In my honor-shame class today we read about honor-killings, and their role in restoring men’s sense of well-being by killing disobedient women. The discussion was very lively as we tried to figure out how to deal with the mutual contradictions between liberal beliefs about human nature, and the evidence from the dossiers on honor-killings that depict a profoundly cruel and tyrannical mindset on the part of the men defending their family honor, and — perhaps more distressing — the larger community supporting, if not demanding, their behavior.
As part of the exercise in dealing with the moral problems, I assigned the article below by Chris Seiple on how to dialogue with Muslims. At one point, a student made the classic liberal case that honor-killings are morally repugnant and wondered aloud how, given the peer-pressure involved, we can get Muslims to oppose them. I put to him the classic progressive challenge: isn’t that cultural imperialism? Who are you — we — to tell them what to do? In struggling with the problem, he ended up crying out “auuuugghhhh” in frustration.
Students laughed; some clapped. Exactly. What do we do?
I don’t have a clear answer to that now, but what I do think I have to offer is some thoughts about what we shouldn’t do. And I want to use the deeply well-intentioned Seiple’s meditations as guide to all the errors involved in the current fashionable approach (this one by a Nobel Prize winner) to dealing with Muslim honor: respect their sense of honor; do not engage in gratuitous provocation; avoid insult. Seiple’s essay highlights brilliantly how liberal thinking literally twists itself into its opposite and creates the Moebius Strip of Cognitive Egocentrism. Prepare to have your head hurt.
HT: Dan Pipes. See also Doc’s Talk
10 terms not to use with Muslims
There’s a big difference between what we say and what they hear.
By Chris Seiple
Christine Science Monitor
March 28, 2009 edition
ARLINGTON, VA. – In the course of my travels – from the Middle East to Central Asia to Southeast Asia – it has been my great privilege to meet and become friends with many devout Muslims. These friendships are defined by frank respect as we listen to each other; understand and agree on the what, why, and how of our disagreements, political and theological; and, most of all, deepen our points of commonality as a result.
I’d very much like to hear about those points of commonality, deepened by these discussions. I have difficulty understanding what “frank respect” means. We’re frank because we respect each other? Or we frankly (overtly, obviously) show respect for each other. I have difficulty, given the subsequent discussion, imagining Mr. Seiple being frank about anything.
I have learned much from my Muslim friends, foremost this: Political disagreements come and go, but genuine respect for each other, rooted in our respective faith traditions, does not.
Again, I don’t understand. Right now, I think there are some very long-term political disagreements. And one of them concerns just the topic he wants to oppose to what he considers transient political issues — the alleged tolerance and respect that Muslims [don't] have for infidels. How many of the Muslims that Mr. Seiple has met in his world travels, who expressed their respect for his faith, really meant it?
(I’m certainly not saying “none,” but I do think that any fervent Muslim will have difficulty feeling genuine respect for non-Muslims. As far as I know, there is no category in Islam as in Judaism of the “righteous gentile.”)
And while I am willing to believe that some of his interlocutors genuinely respect Seiple’s religion and outreach, I’m also fairly confident that a number of them told him what he wanted to hear and felt contempt for his lack of conviction in his own faith. Indeed, one of the things one must ask oneself is not, “what do these interlocutors say to may face?” but “what do these interlocutors say to their fellow Muslims behind my back.
(Again, I’m not even saying that in cases where they make fun of us to their fellow Muslims they do so because they feel it; it could be just yielding to [heavy] peer pressure.)
If there is no respect, there is no relationship, merely a transactional encounter that serves no one in the long term.
This is pure “positive-sum” thinking. If one rethinks this from a zero-sum perspective (i.e., pre-modern Islam [or Christianity]), the “merely transactional encounter” becomes a vehicle for manipulating the “other” into taking a submissive posture which a) forbids him to uphold his values or crticize mine, b) compels him to let me press mine without opposition, and c) creates a long-term advantage for my side, then it unquestionably serves me “in the long run.” Seiple assumes that his interlocutors share his deep mutuality (frank respect), and that they understand that only through that will the long run win-win occur.
But what if they’re not thinking that way? What if they’re in the “I win only if you lose” game? Whatever any individual Muslim may be thinking, I suspect that if you present Seiple’s message — only through deep mutual respect for our differences and commonalities, and an acceptance of each other’s “otherness” will peace come to our sorely troubled planet — and get a candid response from the majority of Muslim leaders around the world today, you’ll get either outright laughter or profound hostility.
