Monthly Archives: July 2016
An excellent historical summary by my friend Michael Roberts, who has himself revisited the sites that Darwin explored in Wales. Darwin the geologist and Darwin the naturalist are inseparable.
HE ORIGIN OF DARWIN AS A NATURALIST
Darwin concluded The Origin of Species with this magnificent paragraph;
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms…
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Update, 11 p.m.: good news. The running headline now says “High Court rules Jeremy Corbyn has right to remain in Labour leadership contest without nominations from MPs.” This is accurate. Thanks to all who complained. It may have made a difference – we will never know.
Pro- or anti-Corbyn, or just interested in truth, please complain to the BBC. The running News Channel headline at 6 pm reads “Jeremy Corbyn welcomes stay High Court decision to throw out the bid to overturn his automatic inclusion in the Party’s leadership ballot DESPITE LACKING THE REQUIRED SUPPORT OF HIS MPs.” (emphasis added). The whole point is that under the rules, such support is not required, and this is spelt out in the court judgement itself, fairly reported on the BBC News website. I cannot believe that the BBC political staff are unaware of this. It is easy to complain on line; link here.
The challenger, Owen Smith, welcomed the Court’s decision.
7 p.m: not only do we still have this running headline (it persisted throughout the evening, but Laura Kuenssberg has just told us that the High Court had made its decision on the basis of the ruling of Labour’s National Executive Committee, whereas the website report makes it clear that he decided on the basis of the unambiguous meaning of the rules.
What do I think of Corbyn myself? I feel very strongly both ways. I admire his principles, ability to energise the base, and the bulk of his policies which his challenger is now scrambling to adopt. On the other hand, I would prefer the Party to be led by someone less ready to accept Brexit as a done deal, and was surprised at Corbyn’s decision to continue in post despite losing the confidence of so many of his own MPs. I have been utterly disgusted at the factual distortions coming, mainly, from the Blairite wing of the parliamentary party, whose rabid opposition to Corbyn from the outset was a disgrace. The outcome of the contest is bound to leave many disappointed, but I continue to hope that it will be generally accepted, so that Labour can get on with its job. And that is something that matters to all of us.
Corbyn image from The Spectator. Owen Smith image from BBC website
Via my son Geoff, who lost his own mixed-ancestry wife to leukemia. Mixed ancestry donors are in particular demand.
If you think you may be able to help, contact the Anthony Nolan organisation at https://www.anthonynolan.org/ (age range 16 – 30), or, in the UK, US, Germany, or Poland (age range 18 – 55), https://www.dkms.org/en. Being tested is ust a matter of giving a cheek swab. If you are a match, donating marrow is minor, and can save a life.
And if you’re not Irish-Italian, you re less likely to be able to help Nicole, but there will be plenty of others that you could help.
Over to you
(Reposted from 3 Quarks Daily) This is an excellent review of an important but difficult subject, and a welcome change from the ill-informed bluster of a Sam Harris,* or the limp apologetics of a Karen Armstrong. It is the work of an author who is exceptionally well placed to appreciate the context of the mass of information on which he draws. Lucidly written, it is also a work of broad scholarship (there are more than 500 references and footnotes), and provides an overview of one of the most important developments of our times. Overall, it is a much-needed corrective to the popular view that these times are particularly violent, and that the roots of this violence lie within Islam.
It is also a very disturbing book, and I mean that as a compliment. While fully committed to secular Enlightenment values, Edis recognises that this cannot be the starting position in any worthwhile discussion of committed Islam. Secularism is neither historically inevitable, nor a logical necessity, nor a moral imperative. In his native Turkey, for example, secularism was the founding principle of the modern State, but has lost out to an Islamic pious modernity, whose advocates cannot simply be dismissed as deluded or wicked. Secularism cannot claim to be the more democratic option, where it is not what people would prefer. The secular ideal of rule of an impartial law is not neutral, since it places judges, members of the power elite, as arbiters. Moreover, Edis turns a critical searchlight on the ostensively secular United States, where he now lives and works, finds echoes there of much of what concerns him about Islam today, and challenges the West’s air of injured innocence in the face of violence. Ultimately, he regards Islam as a far smaller peril than a rampant neoliberalism that values individuals only as producers and consumers, sells political influence to the highest bidder, and still sponsors the denial of the world’s most urgent problem, global warming. He shows how the rhetoric of the “war on terror” is used, in the West as in his native Turkey, to suppress dissent, and is contemptuous of how western defenders of freedom have accepted the facile and counterfactual narrative of an inherently violent Islam. Most disturbing of all, he critically examines his own Enlightenment assumptions, which his readers, and mine, will generally take for granted. For instance, why do we regard free speech as good? To what extent do our own institutions follow this ideal in practice? And should we not be more aware of the degree of coercion implicit in our own social order?
