Monthly Archives: February 2016

Clarifying “Triumphalism”: Response to Andrew Gow

My friend and colleague Andrew Gow wrote a long and thoughtful response to my piece on triumphalist religiosity, which raises some interesting issues. Below is a response/clarification.

I agree entirely that we should call jihadis jihadis, and it’s legit to call them jihadi Muslims, since that’s what they claim to be — just as Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists claim to be Christians, even though many other Christians would deny that term to them. I have no problem with terms like extremists and terrorists either, and I think you are right about jihadi libido dominandi and the reasons for terror attacks of the kind we recently saw in France. That’s a powerful analysis.

But I’m also fairly certain that jihadis and extremists of the sort who carried out those attacks do not represent or even belong to an opposing civilization. While by no means uniformly peaceful (as some Muslims claim Islam is), Islam is as capable of producing peaceful societies (under the right conditions) as Christian societies were.

Are those “right conditions” those of dominion? Then the peacefulness you identify may have less to do with tolerance than appeased triumphalism.

You and I both know the long and painful experience of Christian sovereignty, and could easily, especially from the perspective of either Jews or other religious dissidents (those designated “heretics” or “witches” for example), draw a picture in close parallel with how sovereign Muslims behaved. But I certainly wouldn’t make an easy parallel between Islam and Christianity.

When Christians go “apostolic”, their model, Jesus, is a pacifist who preaches turning the other cheek, when Muslims go “salafi”, their model is (most often) a Jihadi who punishes unbelievers for mocking the true faith. The Muslim equivalent of the “Protestant Reformation” – sola scriptura – happened in the 18th century. They called themselves Wahabbis. Notes Ray Ibrahim:

Thus, if Martin Luther (d. 1546) rejected the extra-scriptural accretions of the Church and “reformed” Christianity by aligning it more closely with scripture, Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (d. 1787), one of Islam’s first modern reformers, “called for a return to the pure, authentic Islam of the Prophet, and the rejection of the accretions that had corrupted it and distorted it,” in the words of Bernard Lewis (The Middle East, p. 333). The unadulterated words of God—or Allah—are all that matter for the reformists.

I personally avoid simple equations of Christianity with Islam. Complex comparisons, fine.

It’s just that that has rarely happened in recent times.

And yet, what more propitious time than now, when so many prominent figures in the global community are committed to peaceful relations, and with Muslims living without dominion in the West. One would expect, hope, that a genuinely peaceful Islam – ie one tolerant of autonomous infidels – would emerge precisely in recent times.

What About Jewish Triumphalism: Response to Harvey Blume and Gitlin’s Maps

In response to my post on why I am a member of Peace When, one commenter, the blogger Harvey Blume, posed the following challenge in an exchange with me: I had written that he seemed to be arguing that “Israel should hold everything ready for when the Palestinians are ready, including, presumably, stopping any construction (including natural growth) so that the Palestinians have the space they want.”

No stipulation about when the Jews/Israelis are ready? Not a one? Which they are increasingly, as per their increasingly right-wing governments indicate, they’re not?

Good example of mistaking the response for the cause. Israelis were enthusiastic about peace in the 90s and elected leftist governments. Over the last fifteen years, they have come to recognize the depths of the hostility and elected governments that reflected (rather than denied) that realization. Get Palestinians to show they can behave like neighbors rather than murderous enemies, and you’ll get 80% in favor of the most painful concessions.

For those committed to the cult of the occupation, however, the fault is Israel’s. All previous expressions of willingness to compromise made by Israel do not count. We demand more evidence, otherwise we peg you as an extremist.

I get you.

You’re the kind of polemicist who can cast Islamicism, dreadful, as it is, as innately triumphal and not think of Israelis claiming “Judea and Samaria” as Messianic writ, in the same way.

The Shame of Israel: Panic in a Crooked Mirror

The Jewish World has just published a version of the article below in the Adar I 5776/March 2016 issue, dedicated to The State of World Jewry, with other essays by Jack Engelhard, Lisa Klug, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Dov Fischer, Ari Soffer, Alex Maistrovoy, Steven Apfel, and Michael Freund. Below is a longer version of the article with more links.