As President Obama considers his first speech in a Muslim majority country (he visits Turkey April 6-7), and as the US national security establishment reviews its foreign policy and public diplomacy, I want to share the advice given to me from dear Muslim friends worldwide regarding words and concepts that are not useful in building relationships with them. Obviously, we are not going to throw out all of these terms, nor should we. But we do need to be very careful about how we use them, and in what context.
If I understand correctly, Seiple’s now offering us a list of terms that he feels are likely to hurt efforts at “building relationships” with Muslims, and that he learned this from his “dear Muslim friends” — i.e., those he believes have a deep and frank respect for him and his own religious convictions.
1. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. There is no clash of civilizations, only a clash between those who are for civilization, and those who are against it. Civilization has many characteristics but two are foundational: 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.
This is an amazing passage… conceptually breathtaking in its disinformation. Let’s begin with the confident assertion: Invariably, this kind of discussion ends up with us as the good guy and them as the bad guy. On the contrary, for those Muslims who view this as a “clash of civilizations,” it’s a no-brainer: they’re the good guys and we’re the bad guys. They care about honor and morality, and we’re a bunch of corrupt, self-indulgent sinners.
This statement betrays how little Seiple actually empathizes with (he overflows with sympathy for) his Muslim interlocutors, and only sees things from his own perspective… which, great-souled man that he is, he will gladly renounce (i.e., the sense that his civilization is better), for the sake of mutual respect (a characteristic Western idea).
But it gets better. Seiple then sets up the opposition between those in favor of civilization and those against it, and defines civilization quite explicitly. 1) It has no place for those who encourage, invite, and/or commit the murder of innocent civilians; and 2) It is defined by institutions that protect and promote both the minority and the transparent rule of law.
Mr. Seiple apparently has no knowledge of civilizations — including European — before the latter half of the 20th century. His first condition is clearly aimed at denouncing terrorism. Of course, unless you insist that civilians are only “innocent” under certain specific situations, we have a Muslim world which is almost unanimous in its approval of killing “non” innocent Israeli civilians, and many more who approve of killing civilians — infidels and Muslims — for political ends. In addition to the “tiny minority” who actually attack civilians, there are widening gyres of Muslims who encourage and invite it.
But the second definition is even more striking and contradictory. This is a purely self-referential Western (or democratic) definition of civilization. Transparency is a modern notion, reinforced by a free press which can report without fear the transgressions of those in power (including judges). As for protecting and — especially — promoting minorities, that is a peculiarly post-WWII phenomenon, fruit of a world aghast at the Holocaust, legislating Geneva Conventions for the world, instituting the United Nations, promoting human rights around the world. No earlier civilization promoted minorities. On the contrary, they saw their authority as a license to put minorities in their place.
Islamic “civilization” (the scare-quotes are in application of Seiple’s definition) does not make the grade here. Dhimmi may mean “protected” (and Seiple may have that in mind), but anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that a) the protection was from the choice of conversion or death, b) there were other groups (pagans) who were not so “protected,” and c) that “protection” involved not promotion but systematic humiliation and subordination.
So what Seiple’s done here is a classic inversion of meaning. In defining “all” civilizations, he’s done just what he said we shouldn’t — made a Eurocentric (Occidento-centric) value judgment that “we are better” (i.e., our values are better than any other; indeed they are the very measure of civilization). But to avoid the “clash of civilizations” he’s granted “civilized” status to everyone else. “They” are civilized like “us.”
2. “Secular.” The Muslim ear tends to hear “godless” with the pronunciation of this word. And a godless society is simply inconceivable to the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Pluralism – which encourages those with (and those without) a God-based worldview to have a welcomed and equal place in the public square – is a much better word.
Here, I’m tempted to agree. For me, “secular” defines the public space in which religions who have renounced the theocratic desire to rule (i.e., they’ve accepted the separation of Church and State), can express themselves freely. But that’s a fairly sophisticated definition. The more common — secular as “irreligious” — is often used by Westerners (especially those atheists who see in religion nothing but superstition and backwardness).
