Sunday, January 25, 2015

Radical Islam and the "War on Terror"

As a Jew and a Zionist, I often appeal to a particular thought experiment to illustrate the ill-wisdom of forcing American leaders to declare that the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam." Like other left-wing secular Zionists, I abhor the West Bank settler movement and the damage it has done to the prospects of peace in Israel and Palestine. Even so, slight variations in the rhetorical frame within which such opposition is voiced can elicit very different responses. A declaration that "those settlers are causing trouble in the West Bank" invites my support. The statement that "those Jews are causing trouble in the West Bank" awakens my suspicion and fear.

Much well-founded criticism has been leveled at the claim that the perpetrators of jihadi terror "are not real Muslims." As is true of the relationship between Judaism and the West Bank settlers, the goals and methods of groups like Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS can not be understood except by reference to Islam, thus any effective response to this threat must account for the role of Islam in its formation. But it is precisely because they and other jihadis are real Muslims, and will be recognized by millions of other Muslims as co-religionists, that their non-Muslim opponents must be extremely circumspect in invoking their Islamic identity.

A community in crisis naturally inclines to affirm the elements of their shared identity, especially in the face of outsiders, even at the cost of political liability. As an example, we can see that this principle has shaped the evolution of Zionism from its inception. Though the early Labor Zionist founders of Israel were thoroughgoing secularists, they knew that no movement for Jewish empowerment could achieve critical mass or strategic purchase without the participation of some part of the faithful. There has thus, extending back before 1948, always been a religious Zionist tendency at the fringe of Israeli politics. This state of affairs was reinforced by the experience of the Holocaust. If Zionism is a movement dedicated to defending the value and dignity of every Jewish life in the face of genocidal hatred, then that social compact must extend even to those misguided and malicious enough to desire the death of Yitzhak Rabin or the destruction of Muslim holy sites.  The messianic Zionism of the settler movement redounds to the detriment of all Jews. But, because they openly embrace and affirm the identity for which all Jews have been arbitrarily stigmatized, no Zionist of any stripe can wholly disown them or deny kinship with them.

An analogous principle is at work in the relationship of the advocates of "radical Islam" to the larger Muslim world. Though the global Islamic community is vastly larger than that of the world's Jews, and though Muslims have not been subject to a campaign of general extermination, much of the Islamic world today is nonetheless in crisis. This does not arise from a single threat or easily reducible problem. Rather, a complex of powerful forces and historical experiences- colonialism, commercialization, industrialization, the tensions of the Cold War (and its sudden end), the spread of new political forms and ideologies (nationalism, socialism, communism, fascism, republicanism, democracy, various forms of Islamism), the digital revolution, invasion, revolution, civil war- have radically destabilized the basis of society in a large part of the Islamic world, to varying degrees.

This complex of crises impacts every aspect of social and cultural life. The reactions it has evoked are multifarious and unpredictable. It is foolish, however, given the nature of human social life, to expect a majority of Muslims to abandon or ignore their commitments to Islam in the face of radical (and often destructive) change. Islam is implicated, for good or ill, in almost all of the power structures within which most Muslims live and with which they must interact on a daily basis. In societies ranging from Morocco to Indonesia, the position of, for example, a man within his family, or a wealthy women within her community, or a political activist in relation to the state, are all profoundly informed by the participation of these individuals in Islamic institutions and traditions. Even in cases where Islamic doctrine and practice is not clearly of benefit, such people can not openly break with Islam without abdicating any sense of normalcy and predictability in their social affairs, a prospect that few people will risk while they can feel the sands of history shifting beneath their feet.

Because maintaining one's position within the Islamic community requires that one acknowledge fellowship with all others that profess the faith, most Muslims will be hostile to any attack upon other Muslims as Muslims, even those to whom they are politically (even violently) opposed. Groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram are counting on this fact. The more that they can make the various conflicts in which they are engaged about Islam, the more support (active and tacit) they will draw from the communities in which they operate.

