Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Arab Spring and the Loss of Innocence

The wave of anti-American protests set off by the film The Innocence of Muslims has occasioned an explosion of politicking, soul-searching, and speculation across the media spectrum here in the U.S. and among our allies abroad. Amidst alarm intensified by the genuinely horrific murder of America's ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues, the polemics and rhetoric generated by these events have been white hot and wildly divergent, suggesting a discourse made incoherent by hysteria. Dire predictions of an ensuing clash of civilizations abound, pundits decry a U.S. foreign policy "in shambles." In their rush to pronounce definitively upon a fluid and sensational situation as it unfolds, few observers seem willing to pause long enough to consider what the long-term historical implications of this moment might be.

To anyone paying attention to this crisis, it should be clear that it is not a spontaneous paroxysm of conflict between the Muslim world and "the West." Innocence of Muslims (or at least the 14-minute "trailer" for this supposed movie that has been available on the internet) is a transparently childish provocation. It is an insult so vapid and generic that any number like it could be unearthed from the fringes of American media culture at any time, and it persisted in total obscurity for months before interested parties in the Arab world waged a campaign to incite outrage corresponding neatly with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Though the resulting protests have generated real violence and vivid imagery, they have engaged a narrow band of the citizenry of the Muslim world. In Cairo, a city of 6.7 million people, the protests at the U.S. embassy have drawn about 2,000 individuals. That is a potentially dangerous mob, but it hardly reflects the consensual state of public sentiment.

If one realizes that this is not a "spontaneous" cultural reflex, but the very deliberate mobilization of social groups in promotion of particular political interests, many of the more feverish assessments of the foreign policy implications of these events are shown false. The idea that these protests are a response to "American weakness" is absurd. If this crisis were a visceral response to perceived American weakness, it would not have required such cynical and contrived fabrication. Likewise, the notion that these events stand as an indictment of the Arab Spring or of the wisdom of America's support for democracy movements does not stand the test of logic. The fact that regimes like the Mubarak government could forestall this type of unrest through brutal oppression did not make the world a safer place or further U.S. interests, and as events like the Danish cartoon crisis demonstrated, repressive secular regimes were not above stoking Islamist aggression when it suited their interests.

If we can get beyond the pulling of hair and rending of clothes, what can or should be done? We cannot imagine that these attacks are innocuous or harmless. The death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya is both a tragic loss and a grievous insult to the United States. The destruction of the American Cooperative School in Tunisia is a senselessly nihilistic blow to the fabric of international civil society. The response to such crimes must be resolute and vigorous. But we should remain aware throughout that these attacks are more focused on the internal power dynamics of the nations in which they occur than on the international geostrategic order of which the U.S. is a part. Those who destroyed the American Cooperative School did not do so to weaken America, but to make life more difficult for Western diplomatic personnel (whose children principally constituted the school's pupils), in hopes that the nations they represent will politically and economically disengage from Tunisia. Such an outcome, if it came about, would weaken the forces in Tunisian society that thrive on cosmopolitanism, and strengthen the hand of those who would usher in parochial theocracy. Corresponding motives underlie the "protest" movements in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and the other Muslim nations that have experienced unrest.

In light of this fact, the most important step the U.S. and its allies must take is to refrain from panic. America must match the Islamists' resolve to disrupt communication and trade with a countervailing resolve to remain engaged in Muslim nations, even in the face of hostility and violence. The perpetrators of these attacks will only truly represent the Muslim world if countries like the U.S. abandon the field of interaction and debate, leaving those in Egypt, Libya, and other Muslim societies who support openness and exchange isolated and vulnerable. We cannot force our values onto other nations, but neither can we completely desert our potential roles as interlocutor, partner, or ally in the diverse communities of the Muslim world.

We should take heart in the apparent weakness of the forces challenging our resolve. Like the Nazis and the communists of the 20th century, today's Islamists are using techniques of mass mobilization and mob violence to expand their influence during a period of weakening state power. Those former groups, however, did not make targeting foreign embassies a central strategic method of their program for political ascendancy. The fact that today's Islamists evince the need to isolate their societies internationally is not a sign of strength, but of fundamental insecurity.


Neal said...

It seems to me that we are rather fortunate that, thus far, the Islamists have not succeeded in building up armies that can, in fact, challenge the West. Then, we would not be having a discussion about whether there is or is not a clash of civilizations. There would be a clash, as that is what the Islamists appear to seek.

I also think you have a point that the aim of the "protests" is internal, not external. It does not, however, follow that these events are of minor consequence. They aim, it seems to me, to disrupt the countries involved, in order either to bring the Islamists to power or, if in power (e.g., in Egypt), to strengthen the hand of the Islamists. Such would be right out of Machiavelli's play book: make the country ungovernable, thus calling for emergency government powers.

I do not know how best to describe the relationship between the West and the Arab/Muslim regions. It might be a clash of civilizations. It might be something else. I, for one, hope that countries ruled by Islamists remain weak countries, because I am rather sure that were they to have the ability to use force, they would.

Madman of Chu said...


We are fortunate that the Islamists have not built up armies that can challenge us, just as we are fortunate that killer aliens have not come down from space and tigers don't have wings. If you are intent on worrying about hypotheticals there is no end of them to concern you. I would contend that, rather than worrying about some imagined future clash of civilizations, we should worry about what the Islamists are up to now, which is increasing their power in places like Egypt, Libya, etc. If we interpret every move Islamists make as aimed at "the West" we will be missing much of the bigger picture. Even obvious provocations such as the recent embassy attacks are less concerned with an imagined struggle between the US and "the Muslim world" and more concerned with actual struggles between contending forces in particular Muslim societies. If you read my piece carefully you'll see that I never claim these events are of minor consequence, I only insist that their consequences most significantly impact the power relations between groups internal to Muslim countries, and have less short-term significance for the larger international balance of power.

