or indigenous peoples, or they may be religious sects. It is arguable that even the harm principle will not defend them from the ‘cultural imperialism’ of some liberal theories. Since they insist on bringing up their children in their own ways they are – in the eyes of liberals like myself – harming them. Therefore can coercion be used to break up their communities, which is the inevitable by-product of the destruction of their separate schools, etc?

I should point out that Raz is considerably to the left of the US Democratic Party. He is not, however, weighed down by ridiculous notions that people should somehow be able to live their lives free from offence, or that their religious beliefs are immune from criticism.

As regulars on this blog would know, I am not fond of religious believers insulating themselves from criticism behind thinly veiled threats or some sort of misguided belief that being poor, oppressed or a victim means that one’s beliefs are somehow more worthy of respect or that one’s lived experience is somehow impossible for people unlike oneself to replicate. As George S Clason once noted, ‘experience often wastes her lessons on dead men’. It is possible to have experienced very little and to be very young and to ‘trump’ a professor (or another very experienced person, in whatever field). Mathematicians do this all the time, as do linguists. When Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B, he was working as an architect and not affiliated with any university. Similarly, empathetic understanding of people unlike oneself is a writer’s stock-in-trade; it’s something I routinely engage in myself and is not particularly difficult. Empathy–unless you have some sort of psychological disorder–comes with the biological hardware.

The desire to wrap oneself in the ‘I’m offended’ mantra or the ‘I’m poor and brown and a victim’ mantra is nowhere more prevalent than when it comes to criticisms of Islam, and it is this that has brought Elizabeth Moon undone. Unfortunately, atheists are often anxious to avoid offence (they too have bought into the post-colonial piffle that I would like to see driven headlong from the universities), and tend (too much) to stick to their knitting. Russell Blackford notes:

Forthright atheists are often accused of being prepared to speak out against the wrongs of Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism, but not those of Islam. To a large extent, those accusations are false: we could find many examples where leading atheists do criticise Islam, and particularly political Islam. Still, many of us concentrate on what we know best, which is often Christianity. Furthermore, there’s an intimidation factor: let’s acknowledge it, radical Islamists have done a good job of muting the critique of Islam simply by demonstrating a propensity to extreme violence – think of what happened to Theo van Gogh and the current situation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who must be heavily guarded wherever she goes. The intimidation factor is raised to an even higher level if it’s reaching the point where comments such as those of Elizabeth Moon can make you unwanted by convention organisers in Madison, Wisconsin. To borrow a phrase, Wiscon is not helping.

In other words, antique tribal drivel remains antique tribal drivel, regardless of the colour and relative wealth of its promulgator.

To add to the risks outspoken ex-Muslims experience, there is a mass of very misleading information about the religion of Islam floating around the internet, most of it promulgated by Muslims themselves, who know next to nothing about their own religion. Some Western scholars and critics of Islam know a little more, but their advantage is relatively minor: we remain almost completely in the dark about Islam because it has never been rigorously studied. One of the reasons why Christianity and Judaism have lost much of their grip on Westerners is because they have been picked apart by classicists and theologians and linguists. This has not happened to Islam, in large part because it is simply too dangerous to do so.

As an atheist who was educated (very thoroughly, I might add) by Lutherans (who are probably equal to the Jesuits in their skill at casuistry and are also rightly proud of the Tübingen school), there are a few things about Islam that you ought to know. Here they are, seriatim.

1. The Qu’ran and Hadiths have never been subjected to what we now know as ‘The Higher Criticism‘ (textual analysis designed to establish authorship and date), so when you read well-meaning Islamic websites assuring you that the Qu’ran and the Hadiths were handed down orally, then written out hundreds of years after Muhammad’s death with a high degree of accuracy, you are being sold the theological equivalent of the notion that it is possible to pick Tattslotto numbers in advance.

2. When Muslims tell you that the pagan civilisation that preceded Islam in Arabia was revoltingly sexist and that Islam represented an advance for women, then you need to avail yourself of a pantechnicon of salt. No research has been done into the pagan civilisation that predated Islam; we only have Muslims’ say-so about it. The reason no research has been conducted into the earlier civilisation is because it is located in Saudi Arabia. It is incredibly difficult to research early Islam, let alone pre-Islamic paganism, thanks to the destructive tendencies of the Saudi government. I am no fan of Islam or Muhammad and think that humanity would have been vastly better off without him or his religion, but news that the Saudi government routinely destroys ancient monuments (including property that once belonged to Muhammad’s family) makes my ‘English Heritage’ heart break: how are we to learn about the past without access to historical or archaeological records?

3. When Muslims make excuses for Muhammad because he married a six year old and bonked her at nine, understand that they are making excuses, and that when modern people criticise him, we are not only criticising him from a position of liberal modernity. The nearest great civilisation (Byzantium) established the age of consent for slaves, concubines and non-citizen girls at 12 (Digest, 30.1; ‘nisi minor annis duodecim sit’). Sure, this ruling goes back to the Roman Empire’s pagan period, when the status of women was considerably higher, but the fact that the Christian Emperors preserved it (while dispensing with the pagans’ liberal divorce laws, dowry laws and property rights for women) suggests they still took it seriously. In other words, what Muhammad did to Ai’sha would have squicked a Byzantine Greek and double-squicked a pagan Roman. The latter would almost certainly have used the ‘p’ word.

