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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and civilisational war

This interview that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did with Reason magazine is another example of the kind of thing that we don't need to hear from the New Atheists.

Hirsi Ali's rhetoric, her claim that we are already involved in a civilisational war with Islam, is all wrong. For example, is it really tenable to claim that we are "at war" with the communities of "very liberal" Pakistani and Indian Muslims in the US that she refers to in the interview (leave aside all the good, liberal Muslims elsewhere)? She denies that moderate Islam is the solution to current tensions between radical Islam and the West, but that is a massively premature claim, and meanwhile what are those liberal Muslim communities supposed to do if the US takes her advice and really does adopt an official stance of warfare with Islam itself?

Let's be clear: I've been a fan. I admire many things about Ayaan Hirsi Ali - her intellect, her courage, her dignity and composure, and even (let's be politically incorrect) her beauty. I totally enjoyed Infidel, and I fully support her campaign against the barbaric elements within Muslim cultures - the honour killings, the crazy fatwas, the genital mutilation of girls, the violent prohibition of apostasy, the theocratic aspirations of benighted mullahs. I don't sententiously call Islam a religion of peace, because Islam is not one thing - and often it is nothing of the sort. Far from it.

But when she claims, point-blank, that we're in a war against Islam itself, that's surely a dangerous exaggeration. Yes, we must confront theocratic tendencies, from whatever source, with the power of our ideas. Yes, we need to re-affirm the Enlightenment and the Millian ideals of liberty. And I agree with Hirsi Ali that new policies may be needed whereby we cease to extend so much tolerance to the truly intolerant. But talk of "war" against an entire world religion, without distinctions and qualifications, really worries me.

I want to see those liberal Muslims, whose existence Hirsi Ali acknowledges, stand up proudly and declare unequivocally that they support Lockean tolerance and individual liberty, that they are glad to join the Enlightenment compromise that desacralises politics, and that they accept, from within their own worldview, that anywhere where Islam can be practised without persecution is already the house of Islam, not the house of war.

But they can hardly do that if Western societies claim to be at war with Islam itself - as opposed to some of us committing to a struggle against all forms of theocracy - and if we actually do commence a policy of persecuting Muslims (we're perilously close to the line already, and we've sometimes stepped over it). The last six years of disastrously incompetent American foreign policy, aided and abetted by Australia's government, among others, have made the situation of liberal Muslims almost impossible, as far as I can see. Let's not make it even worse.

More generally, I'm disappointed with the whole interview. Hirsi Ali is all over the place - none of it seems thought through - though the interviewer gave her ample opportunity to explain her position.

Apart from the recommendation that we close Muslim schools, I couldn't see much there that was concrete. All the stuff about how terrible it is that our enemies (and the extremists concerned are, indeed, our enemies) express their hatred of us by burning our symbols left me thinking, "So what?" Yes, people who hate you will find ways of expressing it. And?

A final thought: this is embarrassing for more moderate people who see themselves as in an intellectual and social struggle against theocratic elements in the modern world.

Speaking for myself, every day I see religious conservatives taking unenlightened political stances on issue after issue - whether it be gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, human enhancement technologies, AIDS policy, or any of a host of others - and I've concluded that it's not good enough just to fight these issues one at a time. The fundamental belief systems of our opponents are the problem. They merit searching, sceptical critique. Accordingly, I cheer for the contributions of Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, and so on, to public debate. Collectively, these form a natural and valuable response to what we've been seeing from religious conservatives over the past decade.

But that doesn't mean I must cheer for the more warmongering rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, much as they are extraordinarily charismatic individuals whose voices are of great value when they do no more than proclaim the beauty of secularism. When they go further, when they want to declare war - literal war, involving force and violence - against a particular religion, they are going too far. They are going to extremes, and I think we have no choice but to take a stand.

This is not something we've signed up for.

19 comments:

Brian English said...

