Day By Day

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Criticizing the Critics of Islamism

The standard left-wing/Islamist response to Western critics is on full display in today's Guardian. Pankaj Mishra targets Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Martin Amis, and Mark Steyn for raising alarm about increasing Islamist influence in Europe using ammunition provided by the late Edward Said, the author of "Orientalism" and the malevolent genius behind Columbia's Middle East Studies program [more accurately understood as the Anti-American Studies Program].

Mishra's first bolt, straight from Said's quiver, is the charge of "essentialism" -- arguing that Western critics ignore the rich diversity of Islamic culture, reducing it to a few "essential" characteristics. She writes:
Each one of the national realities Muslims inhabit is prodigiously complex and ceaselessly evolving, shaped as much by geopolitics - imperial conquest, the cold war, the war on terror - as by internal conflicts of class, religion and ethnicity. Closely examined, Muslim societies briskly dissolve our complacent, parochial notions about religion, democracy, secularism and capitalism. They expose, too, the notion of a monolithic Islam pressing down uniformly on all believers everywhere as a crude caricature.
Of course, as many critics of Said's work have noted, this sort of criticism of Western attitudes is in itself essentialist and fails to appreciate the enormous complexity of Western thought. Moreover, complacency and parochialism are by no means unique to Western cultures. It is certainly arguable that Westerners have at least as good a grasp of reality as do the Jihadis.

Her second charge, again borrowed from Said, is that criticism of Islamism is irrational and obsessive, an expression of "Islamophobia." She writes:
The most recent paranoid obsession with Muslims, which has a long history in Europe, dates back to 2001, when the violence once unleashed on places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the "free world" began to penetrate even the highly protected societies of the west.
In other words 9/11 was simply payback for the numerous sins of the past and we should humbly accept it as that. Westerners, instead of criticizing the Jihadis, should be paying penance for their own imperialist and colonialist histories.

In response to this we can note that Western societies for more than a generation now have been wallowing in self-mortification and that this institutionalized self-loathing created a fertile field in which anti-American scholars like Said could flourish. [here]

More generally it can be noted that this sort of guilt-tripping can in no way justify or excuse the atrocities committed by Jihadis, nor do they mitigate the kinds of horror visited on women in Islamic societies that have formed the core of Ali's critique. By changing the subject to Western sins of the past and ignoring the sins of Islamists Mishra is indulging in the same kind of selective blindness she accuses her opponents of doing.

I might also note that American military actions in Muslim countries in no way represents an irrational, "paranoid" response to a series of escalating attacks against the US and other Western societies committed by militant jihadis. Striking back at our enemies is not an irrational act. Nor is seeking to topple two of the most brutally repressive regimes in the modern world -- those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Labeling these actions as "Islamophobic" and ascribing them to some "primordial anxiety" regarding "otherness" is simple, mindless name-calling and no more.

Her third shot is to attack liberal democracy as a sham. She argues that truly free people would never have elected men like George Bush or Tony Blair, that most Brits and Americans are ignorant of the major tenets of liberalism and what goodness they exhibit owes nothing to liberal ideology, and that the manifest injustices of the British and American systems fully explain the existence in both societies of large, disaffected minorities that occasionally, as in the case of the subway bombers, are driven to violence. Such hypocritical, unjust regimes are, in her view, hardly preferable to the Islamic government liberals criticize. Rather than opposing the Jihadi's, Mishra suggests, Western societies should be working to cure themselves. She holds up as a model the British schoolteacher who was recently incarcerated by Sudan authorities but who refuses to denounce her oppressors.

Certainly there are things to criticize in Western societies, and a vigorous critical dialog dominates our mass media, but to say that we fail to live up fully to utopian ideals is a far cry from saying that our system is inferior to those of the contemporary Middle East. Most Muslims, it would seem, prefer our systems. Certainly enough of them are migrating West in order to participate in them.

Read Mishra's article here.