The Saudis, the Holy Lands, and double standards

I know we’ve been linking to Irfan and the PoT heads a lot lately, but there’s a good reason for it. Check out Dr Khawaja’s thoughts on the recent death of King Abdullah:

The late Pakistani journalist Tashbih Sayyid, editor of Pakistan Today, put the point to me in this way: “Muslims complain so loudly about the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. What about the Saudi occupation of Mecca and Medina?” It sounds like a joke, but it really isn’t one. He might well have added: What about the Saudi occupation of the Arabian peninsula?

Here’s an article on Saudi Arabia’s criticizing Norway’s human rights record. This criticism comes from a country where it’s illegal for women to drive. Of course, to be fair, Saudi Arabia is making progress. It abolished slavery in 1962.

I don’t agree with defenders of Israel who insist that the movement to divest from Israel is “anti-Semitic,” but I do think there is a double standard in the way activists think about and deal with Israel by contrast with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has all the features that members of BDS find objectionable in Israel. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia is guilty of systematic human rights abuses. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia gets massive and systematic U.S. support. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia exerts enormous influence over the U.S. government. The difference is just that Saudi Arabia is a lot worse than Israel on every relevant dimension.

Read the rest, it’s an excellent analysis as usual.

Jacques has a piece on Islam in France up over at Liberty that you might want to check out, too. He doesn’t make any new arguments that he hasn’t made before, and I don’t think he is advancing the conversation at all (see here and here, for example), but it’s still worth the read.

“Mohammed — in pictures”

That is the title of this piece by Barnaby Rogerson in the Spectator. There are three beautiful pieces of medieval art (two Persian and one Turkish), and those alone are worth the price of the click. There is, of course, a short essay explaining why there is now so much resistance to depicting Mohammed in art (of both the high and low brow variety). Check it out:

Whatever the heritage of their medieval past, Sunni Islam — in the Arab-speaking Middle East — had decisively turned its back on depictions of the Prophet well before the 18th-century emergence of Wahhabism. Once again there are no definite answers. It may have been a gut reaction to the magnificent art produced by their Iranian Shiite rivals but it also reflects a very real fear that Mohammed was slowly being turned into a demi-god and that in the process his actual prophetic message would be ignored. This was especially true in the far eastern frontiers of Islam, such as India and Indonesia (numerically the two largest Muslim nations in the world) with their ancient syncretic traditions. So the attack on imagery can also be seen to have a constructive element embedded within it, concentrating all attention on the text of the Koran and reinforcing the Arab nature of that revelation.

Take this as you will. My instinct is to suspect “the Arab nature of that revelation” as the initial reason for this change in Islamic aesthetics. That is to say, I suspect that a medieval notion of Arab chauvinism is responsible for the shift.

From the Comments: Foucault, Obscurity, and Liberty

Jacques and Barry had an excellent back-and-forth on Barry’s post about Foucault’s contributions to liberty. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response to Dr Delacroix’s questions:

Well Jacques, my last comment was not supposed to be the full reply to your preceding comment, as I tried to make clear. As I said I needed time to think before posting anything from Foucault. I was just preparing the way with comments on the background to Foucault’s style. On Montaigne, how easy is Montaigne? Maybe he seems clear to you and other French people who read him in the Lycée. I teach a lot of Montaigne in Istanbul and students don’t find him easy. Maybe his style at a sentence by sentence level is clearer than Foucault, but I would say only Foucault at his most supposedly obscure. Montaigne can seem clear because he writes in a conversational way, appearing to just comment informally on something in his mind. However, his essays are endlessly digressive and shifting in viewpoint and claim within just one essay, some of which are very long and very detached from the starting point. He mixes quotations from classics, historical illustrations, unreliable anecdotes, and personal memories, in ways which could be often said to obscure as much as clarify any underlying claim, though sometimes a relatively simple maxim seems to be the point. Even there, one really has to think about the relation between the apparent maxim and Montaigne’s shifting point of view to get the underlying point/points. The way that the style interacts with Montaigne’s mind and the uncertainties of his point of view, and the persistent anxieties about saving his world of experience from extinction in death, all have some echoes in Foucault and in various ways it seems to be me that Foucault works on a basis in Montaigne, even if adding the kind of abstract language, vocabulary and sentence construction coming from a mixture of German philosophy since Kant, and poetic-literary language since the Romantics.

Now for a couple of quotations. The first is a random selection from the book that first made him famous, History of Madness. The second is a less random selection from his late essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.