Taner Edis is a Turkish-American professor of physics. He is also a philosopher, having published highly technical material with Maarten Boudry of the Ghent school of critical analysis, and he manages to bring a philosophical evenhandedness to a worldview as far as possible from his own naturalism. He repeatedly argues that secular liberals need to be more critical of their own positions. Secularist emphasis on the freedom of the individual has left us without defence against the excesses of neoliberalism and the realities of the economic power that has usurped political power. There is much to be learnt by examining thoughtful Muslim alternatives, and indeed, if we are not prepared to learn, there is little point even in discussion.
His parental family were freethinkers, so that his position towards Islam has always been that of the concerned outsider, but one who seeks productive ways of engaging with believers. His earlier books include The Ghost in the Universe (2002), in which he contrasts supernaturalism and naturalism, and discusses critically how his preference for the latter can be justified, and An Illusion of Harmony (2007), concerning the ways in which the Muslim world has reacted to the challenge of scientific modernity.
The present volume pursues these themes in a time where the questions raised have acquired a new urgency. There are times when I would have liked more specific details (how, for example, was Turkey, our ostensive ally, encouraging radical Islamist factions in the Syrian civil war?), but perhaps this would have led to a much longer book. Even as it is, it is not possible to do justice here to the author’s detailed arguments, and what follows is an amalgam of some of his main points, and my own responses.
The first chapter is entitled “Varieties of Islamic experience”, and I was surprised to learn how varied these experiences are. As well as Sunni and Shia, we have, among others, Alevi (mainly in Turkey) and Ahmadis, whose right to call themselves Muslims is contested (I would add the Alawis whose presence greatly complicates Syria’s current civil wars). Islam can also be linked to national identity, as Shi’ism is to Iranian nationalism, a fact with delicate consequences for Iraq and the other Gulf states.
Next, Edis discusses the special position of the Quran. This is a difficult book, written in the now-archaic Arabic of its time, and with no clear structural or chronological order. Nonetheless, Muslims bestow on it an authority that only the most conservative of Jews or Christians grant the Bible. Part of this enduring appeal of the Quran, Edis argues, is due to its powerful affirmations of monotheism, and to its concern for social justice.
The text of the Quran jumps about, its literary style is inconsistent, and its cosmology, referring to 7 heavens, was already centuries out of date when it was written. Its relationship to the accepted version of the early history of Islam is unclear, and relies heavily on later traditions and histories, even for such important episodes as the Night Journey. It is authoritative, but its application involves interpretation, and there are layers of tradition and legal ruling, of varying authority. Nonetheless, historical or “higher” criticism of the Quran, in the sense that we have now had two centuries of such criticism of the Bible, is in its infancy. So even modernising Muslims tend to defend their position by reinterpretation of the sacred text, rather than by treating it as a human artefact, product of its time and place.  Thus feminist Muslims argue, not that the lesser role of women in the Quran was addressed to an outdated patriarchial society, but that it is overridden by a more general appeal to justice within the Quran itself.
The addition of new layers of commentary is an on-going activity. Attempts like Turkey’s Nur movement to hark back beyond tradition to the original meaning of the text end up being theologically quite conservative; I am reminded here of the “Reformed” religion still very much in evidence in Scotland.
These introductory chapters lay the groundwork for the main theme of the book; the ways in which the Muslim world has responded to its ongoing confrontation with the technologically and militarily advanced West. These responses initially included secularism. The early twentieth century saw the establishment of a secular state in Turkey, whose borrowings from the West had worldwide influence on Muslim elites. Pakistan also was originally a more secular state, with “Muslim” being more of an ethnic than a religious identity, while the Arab nationalists in the ascendant mid-century restricted orthodox Islamic rules to personal and family law.
