Paris, Islam, ISIS and Sykes-Picot. Random Thoughts

The latest Islamist-terrorist atrocity hit the news on Friday with a Mumbai-style attack on the city of Paris. The same group (ISIS) has recently bombed Ankara, a Russian aircraft and a civilian neighborhood in Beirut. But as expected, the strike in Paris got the most attention (not inappropriately so, in my opinion). It was a typically brutal operation. Ordinary civilians going about their pleasure in one of the world’s great cities were targeted in Restaurants, outside a football stadium (when the suicide bombers could not get in), on the streets and, most cruelly, while watching a death-metal concert. Most of the casualties occurred in the concert hall, where the terrorists managed to get into a location with a large number of innocents gathered in a confined space. They shot and killed calmly and ruthlessly and without any hint of pity or common humanity. When the police burst in, the killers blew up their suicide belts to shower those around them with ball bearings in one last atrocity before they departed to what they no doubt expect will be a land of milk and honey, suitably supplied with virgins so fair and delicate that their bone marrow will be visible. It takes all kinds.

Several interactions on twitter (@omarali50) revealed a few common themes and I thought I would expand on some of those brief comments and get some feedback. It’s one way to learn.

1. Is ISIS Islamic? 
Short Answer: Yes
For a “secular observer”, this is a no-brainer. The secular (and even more so, religious) outsider obviously does not believe in any particular version of Islam as the one true faith, etc etc. To them, Islam is (or should be) whatever any Muslim claims as his religion (this obviously means that for any such observer there is no one Islam, there are many Islams). To such an observer (if he or she is well-informed), Islam is a religion that started in Arabia, took up very notable strands from Rome (aka Byzantium), Persia, Judaism, etc and evolved into many different schools and sects. An exceptionally well-informed observer could indeed comment that ISIS does not replicate the dominant Sunni theology of the Ummayads or the Abbasids and has more in common with the relatively small Kharijite tradition, but even so, it would be the height of “Whitesplaining” for, say, professor Juan Cole to step in and deign to tell Syrian and Iraqi Muslims in ISIS that they are doing it wrong and their Islam is not “real Islam”. The appropriate answer (and this is exactly the answer many different Jihadist groups have given) is “WE know what Islam is and you dont have to come down from Michigan to tell us what our religion should look like”.  To sum up: well-informed outsiders can indeed note that ISIS is more like this, less like that; not representative of ALL Muslims (who is?), not representative of all Muslim states, not typical of all Islamist movements, etc. But for Bush or Blair to announce that ISIS is not really Islamic carries no weight. Islamic is what Islamists think is Islamic. THEY disagree among themselves, giving rise to many different Islams, Some represent bigger groups and larger sects, some are small cults, but all are Islamic.

For the believing Muslim, the answer depends on what sect/group/tendency they believe in. If their sect/tendency regards extremely vicious and extremely literalist Islamists as unislamic, more power to them. But some of them do indeed regard ISIS as Islamic (as is obvious from the thousands of Muslims (including neo-converts) who have flocked to the banner of ISIS in recent years. Others regard them as mostly Islamic, but occasionally doing things that a good Muslim would not do. This group is not trivial in numbers. Finally, countless others hold no firm opinion, but waiver between admiration of some acts and total opposition to others. Humans have complicated loyalties and psychologies. Would it surprise anyone (or at least, anyone not educated in the current Western postmodern left-liberal “tradition”) that a Palestinian or a Turk or a Pakistani may hold internally contradictory views on ISIS; sometimes admiring their deep faith and readiness to fight for Islam, even against overwhelming odds, other times cursing them for their cruelties, and last but not least, at other times worrying about what ISIS’ actions may do to his or her job prospects, visa status or college prospects. We are all human.

