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Monday, February 20, 2006
Are Muslims Illiberal By Nature?, part II

I finally finished this post. I will try and blog more this week than the two previous. I will also try shorter posts. Enjoy. I'll grammer proof tommorrow.

I have four disagreements with Roach's argument, and with the arguments about the illiberality of Islam in general. First, this argument misconstrues the nature of religious belief, and, thereby attribute characteristics to "true Muslims" that don't exist in the real world. Second, this misreading of religion is also present in his reconstruction of Christianity. Third, the causal logic of Roach's argument--that Islamic beliefs lends itself to radicalism when confronted with the demands of liberalism--should apply to American Muslims. If we are to believe his argument, the Muslims in America should have similarly revolted. Why is this revolt limited to Europe? Fourth, this argument reinforces the idea of a clash civilizations and creates a situation where the only solution to the "Muslim Question" is conversion or extermination.

First, religious observance is not a passive behavior in which a religion reproduces itself in the minds, words, and bodies of believers. Practitioners and confessors co-construct religious observances and traditions. Institutions of communion and association, like churches, mosques, and prayer groups, as well as external expectations, mean that the believers can't do just anything they want. Nevertheless, there is a lot of room for creation, manipulation, and redefinition within any given religious belief system according the practices and lived experiences of the worshippers.

Put more concretely: does Islam exist prior to the Muslims who enact it? Does a religious exist without people to practice and believe it? If it is the case that any analysis of religion and religious belief must begin with the practitioners of the religion, then Ibn Warraq's quip "there may be moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. There is no difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. At most there is a difference of degree but not of kind" becomes a meaningless statement. For fundamentalists, there is no difference between Islam and what they practice. The same is true for moderate Muslims.

A sophisticated account of religion would necessarily begin with the following definition as "explanations of existence based on assumptions about the nature of the supernatural and about the purpose of being." Roach can't make claims about what Islam truly is without taking into account the experiences and practices of actual Muslims.

Second, not only does Roach get Islam wrong, he misses the comprehensive nature of Christianity, which is no less a life world than Islam. The texts of Christianity contain recommendations for family life, suggest obedience to state authority, and a preference against, though not prohibition of, slavery (especially against fellow believers.) While textual Christianity certainly need not be interpreted as a rule-based view of religious observance, in practice many Christian congregations affirm rule-based, comprehensive life projects. To the extent that diverging opinions about textual interpretations are justifiable, the disagreements are legitimate.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, let's assume, with Roach, that the nature of Islam (and not just the content) can be radically different from the nature of Christianity (and Judaism). From whose point of view are Islam and the Muslims to be judged? How is it that we come to know the nature of religion and the people who affirm it? Roach certainly provides us with one model: a Euro-centric framing of the issue in which the normals going ons of free speech becomes vastly complicated by Muslims who take their faith seriously.
Muslims may disagree about terrorism; Islam, like Christianity, counsels certain limitations on warfare aimed to protect innocents. But Muslims do not (at least within the framework of Islam) disagree about jihad. It's a core obligation of Muslims. It's a central part of their religious beliefs and religious history. And by its nature it defines who is innocent and who is the enemy very broadly.

It is not a coincidence or canard that Islam is called the Religion of the Sword. From Morocco to India it was spread by military conquest, not the actions of missionaries using the arts of persuasion.

However, it does not seem that a Euro-centric vantage is a fair origin for criticism or even a justifiable one. European know-towing to free speech notwithstanding, there is not a strong historical record in favor of any given European government's relationship with non-Europeans. Even in the postcolonial age, Europe does not seem to have much respect or concern with the domestic institutions of the postcolonies nor the persons and immigrants within and from those postcolonies.

