Some ideas just won’t stay dead

There’s been quite a cross-blog conversation going on the subject of which is the alleged vileness and irredeemability of Islam. It began, I guess, with Dean Esmay’s great post, “Fisking the Islamophobes”. The next phase of the discussion consisted of a number of emails exchanged between Dean and Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch. That’s explained in this post of Dean’s.

James Joyner of Outside the Beltway then weighed in with the post, “Muslim Moderates”. My contribution to the discussion consisted of a comment I made to that post:

Although I’m a contributor to Dean’s World and I consider Dean a friend, I haven’t commented on the argument over there.

I think they’re arguing at cross-purposes—about different things.

Religion just doesn’t work that way. Whether you’re talking about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other religion there are two rather different things: the formal doctrine of the religion and the folk religion—the religion as it is actually practiced by its adherents.

There’s an enormous variety in practice within Christianity from Opus Dei (which is getting considerable press these days) to Congregationalism (or even, arguably, Unitarianism). Within a single Christian denomination, Roman Catholicism, there’s considerable variety in the folk religion.

I’m not an expert on Islam but it’s obvious to me that there’s a separation between the formal tenets of the relgion and the folk religion in Islam as well and an enormous variety in practice.

You can study the formal tenets as represented by the Qu’ran and the various associated texts for an eternity and learn little about the folk religion. Just my two cents.

In a related vein you might want to check out the extensive quotation fromn the social anthropologist, philosopher, and student of Islam Ernest Gellner in this post of mine (out-of-print and, apparently, not available elsewhere on the web).

John Burgess of the excellent blog Crossroads Arabia, who’s also a contributor to OTB, then made a tremendous comment in support of mine and posted his own thoughts here in which he describes what he believes the real problem is and proposes some solutions.

Dean has fired the next salvo and this time it’s aimed at someone named Pierre LeGrand. The short version of Dean’s post is “It’s not that simple”. I won’t try to summarize Dean’s post. He makes a number of important points and cites some good resources. Go over and read it yourself.

The one point I’d like to make in closing is that there’s an extremely obvious reason that those in the Muslim world who believe in peace, tolerance, and liberal values haven’t risen up to eject those that are genuinely vile from their midst: many are scared. They’ve been beaten down for a very long time, they live cheeck-by-jowl with some of the vile and intolerant, and it’s far from certain what or when the outcome of the current struggle might be.

5 comments… add one
  • I think there’s a more important reason why moderate Muslims aren’t rising against the radical and fringe elements of the religion. The reason is that they really have no idea of which side to choose. What do I mean by that? Mainly, that in an Islamic world where secularism (particularly in Egypt and Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) is identified with repressive and abusive states, moderates have no reason to choose them over the Islamist, because at the end of the day, at least the Islamists are fighting the same enemy who is oppressing the moderates. Further, another problem with the regimes in the region, even the religious ones, is that they are corrupt and almost without exception authoritarian. Part of the appeal of bin Laden and the Islamists, is not so much their brand of religion, but rather the fact that they are fighting against the status quo in the region. The support stems from the fact that they are seeking to overturn the order that for so long has maintained the Muslim world under its thumb. Unfortunately for us, the way the debate has been framed, and the manner in which history and events are being perceived, the US is part of the problem. Why? Because during the Cold War we supported many of the autocrats that continue to be in power there today, in fact we still support them. The US is a close ally of the House of Saud, the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, the autocrat in Egypt, more recently the dictator in Kazakhstan. Our rhetoric many times doesn’t match the reality on the ground, particularly as it regards the democracy promotion. Even in Palestine, we are perceived as trying to undermine the democratically elected government of Hamas (whom most still see as a national liberation movement and not a terrorist organization). This is not to say that they are right, but the perception is that this is what is going on. In addition, people also perceive us as protecting Israel financially and militarily by crafting allliances with these dictators in exchange for security for Israel. Additionally, this perception is exacerbated by our willingness to take down any power in the region that threatens Israel’s existence, even if just rhetorically. Osama, and Islamists use these perceptions as a means of delegitimizing the rulers of the region (not that hard a thing to do) and to gain legitimacy for themselves. While people may not want the type of society Osama and Islamists seek to create, they do support them (to a point) because all feel/believe that the status quo is untenable. They have a common enemy, the various autocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships in the Middle East and by extension the country that is seen as propping them up, mainly, us.
    To win this war, that is the perception that we must attack and change. The commitment of our government to democracy promotion, has to a limited extent gone a long way to at least bringing up questions about the perception or the accepted common wisdom. However the manner in which it has been applied (where only those people that we like, we consider to be legitimate) has done much to detract from what we have gained. One thing that has damaged our effort tremendously is not following up or pressuring Egypt to liberalize further. Once our pressure dropped, Egypt ceased all pretenses of reforming itself or opening itself. The Kazakhstan deal harmed us at least equally, because we were willing to lie in bed with one of the most repressive dictators in the world without adequately explaining the reasons for doing so, or how it was not a withdrawal or betrayal of our promotion of democracy (as in, economic connectivity can bring about change, hence engagement is but a means to achieve a more open society in the long run). We didn’t do that, so the perception that we are backtracking remains.
    Why is this important? Because if the people of the Arab and Muslim world, don’t feel that they can trust us (i.e. we are no better than the autocrats they want to replace) they have no reason pick a side, because either with Osama or the status quo their lives have no hope for improvement. Given that more than anything they want to change the status quo, the scale is tipped in the Islamists direction because at least they promise change, whereas all we seem to be promising is a half hearted effort at reforming our allies, and a violent effort to overthrow anyone challenging Israel. Unless we change the perception of us, and what we are fighting for, we won’t give the people an incentive to switch sides or more importantly pick our side, and if we fail in that, we loose the war.