My own view: ALL of Islamic history is characterized by a struggle between three political-theolgoical camps that all appeared fairly early in the rise of the Arab empire and the Islamic religion (the two, empire and religion were obviously intertwined and interdependent):

1. Sunnis. Those who thought the rising Arab empire was best led
by the consensus of the elite, with a tendency to rally around whoever had
managed to fight his way to the top, provided he paid lip service to religion,
patronized the rising ulama class and (most important) kept his eyes on the
ball as far as managing and growing the empire was concerned. While Sunni
clerics developed what seems to be a theory of politics (who is a just ruler?
who has the right to rule? what do the people owe their ruler? etc.) on closer
inspection it turns out to be pretty much divorced from actual politics. Rulers
and their courts had more in common with past Roman, Persian and Central Asian
traditions than anything specifically Islamic. Rulers usually grabbed power by
force, then tried to pass it on to their children rather than some ideal
“just ruler”. Dynasties rose and fell with little concern for
theological rules. No “Muslim church” acquired a tenth of the
influence of the Roman Catholic church. This tradition is not ISIS-like in
detail, but it also paid lip service to ideals that ISIS can and does fling in
the face of “court clerics” who happily go along with whoever happens
to be the ruler (from King Hassan to Hussain to Salman..and even Sisi). Sunni
tradition is not ISIS, but it trains and teaches children using ideals that
ISIS may aspire to more strongly than the Sunni rulers themselves. This
hypocrisy-crisis is a recurrent feature of modern Islamicate politics. And it
is the reason why “moderate Muslims” (aka mainstream Sunnis) regularly fall
prey to “Wahabism”. They are not falling prey to a new religion, they are
falling prey to a more distilled and internally consistent version of what they
have been taught is indeed their own religion. Classical Sunni ideals overlap
with modern Jihadist ideology, their true-believers tend to find Wahabism

2. Shias. Those
who felt there was something special about the family of the prophet and in
particular, the family of Ali and developed theologies that included varying
combinations of the charismatic Imamate and its heritage of revolt against
Sunni authority. Since Shias are a majority in only a few places, (most
important, Iran) and their history includes long periods of conflict with
mainstream Sunni rule, they are more or less immune to the appeal of Sunni
revivalists, whether they are the milder Maudoodi types or the harsher ISIS
types. They have set up their own theocracy in Iran (much more effectively so than
any Sunni revivalist has managed to do) but they are not ISIS. For the purposes of this post (i.e. for outsiders who
dont have to live in Iran), they are “objectively liberal”.

3. Khwarij. The Khwarij insisted that neither the elite, nor the
family of the prophet had a special right to rule. Only the most pious, the
most thoroughly “Islamic” person could do that. Muslims who committed
major sins or failed to meet their standard of Islamic fervor were as much the
enemy as any infidel. Even more so in fact. The Khwarij were always small in
number and they were repeatedly defeated by both Shia and Sunni rulers, but
their tendency has never completely gone away. Something within Islamic
tradition keeps them alive. Mainstream Sunnis frequently pay only lip service
to Jihad and the harshest punishments of shariah law (particularly in modern
times), but these ideals are present in
their theology
. This theology that was rarely an impediment to statecraft
and its priorities in the actual golden age of Islamic imperium, but it still
paid lip service to those ideals. In fact, the more divorced it was from actual
politics, the more it could fly off into discussions about the ideal ruler,the
ideal law and the ideal Jihad, all un-encumbered by any contact with reality.
But ideals can effect some people.
True believers arise, and in times of anarchy and state collapse, they may be
the lowest common denominator, providing a framework around which the asabiya
of Islam can cohere and in which the community can see hope for a return to a
commonly-imagined (though mostly imaginary) golden age.

Groups like the Wahabis, Lashkar e Tayaba,
the Taliban and ISIS are simply combining the waters of 1 and 3, usually with
more 3 than 1. But they are NOT relying on some new ideology invented out of
whole cloth by Wahab or some other evil Saudi. They are (in their own mind and in the mind of many idealistic Muslims)
simply purifying actually existing Sunnism (with its tendency to compromise
with realities). 