Hitch and Ayaan Hirshi Ali are great speakers and thinkers. The talk Ali gave at the atheist aliance showed her to be an endearing, intelligent and charming person. She seemed to say in that talk that force should be used against force, ideas against ideas and so on. But it appears Hitch and she now have gone "fundamental" and just said lets kill 'em all, god will sort them out (in a secular fashion). Weird.
We simply can't anihilate or imprison a billion people. We have certain values that are worth fighting for, but it's not like we can't or don't share them with many muslims.
Another problem is kneejerk theists will read the articles and say "See, atheism/secularism is as totalitarian and immoral as always, bring on the Nazi/Communist gulags/death camps again."

Russell Blackford said...

No, we can't just annihilate or imprison a billion people, and there's no necessity. What we need is to be sure that, by and large, Muslims in the West are signed up to modernity, or the Enlightenment compromise, or whatever, rather than to identification with all the horrors committed in the name of Islam. That may not be easy, and I've said that I'm open in principle to modifications to the Enlightenment strategy for dealing with warring orthodoxies - though I wouldn't be departing from it lightly.

If liberal societies can absorb Muslims into the political mainstream, I'm sure we're capable of dealing with external enemies.

I'm sure it won't be easy. Before too many years have gone by, there probably will be terrorist attacks on a scale that will make 9/11 seem piddling by comparison. But the best way to prepare for that is not to declare war on (many of) our own people and the peaceful people of many nations.

Those two - Hitch and AHA - are good value in many ways, and I'd like to feel they are on "my" side in some general sense ... but they are really starting to worry me.

Russell Blackford said...

I've posted a link to the YouTube file of that speech - she does indeed seem endearing, intelligent, and charming, though surprisingly shy and nervous, which is not her usual persona.

Blake Stacey said...

I was a little befuddled by AHA's talk of "true" Islam. How can such a thing be defined? Some claims about, say, the life of Mohammad may be historically "true", in that we can interrogate them through the normal empirico-rationalist methods of history and see if they withstand our attempts to falsify them. But connecting those claims to anything relevant today — deciding how a modern Muslim should live his or her life based on what Mohammad did — is a matter of interpretation. It's an "ought" question, and a person who claims to have the definitive answer to it is basically claiming to know the will of Allah.

Consider this statement from Hirsi Ali:

There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don't all follow the rules of Islam, but there's really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There's nothing moderate about it.

From my perspective, I don't see any way to know "the will of God". Possession of God's plan is — as Hector Avalos might say — a scarce resource whose value and very existence cannot be tested empirically.

Two people may believe themselves to be equally in submission to God, but if one claims that jihad requires attacking the infidel while the other feels the "true jihad" to be a struggle within oneself, only Allah knows which truly follows the will of Allah.

I grew up in a heavily Protestant community. People accepted the Bible as inspired, and generally believed that they belonged to the one, true Christianity. I'd wager that many of them disapproved of homosexuality, but they also shaved their beards; they knew some portions of the Bible, but were ignorant of others. We should probably be thankful for this, since a straight-up dose of Biblical morality would be frightening. Which would you prefer: the genocide of the Old Testament or the sexism, xenophobia and slavery of the New?

Confront a decent churchgoer of Huntsville, Alabama with the story of — to pick one example of too many — the Israelite being stoned to death for collecting sticks on the Sabbath. They'll beg off with an excuse why that rule no longer applies — "The Sabbath was made for man," and all that. All of the Bible is inspired, but not all of it is considered relevant.

You can't get a consistent message out of the Bible. Some other set of social influences becomes the funhouse mirror in which the scriptures are read, obscuring some portions and magnifying others, leaving each worshiper with the belief that they belong to the one, true faith.

If that's how American Christianity works, I'd like to know what's different about Islam. That's not a rhetorical question; I'd genuinely like to know.

Maybe I've just been imbibing too much Avalos lately, but I can't shake the conclusion that defining the "true Islam" is a pointless exercise in essentialist thinking. There is no empirical, secular criterion by which we could make that judgment, and when Hirsi Ali says there is "really only one Islam", she is just as much in error as George W. Bush, when he declared that the true Islam is one of peace.

