Sunday, 22 December 2013

Priyamvada Gopal's Double Bind

Gender Segregation and the Postmodern Politics of Despair

[M]y concern here is less with postmodernism as a slippery epistemological stance and more with its effect on our political climate and mood - its well-advertised but fictitious radicalism (which rapidly dissolves into a celebration of cultural difference), its privileging of the "local" (as against "master narratives" emphasising universal rights) and, consequently, its curious affinity with the most reactionary ideas of Islamic fundamentalism. For the two share a common ground - an unremitting hostility to the social cultural and political processes of change and knowledge and rationality, originating in the West, known as modernity. 
Haideh Moghissi quoted by Meredith Tax in her pamphlet Double Bind

 *    *    *

In August 2010, Time magazine responded to the leaking of classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan with a gruesome cover story reminding its readers of the misogyny and sadism of the Taliban. It featured the face of a young Afghan girl whose nose and ears had been cut off after she fled abusive in-laws. The caption read: "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan".

In the Guardian, a Cambridge-based academic named Priyamvada Gopal declared herself scandalised. "Misogynist violence is unacceptable," she allowed, "but...."
...we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of war, occupation and reality itself can be reduced to bedtime stories. Consultation with child psychologists apparently preceded Time's decision to run the image, but the magazine decided that in the end it was more important for children (and us) to understand that "bad things do happen to people" and we must feel sorry for them.
Gopal, it seems, felt emotionally blackmailed by Time's stark representation of one of Afghanistan's most terrible realities. I feel I ought to assume that some part of her understands that pre-medieval religious codes mandating the mutilation of 18-year olds are completely deplorable. But nowhere in her article could she bring herself to actually say this. For to have done so, in Gopal's mind, would have been to endorse a neo-colonialist narrative which invokes women's rights only to denigrate the "other" and to drum up support for Imperialist wars of aggression.

So, instead, she buried her concerns about the spiteful disfigurement of Afghan girls and women, and instead mounted a furious defence of Afghan culture and an equally furious denunciation of the West's alleged hypocrisy. Time's use of such an emotive image, she argued, was simply another instance of the West egregiously misrepresenting the Global South as inferior and backward:
Formulaic narratives are populated by tireless Western humanitarians, sex-crazed polygamous paedophiles (most Afghan men) and burqa-clad "child-women" who are broken in body and spirit or have just enough doughtiness to be scripted into a triumphal Hollywood narrative.
Apparently by now oblivious to the fact that the young girl in question was - and still is - a survivor of real and horrific male violence, Gopal dismissed her image with this:
The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change.
...before concluding:
[The affluent West's] bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people's modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.
And there it is. Free societies are reduced to bikini lines and talk shows even as theocratic barbarism is defended with accusations of intolerance and demands for context and nuance. Meanwhile, what this proposed "radical people's modernity" consists of or how Gopal's "ideas for real change" were to be attained remains a mystery...

Three years later, we find Gopal on the Rationalist Association website (of all places) fretting about the controversy surrounding gender segregation of public meetings organised by Islamists.

To recap: a body known as Universities UK had issued guidance recommending campuses segregate audiences by gender at the request of religious speakers. The rationale for this was that a failure to do so would preclude the speaker from appearing and would therefore violate his right to free speech. UUK were evidently concerned that defending the neutrality of public space, the equality of men and women, and the freedom to sit where one likes, might be perceived as the intolerant imposition of Western norms. The satirist behind the Jesus and Mo cartoons had his protagonists explain the Möbius-strip logic of UUK's advice like this:

So, naturally, Gopal's article begins with a long attack - not on the religiously-mandated subordination of women, but on its opponents. These awful people, we are given to understand, are the chauvinistic defenders of fraudulent and oppressive 'Western values', or what Gopal describes as "an intolerant Western 'liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou".

Singled out for particular abuse is a counter-extremism organisation called Student Rights, whose alleged double-standards (it is strongly implied but not quite stated) betray racist motives. (The Rationalist Association afforded Student Rights a right of reply, and their spokesman Rupert Sutton's patient response to Gopal's litany of insinuations and accusations can be read here).

Beyond a glancing, scornful reference to 'decent nice liberal men', principled left-wing opposition to University UK's dismal guidance is omitted, as is the involvement of what Gopal would call 'people of colour'. All the better to paint the opposition as cynical, reactionary and opportunistic, which is precisely what Gopal spends the first half of her article doing:
The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.
Gopal immediately declares herself tired of this "exhausted binary" but the language with which she describes it makes it clear where her sympathies ultimately lie, and it is not with ghastly, bullying Western secularists and egalitarians.

Nonetheless, something does appear to have changed in the three years since Gopal directed her splenetic diatribe at Time magazine. Her bug-eyed loathing of the West remains undiminished, but her discomfort with the treatment of women within some 'subaltern' groups and sects seems to have increased.

Of course, once she finally gets around to tackling the issue, the tone of Gopal's article changes completely. Gone is the invective, the derision and the venom with which she attacks the campaign against UUK's advice. In its place is an almost deferential tact with which Gopal now gingerly approaches the messy business of criticising the cultural practices of the already 'marginalised' and 'othered':
I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common and ostensibly voluntary but far from making me comfortable with custom, it caused me and others concern [...] Are such arrangements always just ‘harmless symbols’ of community identity? Selective attacks on our communities make the job of self-analysis more difficult but we should not let our thoughts and actions be entirely determined by those we oppose.
In seeking to adopt a more critical stance without renouncing her postmodern dogma, Gopal has entangled herself in a double-bind. Her support for the underdog requires her respectfully to suspend criticism of communities she perceives as persecuted. But this seems to be colliding with a nagging suspicion that segregation by gender on the basis of patriarchal religious codes is objectively demeaning to women. And so she furrows her brows and she wrings her hands:
The fact is that challenging traditions and questioning authority are practices common to all societies; changing in response to circumstances is a human capacity and not one limited to a particular culture. It is at our peril that we, particularly women who come from non-European communities, cede or suppress that capacity in the cause of anti-racism, vital though the latter is.
This is in fact remarkably similar to the conclusion reached by a pamphlet on this very subject released by Gita Sahgal's think tank The Centre for Secular Space. The pamphlet, written by leftist American academic Meredith Tax, is entitled Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights. In its pages, Tax sets out to explore why the soi dissant anti-imperialist Western Left are prepared to find common cause with the Islamic far-right, when it is perfectly possible to oppose racism whilst also opposing regressive cultural and religious traditionalism within minority communities.

The big difference is that, having argued this, Tax goes on to put it into practice, condemning those NGOs and leftists willing to align themselves with the Islamists. Gopal, on the other hand, never gets around to actually condemning gender apartheid. How can she? Meredith Tax, Gita Sahgal and the Centre for Secular Space believe in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. Gopal appears to believe that morality and rights are culturally-specific and therefore relative. So to unequivocally condemn Islamist gender segregation requires a moral judgement she does not feel herself authorised to make. To do so is to risk promoting exactly the kind of Western cultural supremacism she most abhors.

If she starts to embrace moral objectivity and universalism, her cultural relativism will simply fall apart, and she will be forced to confront the unhappy fact that the West's democracies, while imperfect, have a lot to recommend them in terms of the liberties, rights and protections they afford their citizens. On the other hand, now that Gopal has voiced her concerns about religiously-mandated gender apartheid - weak and tentative though they may have been - she can't easily return to a relativist free-for-all in which respect for cultural difference is absolute. On the contrary, her doubts about the beliefs and practices of the Islamic far-right may multiply. So she is trapped. And the predictable upshot is dissonance and paralysis.

For all its fulminating, Gopal's article adds up to nothing more radical than a polite request that she be allowed to raise her concerns, providing they are carefully weighed and that she first reaffirm her own anti-racist credentials with a bitter tirade against the alleged agenda of The Right. Like all big political postmodern ideas, when you strip this one down it's just another prescription for agnosticism and inaction. If Gopal can't decide whether or not gender apartheid ought to be defended or condemned, then the chances of her actually doing anything about it one way or the other are nil.