Al Qaeda, for example, has shown itself very clever in the manipulation of identity politics with the most recent attacks in France. The murder of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo was deliberately designed to make the fight about Islam. The perpetrators knew that many Muslims and non-Muslims would interpret the event and its aftermath differently. Non-Muslim citizens of industrial democracies were horrified by this assault on free speech. But many Muslim observers, not equipped to understand why the freedom to profane a sacred icon is so cherished in France and elsewhere, misinterpreted the intensity of anger evoked by the attack as a paroxysm of collective Islamophobia.

A similar principle was at work in the attack on the kosher grocery in the Ponte de Vincennes. Those who ordered this crime knew that they were opening the guilty wound of anti-Semitism in European memory. But they also knew that the many expressions of sympathy that went out over social media would be susceptible to different interpretation in Muslim communities. The millions of tweets of "Je suis Juif" were deeply appreciated by those like me who were made to feel most vulnerable by the Ponte de Vincennes attack. But just as I can not forswear all kinship with the radical settlers that have intruded in the West Bank, I can not claim surprise if many Muslims misinterpret "Je suis Juif" as a statement of at least tacit support for the form of religious Zionism I so vehemently oppose.

Because these cultural dynamics are at work for any non-Muslim who would fight against groups like Al Qaeda, it behooves the U.S. and its allies to refrain from making this conflict about Islam in any regard. Narrowing the focus to "radical Islam" might seem to clarify the issue, but this is false. If the U.S. is at war with "radical Islam," is it at war with Iran? With Hezbollah? With Hamas? Unless one can come up with a coherent explanation as to why these groups fall outside of the ambit of radical Islam, the category loses all strategic value. Conversely, to insist that the U.S. is, in fact, at war with these groups is to construct a war so ambiguous that it loses all strategic logic.

The greatest strength of groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram is rooted in the same source as their greatest weakness. Islam provides them with a framework within which to make claims on the fellowship and appeal to the sympathies of other Muslims. This is a very powerful and versatile mechanism, especially in nations like Afghanistan or Nigeria riven by deep ethnic and linguistic divisions. But in the same way that the messianic ideology of the West Bank settlers puts them hopelessly out of step with the practical conditions of the twenty-first century, the adoption of Islam as a political program renders jihadis strategically impotent along any long-term trajectory of global affairs. Jihadis offer prospective followers and subjects a teleology plotting all near-term purposes and solutions along a path that leads toward a world caliphate that, in the face of current conditions, can never and will never exist. Thus they are rarely able to initiate or effect any constructive project that cogently serves their ideological ends. They can (and must, if they are to credibly claim any relevance) kill or destroy anyone or anything that offends their dogmatic vision, but they can never build or establish any structure or institution that clearly and necessarily embodies their particular (ultimately phantasmal) world view.  Apart from tendentious appeals to bonds of Muslim fellowship, the only short-term traction that jihadis can achieve is to co-opt issues about which Muslims care independently of their commitment to Islam. Thus Al Qaeda and ISIS claim to fight on behalf of dispossessed Palestinians, or for the oppressed Sunnis of Syria, or against the oligarchs and aristocrats that collaborate with Americans and Europeans, even though there is no obvious logical connection between these goals and the establishment of a caliphate.

If the U.S. and its allies would exploit the greatest weakness of jihadis and deprive them of their greatest strength, we should avoid all formulations, logical or rhetorical, of a war on "radical Islam." The only way that a group like Al Qaeda can defer their inevitable arrival upon the scrapheap of history is to persuade as many people as possible that they are fighting in the cause of Islam, thus it would be supremely misguided of their opponents to corroborate that narrative in any way. The raw fact is that the U.S. is not facing "radical Islam" or "terror" in the abstract, but is embroiled in an asymmetrical war with specific groups (Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, etc.), each of which is pursuing power for its own purposes and within its own particular context. As is true in all asymmetrical conflicts, victory will depend much more on the skillful execution of political and ideological strategies than on battlefield success. In this regard, the politics of a war on "radical Islam" will invite military disaster.