Roach's particular reading of the Islamic consensus on jihad seems equally unjustifiable. What Roach says is that no reasoning Muslim, if she is being true to her faith, can disagree with jihad. He could have also said that no Christian, if he is being true to his faith, can disagree with agape. Assuming that this is true, there can still be disagreements about the nature, scope, and limitations of jihad and agape. Muslims may be uniformly committed to jihad as a matter of faith; what that means in practice is less clear. All Christians believe in love, but individual Christian behavior and conceptions of love differ wildly. It is reasonable to assume that within Islam, Muslims can possess an equal amount of reasonable disagreement and pluralism.

Moreover, the history of religious "persuasion" is not the history of missionaries and remarkable speeches. The spread of Christendom was as blood soaked as the spread of Judaism in ancient Palestine, or the spread of Islam in the Arab and Islamic worlds. With great zeal did the faithful convert and persuade with their fervor and military technology. Spain persuaded the Americas to give up their native religious beliefs (and land, gold, and treasure) just as the British persuaded the Native Americans to make way for their colonies. If Islam is so essentially violent in comparison to the pacific Christians, why is it that Christianity, and not Islam, produced witch-hunts?

Third, the causal logic of Roach's argument would imply that Americans should fear Muslims within the United States as much as Europeans fear Muslims within the EU because, as a matter of religious principle, both populations may spontaneously erupt into violence.
From the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, to the riots by disaffected Muslim youth in Paris, as a group Muslims living in Europe have shown themselves to be a turbulent minority that feels free to demand obeissance to its own notions of the sacred from the broader community while according little such respect to others. Europe should act on what is increasingly obvious: the liberal and tolerant way of life to which they are accustomed is incompatible with a large and growing minority that has little respect for the beliefs of others.

Let us bracket the discussion of whether Muslims are a threat to Europe and instead focus on the violence that didn't happen in America. The key problem for Roach's "argument" is this: if Islam is so intolerant, why didn't the American Muslims revolt? Here why: unless Roach is willing to forward and defend the claim that his interpretation of Islam is the legitimate one based on a careful and considered reading of the text that American Muslims lack, it seems that the essence of Islam thesis is an untenable causal logic. For Roach, sincerity of Islamic beliefs (independent variable) leads to political violence (dependent variable) against orders that do not conform to Sharia law (conditional variable). If we hold constant the conditional variable and the independent variable, we should see regular violence by Muslims against liberalism in the United States. Why don't we see that?

One of the respondents on the blog observed a fact:
European Muslims, on the other hand, don't have this kind of success in Europe. there are a number of institutional, economic and psychological reasons -- IN WHICH BOTH THE EUROPEAN ESTABLISHMENT AND THE IMMIGRANT MENTALITY are complicit. as a consequence of these wide scale failures, the European muslim minority fears reprisals when their beliefs are so publicly mocked. the thought is: "if they can mock our most holy man, they surely won't stop at anything if they come after us."

Spencer Akerman, in a New Republic piece entitled "Why American Musliums Haven't Turned to Terrorism" (registriation required), has an answer to this quandry:
Al Jazeera aired the communiqué of 30-year-old Mohammad Sidique Khan, which Khan recorded to explain why he helped murder over 50 of his fellow Britons on a bus and in the Underground. "Until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight," Khan declared. "We are at war. I am a soldier. And now, you, too, will taste the reality of this situation." When Khan spoke of "my people," he wasn't talking about his British countrymen. Rather, he was referring to the members of a global Islamic community, which he, like Osama bin Laden, believes is under siege by the rapacious Western world...

Europe's growing Muslim culture of alienation, marginalization, and jihad isn't taking root here. As a result, one senior administration official contends, "Al Qaeda finds greater support among European Muslim communities than in the U.S."--meaning that the self-activated jihadists that Europe is witnessing are less likely to appear in America. In part, the United States is protected because it offers better social and economic opportunities to its Muslim citizens, while Europe's inability to accommodate its growing Muslim underclass led to rioting that spread from the Paris suburbs across France. But economics alone can't explain the more fluid integration of Muslims into American life. That, in large part, is a function of America's ability to accommodate Islam itself.