[Note added in haste: In the last few days, the already complex situation in Turkey has undergone further dramatic developments. Historically, the army had been the committed defender of secularism, even if this commitment was less thorough than claimed, and has used this more than once to justify imposing military rule. Last week’s reported attempt at a miitary coup against the current elected government might perhaps be regarded in this light. Nonetheless, the government blames Fethullah Gulen, whose support for political Islamism is repeatedly mentioned in the book. Gulen, now living in the US, has been at odds since 2013 with the government, which he accuses of corruption. He has denounced the coup, but that was after it had already failed, and if his movement really was involved, then this time the army units concerned were acting on behalf of one religious faction against another.]
This is not how things have since worked out. Modern Islam is a successful religion. Mosques are crowded, televangelists famous, and technology adopted within a world view based on divinely inspired design. Modernisation has not led to theological modernism. The Islamism of the last half-century has adopted Western technology while avoiding what Edis calls “the disenchantment of the world spearheaded by modern science.” Scientific naturalism offers us an uncaring universe where what happens, happens as the result of physical causes, and not at the bidding of some deity, let alone a deity that pays any attention to us. To a traditional believer, such a view is at best uncomfortable, and at worst blasphemous.
Far easier then to adopt a pious modernity that accepts the fruits of technology while still subordinating the scientific spirit of inquiry to the constraints of religion. This religion need not be theologically modernist. Nor need it be hostile to organisational modernisation. The West has long had a powerful institutions, companies, and corporations, including ultimately the State itself, independent of religion and capable of long-term accumulation of wealth and ideas. Islamic law recognised no such entities. However, today, corporations have been absorbed into the religious framework. In the case of Turkey, this pious neoliberalism is strengthened by relationships with the United States and Europe. It is the ideology of Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) whose very name combines the concepts of economic development, and Muslim morality. The disciplined workforce and the (ideally) socially conscious employer will share the same mosque.
In Turkey, urbanisation has meant greater popular knowledge of the more orthodox forms of Islam. At the same time, we have the view that since science and religion both tell the truth, science must be consistent with religion. So the Nur movement finds inspired prefigurings of modern science in the Quran, and embraces “Creation science”. It was systematic policy, and not, as I had thought, an aberration, that in the 1980s led Turkey’s Education Minister to invite contributions from the Institute for Creation Research  to the biology curriculum. We now have the spectacle of Turkish creationism, in the form of the Atlas of Creation by Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) uncritically absorbing Christian evangelical creationism of all kinds, including a Young Earth Creationism alien to Islam itself, and feeding it back into the West.
There are important differences in the status of religion between Turkey and the United States, which is the most religious among the advanced nations. Religion is strong in America, but American religion has a long tradition of religious modernism, and indeed the rise of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century was a response to this. Creationism may be popular among the uneducated, but US high culture is almost uniformly supportive of evolution, and regards creationism as disreputable. None of this is true in Turkey. There is not, or has not been for many centuries, an influential modernist movement within Islam, and creationism is common within the academy. Even relatively liberal thinkers are unwilling to accept total disenchantment, and tend towards views such as guided evolution.
The discussions of the role of sharia law, and the status of women, show the range of diversity of Islamic practice. There is general agreement that legal systems should accommodate sharia law. This may be no more than a vague sentiment, akin to the appeal to the Bible as a source of values in the West, but at the other extreme we have the Saudi barbarities of flogging, amputation for theft, and the death penalty for adultery and apostasy. Outside Saudi Arabia, the general attitude is that the Quran was addressing a society that lacked modern law enforcement and penal institutes. It is also worth remembering that the Quran itself does not specify a worldly penalty for apostasy, and that the Quranic penalty for adultery is 200 lashes. But of course everyone knows that the correct penalty for adultery is stoning, so presumably the verse justifying this was lost.
Worldwide, young Muslim women are dressing more traditionally, even as they become more likely to take up employment outside the home, and to dispute traditional patriarchal interpretations of the sacred texts. Fertility rates have been decreasing, and historically this also goes along with weakening of the patriarchy. There is even a specifically Islamic feminism, which appeals to the universal principle of justice that it finds in the Quran, and regards this as overriding specific prescriptions intended for a particular time and place. But all this is in the context of religious politics and cultural conservatism, and such conservatism within Islam (as elsewhere) tends to see the roles of men and women as complementary rather than equivalent. However, as Edis points out, “Islamic feminism can help support tangible improvements in the lives of women. This is no small thing.”