What strategy, then, can succeed moving forward? Since any jihadi group can only sustain traction and momentum as long as it can make the fight about Islam, their opponents should do everything in their power to make the fight about something else. On the surface, this might seem easy, given the urgency and complexity of the crises ensuing in much of the Islamic world. Many millions of devout Muslims are mobilizing in support of women's rights, democracy, freedom of speech, economic justice, and religious tolerance. Each of these commitments puts multitudes on the opposite side of jihadis, despite their shared commitment to Islam. If jihadis' opponents (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) can make the struggle about these issues, the temporary lease on life that groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda have bought with the coin of Islamic piety will run out very quickly.

The difficulty, however, is in finding the ways that the U.S. and its allies, as outsiders, can meaningfully participate in these contests without adversely distorting them. Given the history of colonialism and exploitation that mars relations between large parts of the Muslim and non-Muslim world, any move on the part of a nation like the U.S. to champion, for example, women's rights, is vulnerable to being perceived as paternalism or cultural imperialism. This is not, however, an argument for inaction, but a caveat that any success in this arena is bound to be provisional, and an imperative for maximum sensitivity as to means. Both the invasion of Iraq and the award of the Nobel Prize to Malala Yousafszai, for example, might have evoked some ill will, but the latter is clearly a more effective way for non-Muslims to champion liberal ideals in the Muslim world.

As the last juxtaposition suggests, the military is a very blunt instrument, the effectiveness of which is chiefly limited to the tactical realm. This is not to minimize the military dimensions of the conflict. Asymmetrical war is still war, and anyone who argues against fighting jihadis when and where they take up arms has a difficult empirical task. I would argue, for example, that whatever sins of excess are embodied by the U.S. drone program in Pakistan are more than matched by our errors of deficiency in Nigeria.

Moreover, while the use of the military is chiefly tactical, it is not exclusively so. Our air campaign against ISIS in Syria might kill personnel and destroy equipment, but it is making no headway in the struggle to defeat that group. Because the human and material needs of an insurgent group are light, the power lost to casualties and destroyed equipment can easily be restored. Meanwhile, by tacitly partnering with the hated Assad regime, the U.S. has effectively reduced itself to the role of a partisan player in a sectarian conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis. We have thus allowed ISIS to make the fight about Islam, when we should be working to make the fight about democracy and human rights. As long as the U.S. cedes opposition to the Assad regime to jihadis, no amount of American technological supremacy or tactical destructiveness will make real headway against ISIS.

In the horrifying and often surreal dance that has played out since 9/11, Americans and jihadis have viewed one-another as if through a glass darkly. "America" is not a real place in the ideology and rhetoric of ISIS or Al Qaeda, it is a symbol upon which they can project all of their complaints against the entire economic and social matrix of the twenty-first century. In the same way, America has served and continues to serve as the "Great Satan" for all types of groups pursuing imaginaries incompatible with current realities, from the partisans of "Greater Serbia" in the 1990's to the settlers trying to revive the "Kingdom of Judea" on the West Bank today.

Likewise, "radical Islam" is not a real or coherent entity. It is a peg upon which we Americans can hang our fears of enemies operating in distant circumstances, whose means and rationale we are not entirely equipped to understand. "Radical Islam" will exist so long as an unhappy, unfortunate, aggrieved, or simply alienated individual can co-opt Muslim doctrine to serve violent ends. That is to say, "radical Islam" will be here forever. If we want to fight a war that we can win, we should not fight a war against something that will never go away. Rather, we should fight to defeat ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and the other specific groups that are violently assaulting the U.S. and its allies. The most important tools we have for the conduct of that war are political, and the first task we must undertake in activating those weapons is to establish that the fight is not about Islam, but about the rights, lives, and autonomy of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Friday, January 09, 2015

A War of No Visible Prophet

The heinous murder of artists, journalists, staff and police officers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo has opened a new phase in the global paroxysm that began on 9/11. The Paris attack marks the emergence of a new and potentially dangerously effective strategy for the jihadist movement. As at 9/11, U.S. and allied leaders stand at a watershed moment, and their response to this crime will impact the course of global affairs for the next decade or more.

