Elizabeth Moon on Islam “Citizenship”

I don’t know Elizabeth Moon personally, I don’t know her work, and I don’t have a clue whether her recent post (from a couple of weeks ago) ought to come as much of a surprise.

I do know that there is some really questionable, problematic stuff in her post titled “Citizenship” — and as much as people were calling it a post on Islam, Islam isn’t the main topic.

Which isn’t to deny that most of what’s off-putting and tiresome and all too familiar about it is what she says about Islam; my point is that there’s more in there that’s troublesome, worrisome, and all-too-familiar.

The main purpose of the post may well be — as it seems — to bash on Islam, but she constructs her bashing as a discourse on citizenship, and a fairly shaky one at that, and it’s the shakiness that reveals a deeper, more frightening distortion of thinking — one that is integral not only to the hatefulness in her words, but also its social implications.

I’m talking about the nationalist conception of citizenship that saturates the beginning, starting with a fairly understandable and agreeable statement:

… the person with no loyalty to anything but his/her own pleasure is not a noble hero of individualism, but a pathetic failure as a human being.

There is, of course, more than one way to be a failure as a human being, but this is a form of failure very popular at the moment and–as it has considerable power to make others miserable–it’s one I’m particularly aware of right now. One of the loudest (actually THE loudest) voices on the panel blared at one point “The business of business is profit.” Well…yes. But that doesn’t mean that the business of business is smart, or useful to the country, when business is granted the rights of a citizen but not the responsibility.

… and proceeding on to something much darker and terrifying, in germinative form:

Because citizens have another business, besides whatever pays their rent…the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation.

The definition of “success” for a business may be rising stock prices, or increased sales…but the definition of success for a citizen has nothing to do with stock prices or corporate income…a citizen is a success–as a citizen–inasmuch as that individual makes things better. It does not matter how: a parent who conveys to their children the responsibility of citizenship–that the world is not their bowl of cherries, but everyone’s bowl of cherries, that they owe something to the society that nurtured them–that parent is a success as a citizen. The honest shopkeeper, the honest craftsperson, the honest teacher, the honest tradesperon, the honest truckdriver; those who obey the laws and make roads safer by their driving or make neighborhoods safer by their cooperation; those who volunteer for tasks like ambulance work or mentoring kids or working in food pantries: these are all doing what successful citizens do…they are supporting the social and cultural infrastructure that supports them.

This is offputting, not because it’s completely wrong–it’s somewhere in the rough neighborhood of a coherent critique of modern society–but because of what it omits or suppressed, and what it hoists up onto a pedestal in the place of what was omitted. You see, I distrust anyone who holds duty to the state over a much more fundamental and important duty: the duty to one’s community and the people in it: neither to a nation, nor to a state, but to other people who share the place with you is where our finest and deepest duty lies.

States are abstractions, just like Islam is, for Moon, a convenient abstraction. Because, of course, people who do things like volunteer to drive ambulances, or work in food pantries, do not turn people away at the door for being Muslim; no, indeed, do the voluntary organizations turn away Muslims (or those who look like they might remotely be Muslim) away from engaging in this kind of voluntary work.

This is an important difference because when you place the welfare of the state as a prime responsibility, you remove people from the equation in a way that we should all, by now, have the wits and the wisdom to distrust. And it’s not just what I’ve seen over here in Korea, where people have both patriotism and nationalism pounded into their heads with a pedagogical hammer all the way to young adulthood: there’s still corruption, there’s still people treating one another like garbage, and guess what? There are the same failures of citizenship Moon describes going on in America, but on an even more profound scale if you ask me.

This is because if the state is where it’s at, if the nation is the locus of a citizen’s responsibility, then suddenly people become a secondary concern. Suddenly, it’s easy to pick and choose groups and admonish them for the actions of a tiny minority. (Like blaming crime on “foreigners,” for example.) When one is responsible to a state, one can construe and weasel about and twist things however one likes: the state or nation doesn’t have a face to grimace at the lie, or eyes you need to look into when lying through your teeth, or fists to punch you in the nose. This is why one cannot have responsibility to a nation or state except through one’s fellow citizens.

If you want to understand the failure of the citizen to the state in the modern world, what you need to grasp is the failure of the community, because the community allowed itself to be supplanted by the simulacrum of community–the internet circle-jerk, the prison-like context of the average public school, the idiocy of most political parties, the occasional picnic with co-workers, or what have you. These are, as teacher and educational reform advocate John Taylor Gatto puts it, “networks” and he means that word in a negative way. Networks, you see, are problematic because they invite a narrow, limited form of engagement (and the suppression of the rest of what makes you human) in contrast to communities which require a much more wide-ranging sort of engagement with one another, including both our positive and negative sides, but also involving common goals and needs and concerns that shine through different beliefs and different approaches preferred by individuals.

Healthy communities are places of negotiation of difference, of compromise and acceptance (uneasy or otherwise), and they are more diverse than anyone realizes because diversity is simply the human norm; at best, the healthiest networks are places where differences are simply suppressed after being labeled as “not for discussion” or “equally good.” Healthy communities are places where human beings must engage across their differences; in the best and healthiest networks, the best we manage is shallow embrace that indeed enacts marginalization and exclusion, and most of the time policy dictates that we ignore differences politely.

(A great example is how online, behviour like trolling is very common. But if someone acted like a troll offline, how long do you think they would be able to get away with it? Well, in a network, like a middle school for example, it might be quite a while, but in a real community, not very bloody long. It’s hard to rant in people’s faces too long before you stop getting invited to the parties and meetings, get asked to sort yourself out, and finally get exiled. And being banned from a website is much less traumatic than being exiled from a community.)

We’ve seen this kind of abstractive state-fetishizing before, of course, and the thing that hasn’t seemed to sink in is that it leads to bad situations. Very bad situations.  After all, it was all the vogue, just a few generations ago, in places like Central Europe, in Japan, and slightly more recently in Korea (where magical-racial conceptions of the nation-state were inspired by Japan and Germany after the Korean war; while in the South this was used to suppress diversity of political culture, in the North it led to the Orwellian psycho-state we all love to hate). One reason the talk of honest shopkeepers and duty to the state makes me nervous is how popular such phrases have been in political fascism.

