Thursday, January 20, 2011

Muslim Good, Islamophobe Bad

A few times before I've put on the hat of a professor of rhetoric--not in the sense of a sophist who tinkers with words like an alchemist trying to turn base metals into gold, but in the honorable tradition that made rhetoric one of the liberal arts. The rhetorical tradition, as John O'Malley argues in the under-appreciated classic Four Cultures of the West, is what kept alive the appreciation for literary works, the concern for style as well as substance, in eras when doctrinal exactitude would otherwise have trumped all other concerns. Hence celibate monks in 9th century Ireland recopied bawdy lyrics by Ovid, out of reverence for their eloquent use of language. Augustine and other Church fathers urged the study of pagan authors so that Christian preachers might polish their style. This attitude--not always uniformly observed, but prevalent in the Christian world--toward Europe's pagan past stands starkly in contrast to Islam's scathing contempt for the works of the Jahilaya (age of absolute ignorance).

Nowadays, it seems that Muslims are finally willing to learn from the kuffars; observing the rhetoric that has served other discontented minorities in the West, they have learned how to evade rational engagement with the arguments of opponents, and instead cast themselves as victims, and the rest of us as fearful bigots. Robert Spencer has written before on the origins of the buzzword "Islamophobe," citing Claire Berlinski:

The neologism "Islamophobia" did not simply emerge ex nihilo. It was invented, deliberately, by a Muslim Brotherhood front organization, the International Institute for Islamic Thought, which is based in Northern Virginia....Abdur-Rahman Muhammad, a former member of the IIIT who has renounced the group in disgust, was an eyewitness to the creation of the word. "This loathsome term," he writes, "is nothing more than a thought-terminating cliche conceived in the bowels of Muslim think tanks for the purpose of beating down critics."

Muhammad describes the strategy behind the word's invention: In an effort to silence critics of political Islam, advocates needed to come up with terminology that would enable them to portray themselves as victims. Muhammad said he was present when his then-allies, meeting at the offices of the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Northern Virginia years ago, coined the term "Islamophobia."

Muhammad said the Islamists decided to emulate the homosexual activists who used the term "homophobia" to silence critics. He said the group meeting at IIIT saw "Islamophobia" as a way to "beat up their critics."

In other words, Muslims in the West took advantage of the fact that most of their adherents were members of ethnic minorities to exploit racial guilt, and equate the distaste of Westerners for Islamic doctrine with hostility to foreign customs and funny accents. On this theory, Robert Spencer, Bat Ye'or, Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali aren't opposed to sharia, honor killings, child marriage, polygamy or genital mutilation; they're terrified of hummus, hookah pipes, and shish kebabs. Now, it might very well be true that the average "man in the street" in a Western country who viscerally opposes Islam also has some measure of xenophobia; it's a universal, if regrettable, feature of human nature. Surely, some of the populist groups around the world that channel native resistance to Islamic immigration harness and trade on this less-noble motive. No doubt, many volunteers in the R.A.F. in 1940 simply hated "the Hun," without a deep understanding of National Socialist ideology.

But the leftist and multiculturalist writers who use the term "Islamophobe" know perfectly well that the thinking critics of Islam are not a group of narrow-minded nativists. The works of the authors I cited center not on the foreign customs or racial identity of Muslims, but on the abstract assertions Islam makes about morality and politics, and the concrete actions taken by Muslim supremacists against innocent civilians around the world--from the victims of 9/11, to Copts in Egypt, Assyrians in Iraq, Jews in Israel and Protestants in Pakistan. In other words, our constituency is universal; the victims we seek to defend are of every race, both sexes, and every religion--since we even speak for the rights of Muslims deemed heterodox for rejecting sharia. As Ibn Warraq notes in Why I Am Not a Muslim, self-identified Muslims are the primary victims, around the world, of the backward and bigoted politics prescribed by Muslim authorities. Of course, we should not overstress this point, lest we come off as condescending. We are not primarily trying to save Muslims from themselves; that is their job. We're protecting ourselves and our societies, and speaking up for helpless minorities trapped in intolerant societies.