On the American-Israeli Jewish Divide

Jewish anti-Zionism and Proxy Honor-Murder

Peter Beinart has written many a piece about the growing split between American Jewish youth and Israel, which he sees as the inevitable cost of Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinians, on the one hand, and the long-term effects on liberal sentiments of seeing an Israeli Goliath bullying the Palestinian underdog, on the other. This “youth,” according to Beinart has “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights.” Studies show Jewish youth “resist anything they see as ‘group think’… want an ‘open and frank’ discussion of Israel and its flaws… and desperately want peace.”

To these folks, raised on bedrock values, every effort of Jews to defend Israel by criticizing the Palestinians offends their sense of fairness: blaming the victim is not a winning strategy. Beinart asserts:

For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”

Given a choice between Zionism and liberalism, American Jewish youth choose the latter.

For Beinart, at least, the case is pretty open and shut. Israeli political choices are illiberal, bad, and her politicians act in bad faith. The split between American Jews and Zionists, therefore, is inevitable. Beinart has little sympathy to the plaints from Israel that the neighborhood here does not permit such simplistic naïveté. Not much room in this worldview for Palestinian, Arab, contributions for the endlessness of the conflict, for their poisonous hatreds, for their insane religious violence. Don’t blame the [perceived] victim. Look at your own extremists which, you too have. Israel, says Beinart and a generation of Jewish critics of Israel, should act like a liberal, or lose our affections.

To which the obvious response from here is, “Are you kidding me? Do you know what we’re dealing with here?”

To which the apparent response is, “No. And I’m not listening… Nobody’s hearing nothing.”

But why? Why do you turn a deaf ear on us, your family, trying to explain how hard it is to maintain good, liberal values in this neighborhood? Why will you cut us no slack? Why do you join groups that claim they’re “pro-Israel, pro-peace” when they relentlessly criticize us, and team up with groups that hate us? Why do you stay silent when the US and Iraqi troops devastate the city of Ramadi, when you shouted “War crime” from the rooftops when Israel did a fraction of that damage in Gaza? What is going on here?

In a reported exchange, a J-Street organizer explained their self-perception vis-à-vis Israel:

Well, I’m the head of the J Street club on my campus and what you don’t understand is that we see Israel as our younger sister. We want our younger sister to be better — we love her and care about her.

Maybe that’s what you do in your neighborhoods (not!), but around here, you don’t show love and loyalty to your sister by trash talking her so you can hang out with the people who like to slander your sister. On the contrary, that kind of talk will get her killed much faster, because of the peculiar power here of shame and the overwhelming desire to annihilate such feelings, no matter what the actual circumstances.

The Shame of it all: Panic in a Crooked Mirror

A significant amount of this “split” in the American Jewish community between liberals and Israel can be understood not as a response to real problems in Israel – of which, like any country, especially one at war with her neighbors, there are many – but as responses to feeling ashamed of her. The feelings stem not because of what Israel has (often enough not) done, and certainly not in comparison with the behavior of our neighbors, but because of “how it looks” to outsiders. Shame comes from looking bad – awful – in the eyes of people whose opinion matters. When it comes to the emotion, it matters little what actually happened. In the most toxic of honor-shame communities, men kill their daughters and sisters not because they did something shameful, but because others think it, true or not.

Studies in Mimetic Desire: Haram al Sharif, 1954, 2007

In a famous Simpsons episode (Season 13, ep. 11), Lisa explains to Bart what mimetic desire is: wanting something or someone because someone else wants the same thing. Bart is hurting because he dumped a girl who then picked up with someone else, and the scene begins (at 27 sec.) with him bemoaning his mistake in letting her go. Lisa explains:

In order to begin to understand why the “Cult of the Occupation” is deluded, consider the following evidence.

Dome_Of_The_Rock-1954

Haram al Sharif, 1954

Haram al Sharif, 2007

One can well imagine, the weeds are gone.

Of course, as René Girard, the theorist of mimetic desire, pointed out long ago, there’s a direct link between mimetic desire and scapegoating.

 

Triumphalist Religiosity: The Unanticipated Problem of the 21st Century

The Tablet recently published a piece of mine. Below is a longer, linked piece.