Worse, to prattle on about one’s responsibility to the state is to neglect that human beings have–whether Moon would like to acknowledge it or not–a profound responsibility to themselves. Again, my experience in Korea has driven that home: I am constantly approached by young people who are looking for someone–anyone–to back them up that, yes, if you really, truly hate your major, you should change it. That if you really, truly dream of being a scholar of this or that, you should go for it. That if you really want to do art, you should give it a go. Get a job, sure, but don’t let your mother tell you to give up and become a salaryman or office girl. If you don’t feel you should marry so-and-so, then for Christ’s sake don’t do it, no matter how much everyone you know is pressuring you to do so! Don’t want to marry? Don’t! Because if you look around at all the sullen, tired, unhappy faces around you… trust me, most of those people are in a state where they constantly ignore their own instincts, their own responsibility to themselves regarding their happiness and productivity in this one shot at life that they’ve been lucky enough to have.

Now, I have no more and no less respect for Islam than I do for any other religion. I don’t have a dog in that metaphysical race, having bowed out of the religion business myself ages ago. But I do have respect for human beings, and I believe that if someone identifies himself or herself as a Muslim (or a Christian, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or whatever), he or she has a self-directed responsibility to find a way to be a Muslim (or a Christian, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, or whatever) to the best of his or her ability. We have a profound responsibility to be ourselves, and true to ourselves, no matter what the Elizabeth Moons of the world rail about on the internet, no matter what racist governments and their arse-licking cronies do to us at airports, no matter what hateful shit is spewed in the media.

Moon’s post, therefore, offends me importantly in that I see her as not just repudiating the responsibility of people to themselves (the state seems a much higher priority to her) but also because she seems to have forgotten that Muslim people have a profound responsibility to themselves to be good Muslims: and that American society (like any society with Muslim people living in it–Korea is one too) has a responsibility to support them in that, as well as to nurture a conception of Islam as something that is compatible with Americanness, just as it realized in the late forties and fifties that, hey, okay, Jews can be truly American too.

If one has no responsibility to human beings — including oneself, and including the people around oneself (and people who don’t well grasp the former cannot hope to truly, humanely grasp the latter) — then the idea of responsibility to a state is incoherent, meaningless, and potentially the root of great horror and sickness.

And the symptoms of this particular malignancy are what worry me most, in terms not only of what I see in Moon’s post, but in terms of what I see going on in America today, indeed in much of the developed world today.

The metastasis of this category error–mistaking a citizen’s responsibility to the state for what ought to be a citizen’s responsibility the self and to fellow human beings alike–is painful to watch from outside of the USA because, frankly, it’s a pathetic irony: one notes that Moon is willing to berate the wife of the former President of the USA, calling her comments about having suffered from the War in Iraq much more than anyone else signs of a “failure of citizenship” at the top. Well, but need anyone remind her that far more Americans supported the invasion of Iraq in a demonstrable, official way than Muslims supported the attacks of 2001?

I don’t mean in the vague, emotional-victimhood sense that is so popular these days: the sense where (as in a story I’ve heard time and again) an American turns on the TV and sees a few Palestinians dancing in the streets after 9-11, and says, “See, they totally supported it!” (Absent even context: were these people dancing in the street on 9-11? Was it for the reason the TV station claims? Did this even happen?)

Sure, I’m willing to believe that a number of Muslims out there in faraway places probably felt a sense of vindication for a few moments when America was attacked. But for that matter, so did plenty of non-Muslims in other countries, from China to Canada. (Oh yes, Canada. You should have heard the jokes that people were making at the time.) Just as plenty of Americans felt relieved when finally “vengeance was theirs” in Afghanistan and, later and more sadly, in Iraq, I am quite willing to point out that lots of people worldwide felt it was about time America got slapped in the face for a little too much hubris, too much meddling in the affairs of other nations, and for being so willingly ignorant of its implication in all kinds of misery abroad.

(And when I look at the long, US-supported dictatorships that screwed up the country where I live, I have to admit it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand why. I’m not saying I agree — it’s possible to support neither what happened on 9-11 nor the things that non-Americans have criticized America for — but I am saying it’s not such a great crime for people to have felt a sense of justice after having had to live in a world order that suited America, regardless of the implications for them individually. If you want to talk about failures of citizenship, what about failures of global citizenship?)

But when I talk about how a large number of Americans supporting the invasion of Iraq, I don’t mean they felt a rush of power, a thrill of revenge, a sense of justice. I mean they institutionally supported it. I mean they didn’t tear apart the Supreme Court that anointed Bush as King, though they, yes, they could have. I mean that they kept that man in office another four years. I mean that they supported it materially, with their taxes, and culturally, with the stories they chose to tell, the websites they chose to promote, and politically, with the officials they chose to elect over the years.

Because, let’s be frank: the war in Iraq was never really a political act, and never had anything to do with terrorism. It was a religious war, except the religion was a newer religion, a religion focused not on gods but on power and money and the immediate future of America’s unsustainable status quo. (Yes, Christianity was used to grease the wheels, but the real religion is much more secular, and we call it Neoconservativism.)

It was, in other words, an orgy in Washington, and a surprising number of peasants were quite happily carting in the grapes and wine and bread and meats and all the available virgins of both sexes. (A number of them to have their bodies blasted apart.) The slaves, if we must cast this Roman pageant further, are Mexican, maligned in the press as invaders, but welcomed by anyone with a stake in cheap labour. The Mexicans, of course, will not end up in death camps. Cheap labour is too useful. But Muslims?