One of the problems that has most vexed observers and analysts of our post-9/11 world is that of the context in which jihadism should be understood. Who are the jihadis? Why have they emerged in the times and places in which they operate, and what drives them? Formulating an effective response to the challenge obviously resides in first answering such questions.

The answer that most profoundly shaped the initial international response to 9/11 was that posited by the White House as a corollary of the "Bush Doctrine."  President George W. Bush was careful to avoid identifying jihadism with Islam more generally, declaring that "[o]ur war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith," and that groups like Al-Qaeda had "hijacked a great religion in order to justify their evil deeds."

But in formulating its rationale for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration situated jihadism into an expansive context much broader than that of the material operation of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In this view, jihadism was an expression of a deep social pathology afflicting many Islamic nations, but particularly those of the Arab Middle East. If freedom and democracy could be forced to take root in that region, the effects would reverberate outward, eliminating the underlying causes of terrorism more effectively than the simple pursuit of terrorists where and when they act.

Whatever one's opinion of this concept, subsequent events have undermined its traction as a principle of policy. The human and material costs of spreading democracy in the Middle East through military occupation have proven politically unsustainable.  Though debates over the wisdom of ending the occupation of Iraq are likely to continue indefinitely, until some dramatically ameliorating effects are felt (in other words, until there are no more heinous terrorist attacks like that just perpetrated in Paris), there is virtually no likelihood that the U.S. or its allies will ever embark on a similarly conceived venture in the future. The chapter of post-9/11 global affairs in which the Bush Doctrine informed the response to jihadism is thus at a close.

From the outset, a dissident answer to the conundrum of jihadism was exemplified by critics like Michael Scheuer. A former CIA operative, Scheuer argued in his book Imperial Hubris that the Bush administration's analysis of jihadism as a sociocultural pathology was misguided. Terrorism, in his view, was motivated by anger at U.S. foreign policy, and the actions of a group like Al-Qaeda should be viewed as "blowback" for the meddling in and exploitation of Middle Eastern countries by the American government and American corporations.

Though this view has held sway in many parts of the American left (and libertarian right), it has never made a real impact on U.S. policy. It has arguably been waning in influence, moreover, and the recent tragedy in Paris will no doubt undermine its persuasive power as much as it does that of the Bush Doctrine. If we follow Scheuer, the root causes of terrorism could (and should) be alleviated by changes in the foreign policy of the U.S. and its allies. But the attack on Charlie Hebdo can not plausibly be interpreted as "blowback." Would the murderers of Stephane Charbonnier and his colleagues be any less motivated to "avenge the Prophet" if, say, the U.S. withdrew its support from Israel or stopped drone attacks in Pakistan?  The logic of blowback does not help us make sense of this crime, or formulate a meaningful response.

Another alternative explanation of the phenomenon of jihadism is exemplified by critics such as Samuel Harris. Harris is an atheist and a self-professed liberal, but ideas analogous to his can be found on all parts of the political spectrum- right and left, secular and religious, moderate and extreme. Though varying widely in tone and logical coherence, these formulations commonly reject President Bush's assertion that "our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith." In this view, the origins of terrorism can not be disaggregated from the doctrine and practice of Islam. Islam exhorts its followers to violent jihad against the infidel, thus on some level a struggle against groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS will inevitably and irreducibly be a struggle against Islam itself.

Unlike the "blowback" view, this perspective on the causes of and response to jihadism has been growing in influence, and is, understandably, likely to gain even more currency as a result of the murders in Paris.  The standard apologist response to the indictment against Islam, that jihadis like the murderers at Charlie Hebdo "are not real Muslims," is not credible in more than rhetorical terms. As Harris notes, many millions of Muslims, when polled as to whether transgressions such as defamation of the Prophet should be punishable by death, answer in the affirmative. Though there are scriptural and traditional precedents upon which one can draw to suggest that this view misunderstands the doctrine of Islam, there are likewise such resources that its proponents can cite in its defense. If, as we are forced to acknowledge, Islam is as Muslims do (and say), there is no way to completely acquit Islam of implication in the Paris murders and similar crimes.