The double-bind can only be resolved by agreeing to the universality of individual human rights, the axiomatic worth of liberal, democratic values and the consequent need to defend them where they exist and to support those fighting for them where they do not. This requires discarding the following faulty assumptions governing much of Western postmodern and anti-imperialist thought:
  • The Muslim Right is anti-Imperialist
  • "The Defence of Muslim Lands" is comparable to National Liberation struggles
  • The problem is "Islamophobia"
  • Terrorism is justified by revolutionary necessity
  • Any feminist who criticises the Muslim Right is an Orientalist and ally of US Imperialism
"Solidarity" concludes Tax, "is the only way to cut through the double bind."

Gopal, however, will have none of this. She prefers the late Edward Said's advice: "Never solidarity before criticism". Theoretically, this is good advice, and informs Tax and Sahgal's criticisms of Amnesty's alliance with Cage Prisoners, for instance. Alas, no doubt following Said's own example, Gopal's 'criticism' amounts to accusing anyone disinclined to share her nuanced view of Islamist dogma of bad faith and racism.

On twitter, she dismissed the leftist journalist Nick Cohen's passionate and principled opposition to UUK's advice (here and here), by declaring: "I would fervently hope that nothing I say is as crude or bigoted as Nick Cohen". When asked by Cohen to elaborate she replied:
Yes, didn't think you understand. My critique comes from a very different place from yrs...Mine is not white boy muscular liberalism--zero time [for] it, makes our lives harder.
And when the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain asked if they could expect her support in future, she retorted:
When you do something for the right reason and in the right company, certainly. Not impressed with some of your current allies.
She rejects Cohen's support because he is white and male. She refuses CEMB's support because they accept Cohen's. She ignores completely the contribution of principled female activists 'of colour' like like Yasmin Alibai-Brown, Sara Khan (who received so much abuse for her position, she locked her twitter account), Gita Sahgal, Nahla Mahmoud, Pragna Patel, Marieme Helie Lucas, Yasmin Rehman and countless others - the very voices she find it expedient to claim are being silenced by the xenophobic, racist right.

Given that her exacting standards of what constitutes legitimate criticism or authentic solidarity appear to depend upon the unalterable characteristics of the speaker and not the reasonableness or otherwise of the views they espouse, it's almost comical that Gopal should cry:
Why are some women pilloried as traitors or ‘Useful Idiots’ if they express a dissenting view from that of traditionalists on such matters [as gender-segregated seating]? 
...and then immediately follow that with this:
There is no doubt that both racism and xenophobia is on the rise, with Muslims and Islam singled out for attack. It is essential to fight back.
If you aggressively peddle persecution narratives and identity politics and encourage a siege mentality, then this is what happens. Dissent will be treated with suspicion and free thought as betrayal. Open debate will, inevitably, be replaced by fearful conformity. Dissidents in migrant communities - especially women - already face considerable obstacles when it comes to speaking out, from the rigid, patriarchal values they oppose. The kind of divisive tribal narrative Gopal is selling only poisons the environment further. As Tax explains:
Any feminist in the UK or North America who raises issues of gender politics in Muslim majority countries is likely to be called an Orientalist [...] If she is white, she will be told she is colonialist; if she is a woman of colour or feminist from the Global South, she will be considered to lack authenticity. She will be accused of "essentialising" political Islam and ignoring differences within it; of lacking nuance and failing to contextualise; of having internalised ideas of Western superiority; of perpetuating binaries as progressive vs. reactionary, liberal vs conservative, secular vs fundamentalist; of being a traitor to her community and culture. 
It never seems to occur to Gopal that it is her strongly-implied argument that gender equality is peculiar to the West that best reflects the paternalistic chauvinism of Imperialism. As the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner once argued:
The Enlightenment belongs to the entire human race, not just to a few privileged individuals in Europe or North America who have taken it upon themselves to kick it to bits like spoiled brats, to prevent others from having a go. Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied - as is so often the case - by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn't guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the "calamities" of progress.
There was, in fact, nothing remotely sinister about the ad hoc coalition formed to protest the UUK guidance. It was a loosely knit group of activists, writers, bloggers and secularist campaigners, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, brown and white, from both the left and the right, all of whom had decided that the principle of gender equality was worth defending for all men and women.

And with some success! As a result of the controversy and powerful writing on the subject in the Spectator and the Times, politicians from all three main political parties denounced UUK's guidance and it was hastily withdrawn.

I can only assume Priyamvada Gopal is dismayed by this development. Or at best conflicted. After all, while segregating people by gender may or may not be "problematic", UUK's retreat was a small but important victory for the 'muscular liberalism' she spent so much of her article denigrating. Gopal, incapacitated by indecision and ensnared in a postmodern double-bind of her own creation, made herself irrelevant to the discussion she claimed she wanted to have. For all I know, she may sincerely believe that her childish hostility to Western modernity and her embrace of the counter-Enlightenment are the stuff of fearless radicalism, but her views could hardly be more reactionary. As Tax remarks:
Academic postmodernism reached its zenith as part of the rightward political turn of the 1980s and 1990s, when globalised capital appeared triumphant and all hope of radical, positive change faded; it is, in short, the politics of despair.  

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Wrath of the Multiculturalists

Tommy Robinson and the End of the EDL

Maajid Nawaz, Head of counter-extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation (left) and
Tommy Robinson, former head of the English Defence League (right) 
On October 8, Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll, then-leaders of the English Defence League (EDL), announced that they were leaving the organisation they had founded to work with the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think-tank founded by former members of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Anti-racist and self-styled anti-fascist organisations, bloggers and commentators committed to combatting racism and what they call 'Islamophobia' ought to have been delighted. They had expended vast amounts of time and keystrokes warning us all that the EDL posed as grave a threat to democracy, social cohesion and human rights as that posed by Islamic fundamentalism.

Now, suddenly, this menace was no more - decapitated at a stroke. Its headless trunk may stagger around for a while but - since the EDL was a street movement as opposed to an organised party - fragmentation, faction-fighting, dwindling commitment and collapse now look likely. And here was its former leadership sitting at a table with exactly the kind of moderate Muslims we are always being told fundamentalists and jihadis do not represent: democrats; secularists; universalists - defenders of what, for convenience, are often referred to as 'Western' values.

But the reaction on much of the left has not been one of delight, but one of scorn and cynicism. Robinson, hitherto derided as an ignorant, racist ex-con and brainless neo-fascist ideologue has been recast as a mendacious strategist who has duped the gullible Quilliam Foundation into providing him with a legitimate platform. In a piece entitled "Don't be fooled by Tommy Robinson's political sleight-of-hand", The Guardian's Alex Andreou explained events to his readership as follows:
There is a pattern of behaviour here. Robinson is doing what leaders of far-right movements have always done and continue to do. Like shyster businessmen, they set up one firm that serves their goals, then declare it insolvent and set up another one with a different name – each time creaming the profit of press coverage and a small shift of the political landscape.
Four days previously, in the same paper, academic Matthew Goodwin had described Robinson and Carroll's resignation as:
...disingenuous nonsense, backed up by the counter-extremism thinktank the Quilliam Foundation, itself founded by ex-extremists who have seen the light and – to be blunt – should know better.
To Goodwin's jaundiced eye, the whole thing amounted to nothing more than a contemptible exercise in mutual self-promotion.

Goodwin and Andreou's opinions were hardly eccentric. In the hours, days and weeks following Quilliam and Robinson's announcement, social media was awash with the same bitter cynicism as those used to regarding Robinson and the EDL as a byword for working class racism tried to make sense of a rapidly changing political reality.

This response can be explained in large part by the difficulty the progressive left has always had accommodating Islamism and regressive cultural traditionalism within its complacent dogma of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism is a much misunderstood and widely misused term. A recent survey revealed that 90% of UK citizens accept that Britain has become a multicultural country (page 22) and 70% affirm this is a positive development (page 21). The word is not, however, defined in the question. So it may be assumed that these responses are simply evidence that respondents are tolerant, broad-minded people who are, in the widest sense, receptive to and respectful of cultures alien to their own. The UK benefits culturally from migration in many ways, its influences making themselves felt in music, literature, fashion, design, cuisine, arts and crafts and so on, all of which add to the enrichment of British cultural life.