In fact, even reformers who have some mainstream cred can drink quite a bit from #3 in this age of Western domination (perhaps to be replaced soon with mixed Chinese AND Western domination, but still with no Islamic empire in sight); see Maudoodi, Syed Qutb and others. Not as far from ISIS as you may wish.

Just as an aside: What about Sufism?

In many cases they can simply be described as
mainstream Sunnis with mystical or humanistic instincts; trying to get the most
good out of religion while leaving out most of the imperialist and legalistic
baggage.  In some cases, they may be more
akin to a secret society (like the Freemasons), influencing much from behind
the scenes, but by definition,  not really
easy to disentangle myth (and self-promotion) from shadowy reality.  In other cases, they may think of themselves
as  the perennial philosophy, operating
within Islam as it operates in all true religions. And in some cases, they are
hardline Sunni Jihadists with a “master and novice” framework added to it,
rallying the troops for holy war and conversion of the infidels. Take your
pick. But in any case, Sufism is not really a sect with one reasonably well-defined theology.

This post is not really qualified to go too deeply into what religion (any religion) may mean (and may do) to those struck by epiphanies on the road to Damascus. That whole issue is alluded to here by the always erudite Tanner Greer. Hopefully, he will have more to say in a longer post soon.

2. Does Islamist Terrorism have anything to do with Islam?
In light of the above, one answer would be: of course not. There IS no one thing called Islam. There are many Islams. And most of them are not terrorist. Case closed.
But, again in the light of the above, one may also say that mainstream Sunni Islam is remarkably uniform in its theology and its ideals. The vast majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis. Within Sunni Islam, there are four recognized schools of law. In principle, the vast majority of Sunnis honor and respect these schools and their doctors. The vast majority has no idea what is IN those schools or in the writings of their doctors, but they honor them and idealize them. It is very common for educated Muslims to own a book or two of fiqh and hadith. Rarely read, but always honored. A small minority of highly westernized postmodern Muslims believe that those medieval books and their authors are no longer valid for us and Islam (like modern Christianity) is more or less “spiritual” and can (or should) be whatever a believer sincerely thinks it is. Even these postmodern Muslims frequently believe that the Quran is the inerrant, literal word of God, but given that most classical Islamic theology is not lifted straight out of the Quran, they feel they can safely reject aspects of classical theology that are no longer fashionable. That they have usually not read the Quran makes this kind of cherry-picking even easier. But as numerous public opinion polls have repeatedly shown, most Sunni Muslims do not share this postmodern view of their religion. Whatever they may do in practice (and they frequently do exactly what adherents of all other religions are doing in similar econcomic and political circumstances; the much-mentioned “Muslims who just want to have a sandwich and send their kids to good schools”), they do believe that Islam is more than just an identity token. They believe it is “a complete code of life” and if enforced in its true letter and spirit, it holds the possibility of reversing all our communal ills. And what is that letter, if not that spirit? it is the books of Shariah written by medieval Sunni theologians. Books that were composed in the midst of a warlike expanding empire by confident intellectuals of a dominant creed. Books that idealize holy war (not “inner struggle”, Karen Armstrong notwithstanding) and a society where Muslims rule and non-Muslims know their (inferior) place in society. Books that idealize pious rulers and the enforcement of shariah law (stonings and amputations included). Books that idealize martyrdom and war against the infidels. Books that prime some of them to fall for preachers who preach purity and a true Islamic state.  Only some of them. But that is enough. A convert from France felt strongly enough about this to sacrifice his own life in a suicide mission that aimed to kill random innocent Frenchmen. Well, not innocent in his eyes any longer.