However, though jihadis may be real Muslims, and though understanding and engaging their Muslim identity is necessary for anyone who would effectively oppose them, reconfiguring the struggle against jihadism as a response to "Islam" is fundamentally misguided. This is not because of some ethical imperative for religious tolerance or multicultural sensitivity. Rather, trying to defeat jihadism with a "war on Islam" ignores the basic logic of how religious traditions operate in human society and politics.

Any religious community, especially one as ancient, populous, and geographically dispersed as Islam, contains within it (in its scripture, rituals, literature, art, traditions, and institutions) a complex array of diverse and often mutually contradictory trends and imperatives. Is Islam a religion of "peace (the Arabic cognate of Islam- salaam)" or violent jihad? The only meaningful answer to this question is "yes."

At any given time, given the intrinsic volatility of human nature and the human condition,  almost all the potential tendencies of a religious tradition may be found in some part of its community. Thus in Christendom today we see Pope Francis I bathing the feet of prisoners in Rome while Terry Jones burns Korans in Florida, the Sisters of Charity nursing the sick in New York while the Lord's Army slaughters innocents in Uganda.  Parsing out which of these figures are "real Christians" is a futile exercise, and it is only slightly more so than trying to isolate the role of Christianity in their social conduct and profiles. Would any of these figures have acted in exactly the same manner if they were not Christian? Almost certainly not, but predicting how that difference would manifest itself is impossible.

The raw fact is that religion, pace the perspective of atheists like Samuel Harris, is an irreducible dimension of human social life. In everything we do, from the most mundane quotidian work to the most sublimely quixotic enterprises, we are faced with questions of ultimate value. Why does the world exist? What is life's purpose? How should we confront death? An individual may be able to go about his or her business without plumbing these questions too intently, but as soon as two or more people come together to attempt a project of even moderate complexity (build a house, start a family, found a city, wage a revolution) they require some sort of roughly consensual framework within which answers to these questions may be at least provisionally situated.

Every aspect of social life thus has at least a latent religious dimension, and every social project or conflict into which a community enters will implicate all of the religious commitments they have already made and any of the religious traditions they already inhabit. A Christian society that experiences some sort of trauma will respond in a way that expresses Christian values and traditions. But because Christianity is itself so multifaceted, and because people are ultimately free to select from, interpret, and transform their religion in ways that serve their perceived social interests and needs, the "Christian" responses to a crisis that emerge from the same community will almost invariably be numerous and mutually divergent. Every such moment of change thus constitutes three types of negotiation simultaneously: 1)a struggle over the new shape of society; 2)a struggle over the new relationship of religious to other social institutions; 3)a struggle over how the doctrines and practices of the religion will be interpreted moving forward.

Many cases could be taken to illustrate the point. That of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar who rose to become theocrat of fifteenth century Florence, is instructive. Italy at the time was in the throes of the Renaissance, a period of dramatic dislocation similar to our own age of globalization. Commercialization, urbanization, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the flourishing of humanist art and literature were radically transforming the shape of Italian society. As all such revolutions, it benefited some groups and individuals disproportionately, creating winners and losers. Savonarola gave voice to all those who felt left behind by the new order of things. He preached a return to fundamental Christian values of austerity, humility, community, and faith, a turning back of the Renaissance tide. He famously ordered a "bonfire of the vanities," in which all of the humanist art and literature Florence had created were set aflame.