But multiculturalism, as a contested idea and as a state-sponsored policy, has a specific meaning and theoretical basis which goes much further than this. It demands that respect for all aspects of cultural difference be non-negotiable, and an embrace of this position sits uneasily with recent UK polling showing that 61% of respondents favour a ban on face-covering in public places. This demand for non-negotiable respect relies for its legitimacy on three a priori claims:
  • Firstly, that a person's culture is essential to their sense of identity; that is, their fundamental awareness of who they are as an individual and human being. Stigmatising minority cultural or religious beliefs, rites, traditions and practices is therefore directly analogous to racism.
  • Consequently, the failure to be sufficiently respectful of cultural difference constitutes oppression, causing minorities to internalise a sense of inferiority and backwardness if their traditions or beliefs are perceived in these terms. This has a catastrophic effect on self-esteem, aggravating cultural dissonance, and leading to alienation and self-hatred.
  • Thirdly, that the crimes committed during the West's colonial history oblige it to atone by accommodating minority cultures with tolerance and humility. It is not for Westerners to judge which aspects of other cultures are or are not permissible. To presume to do so is to be convicted of 'cultural supremacism', and of helping to 'other' people who are already marginalised.
This has led to the rise of what theorist Charles Taylor described, in an influential essay entitled The Politics of Recognition, as "the politics of difference" at the expense of an egalitarian "politics of equal dignity":
With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognise is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else. The idea is that it is precisely this distinctness that has been ignored, glossed over, assimilated to a dominant or majority identity. And this assimilation is the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity.
The paradox of multicultural theory is that it is supposedly grounded in a universalist belief that we owe equal respect to the the dignity of all people. But by tying what constitutes dignity to what makes people different as opposed to what makes them the same, this universalist foundation becomes a platform for cultural relativism, reactionary cultural nationalisms and inevitable demands for exceptionalism. As Taylor puts it:
Where the politics of universal dignity fought for forms of nondiscrimination that were quite “blind” to the ways in which citizens differ [i.e: ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation] the politics of difference often redefines nondiscrimination as requiring that we make these distinctions the basis of differential treatment.
So, for example, exceptions are made to otherwise universally applicable animal welfare laws so as to accommodate less humane methods of slaughter compatible with Islamic and Jewish religious traditions. And respect for the equal rights of women becomes subordinated to respect for cultural traditions that do not recognise - indeed, which are a direct affront to - gender equality.

Not one of the three claims upon which this state of affairs has been constructed stands up to close scrutiny. Nevertheless, uncritically accepted and taken together, they act as a closed, self-fortifying system: a politics of difference (ie: multiculturalism) is necessary to combat indigenous ethnocentricity, intolerance and racism; ergo, criticism of and resistance to multiculturalism is evidence of intolerance and racism reinforcing the need for....well, more multiculturalism.

It is never countenanced that a divisive politics of difference might exacerbate rather than mollify the marginalisation of minority communities. Rather, those who look askance at the inequities of sharia councils, the growing prevalence of regressive religious dress codes and so on stand accused of a failure of empathy and an irrational fear of the 'other', both of which, it is alleged, constitute an intolerable assault on the very core of an individual's sense of self-awareness and self-worth.

The EDL confirms the multiculturalist's view that, beneath its politically correct veneer, the West remains deeply hostile to foreigners. Nothing that Tommy Robinson has to say on the subject of Islamic custom, belief or tradition can possibly have any validity since any and all criticisms are simply a reflection of his own failure of understanding. Instead, it is claimed, his views make him the working class poster-child for a supposed pandemic of 'Islamophobia' presently sweeping the nation and terrorizing Muslims - an entrenched intolerance to difference that shames Western democracies and makes a mockery of the their claims to liberalism and accommodation.

But the EDL also functioned as a handy means of forcing those who criticise either Islam or point out the incoherences of multiculturalism to defend themselves against charges of racism.

When David Cameron spoke at the 2011 Munich Security Conference, he attacked multiculturalism (correctly) as inegalitarian and divisive. He argued (reasonably) that individuals and organisations purporting to represent minority communities be vetted to discover whether they upheld certain values such as a belief in secular democracy and the equality of women and so forth. The BCC reported the reaction of two Labour MPs as follows:
The Labour MP for Luton South, Gavin Shuker, asked if it was wise for Mr Cameron to make the speech on the same day the English Defence League staged a major protest in his constituency. There was further criticism from Labour's Sadiq Khan whose comments made in a Daily Mirror article sparked a row. The shadow justice secretary was reported as saying Mr Cameron was "writing propaganda material for the EDL".
Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan then took to the pages of the New Statesman to call Khan "brave" and to complain that the Labour front bench were "shabby" not to have supported him. Hasan described Cameron's criticisms of multiculturalism as "simplistic" and "inflammatory" and "Muslim-bashing".

Then, in an Oxford Union debate about Islam held a mere five days after Lee Rigby's barbaric murder in Woolwich by Islamist jihadis, Hasan addressed his debating opponent Anne Marie Waters, spokesperson for the secularist anti-Sharia campaign One Law For All, with the following:
I believe you're trying to stand for the Labour Party as MP in Brighton. Well, if you do and you make these comments [those made in her speech], I'm guessing you'll have the whip withdrawn from you. But, then again, UKIP's on the rise. They'll take you! The BNP! I'm sure they'll have something to say about your views!
Waters has since resigned from the Labour Party, citing Labour's support for "the racist and misogynistic arrangement known as multiculturalism" and the smearing of its critics among her reasons. This is a dismaying development, further confirming that the space available to principled opponents of the Islamic far-right on the left is vanishingly small.

I've already written at some length about the ways in which legitimate criticisms of Islamic faith and culture are misrepresented as bigotry in order to stigmatise and silence those making them (here and here), and about the cynical inflation of Islamophobia (here). What's remarkable is the degree to which those ideologically invested in the defence of multicultural dogma are prepared to wave away the empirical evidence contradicting what amounts to a faith-based position.

When the Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan published an article comprehensively debunking the hysterical claims of a "massive spike in anti-Muslim prejudice" in the wake the Woolwich atrocity, an academic named Dr. Chris Allen, "advisor to the government on anti-Muslim hate" and author of a book on the subject, responded with the following extraordinary claim:
Focusing solely on 'numbers' alone is a distraction. You cannot put a value on the damage done by prejudice, discrimination, bigotry and hate, quite irrespective of whether 'numbers' of incidents are on a rise or in decline. The fact that we know that ordinary people - in this case British Muslims - are continuing to be victims of discrimination and hate is what should be concerning us most. It's time to change the narrative, to move away from 'numbers' and focus on the harm, pain and suffering that is caused as a result of Islamophobia.
To hell, in other words, with inconvenient statistics - what is important is perception. Allen doesn't stop to consider that if the numbers (a term he consistently places in scare quotes) do not match the perception, then it may be the perception that needs changing.

This is no more rational an argument than that offered by a terrified conservative convinced, in the teeth of all available crime data, that we are living in a state of near lawlessness necessitating ever more authoritarian legislation - more prisons, tougher sentencing, new and more more draconian laws etc. Allen's is not an ernest assessment of the nature and threat of the far-right, but a blind and desperate defence of multicultural ideology.

In fact, no-one should have been surprised that a social model which rejects assimilation and champions separatism and cultural nationalism should produce a chauvinistic white working class variant like the EDL. Nor should they have been surprised to discover that white working class people would object to finding that their demands for what Taylor calls cultural and ethnocentric  "recognition" should be uniquely derided, while the demands of reactionaries of every other stripe were being indulged.

But all this does is expose the disingenuousness of the claim by multiculturalists that their precepts are, at root, universalist and egalitarian. The post-60s, post-socialist emergence of a post-modern, post-colonial identity politics saw the assembling of a new victimhood hierarchy on the left, and the white working class found themselves abruptly relegated to the bottom of the grievance heap.

But then, the relationship between the liberal left and the white working class, on whose behalf it traditionally presumed to speak, has long been in decline. As Nick Cohen argued in his polemic What's Left?, when the Left gave up on the prospect of a socialist utopia, it also gave up on the working class.

The white working class, for its part, regards the liberal left as remote, elitist, condescending and incapable of discussing issues in an honest and straightforward manner. Middle class liberals, meanwhile, have developed a tendency to regard the white working class as lazy, ignorant, reactionary, sexually promiscuous and bigoted; consumers of junk food and junk telly who cannot be expected to understand the nuances of modern political life nor trusted to vote in their own interests. Julie Burchill was right. They are the only group it is still seen as socially acceptable to openly scorn and denigrate.

For instance:

It's partly this kind of snobbery that has led to the widespread misreading of Tommy Robinson.