So yes, classical Sunni Islam tends to prime some people for joining Jihadist organizations (whether ISIS or LET or Islamic Jihad or any other of an alphabet soup of Jihadi groups) and committing atrocities with a good conscience. See the ten young men who went to Mumbai on the first “Mumbai-style attack”; what motivated them to go on that suicide mission? Nothing to do with Islam? I think is hard to say that with a straight face..
Unless you happen to be in the postmodern Western liberal elite, in which case you may suffer from what Tanner Greer callsthe limits of liberal education in the 21st century, far better at teaching platitudes than exploring the depths of the human condition; and the inability of secular elites to understand religion and the religious masses who earnestly believe in them…

3. George Bush/Western colonialism/imperialism is responsible for this attack. 
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: Yes, But.
It is true that the rise of Western power and the defeat of the Ottomans in the first world war created the modern middle east. And it is a staple Western left-liberal talking point (picked up and used by Islamists and by other imperial powers like Russia as needed) that British and French imperialists created the modern Middle East via the Sykes-Picot agreement and messed it up, leading to all or most current problems. This is obviously not true in any strong sense. Britain and France did not look at some blank piece of paper and convert it into the modern Middle East. They grabbed and missed opportunities galore (as did the Turks, who chose the losing side in world war one when they may not have had to do any such thing), worked around existing populations and structures (many of them Imperial Ottoman in origin), argued and tried to double-cross each other before and after Sykes-Picot, were resisted by new forces, adjusted to the results of world wars and local wars, and so short, history happened; not just two people meeting and making up what they wanted and determining all that has happened since then. But let us leave details for another day. Let us use Sykes-Picot as short hand for the modern post World War II Middle Eastern system of nation-states that arose after the brief British and French colonial interlude, primarily (but not always) under the control of local elites groomed or put in place by those two powers.

These elites ruled what were formally (if not very deeply), “Westphalian” nation-states on the “European model”. What that means and why that is so bad (or such an improvement) over past models is another debate we can leave for another day. But the modern Middle East came into being. The states that were created were like most postcolonial states, a mixture of past divisions and new creations, some of them more arbitrary and artificial than others (Pakistani nationalists, take a bow).
Israel was the obvious outlier. With a more Westernized/modern population and with a direct (and at least temporarily, mostly sympathetic) connection to the Western world, it was an order of magnitude more capable (in terms of knowledge, organization, sophistication, ability to fight) than it’s unfortunate neighbors and it’s own aboriginal inhabitants. Even though the physical infrastructure of the state (and the weapons it was able to acquire) were not (at least initially) much superior to those of its enemies, the software was so much better that they were able to whip larger opponents with some regularity. Even so, an order of magnitude is still only an order of magnitude. It may have reached or exceeded the limits of it’s superiority by now. Or it may not. In a battle, it does not matter who is absolutely good at fighting, just who is relatively better. In purely military terms, the Israeli advantage may yet grow; and if present trends accelerate and the Sunni-Shia-Wahabi-Whatever shit totally hits the fan, they may well annex some more territory. History can be cruel. Vae Victis and all that. But moving on..
What about the Arab states of the region?

A. Iraq has splintered after the American invasion and is unlikely to see peace in the immediate future. Some sort of three way division seemed possible, but with ISIS taking over the role of “Sunni resistance”, enough Sunnis may prefer cohabitation with Shias, so maybe the split is not totally final. On the other hand, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states still interested in fighting Shia-Iranian domination, anti-Shia forces may still get enough weapons and money to keep fighting for a very long time. The safest bet is “more of the same”. But whatever happens, in the near future it will not be able to contend for regional hegemon, that much is given.

2. Syria has totally crashed and burned. Neither the Assad regime nor its various opponents(including irreconcilable Sunni-Jihadists) are in a position to win completely anytime soon. Continuing violence seems to be the near and medium-term future.

3. Yemen is in flames and has now been invaded by a multi-national coalition led by Saudi Arabia (ostensibly in support of the last “elected” government of the state). Conquering North Yemen has never been an easy prospect and great powers from Rome to the Ottomans have tried and failed to impose their authority over the whole country. The British took control of Aden (all they really wanted) and managed the surrounding tribes with bribes and punitive policing, but never controlled the whole country. The Egyptian adventure in the 1960s ended up being “Egypt’s Vietnam”, so the chances that the Saudis will prevail completely are pretty much nil. Stil, in the near-term it is likely that the people of Yemen will pay the heaviest price, not the people or the elites of Saudi Arabia. Yemen is broken and no policy, no matter how sensible (a faint possibility in any case) will put it together again in the foreseeable future.