Triumphalist Religiosity

The Unanticipated Problem of the 21st Century

Recent events have brought to a crisis-point the problem of trying to talk about the relationship between Jihadism and Islam. The incapacity of the Democratic candidates to even discuss what may have led to the mass murder at San Bernardino, coupled with the controversial Republican responses, illustrate our dysfunctions. We do much better yelling at each other for not saying enough, or too much, rather than actually analyzing the problem.

The following discussion aims to identify a key dimension of the problem that is both empirically-based in current and historical data, and sufficiently discriminating in its criticism that it avoids “insulting all Muslims”. On the contrary, I hope it offers a good understanding of the challenge we all – Muslims and infidels – face. Only when we assess the problem accurately can non-Muslims and peaceable Muslims, successfully deal with the current paroxysms shaking Islam the world over. Only with such an awareness, can we hope to forge a world of tolerance and mutual respect between Muslim believers and those of us who do not share their religious convictions.

Current administration policy is based on a broadly held consensus that:

  • We should not use the term extremist or radical or violent to modify Islam (“religion of peace”): e.g., ISIS is not Islamic.
  • We should not make any connections between the behavior of violent extremists who claim to follow Islam, and the vast majority of Muslims who do not approve of their deeds (“pas d’amalgames”).

Any public figure who moves too far along the lines of an inquiry into the links between radical Islam and the larger Muslim community, runs the risk of being called an Islamophobe, whose hurtful comments will insult moderate, peaceful Muslims, who might then turn to these extremists.

The illogic here normally should arouse suspicion. If such extremist violence has nothing to do with their “religion of Peace,” how could they become so offended by a discussion of violent elements within Islam, that they embrace this extremism? –  To detectives not on rekaB street: dig here. This is a discourse to deconstruct.

Instead, this argument has become widely current, leading some specialists to urge, that we should never use terms like Jihadi or radical Islam to designate such terrorists, because that gives these mass murderers too much legitimacy. The dominance of this logic makes it almost impossible to discuss the problem, and when someone like Donald Trump makes a remark about

a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,

the subject everyone discusses is not, “what’s going on,” but rather, how offensive his remark. Even his own party members need to publicly dissociate from this.

This essay is a contribution to understanding “what’s going on.” I suggest we look at a matter not so much of theology (Islamism), or even exegesis (of the Qur’an’s notably problematic passages), as of “religiosity” – a particular “style” of living one’s religion, the way one’s religious convictions affect the way one treats others, both co-religionists and outsiders. Religiosity goes a long way towards understanding how any given believer reads his or her sacred and legal texts, and to what theological principles they will find themselves drawn.

Why I am a member of Peace When

Two State Solution, yes, just not now;

or,

Why I am a member of Peace When.

Almost everyone in the positive-sum world of “getting to win-win” agrees that the most equitable resolution to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is a two-state solution. Land for peace, reciprocal compromise, give a little, get a lot. This positive-sum thinking lies at the heart of what makes modern democracy possible, and has enabled the Europeans to replace millennia of wars between tribes and nations (in medieval times, an annual activity) with a cooperative and productive Union. To progressives, it’s so obvious that, as one BBC analyst put it: you could work it out with an email.

And yet, the conflict has proven amazingly enduring, and resistant to the best intentioned efforts of Western outsiders for the last twenty years. Indeed, not only did it ruin the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, but it made fools of both of Obama’s Secretaries of State, who confidently predicted that they would resolve this in less than a year(!). Like a Sisyphus with Alzheimers, doomed to repeat the same motions without registering the repetition, Western “conflict resolution” experts repeatedly attempt to implement the same “positive-sum” solutions, with predictably the same results: not just no success, but actual failure. The situation is worse after than before.

What escapes many who, like me, accept the idea of a two state solution, is the unmentioned now that accompanies all current efforts. This notion that this solution can and should be implemented right away, has good reasons behind it. In addition to its concern for a putting an end to the suffering caused by the conflict as soon as possible, the haste acknowledges the demographic problems in the next generation: can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?

Both are good reasons to want to move quickly, but not good reasons to ignore the obstacles in the way. The reality on the ground, the combination of “strong horse” political culture, and tribal, apocalyptic Jihadi religious culture, makes it impossible to close one’s eyes and hope that both sides are ready for it, and it’s just a matter of finding the right formula of compromise to hit the jackpot.