Consider this exchange between Tommy Robinson and Sarah Montague on Radio 4's Today programme in June:
Montague: But Mr. Robinson you haven't made clear how you would actually change things. As the laws currently stand, how would--
Robinson: I'd outlaw Sharia.
Montague: But--
Robinson: That's one thing. Straight away.
Montague: But Sharia isn't in place in this country.
Robinson: There's a hundred Sharia Law courts operating in this country. A hundred. And they're--
Montague: But you don't are not judged under Sharia Law--
Robinson: That doesn't matter. British women are. British Muslim women are.
The hypocrisy implied by Montague's reasoning - which objectively defends the right of Muslim men to systematically discriminate against Muslim women, so long as it doesn't affect her - ought to be evident to anyone not chained to the belief that all cultures are morally equal and all traditions equally valuable. Robinson has understood something that Montague has not and is quite prepared to complain about it because, unlike her, he doesn't give a damn for the politically correct niceties that dictate what constitutes acceptable debate in a multicultural society. 

Maajid Nawaz, chairman of the anti-extremist think-tank that facilitated Robinson's departure from the EDL, is in a good position to understand the left's peculiar hypocrisies. When he announced he was leaving the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2007 and setting up the Quilliam Foundation, he and his co-founders were reviled as traitors and sell-outs. Not just by Islamists and tribally-minded Muslims, but also by multiculturalists, or what Nawaz calls "the regressive left". Seumas Milne's response to the news of Quilliam's launch takes some beating:
[Nawaz's Quilliam co-founder Ed Husain] attacked multiculturalism and declared there were too many immigrants in the country. He also says he supported the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam, but not what took place thereafter. Husain has, meanwhile, compared Hamas to the BNP, described the Arab "psyche" as irredeemably racist, criticised the director of MI5 for "pussyfooting around" with extremists, poured cold water on the idea that western policy in the Muslim world makes terror attacks in Britain and elsewhere more likely, dismissed the idea of Islamophobia and defended the government's decision to ban the leading Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi from Britain because he had defended Palestinian suicide attacks. Whatever else that amounts to, it's scarcely a voice of moderation.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The problem that Nawaz and Quilliam pose for multiculturalists is that they have no use for identity politics and see nothing ennobling about the infantilising, grievance-based victimhood narrative with which multiculturalism seeks to saddle Muslims. They oppose Islamic extremism because they have seen for themselves what it has to offer and have instead declared themselves partisans of the liberal secular democracy it is sworn to overthrow. The same liberal secular democracy that affords Dr. Allen and Mr. Goodwin the luxury of their academic careers, and that affords Milne the freedom to write his bitter, masochistic articles in the pages of The Guardian.

And so, in the eyes of their critics, Nawaz and his colleagues at Quilliam have become 'native informants'. By successfully assimilating, they have committed what Taylor called "the cardinal sin against the ideal of authenticity", and thus disqualified themselves from being able to speak on behalf of 'true' Muslims. This helps to explain Dr. Chris Allen's reaction to the following exchange [video here] between Nawaz and Islamic traditionalist Mohammed Ansar on the subject of hudud punishments, specifically limb amputation and stoning:
Nawaz: If an Islamic State existed, should it chop off someone's hand for theft if all the Sharia conditions are met? Please, yes or no?
Ansar: I....I....I really--
Nawaz: Yes or no?
Ansar: I--
Nawaz: Yes or no? Please, answer that. Yes or no?
Ansar: Look--
Nawaz: I'll tell you my answer: no. What's yours?
Ansar: On some of my theological views, I'm clear. On other theological views, I'd like to hear what the consensus of the scholars is. And on other theological views, I'm not made up!
Nawaz: Okay. Well, if one were to ask me my views on stoning someone to death, whether now, or in a hypothetical ideal Islamic state, I don't think it's morally justifiable to defer the answer and say "I'm not sure if someone should be stoned to death or not." That's morally reprehensible.
To which Allen, a supposed liberal, responded with:
Ansar was a rabbit in the headlights as Nawaz savagely tore into him about his hypothetical views in relation to shariah law, something that would seem to be markedly different to the approach taken by Nawaz about Robinson's actual views about Islam, Muslims and more. Don't forget that just a few weeks ago, Nawaz was claiming that Robinson's decision to quit the EDL without even rejecting an ounce of his insidious ideology, was a "very positive change for the United Kingdom...a very proud moment for Quilliam".
Surely, irrespective of what happened "a few weeks ago", on the subject of amputations and stoning we ought to be behind the person prepared to condemn it without equivocation? And surely this ought to go without saying? Not, it seems, to those whose broad-mindedness has reached such stratospheric levels of sophistication they are unable to make a simple moral judgement.

Much has been made by Robinson's critics of the fact that he has refused to renounce his formerly espoused views (if he adheres to "an ideology", I'm not aware of it). I think his frankness is to his credit (and hard to square with the idea that he duped Quilliam). But to even expect him to do so in the first place is to misunderstand what he rejected when he left the EDL and what now unites him with Quilliam.

Robinson's fundamental complaints about Islam and multiculturalism haven't changed, nor should they. But his remarks about Islam have always been subject to the limitations of chaotic, unsupervised research. The repeated rhetorical confusion between Islam, Islamism and Muslims (pointed out by the talk show host in the clip above) is a serious one. The careless conflation of ideology and people, in particular, led to justifiable uncertainty about Robinson's agenda, alienating potential allies, causing unnecessary fear and anxiety amongst Muslims, and encouraging those with a neo-fascist agenda to gravitate towards the EDL. It is this last development that Robinson claims finally forced him to pull the plug - a problem partly created by his own rhetoric but which he then found himself unable to control.

Now that he has unequivocally denounced the unreconstructed racism that blighted his former movement and declared solidarity instead with genuinely moderate, secular Muslims, it ought to put an end to the claim that his criticisms of Islam mask an irrational hatred of all adherents. He seems, instead, to be groping towards a clearer understanding of the plurality of views within Islam and starting to separate out what is benign from what really bothers him. This process could benefit enormously from his alliance with Quilliam, and marks a big step away from the "what about us?" identity politics with which he has frequently framed his arguments until now. He appears to have realised that the fight he wants to pick with cultural traditionalists, religious extremists and their apologists depends for its success upon the support of moderate Muslims.

I submit that this is all to be encouraged. Robinson's presence at Karima Bennoune's recent LSE talk about Muslims risking their lives to resist religious extremism and Islamic theocracy worldwide struck me as a positive sign. Muslims are not, after all, simply a useful a talking point as the "first and worst victims of Islam", but also some of the most valuable allies he could have. And in Maajid Nawaz and Quilliam, Robinson has found people who understand and share many of his concerns, who are extremely well-placed to broaden his understanding of Islam and extremism, and who don't patronise him or treat him like a pariah.

So, while Matthew Goodwin presumes to lecture Quilliam's former extremists on what they should and should not know and Dr Chris Allen prattles unhappily about hyper-reality in the Huffington Post, Robinson and Quilliam have struck a blow against the politics of difference. Good for them. No wonder the academics are so upset.

The BBC documentary Leaving the English Defence League can be seen here.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Niqab Notes

Further Thoughts on Face-Covering.

Notes on various aspects of the debate, recently reignited by the Birmingham City College case and the recent ruling by Judge Peter Murphy at Blackfriars crown court.

1. "The State Should Not Tell Women How To Dress"
The verbatim roboticism with which this argument is repeated speaks to its effectiveness as a talking point. It relies for that effectiveness, however, on a rhetorical trick designed to make a ban sound like the very thing it is intended to combat.

The substantive point being made - that the State has no business interfering in such decisions in any way - is a perfectly legitimate one. Its formulation is misleading. "Telling women how to dress" is prescriptive. In other words, the State demands, as it does in theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia, that "you must wear this". A ban on the niqab in public places, however, is proscriptive, and makes only one requirement: that people do not cover their faces.

A niqab ban would not permit the State any comment on how they dress otherwise. Needless to say, those opposed to totalitarian codes of prescriptive dress have a far greater quarrel with Islamist authority than with a State law intended to circumscribe that authority.

2. On Cultural Marxism and Speaking For Others
During a characteristically unproductive twitter exchange on the subject, I was bluntly informed by someone describing themselves as an "avowed Cultural Marxist" that white males have no place in the veiling debate. "I don't" he announced, "do the whole faux 'white man to the rescue' kind of solidarity". The same argument is made to deride the stated humanitarian goals of the United States' invasion of Afghanistan, in spite of the fact it has led to concrete improvements in the lives and liberties of Afghan women. (Whether or not these advances are likely to survive the withdrawal of the coalition troops presently defending them is, however, highly dubious.)

The demand that we suspend our own moral judgement and defer to that of "Muslim women" is of no use since Muslim women hold a variety of opinions, some traditionalist and conservative, some enlightened and progressive. Alas, when pressed to choose between the two, the Cultural Marxist becomes quite the reactionary, invariably citing the former as the more 'authentic'. Secular Muslim women who eschew and/or condemn Islamic dress codes are deemed to have become 'Westernised', and their opinions tainted. Particular venom is reserved for those Muslim women who have had the nerve to shed their faith entirely; an act, apparently, of unpardonable tribal betrayal that invalidates her opinion entirely and can sometimes result in murder at the hands of her co-religionists.

So what then is the Cultural Marxist to do with the case of the Guinean couple in France charged with the genital mutilation of their four daughters, not one of whom would co-operate with the State's investigation into the crime? One of the mutilated girls told the jury that she couldn't understand why her parents were being prosecuted.

Or take the reasoning of the women in this video, subjected to genital mutilation as children and determined, in an act of grotesque self-validation, to inflict the same on their own:

Just as an anorexic whose self-perception is deformed by body dysmorphia may insist that his wasted frame is healthy, so a woman hijabed since the age of three may internalise a sense of inferiority and oppression to the point where she avers that prescriptive Islamic dress codes are a "liberation". Declaring that up is down does not make it so, no matter how 'authentic' the speaker.

3. The Freedom To Do As You Are Told
But over at the ever-indulgent Independent, space was cleared for Sahar al Faifi to do just that, as she upended the English language by claiming that Islam is a "liberation from worshipping anything but the one God". She went on:
I am a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time . . . I wear the niqab as a personal act of worship, and I deeply believe that it brings me closer to God, the Creator.  I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength.
Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question. Al Faifi adopted the niqab at the age of 14, against the advice of her parents. So then where, one is entitled to ask, did she learn that such a self-denying act was even required of her by her God? There is certainly no mention of it in the Qur'an. A few paragraphs later she says this:
Islam is not a monolithic religion and therefore Islamic scholars may differ in their jurisprudence but most agree that in particular cases, Muslim women are allowed to take off their veils – though each case should be dealt with individually. Muslim women like myself do not find this a problem.
So accustomed is al Faifi to obeying the dictates of men in robes, and so completely has she accepted this as a necessary and inevitable fact of life, she doesn't realise that her use of the word "allowed" here holes her claim to free choice below the waterline.

4. Complicity in the Oppression of Others
There is a world of difference, however, between this kind of psychological coercion in which the victim may be complicit, and the forcible kind that oppresses those who have managed to unshackle their minds from religious authority. In a riveting post over at, a young ex-Muslim woman blogging under the name 'Esha Athena' began with the following:
My mother and father are both active participants and activists in and for the Islamic community. Me – oh me? I am a godless secular humanist atheist. Unfortunately, I am still in the closet for the sake of my life. I am so sick and tired of pretending to care about & follow Islam. I am so sick of wearing that stupid hijab on my head. (I asked if I could substitute it for a shawl, only to be called a whore in return.)
So what do fundamentalists like al Faifi have to say on Esha's behalf? Well, nothing much, as it happens. Not only does al Faifi fail to condemn forcible coercion, she doesn't seem to believe it exists. Instead, she scolds those who denounce the veil in the name of gender equality and human rights:
The common impression that many people have about those that wear the niqab is that we are oppressed, uneducated, passive, kept behind closed doors and not integrated within British society . . . Jeremy Browne MP is a case in point with his call for a national debate about whether the state should step in to “protect” young women from having the veil “imposed” on them.
Because al Faifi doesn't feel coerced, she refuses to believe that anyone does. At which point she becomes complicit in the silencing and oppression of those who are. As do those liberals and libertarians who nod along to pieties like "slavery is liberation" and "freedom is obedience" and uncritically accept this nonsensical double-speak as representative of The Muslim View.

Never mind that these same fundamentalists espouse a misanthropic view of individual liberty and human sexuality, and invariably justify their own regressive choices with reference to the contrary decadence of free and open societies and the sluttishness of Western women. And never mind that the voices to which we should be listening belong to those who yearn for the same liberties that we take for granted.

The fundamentalist's defiant affirmation of choice excuses the liberal from having to pass judgement and excuses the libertarian of the need to countenance State intervention. So, whilst zealots are welcomed onto the BBC and into the pages of the Independent to defend their freely adopted signifier of purity, secular Muslims, apostates and free-thinkers like Esha are forced to blog about their experiences anonymously from behind a second veil, fearful of the consequences of exposure. Esha closes her post with a scornful denunciation of those Muslim women who collude in the denial of Islamic misogyny:
#MuslimahPride [a twitter hashtag beneath which proud Muslims defended Islamic dress codes] is an insult to women like me who are oppressed by Islam itself. Their ‘activism’ is alarmingly similar to Jewish Nazi apologia or that of the Anti-suffragists women of the 1910s who had a belief that women had the right to complete freedom within the home and would say, ‘its our choice not to vote.’ This is pure Stockholm Syndrome and sheer ignorance on their part. Sure, you might have had the ‘freedom’ to choose to don the hijab, like I did, but I do not have the very same freedom to choose to take it off without being slut-shamed or threatened. Are my experiences unwarranted? Why the hypocrisy and double standards?
5. The Paradox of Liberalism
The belief that the State has no business interfering in the cultural affairs of individuals and groups is untenable in the face of the challenges to equality and liberty presented by regressive religious and cultural practices. The collision of Islamic and Western values is sometimes presented as a one-way street. Islam - inert, passive, abstract, victimised - is dominated by the arrogance of an equally abstract Occidental modernity. But inegalitarian values are not a bit passive or abstract when put into practice - they have real ongoing consequences and victims. State-sponsored multiculturalism ensures that these values are not just defended but given the space to be vigorously asserted.

As I argued in my previous essay on the subject, veiling of all kinds in the hands of the Islamist is a political cudgel; an instrument of gender apartheid in a systematic campaign to segregate public space and keep women in subordination, just as blacks were subordinated by racial apartheid. I'm bemused by those who oppose the voluntary segregation of gender by seating, and then oppose - with equal vehemence - a ban on the segregation of public space by veiling.

But veiling is also part of a web of apolitical, cultural and quasi-religious traditions such as honour murder and Female Genital Mutilation designed to entrap women in a position of abject servility. Given the multiplicity of challenges this presents to the defence of human rights, an absolutist opposition to state intervention leaves the State powerless to protect vulnerable women and children within minority communities. Effectively countering the problem of FGM, for example, may require invasive inspection of children who are profiled by country of origin, ethnicity and religion.

At some point the liberal has to make a choice between disfiguring surgery and an untreated tumour. The laissez-faire approach to liberty in these circumstances is an act, not of principle, but of moral cowardice. Like the pacifist whose only concern is keeping his own hands free of blood, the liberal only concerned with his own reputation for tolerance ends up complicit in the crimes he ignores.

6. The Responsibility to Protect
While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.

Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power - in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends.

Some opponents of a ban are silent in the face of the ongoing oppression of Muslim women, even going so far as to accuse those who do write about the subject of 'Islamophobia'. Similarly, the Stop the War Coalition and its fellow travellers had nothing much to say on behalf of dying Syrians until the possibility of Western military action was announced. When the prospect of Western military intervention retreated, so did the interest in Syrian life. And once the calls for a niqab ban diminish (as they will), so will the professions of concern for the rights of Muslim women.

Some opponents of the niqab ban share with the anti-war movement a mistrust of the West and its espoused 'values' which they suspect are a front behind which to oppress, dominate and subordinate the 'other'. Abiding memories of colonialism have left a deep squeamishness about interfering in foreign nations and cultural affairs and the motives of those who seek to do so are immediately suspect. Supporters of a niqab ban are consequently accused of Orientalism and cultural imperialism. Supporters of humanitarian intervention, of enabling Western supremacism and war crimes. Both are accused of paternalism.

And those who support military intervention are asked to defend its costs, not as a byproduct of policy, but as if they were its intended consequence. The wisdom of intervention in either case may b disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such. Just as an interventionist accepts the loss of innocent life needed to prevent greater loss of innocent life, the niqab ban may be supported as an illiberal measure intended to counter a far greater illiberalism. Because, contrary to what you may have heard, Bombing For Peace is not remotely like Fucking For Virginity.

7. A Reasonable Alternative
In a principled and important article for the Sunday Times (reposted here), Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist now Chairman of anti-extremist think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, offers an alternative solution: on identity- and security-sensitive issues, secular law must trump religious and cultural tradition wherever conflict arises.

This would be a big step in the right direction, at once attacking inegalitarian and divisive Islamic exceptionalism and immediately dispensing with specious arguments in its defence from religious freedom. I would hope - although I'm getting accustomed to disappointment - that this is a fair-minded position all progressives could support.

It would, however, fall short of delegitimising the garment itself in the eyes of the law and I contend that the specific issue of the niqab goes beyond the problems associated with religious exceptionalism.

I have no in-principle problem with the voluntary practice of self-denial, just as I have no in-principle problem with mutually consensual polyamory. The proviso in both cases being that they are egalitarian in application. Polygamy, unless practiced alongside polyandry, is objectively demeaning to women. Just as demeaning is the 'recommendation' or forcible imposition of all forms of gender-based veiling. And, not by accident, but by design.

I abhor all religious dress codes designed to restrict the freedom of their adherents and to mark them as separate and unequal human beings. But the idea that a woman's face is so shameful that she must be completely depersonalised is a vindictive and intolerable affront to human dignity. The niqab marks, segregates, depersonalises and degrades those who wear it. It is, objectively, a tool of abuse. And for this reason, its extirpation - not just from Western societies, but from all societies - constitutes a moral imperative.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Against All Saidists...

. . . and in Defence of the West.

Edward Said (left), author of Orientalism (right)
The ongoing quarrel over what one is and is not permitted to say about Islam erupted again last week when Professor Richard Dawkins tweeted the following:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
Both parts of that statement are demonstrably true. And yet, it was the object of the usual derision and hostility from those who appear to hold that any criticism of 'minority' cultures is racist and prejudiced by definition, irrespective of its accuracy. Especially when said criticism is expressed by a 'privileged' white Western male, who - it is alleged - harbours a racist agenda to embarrass and humiliate the Muslim world.

A good part of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs can be laid at the door of the late Columbia professor of comparative literature, Edward W. Said. The influence of Said's writing is undeniable and incalculable. His key works Orientalism (1978), The Question of Palestine (1979), Covering Islam (1981) and Culture & Imperialism (1993) revolutionised the way in which the Middle East is studied, discussed and perceived in the Occident, and the first of these, Orientalism, is credited with having midwifed the birth of Post-Colonial studies in Western academia.

Today his work is assigned reading across a head-spinning array of disciplines and many of his arguments and premises have acquired the power of cross-cultural memes - that is to say, so entrenched have they have become in contemporary received wisdom, that one does not have to have read a page of Said's writing to believe in the essential truth of his views.

As the neo-Conservative writer Joshua Muravchik allows in an otherwise highly critical piece for World Affairs:
[Said] not only transformed the West’s perception of the Israel-Arab conflict, he also led the way toward a new, post-socialist life for leftism in which the proletariat was replaced by “people of color” as the redeemers of humankind. During the ten years that have passed since his death there have been no signs that his extraordinary influence is diminishing.
Orientalism is - prima facie - an imposing piece of work. As Muravchik notes, it confronts the reader with a blizzard of assertions, names, quotations and arguments dressed up in the kind of stultifying post-modern jargon often mistaken for scholarly erudition, all of which point to the same damning conclusion: that the West has been engaged in a lengthy, thoroughgoing and systematic attempt to dominate, control and subjugate Islamic society and culture, and that Orientalism, a hitherto respected discipline dedicated to the study of the Near, Mid and Far East, was and is little more than the malevolent handmaiden of Western militarism and Empire. As Said explained in one particularly intemperate passage:
It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric. [Pg. 204]
This view, while manifestly absurd, nonetheless chimed with the prevailing view on the Left at the time of Orientalism's publication that Western culture, and caucasians in particular, had very little of which they could be proud and much of which they should be ashamed.

Two wars had devastated the European continent and beyond; technological advances were suddenly in the dock following the summary obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; post-Colonial guilt tormented those horrified by the crimes committed by their forefathers in the name of Empire; the brutal war for independence waged by the people of Algeria had ended in 1962; the bitter struggle for racial equality in the United States had finally been won, but Martin Luther King was dead; and, across the globe, American foreign policy was held in contempt for its military involvement in South-East Asia.

In 1967, Susan Sontag informed the readers of The Partisan Review that:
The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean Algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history.
("Only," Tom Wolfe remarked years later, "in the Land of Rococo Marxists.")

French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose attacks on the notion of objective truth had seen a resurgence of moral and cultural relativism in the post-War West, was by no means alone in applauding the overthrow of the US-backed Iranian Shah in 1979 by theocratic fascists on this basis. That perverse mentality survives in academia to this day, as evidenced (to take but one example) by the English historian Mary Beard's blithe pronouncement in the immediate wake of 9/11 that "no matter how tactfully you dress it up, the US had it coming."

But aside from indulging a Western penchant for self-flagellation, Orientalism and its quasi-sequels also had a deleterious (and, I assume, unintended) effect on prospects for progress within the Muslim world. As Ibn Warraq, the ex-Muslim scholar and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society, commented:
[Orientalism] taught an entire generation of Arabs the art of self-pity - "were it not for the wicked imperialists, racists and Zionists, we would be great once more" - encouraged the Islamic fundamentalist generation of the 1980s, bludgeoned into silence any criticism of Islam, and even stopped dead the work of eminent Islamologists who felt their findings might offend Muslim sensibilities and who dared not risk being labelled "Orientalist". The aggressive tone of Orientalism is what I have called "intellectual terrorism", since it seeks to convince, not by arguments or historical analysis, but by spraying charges of racism, imperialism and Eurocentrism from a moral high ground; anyone who disagrees with Said has insult heaped upon him.
This included Muslims like the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, who argued that the gravest problem facing Muslim countries was not their comparatively brief history under European Imperialism or the opinions of nineteenth century Orientalist scholars, but the escalating cruelty of their own autocratic and theocratic rulers in the here and now. For this, Said labelled Makiya a "native informer".

The difficulty for Saidists is not that they cannot tell the difference between rational, legitimate criticism of Islam and the Muslim world on the one hand and triumphalist chauvinism and racism on the other. The difficulty is that they don't believe there to be any difference. Western criticism, study, analysis of the Orient undertaken from a position of Western power and 'privilege' are colonialist by their very nature.

But the Islamic break with scientific progress and the impediments to progress Islam erected long pre-date the British and French colonial projects in the Middle East.

A once intellectually and culturally vibrant part of the world, the region had enjoyed a relationship of productive cultural exchange with Ancient Greece. In the ninth century, the Abassid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun moved their capital to Baghdad and there established the House of Wisdom - a vast archive of world knowledge, a translation institute and the most important centre of learning and scientific inquiry of the Islamic Golden Age.

However, by the end of the ninth century, its influence was already in decline, not least because the Caliph Al-Mutawakkil believed Greek thought to be un-Islamic. As the traditionalist Ash'arite school of Islam asserted itself over the rationalist Mutazilites, this decline would accelerate and free thinkers in the Muslim world found themselves subject to vicious persecution. The Orientalist Ernest Renan noted in an 1883 lecture that any progress made in the Muslim world during the second half of the Middle Ages occurred despite Islam, rather than because of it:
To give Islam the credit of Averröes and so many other illustrious [Muslim] thinkers, who passed half their life in prison, in forced hiding, in disgrace, whose books were burned and whose writings almost suppressed by theological authority, is as if one were to ascribe to the inquisition the discoveries of Gallileo, and a whole scientific development it was not able to prevent.
As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg observed in a review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion for the Times Literary Supplement in 2007:
[T]hough there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of Philosophers against the very idea of the laws of nature on the ground that any such laws would put God's hands in chains . . . After al-Ghazzali there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.
When the furore over Dawkins's tweet erupted, I happened to be reading Defending the West, a lucid, scholarly and comprehensive demolition of Said's best-known work by Ibn Warraq, upon which I have relied for much of this post. In it, argues that part of what separates Western societies from Islamic ones is the the idea that the pursuit of truth should not be bound by utility, but is an end in itself. This was foundational to Greek thought, exemplified by Aristotle, but has been largely suppressed in Islamic societies since al-Ghazzali. Intellectual curiosity meant the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake; a simple idea but one considered extremely dangerous by religious dogmatists.

So instead Muslim scholars began to distinguish between the Islamic sciences, eg: religion (Koranic exegesis, the science of hadith, jurisprudence, and scholastic theology) and language (grammar, lexicography, rhetoric and literature), and the foreign sciences, eg: mathematics, physics, philosophy, natural history, astronomy and so on. The latter, being universalist, were increasingly neglected from the twelfth century on. And while Western Christianity maintained ties its heritage with Athens and Jerusalem, Islam turned its back on the pre-Islamic of the Middle East. Pre-Islamic civilisations were to be forgotten as periods of base ignorance or Jāhiliyya. 

In the late nineteenth century there was a brief rationalist resurgence, but from 1950 onwards, as Islamism began to cast its shadow across the region, it died and with it went the Muslim world's hopes of making its belated appointment with modernity. As Weinberg notes, even in ostensibly secular Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was calling for a complete end to scientific education by 1981.

The observable results of the stifling of free inquiry, creativity and unfettered scientific investigation are by no means limited to the distribution of Nobel Prizes. In 2002, the UN's Arab Human Development Report noted:
There are no reliable figures on the production of books, but many indicators suggest a severe shortage of writing; a large share of the market consists of religious books and educational publications that are limited in their creative content. The figures for translated books are also discouraging. The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Maa’moun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year.
In a 2007 article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, reported:
A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US National Science Foundation records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.
But as Hoodbhoy goes on the observe, these depressing statistics are symptomatic of deeper cultural problems. For instance:
Most universities in Islamic countries have a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent. 
The West, on the other hand, has gained much from the scientific method and a spirit of academic openness. Emancipation from Christian dogma led to giant strides being made in scientific inquiry and technological innovation, whilst the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake excited a curiosity about the world beyond its cultural borders. Meanwhile, a culture of scepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism helped foster the very academic freedom which nurtured and promoted Edward Said and which he spent his life's energies denigrating.

And while Said's work was a convenient cudgel with which to bash the West, it was often misleading and tendentious to the point of outright fraudulence. The Orientalists Said attacks in Orientalism were not the Imperialist stooges of his imagination. They were learned classicists and multi-lingual philologists motivated by a desire to know about and to understand cultures, traditions and peoples unlike their own. Their voluminous research and the translations of Arab texts they undertook have proven invaluable, not only to Western scholars but also - in spite of Said's claims to the contrary - to Middle Eastern scholars, who were grateful for the preservation of their own neglected pre-Islamic history.

Which is not to say the Orientalists were always correct. Contrary to Said's insistence that these were people all working in the service of the same conspiratorial colonial agenda, they often disagreed and sharply criticised one another's work. But this is what happens during the course of open research in any field of exploration and discovery.

Greater freedom of opinion in the West also allowed for the plentiful publication in the West of material sympathetic to Islam and the Arab world, but Said didn't find it necessary to mention these. Nor, as numerous critics have pointed out, did he manage to examine (or even appear to notice) the vast contribution to European understanding of the Orient made by German Orientalists. The obvious reason is that there was no corresponding or subsequent Imperial German project in the Middle East, and this inconvenient fact reduces the central argument Said advanced in Orientalism to powder.

Nor does Said make mention of the Western tradition of self-criticism that naturally sprang from freedom of conscience. Moral and cultural relativism were not new phenomena. An uneasiness with the notion of objectivity and universalism can be traced back to the Greek Sophists who believed only in culturally-informed human convention. Tolerance for, as well as curiosity about, other cultures - with a concomitant reluctance to judge or condemn - has been a constant strain in Western culture to varying degrees. In Michel de Montaigne's celebrated 1580 essay On Cannibalshe wrote:
I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I've been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs. Indeed, we seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. . . I am not so concerned that we should remark on the barbaric horror of [ritual murder and cannibalism], but that, while we quite rightly judge their faults, we are blind to our own.
Montaigne's essay is at least as mad as Sontag's "white race-as-cancer" remark, but it nonetheless demonstrates that a critical view of the West and a corresponding sympathy, or indulgence even, of other cultures has long been a characteristic of Western thought. This noble tradition of self-criticism is why as long as Western colonialism existed, so did a strain of anti-colonialist thought. It is also why the largest demonstrations following the Sabra and Shatila massacres were in Tel Aviv, and why the largest demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occurred in the West.

The notion that we ought not to study or criticise cultures other than our own is nonsensical, conservative, censorious and - in so small part due to Edward's Said's pernicious influence - dismayingly popular on the post-modern Left. But cultures are simply the product of man-made ideas. Sometimes people have good ideas; sometimes they have bad ones. The ability to discriminate and to judge the difference between the two - to reject or overthrow the former and to fight for and defend the latter - is an extremely precious faculty and a necessary precondition to progress.

Orientalism, however, is an accusatory and deeply reactionary text, the catastrophic effects of which continue to be felt in both Occident and Orient. Demonstrably ahistorical and flawed though its arguments are, large parts of Western academia (perhaps encouraged by Gulf funding) and Western culture in general have internalised them to such a degree, they are convinced that universalist value judgements about Islamic culture are simply a projection of their own inescapable racism. Consequently, they have fallen silent about human rights abuses committed by anyone but the West (and, naturally, Israel).

Meanwhile, in the Muslim world, religious fundamentalists have been adept at weaponising the bitter mindset of conspiracism, victimhood and vengeful grievance that Said encouraged, and directing it towards the West and the Jewish State. There remains a stubborn tendency to blame European Imperialism, American neo-Imperialism, Western cultural imperialism and 'colonial feminism', 'Orientalism', Zionism and sundry other -isms for the parlous state of their societies, rather than the regressive cultural and religious values that inhibit personal emancipation and retard learning, research and political/economic development.

In his article for Physics Today, Pervez Hoodbhoy argues that simply increasing funding for research and development is not enough. Profound behavioural and attitudinal changes within Islamic societies are needed:
. . . a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.
In his famous essay Counter-Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin wrote:
Voltaire, d'Alembert and Condorcet believed that the development of the arts and the sciences was the most powerful weapon in the fight against ignorance, superstition, fanaticism, oppression and barbarism, which crippled effort and frustrated men's search for truth and rational self-direction.
They were correct.

UPDATE: In response to this post, Raphael Cormack has posted a blog entry arguing for a more nuanced interpretation of Said's work here.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Philology + Fascism

Or . . . How Peaceniks Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Iranian Bomb

Our dear Imam [the late Ayatollah Khomeini] said that Israel must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 25 Oct. 2005 
The meaning of these words, arguably the most notorious Iran's erstwhile President ever uttered, is neither unclear nor complicated. But within days of being reported in the Western media, they had nonetheless become the subject of a fierce quarrel about the nature and intentions of the Iranian regime. Enemies and critics of Iran's theocracy insisted they were a testament to Tehran's pathological anti-Semitism and proof of its genocidal agenda, the furtherance of which is evidenced by their ongoing and unlawful pursuit of apocalyptic weaponry.

Enemies and critics of the West, on the other hand, protested that Ahmadinejad's words had been mistranslated, misunderstood and misused by neo-Imperialists agitating for a pre-emptive attack on the sovereign state of Iran. This was in spite of the fact that the contested English translation had been provided, not by a neo-Conservative think-tank, but by Iranian State media. So Ahmadinejad's quote was subjected to a word-for-word literal translation, which resulted in the following revised version:
Imam (Khomeini) ghoft (said) een (this) rezhim-e (regime) ishghalgar-e (occupying) qods (Jerusalem) bayad (must) az safheh-ye ruzgar (the page of time) mahv shavad (vanish from).
In spite of all the complaining, it ought to be obvious to anyone capable of a dispassionate assessment that both translations explicitly express the same unambiguous belief: that the world's only Jewish State must be destroyed and replaced by a 23rd Arab State. If anything, the revised translation is even more sinister, as it carries the implication that the entire Zionist project be consigned to some kind of ghastly Orwellian memory hole.