The distinction between the legal status of religion in Muslim majority countries and the West is less clear cut then we might imagine. With the exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, governments do not attempt to equate general law which sharia law, and even in Iran the identification with Islam, in this case specifically Shia Islam, is a matter of nationalism as well as religion. Moreover, religion has embedded privileges throughout the West, including tax advantages even in the United States, Government collected tax revenues in Germany, involvement with publicly funded education in many countries including the UK, and, I would add, formal representation in the UK’s Upper House of Parliament. However, I think that Edis overstates the similarities. Laws against blasphemy, for example, have been repealed or lapsed throughout the West, but remain on the books (and are often supplemented by murderous direct action) in many Islamic countries.
When accusing Islam of justifying barbarity, we should remember that the US has with the approval of most of its citizens indulged in torture, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, surveillance, and entrapment within suspect communities, and that Muslim communities have of late been the victims of these activities. Human rights organisations have gained credibility among Muslims for protesting against these actions.
Moderate traditionalists defend Islamic law as protecting the family, which they regard as a cornerstone of society, and criticise the libertine behaviour condoned by secular legal codes. Individuals are presumed to live within their various religious communities, deriving their human dignity from God, and this is very different from the libertarian concept of individual rights. However, divine law is seen as granting protection to the individual from oppression by the State (and, I would add, the Corporation). Edis contrasts this with the minimal role assigned by western neoliberals to the State, which “appears to cripple our ability to collectively decide on and institutionalise moral convictions about the good life.… The law becomes a device to make markets run smoothly, and where considerations of economic efficiency are decisive.” By contrast, “for many believers divine law is inseparably entwined with justice and order.”
Here I have a problem with Edis’s argument. He repeatedly tells us that modern Islam in countries like Turkey has formed an alliance with the very neoliberalism whose excesses he deplores. So how can he at the same time claim that respect for the divine law helps maintain more humane concerns of justice and order? After all, there is no shortage in the West of politicians who pursue neoliberal policies while loudly proclaiming their devotion to Christianity. And while Edis correctly deplores the hollowing out of public institutions, and the replacement of human by commercial values (here he explicitly mentions the lost ideal of a liberal education), these processes are clearest in the US, which is by far the most devout of all advanced nations. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent socially conscious secularists from arguing, as they do, that the State has a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of its citizens, and should use health and welfare programs, taxation, and minimum wage laws to counteract the brutality of market forces.
Sharia law impinges directly on marriage and family law, and this will be true even for Muslims living in the West, to the extent that they accept the values of their own community. I would point out that the problem is not confined to Islam. Devout Catholics will not consider themselves free to marry after divorce, whatever the law of the land may say, and the ability of a Jewish husband to obstruct religious divorce can lead to serious difficulties. A Muslim testator in the West is free to follow the sharia requirement that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, and defenders of this practice point to dowries as evening out this inequality.
In its treatment of women, the Quran is true to its roots in a fiercely patriarchal society, but once again the realities are more complex than they might appear. For instance, the Quran specifies that a contract may be witnessed by two men, or by one man and two women. However, some Islamic practice, such as the law that allows a man to divorce a wife at will, while a woman requires the consent of a judge to divorce her husband, is not Quranic but based on later traditions. These traditions take the same approach to women as the Victorians; they are more sensitive, more delicate, lest suited to public life, and in need of protection and guardianship. Thus in Victorian England married women did not acquire the right to dispose of their own property until 1882. Iran has public parks that only women are allowed to enter; do we consider this restrictive, or liberating? Pakistan, a fiercely Islamic state, elected a woman head of Government in 1988.  The UK had not done this until 1979, and at the time of writing the US has yet to do so. Women’s purity is essential to family honour, but the same was true until recently in Sicily. Edis also cites one recent honour killing in Turkey, where the family concerned were Assyrian Christians.
Consider a woman’s headscarf. Islam demands modest clothing of both men and women. An observant Muslim man will not wear shorts. Definitions of modest clothing for women vary wildly, and reflect traditions and local attitudes. The Quran speaks of female modesty and covering of breasts, and covering of hair, let alone of the face, goes beyond this. Covering up can be said to make it easier for women to take part in public life, without being relegated to the role of sex objects. So when we ask whether a woman wears her headscarf voluntarily, or as the result of community pressure, the question is not well formulated. What if she is wearing it in response to community norms, but these are the norms of a community whose membership she values?