But substituting “pluralistic” here raises a serious problem. Does “pluralism” mean that we accept as legitimate participants in the public sphere religious beliefs that embrace theocracy? If not, what do we do with Muslims who, as far as I know, still believe in theocracy? Do we open up the secular public sphere to their activity?
As for Muslims, if Seiple is willing to say that for “a godless society is inconceivable for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide” would he also be willing to say, “a pluralist society in which infidels are free to exercise their religion publicly, build their religious structures as high as they want, and proselytize among Muslims and convert willing Muslims to their religion is inconceivable”?
3. “Assimilation.” This word suggests that the minority Muslim groups in North America and Europe need to look like the majority, Christian culture. Integration, on the other hand, suggests that all views, majority and minority, deserve equal respect as long as each is willing to be civil with one another amid the public square of a shared society.
Again, I’ll agree. But Seiple has just answered a previous question. Theocratic Muslims do not deserve equal respect since, except insofar as they can’t enforce their beliefs under present conditions of minority status in the West, they do not believe that others deserve “equal respect.” On the contrary, so often when we hear Muslims speaking among themselves, their contempt for infidels is thick enough to cut with a knife.
So my question to Mr. Seiple is as follows: what do you do with demopaths? What do you do when your dear friends in CAIR get indignant at the US courts’ treatment of Sami al Arian, calling on your eagerness to show respect so that they can protect and extend the career of someone who works with and for terrorists (your definition #1 for enemy of civilization)?
4. “Reformation.” Muslims know quite well, and have an opinion about, the battle taking place within Islam and what it means to be an orthodox and devout Muslim. They don’t need to be insulted by suggesting they follow the Christian example of Martin Luther. Instead, ask how Muslims understand ijtihad, or reinterpretation, within their faith traditions and cultural communities.
Okay. I personally think the invocation of the “Reformation” as a model for Islam is bad on two major counts.
1) Wahhabism is the Muslim equivalent to the Protestant Reformation — cut through the accumulated commentary and go straight back to the original source, the Qur’an/Bible, sola scriptura, live like the original community around the founder (Salafi/apostolic). It’s just that Muhammad was a much more belligerent fellow that Jesus, and his emulators tend to show this in their interpretation of a return to origins.
2) Despite the pacifist nature of Jesus’ teachings, the Christian “reformation” led almost immediately to war and persecution that lasted over a century (Peasant War of 1525 to end of Thirty Years War in 1648 and English Civil War in 1660). A reformation like this in the Arab world would be catastrophic not only for Muslims, but for the rest of the global community.
As for Seiple’s efforts to avoid insulting Islam, I’ll agree. No need for gratuitous insult. If we get better results by asking about Ijtihad, and Muslims’ responses to it, then I’m all for it.
5. “Jihadi.” The jihad is an internal struggle first, a process of improving one’s spiritual self-discipline and getting closer to God. The lesser jihad is external, validating “just war” when necessary. By calling the groups we are fighting “jihadis,” we confirm their own – and the worldwide Muslim public’s – perception that they are religious. They are not. They are terrorists, hirabists, who consistently violate the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.
Now we’re in trouble. This version of Jihad — in which the “great” Jihad is an inner struggle to make one a better person and the lesser is a defensive “just” war — is a classic ploy. As the students of Jihad (external “just” war) point out tirelessly, Jihad as war against the infidels is a deeply rooted tradition. Anyone taking Seiple’s “mainstream Islamic” position disputing a Jihadi on the basis of mainstream Islamic jurisprudence, will lose. Jihadis are most decidedly not violating “the most fundamental teachings of the Holy Koran and mainstream Islamic scholars and imams.”
Seiple may be thinking of “there is no coercion in matters of belief,” but he doesn’t know how the tradition defines what “coercion” is. Dhimmi laws are forms of coercion by our (Sieple’s) modern standards — tax, humiliate, and legally disadvantage unbelievers as a punishment for not converting — but not a contradiction of the Qur’an’s passage prohibiting coercion. And of course, once a Muslim, there’s no out.
By defining the argument as he has, by granting to Muslims a priori their status as a “civilization” by his own definition — i.e., they reject terrorism — Seiple has literally defined away the problem. What Seiple’s done here is to define only civic religiosity — non-violent, voluntaristic — as true religiosity. The rest of it is mere terrorism, hirabism.