For some White or Desi (as in Indian-ish) Leftists, this is time to say “I told you so”. Some of them have reacted to these implosions with barely disguised glee, celebrating the collapse of the borders and states they had always decried as a colonial imposition, and throwing in formula appeals for a “revolutionary” or “pro-people” program to build a new future, blah blah blah. We can ignore this lot. Other Leftists (especially those with family and friends in the region, who do not have the luxury of simply enjoying being “right” about Sykes-Picot) are more confused. They know there is no leftist hegemon or potential hegemon in view that has a reasonable chance of building a new peace out of this chaos, and they have too much local knowledge to blithely generate fantasy stories about the heroic Syrian regime, or the Yemeni rebels for that matter. Between Asad and Sisi and ISIS, who is one to root for? Many of them will likely end up rooting for the existing “Sykes-Picot” states and forget the dream of erasing those hated borders?  But still, that order was neo-colonial and will not return to status quo ante even if many people wish it were so. As the colonial and neo-colonial order fades, what will replace it (in the region as a whole)? With little local knowledge it is not for me to attempt a detailed prediction, but even with limited knowledge, we can say this much: as in any region, the power that imposes order will have to possess sufficient solidarity and ideological clarity to be able to ensure the loyalty of their own core and to compel the loyalty of a critical mass of those they incorporate into their system of rule. What ideal and what asabiya will provide that glue and that motivation in the middle east?

Sunni Islam is one obvious contender (Arab nationalism was another, but seems to have lost out. Marxism was never a serious contender, smaller ethnic nationalisms will save some). Western intervention has destroyed some states, but not provided an alternative (and really cannot provide an alternative). The result, in Syria and Libya and Sunni Iraq is chaos. In that chaos, ISIS has risen to power in parts of Syria and Iraq. And it has been attacked by many powers. Among them, France and Hezbollah and Russia. And all three have been hit by atrocities against soft targets in response.

Even if one does not believe conspiracy theories about the CIA and Mossad creating or helping ISIS (I don’t), one can easily say that ham-handed/short-sighted Western intervention in Iraq and Syria created the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise. They also created or supported many of the grievances (real and imagined) that local Muslims find humiliating and unjust (again, whether the anger is all justified or not, it hardly matters, this is how it feels to many people). So yes, Bush and imperialism do share the blame. But not necessarily in the total and exculpatory way the postmodern Left imagines.

The alternative to a bad situation is sometimes worse. Shit happens. There is no universal framework of liberal democracy (or socialism, or whatever you regard as ideal) and human rights that exists a priori in all places, only waiting for the overlay of imperialism or neoliberalism to be removed to allow universal peace and tranquillity to break out. Everything is hard work. Institutions take time. Ideologies matter. Humans are humans everywhere, but they do not live in the same history and the same circumstances. Within the limits of what can be done with human biology, much can vary. And sometimes, things fall apart.

Even when they don’t fall apart, one can easily see that not everyone is happy in liberal democracies. In fact, some of their best intellectuals are the most unhappy, and are willing to entertain almost any movement that threatens to overthrow this sorry scheme of things entire…Some of us may fear what will follow if the revolution actually happens, but all of us can agree that the revolutionary dream has support. In the Middle East, this dream may take some Islamicate forms. No surprise.