History of Madness, page 29 (2006 Routledge edition translated by Murphy and Khalfa)

Rising up in spirit towards God and sounding the bottomless depths into which we find ourselves plunged are one and the same, and in Calvin’s experience madness is the measure of man when he is compared to the boundless reason of God.

In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself—he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction.

‘What is Enlightenment?’ (as published in Michel Foucault Essential Works vol 1, ed. Rabinow, 2000), p 315

We must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, and through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterised as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question must was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.

In the first passage above, Foucault uses a language recognisable to anyone who has read much Heidegger to discuss the thought of the 16th century religious reformer Calvin. Since Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time has some roots in Reformation theology this maybe a particularly intriguing way of using Heidegger. The finitude of man compared to God is something that alludes to Heidegger’s understanding of the essential mortality, finitude, temporality of humanity. It also brings out how for Calvin, madness is an aspect of the limitation of human consciousness compared with that of God. In this passage Foucault is bringing together 16th century religious thought, the way that some 20th century philosophy approaches the themes of earlier philosophy and religion when concerned with questions of the limit of experience, how the question of defining ‘madness’ relates to the questions of defining consciousness, experience and limits from the viewpoints of the dominant ways of thinking and organising experience at the time, the ideology operating in the institutions and laws which are applied to the ‘mad’. What Foucault also brings out is that madness’ was closely related to a positive idea of transcending human bounds, so that the stigmatisation of madness then as now is intimately associated with altered states of consciousness that are given value. The use of a ‘mad’ perspective in 20th century Surrealism is one of the aspects that Foucault is alluding to here, an the ways that such aestheticised encounters with the limits of consciousness and rationality relate to earlier religious ideas of exalted spiritual states.

In the second passage above, Foucault is still concerned with the limit and while individual passages in Foucault may seem obscure, he had a very persistent interest in limits of experience, and related questions over some decades, so it is possible to build up an accumulating familiarity with Foucault’s treatment of the issue. The ‘message’ in that passage is the value of moving from Enlightenment of a Kantian kind, which places limits on the claims of universality, to a a kind of Enlightenment based on exploration of the non-necessity of limits, the exploration of the plurality of individual instances unlimited by rationalistic limitations. This is a very Montaigne-like thought, even if the language is more ‘obscure’. There is a commitment to a ‘historical ontology’, that is the understanding of ourselves as individuals and of the ‘human’ in general as the product of contingency and circumstances rather than a deep self or deep humanity detached from experience and history. This is both a proposal for the study of human institutions and discourses as Foucault already had been doing for decades and a proposal for an ethics which values subjectivity in its variability and different contexts. There is no clear limit to knowledge or consciousness, just as there is no clear limit between different areas of knowledge or experience. Foucault’s idea of Enlightenment knowledge and ethics is to keep exploring and pushing at the limits that have been assumed, which is a way of showing their continent constructed nature as well as the way that consciousness is always dealing with a sense of inside and outside that is open to transformation.

In both passages above, I would argue, Foucault uses allusion and compression of multiple allusions, to show connections and differences, and to make us think about those connections and differences. Calvin’s thought about theology has implications for defining ‘madness’, Enlightenment scientific inquiry is related to assumptions about limits of reason and experience. The ‘obscurity’ arises from the way that the syntheses, allusions, and challenges to a priori boundaries are put in a language which shows these things at work rather than just saying that they exist and makes us aware that the language we constantly use is structured and energised by the unions and tensions contained within these thoughts.

If one simply wants the ideas about institutions, history, discourse and so on in Foucault, without the ‘obscure’ language, then to some degree these can be found in Foucault’s lectures, and then maybe more so in those commentators committed to a clarification of Foucault for those not immersed in the use of philosophical language to convey meaning beyond the most literal transmission of messages, commentators including Gary Gutting, Ian Hacking, and Hans Sluga. I recommend them to anyone who finds Foucault’s style to be a chore but wants to find out about ideas which have certainly influenced a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences.

The whole dialogue between the two starts here, if you’re interested.

Martin Luther King Jr Day and Civil Rights: A (True?) Libertarian’s Lazy Perspective

History professor and fellow Notewriter Jonathan Bean has an op-ed out in the Daily Caller titled “Civil Rights Are Too Important To Be Left To Special-Interest Advocates.” From the opening paragraph:

“War is too important to be left to the generals,” the saying goes. Similarly, civil rights are too important to be left to professional advocates who champion only their own particular racial, ethnic, or religious causes. Unfortunately, in the “official” civil rights community of today a spirit of inclusiveness may be the exception, not the rule.

