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.)

13 thoughts on “From the Comments: Islam and Islamism

  1. Not many people can write with such a bias free mind as you did. But I have also observed that when in any country Muslims get majority population of people belonging to other faiths starts declining. I live in India where people of different faiths live, may not be peacefully all the time, but there is no evidence to suggest that after partition in 1947 there was any mass exodus of Muslims from India. I am still trying to find out what could be the cause but I thought I would share my thought with you because you and I think in somewhat same way and that is not to blame any religion, which would be very easy.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Mintu, but you praise the thoughts of Matthew, not myself.

      What about all of the Muslims who fled, by the millions, from India into Pakistan and (what is now) Bangladesh after partition? The toll for the Muslims fleeing Myanmar is still coming in, and probably won’t be established for many years, but it is likely to be high.

      Historically speaking other faiths did not start declining in Muslim states until very recently: during and after the collapse of the European empires. I don’t think European states are to blame for the religious purges going on in their former colonies. I think these purges are the result of the end of traditional empires and the attempts by Western-educated elites in post-colonial states to create nation-states out of the ashes of empires (more here, if you’re interested). Does this make sense?

  2. I think we really need a three-fold distinction here (at least): media Muslims, real-life Muslims of the nominal variety,and real-life Muslims of the devout variety. The media Muslim phenomenon is driven by stereotypes, ignorance, and the fads of the moment, but like all stereotypes there is an element of truth in it.

    There are of course many nominal Muslims, in Islamic countries and elsewhere, who eat pork, drink alcohol, and flirt with Jewish guys, etc.. But there are also devout Muslims who are horrified by pork, alcohol, and flirting–and would be outraged that any Muslim would touch such things (and in the extreme cases, would be wiling to shun, shame, denounce, or kill you for doing so).

    A lot of this depends on where you go and who you hang out with. Matt’s corner of Meknes in Morocco is likely to be very different from my corner of Lahore in Pakistan. I’m sure my corner of the West Bank (when I visited in 2013) was likely to be very different from any corner in Gaza. But one corner of the same city can be different from another corner of the same city. Right here in Jersey, I’ll get Arab students from, say, Paterson (typically either Palestinian or Egyptian), all of whom wear hijab, but who have radically different attitudes toward religion–some very liberal, some very conservative. My own family in Pakistan is divided between nominal and devout parts. Some of them are outspoken atheists, some are outright fundamentalists. They don’t necessarily get along.

    • Very true. During my time in India, I spent an unfortunate day in Lucknow, which has a large Muslim population. I was (rather politely) kicked out of a sweet shop for playing cards with a Kamasutra deck, which aroused no distaste everywhere else in India, but was “not done in this neighborhood.” Many people there dressed very conservatively, men in shalwaar kameez and skull cap, women in hijabs. By contrast, a Moroccan I spoke to in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, linked Morocco’s relatively tolerant attitude to their history of conquest by others: all the people coming in and out of the country, from many different places and with different creeds, led to a relevant tolerance here. Which just goes to show one cannot reduce 1.6 billion people to a byline, something that is so shockingly obvious many people overlook it. Myself included at times, as I am not sinless.

    • I had to chuckle at that one. Playing cards with a Kamasutra deck? You’d probably get kicked out of the average public library in New Jersey! The next time I go to the public library, I’ll try to watch the film “Kamasutra” on the computers and see what happens. (You Tube tells me that it’s intended for “mature audiences” only, and rated S+ N+.)

      We’re having a similar conversation about offense and “what’s done in what neighborhood” over at my blog. I think you’ll find the Essaouira/East Jerusalem contrast interesting. Your interlocutor may well be right about Essaouira, but conquest seems to have had the opposite effect in East Jerusalem.

    • With regards to India, you would be surprised by how much we got away with out here. We put the cards away around children, but middle-aged and seniors were fascinated and would often crowd around our games. Whether to see the whites play with lascivious cards, or for the cards themselves, I don’t know.