This should give pause to anyone who is about to rant about how bad the Muslims are. Plenty of Islamic societies have problems now. (So do plenty of non-Islamic societies, need I remind you? Visit a hospital in America, if you’re American and happen to have forgotten. Well, I mean, visit one after visiting one in the rest of the developed world, where health care is not a cross between accountancy and the mafia.)

Still, I’m willing to admit from the little I know that it’s been a long time since Islam led the world in terms of science, philosophy, and the rest of that neat stuff. I live in a society that is not my own, and I know the pitfalls of being so respectful of other societies that we fail to be really honest about their warts. The society where I live is pretty frankly racist. Whenever I walk around with a Korean woman, people stare, and it’s not the stare of never seeing a white person before. It’s a nasty, judgmental, disgusted stare. The Korean woman beside me tends to be as put off by it as I am. And I’m white — it’s much harder for the folks who come here from places like Nepal, or India, or Southeast Asia. (Or the children of mixed blood who grow up here.) To pretend Korea doesn’t have a problem with racism is to be dishonest, to disrespect Korean society’s capacity to deal with the problem, and to ignore the suffering of those who have to deal with it. I know Koreans who are very willing to discuss those problems, just as I have known Muslims who railed against all kinds of things they disliked about mainstream Islam, especially those who’d come to Canada from somewhere else.

But the problems of various societies — Muslim and otherwise — aside, to rant about “the roots of Muslim violence” is doubly dishonest: first, because remind me again, who is it that just started two major wars in (and helped destabilize a significant part of) the Muslim world?

But much worse, such prattling dehistoricizes the complex interweaving of religious and cultural violence we see in most “developed” societies, including our own: even the recent genocides in Europe aside (and yes, 1940s is recent, though some are those even more recent than that, including anti-Muslim genocide in very recent memory) — but even setting those aside, Christendom has also been pretty brutally, and pretty consistently, violent towards non-Christians and non-whites on a pretty enormous scale, and not so long ago as we like to pretend. (Not even as far back as the Belgian Congo. Go watch Gandhi, for Christ’s sake.)

Yet we don’t want to talk about the roots of Christian violence — or white people violence, which we white people immediately realize is an incoherent label. Yes, it is incoherent; but guess what? So is “Muslim violence.”

But there’s something else that discomfits me further, and the context for that is set by the palpable rage Moon expresses toward people like Ken Lay is, of course, part of this. The economy is in the toilet in America, and when that happens, nationalism booms. And when nationalism booms, and the economy stays in the toilet, and there is a Most Especially Hated Group — as Muslims unquestionably are in America today — one cannot help but say, “You know, we’ve been down this road before. It does not end well.”

Are we really so absolutely fucking stupid as to reenact the horrors that came of anti-Semitism in the middle of the last century, so soon after the fact, excusing it by picking another group of Semites?

Oh, absolutely we are. Institutionally, socially, culturally, we are utterly moronic. Yes, you, America: you are that stupid. Don’t kid yourselves. Turn on the news and look at the Tea Parties. Look, it’s not totally your fault: you’re human. It’s hard to reform education. It’s hard to inculcate a habit of diversity, compassion, and respect. It’s hard to change human nature. Possible, but hard, and especially under the current conditions.

That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to keep on down this road. To continue down it, to fail to struggle with all your might against it, to fail to grab that demon by the throat and pummel it till it can no longer grasp your throat, is unacceptable. It is unforgivable, and if you fail to do it, your descendants will revile you. Your children will remember you as shameful. The history books will be rewritten with your society having a special place — but not the place you want, not the place you feel you deserve.

It’s not too late, though. The demon can be pummeled.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, blowing things out of proportion, well, maybe I am. I really, truly hope so. But I have a number of friends outside of America who fear this very slide. In fact, I have a lot of friends outside of the USA who have talked about this in much more graphic terms than I am here: talk of camps, of mass graves, of all kinds of horrifying things. As someone commented elsewhere, it has become a kind of game people play online, now, in the USA: “How can I hate Muslims without being a bigot?” The game might be tiresome if you’re a white American. If you’re anyone else, it’s downright chilling.

And still more chillingly, I must remind you that I have friends within the USA who are bright, and thoughtful, and somehow inexplicably also went along with Iraq, bought into it, and ended up “disappointed” when it came out there the WMD thing was just a ruse. It was perplexing to me, since out here in The Rest of the World we all knew right from the start that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. Nothing at all. But these friends of mine seemed to be willing to go along with it, for reasons that still baffle me. They might not go along with whatever comes next — but plenty enough people will happily do so, especially if they’re offered someone to vent their frustration at.

The rights of “suspected terrorists” have already been abrogated and suspended; there are already concentration camps secret prisons full of nobody but Muslims who may or may not be involved in anything nefarious at all (many were not), with torture considered a form of communication in such places.

What comes next is, whether they realize it or not, up to the American people as a whole.

As in every situation, there are smart people who see through the bullshit. Surely there are bright Americans who see through the crap and realize why all this is going on. That’s beside the point, though. The real question is: what are they going to do about it?

The question is whether the smart people are going to sit by and watch the deranged play out this stupid story again, or find a way to change course and go back towards sanity. I’m not a practicing religionist but I do think there’s something to pausing before railing about the splinter in the other religion’s eye… especially when the log in your own eye has been spiked and chained and it’s being used to draw you down a dark and frightening road.

Ms. Moon wants to rant about Muslims, but she seems not to be particularly interested in addressing that greater failure of citizenship endemic to her society (and to most, if we are to be fair), with which she began her discussion. Her rant about Muslims is, indeed, a signal that she herself has failed to grasp the fundamental responsibilities that underline the responsibility to one’s nation (nation-as-people, rather than as an abstract construct).

Allow me to sketch, vaguely, a possible approach to dealing both with the failure of young Americans to integrate across differences, and their failure (according to Moon) to sense a greater responsibility than to their own immediate pleasure and satisfaction.