Madman of Chu said...

PS "Islamists" like any other term is one that invites overgeneralization and distortion. The Muslim Brotherhood may be up to the kind of Machiavellian scheme you describe, but I suspect not. There are many shades of "Islamist" just as there are many varieties of "liberal" or "socialist." The evidence suggests that the incidents in Egypt were not stoked by a government attempting to force emergency measures (if that was the motive, it was a singularly inept tactic, given the array of options available). Rather, the "Islamists" inciting unrest in Egypt were groups more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood who were trying to steal the mantle of piety from Morsi and his government. This is the other danger of focusing too much on a "clash of civilizations"- it distorts our perspective of the nuances inherent to the power dynamics of particular Muslim nations.

Neal said...

I take issue with a number of your comments.

First, I did indicate that I agree with you that the issue here is, in considerable part, internally directed. See my comment in the original. You misread what I wrote.

Second, the big picture here is, in fact - since I neither live in the ME nor intend to move there -, how that part of the world will impact on me, not the ME. And, the impact that matters to me is the armies that Islamists will raise, since they are revolutionaries with an expansionist agenda (as per the official policy of the Brotherhood, for example).

Third, your comment about shades of the Islamists is, to me, meaningless nonsense. Individual Islamists may or may not be sincere in belief and may or may not believe all of the nonsense spewed by true believers. However, they are part of a movement, a revolutionary movement. Not all followers of Lenin were sincere and not all believed all of the nonsense spewed. In true revolutions, the worst elements tend to come to power. So, what matters here is the aims of the movement, not whether all Islamists are the same. So, I think your view is profoundly confused, ahistorical and, frankly, contrary to fact.

Madman of Chu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Madman of Chu said...


Our perspectives of one-another are mutual. "Islamists" and "Leninists" are not and never will be mutually fungible categories. The leaders of Iran and the current president of Egypt, for example, are both "Islamists," but they will never see eye-to-eye (one being Shi'ite and the other Sunni). One does not have to speculate on different Islamists' sincerity to know that they espouse a vast array of different positions and pursue a variety of divergent goals. If you are concerned about how events in the ME will impact you, I would worry less about the imagined armies that Islamists will raise against you at some time in the future and more about how the particular policies being pursued by various interests groups RIGHT NOW will effect commerce, diplomacy, military cooperation, and the incidence of international terrorism. If you want to treat Mohammed Morsi and Ayman al-Zahawari as fellow travelers that is your prerogative, but that is a view that is "profoundly confused, ahistorical, and frankly, contrary to fact."

Neal said...

"If you want to treat Mohammed Morsi and Ayman al-Zahawari as fellow travelers that is your prerogative"

I think that both of these men believe in roughly the same thing, as it relates to you and me. They both subscribe the basic tenets of Islamism. That does not mean that both men believe that the same means to achieve their common ends.

I agree with you that the Iranians and Egyptian Islamists have things that separate them - such as a dispute over how the Muslim community ought to be ruled, among other things. Both, however, believe that Sharia, as they understand it, should govern society.

Neal said...

I never claimed that Islamism and Leninism (or the followers or either) are fungibles. I employed a simple analogy.

Now, knowing a fair amount about the Islamist movement and its history, I think that the analogy to Leninists is perfectly reasonable. In fact, I think it provides a very good guide for what is likely to occur in Muslim regions governed by Islamists.

I think what can be said rather clearly about Islamists is that they, nearly as a rule, hate the West including, most particularly, the US, are extremely Antisemitic, hate Israel, believe in instituting Sharia as a, if not the, basis for governing. Many Islamists are takfiris, meaning they are judgemental about who is a true Muslim (to the extent of declaring seemingly pious Muslims to be apostates). Most, if not all, wish to spread what they believe to be Islamic rule to all Muslim lands and, for quite a number, hope in the foreseeable future to cause all non-Muslim lands to be ruled by Muslim and for Muslim law to govern such lands, all in accordance with classical Islamic theology precepts. As explained by the father of the contemporary study of Islam, the great Ignaz Goldhizer:

In addition to the religious duties imposed upon each individual professing Islam, the collective duty of the "jihad" (= "fighting against infidels") is imposed on the community, as represented by the commander of the faithful. Mohammed claimed for his religion that it was to be the common property of all mankind, just as he himself, who at first appeared as a prophet of the Arabs, ended by proclaiming himself the prophet of a universal religion, the messenger of God to all humanity, or, as tradition has it, "ila al-aḥmar wal-aswad" (to the red and the black). For this reason unbelief must be fought with the force of weapons, in order that "God's word may be raised to the highest place." Through the refusal to accept Islam, idolaters have forfeited their lives. Those "who possess Scriptures" ("ahl al-kitab"), in which category are included Jews, Christians, Magians, and Sabians, may be tolerated on their paying tribute ("jizyah") and recognizing the political supremacy of Islam (sura ix. 29). The state law of Islam has accordingly divided the world into two categories: the territory of Islam ("dar al-Islam") and the territory of war. ("dar al-ḥarb"), i.e., territory against which it is the duty of the commander of the faithful ("amir al-mu'minin") to lead the community in the jihad.

You are being far too atomic in your approach, believing that there is no real unifying ideology involved. Islamists take the communal obligation to spread Muslim rule very, very seriously - most particularly in Muslim lands. They also usually take the view that society should be governed by Sharia very seriously.

By way of another good, but partial, analogy, the Haredim take the precepts of Jewish law very seriously and believe it would be a proper basis to govern society. I trust that you know this to be the case. Why not assume that Muslims might be similar in that, in fact, Islam and Judaism are really very similar (both in good and bad ways) except, for example, that Judaism is not evangelical and thus, unlike Islam, has no categorical imperative to bring non-Jews under Jewish governance.