      I found your blog post fascinating and left my thoughts. I got too lazy to analyze every thought experiment, but the East Jerusalem/Essaouira contrast is definitely intriguing. I suppose one of the main differences is that in Morocco, conquest and colonialism and are in the past. In East Jerusalem, they are a part of daily experience. I can imagine when the French ruled Morocco, there was likely resentment of how they acted, of their mores and traditions and breaches of Moroccan etiquette. Now they see all that as a business opportunity, but so it goes.

  3. I like Irfan’s threefold division between “media Muslims”, real-life Muslims of the nominal variety, and real-life Muslims of the devout variety. But even apart from these three groups there is Islam itself. Obviously, Islam means lots of different things to lots of different people, but that does not mean it is entirely wrong to give it a specific definition based on what is said in the Koran and what has occurred at critical points in Muslim history. And the fact is that the Koran has some very unpleasant things to say, and that Muslim history began with one of history’s largest political and military conquests. I tried to read the Picthall translation of the Koran a few months ago – and ultimately failed, because like most religious texts it can get extremely boring after a while – and was surprised to learn, in the forward Picthall wrote, that there is a common tradition that holds that a Jewish woman was directly responsible for the death of Muhammad, giving him poison that he died of years after he consumed it. So it seems that the Jews had the poor luck of killing both Jesus and Muhammad. Anyway, while I am sure many Islamic traditions are wonderful, I think that the biggest and most important gulf is not between the West and Islam, or even between progressives and conservatives, but instead between religious belief and scepticism. The Western media is constantly calling for Muslims to publicly denounce extremism (which may or may not be extremely unfair to Muslims who are overwhelmingly moderate), but frankly it would be nice if more Muslims were to publicly question the notion that Muhammad was even a prophet to begin with.

    • I once wrote an article for Free Inquiry magazine arguing that secular humanists in “the West” ought to be pressing the case for apostasy from Islam rather than reform. (April-May 2004; the dumb title was the editor’s idea.)

      With a decade’s hindsight, I wouldn’t reverse what I said, but I see more value in reformist arguments now than I did then, as long as making them doesn’t contradict the case for apostasy as such. In a way, the basic fight is over free speech, so that topics can become discussable and people can make actual choices one way or the other. As I said in the article, there are a lot of closet atheists in the Islamic world, and they should be allowed out.

      The Jew-who-assassinated-Muhammad story is an old one, and like all such stories, basically pseudo-historical. It’s supposedly based on Quran verse 69:44, but nothing about the verse as such says anything about Muhammad’s being poisoned by anyone. The poisoning story is a later accretion, canonized (fabricated) by the hadith and sira tradition. This is a Christian apologetics blog (which I have no use for) but he nicely lines up all the texts (which is useful):

      There is, frankly, a lot of garbage in the tradition, and this story is an example. It’s not as though anyone in the year 632 could have done a post-mortem and traced Muhammad’s death back to poisoned meat cooked by that Jewish lady from down the street.

      Incidentally (or maybe not incidentally), the Qur’an doesn’t precisely lay blame for Christ’s crucifixion on the Jews. One of the things that makes the Qur’an hard to read is that it re-interprets many biblical stories in ways that are unfamiliar (or bizarre) to Jewish and Christian readers. Surah Nisah (4, in the 150s) discusses the crucifixion but cryptically lays blame on “ahl e kitab,” the People of the Book–meaning some subset of Jews and early Christians indifferently. This is actually a clever way of not really ascribing specific responsibility at all. You could read Jewish responsibility into the verse, but that’s not what it says at face value. Actually, the Qur’an doesn’t think that Christ was (the one) crucified, but let me leave it there.

    • Haha, yes, that’s a super intense title your editor picked! And those are interesting comments you made. I wonder: are any people making comparisons to the Muhammad delayed-poisoning story and the belief that Arafat was poisoned by the Israelis over an extended period of time by polonium?

  4. jshupac–

    I personally haven’t encountered the Muhammad/Arafat comparison, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t being made somewhere, by someone.

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