Imagine a social program, wherein children and adults alike are given a chance to write stories, to workshop them together for free, publish them locally. Where local young people write, are encouraged by both established writers and peers; where opportunities are given to them to read their work to people in their community, to share their work in other ways. Where storytelling becomes a kind of glue between the disparate worldviews and cultures that form communities in the USA, the way Elif Shafak has suggested it ought to be?

Does that sound utopian? Hopelessly dreamish?

Well, but this idea is only a few steps away from Venezuela’s phenomenal El Sistema program, as I discussed here. Imagine a program where anyone, including Muslims but also Christians, Jewish kids, Vietnamese Buddhists, and others can come together and share their writing, their stories. How about programs for the arts, for music, for dance and visual art, where young people of different backgrounds work on creative projects, learning what it is like to be part of a community? Learning what it means to work with, respect, and cherish the contribution of people different from oneself? Learning what it feels like to be part of a huge, important project?

Isn’t that what a nation is? A huge, important, collective project by, of, and for the people? And do we have any real, explicit training for how that kind of a project is supposed to work?

I would gesture at Moon’s post and shrug. Apparently, we do not.

One more thing: turning off comments I can understand, but deleting them after they’ve been posted is cowardly, and a signal that you’re not willing to entertain the possibility you may have been wrong, misspoken, or fucked up. In that, I aspire — as I recently noted — to be more like Peter Watts, who is gracious and sensible in saying he’s been wrong millions of times in the past. (You can see his speechlet at about 1’25” into this video.) Would that more of us were like that.

For what it’s worth, by the way, I think Moon’s invitation to WisCon shouldn’t be revoked. When you silence people who’ve said things that are repugnant, ill-considered, or ill-informed, you deny them a chance to be called out on their errors, and to learn from their mistakes. But I also think people should be ready to walk out if she spews more of the same, since sometimes shaming is the only lesson that penetrates the thickness of a skull. (My own skull included.)

And no, I am not saying I’ll never read her work. I read Ezra Pound, people. You know, the guy who actually used the word “usury” in an anti-Semitic sense; who thought Mussolini was The Real Thing; who ended up in a mental hospital after WWII because he’d been such an avid supporter of the Axis Powers (publications, radio broadcasts, and so on) that the nuthouse was the only politically viable thing to do with him besides executing him for treason. (Though apparently he did exhibit some symptoms of psychosis. Well, but that doesn’t make his politics any less disgusting.)

Still, I know some of my friends, whether they say it or not, have crossed Moon off their list of authors to check out (or read more from). So perhaps I ought to be learning from her mistake, and not posting this. Maybe that the lesson in all this: to stay away from politics, to stay away from posting things that might affect my own potential readership?

But no, I don’t think so. I think there are times when things need to be said, loudly and clearly. Sometimes, there are things more important than your potential readership. Sometimes, someone has to say, “Wait a second, that’s not right.”

That’s the thing about responsibility, y’know.

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth Moon on Islam “Citizenship”

  1. There is a huge difference between duty to the state, and ownership of, or at least a stake in, the state.

    What Moon is promoting is the former — simple duty to be obedient to and serve the state at the cost of completely losing the value of individual identity in the state. Which I find it hard to believe isn’t her real point in all this. And yes, it’s appallingly disturbing.

    A sense of ownership and a stake in the state isn’t a duty. It is a responsibility, but more in the sense of being responsible to one’s children/grandchildren than in the sense of owing a never-ending and insatiable debt to an all-powerful state which owes little or nothing in return.

    That seems to be the most glaring fallacy in Moon’s position ..

  2. Would you say that any criticism of Islam is inherently bigoted or racist?

    For example, this criticism: “There is institutional discrimination against religious minorities in most Muslim-majority countries.” Is it bigotry to make this statement?

    Also, you say the following:

    “Are we really so absolutely fucking stupid as to reenact the horrors that came of anti-Semitism in the middle of the last century, so soon after the fact, excusing it by picking another group of Semites?”

    I read this as making a comparison between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and Muslims in the present-day U.S. I’m not sure this comparison is valid. When one idiot wanted to burn a Koran (nasty and stupid, but Constitutionally protected), the entire political and media establishment, both Right (Patrick Buchanan, notably) and Left, including the President, came together to condemn the act.

    Not only this, but the city (Gainesville) denied the idiot’s church a burn permit, the idiot’s ISP shut down his website, and the Associated Press stated that they wouldn’t run footage of the burning, among other things. And finally, most importantly, the idiot didn’t even go through with his plan.

    Now, if even the threat of burning a Koran is enough to elicit these sorts of responses, there are no “prison camps” or “mass graves” coming, however hateful the U.S. may otherwise be (and no-one hates the U.S. like Canadians, that’s for sure).

    Moreover, around the same time there was this:

    http://www.seattleweekly.com/2010-09-15/news/on-the-advice-of-the-fbi-cartoonist-molly-norris-disappears-from-view/

    It wasn’t reported much and no-one cared. There was no condemnation or even questions for Muslims in the media. Again, no-one cared or was concerned about Molly Norris. This just doesn’t show a nation ready and willing to commit genocide.

    1. Bruce,

      How come other people can say stuff in a couple of paragraphs that it takes me twelve or fifteen to say? Argh!

      Rhesus,

      Would you say that any criticism of Islam is inherently bigoted or racist?

      It depends on what you mean by “any,” and upon the sort of criticism being leveled, of course. Some types of criticism are bigoted, like this one:

      For example, this criticism: “There is institutional discrimination against religious minorities in most Muslim-majority countries.” Is it bigotry to make this statement?

      Yes, it probably is, because it is highly selective. For example, Korea’s relative gender empowerment index is quite comparable to the UAE’s from what I remember. (And much like America’s was, I’m guessing, in the 1920s or even in some areas the 1950s or 1960s.)

      The question to level at that point is: yes, but why did so few people care about that in 1998? Because, if you’ll notice, discussions of sexism in the Islamic world were being conducted in 1998, but only by a few people. Now, it’s all over, and it’s decontextualized from sexism in the rest of the world. It’s weasely to leave all that context out just as it would be to, say, present the divorce rate among African-Americans as if it’s an extreme case, without talking about the divorce rate of white Americans.