As Indian M.J. Akbar, who is Muslim, notes:

Jihad is the signature tune of Islamic history. If today's Muslim rulers are reluctant to sound that note, it is often because they are concerned about the consequences of failure. As in every bargain, there are two sides. Allah promised victory to the Muslim, but only if the believer kept faith with him. Defeat becomes an indictment of the ruler, and is therefore risky, particularly as Muslims have a long tradition of holding their rulers accountable. They are enjoined to do so.

This is almost certainly the truth.

Neal said...


1. Delete: "As Indian M.J. Akbar, who is Muslim, notes:"

Subsitute: "As Indian scholar M.J. Akbar, who is Muslim, notes:"

2. Delete: "That does not mean that both men believe that the same means to achieve their common ends."

Substitute: "That does not mean that both men believe in using the same means to achieve their common ends."

Madman of Chu said...


"Leninism" itself as a category was never as coherent as U.S. leaders treated it during the Cold War. Despite a shared commitment to certain texts and ideas, Leninists like Mao, Krushchev, and Tito were most frequently at odds with one-another, often violently. China and the USSR persisted in a state of armed hostility for decades, communist China actually invaded communist Vietnam. Meanwhile, the US insisted on treating communism as a monolithic threat, leading to cripplingly ill-conceived policies in places as far-flung and divergent as Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, and many others.

"Islamism" is an even more inchoate and inconsistent designation than "Leninist." Even a common commitment to "Sharia law" does not lend real coherence to a movement of "Islamists," as few Islamists are in accord as to what Sharia law is or how it should be adjudicated. Groups that (by any meaningful use of the term) can be called "Islamists" pursue policies and goals so widely divergent that they bear no comparison to the idiosyncrasies of the twentieth century's Leninists. For example, Joseph Stalin displayed the plasticity of communist principles by allying himself first with the Nazis, then with the US and Britain. But that behavior pales by comparison to that of the Iranian theocracy, which has allied itself with the secular Baathist regime of Syria merely because of the sectarian affiliation of the Assad family. This is akin to Joseph Stalin seeking a formal alliance with the Pope. There is simply no core to "Islamist" ideology that precludes an "Islamist" regime from adopting almost any policy on virtually any pretext.

Moreover, you seem to be conflating "Islamism" and "Islam," arguing that certain core elements of Islamic belief make intolerant and aggressive behavior by Islamists predictable and inevitable. This is absurdly reductionist. Islam is a vastly complex and multifaceted tradition that is spread across an enormous social landscape and that has evolved dynamically for hundreds of years. The simple fact that someone is a Muslim does not provide any certainty as to what he or she thinks or how he or she will act. For every scholar or Muslim theologian you produce that advocates military jihad and intolerance, I can produce one that advocates peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance, like Muhammad Abduh, who worked to foster harmony between Muslims and Coptic Christians in 19th century Egypt, or the leaders of the Ottoman Tanzimat, who instituted equality and freedom of faith for all religions.

Unfortunately, there is no intellectually substantive alternative for judging all groups and individuals on a case-by-case basis. Certain Islamists, like Ayman al-Zahawari and the murderers of Chris Stevens, have shown themselves by their professed doctrines and actions to be irredeemably malevolent. As someone who believes in secular democracy, I am cautious about anyone who embraces any form of Islamism as a political ideology, but it is ridiculous to argue that anyone who adopts any form of "Islamism" is necessarily an enemy of the US and can be deemed as plotting our destruction. Political Islam is going to be around for a long time, and if the US is going to have anything approaching an effective foreign policy we will have to develop informed, mature, and nuanced means of dealing with Islamism as a global force.

Neal said...

Dear Professor,

A number of points.

You are correct that you cannot judge individual people other than on a case-by-case basis. However, you can judge movements. Most people judge fascism very harshly - and with good reason. Most people judge communism very harshly - and with good reason. Not all fascist leaders were quite of the order of the leaders of the Nazi variety of fascism. But, I do not think that excuses fascism. Not all communist rulers were on the order of Stalin. But, that is no excuse for communism, as a governing philosophy.

You seem unwilling to judge Islamism harshly. Yet, it is a nasty ideology and your unwillingness to examine it in the manner that you undoubtedly examine other ideologies is, to me, difficult to understand. In simple English, if you think that fascism ought be judged, as a movement, harshly, you have to be willing to entertain the possibility that Islamism can be judged harshly.

Now, Islam and Islamism are not the same thing. I never claimed they were. I wish you actually read what I wrote, rather than what you surmise - incorrectly, in fact - what I think. You have no idea about my knowledge.

Take, for example, your discussion of the Tanzimet. It, in fact, was an effort to bring some level of equality to non-Muslims under Islamic rule. However, it was bitterly resisted and contested and led to much bloodshed in the Ottoman Empire as it did not have sufficient support among those it affected. It, moreover, simply did not bring equality, as you seem to think. It did not even come close, as the reforms were never fully implemented (due to the resistance). The regions of the country where some manner of equality arose were almost always areas dominated by Europeans, who insisted that Christians and Jews being treated equally. You might, if you have not already read the book, read Professor Lewis' book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Lewis is very sympathetic to the Ottoman Empire, giving a reasonably irenic version of the Tanzimet. Other scholars - for example, in Vahakn Dadrian's excellent study, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus - view the reforms as being pretty much entirely thrust upon the Ottoman Empire by the Turks. I happen to think Lewis is correct that there were many, among the ruling class, who did want to institute the reforms. But, either way, it is simply impossible to claim that equality was instituted. That is simply contrary to fact.

Neal said...

Now, as to the relationship between Islam and Islamism, this is something that can be discussed conceptually. Islam is a religion - or, in the Islamic way of thinking, a "din" (meaning, more or less, a way of life). Islamism is a movement within Islam and might be thought of as a sect except that it appears to be gaining the upper hand, for now at least, in some parts of the Muslim world.

