Defeated by Islam

Steven has honored me with a direct link in a footnote to his recent piece on the condition of the human race, where he argues that the root cause of the problem that an invasion of Iraq will solve, is essentially Islam. Aside: a nice coda to his essay and to my comments below is this Map of Freedom, linked shamlessly from Suman's site:

Before I reply to Steven's comments, I'd like to point out that he uses the term Islamic apologist. In the context of his usage, it clearly applies not just to misguided Muslims who wholeheartedly support tribal policies wrapped in a cloak of vaguely Islamic justification, but also to the hundreds of millions of Muslims (in fact, the vast majority) who are not Wahabi but who simply live their lives. Like myself.

But am I am "apologist" for my religion? Steven's use of the label is a clever rhetorical device which immediately puts anyone trying to discuss Islam in response to his characterization, on the defensive. It's a subtle form of ad-hominem.

However, since he has used this device, I am forced to play along to the extent that wherever he refers to "what Islamics apologists feel/believe/do" I will reply as if he is addressing me (which he is). My answering to that label does not mean I agree with it. Had Ann Coulter engaged me in debate I would be forced to treat the term "liberal" in much the same way.

Steven Den Beste: 1, Aziz Poonawalla: 0 - on technical grounds. Let's continue.

Wahhabism in particular definitely does justify many of the most pernicious Arab policies which must be changed on the basis of the Qur'an, and therefore would be expected to resist reform as heresy. If Islamic apologists dislike that, their argument is with the Wahhabists, not with me.

True. my argument IS with the Wahabists.

To argue that an incorrect and deeply flawed interpretation of the Qur'an is the source of the problem doesn't change the fact that those who believe in that interpretation think they're basing it on their religion, and that they would be expected to defend the status quo accordingly.


However, there is a differrence between the average guy on the Muslim street and those people in their societies who hold the power, and who are doing the actual oppressing. The only people who really believe in the cruel interpretations of Wahabism are the ones who have authority. And most of them don't really believe in it either, but rather rely in it as a tool for political control.

It's a faulty assumption that the bulk of the Arab population supports the pernicious policies of oppression. In fact, most Arabs hate these rules as much as you or I would.

Islamic apologists tend quite naturally to be deeply sensitive to any implication that Islam overall is flawed and that Islam overall must be discarded or reformed. I do not make that argument, and I do not believe it to be true.

Actually, Steven has made exactly this argument before.

What Steven says in that piece is that Arab societies need to have a cultural cataclysm. The current state of their societies is the primary barrier to their people's freedom, and (proved by 9-11) our American safety. I agree! But the current state of oppression has been imposed upon Arab culture, and is not a manifestation of an inherent quality as Steven asserts. Steven often confuses cause and effect in his analyses of Islam and of Arabs.

Worse, by either deliberate choice or by simple confusion, he has interchangably substituted "Islam" for "Arab society" (The very title itself of the piece linked above is "Defeating Islam", not "Defeating Arab tyranny"). And not only does he fail to make the distinction, he even fails to draw the distinction between the people in CHARGE of Arab societies and the people who actually live in them.

By failing to make these important distinctions, Steven is actually making it harder to solve the problem.

To take a specific example - consider the rule against letting women drive in Saudi Arabia. This is easy to solve if you make a rational economic argument - currently, to get around this, families in Saudi with two working adults have to hire a male driver (usually a Pakistani immigrant) to act as chauffeur for the working woman (surprised? yes, many women are professionals, including doctors and lawyers, in Saudi Arabia). This is an enormous expense and a drain of money from Saudi middle class to Pakistan (not that there's anything wrong with that ;). This is basically a massive brake applied to one-half of the workforce in Saudi Arabia, which acts to filter out their economic impact. Were the stupid rule against women driving[1] lifted, there would be immediate economic benefit and increase in the standard of living.

Now this argument is easy to make[2]. It's easy to find the source of the injunction, which is a fat Wahabi priest sitting on his pulpit who decided one day how cool it would be to get rid of women drivers. Unseemly! The religious authority of this person is trivially easy to challenge and invalidate. Enough alternate religious authorities could be found and .. compensated.. to assert the idiocy of the rule on Qur'anic ground (3:42, 4:32, 9:71-72 , 33:35, 33:73, 48:5, 57:18, and above all, most importantly, 85:10).

However, suppose instead along comes Steven Den Beste, who says to the Saudi people, "liberate your women! you must reform Islam! Islam itself is at fault!" then the response becomes very differrent.

"See! they defame Islam! This man Den Beste has written an entire essay on Defeating Islam!" - and thus, the debate is hijacked away from the shaky foundation of the tyrant's authority, towards theological grounds. Passions are easily roused - "This man Den Beste challenges the Veracity of the Qur'an itself!" ... "An American has insulted the Prophet SAW!" and teh hold of the tyrant is strengthened, because he can position himself as a defender of Islam.