  • I think you’ve made a lot of good points in that comment, nykrindc, most of which I agree with.

    Frankly, I think we have virtually no ability to influence opinion in the Middle East. Through the region the organs of the dissemination of information are either controlled by the state or religious institutions which are more likely to be favorably disposed to Osama Bin Laden than to us. We simply have no way of getting our message through in any effective way.

    Given enough time the conditions of the modern day and, possibly, VOA-type measures could get the message through. I don’t believe we have that kind of time. By the time those measures could have enough effect it will be moot.

    My own preference was for the measures that a tremendous number of Americans, many of good will, really, really don’t want to do: dramatically change the way we operate with respect to the rest of the world. It’s increasingly clear that’s not going to happen.

    The matter in which I disagree most with your comment is the notion that we’ll somehow lose the war. I don’t believe there’s any way we can actually lose. But I do believe that many, many more people will die than might have.

  • J Thomas Link

    VOA wasn’t that effective even agaijnst the communists. Where we did best was to report true things the local regimes were suppressing. We made no attempt to stir up ideological trouble.We spouted capitalist propaganda at them, which they ignored since they mostly considered it discredited and useless.

    If we’d only given a platform for trotskyites etc we might have gotten some sort of result.

    I think we’d be better off with a dramatic change in the way we operate wrt the rest of the world too. If we’d just approach the world with an attitude of tolerance and freedom, if we stopped trying to control everybody and only went to war when they refuse to tolerate us … but as you say it’s not going to happen.

  • Dave, I disagree, there is rather more influence than I think you understand.

    Further, this statement is plain wrong: Through the region the organs of the dissemination of information are either controlled by the state or religious institutions which are more likely to be favorably disposed to Osama Bin Laden than to us. We simply have no way of getting our message through in any effective way.

    That is pure rubbish.

    The Arab Sats, while not well-disposed to the US, are hardly controlled by the state or religious institutions (in fact in the MENA region, there is little in the way of ‘religious institutions’ aside from the Shiites).

    Now as to the comment that the US ‘stop trying to control’ made by J Thomas supra, well, Powers do that, and it is naive to think it will not happen. Even if the US tried to back out, it would get sucked in – and if it did nothing in MENA region, it would still be blamed. Lose-lose.

    Certainly, however, a better approach to the MENA region would be smart. Backing bankrupt regimes like Egypt’s is a long term loser, for all that the short-term gains are understandable. To take an example.

  • Well, that’s good news, Lounsbury. No dispute about the Sats. Aren’t most newspapers and radio stations state-controlled? I could certainly be mistaken.

    Actually, I’ve been favorably impressed by the discourse of Al Jazeera, etc. as represented by Marc Lynch. Someday I’ll have to put in my two cents on the implications of the widespread available of Al-J from a linguistic standpoint.

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