Unfortunately for Savonarola, the Catholic Church had by that time become an enthusiastic participant in and beneficiary of the Renaissance revolution. His tirades against ecclesiastical wealth and worldliness set him at odds with Pope Alexander VI, who was busy employing artists and sculptors to adorn the Vatican. Both men were wholly and authentically Catholic. If one had used today's empirical methods to test them one might have found very little daylight between them on points of doctrine. For example, if asked in a survey "Is luxury a source of sin?" both men would almost certainly have answered "yes." Yet Alexander felt no qualms about issuing an order for Savonarola's excommunication from the splendor of his palace in Rome.

So did Christianity create Savonarola or destroy him (he burned at the stake on the orders of a clerical tribunal in 1498)? The answer, again, can only be "yes." He and Pope Alexander were engaged in a struggle over the shape of both Italy and Christianity. If Savonarola had won, the Reformation might never have occurred, and the Sistine Chapel might look more like a Quaker meeting house than the ornate masterpiece that stands today. The more secular among us may dismiss him as a figure who was hopelessly out of step with modernity, but his writings continue to be studied and respected by Christian theologians of all denominations today.

The position of jihadis in relation to the greater world of Islam today is an analogous case. The vast majority of victims killed by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups were (and are) fellow Muslims. Some of this violence can be put down to sectarian or ethnic strife, but just as much of it is rooted in a contest over how Islamic values should be realized in society and politics (should civil law be taken from shar'iah? on whose authority? does Islam preclude the education of women, etc?), a conflict that is playing out among Muslims themselves much more intensely than between Muslims and "infidels." In the same way that one can not deny the authentic Muslim identity of Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one can not do so for that of Benazir Bhutto or Malala Yousafzai.

Given that we are witnessing a struggle for Islam within global Muslim society at large, it is supremely ill-advised for the leaders and citizens of the non-Muslim world to embark upon a struggle against Islam. Such a strategy can only strengthen the hand of those most hostile to pluralism and tolerance, and weaken those in the Muslim community most committed to peace and shared prosperity.  This fact is made clear by the jihadi strategy embodied in the most recent Paris attack.

Why target satirists?  Today's industrial democracies constitute a world in which "nothing is sacred," which is to say, one no longer inhabited by figures or institutions possessed of the total and unrestrained power wielded in the fifteenth century by Pope Alexander (or more recently by figures like Hitler or Franco). The postmodern denizens of this world can no longer venerate any symbol or value with complete sincerity, in part out of suspicion of possible abuse. Thus matters of ultimate significance can only be genuinely cast in ironic and satirical terms,  and the freedom to lampoon icons or institutions has become one of the last unequivocally cherished ideals of the social contract. 

For those living in countries like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, this state of affairs is an inscrutable enigma. It is not merely the suppression of free speech that gives rise to this incomprehension, but the cultural dynamics of power with which many Muslims have to contend. To someone living under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein, the sacrosanct status of Muslim icons and institutions provided the little latitude for safe movement and communication to be found in an otherwise lethally repressive society: some slight shelter from the secret police and the torturer could be sought in the mosque. The failure of such protections, moreover, was invariably cataclysmic and deadly serious, as when thousands were slaughtered in Hama, Syria to punish local Islamists in 1982.  We might hope that those living in this environment would yet object to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, but it would be a far stretch to expect them to understand the reasons for the anguish and outrage occasioned by this act in France, the U.S. and elsewhere.

This is the pernicious logic underpinning the Paris murders. On this issue in particular, many Muslims and non-Muslims are viewing one-another as if through a funhouse mirror, ill-equipped to understand one another's perspective. The terrorists who planned and ordered the Paris attack have discovered a perfect leverage point at which to drive a wedge between Muslim and non-Muslim society. Because the power of jihadis requires the maximally illiberal configuration of social and political forces in their own countries, and because they understand that Islamic identity is one of the few sources of personal empowerment experienced by multitudes throughout the Middle East, jihadis hope to enlist non-Muslims to broadcast the message that liberal values and Islam are fundamentally incompatible. Groups like ISIS are confident that people forced to choose between Islam and liberal ideals will choose Islam, and that the Islam that emerges from that negotiation will perfectly facilitate jihadi control of state and society.