Now French political philosopher Pascal Bruckner has entered the debate over the usefulness of "Islamophobia," commenting in Sign and Sight:

At the end of the 1970s, Iranian fundamentalists invented the term "Islamophobia" formed in analogy to "xenophobia". The aim of this word was to declare Islam inviolate. Whoever crosses this border is deemed a racist. This term, which is worthy of totalitarian propaganda, is deliberately unspecific about whether it refers to a religion, a belief system or its faithful adherents around the world.

But confession has no more in common with race than it has with secular ideology. Muslims, like Christians, come from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Europe, just as Marxists, liberals and anarchists come or came from all over. In a democracy, no one is obliged to like religion, and until proved otherwise, they have the right to regard it as retrograde and deceptive. Whether you find it legitimate or absurd that some people regard Islam with suspicion - as they once did Catholicism - and reject its aggressive proselytism and claim to total truth - this has nothing to do with racism.

Do we talk about 'liberalophobia' or 'socialistophobia' if someone speaks out against the distribution of wealth or market domination?

I wonder why fair-minded people do not see this obvious point--that Islam is a worldview, which makes a long list of very demanding truth-claims about objective reality, claims absolute supremacy over the faculty of human reason, insists that it "corrects" the "falsified" scriptures both of Judaism and Christianity, and most importantly, contains within its teachings and traditions the proper legal and political arrangements for the governance of the entire human race. It is a totalizing system, as comprehensive as Marxist-Leninism ever was, with aspirations as universal as Leon Trotsky's were when he agitated for a worldwide Communist revolution. Islam is militant and aggressive, as the anarchist movement was in the late 19th century, serving as the motive force for uncountable acts of violence against civilians. It is massively well-funded, with subsidies flowing to hard-line mosques around the world, as money flowed from Mussolini and Hitler to fund Oswald Mosley's fascist movement in Britain. In every sense of the word, Islam is an ideology--a "secondary reality," to use Eric Voegelin's term, which provides its self-conscious adherents with a political and social plan of action. Having established this, we can turn and ask our critics: Does being black do that? Do Asians have a totalitarian political system hard-wired into their psyches? Does Jewish descent bring with it a universal aspiration to impose a single system of thought across the world? Only bigots would think so. But all these things are true of Islam--which makes it fair game for rational criticism.

Voegelin noted in The New Science of Politics how ideologues manipulate discourse by "forbidding the questions" that might undermine their philosophical houses of cards. Nazis routinely dismissed scientific objections to their hodgepodge pseudo-Darwinism as examples of "Jewish thinking." Marxists evade critiques of Marx's dysfunctional economics by claiming that critics are caught up in a "bourgeois" mentality. Indeed, Marxists assert the different modes of logic obtain among the various social classes--making rational discourse between them completely impossible. What are the questions that today's appeasers of Islam forbid? Let me lay some out, and invite readers to add any others that occur to them:

• What does Islamic theory and contemporary practice teach about freedom of religion and the equality of citizens, regardless of their religious status?

• How committed are Muslims to establishing sharia wherever they can? Where are the Muslim authorities willing to abandon sharia, or reform it?

• How is sharia compatible with the inalienable rights we treasure, and regard as due to every human being?

• Where are the Muslim societies that treat women as legal and moral equals?

These are the questions our critics want to drown out, with the bleat of slogans and slurs they use in place of rational discourse. Just as the sheep in Orwell's Animal Farm were trained to bleat "Four legs good, two legs bad," Muslim apologists and appeasers will continue to use the rhetoric of victimhood to forbid questions and put us on the perpetual defensive. They will model their efforts on the hugely successful example of anti-anti-Communism, which for decades let Western leftists dismiss the atrocities of Stalin and of Mao. They will call us McCarthyites, xenophobes, bigots, and most of all Islamophobes. They will hide, as the Hollywood Ten and their defenders did, behind our most sacred beliefs and treasured freedoms. All we can do in response is to keep on asking our inconvenient questions.

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