As Edis points out in a detailed careful discussion, some conflict between the ideal of a secular State, and the demand for religious freedom, is inevitable. And we cannot resolve such conflict merely by appealing to human rights, since actual arrangements must always be a matter for accommodation between competing rights. Should hospitals in receipt of public funds be required to provide contraception and abortion services, in violation of the principles of religious organisations that may be running them? Should State schools teach evolution, or facts about human sexuality, when doing so offends the religious views of some parents and students? And if they respond by retreating to private education, is it right that they are nonetheless forced to pay taxes for a service that they do not use and consider morally objectionable?
One solution is multiculturalism, state sanction of the exercise of power by religious authorities over their adherents. If Muslim parents object to their children learning about evolution or the Holocaust, and to female participation in sports, separate schooling can meet these objections. (Edis does not discuss, perhaps because they are too obvious to mention, the resulting dangers of communal isolation.) In the Netherlands, the state funds Muslim schools where the language of instruction is that of family origin, and separate Muslim housing, and consults with community leaders. In predominantly Muslim countries, multiculturalism would lead to the recognition of diverse communities, which some Muslim political thinkers regard as a strength. In the Ottoman Empire, different people congregated in different areas and managed their affairs as they saw fit. Noam Chomsky sees advantages to this over the “very unnatural system” of the European nation-state.
For many reasons, Edis is committed to the promotion of secularism, but he regards this as a personal political preference, rather than the expression of a universal ideal. Here many readers, including me, will depart from him. The religious are free to identify as deeply as they choose with their religion, but I see it as tyranny – even if, in some times and places, the tyranny of the majority – when religious organisations acquire any power beyond the power of persuasion. Moreover, as Edis points out, if the state compromises with private religious beliefs that run contrary to fact, this can cause public harm. People who rely on faith healing, or have religious objections to vaccination, undermine public health. So, I would maintain, are those who would censor teaching about sex, and in Scotland, where this aspect of education in state-funded Catholic schools is under the control of the Council of Bishops, this is not a trivial matter. And as Edis points out, those who, like creationists, feel free to ignore or subvert the scientific evidence for religious reasons may well feel free to do so for political and ideological reasons, like the US Religious Right denying global warming.
One huge difference between Muslim and secular attitudes arises when it comes to freedom of speech and belief. In the Quran, unbelievers are condemned to hellfire, but no earthly punishment is invoked, and Jews and Christians are at times spoken of as allies. Yet even in Turkey today, criticising religion can be classified as “hate speech”, while blasphemy laws up to and including the death penalty are in place, and widely supported, throughout the Muslim world, cartoons ridiculing Muhammad have provoked assassinations, and an epidemic of brutal assassinations of atheists and secular bloggers has claimed nime lives in Bangladesh since 2013.
Despite the lack of direct Quranic sanction, atheism is widely equated with apostasy, which in all traditional schools of Islamic law is punishable by death. If community cohesion depends on shared religious beliefs, then abandoning those beliefs is desertion. If the State possesses an Islamic identity, then atheism is a direct challenge to its legitimacy, and is indeed now equated with terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
There is also the problem of heresy. as seen in the exclusion of Ahmadis from public life in Pakistan, and the role of separate religious community identities in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
The replacement in the last half-century of nationalist by Islamist politics has not been good for Christians, while the Jewish populations of Arab countries have almost entirely emigrated to Israel. Today in Arab countries there is a vicious anti-Semitism, backed by bloodthirsty traditional (non-Quranic) sayings, but essentially politically motivated, and linked to bizarre conspiracy theories. The attitude of religious leaders towards Jews and Christians is highly variable, with the influential Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar (“Mehmet Kaya”) having switched from promulgating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, to reaching out to Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem. (Disclosure: for reasons I never understood, I was at one time on his mailing list.)
For Edis, as I am sure for most readers here, freedom of expression is fundamental. But for many Muslims, disrespect towards religion is an abuse of that freedom, seeking to disrupt the social fabric. The freedom to criticise religion then runs counter to a claimed freedom to participate in public debate without being offended. So by a curious inversion the toleration in the West of criticism of the Prophet is portrayed as violation of Muslims’ human rights. And some discussions of Islam are indeed gratuitously offensive, characterising the religion shared by over a billion people as fundamentally and peculiarly evil. We too have our no-go areas, such as desecrating the flag to which American school children regularly pledge allegiance. Edis also cites the example of nudity; nudity does no harm, other than causing an outrage which is its own sole justification, and yet because of this outrage we confine it to restricted designated areas. To some extent, Academia functions in the West as a designated area for free speech, but even here, there are things that cannot be said and words that cannot be used.