This is a trap that the U.S. and its allies should obviously avoid. But how, then, to respond? In the short term, we should protect our artists, journalists, and entertainers from further attacks, as there are bound to be more. Even if fear dampens the impulse to satire, jihadis are likely to search out any expression that can be construed as offensive to Islam and make its authors a target. We should not allow such provocations to be fulfilled. Every threat must be treated seriously, every care taken to prevent tragedy.

In the wider scheme of things, America and its allies should refuse to engage the jihadis on their own terms. ISIS and Al-Qaeda declare that the goals Muslims care about- Palestinian independence, the liberation of Syria from the Assad regime, a fairer distribution of the Middle East's wealth- can only be realized through a holy war to establish a particular kind of restrictive religious order. As long as these goals remain unrealized and out of reach, jihadis are empowered to exploit the resulting disaffection, disunity and strife to seize control of the societies in which they operate. If the U.S. uses its political, economic, and (with due deference to the lesson of the failures of the Bush Doctrine) military power to effect meaningful change in these arenas, the support Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadi groups currently enjoy will erode out from under them. A holy war is a war that jihadis will invariably win. To defeat the jihadis, we should not undertake a struggle against Islam, but work to foster the conditions that will secure a positive outcome in the ongoing struggle for Islam.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Murdering Laughter

The murder of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, is an unforgivable crime. Ten of the twelve victims- Frédéric Boisseau, Cabu, Elsa Cayat, Charb, Honoré, Bernard Maris, Moustapha Ourad, Michel Renaud, Tignous, and Wolinski, were artists, editors, columnist and staff members in the employ of the magazine. Two policemen, Merabet Ahmed and Franck Brinsolaro, were also killed in the line of duty.  Humor has always been the chief target of those who purvey hatred and oppression, as laughter is one of the most powerfully subversive of human faculties. But humor is also one of the dimensions of our world that makes life most worth living. It thus takes a uniquely vicious sort of monster to destroy laughter. The images that Charlie Hebdo published were transgressive and provocative. But they were also funny in the most profound way. I post two of them here in memory of the slain.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Islam, Modernity, and Culture

I have occasionally found myself in arguments over the question of whether Hitler was an atheist. These conflicts usually stem from the larger proposition that religion is a unique source of human woe, without which society would be much improved. Those who take this view are often deeply invested in the proposition that Hitler was a "believer" of one stripe or another. The question should be moot, as even if Hitler is retired, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, and others are waiting in the wings to exemplify atheistic mass-murder. But the Nazis so prepossess our collective imagination (ergo "Godwin's Law") that the state of Hitler's belief looms large in the universe of empirical tests.

In the years since 9/11 the greater question of religion's social role has tended, in the discourse of pundits and politicos, to focus ever more narrowly on the subject of Islam, a trend that has accelerated as groups like Boko Haram and ISIS began seizing headlines with lurid acts of terror. Commentators such as Sam Harris have made a cottage industry of critiquing Islam as a political and historical force.  The quality of such commentary has varied widely. As Kenan Malik observes in today's New York Times, "this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear."

Malik insists, however, that the problem must be substantively addressed. As a cultural historian I agree with him on that score, though I depart from what I see as his implied conclusions.  Malik rejects liberal apologists, declaring that each recent act of terror "tells us something about the character of contemporary Islam and of Islamism..." More specifically, Malik views groups like ISIS as the aberrant legates of earlier militants: "Anti-imperialists of the past saw themselves as part of a wider political project that sought to modernize the non-Western world, politically and economically. Today, however... it is radicals who often regard modernity as a Western product, and reject both it and the West as tainted goods....The consequence has been the transformation of anti-Western sentiment from a political challenge to imperialist policy to an inchoate rage against modernity...[I]t is radical Islam that has become the lightning rod for this fury."

Islam would thus appear culpable in Malik's analysis, either for turning its adherents against modernity, or at least for lacking the wherewithal to constructively confront modernity: "What jihadism does not possess is the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements. Shorn of that framework, and reduced to raging at the world, jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself."