Read the rest.

Dr Bean’s post has reminded me of how to best tell the difference between a libertarian and a conservative (overseas readers: here is my reminder to you that, in US parlance, libertarian means liberal): libertarians have a deep, principled commitment to equality that is simply missing in conservative thought.

Libertarians will argue that all individuals are born equal, whereas conservatives will tell you individuals are not. Libertarian notions of equality are thus caught in the middle of two extremes: on the Right you have conservatives who believe that inequality equality is not possible on an individual, regional, national, or international scale and on the Left you have egalitarians who harbor all sorts of utopian pipedreams based on “equality.” These three paradigms are by no means obvious, and sometimes you have to think about the implications of a person’s argument.

The libertarian notion is utopian, as it has never been reached and probably never will be, but it is always within reach and is based upon civil and legal equality rather than some of the asinine notions of the Left. When I say “civil and legal equality” I mean that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental individual rights. Conservatives don’t believe in this (think about their views on immigrants, for example, or ethnic/religious minorities).

So the libertarian, when faced with a hypothetical that looks at an immigrant who came to the US illegally, will say the immigrant is deserving of the same legal and civil rights as a native. A conservative will not. I know many self-described libertarians will give the second answer, and my response to them would be, “well, I guess you’re a conservative then, and not a libertarian.”


I understand that the complexities of politics in federal democracies make ideological arguments useless, so my only goal with this post is to help readers clarify their own political views. If you don’t support the civil and legal rights of illegal immigrants (for example), you are not a libertarian. I don’t mean to be in such a purge-y mood, but that’s a fairly basic tenet of the creed.

Also, Malcolm X did more for the civil rights of Americans than MLK did. The government chose MLK to represent the civil rights struggle, though, because he never toted a gun in public. Same thing happened in South Asia just before the UK left. Gandhi didn’t have nearly as much influence as the armed insurrections happening all over the subcontinent. Bring it!

From the Comments: Islam and Islamism

Matthew riffs off of my recent post on imperialism:

I am far too lazy at present to read the links you embedded in this article, so I will shoulder the lazy man’s burden, and provide some simple anecdotes.

A very common reaction is to blame Islam itself for the problems Islamists cause in the West, and in their own countries. I have never opened the Koran, and I have only cursorily read the statements of Islamist groups such as Hamas. I cannot honestly speak to whether Islam is at fault in toto, because I know too little about Islam’s tenets to deduce a causal relationship between Islamist extremism and the creed they espouse. What I have been noticing, however, in my brief travels in the Islamic world (I am currently in Meknes, Morocco) is the difference in practice between what I will call “media Muslims” (the straw men the media set up as representative of all Muslims) and the real, flesh and blood Muslims you meet in your every day encounters. I have met pious Muslims, who pray five times a day, and have had theological discussions over the differences between Judaism and Islam. I have not hidden my Judaism, as many Jews do out of fear for their lives – misplaced oftentimes, I would say – and have had no problems. I have met young Muslims who eat pork and drink alcohol and don’t give a jot about Allah or Muhammad. I have tried to flirt with Muslim girls and failed, probably because my only Berber words are “yaaah” (yes) and “oho” (no).

There is a very large pressure in culture and in the media to reduce everything to social forces. We must fear “Islam,” and “Communism,” and “Terror,” without considering that all of these social forces are composed of many individuals, with different ideals, and different means of pursuing them. Islam is, like everything else, a pluralistic social movement. There is Wahhabism on one end, and cultural Islam on the other, and many people fall in between. So, I do not think Islam can be blamed for the West’s problems with Muslims. A particular strain of Islam, adhered to by a particular type of individual, is one factor. Western meddling and overt racism is another.

The rest of the ‘comments’ thread is, of course, well worth the read too. I am not much of a bragger but, as I’ve repeated on here many times, the ‘comments’ threads at NOL are some of the best on the web. I look forward to Matthew’s posts teasing out what it means to be Western.

Also, Matthew, with Moroccan girls you have to feign ignorance and let them believe that they are doing the hunting and that you are the prey. (Let us know how it goes, of course.)