I do not know whether Islam is properly considered tolerant of non-Muslims - which is the self-interpretation classical Islamic jurisprudence asserts - or intolerant, as critiques (e.g., Bat Ye'or) of the religion assert. What I think can be said is that the law regarding the treatment of non-Muslims is very well developed. Judged against Medieval Christianity, Islam might be considered fairly tolerant in principle and, depending on the ruler and the historical period, more or less tolerant - applying a Western understanding - than in comparable circumstances in Christian lands. I might recommend a very good book, which is of recent vintage: In Ishmael's House - A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, by Martin Gilbert. This is not a book of original research but it is fair minded, showing both the good and bad. As you may know, Gilbert is among the great historians of the UK.

Now, I think that my comments have been quite direct and to the point. Islamismm is, I think, a disaster. The Islamists are, as a group - whether or not there may be some individuals who are different in some ways -, the enemies of democracy. They are, in effect, part of the existing order. In this regard, you might read Walid Phares' interesting book - written before the so-called Spring - The Coming Revolutions, in which he details what his research predicted - i.e., revolutions. And, he shows pretty convincingly that the Islamists, as a group, will act to undermine any chance of a better life for average people in the Arab world. I can add: the impact of a governing philosophy which has no real solutions to problems is to create enemies and unnecessary wars. So, while you did not like my comment about armies and Islamism, I think you will come, in time, to see that I am correct.

Madman of Chu said...


You mistake my point. It is not that I am unwilling to judge Islamism as harshly as I would judge an ideology like Fascism, it is that I deny that Islamism is properly an ideology at all. Fascism has a more coherent set of core principles and beliefs, we can predict what social effect any attempt to realize Fascist ideals will produce within a certain range. Islamism is, at best, a convenient label for a tendency or a trend, it has no core principles or beliefs that make "Islamists'" social impact as predictable as that of "Fascists" or "communists." The only thing Islamists share in common is a conviction that there is political efficacy in Islam, but Islam is such a complex, dynamic, and multifaceted tradition that there is no way to predict what someone will do politically simply on the basis that they espouse Muslim belief. This was the point of my evocation of the Tanzimat, whatever you feel about the practical success or failure of their program, the Tanzimat leaders were committed to both Islam and the progressive values of the Enlightenment. This demonstrates that there is a very wide range of possibilities within the world of "Islamism," not everyone that embraces Islam as a political force is going to become Osama bin Laden.

As to your discussion of the distinction (?) between Islamism and Islam, I don't find it clarifying. You still seem to be arguing that the nature of "Islamism" is somehow predetermined by the nature of Islam, which you seem to think can be isolated in some ahistorical "essence." But history demonstrates that this is a red herring. For example, you find great significance in the fact that the Tanzimat did not result in perfect equality for all religions, but does it make sense to blame this on Islam? Should we then blame the fact that Reconstruction failed to secure civil equality for blacks on Christianity? Every religion has a history of violence and intolerance. The fact of the Inquisition and the Crusades, however, does not mean that someone who joins the Campus Crusade for Christ or the Moral Majority is an enemy of democracy. By the same token, the fact of whether or not someone in the ME or North Africa is an enemy democracy is not determined by whether they embrace some form of political Islam, but of whether they oppose values such as tolerance, representational government, civil liberty, etc., none of which are necessarily incompatible with Islam (any more than they are necessarily incompatible with the same Christianity that inspired the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, etc.).

Madman of Chu said...

P.S. I am willing to judge certain Islamists very harshly. I am pleased by the passing of Osama bin Laden, and I look forward to the day when the murderers of Chris Stevens share the same fate. I reject the notion that OBL and Mohammed Morsi should be lumped together simply because they can both be conveniently labeled "Islamists." You say that I will recognize you are right, but I will give you a counter-prediction. I predict that eventually Mohammed Morsi will not be deemed the enemy of democracy. From everything I have observed thus far, Morsi seems to take democratic institutions seriously and is making every attempt, as Egypt's first freely elected president, to imbue his office and government with legitimacy and normalcy. In the long run if democracy succeeds in Egypt he will deserve much of the credit. Whether that will make him a friend of the US, I can't be sure. There are a lot of reasons that a democratic Egypt might be less friendly to the US than Mubarak was. Still, I don't see a future in which Morsi or his government are as hostile to America as Al Qaeda.

Neal said...

You write: "The only thing Islamists share in common is a conviction that there is political efficacy in Islam, but Islam is such a complex, dynamic, and multifaceted tradition that there is no way to predict what someone will do politically simply on the basis that they espouse Muslim belief."

Have you actually studied Islam to reach this conclusion? I am starting to wonder. Before you claimed, notwithstanding that it has no factual support, that the Tanzimet reforms brought equality. Now you are asserting an Islam that Muslims would never recognize. No. Islam is, in fact, far less varied than Christianity or Judaism.

Moreover, Islam, by its historical development, is inherently political. One can study its political language. You might read Professor Lewis' book, The Political Language of Islam. It would save you from saying things that are, frankly, simply incorrect.

There is a pseudo form of scholarship which seeks to turn Islam into a moving target. Were it such a moving target, it would not have billions of adherents. No religion is varied in the way that the pseudo scholars describe Islam. Rather, these scholars have a political agenda to prevent discussion of Islam, a religion which, frankly, has a lot to offer but which also has a lot to criticize.

How about saying things that have some connection with reality. Then, we might have a serious conversation. As things are, it does not appear you know much about the topic about which you are pontificating.

Madman of Chu said...