Nonetheless, the trivial differences between the two versions were enough to persuade Iran's defenders in the Western press that Ahmadinejad's words were completely harmless. As the ever-indulgent Jonathan Steele explained to his readership at The Guardian:
[Ahmadinejad] was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The "page of time" phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon. There was no implication that either Khomeini, when he first made the statement, or Ahmadinejad, in repeating it, felt it was imminent, or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about.
Steele concluded by recommending that Ahmadinejad's statement should not only be considered benign, but also appeased and rewarded with immediate, unconditional bilateral talks.

Juan Cole, meanwhile, in the midst of a bad-tempered complaint about (among other things) "the Orientalist Hitchens", offered that:
[T]he actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all . . . The phrase ["vanish from the page of time"] is almost metaphysical.
One is entitled to wonder if the implications of "almost metaphysical" phrases change when they are draped across missiles capable of hitting Israeli targets, and proudly displayed during official Iranian military parades.

Or if they are delivered by the President of a nation pursuing an illegal nuclear programme at a conference in its capital city entitled "The World Without Zionism". And during a speech in which he also stated:
I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world . . . Anyone who recognises this regime because of the pressure of the World oppressor [the United States], or because of naiveté or selfishness, will be eternally disgraced and will burn in the fury of the Islamic nations. Those who are sitting in closed rooms cannot decide for the Islamic nation and cannot allow this historical enemy to exist in the heart of the Islamic world.
This false philological quarrel erupted again over the weekend, when it was reported that, during an al Quds day rally, the new 'moderate' President-elect of Iran, Hassan Rouhani had said:
The Zionist regime is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed.
Once again, the English translation came from an Iranian source, not an American one. Once again, it was hotly contested. And, once again, the corrected version was scarcely less sinister than its predecessor:
There is an old wound on the body of the Islamic world, under the shadow of the occupation of the holy lands of Palestine and Quds [Jerusalem]. This day, is to remember that the Muslim population, will not forget its historic right and will resist tyranny and occupation.
And yet, it was claimed by some that this exonerated the regime of genocidal intent. It is worth bearing in mind that when Rouhani - or any other Iranian official for that matter - speaks of "the occupation", he is not referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but to Israel too.

And thanks to the arms and funds Iran provides for its fascist Shi'ite proxy Hezbollah and its fascist Sunni clients Hamas and Islamic Jihad, we know what constitutes Iran's preferred method of "resistance". Hamas are committed by their loathsome charter to driving every last Jew from 'historic' Palestine. Not content with that, Hezbollah have committed themselves to the eradication of Jewry worldwide. As their Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in 2002:
Islamic prophecies and not only Jewish prophecies declare that this state [Israel] will come into being, and all the Jews of the world will gather from all corners of the world in occupied Palestine. But this will not be so their false messiah [al-Dajjal] can rule in the world, but so that God can save you the trouble of running them down all over the world. And then the battle will be decisive and crushing.
The Iranian regime's material support for these genocidal groups was always an open secret but the nation's Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, helpfully confirmed the policy in February 2012:
From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this . . . We have intervened in anti-Israel matters, and it brought victory in the 33-day war by Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and in the 22-day war [against Hamas] . . . [Israel is a] cancerous tumour that should be cut out and will be cut out.
Evidence of the Iranian regime's implacable hatred of Israel's continuing existence is available in abundance should anyone care to look for it. The statements of its Presidents past and present may be the words of men with no de jure power over foreign policy, but they are indistinguishable from those made by officials across the whole regime, up to and including Ayatollah Khamenei and his closest associates. In January 2010, a Senior Iranian official Mohammad Hassan Rahimian boasted that:
We have manufactured missiles that allow us, when necessary, to replace Israel in its entirety with a big holocaust.
Later that same year, Khamenei chimed in with this:

And still it is argued that Iran's nuclear ambitions are peaceable, and that efforts made by the West to thwart its progress are evidence of nothing more than the neo-Imperialist bullying of a pious Muslim nation.

Writers like Juan Cole and Jonathan Steele face two obstacles in assessing the threat posed by Iran. The first is that they are not actually all that interested in the intentions of the Iranian regime. They are interested in the intentions of America and Israel, for whom it is argued the use of pre-emptive military force is never legitimate, no matter how grave the risk of inaction. Should evidence emerge of a gathering Iranian threat that might justify military action, the tendency is to attack the source, to rationalise it, to demand attention to 'nuance', to deconstruct its language, or simply to dismiss it altogether as so much empty rhetoric.

The second problem is that they are not willing to accept that Iran's problem with Israel is not simply political; it is theological and therefore irrational by definition. Cole's description of Ahmadinejad's words as "metaphysical" was more pertinent than he acknowledged and does more damage to his case than he realises.

Twelfth Imamism, to which Iran's fanatical ruling clerics subscribe, holds that their eponymous messiah, also known as the Mahdi or the hidden Imam, will return with Jesus at a time of apocalyptic conflict, to slaughter the infidels and establish peace for the surviving believers under a global Islamic caliphate. It is noticeable that the longer Iran's centrifuges have spun unmolested, the more frequent and confident Iranian officials' predictions of Israel's imminent demise and the consequent return of the 12th Imam have become.

When asked whether the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, which rests on an assumption of rational self-preservation, could prevent a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East, the historian Bernard Lewis was dismissive:
In the Muslim perception, there is an endless struggle going on between the true believers and the misbelievers. And this struggle will go on until the Final Stage when the true believers will triumph and the misbelievers will be conquered and either converted or subjugated. There is widespread belief among Muslims at the present time that that time is present or immediately approaching. We live in the End of Times and this is the Final Stage, which means that Mutually Assured Destruction is not a deterrent; it's an inducement.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens agreed that the Cold War precedent was a poor guide to the likely effects of Middle Eastern proliferation. He pointed out that, while Communism's appetite for mass-murder remains unsurpassed, as materialists they had never been much on mass-martyrdom:
That is not the case with Shi'ism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.
Whether Iran's clerics volunteer themselves for martyrdom or make arrangements to sit out the apocalypse is an open question (I suspect the latter). But their willingness to sacrifice thousands of their citizens and co-religionists to eschatological destiny is considerably less doubtful. And if they think they can obliterate the Jewish State in the process, it becomes considerably more likely. Unlike Russia or the United States during the Cold War, Israel is a tiny country with only a handful of large cities, so far fewer warheads would be required to devastate its population.

Those Western commentators who see pre-emptive military action against any Muslim country as to be avoided at all costs should be made to defend the likely consequences of the inaction they recommend. To wit, a region-wide arms race in the most deeply sectarian and volatile part of the planet. With a poly-nuclear Middle East sitting on a hair-trigger, Israel's continuing existence would be untenable. Given the wealth of evidence demonstrating Iran's sincere and unequivocal wish to see the extirpation of the Jewish State, the insistence on rationalising and excusing the genocidal statements and actions of its leaders and theocrats is simply perverse.

Juan Cole insists that Western democracies must take the moral high ground. That the only kind of morally acceptable military action is that undertaken in reprisal or self-defence. But democratic governments also have a pressing moral duty to protect their citizens from harm. And part of doing that is identifying and intercepting a clear and present existential danger before it is too late. That Iran might be obliterated by the United States following a nuclear assault on Israel would be of little consolation to the population of Tel Aviv.

It would be wonderful if the Iranian regime could be persuaded to renounce their nuclear ambitions and to admit inspectors. But given that this is unlikely, we need to be honest about the nature of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose and the steps required to prevent it. As Jeffrey Goldberg said, during a debate on the subject earlier this year:
In 1998, I was in Afghanistan in Kandahar, when Osama Bin Laden issued the first big fatwa against crusaders and Jews. And I was with a bunch of Westerners and we heard about this and, frankly, we laughed about it because it seemed crazy; absolutely insane, the audacity of it. And three years later I learned that very often when someone says something that seems crazy and says it over and over again, its worth paying attention . . . in the post-9/11 age, I believe we have to take religious fundamentalists who say they want to kill us seriously.

For the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs' dossier entitled The Iranian Leadership’s Continuing Declarations of Intent to Destroy Israel, click here.