4. What next? 
More of the same. (i.e., I am out of time. But more later I am sure 🙂 )

Do read Tanner Greer’s post about the limitations of the Western liberal worldview when it comes to Islam, or any religion for that matter.
Excerpt: The truth is that most faiths, though of course not all, possess a concept something like what the Christian Church Fathers called metanoia — usually translated as “repentance” but more properly the transformation of the soul. It is visible in the tales of Paul, Raskolnikov, and Malcolm X. It is not “people get[ting] out of [religions] what they bring into them.” Quite the opposite: it is people getting out of religion what they never had before. Max Fisher of Vox does not misunderstand this because he lacks a grasp of faith: he misunderstands this because he does not grasp the nature of man. He possesses a graduate degree in international security issues from the Johns Hopkins University, writes for a major publication, is a go-to for White House narrative promulgation, and he lacks this most basic element of the liberal education.

This is not to condemn him as any sort of unusual creature. He is not the exception. He is the rule. Our elites are well credentialed: but the danger they pose to us lies in the dismaying truth that they are not wise. Worse, they are not even smart.

Also See this from Razib Khan for another angle.
The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.

I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.

* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.

And Shadi Hamid’s excellent post from 2014: The roots of the Islamic State’s appeal.  

Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics. This isn’t necessarily bad or good. It just is. Comparing it with other religions helps illuminate what makes it so. For example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP may be Hindu nationalists, but the ideological distance between them and the secular Congress Party isn’t as great as it may seem. In part, this is because traditional Hindu kingship—with its fiercely inegalitarian vision of a caste-based social order—is simply less relevant to modern, mass politics and largely incompatible with democratic decision-making. As Cook writes in his new book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Muslims, on the other hand, not only have a law but also one that is taken seriously by large majorities throughout the Middle East.

..If ISIS and what will surely be a growing number of imitators are to be defeated, then statehood—and, more importantly, states that are inclusive and accountable to their own people—are essential. The state-centric order in the Arab world, for all its artificiality and arbitrariness, is preferable to ungoverned chaos and permanently contested borders. But for the Westphalian system to survive in the region, Islam, or even Islamism, may be needed to legitimate it. To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.

Last but not the least, from Ali Minai, unreal Islam. 
Which brings us back to the issue of “real Islam”. As someone in love with the cultural traditions of Islam and as a diligent student of its history, I agree that the acts of the jihadis do not represent the vast majority of Muslims today or in history. Humans are a violent species and Muslims have contributed their share, but it is completely asinine to think that Muslims have been, historically, any more violent than other groups. However, it is equally absurd to deny that the ideology underlying jihadism draws upon mainstream Islamic beliefs and is, therefore, undeniably a form of “real Islam” – albeit of a very extreme form. It is more accurate to say that this extremism is “not the only Islam”, and, by historical standards, it is a version very different from what the vast majority of Muslims have practiced. That’s why groups espousing such puritanical and rigid attitudes were traditionally called “khawarij” – the alienated ones. At the same time, Muslims should acknowledge that they have not constructed the logical and theoretical framework within which extremism can be rejected formally. If anything, the opposite has happened in the last century, with increasingly literalist attitudes gaining strength for political reasons. And that is the core problem: A literal reading of even moderate Muslim beliefs can, and does, lead to behaviors incompatible with modern society. Like Christians, Jews, Hindus and others, Muslims have to turn towards a less literal, more inspirational and humanistic reading of their sacred traditions, drawing from them principles that can stand the test of time rather than literal, ahistorical prescriptions. This does not require the invention of a “new Islam”, or the imposition of an “official Islam” by states. Nor does it require a rewriting of Muslim sacred texts any more than the Enlightenment needed a rewriting of the Old Testament – Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding. What is needed is a change of attitude, of how people relate to the texts and traditions. Strong strands of humanism, compassion, diversity of ideas and acceptance of differences already exist within the Islamic tradition – among Sufis, among poets, and even among scholars. The trick is to rediscover, re-emphasize and reinterpret them for our times. And even as we wring our hands in despair, brave individuals within Muslim societies are trying to ignite just such a change at great risk to their lives. The least we can do is to add our voices to theirs.