French political theorist Olivier Roy argues that jihadism stems from a violent identity crisis felt acutely among Muslims in the West. But, ironically, that search for identity is far less of a crisis for Muslims in the United States--the supposed oppressor of Muslims, in bin Laden's telling--because of a fundamentally American attribute: the mutually reinforcing creeds of pluralism and religiosity. "When I go out to Bush Country," says Eboo Patel of Chicago's Interfaith Youth Core, "it is true that, for some people, the way I pray is peculiar. But they don't think I'm hallucinating when I say, 'It's prayer time.'" In other words, if the United States is looking for a way to win the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide, it ought to first look at what it has accomplished at home...

Indeed, given the availability of extremist messages to American Muslims--who live in the country that's supposedly the premier enemy of Islam--it's startling how few American Muslim extremists there actually are. The Justice Department's record on counterterrorism post-September 11 suggests little appetite among American Muslims for the jihadist agenda. Though, in June, President Bush boasted of investigating more than 400 terrorism suspects and winning convictions of "more than half of those charged," an analysis by The Washington Post found that only 39 of the convictions could be considered at all terrorism-related, and only 14 of those prosecuted had links to Al Qaeda.

Some of the most publicized cases have been of questionable merit--or involve non-Americans. A much-touted arrest and trial of a Detroit "cell" featured so much prosecutorial misconduct that a grand jury may indict the U.S. attorney on the case. Uzair Paracha, convicted last week in New York of trying to help an Al Qaeda operative enter the country, isn't American, but Pakistani. Also last week, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, of Virginia, was convicted of conspiring to kill Bush. Yet the prosecution's case rested entirely on a confession--which Abu Ali claims was coerced--delivered during his 20 months in a Saudi prison, and he was charged only after a judge ordered the government to disclose its involvement in his extralegal overseas detention. And, even if Abu Ali is indeed a jihadist, a senior Bush administration official cautions that such cases hardly indicate "a trend" among a given American Muslim population...

American Muslims tend to live in a few population centers, along the coasts and around Midwestern and Southern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Houston. But, inside those metropolitan areas, enclaves--homogenous population clusters historically favored by recent immigrant groups--are surprisingly few. The ten metropolitan regions with the greatest concentration of Muslims tend to be ethnically integrated. With Detroit as the only exception, in both 1990 and 2000, every neighborhood with notable concentrations of Muslims was at least 60 percent white and only around 5 percent Muslim.

Within those neighborhoods, American Muslims display healthy indications of upward social mobility. The median household income of American Muslims in 2000 was over $52,000, nearly the $53,000 reported by the median white household. Even the poorest households among American Muslim groups, North Africans, earned $40,000 on average in 2000--$6,000 more than blacks. The typical American Muslim in 2000 possessed 14 years of education (more than whites, Latinos, blacks, and Asians); and American Muslims of Middle Eastern descent, who possess the lowest levels of education, still record higher levels of education than whites, blacks, and Latinos. American Muslims are presently living in census tracts where nearly 60 percent of residents own their homes and over 35 percent of residents have college educations. "Overall," writes Logan, "the Muslim-origin population is characterized by high education and income with low unemployment."

An important contribution to Muslims' comfort with the United States comes not only from the diversity of the neighborhoods they live in, but from the diversity of the Muslims themselves within those neighborhoods. While Middle Easterners still constitute a plurality of foreign-origin American Muslims--at 49 percent of the American Muslim population--South Asians represent nearly 23 percent of the total American Muslim population, North Africans nearly 15 percent, and Iranians 13 percent. For Patel, the high levels of internal diversity within Muslim communities coupled with high levels of integration and have allowed American Muslims to avoid the theological and ethnic rigidities that often characterize Muslim discourse in the Middle East and South Asia. "There are no Muslim 'apostates' here," he says. "That's a huge thing."

