A response to Robert Wright’s Op-Ed in the New York Times:The Myth of Modern Jihad
This is yet another in a series of confused and naive Op-Eds on Islam from author Robert Wright. The contents of which are not entirely unexpected (see here religion and in particular here on Islam.) One gets the sense then that everything in Wright’s moral universe is all the opposite of what we think it is: everything is back to front; down is the new up, and black is actually white. Everything would be just fine in the world, Wright seems to think, if we all said to ourselves: “we have met the enemy and he is us
Wright, who wrote this article (The myth of modern Jihad) after reviewing the testimony of one Faisal Shahzad: an naturalised American citizen who failed to explode a bomb in Times square on May 1, 2010. Faisal, speaking in his elocution in Court this week stated that he sees no moral difference between himself and American soldiers or between military personnel and civilian bystanders in a city thousands of miles away from any battle. Rather, in his own words “they are all the same.” Presumably then, every man, woman and child who happens to hold an American or British passport is to his eyes, an open target to any Muslim, anywhere in the world. It is often said that racists and bigots discriminate. However, as Christopher Hitchens points out it is rather a failure to discriminate, to see people as individuals not as the collective swarm of ones feverish imagination. Shahzad, has relegated everyone - all non-Muslims to one monolithic enemy - the infidel, and as such they are without moral concern. Nevermind the fact that the targets of his bomb were of no direct threat to him, his family or any Muslim. Many of them no doubt, actually don’t support the war in Afghanistan, many of them we could expect are quite critical of their own governments. None of this matters however - for they are all Americans and to Shahzad and every fanatic - they are all the same, everyone deserves to be punished by bombs, packed into public places, with the intention of killing and maiming as many infidels as possible.
Shahzad was unrepentant (see the above hyperlink for his full testimony) and explicated his reasons ad nauseum. I find it fascinating, as well as disturbing that Shahzad, an American citizen, who, by his own testimony, was helped by America in his efforts to achieve a university degree, would choose to throw away his life for a conflict thousands of miles away, that except for the fact that he is a Muslim, he has no direct connection with. Despite his articulate explication; I would reserve a cautious scepticism that we may ever know precisely why he did what he did - I will venture some possibilities below; nonetheless, what we can say with almost total certainty, that if Shahzad had not happened to be brought up Muslim in the first place, he would not be spending the rest of his adult life in jail. Imagine, if he were Christian, Buddhist or even Jewish - the probability that he would run off to a foreign country to fight a war or try to blow up a bomb in a city is downright slim. Do American Zen Buddhists blow themselves up in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco over Tibet? No. Do Christians go and fight the Chinese government’s state repression of their co-religionists? No. Why then, is Islam different?
Wright meanwhile, has fallen for Shahzad’s propaganda, hook line and sinker. On the possibility that Shahzad may simply be grandstanding and attempting to appeal to the disagreements and divisions within the West over the War on Terror. It is after all, a basic strategy in conflict - divide and conquer and how does one do that - by sowing doubt, confusion and division within the enemy camp. Wright however, briefly considers this possibility, then sagely rejects it:
Should we really take this testimony seriously? It does, after all, have an air of self-dramatizing grandstanding. Then again, terrorism is a self-dramatizing, grandstanding business, and there’s no reason to think this particular piece of theater isn’t true to Shahzad’s interior monologue.
No reason? How about the fact that every major media outlet would broadcast his view; this furthermore, was his fifteen minutes - his chance to somehow justify the act by which he threw away the rest of his life. Further, did it not cross Wright’s mind that rather than being a noble defender of Muslims against the infidel, Shahzad was simply out to make a name for himself? Or, he simply enjoyed the idea of playing a solider - a mujahid? This idea is not implausible. Muslim scholar Reza Aslan in his book How to Win a Cosmic War thinks that young Muslim men become warriors for Jihad the same way middle class western children join the peace corps, or Amnesty International. Incidentally, Martin Amis suggested as much a number of years ago, that Jihad is the most attractive and seductive idea of this generation - it’s a licence to kill, it’s a mission from God, one that transforms bored young men into giants - both literally and figuratively (as Hamas propaganda grotesquely presents them.) Finally I suspect that Shahzad is telling him, and countless other left-wing writers just waiting to lap up any confirmation of their preferred narrative - whatever the source; even if it is someone who belongs to a irredentist cult of death. (See the Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim, which shows that Al Qaeda are quite savvy in their propaganda against America by citing for instance left-wing books like Rogue State by William Blum.)