Brian English said...

though surprisingly shy and nervous, which is not her usual persona.
That was the endearing part. When people are super confident, they can seem aloof or abrasive. When people are, like, human, they seem to be more easy to like.

Roko said...

"There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don't all follow the rules of Islam, but there's really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There's nothing moderate about it.

From my perspective, I don't see any way to know the will of God"

That's because you are trying to make rational sense of religious doctrine. People who actually believe in a religion do not do this - they just follow whatever interpretation the appropriate leaders put on the "word of God" - i.e. on holy texts.

I think that religions actually rely on this ambiguity to spread themselves effectively. The moderate interpretation is useful when the religion is in a position of weakness - for example in a minority in a given society; it is a way of protecting itself from critiscism. The radical or fundamentalist form is useful when the religion is in a position of strength - because it justifies the slaughter of unbelievers.


I've expounded this idea - that different religious views which share the same holy text can be thought of as different phenotypes which arise from the same genotype - on my blog.

Steelman said...

Blake Stacey said: "If that's how American Christianity works, I'd like to know what's different about Islam."

The medieval harshness of Christianity has been softened (in many sects) and diversified due in part to hundreds of years of textual criticism of its holy book (who really wrote what when, and to what audience for what reason).

The problem for Islam in this regard is, I think, twofold:
1. The Qur'an isn't a conglomeration of writings over a long period of time; it was written by a single author who drew from earlier traditions.

2. Believing the latter half of 1 is blasphemy, and could get you killed if you're a Muslim (and even if you're not a Muslim, but happen to express such an opinion in the wrong country.)

Until there is little possibility of a death sentence being carried out against scholars who wish to deconstruct the Qur'an, as there is now for scholars who deconstruct the Bible, Islam will continue to be hampered in moving toward moral modernity. Unfortunately, Islam's reformation, unlike Christianity's, seems to have moved in a more conservative, rather than a liberal, direction.

Blake Stacey said...

Until there is little possibility of a death sentence being carried out against scholars who wish to deconstruct the Qur'an, as there is now for scholars who deconstruct the Bible, Islam will continue to be hampered in moving toward moral modernity.

Would it be reasonable to expect, then, that Islam will modernize and moderate in Westernized democracies, countries in which the retributive power of the fatwa is lessened? (Not to zero, of course, but in practical terms, isn't a moderate Muslim safer in the United States than in Tehran?) Even if the entire Muslim population of a country does not "liberalize" itself, we might expect that liberal sects would be more likely to prosper in Europe, Australia and North America.

Russell Blackford said...

@ steelman ... yes, arguably we've seen a reformation of Islam that has taken it in the wrong direction ("wrong" from the viewpoint of secular liberals like us). Then again, Luther and Calvin were not especially more liberal than the corrupt popes of their time. The beauty of the protestant reformation was that it pushed the responsibility for spiritual salvation increasingly onto the individual, which conduced to the Enlightenment descralisation of politics.

Time will tell how far Islam can endorse that desacralisation, although there does seem to be some hope, in Western societies, as long as we give liberal Muslims some room to move and don't start our own persecution of Islam as such.

Your points 1. and 2. are right, but there does still seem to be a lot of scope for liberal interpretations of the Koran. I'm no scholar of Muslim theology, but at the same time 1. some of the nastiest stuff that gets associated with Islam is not in the Koran itself (some is in the hadith; some was borrowed from cultural traditions that pre-dated Islam); 2. Muhammad acknowledges that some of what he says is to be interpreted symbolically, and 3. there is also plenty of scope in the Muslim traditions of learning to interpret the various suras in specific historical context. That seems to leave a lot of room for liberal Muslims to hang on to some fundamentals of their religion while also, under modern circumstances, endorsing the political values and strategies of the Enlightenment.

