Complexity strikes

By Lorenzo

One of the frustrating things about trying to have an intelligent debate about matters Islamic is the tendency to simplistic polarisation.  One is the “nothing to see here” version, where raising any concern about trends within Islam and Muslim communities is dismissed as alarmist and likely racist or otherwise bigoted. Any concern or suggestion motivated by same is immediately reconstrued so as to fit into the latter framing. This can become a systematic attempt to close down debate about such matters, which is what seems to be being attempted in Norway with the Breivik trial.

While I get that this is all about displaying conspicuous virtue, it is also childish and stupid. Both because it is closing one’s eyes to real issues and because it leaves the public debate open to being dominated by more extreme views who get credence precisely because they become the only people apparently willing to talk about genuine problems.

Problems such as what journalist Michael J. Totten well-characterises as the terrorists’ veto (over free speech).  Part of the massive sense of entitlement that belief in the One God often generates; a sense of entitlement that, in contemporary Islam, repeatedly degenerates into murder. (Pakistan’s day off to honour the Prophet managed to achieve a significant death toll; admittedly, Pakistan is something of a pathology parading as a polity.) A sense of entitlement both generated and inflamed for reasons of power and authority. Sir Salman Rushdie has some pertinent observations:

“I think this is a historical mistake of the progressive left. The sense that people who say they’re offended have a right to have their offendedness assuaged.” For him, free expression ranks as “the right without which all the other rights disappear”. It is “the bedrock … If you compromise on that, you lose everything else.”

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Pakistan wants blasphemy declared an international crime. Something for the International Criminal Court perhaps? One of the many problems with internationalisation (the implicit or explicit dilution of sovereignty to unaccountable international bodies, the globalisation of the EU’s democratic deficit) is the delusion that the “good people” will remain in charge of the processes.

Within the West, said sense of entitlement generates claims against ordinary legal processes and decorum, such as refusing to stand when the judge enters. The Appeals Court threw out all but the first contempt of court conviction that the trial judge imposed, doing so on the ground of seeking a “least disruptive” way of maintaining order; which implicitly does generate special claims over normal procedure. (Which then becomes grist for claims of creeping Sharia.)

The second form of simplistic polarisation is the “it is just Islam” approach where Islam is treated as a monolithic thing incapable of evolution or variety. This flies in the face of history and evidence. For example, this study (pdf) which found that anti-Americanism was far more connected to elite competition within Islamic countries than Islamic piety.

An excellent example of such complexity recently occurred in Benghazi where a large angry mob of protestors stormed a militia headquarters; anger apparently sparked by the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed the US Ambassador.  

There has been a wave of hostility towards the militias since US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others Americans died in last week’s attack on the Benghazi consulate.

“I don’t want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform,” said university student Omar Mohammed, who took part in the takeover of the Ansar al-Sharia compound.

Many Libyans have expressed outrage at the attack on the US consulate. Ansar al-Sharia denies being behind it.

“Angry Muslim mob storms militia HQ in outrage over attack on US consulate” does not quite fit into the “it is just Islam” simplicities.

Of course, as one commenter notes here

Intimidating a town that faced down Qaddafi’s entire army would be a Herculean task.

Moreover, it was Qaddafi’s murderous threats to Benghazi which triggered the NATO intervention in the first place.  Something that is clearly fresh in people’s minds.

As political scientist Walter Russell Mead points out in this useful short essay, the complexities of the Middle East have been a constant trial for the US since the days of President Jefferson. He provides a cautionary summary:

Since Thomas Jefferson’s original unhappy encounter with the ambassador of the Barbary States, the U.S. has suffered one setback and disappointment in the Middle East after another. Our good intentions have often gone awry and we seem to sow dragons’ teeth no matter what we do. Yet at the same time, the United States has managed through thick and thin to advance and defend our core interests in the region and over time, some core American values have gained a tenuous foothold. In the Middle East, the United States has a record of failing forward.

It is not a particularly glorious or inspiring track record, but no outside power has done better.

More broadly, it is the lack of simplicities which makes the issues surrounding Islam and Muslim migration  difficult and resorting to self-congratulatory simplicities (in either direction) is the opposite of a useful response.


ASIDE: CNN managed to achieve something of a new low in media behaviour with its appropriation and internal dissemination of slain US Ambassador Chris Stevens’ diary. Senses of entitlement can come in quite a range of shapes and sizes.


  1. kvd
    Posted September 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, still digesting your post, but must take issue with your “Aside” comment re CNN.

    Firstly your link is to HuffPo which is the sort of ‘reporting organisation’ I believe is part of the perceived problem of news bias.

    Secondly, as I understand it (and who really knows?) the journal is stated to have been retrieved from a ‘crime scene’ some four days after the crime. Dunno if you can blame State or FBI or whoever, but surely such a document left unprotected for such a time reflects little credit on the US authorities handling this ‘crime’.

    Thirdly, if a news service uses the diary as one part of piecing together what really happened – without divulging any personal detail – in fact they were actually only doing their job. CNN for once appears to have acted as a proper news gatherer in doing so.

    Fourthly that diary was the diary of a US ambassador, and as such is much more the property of the citizens of the US than the members of his family. A hard thing to say, but that is the reality.

    Lastly – since when has the US State Department ever put the interests of free and frank disclosure of all information above that of its own self-preservation? The diary as it stands reported tends to contradict State’s first responses to this incident as being solely a result to that film.

    No wonder State was ‘disgusted’ by a news organisation finally actually doing its job by reporting the fact that they weren’t actually doing theirs.

  2. Posted September 24, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Did Ambassador Stevens really write in his diary while under attack? Surely not.

    Yes, the State Department screwed up in securing the scene. And yes, the Journal is a news source. CNN’s handling of the private journal of a slain diplomat still comes across as pretty distasteful.

  3. jtfsoon
    Posted September 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It’s doubtful that the founder of Pakistan would pass muster as a ‘proper Muslim’ in today’s Pakistan

  4. kvd
    Posted September 24, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] CNN did its job – for once. What’s the bet that if the State Department had retrieved his diary that: a) the family would never have seen it or, b) received it in a severely redacted form, or maybe even just photocopied ‘extracts’?

    Dunno how you get the ‘really write in his diary while under attack’ impression from what I wrote? Unless you are extrapolating from my ‘one part of piecing together what really happened’ comment – which was more directed to the deficiencies and potential threats the Ambassador was recording.

    And anyway which is the more ‘distasteful’: CNN retrieving the diary, or State not immediately ensuring the security of a site which they refer to as a ‘crime scene’? (All of which is to ignore completely the wider disgrace of placing one of their own in harm’s way, despite his own reservations)

  5. Posted September 25, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Nice point.
    [email protected] I wasn’t trying to defend the State Dept, whose behaviour from start to finish was pretty disgraceful.

  6. kvd
    Posted September 25, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Anyway, asides aside, the question is: Can we have an intelligent debate about Islam? Hmmm, let me get my thinking cap on…

  7. Posted September 25, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink


    I wonder if some of the sensitivity about poor Chris Stevens is the scarcely-sub text about his sexuality (see eg, The Guardian: “Yet for all his openness, he was discreet about his private life.” (And there are other indications which excited my far from adverse suspicion.) What are they afraid will be in the diary? I doubt, however, if it would be at all Casementesque.

  8. Posted September 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] A possibility I hadn’t considered.

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