Wright then goes on to accuses Daniel Pipes of cognitive dissonance, but perhaps it is himself who needs to look in the mirror. Just consider this fallacious piece of reasoning:
“My point is just that, if you take Shahzad at his word, there’s more cause for hope than if Pipes were right, and Shahzad’s testimony were evidence that Jihadists are bent on world conquest.”
This is a unsound conclusion derived from a dubious premise whose chain of reasoning is wishful thinking. Wright’s hope is that if we accede to everything Muslim extremists demand then everything will be fine - or rather, it hopefully will. The two indubitable facts of the matter however, is that practically, acceding is impossible; secondly, and more importantly, morally we cannot. What would this demand amount to after all? Sharia law in Europe, America and anywhere else large numbers of Muslims happen to reside. Leave Afghanistan back into the hands of Taliban thugs and fanatics, a similar abandonment would have to befall the Iraqi people. Every single, US and allied troop or citizen would have to either vacate the (Dar al Islam) or become a Dhimmi (a second class citizen). Furthermore we would be obliged to forsake Israel to be swallowed up by the seething anger of Palestinians and for Jews to take their “rightful” place - under the lash of every Muslim bigot (as they have done under Islam for much of history - see Bat Ye’ Or’s book The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam and Bernard Lewis’s The Jews of Islam)
Wright, I am sure counts himself as a impeccable liberal and tolerant person. A believer in dialogue, understanding and compromise. These are liberal traits, and they are noble ones, traits which, nonetheless, flower as fruits of education and civilization. While I count myself as a liberal, I am also aware, painfully, but undeniably so, that there are countless who would burn the earth to cinders in order to purge the world of any deviation from orthodoxy. Consider then, the second example of Wright’s naivety:
Now on to the second cause for hope: Pipes’s confusion itself. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Shahzad was telling the truth, because Pipes certainly thinks he was. Pipes applauds Shahzad’s “forthright statement of purpose,” adding, “However abhorrent, this tirade does have the virtue of truthfulness.
So then why doesn’t it bother Pipes that Shahzad’s depiction of Islamic holy war as defensive counter-attack is the opposite of the depiction Pipes has peddled for years? How can he possibly hail Shahzad’s comments as confirming his world view?”
Wright is arguing that Shahzad is fighting for a defensive reason - and by extension would not have happened if America had not invaded. Again, this only follows if one accepts Shahzad; and why should we? Furthermore, it is simply undeniable that Jihad is inextricably concerned with conquest; that it is both a defensive and offensive notion. Wright disagrees. By way of evidence he provides a hypertext to a chapter in his book (Evolution of God) which amounts to a whitewash of Islamic colonialism and conquest. He cites a single sura, and mentions that it has the virtue of a get out clause, thus supposedly diminishing the external image of unmitigated militancy in Islam. This is what he wrote in his book:
Here again, useful guidance could be found in scripture so long as you looked hard enough. The Koranic verse that comes closest to calling for jihad on a global scale also has a crucial loophole. It begins, “Make war upon such of those to whom the Scriptures have been given as believe not in God, or in the last day, and who forbid not that which God and His Apostle have forbidden,” but then ends, “until they pay tribute out of hand, and they be humbled.” In the end, money would substitute for theological fidelity.