4. The same truckload of salt needs to be applied to claims for just about everything else about Islam, even in later periods, something carefully and thoughtfully documented by the likes of Ibn Warraq and Mark Durie.

I’ll leave the final word to Lorenzo, partly because I agree with it and partly because it needs to be said:

I am sure the posterior-interior cerebration on display in the dis-inviting of Elizabeth Moon, and in describing her meditation on citizenship as an “anti-Muslim rant”, is warm and cosy. Reassuring even. It is just not, in any sense, useful. Not for understanding the world, nor changing it for the better. Elizabeth Moon’s feisty, competent heroines are much more useful for the latter.

If you want to understand why the left side of American politics just got an almighty electoral shellacking, the sort of sneering, intolerant, intellectually incompetent, not-talking-to-you (but will shout-at-you) self-delusion that Elizabeth Moon has experienced is part of the story.


  1. Posted November 21, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    [email protected] and [email protected]:

    Ages-past barbarism in a culture is IMO, a bit of a cheat as criticism, unless nutters try to argue, as Lorenzo points out, that a past time was an unsurpassable ideal in pretty much all respects.

    Even those of us who point to particular aspects of one culture as superior to latter days (as SL does on marriage arrangements in Rome versus much of post-renaissance Europe until recently), don’t say the elder days got everything right.

    After all, much of the renaissance was enabled by reintroduction of Europe’s past to Europe by classical texts kept safe by a more cultured moslem world – the alhambra, the wealth of words like alcohol and algorithm attest to a debt western culture owes to historic moslem cultures.

    The thing that makes no sense in what Lorenzo mentions, those arguing for a past unsurpassable peak, is the contradiction between this notion of C7 perfection versus the achievements of islamic culture a few centuries later.

    There is also the contradiction of those guys who try to keep archaic obvious barbarisms into the modern age using modern technologies, including weaponry, let alone medicine, microwaves and cars.

    Mind you, if they were to reject the layers of self-serving crappy law enacted long after mohammed, that could be a good thing.

    Remember too, it’s a cultural centre, not a mosque that is central to the discussion.

    On taste: it might be useful if we had data on things like distribution of non-kosher, non-halal food outlets in in israel and moslem countries, especially in commercial areas catering to tourists near holy places like mecca, the wailing wall, etc. The availability of pork chops and beer in hotels catering mainly to western tourists in predominantly moslem countries could be a good proxy for tolerance in those countries, and the tolerance of the predominant strain of islam there. Then the demands in western countries for tolerance of “foreign” customs by demonstrably intolerant varieties could be shown as inconsistent and invalid.

  2. LDU
    Posted November 21, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink


    I’m not sure whether the reference you provided gives an impartial account of the topic, taking into account who the author is.

    In regard to the available accounts of the Banu Qurayzah being from Muslim sources, I don’t see what the issue is given that it captures in accurate detail a fairly common norm.

    I too think putting the Mohammed in the same category as Jesus and Buddha is wrong. In The 100, Michael Hart differentiates Mohammed from Jesus and other leaders by saying that he was extremely successful on all levels of spiritual and secular leadership.

    I also wanted to know how you arrived at the suggestion that “mainstream Islam” sees the peak of human understanding being arrived at the 7th Century?

    I was under the impression that mainstream Islam is always too keen to point to the achievements of their civilisations spanning the globe and lasting over 1000 years?


    I think my comment captured libertarianism fairly well. You can’t put moral boundaries on liberties. Putting a ‘caveat’ beats the purpose.

  3. Posted November 22, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    [email protected] It is a cultural centre incorporating a mosque and a sharia compliance project: the latter adds to the tactlessness rather than reduces it.

    [email protected] I am not sure you will find “impartial” views on slavery: the received view is that the slaver is hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind. But that slavery persists with the active or passive compliance of the Khartoum government is attested by a wide range of sources.

    No one doubts that Muhammad was successful, that is not the point. The point is what he was successful at and how. Beheading enemies (including a poet who satirised him), selling women and children into slavery … it is a bit of different package than the Gospels or the sermons of compassion.

    And my point was not the peak of human understanding — no Muslim that I know of disputes the growth of knowledge — but the peak of human understanding of social order. Sharia is not up for amendment, for example. But that the peak of understanding of social order was reached in C7th Arabia is the fundamental Islamic view is quite clear from, for example, reading Tariq Ramadan’s biography of Muhammad.

    Libertarianism is about protecting liberty from the state: it does not imply that there are no moral limits on freedom since liberty is not the only moral consideration. (Not all libertarians are anarchocapitalists, for example.)

  4. Posted November 22, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]

    much of the renaissance was enabled by reintroduction of Europe’s past to Europe by classical texts kept safe by a more cultured moslem world

    Not quite. The C15th Renaissance was fuel by Greek scholars and texts fleeing Muslim conquest. The Renaissance of the C12th was partly fuelled by Muslim writers but Latin Christendom got more of their Greek texts directly from Greek sources and by the same means as the Mulims — conquest.

    There is a bit of an intellectual cottage industry in exaggerating the Western debt to Islam. Much of what Islam did was act as a conduit (paper making from China, astronomy and mathematics from India, Greek natural philosophy but see previous para) though there were areas of genuine Arabic-language scholarly achievement — algebra, quadratic equations and expanding trigonometry for example.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *