Thursday, December 4, 2008


Over at Get Religion, a discussion of the reasons behind the Mumbai attacks-- specifically, why the terrorists targeted Jews.

I'm sorry, but news like this can't be dismissed as the product of a lying press. I won't go as far as Malcolm in contending that the violence is indicative of an inherent problem in Islam, but the correlation between global terrorism and Islam is undeniable. A history of poverty and brutal oppression fails to explain all the violence and death perpetrated by certain Muslims on the global scene: if those factors were sufficient, we should routinely see international terrorism by Hindu hijackers angered by the memory of the British Raj, as well as African Americans exacting a bloody vengeance on white Americans for all the long years of slavery in the New World. In neither case do we see such violence, despite the fact that poverty persists in India and racism continues to bedevil blacks in America. No: the terrorists don't get my sympathy, and I've never bought the Edward Said school of thought that paints the Muslim world as a rape victim ravished by the rampant West. Oh, would that things were so simple.

But Islam isn't inherently violent. My take is that it's not inherently anything: Islam is as it's practiced, a refrain you've read before on this blog. Peaceful Muslims incarnate a peaceful Islam; violent Muslims incarnate a violent Islam. What Islam is is therefore a complex matter, not easily reducible to a fundamental this or that. Christianity has a blood-soaked history, too, and it's primarily Christians today who are doing most of the tut-tutting about Muslim violence. Personally, I see Islam as going through a nasty phase in its history, and the end result will be, I hope, something far more peaceable on the global scene. If Islam doesn't help itself toward a more irenic orientation, non-Muslim parties will grimly set about the task of helping Islam along, and that's not going to be pleasant for anyone.



Omandazzzler said...

well said.

Kevin said...

Hope you guys had a good Thanksgiving, A! Did the art arrive intact?


Rhesus said...

As long as religious practice is derived, even in part, from some text or texts (particularly those viewed as divinely inspired), that practice is going to retain a certain consistent character. This is particularly true when, as is the case with Islam, there are specific, established ways these texts are to be interpreted. And these texts are hardly conciliatory to non-Muslims, to say the least.

Is there any Muslim authority (I don't mean an "authority" on Islam, like John Esposito), anywhere in the world, who has declared in consistent terms that jihad is heretical, or even wrong? Declarations that violence shouldn't be committed against "innocents" don't count, since "innocents" could simply be taken to mean "Muslims."

Omandazzzler said...

It was pleasant. I always feel awkward when families are co-mingling, but I dealt with it. We are even going to attempt hosting Xmas here. Yeehaw!

Kevin said...


Good luck with the Yuletide festivities. Some families get along really well (my buddy Mike is great pals with his in-laws; my buddy Charles in Seoul also loves his in-laws); others vary from tense and wary to outright adversarial. May the event pass smoothly.


Interesting points. Regarding this:

"As long as religious practice is derived, even in part, from some text or texts (particularly those viewed as divinely inspired), that practice is going to retain a certain consistent character."

There's truth to this because adherents in all places and times can return to the same scriptures, so I see your point. But I'd submit that, because an adherent's relationship with scripture is necessarily a hermeneutical one, that relationship is subject to change (one person changing over time) and variation (different people's approach to the same scripture).

Case in point: feminist Islam. While not exactly the biggest movement to come out of the Muslim tradition, modern Muslim feminists look at the Qur'an and interpret Muhammad's treatment of women as enlightened for his era. In other words, they view Muhammad, who accorded women more rights in peninsular society than they'd had previously, as an innovator who began a trend that needs to be continued. Once the scriptures are interpreted in this manner, the door to feminism opens wide.

Islam often gets a bad rap (justifiably, in my opinion) for the way women in many Muslim countries are treated. But this doesn't have to be the case, and the very existence of Muslim feminism is evidence that woman-friendly forms of Islam are not only possible but practicable.

My larger point is that scripture, despite its status as a reference or authority, doesn't necessarily lead to behavioral consistency over time; it's often possible for a tradition to evolve away from more distasteful behavior toward something more civilized, often by radically reinterpeting scriptural passages to mean the opposite of what might have originally been intended. The Christian world did something like this; the end result is arguably (and perhaps ironically) modern Western secularism.


Sufi Guy said...

Muslim Voices Against Terrorism

As far as poverty in India goes, recent statistics show that Indian Muslims are worse off than Dalits (untouchables) in many ways.

Does this somehow excuse the attacks? Not at all. But does it render the actions more understandable? Perhaps.

Sufi Guy said...

I should also add that your analogy with African Americans and Indians vis a vis the British Raj aren't really accurate, since the motivation for the attacks continues to this day. The genocide of Gujurati Muslims, the situation in Kashmir, and other instances of oppression are very fresh in the minds of the attackers.

Again, this isn't to absolve the terrorists of their despicable actions or to paint them in a sympathetic light. However, I think that to simply write this off as a case of Islamic "extremism" is to miss the primary motivating factors. Identity, whether as a Muslim or any other identification, often only becomes an issue when it is being attacked.

Rhesus said...

super short - oh time, where art thou?

There are a lot of problems with re-interpretation. Reinterpreting some kinds of passages is easy when the original meaning is poetic or vague. with others, the meaning is clearer:

"Whoever changes his religion, kill him."
(Bukhari Haditha - 3017)

It's possible to reinterpret this. However, this would require a shift in understanding in which no part of the text could be held to mean what it seems to say. That is, the text wouldn't have any firm meaning at all. But how could the word of a god (or a prophet) have contingent meaning?

Sufi Guy,

I like Sufis. As for that site, show me a group called "Muslims Against Jihad." Then I'll think that maybe progress is being made.

Kevin said...

Sufi Guy,

Thanks for the link and the comments. It's important to remember that plenty of Muslims do decry the violence.

I think my analogies hold water because the basic issue is choice. Human freedom can be circumscribed by events, but never eliminated. It follows that people, even under duress, remain responsible for their actions.

I think you and I both agree that the terrorists are engaged in something despicable. But we might differ as to the degree to which they should be considered accountable for their actions. To my mind, no amount of explanation about the background of a given conflict will ever be enough to trump human freedom. The fact is that people can choose to live peaceably even after suffering great injustice, which was the point I was trying (and perhaps failing) to make.

The Dalai Lama and his people in Dharamsala are a good example of what I mean. If it were my country that was in danger of disappearing (heh... imagine Canada claiming that America was always Canadian soil, then moving in and taking over), I admit I'd probably become violent and do my damnedest to defend it. The thought of my entire country simply disappearing, as seems to be happening in Tibet, would make me wild with fury. But the Dalai Lama has chosen to try to work within the framework of the paradigm forced on the Tibetans, who are no strangers to the rape and destruction of their culture. While I don't agree with him (I agree with the dour Korean monk who grumbled, "He should've stayed in Tibet"), I respect his stance and understand that he's probably saved Tibetan lives by taking the nonviolent path. Such behavior is an option for more than just the Dalai Lama and his people.

The Palestinian situation is another example of what I'm talking about, though it's an example of how not to resolve conflicts. I don't consider Israelis blameless, here-- I actually think the Palestinians deserve a homeland, and many Israelis agree. But suicide bombings, dancing in the street by the thousands after 9/11, rocking throwing by children, and sniping Israeli soldiers... these aren't methods that will result in a lasting peace, nor do they inspire trust. (To be clear, I'm aware of how complex the situation there is; there are, for example, plenty of Israeli-Palestinian friendships at stake in the larger conflict.) If my sympathies generally lie more with Israel than with the Palestinians, it's largely because Israel represents a strong secular democracy in the middle of an increasingly theocratic region. There's no reason the Middle East can't change itself to be more like technologized Islamic countries like Malaysia, where various cultures live together in relative-- if not perfect-- peace.

Anyway, that's where I was going with my original post.


Kevin said...

I should further note one of Malcolm's recent posts, which links to an article that makes a point made in many other circles regarding the volatility of certain elements in the Muslim world.

Victimization arguments only diminish the people making them; they don't accord the arguers a moral high ground or make them more worthy of respect or understanding. People who are suing for peace, though, deserve a hearing.