Wright has not looked hard enough or rather has tried hard not to look too hard. His slurring over the concept of Dihmmi -(servitude) - paying the Jizya (a poll tax for unbelievers) as not being all that bad (read on from the link) or done for pragmatic reasons is also suspect. Though to be fair to Wright, what counted most for early Muslims was not theological sophistication or spirituality but success - success in battle and accumulation of booty There are numerous passages in the Koran, and voluminous in the Hadith that call for war, that, can easily be used to support offensive Jihad.. Here is but a flavour:
“Kill those who join other gods with God wherever you may find them” 9.5-6
“Those who believe fight in the cause of god” 4.76
“It is a grave sin for a Muslim to shirk the battle against the unbelievers, those who do will roast in hell.” 2.245
“Allah loves those who fight for His cause in ranks as firm as a mighty edifice.” 61.1
These are all from the Koran itself, which is, remember, the perfect and immutable word of the creator of the universe. This fact, once accepted by any mind, renders any liberal theological gerrymandering incoherent and dishonest. Consider now, as only a flavour, what the Hadith says:
“He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief “
“A day and a night fighting on the frontier is better than a month of fasting and prayer”
“Jihad is your duty under any ruler, be he godly or wicked”
Consequently as a result of this militancy virtually every major Muslim thinker from Ibn Taimiya to Ibn Khaldun to Sayyid Qutub has echoed and expounded this notion of Jihad. See for example A Bostom’s The Legacy of Jihad for a definitive, scholarly account. Islam, subsequently, has the honour or dishonour of being the first great civilisation (with the possible exception of China) that can claim to be the first truly colonialist and imperial power. Its geographical extension, cultural and religious penetration of less successful religions and cultures dwarfs the imperialism of ancient Rome, 19th century England or 21st century America. (see the chapter Arab Imperialism, Islamic Colonialism in Ibn Warraq’s book Why I’m not a Muslim)
While it is true that nearly all Muslims are not violent there is simply no question of Islam’s doctrinal, philosophical and historical infatuation with violence. Nevertheless, Wright does not appear to directly deny this. He seems to be saying that it is a purely defensive notion - one perhaps distorted and abused. While the Koran seems to indicate that Jihad is a merit for those who fight for the expansion of the faith, it is however incumbent upon all Muslims to defend Islam once it has been attacked. Defensive of Islam however, can be construed so elastically that there is little to stop one who wishes to justify violence.
Given this therefore, and the historical weight of orthodox exegesis of Jihad; the Koran’s evident comfort with violence and apocalyptic imagery; and of course, Muhammad’s warlike example; killing innocent civilians - which are of no direct threat to any Muslim - yes, innocent civilians - let us not euphemise the matter - is, within Islam, simply a non issue.
This last point is important. For Wright, appears to be in the fog of moral bewilderment rendering him incapable of making basic moral distinctions. His tone and reporting of Shahzad, suggests that he sees no significant moral difference between American and British troops; soldiers who wear identifiable uniforms and conduct operations against militants - not women and children; who seek to minimize civilian casualties as best possible, though there are of course mistakes. When mistakes occur however, there are inquests, hearings and apologies. Does any of the above, which can be effortlessly expanded, apply to likes of Bin Laden, Zarqawi (remember him?) Muhammad Atta or Faisal Shahzad? No. These men are not even in the same moral universe.
No doubt, there are good arguments against the war in Afghanistan; the conduct of that war, or the need for its continuation. It is however a disgrace, that Wright legitimises Faisal Shahzad and his toxic ideology. While it is true that these wars have contributed to Muslim anger and resentment it should be pointed out that until 9/11 most Americas were not remotely aware of Bin Laden, Jihad or even the history and tenets of Islam. It is only after 9/11 -after America was attacked (and not for the first time) with the subsequent US and Western (re)-action that any credence can be given to America waging war on Islam. Justifiably, there is plenty of people in the world who could be angry at America and the West. There are plenty of starving and disposed, which we are either indirectly responsible for or are obligated to help. Little of this appears to apply to Islam. It suffered far less consequences of European colonialism compared to Africa or South America. America meanwhile has participated and supported four armed conflicts in the last thirty years in defence of Muslim people; have furthermore contributed millions in oversees aid and has tirelessly attempted to broker peace in Palestine; don’t forget meanwhile, the millions of Muslim immigrants that were and still are being welcomed in Western countries.