Malik is no doubt right that groups like ISIS "have turned terror into an end in itself," but one may still ask whether this malignancy expresses a particular flaw in the culture of Islam. In this regard (pace Godwin's Law) I would argue that the case of Nazi Germany is a relevant comparison. Nazism (and Fascism more generally) expressed pent-up anger against social and economic trends that had been building for decades or centuries and that continue today. Many of the discontents with modernity that Malik ascribes to modern jihadists ("from individualism to globalization, from the breakdown of traditional cultures to the fragmentation of societies, from the blurring of moral boundaries to the seeming soullessness of the contemporary world") were likewise complaints of Hitler and the Nazi party.

The question of whether modern jihadism embodies some deep structural flaw in Islam is thus exactly analogous to the question of whether Nazism embodied some deep structural flaw in German culture or religion. In both cases one is confronted with an obvious empirical conundrum. These flaws, if they exist, do not express themselves similarly in others partaking of the same traditions, such as the Muslims of New York and Kuala Lumpur or the Germans of 1850 and 2015. 

Such questions, in the final analysis, misconstrue the way religion  and culture more generally operate in human society. It is true that a religion like Islam shapes peoples' outlooks and influences their choices. But at the same time any tradition, especially one as venerable and diverse as Islam, presents the community that perpetuates and uses it with an exquisitely complex array of resources for the structuring of personal and collective life. The choices particular communities make in activating and mobilizing those resources completely transform the complexion of the tradition from era to era or from place to place, potentially making it a force for peace and prosperity in one instance, strife and despair in another. Any critique of a tradition like Islam must thus proceed with sensitivity to this dynamic process always at work: the community shaping the tradition even as the tradition influences the community.

In this respect, Malik's assertion that "jihadism does not possess...the moral and philosophical framework that guided anti-imperialist movements" is inaccurately intransitive, at least as "jihadism" relates to Islam more generally. If jihadism lacks such resources it is because leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have deliberately excised the ideas of Islamic reformers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mahmud Shaltut, in the same way Hitler disowned German liberals such as Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.

In understanding the political misuses of tradition, the comparison between modern jihadists and the twentieth-century's Nazis is instructive. In the same way that jihadists idealize terror as "an end unto itself," the Nazis treated industrial murder as an ultimate purpose, requiring no justification beyond mass extermination for its own sake. It is this similarity that intuitively upsets anti-religious polemicists at the suggestion that Hitler was an atheist. The commonality in the political programs of these groups, however, is not rooted in some basic affinity between Nazi and Muslim "faith," but in the ways in which Nazis and jihadists appropriate and utilize German and Islamic traditions.

Ironically, the most striking similarity between Nazis and jihadists (and other similarly malevolent historical actors) is their understanding of culture itself- what might be called a "meta-cultural affinity." Both groups attribute the origins of culture to forces beyond human agency, to God in the case of jihadists, to "race" in the case of the Nazis. This is why both groups make such a fetish of annihilation. It does not matter that great wonders like the Bamiyan Buddhas are blasted to smithereens or that whole civilizations are wiped out. Since we bear no ultimate responsibility for cultural works, our role here and now is only to destroy, God/racial forces can be trusted to replace whatever is lost.

This is the lesson that history affords. Since any tradition, religious or otherwise, is a vital process continually reshaped by our choices, any can become a malignant force, and none more so than when we choose to abdicate our responsibility for and ongoing role in its shape and growth. It is in this light that I find the perspective of Islam's current critics, even one as sophisticated as Malik, unproductively reductionist. A religious tradition arises through a negotiation, not only among its adherents, but also with those outsiders amidst whom they live and with whom they interact. If we non-Muslims rest complacent in propositions like "contemporary Islam lacks a framework for dealing with modernity," we minimize the human agency of Muslims in ways common in kind (if not degree) to the doctrines of ISIS and Boko Haram. Better to expose and condemn the philosophical errors of particular Muslims than to lend fuel to their delusions with a blanket condemnation of the entire tradition that they misuse.