      Technically speaking, the comment is true. But the intentions behind it, the discussion in which it is a part, and so on all matter. They matter immensely.

      Also, you say the following:

      “Are we really so absolutely fucking stupid as to reenact the horrors that came of anti-Semitism in the middle of the last century, so soon after the fact, excusing it by picking another group of Semites?”

      I read this as making a comparison between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and Muslims in the present-day U.S. I’m not sure this comparison is valid.

      Um, well… I’m making a comparison between the sort of mindset that led to the situation in Nazi Germany, and the sort of mindset I see in Moon’s post (and in the general atmosphere in the USA today). That’s not quite the same thing, and I’m not talking about a nation poised for a grand genocidal campaign next week. But none of the countries that end up being a genocidal mess ever look poised for it ten or twenty years earlier. You always read reports of how people of different backgrounds lived side by side, often with little more than a subdued but unmistakable sense of difference between ethnic groups that didn’t often manifest in the public sphere. And then, slowly, the rhetoric built up, the distortions accumulated, and…

      As I said, I’m a little uncomfortable with the comparison myself, and hope that this isn’t the direction the US is headed. But look at Germany in 1900 and what do you see? Vegetarianism, nudism, healthfood advocacy, massively popular alternative religion (which ended up being rebranded in the US as New Age)… it’s not like they looked about to swoop down and go along with a program of maniacal genocide, either. (I haven’t read enough about the post-WWI period to know when the writing ended up being clear on the wall, but the forces driving that society in that direction surely were at work earlier than the moment when the writing was clear on the wall.)

      So while it’s nice that the government and several institutions in the USA disenfranchised the idiot’s attempted press act of burning a Koran, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a widespread encroachment of anti-Muslim sentiment. The government could be unrecognizable in 10 years, let alone 20. The public will likely be more recognizable, its character likely an outgrowth of the kinds of rhetoric we see here. Meanwhile, of course the Right Wing opposed this: if someone can burn a Koran, they most certainly can burn a bible, and we know that lots of people will go apopleptic if the right is seen endorsing that kind of Free Speech.

      Now, if even the threat of burning a Koran is enough to elicit these sorts of responses, there are no “prison camps” or “mass graves” coming, however hateful the U.S. may otherwise be (and no-one hates the U.S. like Canadians, that’s for sure).

      So the main difference between Iraq and a giant prison camp is?

      As for Molly Norris, well, I’m of mixed feelings. Obviously, people who issue fatwas of this kind (urging the murder of creative people for their artwork) suck. So do people who proceed to carry out such fatwas. Since the first time I heard of such a thing–it was Salman Rushdie’s case–I’ve thought it was reprehensible.

      But this group of people is small, much smaller than the number of people who fit into that category you use, Muslim. Were Christians of all stripes (or, hell, white people) called upon to answer for the idiocy of Bush’s Christianity and its role in the invasion of Iraq? No, obviously not: in America, where most people are white, it’s obvious that being a member of a religion doesn’t put one automatically in cahoots with maniacs who happen to claim to share that religion. Remember when the Korean-American Cho Seung-Hui went on his rampage at Virginia Tech, and the media didn’t go and find random Koreans and ask them, “Hey, why are you Koreans so psycho?” Remember how the media didn’t condemn Koreans?

      While the comparison may not fit–Cho was an isolated nutter, while the Imam Anwar al-Awlaki probably has a nice stable of nutters following him. But likewise, did the New York media show up in San Francisco asking other white Californians to go ahead and justify what Charles Manson did? No, because white Americans were cognizant of the fact that not all white Californians are the same, or are connected. So I’d say that the tendency to complain about how the media is “going soft on Muslims” is itself a reflection of a growing (and consciously-promulgated) sense that “they” indeed are all the same, that they should be perceived as a monolith–not as individuals who happen to be part of this or that community–and that the media should be especially hard on them, considering their collective crimes.

      As for the reticence of the media, of the government, and so on: well, some of that is strategic. Molly Norris might feel free to offend whoever she likes, but the media and government are aware that even though it’s only a tiny minority who are psycho, that tiny minority can make a hell of a mess if they get mad enough. (I don’t genuinely think these institutions are holding back because they have any really clear, generalized sense that the Islamic world is not monolithic, mind. I think it’s mainly just strategy.)

      And, really: al-Awlaki is on Obama’s kill-list, isn’t he? Basically, he got a fatwa on his head in return. What more would you want the US government to say, than “Kill him”?

      And once again, you’re correct that the US is not on the verge of a big fat genocide of the sort I alluded to. But that doesn’t rule out that the forces in play won’t push the US in that direction in the long term. And that is worth talking about, if for nothing else than to avert such a horror.

  3. I used that as an example of an statement that could be objectively demonstrated as either true or false, not as an actual criticism (I don’t know if the statement is actually true). If it’s bigotry to make such a statement, as you say, then Islam, alone among the world’s religions and political movements, is essentially above all criticism. Requiring a particular context to make criticism non-bigoted has the effect of making criticism impossible, since the context is likely to shift depending on who is listening and according to the listener’s preferences. No single context will ever be satisfactory, an observation borne out by countless political discussions.

    I don’t know much about Islam. However, like other religions, it has distinctive qualities, which are knowable. Being a human institution, some of these qualities may be negative. How can we acquire an accurate understanding of Islam when criticism of it isn’t allowed?

    As for Germany and the slippery slope argument, can you imagine a German president before the postwar era publicly condemning an act of antisemitism? The seemingly progressive practices you mention, such as vegetarianism, don’t mean anything. Their proponents often held antisemitic beliefs themselves.

    If you want to talk about the long term, you need to identify anti-Muslim associations that could conceivably grow enough to influence domestic policy. Where are they? Does Pamela Geller’s basement qualify?