Now I have to wonder at this point about the nature of Sieple’s Muslim interlocutors. If they are so sensitive that it insults them to have us suggest they follow the Christian “Reformation” model, how do they feel about having those obviously passionate and deeply religious figures who believe in Jihad defined away as a bunch of irreligious terrorists? How many of them consider Sheikh Qaradawi and others in the Muslim Brotherhood violators of the Qur’an?
And if, as I suspect, there are precious few who would go there, then what do they make of Sieple’s hot indignation? Are they insulted by having an outsider tell them what’s going on with their religion? (Shades of George Bush telling us Islam is a religion of peace.) Or are they only too happy to have him carry the misinformation to the outside world, so they can win the cognitive war? In any case, it’s hard not to notice that if we believe Sieple here, we won’t give Muslims a hard time for their co-religionists atrocious behavior.
6. “Moderate.” This ubiquitous term is meant politically but can be received theologically. If someone called me a “moderate Christian,” I would be deeply offended. I believe in an Absolute who also commands me to love my neighbor. Similarly, it is not an oxymoron to be a mainstream Muslim who believes in an Absolute. A robust and civil pluralism must make room for the devout of all faiths, and none.
I suspect that the “deeply offended,” is a piece of rhetorical overkill. Anyone who passionately believes he should love his neighbor (actually that’s a truncated version of the Jewish commandment [“…as thyself”]; for Christians it’s a good deal harder: “Love thy enemy”) is not going to get deeply offended at being told he’s a moderate. He’d smile understandingly and move on. This is more sympathy in the place of empathy.
Again, Seiple is involved in a cognitive shell-game. In Islam there is, as yet, no clear distinction between political and religious. Moderate Muslim, in current parlance, means someone who holds the positions he defines as normative Muslim (above #5), i.e., someone who rejects [little] Jihad and its embrace of terror. To redefine the issue in terms of passion for religious commitments, and then to bring in his Christian categorical imperative – love thy neighbor – as the analogous case, completely obscures the issues.
What Seiple should do, when his dear friends tell him that moderate offends them is to say, “Look, I’m really sorry, but too many of your co-religionists define religious zeal as a license to kill, Muslims and infidels. So when we speak of ‘moderate’ we’re not talking about your passion and commitment, we’re talking about where in the political spectrum your religious actions fall. So please don’t be offended, but please understand our concerns… and, by the way, what’s the Muslim equivalent of ‘love thy neighbor…?’”
7. “Interfaith.” This term conjures up images of watered-down, lowest common denominator statements that avoid the tough issues and are consequently irrelevant. “Multifaith” suggests that we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.
Good grief. The linguistic stuff doesn’t bother me – multi-faith, interfaith, whatever floats your boat. But this does: we name our deep and irreconcilable theological differences in order to work across them for practical effect – according to the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share. Okay, let’s name them.
Despite the brave talk here, I detect nothing concrete in his repeated references to the deep and irreconcilable theological differences. My sense is that all this is to avoid such matters by burying our heads in the comforting pillow of “the very best of our faith traditions, much of which are values we share.” I may be wrong, here. But I see no counter-evidence.
8. “Freedom.” Unfortunately, “freedom,” as expressed in American foreign policy, does not always seek to engage how the local community and culture understands it. Absent such an understanding, freedom can imply an unbound licentiousness. The balance between the freedom to something (liberty) and the freedom from something (security) is best understood in a conversation with the local context and, in particular, with the Muslims who live there. “Freedom” is best framed in the context of how they understand such things as peace, justice, honor, mercy, and compassion.
Here I have to smile. Behind these nice-sounding words lie one of the most pernicious practices in the world today, peculiar if not unique to Islamic “civilization,” namely the topic of our class today, “honor-killings.” Unbound licentiousness is what honor-killings is designed to prevent by terrorizing young women as they approach puberty and early womanhood. (Does this practice qualify for inclusion in Seiple’s definition of civilization?)
There is nothing merciful or compassionate about the practice. On the contrary, as Phyllis Chesler points out, as opposed to much, relatively spontaneous and often unintendedly violent domestic abuse, honor-killings are deliberate and often terrifyingly savage. Only someone who deliberately confuses human and humane can talk about mercy in this context.
As for whether it’s peaceful and just – i.e., by terrifying women into submission it contributes to social stability, and by punishing blows to family honor, it is just – I’ll leave that determination to a frank exchange. In by book, freedom means freedom to object, and there’s no question in my mind that if women who were the object of these honor-killings could object to them, they would. After all, does intimidation through terror work if people don’t care whether they’re attacked? Of course, they object.