More generally - this is not addressed to anyone in particular - a particular sect could, theoretically, be beyond the bounds of liberal tolerance for some reason. Locke wanted to exclude atheists and Catholics from the circle of tolerance, for different reasons. In practice, though, the strategy has worked fairly well for more and more religious sects and secular worldviews, and I think it's way premature to think it can't work for Islam, as Hitchens and AHA seem close to saying.

We need a dialogue with liberal Muslims, but it's going to be very difficult if prominent secular thinkers are taking the line that Islam - not just radical Islam, but some "essence" of Islam - is beyond the pale of tolerance. That leaves the liberal Muslims with nowhere to go, and threatens to take away their credibility with their own people.

Brian English said...

The beauty of the protestant reformation was that it pushed the responsibility for spiritual salvation increasingly onto the individual, which conduced to the Enlightenment descralisation of politics.
I thought the beauty of the reformation was that you had split christendom into a heap of sects that aligned with local kings/thugs. This split meant that there was lots of nasty internecine stuff, but control by one recognized church power was destroyed (the important bit). A local protestant sect would be protected by a local power against the will of Rome. With this came the possibility of a new way of doing things politically as Rome couldn't just say no. People had room for heterodoxy. This allowed Hobbes, Locke et al. to put forward their secular strategies.....
Am I way off the mark here?

Brian English said...

Just following the idea of split church/state powers that helped lead to the Enlightenment, and somewhat influenced by the part of Lilla's book that I've read.
Islam (and Judaism) I believe had a codified body of law that applies to everyday activites, eating practised and tribal/political structure and ethics.
Christianity started of as a sect that was without power and never really codified politically what a true christian could or couldn't do. The power came centuries later, but was never really central to the doctrine of christ. Also, because christianity, in part tended toward being ascetic - god isn't on this earth, he awaits on another, this earth is but a test and will trick you into evil... - and has the "to Ceaser what is his and to God what is god's" ethic in it. So when all hell did break loose in the reformation/counterreformation there was no law or political code that newly freed - from the control of Rome - christians could just fall back on, and nature abhors a vacuum so they say. Enter the Enlightenment.
In Islam if the power of the Caliphate was split - as happened in Al Andalus for instance - ordinary imams had a codified set of rules to interpret/instruct believers so there wouldn't be a vacuum for political theories like Locke's to fill. Islam is a very different beast, I'm not sure how'd you'd shake it up. Thoughts?

Russell Blackford said...

The way I see it, the Reformation produced such a struggle within Christian Europe that there was eventually a receptiveness to the liberal solution. Islam is not at that point, although liberal Muslims may well be able to see the benefits of the Lockean solution.

As for whether Islam can abandon its ambitions to provide a total system of conduct, given its doctrines and history, I don't know the answer. We really need to hear what liberal Muslims have to say if challenged on whether they support individual liberty, the harm principle, and Lockean tolerance.

If they can say that, I don't much care how they get there, theologically. :)

But off-hand, I do think there's scope for them to distinguish between sin and what should count as crime in a liberal society, and to give a modern, expansive reading to the idea that there is no compulsion in religion.

It's up to them to say these things; but it's up to us to give them a chance, rather than just concluding - as Hitchens and AHA seem to do - that Islam is beyond the pale of liberal tolerance. After all, what are the real-world implications of the latter? It would be a disaster for everyone.

Brian English said...

It's up to them to say these things; but it's up to us to give them a chance, rather than just concluding - as Hitchens and AHA seem to do - that Islam is beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.
So we have to allow liberal muslims to do the grunt work. Not attack them or Islam in general and make them marginalized or drive them to siding with the fundis. We can wreck things by attacking, but can't really produce a good outcome as it's not in our hands. N'est-pas?
Mmmmmm. I like it better when I can control things, but c'est la vie.

Russell Blackford said...

I think it's a bit like that, Brian.