    Actually, the white nationalist types in America, the genuine annihilationists, are generally pro-Muslim, seeing them as allies against the Jews. You can find this out for yourself pretty easily (the site that starts with S).

    The media examples, particularly Molly Norris’ case, weren’t meant to show that the media is “soft on Islam.” The point was that, if Muslim-hatred was as broad and deep as you suggest, Norris would have received much more attention. As it was, she was barely noticed, let alone discussed. Again, no-one cared, and no-one defended Norris. This may be because, as you say, the sneaky U.S. media is strategically concealing it’s real agenda (is the U.S. media the world’s only monolithic entity?). A more simple explanation is that the mass murderous rage you perceive doesn’t exist.

    As for the connection you draw between al-Awlaki and Norris, I don’t see it.

  4. As for Germany and the slippery slope argument, can you imagine a German president before the postwar era publicly condemning an act of antisemitism?

    Frederich Ebert, yes. Graf von Caprivi, who described anti-semites as “turning class against class”? (Admittedly, he also felt anti-semitism was a mask for democracy, so one must be careful. ;) )

    One of the reasons that the rise of eliminationist anti-Semitism in Germany was that the integration had, by the views of many both inside and outside the Jewish community, gone so *well* — Germany was far ahead, say, of Poland. Or Russia. Or, to many people’s eyes, France.

    Requiring a particular context to make criticism non-bigoted has the effect of making criticism impossible, since the context is likely to shift depending on who is listening and according to the listener’s preferences.

    I think you are misunderstanding the use of “context” here. I believe (and I’m sure our esteemed host will correct me if I’m wrong) that what he meant was that if statement X is true of members A,B,C, and D of the set (A-F), making the statement “X is true of A” implies that A is unusual in this regard. (On, and that A is monolithic, which is an assumption underlying your construction of the set.)

    For example: intolerance of alternate religious viewpoints, as well as strong gender distinctions, are characteristic of extraction economies. Many Muslim-majority states have extraction economies. If you don’t take that into account, you are at the very least oversimplifying.

    It’s not that one cannot offer a critique* of Islam — but to do so without sounding like a bigoted git, you need to make clear that you understand that Islam is not monolithic, Arabic does not equal Islamic, etc., etc., and so forth. Because without that demonstration (or strong reason to trust that the demonstration is not needed) the risk of unexamined bigotry is far from insignificant.

    And as for anti-Muslim associations, I submit that when a Congressman’s loyalty to the United States is questioned because he wants to swear the oath of office on the Koran, we have enough clear substrate for such things to emerge with rapidity. I would not dismiss the argument that significant portions of the Republican Party make up such an organization.

    And while I have heard none of them call for elimination, the rhetoric of disloyalty and the enemy within is remarkably similar to the DolchstoBlegende; we have been fortunate in the United States never to suffer a catastrophe akin to the Germans in WWI.

    * As an overly defensive person in real life, I need to keep reminding myself of the distinction between “critique”, “criticism”, and “attack”. Sometimes, it even works. ;)

  5. Rhesus,

    Steven provides answers that satisfy me for a lot of your questions. But I will backtrack to the start:

    I used that as an example of an statement that could be objectively demonstrated as either true or false, not as an actual criticism (I don’t know if the statement is actually true). If it’s bigotry to make such a statement, as you say, then Islam, alone among the world’s religions and political movements, is essentially above all criticism.

    Um, have you looked around my site? Despite being in the employ of an agency of the Papists, I have slammed their Top Man in a Dress several, nay, many times here.

    The thing is, I don’t slam Papists in general for one cleric’s idiocies, or for the idiocies of the (self-fashioned pseudo-monolithic) institution itself. Having been raised among Papists, I realize that the followers often have a much wider range of views than their clerics.

    Steven addresses part of context. The other part is related to the fact that you’re kind of ignoring the special role Islam has in America right now as Most Favorite Religion To Hate. From the crusading atheists (Pat Condell is funny, but…) and Republicans who will never, ever approve of Islam, to the people on the street who would, in an eyeblink, vote to “ship those people back where they came from,” it’s disingenuous to pretend that Islam is specially protected, period, while ignoring that other special status it in enjoys in the national consciousness. That’s the context I’m talking about.

    And by the way, the reaction to the press’ non-reaction to Molly Norris is telling: while you may not be accusing the media of going soft on Islam, that characterized most of the comments I saw online. And consider that most of the people who are likely to feel even more anti-Islamic/anti-Arabic/anti-whatever sentiment are unlikely to know about Norris because they don’t go online that often. That’s a big part of the demographic I’m talking about: low education, lower income, and so on.

    I don’t know much about Islam. However, like other religions, it has distinctive qualities, which are knowable.

    If you’re speaking in a sense as general as that, it will be essentially useless. Sorry, but Islam is a pretty huge category of things: a significant chunk of the world’s cultures, political institutions, communities, and religious groups fit into that category, and the collection is far from a monolith. Substitute “Christianity” or even “theism” for “Islam” and you’ll see what I mean.

    I mean, you wouldn’t say, “I don’t know much about white people. However, like other people, they have distinctive qualities, which are knowable.”

    At this level of coarse-graining, anything that is knowable is also close to utterly useless.

    Being a human institution, some of these qualities may be negative. How can we acquire an accurate understanding of Islam when criticism of it isn’t allowed?

    Sure, but: surely the sudden desire to talk about the negative parts of one specific religion all of a sudden–when it’s so in vogue someone can say, “I’m really getting tired of the ‘How Can I Hate Islam Without Being a Bigot?’ game,” and others can nod their heads in recognition of a shared sentiment–that all this neat logic is, in the end, being used to wrap up a desire to critique based in a more emotional fundament.

    I mean, you yourself say you don’t know much about Islam. So why the desire to criticize? Why not, say, Jains? Or Buddhists? Or the Calvinists who lay the foundation for the global economic system today with all its excesses and imbalances?

    There’s a reason why people are gravitating towards all this public criticism of Islam, and that reason is what we’re not talking about, and what nobody really wants to own up to.