Finally, I can’t help but note the mis-adaptation of the terms “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Erich Fromm coined these terms in one of the most important meditations on the nature of freedom, Escape from Freedom, written at the height of Nazi madness (1941). For Fromm, “freedom from” refers to freedom from restraints, or license and, as Plato would predict, most often leads to chaos and tyranny. “Freedom to” involves the disciplines of both self-restraint (i.e., the ability to respect the freedom of others) and a willingness to take responsibility for the choices one’s freedom offers (i.e., not scapegoat others for bad choices one makes).
These are profound lessons for Muslims in today’s world, who seem to think they can have freedom (democracy) and the license to kill their daughters. By redefining them as “freedom to” (liberty) and “freedom from” (security) he creates an opening for arguing that various tyrannical practices (honor-killings) create social stability and protect from – offer “freedom from” – insecurity.
9. “Religious Freedom.” Sadly, this term too often conveys the perception that American foreign policy is only worried about the freedom of Protestant evangelicals to proselytize and convert, disrupting the local culture and indigenous Christians. Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.
Muslims have no problem proselytizing in the West, and demand that we allow them to do so. But there’s no mutuality here. No “profound mutual respect.” On the contrary, apostasy from Islam (i.e. conversion to Christianity) is punishable by death. There are few issues that are more a-symmetrical than the Muslim demand that they be allowed to proselytize among the infidel and not vice-versa.
This goes to the heart of the problem of “mutual respect” and it will not be resolved with nebulous formulae like “Although not true, I have found it better to define religious freedom as the promotion of respect and reconciliation with the other at the intersection of culture and the rule of law – sensitive to the former and consistent with the latter.”
Sadly, “religious freedom” is one of the most critical issues to discuss, one that leads us to the heart of irreconcilable differences.
10. “Tolerance.” Tolerance is not enough. Allowing for someone’s existence, or behavior, doesn’t build the necessary relationships of trust – across faiths and cultures – needed to tackle the complex and global challenges that our civilization faces. We need to be honest with and respect one another enough to name our differences and commonalities, according to the inherent dignity we each have as fellow creations of God called to walk together in peace and justice, mercy and compassion.
This one escapes me entirely. I would say there’s no more important issue than “tolerance,” right now in terms of tackling the “complex and global challenges our civilization(s) face.” And tolerance is something sorely lacking in Islam. Even those who want to invoke the great ages of Islamic “tolerance,” have to contend with the sad fact that at no time did Islam exhibit the kind of tolerance we take for granted. Only when they dominated were they tolerant, and the tolerance certainly did not extend to any situation in which members of other religions had the “right” to criticize Islam.
I was at a “dialogue” with some Muslims in the Boston area, and we heard the kind of stirring words Sieple seems so practiced in. But afterwards, in discussing privately with one of the Muslims there – an otherwise exemplary case of “moderation” even in the tepidity of his religious commitments – when I asked him what he felt about the death fatwa against Salmon Rushdie for blasphemy, he quietly but firmly explained that there were limits to tolerance, and the Muslim community could not tolerate such blasphemous expressions. In other words, honor trumps tolerance with dissenters as with disobedient daughters.
The above words and phrases will differ and change over the years, according to the cultural and ethnic context, and the (mis)perceptions that Muslims and non-Muslims have of one another. While that is to be expected, what counts most is the idea that we are earnestly trying to listen to and understand each other better; demonstrating respect as a result.
I’m sorry. I see this list as evidence of one-way listening. Muslims aren’t making an effort to listen past some ambiguous terminology that leads to misunderstanding what their interlocutors say to them. They’re telling their interlocutors to change their language to avoid hurting their feelings. All the work of listening is being done by Sieple as far as I can make out; which makes me wonder what he means when he keeps repeating like a mantra “respect, respect, respect.”
I personally think that we show serious respect to others when we challenge them, politely but firmly, to live up to certain minimal standards of what Sieple so generously calls “civilization.” Free rides for the sake of not insulting the “other” is not the way to go.
[Editor's note: Due to a technical glitch, the original headline misstated the author's view.]
• Chris Seiple is the president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a “think tank with legs” that promotes sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.