Note that I'm not saying not to attack Islam intellectually. Toleration does not mean the kind of false respect that involves refraining from criticism. I'm not even saying not to challenge the liberals, quite pointedly, to prove they have genuinely liberal credentials. I'm certainly not one of the people who think Dawkins is doing a bad job by attacking religion in general - but his "attack" is no more than the development and expression of ideas.

Good for Dawkins, I say, and good for Hitchens and AHA and everyone else who is engaging in harsh critique of religion in general or of specific religions. I don't think there's any substitute for this. But there's a difference between criticism and challenge, on the one hand, and political intolerance and persecution on the other. It's when there are calls for the latter that I consider an important line has been crossed.

If political intolerance and persecution are not what Hitch and AHA really want, it's time for them to spell that out, because right now their rhetoric does sound intolerant.

Brian English said...

I agree with you last post. My previous post was a bit flippant (or silly.) Though sometimes I do feel like we are told to be tolerant of some pretty bogus and nasty ideas for tolerance's sake. I'd never advocate killing or repression because of some in group/out group idiocy (or in general even.)
Anyway, I'm pretty much spamming your blog. Must get back to work and study. Hopefully more considered and erudite web travellers will come along put their 2/100's of a dollar in.

Steelman said...

Good stuff in the comments on the differences between Christianity and Islam, and their respective reformations.

Blake Stacey said: "Even if the entire Muslim population of a country does not "liberalize" itself, we might expect that liberal sects would be more likely to prosper in Europe, Australia and North America."

One would hope so. The news I've read from England indicates that some number of the second generation Muslim youth are rebelling against their parents by becoming radicalized by the ultraconservative rhetoric preached in their local mosques. Maybe that younger generation will grow up a bit. I don't think the U.S. version of the "war on terror" will help that process.

Maybe its just that peaceful, liberal Muslims aren't considered newsworthy (i.e., frightening and exciting) enough to make it onto TV and computer screens, or maybe they're remaining mostly silent out of fear, or maybe there aren't many of them after all...yet (he said hopefully).

Russell Blackford said...

I've just ordered a copy of Mark Lilla's book from Amazon, and look forward to reading it in a few weeks.

clodhopper said...

I will certainly not be serving under General Hitch or Commander AHA. I think they have gone over the top...so to speak

Rachel said...

If Ayaan were mild as Russell Blackford suggested she should be, the effect and lesson would be lost. There are few non Muslims who have any clue about the actual belief and practice of Islam. Sure, the Torah and New Testiment have goofy, illogical, and hateful statements. But moderate Christians and Jews choose to ignore or explain away those passages. Moderate Muslims are not allowed to do that.

'Moderate' Saudi Arabia's command-central Sharia law imposed on their citizens and worldwide outreach makes slaves of women and diminishes minority priveleges and rights. Without separation of church and state, Sharia law is cruel and senseless in interpretation and application.

Hirsi's desire for 'war' against Islam is not violent, and it is not against those Muslim adherents who think for themselves. It is against those who pray five times a day, who cheer silently or publicly for every 911 against the West that has brought the world to this high level of scientific achievement.

I have asked educated, Westernized Muslims off the record what they think of those who insult Mohammad or Allah. The uniform answer, if they feel they can confide in me, is that blashphemers must be killed. Polltakers won't be given that response, by the way. Poll results reported to the public about Muslim attitudes are lies. Why would Muslims tell their true feelings if they know the published answers would make life harder for them?

Moderate Muslims defended the British schoolteacher in Africa because they argued she didn't know what she was doing, and it was a terrible mistake. What about a fellow who names his teddy bear Mohammad ON PURPOSE? Those same moderates might demand brutal lashings.

As a fan of Hirsi Ali, I am nominating her for Person of the Year 2008 for a major organization (more to follow). Friendly parties interested in attending the award banquet, probably in Washington, DC, or Philadelphia or who would like to help on the committee or contribute, please email me: agold122248@yahoo.com. She is worthy. Thank you.