Bin Laden, we should remember was a multi-millionaire, he could have lived a life of luxury on the French Riviera, or could have spent his endowment peacefully helping Palestinians with food and medical supplies - or any other charitably endeavours. But no, Bin Laden and countless other men who often possess great intelligence, university educations and with no sign of mental distress or personal malaise - choose to live in caves, fight in wars thousands of miles away or detonate themselves in trains, planes and western nightclubs.
Many - political scientists and sociologists, from journalists to politicians to religious moderates will all attempt to resist the obvious yet “reductionist” conclusion - the common denominator that is a set of beliefs laid down in the 7th century and subsequently fossilised into the minds of millions. Beliefs - about the sanctity of violence - the metaphysics of martyrdom and the glory of the Caliphate. As the chapter in Malise Ruthven’s book Islam in the World Shows (see the chapter Spiritual Renewal pp-261) Islamic history is not only littered with Jihads but with individuals and groups who oppose any form of modernity and attempt to restore, usually with violence and intimidation, Islam to its purity. This is not therefore, a 20th century phenomenon. We are only “aware” of it because we are not only more self-aware of our beliefs but of our neighbours. There is, consequently, always going to be a significant group of men ready to do violence for faith - so long as Islamic ideas are held in good stead. It is therefore a totally circular and morally incompetent argument to mount, as Wright does, that the cause of terrorism is the resistance to it:
But as a practical matter, taking any of these issues off the table weakens the jihadist recruiting pitch. (Different potential recruits, after all, are sensitive to different issues.) And if we could take the Afghanistan war off the table, that would be a big one.For now my main point is that war-on-terror hawks need to confront the downsides, rather than act as if establishing the role of “jihadi intent” or “jihadist ideology” somehow ends the debate. They need to seriously ask whether the policies they favor have, while killing terrorists abroad, created terrorists both abroad and — more disturbingly — at home.
It’s a temptation we all have to fight. Maybe if we fought it as hard as we fight other enemies, we’d have fewer of them. (on our tendency to think even in terms of enemies in the first place.)
This is his last word, and it is about us and our mistakes. Not only is the thinking that there is some (some?) incompatibility between Western liberalism and Islam in principal mistaken but that the fact that we even conceive of thinking about differences between people and between ideas, and that there may be significant moral differences between them - no - this kind of thinking is itself “the problem”.
The sad fact is that there are differences between beliefs and between people. These beliefs, in fact, turn out to be a matter of life and death. Wright, who seems incapable of either believing or conceiving of beliefs and intentions, so radically different from his own, does not appear to be at all worried (then again, why should he, given that he sees no differences.) - subsequently all will end well - just like the end of Communism - which conservatives “demonised” and thumped their chests over. Why did they do this? If we believe Wright - its all down to human cognitive bias and our tendencies to demonise the “other”. If its rooted in evolution, its reasonable to ask, is it not, that emotions like fear, and thoughts of suspicion - did not serve some utility and perhaps, still do?
Just so stories aside, we should remember that there was plenty of reasons to worry about Communism, which Wright in the article slurs over; additionally we may laugh now at the “domino theory” of Communist expansion but that is only from the safety of posterity. Finally, Wright’s analogy between the fall of communism as a solution to Islam is embarrassingly superficial - Wright seems to imply that some day in the future - Muslims will spontaneously wake up and shatter the walls of fundamentalism. A moment of brief historical reflection, however, will reveal that compared to the tensions and conflicts between Christianity, the West and Islam, the less than a century spat between Liberalism and Communism - was nothing but a historical footnote. What is desperately needed here is some clear thinking as opposed to wishful thinking if we to understand and resolve the problem with Islam. Wright however, sadly displays much of the latter without showing a correspondent ability for the former.