We certainly won't have a serious conversation if you confine your remarks to empty assertions and ad hominem slurs. Declaring that "Islam, by its historical development, is inherently political" proves nothing- indeed says nothing. The same assessment could be made of Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and a host of other religions. The raw fact that religious life is highly politicized gives us nothing upon which to base an assessment of a particular faith's adherents. Tell me nothing but that someone is a Christian and I have no way of knowing whether he more resembles Pope John Paul II or Timothy McVeigh. Tell me someone is a Muslim and I have no way of predicting whether he will be more like Muqtada al-Sadr or Averroes.

For you to declare, moreover, that "Islam is, in fact, far less varied than Christianity or Judaism" is patently absurd, and undermines all of your pretensions of learning. Think of the math- there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, there only 14 million Jews. How could a billion people, spread out in an area extending from Indonesia to Mauritania, from Mombasa to Istanbul, exhibit less diversity and variation than a population of 14 million people concentrated in a vastly smaller area? You keep recommending Bernard Lewis' writings. Let me recommend you read about Al-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Muhammad Iqbal, Wang Taiyu, and Ibn Tufail, just to name a few disparate figures, to get a sense of the diversity of the Islamic tradition.

Let me ask you a question, Neal. You keep accusing me of ignorance and falsehood without addressing any of my substantive points. What exactly is your problem with my position? Do you really think that Mohammad Morsi and Osama bin Laden pose equivalent threats to world security? If so, why don't you explain to me why that is so rather than harping on my "pseudo scholarship." Why don't you back up some of your contentions with actual facts, rather than shooting off unsubstantiated opinions and appealing to the authority of Bernard Lewis?

Neal said...


Islam, as a religion, is inherently political in a way that Judaism or Christianity cannot be because the Muslim Prophet - to whom Muslims are enjoined to respect and, rather critically, emulate - was a political and military leader, not just a religious leader. I am not saying that Jews and Christians cannot interpret their religions politically; instead, what I mean is that Islam is more naturally political. Put a different way, in classical Islam, the political and the religious are not considered different - which is true for Sunni and Shi'a orthodoxy, per scripture. In Christianity, what goes to Caesar is different than what goes to the Almighty, inherently, per scripture. In Judaism, there are political aims but they are modest and limited.

On your theory of religion, religion is not an object to be examined. Rather, you are looking at it as the behavior of individuals. I think that is an erroneous methodology that makes it impossible to (a) study any religion and (b) distinguish the beliefs of different religions.

Neal said...

Regarding the point that Islam, having a billion adherents, is inherently more varied than Judaism, having a mere 14 million adherents, see my point above. To my way of thinking, that makes no sense because the number of adherents has nothing to do with the matter. Judaism has Haredi, Chasidim, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, etc., etc. In Islam, we have Sunnis and Shi'a and, I suppose, Sufi. There are four major schools of law among the Sunni and, of course, there is the Shi'a approach to the law. There is no Reform Islam. There is no Conservative Islam. There is no Reconstructionist Islam. There are not even remote equivalents; this, notwithstanding the remarkable structural similarity between Classical Judaism and Islam.

Your point seems to be that religiousity is an individual matter, not a doctrinal matter. If I have that correct, I think you are profoundly mistaken. Your citation to writers who hold different views does not alter my point. Were you to ask, say, Omar Khayyam what he understands Islam to teach, he would give an answer that is in line with tradition - which is what I am talking about. Your point, if I understand you correctly, is societal in nature. My point is about religion, which is a different thing. Muslims, as individuals, can think what they may. But, were you to ask the average Sunni Muslim anywhere in the Muslim world what they believe is Islam's teaching on a subject, there would be substantial agreement among them. It would be equivalent to asking an Orthodox Jew what is and is not Kosher.

Neal said...

The scholar Ibn Warraq makes the point that one can speak of Islam that appears in the Koran, Islam the religion that subsequently developed (i.e., the one which closed the gates of interpretation), and one can speak of Islam the civilization that came to be. You have, I think, conflated these things all into one thing, namely, the societal view of individuals. Hence, you have not quite understood my point.

I think that, in fact, someone like Morsi poses a greater threat than bin Laden. Yes. I think that is the case. This is because Morsi leads a great country. Bin Laden, when he was alive, was a mere terrorist leader. Morsi, who leads a country that is not only bankrupt, financially, but sinking fast, will have the need to create enemies - and his Brotherhood has enemies it sees. Failed states create wars. Note: his country is attempting to purchase a billion dollars worth of submarines. The money for them is coming from countries which thought they were lending Egypt money to help repair the economy and put the desperate Egyptian people to work. That is not the sign of a leader acting to advance the needs of his people - there being no country which aims to attack Egypt in the near or middle term. So, I find your view of Morsi pretty odd.

My problem with your opinion is that it seems similar to your opinion about the Tanzimet. You take positive items without examining beneath the surface. So, yes, there were efforts at reform in the 19th Century designed, in a sense, to bring greater equality, but you overlook that it was the religious groups who opposed the reforms and who, in fact, continue to oppose the reforms. Why? Because Islam, the religion (both the Koran and the religion that developed), has a well developed (a) law and (b) theological position regarding non-Muslims, one which, on good authority, makes it sinful to treat non-Muslims as equals. Hence, absent a reform of the religion, religious groups coming to power will treat non-Muslims really bad, as is self-evidently now occurring in Egypt and which will get worse since the societal pressures are to increase the role of traditional religion. Hence, I seen your approach as not making much sense.

Madman of Chu said...


Jesus was a political leader- scion of House of David, Messiah. He came "not bring peace, but a sword." He promised his followers the Kingdom of Heaven. In conventional terms he might have been a less successful conqueror than Muhammad, but the militant and political aspects of his biblical persona were such that later figures like Constantine, the Crusaders, and Ignatius Loyala could imagine themselves as modeling themselves on Christ's example. The idea that Islam is more political than Judaism is ridiculous. Read the Torah- it basically outlines a set of political institutions. Moses was undeniably a political and military leader- the template on which the persona of Muhammad was modeled.