Oh, and Razib Khan on the poverty of multicultural discourse: Excerpts
The problem with the bleeding over of academic “discourse” into the public forum is that it obfuscates real discussion, and often has had a chilling effect upon attempts at moral or ethical clarity. Unlike the individual above I am skeptical of moral or ethical truth in a deep ontological sense. But I have opinions on the proper order of things on a more human scale of existence. You don’t have to reject the wrongness of a thing if you reject the idea that that thing is wrong is some deep Platonic sense. I can, in some cases will, make the argument for why some form of the Western liberal democratic order is superior to most other forms of arranging human affairs, despite being a skeptic of what I perceive to be its egalitarian excesses. I can, and in some cases will, make the argument for why legal sexual equality is also the preferred state of human affairs. But to have this discussion I have to be forthright about my norms and presuppositions, and not apologize for them. They are what they are, and the views of those who disagree are what they are.

An academic discourse tends to totally muddy a clear and crisp discussion. The reality is that most Egyptians have barbaric attitudes on a whole host of questions (e.g., ~80 percent of Egyptians favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam). It was not surprising at all that the majority of the Egyptian electorate supported parties with reactionary cultural political planks; because the classification of these views as “reactionary” only makes sense if you use as your point of reference the Westernized social and economic elite. The majority of Egyptians have never been part of this world, and for them upward mobility has been accompanied by a greater self-consciousness of their Islamic identity.

This reality is not comforting to many, and so there has been an evasion of this. If we accept, for example, the hegemonic superiority of sexual equality, should we not impose the right arrangement upon those who oppress women? This is a serious question, but the fear of engaging in “dangerous” analysis in the “discourse” allows us to sidestep this question. Rather, by minimizing the concrete realities of cultural difference and the depths of their origin, Egyptians are easily transformed into Czechs in 1989 with browner skins and a Muslim affiliation. This is a totally false equivalence. As Eastern Europeans go the Czech population is atypical in its secularism and historical commitment to liberal democracy (one could argue the weakness of the Catholic church goes as far back as the Hussite rebellion and the later suppression of Protestantism by the Habsburgs). While other post-World War I polities switched toward authoritarianism in the inter-war period, the Czechs retained a liberal democratic orientation until the Nazi German invasion. After the collapse of Communism they reverted back to this state. Notably, extreme nationalist parties with anti-democratic tendencies have come to the fore in most post-Communist states, but not so in the Czech Republic.

The irony here is that an academic position which espouses the deep incommensurability of different societies and cultures in terms of their values, rendering inter-cultural analysis or critique suspect, has resulted in the domain of practical discussion a tendency to recast inter-cultural differences of deep import into deviations or artificialities imposed from the outside. In this particular case that artificiality is the Egyptian military, but in most cases it is Western colonialism, which has an almost demonic power to reshape and disfigure postcolonial societies, which lack all internal agency or direction. This is simply not the true state of affairs. The paradoxical fact is that there is commensurability across very different cultures. You can understand, analyze, and critique other societies, if imperfectly. For example, I can understand, and even agree with, some of the criticisms of Western society by Salafist radicals for its materialism and excessive focus on proximate hedonism. The Salafists are not aliens, but rather one comprehensible expression of human cultural types. But that does not deny that I find their vision of human flourishing abhorrent. I understand it, therefore I reject it.

And my own comment on the multiculti question: 

“One angle (not the most important one, but I think its there) could be that while many casual adherents and self-satisfied groupthink nurtured “thinkers” are just mindlessly repeating the party line there ARE a number of people who are seriously committed to what they imagine is a worldwide organized movement to overthrow the existing system (including the system in which they work and draw a salary or get grants). i.e. they may know that a lot of their bullshit is bullshit, but its useful bullshit in a higher cause. It undermines the dominant civilization and its armies and bankers (or so they think..I think the actual contribution of Tariq Ali or even the far more scholarly Vijay Prashad to bringing down Western civ is negligible compared to the contribution of wall street bankers). but there IS a hardcore of calculation and conscious propaganda mixed into the postcolonial bullshit…

Brown Pundits