Let's put it this way: burning an embassy because of a few irreverent cartoons is indicative of a sickness. I know Muslims who would probably have laughed at those cartoons the way I laugh at irreverent cartoons about Jesus, and I wish those Muslims were the rule.


I agree with everything you wrote, but hold out hope that radical reinterpretations of scripture will take hold in Muslim culture. Christianity ran up against Enlightenment skepticism and became, in many respects, a subtler tradition as a result (though the pendulum may be swinging more toward the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, which is worrisome). The label "Christian" today covers a wide and often contradictory set of religious orientations, from out-there liberal nontheists like me (and John Hick and John Shelby Spong) to classically theistic Bible thumpers like... well, just turn on the TV and you'll see them.


Kevin said...

Just noticed my typo: "rocking throwing" should of course read "rock throwing."



Sufi Guy said...


I don't think there will ever be a group called "Muslims against Jihad" since striving or struggling on behalf of God---the actual meaning of the word---is an integral part of Islam. Jihad as a concept doesn't have any necessary connection with warfare. The problem isn't "jihad" but a particular interpretation and application of jihad on the part of terrorists.


I agree that terrorists are fully responsible for their actions, and I'm not trying to give them a pass or otherwise absolve them of responsibility.

Having said that, we should not be surprised at their actions, given human nature. When people are oppressed, often the natural reaction is to strike back at the oppressor. Is that an ethical response? A constructive response? Of course not, but all things considered it is the most likely response, human nature being what it is. While oppressed peoples need to find constructive and peaceful ways to get their message across, at the same time the agents of oppression also need to change their position. And in many ways, the impetus is on the oppressor, insofar as they occupy a position of relative strength and security. Shrugging one's shoulders and saying, "Well, those Muslims need to modernize," without addressing the underlying causes of anger and dissatisfaction, is only going to ensure that these acts of violence continue. People resort to terrorism out of a sense of desperation and hopelessness, when there is no other way for their voices to be heard. That doesn't make their choice to commit violence right or valid in any way, but it is why such acts have been committed and will no doubt continue in the future.

As for the Middle East, I absolutely believe there needs to be reform in terms of government and civic and personal freedom. And certainly a large portion of that responsibility rests with the inhabitants of the Middle East. But at the same time, to ignore the role of certain external powers in perpetuating the situation over there is foolhardy. If it weren't for US and British intervention, Iran would be a secular democracy. Likewise, one of the major things keeping the fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia going is US support. The same is true of the autocratic dictatorship in Egypt. The same is true of Israel. And don't even get me started on Iraq (or Israel, for that matter).

It's interesting to note that there are changes being made in the Middle East---the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and other Gulf States have become world-renowned financial and cultural centers. Not coincidentally, these states are also free of outside meddling.

The point is, while I fully agree that there need to be internal changes, without an external changes these are unlikely to happen.

Sufi Guy said...

And not to derail this into a discussion of Israel and Palestine, but given that Jews have more rights than non-Jews in Israel, I would question its supposed "secularism"....

Rhesus said...

Sufi Guy said

"I don't think there will ever be a group called "Muslims against Jihad" since striving or struggling on behalf of God---the actual meaning of the word---is an integral part of Islam."
Exactly. And will there ever be a time when at least some Muslims don't understand jihad to include violent struggle? After all, how many hadiths mention the peaceful "greater jihad?" And anyway, if god's will is that everyone should be in submission to him, striving on behalf of god should take account of this goal, even if that striving is "peaceful."

Also - It's only a short distance from "we shouldn't be surprised at their actions" to "their actions are justified." In fact, there's hardly a difference. Following this logic, the Copts in Egypt should've formed an insurgency years ago. Or maybe they're where they deserve to be?

OSweet said...

Can't wait till this suicide-bombing thing really catches on globally and multiculturally (because the anti-American left, our moral paragons, refuses to really stand up intellectually against it) and becomes the normative means to fight "oppression."

And Mexicans here in southern Cal start blowing themselves up in like Chuck E. Cheeze's.

Or Native Americans start blowing themselves up in like Mexican churches. Etc.

Rhesus said...

Uh, what?