(Ralllying around your leader (however flawed) in response to challenge of war against your cherished ideals, is a trait not unique to Arab populations.)

The point is that Islam is not the problem, it's the interpretation. The solution is to replace the faulty interpretation (which is NOT supported by any actual religious authority) with a correct one (suitably referenced and supported by religious authority). The former is solely a power play, of tribal impulses. The latter is the essence of Islam, because contrary to Steven's assertions, Islam and freedom are inherently co-resonant ideas.

But Islamic apologists cannot avoid the fact that Islam in one form or another, whether flawed or valid, is heavily implicated in the problems the Arabs face, and will also be a major barrier to solving those problems

That's not a fact, it's a contradiction. It's the interpretation that is the problem. Islam is the solution. It's easy for SDB to argue that all interpretations are valid solely because they exist, but they are not equal. The religious interpretation of most Muslims is driven by a genuine need to apply the religion to the modern life. That's not just unique to my community but is nearly universal throughout Islam.

However, in Saudi Arabia, the religious interpretation of Wahabism does not exist to act as a guide for the Muslim's daily life. It exists solely to support the Saudi regime, in a delicate symbiosis with the radical priesthood. This interpretation gives the Saudis authority, justification, to pursue policies that predate Islam, including subjugation of women, cruel punishment of crimes, and not least, depravity and hedonism of the ruling class (subsidized by the general populace).

To claim moral equivalence between Wahabism and other interpretations of Islam like the Mu'tazila, Hanafi, Ithna Asharai, or Ismaili schools (madhabs) is therefore misguided to any reasonable observer. I agree with Steven's own statement, that being reasonable doesn't require you to abandon value judgments - and such comparisons clearly have no value. The fact of my being Muslim does not invalidate my assertion that the Wahabi interpretation is un-Islamic, though it serves my self-interest, any more than the fact that Steven has been a CDMA engineer for decades invalidate his discussion of its technical merits over GSM.

Tribalism is the true oppressor. Tribalism is that state of human history in which the strong preyed on the weak, in which society was not a cooperative entity but one that funnelled money, food, liquor, and sex to the people at the very top. Tribalism is the state of human pre-civilization when brute force was the sole instrument of morality. IT dominated humanity for millenia prior to the rise of the first civilizations and it has never left. Even in the best nation in the world, America, where the very fabric of the society is the antithesis of tribalism, muted echoes still arise from time to time. Wherever in the world you see a tyrant, or a dictator, and an oppressed and radicalized people sufferring under their iron grip, it is always and without exception a form of tribalism.

I have posted extensively on the abuses of morality by Bonehead Tribalist Idiots before:
The tools of political control
The politicization of Shari'a
The Burka and the Bikini

But in this day and age, with the proliferation of such powerful mature ideas as freedom and cooperation and compassion as principles on which to found a society rather than simply a personal code, it takes more than brute force to enact tyranny. You need to wrap tribalism in a cloak of something mroe acceptable, so that the people you need at the base of your oppression pyramid will let you in the door. That cloak used to be Marxism, it used to be national pride, ethnic pride, and of course, religion.

The way to combat it is to attack the true root cause - not religion, not American foreign policy[3], but the iron grip of the tyrant over the people.

Let's agree to disagree as to how exactly these tyrants came to power. Steven says that people like Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein arose because of deep flaws in the Arab interpretation of Islam. He blames the victim. I would say that these tyrants were installed because of Western support for pacifiable populations in the Middle East, and that these tyrants offerred a more cooperative regime than a messy democracy (like France) that doesn't always see eye-to-eye. Fine, we disagree. It's irrelevant to this debate.

But we do agree that the current state of Arab societies needs to be reformed. That has to be done by challenging the foundations of the tyrants' authority. What Steven instead proposes (and how he constructs his arguments) is to challenge the religion - which only strengthens the hand of the tyrant. As long as he continues to imply that Islam itself is at fault, he is part of the status quo.

UPDATE: Steve comments.

[1] According to eyewitness reports, the absence of women drivers has not improved the traffic situation much, either.
[2] The reason this argument is NOT made is because there is no incentive for the Saudi ruling class to do so. It would anger the small group of religiou freaks who control the police and oppression apparatus, and losing their support would make it harder for the Saudis to retain power within their dynasty. The Wahabi fringe is prepared to denounce the Saudis themselves, which would mean a huge upheaval and loss of control for the ruling class. In many ways, I almost wish that this would happen :)
[3] though in some cases, especially Saudi, policy changes would really help.

BTW, Enetation comments seem to be down, just in time for Glenn to link to me! Use Haloscan instead:

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