    The seemingly progressive practices you mention, such as vegetarianism, don’t mean anything. Their proponents often held antisemitic beliefs themselves.

    Ahem, let’s play the madlibs game with that statement:

    The seemingly progressive practices you mention, such as protecting Korans from being burnt publicly, don’t mean anything. Their proponents often hold anti-Muslim beliefs themselves.

    Yup, you hit the nail on the head. For my argument, mind, not your own.

    If you want to talk about the long term, you need to identify anti-Muslim associations that could conceivably grow enough to influence domestic policy.

    I agree with Steven that significant parts of the Republican party qualify, but I’ll also add that beyond that, 2010 is not 1924 in a technological or cultural sense. For one thing, we have an Internet now, and it’s discussions online that in part we’re talking about. Organizations can form and become relevant pretty quickly given the kinds of communications technology we have around. The current generation of dyed-in-the-wool anti-Muslims are unlikely to capitalize on it… but a generation from now (or less)?

    This may be because, as you say, the sneaky U.S. media is strategically concealing it’s real agenda (is the U.S. media the world’s only monolithic entity?).

    Huh? No, my point was that no business wants to risk a retributive attack, so even anti-Muslims in the media industry are going to just keep it under wraps. Just like Jewish atheists who’re tired of the Christian right trying to turn America into the Middle Ages often don’t happen to discuss it on TV. Self-censorship isn’t completely unimaginable, right? It’s not that the media would need to be a monolith: it’s more that the media community would share a recognition that, given the tiny but significant risk some nutter will reply out of hand, given the national climate (where they have to please people across the sociopolitical spectrum), it’s better (in a business sense) to mostly just back away from the issue.

    A more simple explanation is that the mass murderous rage you perceive doesn’t exist.

    Oh, I didn’t say it was murderous rage… yet. Again, part of my point.

    As for the connection you draw between al-Awlaki and Norris, I don’t see it.

    Well, didn’t al-Awlaki issue the very fatwa targeting Norris? And while a government issuing an assassination order may differ from a cleric calling on the faithful to do it, I think that the difference may not have much bearing on the ethics of those two moves. They are, at least, comparable in a discussion.

    Steven,

    Thanks for the deeper background and I pretty much agree with your responses to Rhesus’ comments.

    On extraction economies: UAE, Texas… hmmm.

  6. Steven:

    Frederich Ebert, yes

    In a way similar to Obama’s direct condemnation of the Koran-burning? That is, a president/chancellor/supreme public figure publicly denouncing a specific act? And if so, did he have the support of the entire media, as well?

    My interest here is Gord’s suggestion that U.S. citizens are more or less ready to initiate another Holocaust. And this was the notion behind his post. If not, why bring up “prison camps” and “mass graves?” I don’t see any evidence for this. In fact I see far more evidence in the media and government of the exact opposite. Nasty online comments or are not sufficient proof that the people are ready to rebuild Belsen in a Houston suburb, or even ready to stop immigration from Muslim countries.

    There is no such immigration-restrictionist movement, even within the evil Republican Party. And even if a lot of Republicans really want that in their hearts, this sentiment is meaningless without an actual association to advance those ideas. Show me such an institution that’s not on the far fringes.

    Okay, on criticizing Islam:

    For example: intolerance of alternate religious viewpoints, as well as strong gender distinctions, are characteristic of extraction economies. Many Muslim-majority states have extraction economies. If you don’t take that into account, you are at the very least oversimplifying.

    It’s not that one cannot offer a critique* of Islam — but to do so without sounding like a bigoted git, you need to make clear that you understand that Islam is not monolithic, Arabic does not equal Islamic, etc., etc., and so forth. Because without that demonstration (or strong reason to trust that the demonstration is not needed) the risk of unexamined bigotry is far from insignificant.

    I mostly agree. If this was what Gord was trying to say, then fine, but I don’t my theoretical criticism falls into the “sounding like a bigoted git” category. If such a statement is true then it’s significant, even if qualification is necessary.

    On the subject of Islam not being “monolithic,” of course it’s not, but it’s still a mass movement, and mass movements, even widely dispersed ones, have intelligible common qualities. Catholicism in the Philippines has identifiable points in common with Catholicism in Mexico and everywhere else Catholicism exists, as do Mahayana Buddhism and international Communism.

    Here’s a personal example. From high school through college until well into my adulthood, I identified as an anarchist. I participated in anarchist activities, like writing tracts, putting up posters, and mild acts of sabotage, all with a group of like-minded people. Whenever I moved, I found similar communities. All of them were composed of highly individualistic people, but these individuals were united by a common set of beliefs and attitudes about the world (in fact, far more rigid and circumscribed than for ordinary people). Communicating with other anarchists, even in other countries, I always knew what to expect, regardless of what category of anarchist they were.

    I don’t think anyone would call anarchists a monolithic group, but their shared values and beliefs make them a mass movement. It must be possible to criticize these shared beliefs, mainly because they influence members’ actions in distinctive ways. The same goes for religions.

    ======================

    Gord:

    Context – My point remains that if the number of “dyed-in-the-wool anti-Muslims” is as substantial as you claim, there would be something to show for it other than blogs and their comment sections. Such people have no voice in the national media. They are routinely dismissed even by conservative figures. Even if they wanted to deport Muslims, there aren’t any organized groups to represent their views to the public. As for mockery of Islam, there is none in the mainstream media. Compare it to the mockery that Christians receive, both in the media and online.

    It’s possible that there are many Republicans who will never approve of Islam. Who are they? I mean, if they exist, they must have names. The only possiblity I can think of is Tom Tancredo (congressman from Colorado) and he’s hardly an influential individual.

    I mean, you wouldn’t say, “I don’t know much about white people. However, like other people, they have distinctive qualities, which are knowable.”

    Unlike humans, white or otherwise, religions are made up of specific beliefs, doctrines, and practices. These differ substantially between other religions, less so within religions themselves. These beliefs and practices are knowable, unlike my college girlfriends’ motivations.