Your insistence that Islam lacks variation or diversity flies in the face of all evidence. Your list of distinct Muslim groups elides Zubaidis, Ahmadis, Wahhabis, Ishmailis, Deobandis, Quranists, Alevis, Twelvers, etc. etc. etc. You might object that some of these groups are not formally "instituted" (look up the definition of that word in reference to my comments on the Tanzimat), but in pragmatic terms they are much more mutually antipathetic than, say, Reform and Conservative Jews.

Let me share an excerpt from my reading that I feel demonstrates I am on the right side of this issue:

"[Disturbances] instigated by a number of religious leaders (ulama) in pursuance of their demand that government officially classify Ahmadis as a non-Muslim community, and take certain other actions against members of this movement. Referring to the ulama’s call for Pakistan to be run as an official “Islamic” state, and to their demands against Ahmadis, the Report said:

The question, therefore, whether a person is or is not a Muslim will be of fundamental importance, and it was for this reason that we asked most of the leading ulama to give their definition of a Muslim, the point being that if the ulama of the various sects believed the Ahmadis to be kafirs [unbelievers], they must have been quite clear in their minds not only about the grounds of such belief but also about the definition of what a Muslim is. The result of this part of the inquiry, however, has been anything but satisfactory, and if considerable confusion exists in the inds of our ulama on such a simple matter, one can easily imagine what the differences on more complicated matters will be. Below we reproduce the definition of a Muslim given by each alim in his own words. (p. 215)

The Report reproduces verbatim the answers given by various ulama to the question: How do you define a Muslim? The judges were obviously enjoying themselves by this stage. Their conclusion was suitably deadpan:

Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulama, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulama, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else."

If there is such a lack of consensus within Pakistan, imagine if you expanded the field of discourse to include China, Indonesia, Somalia, etc. etc. etc.

As for your judgment on Muhammad Morsi, it does not impress me. If he does in fact plan to spend one billion dollars on two submarines, it means he is a poor shopper, not a threat to democracy. Anyone who feels this will alter Egypt's strategic power, is sorely deluded. Osama bin Laden did more damage than Morsi will ever do with those submarines with some box cutters and a few airplane tickets. I would rather deal with a man who has expensive submarines- he has something to lose.

Madman of Chu said...

PS The excerpt is from Tariq Ali, "Clash of Fundamentalisms," pages 179-180.

Neal said...

Jesus, the political leader? You are interpreting the political in a very wide fashion.

Again, some fundamental distinctions: There are Christians who have interpreted Christianity as being political. However, there are essentially no Islamic theologians who have interpreted Islam as non-political. Again, this is because, (a), Mohammed had an army, (b) Mohammed was a head of state, (c), Mohammed led troops into battle. Jesus did none of these things.

Scholar Patricia Crone in her excellent study, God's Rule: Government and Islam - Six centuries of medieval islamic political thought, notes the point that a state was created with the founding of Islam. Christianity, by contrast, formed within an existing state.

You write: "Read the Torah- it basically outlines a set of political institutions." But, of course, reading the Torah does not tell me the Jewish position. One would need to read the Talmud - and read it very carefully - for such a thing. Stop insulting my intelligence. What is described in the Torah is always only one piece, just as, in Islam, one needs to read the ahaditha to understand what Islam, the religion, has in mind.

You have also noted a number of movements among Muslims. However, these various movements, for the most part, are not akin to Reform Judaism or Conservative Judaism. And, the ones, such as the Ahmadis, are not considered to be Muslim. You are correct about 12er's and the like, though. They are movements within Shi'a Islam.

How could you not know that Morsi is buying two submarines worth, together, a billion dollars? It has been prominently in the news. On what basis can you opine about Egypt if you have no idea what Morsi advocates? And, when his political group advocates the abatement of rights for non-Muslims, how can you call him democratic? The same for women, which his group also advocates?

Neal said...

Oh, and when his political movement advocates that his country fight to capture Jerusalem, how is that anything but warlike? Or, do you think that Jerusalem is properly part of Egypt? It is, however, something claimed by Muslims, in view of Muhammad’s supposed visit. So, we have, in such a proclamation by his clique, a proclamation that religion trumps the state.

And, the religious ideals are those of classical Islam, the one which did not have Tanzimet. The one which did not accept equality among religions. The one which treated women as property, subject to the guardianship doctrine.

I would think that you might consider that, thinking on the big picture, what we are seeing being worked out is the advance of the religious clerics, who mean to rid their societies, to the extent they can, of the Tanzimet ideal. That is bad for anyone who believes in a peaceful, socially liberal society. That, I might add, is why the Islamist, such as Morsi, are so openly Antisemitic - something which pre-dates, among Brotherhood members, Israel's creation or even the notion that Zionism might be a threat. Recall: the MB, in its very first year of existence, blamed "the Jews" for the demise of the Caliphate. In fact, the great Attaturk was said, by these religious Brotherhood people, to be a secret Jew.

Does it bother you that Morsi's party is openly Antisemitic - and not just anti-Israel? And, does it not occur to you that the Brotherhood's stated recasting of the hadith about the Jews and the Gharkad tree into a political agenda to rid the world of Jews - rather than a millennialist end of days proclamation - might be something that Mr. Morsi might believe in? Please address these points.

Madman of Chu said...


Listen to yourself:

"To really understand the position of Judaism we must not stop at the Torah but read the Talmud, but in the case of Islam we can be confident of its political nature because of the career of Muhammad. Christianity is not as political as Islam because it did not start as its own state. Judaism, which did have its own state institutions from the beginning, which conceived of itself as 'the Kingdom of Israel' is not as political as Islam because...because....oh just because!"