Here I feel that he is reaching for a symmetry that does not really exist. The US Supreme Court has struck down legislation against flag desecration, and nowhere in the West is the use of racist rhetoric punishable by death, although in some countries hate speech or Holocaust denial is illegal. He does, however, have one very important point. If I put forward views strongly disruptive of current political and economic arrangements, I will not be censored, but nor will I be widely or sympathetically reported. On the contrary, I can expect to find myself ridiculed, marginalised, or simply ignored by all organs of mass communication, whose owners are, after all, doing very nicely with things the way they are.
Discussion of the treatment of non-believers leads on to the painful topic of sacred violence. This is the topic closest to the surface in the minds of many Westerners. After all, even while I was writing this review there were suicide bombings killing, between them, over 350 people in Istanbul and Baghdad, and as I prepare to post it I learn of more than 80 Bastille Day celebrators murdered in Nice. All the more important, and difficult, to keep a sense of proportion. The deaths at such outrages as those in France are comparable in number those every week there from traffic accidents, and so we might perhaps compare Muslim terrorism with IRA terrorism; nasty, but something that the UK learned to live with. I would unfashionably point out that the numbers murdered in the most spectacular and horrific of these crimes, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, are comparable to the numbers “normally” murdered in the US in a month. And the Western response completely dwarfed the initial outrage, and has done more to advance the aims of the hijackers than they would have dreamed possible.
What does the Quran say about violence? As usual, the answer is unclear. The bloodthirsty texts quoted by hostile commentators come from later traditions, which are also the only source of accounts of the numbers killed or enslaved by Muhammad’s armies, and there are verses in the Quran condemn fighting beyond what is necessary. And yet it is undoubtedly true that Muhammad was a successful military leader. Of course, we are told the same of Moses. Islam does not claim to be a religion of peace, as Christianity does, and Muslim scholars have not until recently devoted much attention to the concept of a “just war”. However, this has made little difference to either religion in practice, and one could say that Islam is simply less hypocritical.
There are many who criticise the core doctrines of Islam for making violence possible, but would not dream of blaming Judaism as such for reactions of the Netanyahu government, or Christianity as such for the widespread abuse practised by Catholic clergy. One soothing way to deal with this asymmetry is to declare that Islam is a religion of peace, perverted by those who commit violence in its name. It might be more honest to reverse the process; to acknowledge the influence of the Old Testament on Jewish nationalism, and the insult to human nature of the Catholic doctrine of priestly celibacy.
There is a long history of mutual violence in the relations between Christianity and Islam, and as Edis points out it would be futile to keep the score. Islamic terrorists have had links to Chechnya, victim of brutal attack by Putin’s (mainly Russian Orthodox) military, and when Greek Orthodox Serbs slaughtered over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, NATO troops failed to protect them. Secular ideologies, both left and right, have also been content to inflict massive death tolls by starvation, as in Ireland and in British India, in Stalin’s Russia and in Mao’s China. Most recently, the West (and the US in particular) has been responsible for torture, kidnapping and internment without trial, and a war that left at least 150,000 Muslims dead, and probably far more, all with strong public support. For me, claims to have done all this in defence of our values ring hollow while we are selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia.
Islam originally expanded through war, and claimed to be legitimised by this military success, as did later Muslim empires. However, the spread of Islam in Malaysia, Indonesia, and until recently in sub-Saharan Africa has been based on influence rather than violence. Within the Muslim heartland, there was generally little occasion to invoke sacred violence, which has most credibility where Muslim majorities live under the control of foreign invaders, as in Kashmir, Chechnya, or Palestine. Its worst excesses are where extreme Islamist movements are seeking to take over power in failed Muslim states, especially Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Iraq, and the vast majority of the victims are their fellow-Muslims.
Suicide bombing may horrify us, but it is a rational way of pursuing asymmetric warfare. As Edis puts it, suicide bombers are the smart bombs of those without the wherewithal to deliver smart bombs. Nor do I find Muslim suicide bombers qualitatively different from the secularist Tamil Tigers or the Japanese kamikaze pilots, or even from those conventional warriors whom we praise for self-sacrificing bravery.