The contrast with Europe couldn't be sharper. There, Muslim populations are heavily ghettoized, as becomes quickly apparent during a walk through Brussels or Amsterdam. Muslim immigration to Europe, like Mexican immigration to the American Southwest, is motivated chiefly by the pursuit of jobs--often any job, which frequently means menial employment with little prospect for advancement. A recent State Department study found that, in the most Muslim-populous European countries--Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands--the vast majority of Muslims have no access to higher education. Unemployment is disproportionately high: British Pakistani men have almost a 15 percent jobless rate, compared with 5 percent for white men; some French Muslim ghettos record 40 percent unemployment, compared with a national 10 percent. Muslim populations in Europe tend to be as homogenous as American Muslim communities are diverse: In the United Kingdom, most Muslims are South Asian; French and Spanish Muslims are overwhelmingly North African; German Muslims are predominantly Turkish. (Only in the Netherlands is there regional Muslim diversity, with relatively equal numbers of Turks and Moroccans.) Not surprisingly, most respondents told the State Department that they identify more as Muslim than with their European country of residence.

These parlous social and economic conditions persist after several generations of Muslim immigration to Europe and may assist those seeking to foment extremism: Mohammad Sidique Khan, for one, came from a working-class and socially stagnant background--making it significant that economic and social opportunities for American Muslims are vastly greater than those available to their European counterparts. But prosperity, or the lack thereof, can't fully explain receptivity to jihad: Indeed, Marc Sageman, a CIA case officer turned forensic psychiatrist, meticulously documented how most Al Qaeda adherents from Muslim countries come from privileged backgrounds in his groundbreaking book, Understanding Terror Networks. Clearly, the United States is doing something right beyond providing its Muslim citizens with jobs and good neighborhoods. And that something is the uniquely American interplay of religiosity and pluralism...

By contrast, strident secularism and a monocultural definition of integration have characterized cosmopolitan Europe for decades. Europe's weighty history of fratricidal wars, religious conflict, and colonialism have contributed tremendously to its deepening secularism, as has the historical conflict that European rationalism and liberalism experienced with the continent's religious institutions. As a result, European governing classes frequently view public expressions of religion, no matter how subtle or individualized, as subversive political statements. Both France and Turkey have made wearing a headscarf to a public school a punishable offense, to the consternation and confusion of their Muslim populations. One Parisian Muslim interviewed by The New York Times during the riots explained his frustration: "They say integrate, but I don't understand: I'm already French. What more do they want? They want me to drink alcohol?" That sentiment ensures that Ayman Al Zawahiri, bin Laden's lieutenant and chief ideologue, has at least some audience when he tells British Muslims that "British freedom is, in fact, the freedom to be hostile to Islam." For Mohammad Sidique Khan, that message was murderously compelling.

But it doesn't appear compelling to American Muslims. And that's largely because U.S. freedom, even after September 11, is the freedom to be inviting to Islam. For American Muslims, the opportunity for a publicly visible--and, more importantly, normative--expression of religion removes a tremendous source of frustration that exists in both European and Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, according to a recent poll, 96 percent of American Muslims consider Islam an important factor in their daily lives--something that, in a real success for the American social fabric, appears to be a nonissue to their non-Muslim neighbors. "Where's the heart of isna?" Patel asks, referring to the Islamic Society of North America. "Plainfield, Indiana! That place hasn't been bombed. It's not in the heart of cosmopolitan America. It's in rural Indiana!"