Artunç paper on legal decentralization and the Ottoman Empire

Awhile back Tyler Cowen linked to this paper (pdf) by Cihan Artunç on legal pluralism in the Ottoman Empire, and I found it to be really interesting. Here is the abstract, followed by some comments from yours truly:

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, non-Muslim Ottomans paid large sums to acquire access to European law. These protégés came to dominate Ottoman trade and pushed Muslims and Europeans out of commerce. At the same time, the Ottoman firm remained primarily a small, family enterprise. The literature argues that Islamic law is the culprit. However, adopting European law failed to improve economic outcomes. This paper shows that the co-existence of multiple legal systems, “legal pluralism,” explains key questions in Ottoman economic history. I develop a bilateral trade model with multiple legal systems and first show that legal pluralism leads to underinvestment by creating enforcement uncertainty. Second, there is an option value of additional legal systems, explaining why non-Muslim Ottomans sought to acquire access to European law. Third, in a competitive market where a subpopulation has access to additional legal systems, agents who have access to fewer jurisdictions exit the market. Thus, forum shopping explains protégés’ dominance in trade. Finally, the paper explains why the introduction of the French commercial code in 1850 failed to reverse these outcomes.

Got that? If not, you know where the ‘comments’ section is. What stood out to me the most in this paper is that the Ottoman Empire limited choice of law to a specific population within the realm:

“Muslims were restricted to Islamic law but non-Muslims could use any of the available legal systems, including European jurisdictions upon paying an entry fee. This subsection extends the model by allowing variation in the legal options agents have in order to capture this asymmetric jurisdictional access.” (11)

This looks, to me, a lot more like the Jim Crow South in the United States, or the present-day Maori in New Zealand, than a good case study for understanding legal pluralism. I guess the Jim Crow-esque laws in the Ottoman Empire can be described as “legal pluralism,” but I think this is a bit of a stretch on the part of Artunç. Perhaps not. Maybe there needs to be a distinction between “good” and “bad” legal pluralism? I was under the impression that legal pluralism meant difference court systems operating under an assumed set of rules rather than a different set of laws for different classes of people within a society.

Another interesting tidbit is that Artunç attributes the empire’s economic stagnation (“Such an expansion in asymmetry increases the buyer’s payoff for moderate values of effective enforcement, but will always decrease investment, partnership size, seller’s payoff and total surplus.” [12]) to legal pluralism rather than the Jim Crow-esque legal system actually in place.

I’d say this paper does a good job explaining, in an off-hand way, how Ottoman Jim Crow created a path dependency of poverty for the states encompassing the territory of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. I’d say it does a much worse job explaining what legal pluralism is (Artunç defines legal pluralism as “a single economy where two or more legal systems coexist.” [1] That’s it! That’s his definition of legal pluralism!), and enhances that weakness with an analysis based upon a definition of legal pluralism that is, if I read the paper correctly, wrong, or at least sorely lacking in depth.

For the record I have my doubts about legal pluralism as it can sometimes be interpreted by anarcho-capitalists. Anarcho-capitalists argue that the “assumed set of rules” I identified above that are necessary for legal pluralism to work are largely, naturally understood by humanity and therefore provide Anarcho-Capitalistan with everything it needs for a fully functional legal system. I think that’s stretching it a bit. In fact, it’s close to ludicrous. I think legal pluralism does work in systems like the one found in the US (where circuit courts compete with each other, for example, or state and federal courts clash).

Regardless of my opinions on libertarian legal theory, I think it is clear that Artunç’s brilliant paper is brilliant because it tackles an important topic (Ottoman Empire and, more deftly, international trade) that can be used as a stepping stone for further research, but I cannot bring myself to buy his conclusion (legal pluralism is to blame for the path dependency of poverty in the post-Ottoman world rather than Timur Kuran’s “Islamic law” thesis) because he gets legal pluralism so wrong. (I don’t think Kuran’s thesis is right either, but that’s a story for another blog post and has nothing to do with the fact that he once taught at USC; briefly, Kuran argues that Islamic law was responsible for keeping the Ottoman and Persian empires poor while Europe grew rich, but this is as superficial – and important – as Artunç’s thesis; importantly, Kuran also confuses the Ottoman Jim Crow system with legal pluralism, which suggests Artunç’s critique of his work is less robust than initially thought.)

Holla back!

Around the Web

  1. France must avoid repeating American errors
  2. The internationalism of the American Civil War; shockingly incomplete (almost dishonestly so), but a good starting point
  3. The false piety of the Hebdo hoodlums
  4. Sri Lanka’s surprise political transition
  5. From Martin Anderson to Charlie Hebdo and back