There is no denying the religious zeal of Islamic terrorists. And yet religion is neither necessary, nor sufficient, as an explanation of their actions. Acts of terror are not necessarily linked to religion, as I have already mentioned. And the vast majority of devout Muslims are not terrorists. Perhaps we should see the situation not as a crisis of religion, but of identity, with devotion to the point of self-destruction as the ultimate in selfless identification with the sacred cause.
Religious terrorists have one tactical advantage denied to their secular counterparts. They are much more difficult to infiltrate or subvert, because it is difficult to fake piety. And religious terrorism is frightening for another reason, namely its very unreasonableness. We can negotiate with a political extremist group, or persuade it that terrorism is not helping it attain its objectives (we have seen a mixture of both of these in Northern Ireland). But no such discourse is possible with a group whose aims are apocalyptic. Meantime, in what seems to me a strained comparison, Edis contrasts the situation of a mainstream Muslim with that of a secular liberal in the West. The Muslim will, like most of us, feel that fighting is sometimes justified, and will seek group loyalty and personal self-discipline while avoiding fanaticism. The secular liberal now has no difficulty in rejecting fanaticism, but faces the opposite problem of avoiding the complacency of disillusion, and keeping faith with the ideal of improving the world.
Meantime, we must retain perspective, and consider the effects of our actions on those most strongly affected by them. Our protestations of injured innocence are misplaced. Our visceral reaction to current horrors may well do more harm than good, and aerial bombing wins few allies.
True enough, but it is possible to under- as well as to over-react. Citing a 2009 source,  Edis writes of born-again warriors that “they are marginal actors who find themselves continually driven further from mainstream Islamic discourse.” One would not know from reading him that the intervening period has seen the emergence of a powerful organisation claiming the status of a state or even superstate, describing itself as the restoration of the caliphate, with control over millions of people and large areas in Syria and Iraq and with sympathisers in a dozen different countries, controlling major oil reserves and with sufficient acquiescence from its neighbours and the financial markets to export its oil and enjoy the revenues, and where dissent leads to beheading, homosexuals are thrown off buildings, and women are openly bought and sold as sex slaves. That this organisation is able to recruit by the thousand even (or especially) within Tunisia, one of the least fiercely Islamist of all predominantly Muslim countries. And that its devotees consider it virtuous to immolate themselves if at the same time they can kill a sufficient number of non-Muslims, or the wrong kind of Muslims, or Muslims who just happened to be visiting a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad. Through the long lens of history, which Edis habitually deploys, this may not amount to much (and for me, when we talk about gratuitous civilian deaths, Dresden comes to mind). But right now, to treat Daesh (a.k.a. “the so-called Islamic State”) as if it were just one more aspect of fanaticism, seems to me like discussing Europe in the 1930s as if Nazism were just one particular local variant of fascism.
Finally, Edis considers the future, starting from the present state of Islam in countries like Egypt and Turkey. Here Islamism has had no difficulty in coming to terms with neoliberal ideology and the pursuit of wealth. Was not the Prophet himself a successful merchant? While the previous Islamised generation studied science, the present one studies finance. Televangelism flourishes, as does well funded creationism. There is a Muslim management and self-help literature, similar to that based on Christianity in United States, and offering as little resistance to a dominant free-market ideology. Religion of any kind is better at injecting self-righteousness than self-criticism into the power structure.
Imposing our supernatural hopes on our view of the actual world invites disasters, such as creationism, alternative medicine, and climate change denial, which in the US is closely linked to biblical creationism. The denial of reality has consequences. And so, Edis argues, the defenders of scientific fact must shed their political naivety and find ways of relating to a general audience. I agree.
1] In the Shadow of the Sword, by the writer Tom Holland, presents a radical form of this historical criticism, in which both Muhammad and the Arabian origins of Islam are dismissed as political fabrications. For a critical discussion of this book, and references to scholarly work covering the same ground, see Glen Bowerstock’s blistering review in The Guardian.
2] The Institute for Creation Research argues that since the Bible is literally true, any science that appears to show the contrary must be misguided, and replaced with better science. And attempts to do so in its publications, in tediously contorted detail.
3] Benazir Bhutto, elected 1988 and 1993; assassinated in 2007 during an election campaign that she would almost certainly have won.
4] Islamic Radicalism and Global Jihad, D.R. Springer et al., Georgetown University Press, pp 28-29.