America's blend of liberalism and religiosity, in other words, has created perhaps the most potent weapon against Al Qaeda conceivable: a resolution to the identity crisis of Western Muslim life that bin Laden preys upon. When Abdul Rauf came to the United States from Egypt 40 years ago, Muslims were a curious unfamiliarity to most Americans, and the impact on his mental health was real. "Myself, I suffered for eight years from an identity crisis--not knowing who I was," he recalls. Back then, "when Muhammad Ali became a Muslim, he was seen as rejecting America." Yet, as Abdul Rauf explored both his faith and his new country, he recognized that reconciliation was not just possible, it was natural. His project now, like that of many other U.S. Muslim organizations, is straightforward: "We're looking to expedite the creation of an American Muslim identity in order to resolve the issues between the U.S. and the Muslim world." What Abdul Rauf means is a public identity seamlessly blending Islam and Americanism and reinforcing both. For Patel, this is the most important front in the war on terrorism. "The battlefield is identity, and the players are young people," he says. "When I first tell people about the Interfaith Youth Core, people say, 'Aw, what a sweet organization.' But there's another guy running a youth organization, and his name is Osama bin Laden."

Instead of blaming the Muslim population, we should instead blame Europe. More specifically, there is political dynamic to the European construction of Muslim identity lacking in America. This identity creates a state in which Muslims exist outside of public law and thus live by the dictates of the state of nature. As Kant reminded us in the Metaphysical Elements of Justice, a state of nature is one in which persons lack publicly guaranteed rights and can only claim to have what they can possess and defend. Muslims in Europe can only have toleration and political speech through acts of violence.

Their religious difference matters only in so far as it is the particular politicized difference of their current environment. Furthermore, it is their social position in relationship to the social and legal equality of opportunity afforded to non-Muslims that explains the European Muslims turn to violence.

Hannah Arendt once remarked that violence is prepolitical; in political relations violence stifles speech and is counterproductive. Nevertheless, this violence, for her, was necessary to secure the preconditions of political life: self-reproduction of physical life (nourishment, etc) and use-objects to build a common world. Her insight is particularly helpful in answering Roach's question of "Why now and why the Muslims?". The alienation of Muslims from European civil society and the political sphere means that relationship of the state to the Muslims communities are by nature violent. Muslims aren't allowed to be political liberals in Europe; they cannot choose and deliberate the norms under which they are to be governed. The state can only impose onto them its authority while denying them opportunities for autonomous self-reproduction, inclusion, and deliberation. The current arrangement in Europe can only be described as a colonial/ imperial relationship within a domestic political order. As such, violence is the only speech--and trust me, it's not free--that Muslims have because our hands are covering their mouth and choking the very life out of their communities.

Lastly, Roach's solution to the problem only perpetrates the problems of the relationship. He gets to the heart of his agnst however in this telling rant:
Now is a time to stand up for Denmark, to tell the Muslim world that their tyrannical belief system will not affect our behavior in the least, and that our principles and values are RIGHT in this regard and, in any case, we will continue to live under them and not give into pressure. Now is time not to offer nuanced considerations of whether our free speech principles might be outdated, but a time to be a partisan for free speech and our western way of life in the face of violence abroad and the activities of subversive, would-be tyrants at home.

The Clash of Civilizations argument was old, and wrong, when Sam Huntington gave it formulation in the 1990s. The worst part of the Clash of Civilizations logic is its ironic juxtaposition of tolerance and incompatibility as liberal virtues. In three conceptual moves, the logic removes the innate pluralism at the heart of justifiable political liberal projects and creates a monistic comprehensive puritanical order.

The first move requires the creation of an other in an oppositional, existential threatening dyad. Tolerance and pluralism are first excised from liberalism in this us or them situation. The second move, after the excision, is the announcement of the immutability and correctness of our values. If the conflict is to be about essential nature and fundaments, then we're right and "they" need to change. The third move is the logical extension of the first, unreflecting opposition to the phantom menace crated. In the clash of civilizations logic, being liberal means not changing and not learning from the views and experiences of others.

By invoking the logic of the clash of civilizations, Roach wants a contest of wills. That's not politics, that's violence. What is needed is actual pluralism and public deliberation in European with more viewpoints represented than a bunch of chauvinists threatened by change. This dialogue must include the alienated, the wretched, the disaffected, and the damned. Political liberalism is only liberal to the extent which it facilitates the governed determining the conditions and extent of their governance. Everything else is just warfare.