    I mean, you yourself say you don’t know much about Islam. So why the desire to criticize?

    We should be able to reasonably criticize any mass movement. Moreover, there seem to be more risks involved with criticizing Islam than other religions.

    Why not, say, Jains? Or Buddhists? Or the Calvinists who lay the foundation for the global economic system today with all its excesses and imbalances?

    There don’t seem to be any Buddhist or Jain Jihadists.

    It’s reasonable to ask if modern Jihadism is stimulated or influenced by poverty, political oppression, sexual repression, or other causes. It’s also reasonable to ask if Islamic doctrine or history play roles.

    Ahem, let’s play the madlibs game with that statement:

    The seemingly progressive practices you mention, such as protecting Korans from being burnt publicly, don’t mean anything. Their proponents often hold anti-Muslim beliefs themselves.

    Vegetarianism or nudism are personal pursuits. Preventing a Koran from being burnt publicly is an act directed at and affecting other people. Vegetarianism has significance mainly for the vegetarian. Preventing a Koran from being burnt has significance for many other people besides the preventer. Even if the preventer is secretly anti-Muslim, the Koran is still unburnt.

    al-Awlaki is essentially a soldier, fighting a war. Molly Norris is (was?) a harmless cartoonist. al-Awlaki is likely responsible for the deaths of other people. Molly Norris is responsible only for giving offense. Whatever the merits of Obama’s assassination order, I cannot possibly see how these two people are in any way similar.

    As for Texas, sure, but Houston is a functional, tremendously multicultural city. Dallas is rotten, though.

    That’s it, no more, I’m all commented out.

    NOTE: Comment modified. I’ve just blockquoted the stuff from earlier posts, and fixed the gacked punctuation, to make it legible. Content itself not changed…

  7. Rhesus,

    Nowhere did I say “more or less ready” and several times I mentioned I was talking about a longer timescale than the immediate future. You seem hell-bent on building a strawman that I’ve said it’s gonna go down next week, and I suspect that’s a derailment tactic, at this point, since I’ve made it clear I don’t mean that.

    I’m talking about the long term effects of a clearly anti-Muslim climate. And all the scruples of the media just demonstrate that such a climate exists: if there wasn’t so much anti-Muslim sentiment, then the media wouldn’t have to be pretending that there isn’t.

    I agree that anarchists are not monolithic, but they do share some characteristics. However, I think with Islam, you’re going far too coarse-grained. Which branch of Islam do you want to talk about? Which social construction of Islam? (Tunisia is supposedly one of the more egalitarian states in the Muslim world; women still need a signature from their husband or father for travel abroad… or needed it a decade ago, at least, when my friend emigrated from there to Canada.)

    But again, to choose Islam, period, as the root of whatever evils you choose to rant about, leaves out the fact that basically sexist, racist, nasty is part of every “civilization.” Christendom was, for the longest time, one of the worst places to be a woman. So to blame Islam alone is simplistic and not, I think, in good faith.

    Not that you seem to self-identify as an anarchist anymore, but if a bunch of people started posting about how bad anarchists are, how anarchism is at the root of all social ill, and so on, and then said, “We should be able to critique any mass movement!” don’t you think it’d look a little curious?

    And as for the question of whether Islam is part of the cause of Jihadism, and how there are no Jain Jihadists: well, uh, that’s in part because you choose the word “jihadists,” right? There are definitely Christian and Hindu(tvavadi) terrorists. I’m pretty sure I could find a violent group of Buddhists if I looked hard enough. (The history of Southeast Asia is pretty brutal, and pretty Buddhist-influenced.)

    It’s possible that there are many Republicans who will never approve of Islam. Who are they? I mean, if they exist, they must have names. The only possiblity I can think of is Tom Tancredo (congressman from Colorado) and he’s hardly an influential individual.

    Seriously? Ok, go and look at who voted in Congress for the invasion of Iraq.

    Now, remember: Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11, and the rest of the world was so aware of this as to be agape in shock. We literally went “What?!?!?” collectively when Iraq was invaded. Whatever other circumstances mediated, you have to be pretty unwilling to see Muslims as people if you’re willing to swap one group for another so as to justifying invading a country.

    Ahem, let’s play the madlibs game with that statement:

    The seemingly progressive practices you mention, such as protecting Korans from being burnt publicly, don’t mean anything. Their proponents often hold anti-Muslim beliefs themselves.

    Vegetarianism or nudism are personal pursuits. Preventing a Koran from being burnt publicly is an act directed at and affecting other people. Vegetarianism has significance mainly for the vegetarian. Preventing a Koran from being burnt has significance for many other people besides the preventer. Even if the preventer is secretly anti-Muslim, the Koran is still unburnt.

    You miss my point: seeming progressiveness and progressiveness are not the same thing. Or do you disagree with what Steven wrote above? This, I mean:

    One of the reasons that the rise of eliminationist anti-Semitism in Germany was that the integration had, by the views of many both inside and outside the Jewish community, gone so *well* — Germany was far ahead, say, of Poland. Or Russia. Or, to many people’s eyes, France.

    If not, well, then: seeming progressiveness isn’t necessarily the real thing. That was the whole of my point.

    And the only comparison I’m making between al-Awlaki and Norris is that in both cases, their execution has been ordered. Granted, I think the reason Norris’ execution was ordered is more, er, over-the-top. But I have issues with both… one of the major ones being, you don’t kill people without a trial, except on the battlefield. It’s not like al-Awlaki couldn’t be nabbed if enough people wanted to badly enough.

    As for Texas: Austin was alright too.

    Ezra,

    Thanks, but it’s still absent context, isn’t it… especially when a lot of people don’t happen to know the context, because, well, the news only focuses on places abroad when it happens to suit them?

    (I was reminded of this recently in Australia by a British friend who commented about how it always astounds Americans he knows that the rest of the world is so interested in what’s happening, er, in the rest of the world.)

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