This piece first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily on July 18 2016, four days after the coup attempt in Turkey, and I have decided to present it here unaltered. Meantime, of course, events continue to unfold.
*I regret using these words, since they have proved a distraction. I hold to my opinion; compare e.g. his much simplified discussion of violence in the Quran (End of Faith) with the chapter-and-verse analysis of the Quran’s confused position (as discussed by Edis), and his view of terrorism with that of Robert Pape at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sUbaHkCet0. Others will differ.
First, the fun stuff. Direct comparison of what she said,and what Michelle Obama had said eight years earlier, according to the BBC, which provides both text and overlapping videorecordings:
Trump: My parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise; that you treat people with respect.
Obama: And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.
Trump: And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Obama: and pass them on to the next generations. Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Let’s notice the words that got dropped: that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them. … Because we want our children, and all children in this nation …
Is there a message here?
Meanwhile, the BBC tells us, “Mr Trump himself described her speech as ‘absolutely incredible’.” I concur.
But that’s not the real problem.
Nor does the problem here lie in the huge gap, in both speeches, between the promise of unlimited opportunity and the brutal realities of economic and social inequality.
The real problem is that when the people of the world’s most powerful nation are preparing to elect its most powerful executive, we have speeches like this in the first place. It may well be that Michelle Obama wrote her own speech; surely no one over the age of 10 imagines that Melania Trump wrote hers. Nor does either speech address, even tangentially, the massive responsibilities that fall upon a US President. And yet, as far as the delegates in Cleveland were concerned, and millions of supportive viewers, the speech was a triumph. For a time, at least. It was helped them believe in a kinder, gentler Donald Trump, simultaneously Strong enough to Protect Us, but humane enough to want to offer limitless opportunities to America’s children.
And we tolerate such speeches, and seriously debate their merits, even though we know that (in Melania Trump’s case, at least) they were concocted by a cabal of policy strategists and admen simply in order to produce a particular kind of emotional response.
The real problem, in other words, is the divorce of politics from reality.
I’ve been listening to the Brexit fall out from outside Britain, which gives me a different perspective to some. I’m able to see the reactions both north and south of the border, and the reactions of the international media and other EU members. Some things are very striking.
North of the Border in Scotland, the reaction has been one of relatively short-lived outrage, which was quickly subordinated to pragmatic concerns for how to deal with this. Nicola Sturgeon had obviously seriously entertained this possible outcome and planned for it, putting her leadership head and shoulders above the rest of Britain’s politicians. In my estimation, she is the only prominent politician to have come out of this debacle looking competent, measured and calm. Her plans are being well received in Europe, and Scotland will, according to what I am hearing, shortly be independent and remain as an EU member without having to reapply [PB: I think this is optimistic].
South of the border, politicians have imploded. There is no leadership anywhere, no plan, no clue, and bickering is the order of the day. The public reaction is split into three; remainers who are understandably furious and only getting more so as no one steps up to the plate to deal with the problem, leavers who are struck with sudden comprehension and horror at what they did, and leavers who are perfectly happy with the result and now quite content to wait for their prize. My feed is filled with contradictory stories, some trying to claim that Brexit will never happen for a variety of reasons, some urging we get on with it, and some braying happily that the Federal Republic of Cuckoostan will be next and there will be no EU within 10 days. Such hatred for an institution which benefits millions is bizarre.
The international perspective is one of bridges burned. There is huge distaste now for Britain and a strong desire to divorce us as quickly as possible. Many wish to ensure that the EU gets all the china and the dog in the settlement so that no one else is this stupid in future. Having said that, excluding countries like Spain with an obvious self interest, Scotland is getting a warm reception and a general but vague sense of support.
As we sit in political limbo, waiting for someone to take control, the ironic position is building that if no one triggers Article 50, Britain will find itself a political pariah within the EU, diminished by the loss of Scotland which is now inevitable, suffering the loss of influence which occurs when everyone realises that we’re basically pretty dumb as a nation, and having placed itself in the position that our concessions, both existing and negotiated, might well be lost because of our own intransigence. All this clamour and pain, all the turmoil of Brexit, and the end position might yet be that we stay in the EU, smaller, less powerful, and immensely poorer for the hatred and divisions which now run rife in our once green and pleasant land. Brexit will go down in history, in Shakespeare’s words, as a Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.