You cling to your narrowly biased position no matter what evidence or logic you are presented with- anything that does not fit your preconceptions is rejected as an "outlier: The Ahmadis are not considered Muslim- have you asked an Ahmadi? Wahabbism is not akin to Reform Judaism? Why? The Tanzimat leaders, who considered their Sultan the Caliph, didn't genuinely represent Islam- again, Why?

Worse than this, you are thinking about these religious traditions in the most reductively puerile terms. These traditions evolved from era to era and from social context to social context. Each new generation was to some extent constrained by the legacy it inherited from the past, but was free to select and develop received resources in ways that took the faith in radically new directions. Thus the fact that Christianity did not start in its own state did not preclude the development of Caesaropapism or the Spanish Inquisition. The fact that Islam began as a state did not prevent the development of Sufi mysticism that explicitly rejected the place of politics in the sacred.

In the same way that modern Muslims cannot be prejudged on the basis of some reading of the life of Muhammad, Morsi cannot be held accountable for every position that the Muslim Brotherhood has ever espoused. He is an individual, operating in a particular political context. Right now he says that he supports the Camp David accords, religious freedom, representational government, and civil liberties. Is there cause to be wary of him, given the Brotherhood's past? Yes. Is there cause to wait and see if he will live up to his word? OF COURSE THERE IS. His assertion of civilian rule over the military, his robust stand against Iran- both are positive signs. Beyond this, you can talk about Muhammad and Bernard Lewis and yada yada yada until you are blue in the face, none of it will change the fact that Muhammad Morsi is the first democratically elected president of Egypt. The Egyptian people deserve the chance to see this progressive development of their political culture stabilize and normalize, before the international community declares it illegitimate on the mere suspicion of insincerity. More than that, the world will be a safer, more secure place with a genuinely democratic Egypt. It is in our interest not to kill this baby in the cradle merely because we are spooked by shadows. Grow a backbone, Neal. The world is a complicated, befuddling, and fascinating place. Complacently declaring that you can predict how everyone will act and thus can definitively separate the good from the bad is a craven position, and one that is never really going to equip you or anyone else to engage the world as it really is.

Neal said...

Egypt is not a more secure place. It is a place where it is dangerous to walk in the streets. It is a country falling off the cliff, financially speaking. It may eventually become more secure and instituting democracy may assure that. But, democracy has not yet been instituted as the institutions necessary for democracy remain to be established - something which one election does not establish.

In the meanwhile, we have an open Antisemite running Egypt. Is that OK with you? In the meanwhile, we have a government in Egypt which is working to take away the rights of non-Muslims. Is that OK with you? In the meanwhile, we have a government in Egypt seeking to take away the rights of women? Is that OK with you? PLEASE ANSWER THE QUESTIONS IN THIS PARAGRAPH. Otherwise, I assume you are OK with Antisemites, with people who seek to take away the rights of non-Muslims and with people who want to suppress women. That, when you support Mr. Morsi, is what you support.

Now, you speak of Wahhabism as if it were akin to reform Judaism. You know that is nonsense. One is an attempt to define a religion in a manner consistent with the contemporary world. The other is a revivalist movement which views the contemporary world sinful. Moreover, Wahhabism is not a sect of Islam. Wahhabis consider themselves Sunni.

You have incorrectly characterized what I have written. The most self-evident thing about the Judaism that has existed since exile is that the devout came to reject mostly all of the political aspects of Judaism that, as you correctly note, appear in the Torah. That change - a profound change - was the work of the great rabbis. Their work comes to us largely from the Talmud. Nothing of the sort has occurred in Islam.

To claim that classical Judaism is political in the same sense of Islam is ignorant. Islam has a different history than Judaism. Islam's Prophet was a military and political leader, not just a religious leader. The Ummah never had an exile in the sense that Jews did. There is nothing in Judaism akin to the shahada. Judaism proclaims that God is One. Islam adds to that claim that Mohammed is God's Prophet. That gives Mohammed a stature which Judaism affords no man - not even Moses. And, since Mohammed's status is part of the belief system, he is, in the Islamic tradition, THE, not just A, person to emulate. Islam, since it was politically successful - unlike Judaism, where politics was not directed to spreading Jewish rule over non-Jews -, has a well developed law of war and colonization, etc., etc. Judaism does not have that.

Now, my theory about what is occurring actually does relate to the Tanzimet reforms - not literally, since there is no Ottoman Empire. But, the spirit of those reforms. The trend - the Islamist movement, which, contrary to your assertion is a movement with a clear agenda - is one of reaction. The aim is to purge society of reforms which undermine the power of the religious elite.

Madman of Chu said...


I am going to give up arguing with you over whether Islam is as diverse and dynamic a tradition as Christianity and Judaism, because, frankly, it is like arguing with a brick wall.

I am not persuaded that Muhammad Morsi is an anti-Semite, or at least that he is any more or less of an anti-Semite than Hosni Mubarak. In any case, how he feels about Jews matters little to me, how he acts as president is what counts. So far he has vowed to uphold the Camp David accords, as long as he does so he will give the US and Israel little cause to object to his "anti-Semitism." I know that he supports the creation of a Palestinian state and opposes the occupation of the West Bank, but that does not put much daylight between him and virtually any other leader in the Arab or wider Muslim world.

The situation of Egypt's Coptic Christians is of grave concern, and all conscientious people and government should hold Egypt's government accountable for their security and rights. I've read mixed things about Morsi's record on this score. On the one hand he has appointed Christians to his advisory council. On the other, I've read reports of Christians arrested on charges of "blasphemy." If these last reports are true they are very distressing, and everyone should rise up to oppose them.

The same considerations hold with Morsi's record on women's rights. On the one hand, he has included prominent women in his leadership team. On the other, I've heard reports of female newscasters forced to where the veil, etc. The former report is encouraging, the latter disturbing.

But pause for a moment to consider what we were originally discussing. Which poses a more fundamental threat to world security- someone who sends young men off to blow themselves up and kill thousands of people, or a government that (like many other governments) is curtailing civil rights or is complicit in repression? Both are bad, but both need to be addressed individually and by different means.

You seem to be implying that because I deem Muhammad Morsi distinct from and less dangerous than Ayman al-Zahawari that I must approve of Morsi's shortcomings. That it is a failure of logic, one similar to that I objected to in your original comment. You claim to know that Muhammad Morsi would, if given the opportunity, lead armies to conquer us, given the predictable nature of his Islamism. I reject the simplicity of that prognostication.

Madman of Chu said...

...Morsi's association with the Muslim Brotherhood should make us vigilant about his treatment of Israel, non-Muslims, and women, but it does not preordain his adopting anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, or anti-female policies. To say that we can be confident that Morsi would lead armies against us because of his association with the Muslim Brotherhood is akin to saying that we can be confident Mitt Romney would institute legal polygamy as President. Political movements and the individuals that make them up are dynamic and responsive to myriad forms of social, economic, and cultural pressure. It is fair to look into a movements ideological past (and into the ideological landscape of its current membership), but that cannot be done exclusively and in place of examining a group or individuals current policy positions and actions.

Earlier this year Morsi promised to appoint a woman and a Christian as vice presidents. In response to outrage by hard-line Salafi groups he backed off that promise, deciding to appoint a women and Christians to his advisory council instead. The fact that Morsi backed off his promise demonstrates that his Islamism is of concern, but the fact that he made the promise in the first place (and that he attempted to provisionally redeem the breach through advisory appointments) demonstrates that his Islamism is much more flexible and open-ended than you give him credit for. In this incident and others, Morsi has behaved like a democratically elected leader, one who pivots and waffles as he sways to the pressures applied by electoral constituencies he needs to appease. That is a very positive development. Someone who breaks promises is not an enemy of democracy- someone who doesn't feel the need to make promises in the first place is. Morsi may reach that point in the future, but until he does we should not rush to declare him illegitimate, both for Egypt's sake and our own.

Neal said...

You are ever the optimist.

Many wore rose colored glasses when Lenin came to power, making believe that his movement wanted freedom and equality for all races and religions. That, of course, is not how it worked out, even though Lenin said all the right things, at least in public.

Now, we have Morsi claiming he will uphold his treaty obligations - while saying in Arabic, that he will not. He claims in Arabic that the treaty needs to be changed - meaning, he wants to put an army in the Sinai, which is hardly conducive to maintaining the treaty or peace. Were I an Israeli, I would be pretty worried about him.

Many said about Lenin's government what you say about Morsi. They thought it would all work out well for the Russians and Ukrainians, etc., sure that his attractive words, not his other words, would prevail. So, he promised equality to all; however, his government set in place, along with a public constitution, a different set of laws which undermined democracy, undermined equality, undermined women's rights and, in the end, abetted Antisemitism.

The MB is an Antisemitic movement. One cannot have played a leading role in that organization - unless the person was entirely insincere - unless that person was believed that democracy is an evil thing, something which needs to be destroyed down to its roots. One cannot be a leading player in the MB if one is not a rabid Antisemite. That you have not heard him speak ill of Jews says very little. Unless he does not believe in the MB's program - despite his long-standing affiliation with the MB - he is a rabid Antisemite. In my mind, given his affiliations, it is for him to show otherwise, not for us to give him the benefit of the doubt, as that is naive beyond all imagination.

And, his Antisemitism does matter. It tells you what he will do, in the end. As the Antisemitism of the MB is programmatic. It is central to the movement, as it is unifying glue among Islamists.

The available evidence is that his country is not only in a depression, but that starvation is soon to break out. Saying that Allah is the way will not put food on the table of his people. Instituting Sharia will not put food on his people's table. Continuing the religious indoctrination, which, admittedly, he did not set in place but which he advocated for over the course of years, that passes for schooling in his country will not put food on the table. However, putting people in an enlarged army and telling his people that they have mortal enemies - the Jews - will help keep him in power.

Terrorists are, of course, a concern. However, governments are a greater concern, as it is governments which have the ability to raise large armies. It is governments who have killed en masse, repeatedly in history. That is beyond the ability of terrorists, who can cause havok but, absent possession of WMD, have limited means.

One last point. You are correct that we should judge individuals on what they do, not on what they came out of. But, that does not mean that beliefs and background are unimportant and have no predictive value. We have seen Islamist rule, both Shia and Sunni. In no instance has it advanced democracy, thus far. Iran is not a shining example. Turkey, now under Islamists rule, has cut back drastically on all freedoms and has, unlike its predecessors, jailed all of its opponents. That is a step backwards.Afghanistan under Islamists were even worse. On your theory, none of these countries has followed an ideology. My theory is that they have.

You are correct that you will not convince me. I ceased taking you seriously when you began discussing the Tanzimet. It is something I know a lot about. It is something that, over the course of years, I have given lots of thought to and have written about. So, it is not that you face a brick wall. It is that you write things that show you lack the background to hold the opinions you hold.

Madman of Chu said...


At this point we will just have to agree to disagree. Your crystal ball tells you that Egypt under Morsi will be a disaster. My reading of the situation holds out the possibility of better outcomes. Time will tell who is right. Yes, some were very hopeful about Lenin. But likewise there were many sober, learned minds in both Europe and America who predicted that the post-Revolutionary United States would be a hellish nightmare.

Again, our views of one-another are mutually complimentary. You may have done a great deal of thinking and writing about the Tanzimat, but if the quality of that thought matched your conflation of Turkey under Erdogan and Afghanistan under the Taliban, I will survive knowing that you do not take me seriously.