this i wrote to andrew sullivan today.
Mr Sullivan --
Pardon my incomplete first email -- one too many hot keys, apparently.
Regarding your posting Kurtz on D'Souza of February 14:
I would regard D'Souza's argument -- characterized by Kurtz as "arguing that the “deluge of gross depravity and immorality” let loose by the cultural left has not only split our country politically, but has provoked a backlash among the world’s traditional societies — Muslim societies above all" whereupon "If U.S. conservatives could only let pious Muslims see the moral and religious America that disdains the values of the cultural Left, D’Souza promises, Muslim traditionalists would reciprocate by rejecting the violent, anti-American radicals in their midst" -- as seriously flawed as well. But I also think Kurtz's comments little better.
Decadence is not a "liberal" phenomena -- it is a social one, one which affects and indeed creates the parties and views interacting with the society so afflicted.
D'Souza does not understand that the American "conservatives" to which he refers to are not of a kind with the Islamic moderates he would hope to court. Indeed, the jingoistic American "conservatism" embodied in and perpetuated by the Bush Administration and Fox News has more in common with salafism than with moderate Muslims (as I intend to argue at some length below). They are products of Western decadence themselves -- in the main, a body politic which is as excessive and baseless as the more plainly decadent progressive movement. That they hide that fact in a reactionary cloak should not deceive.
This ability of decadence to pervert is most easily seen in salafism, the correct evaluation of which is being forwarded by Olivier Roy. This strain of Sunni fundamentalism is a product of the interface of Sunnis with a decadent Western culture -- and as such it is not a strictly Islamic phenomena so much as it is a Western one, which in fact began its intellecutal history in areas of close Muslim-Western interaction and has fed back to traditionally Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia, which have themselves become areas of interface thanks to relentless Western incursions into their social and political affairs. It is notable that salafism is a 20th c phenomena, and that its most prominent figures (such as Abdullah Azzam) were surrounded by and in conflict with Western culture from very early on in their lives.
Mahmood Mamdani wrote of Roy's view in Foreign Affairs:
For Roy, neofundamentalist Islam is "born-again Islam" and strictly a product of the diaspora. Islamic religious debate is no longer monopolized by the learned ulema (teachers); as they have turned to the Internet, the neofundamentalists have also become tulaab (students). As a result, "religion has been secularized, not in the sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the extent that it is debated outside any specific institutions or corporations." With the traditional ethnic community left behind, "the disappearance of traditional values ... [has laid] the groundwork for re-Islamisation," which has largely become an individual project. "Islamic revivalism goes hand in hand" with a modern trend: the "culture of the self."
The growing individualization of religious practices has prompted believers to create a new community that transcends strict geography. The consequences of these changes have been contradictory. Those who have succeeded in reconciling the self with religion have tended to embrace a "liberal" or "ethical" version of Islam; those who have not have been prone to embrace "neofundamentalist Salafism." Meanwhile, the quest "to build a universal religious identity, de-linked from any specific culture," has come at a price, because such an Islam is "by definition an Islam oblivious to its own history." As a result, "the quest for a pure Islam [has] entail[ed] also an impoverishment of its content," Roy writes, and the ironic consequence of this quest is "secularization, but in the name of fundamentalism."
That is to say, salafism is a manner of Islamic Calvinism -- for what Roy here describes is the identical battle for the conciliation of religion with individualism that became the focus of the Reformation in the essentially archaistic, world-rejecting and frequently violent vein of utter human futility that Calvin spawned. It should not surprise us, then, that many leaders of these movements are Western-educated and even Western-born, and often children of considerable privilege. It is by implanting the Trojan horse of rampant Western individualism in some Muslim minds predisposed to reject it superficially but to adopt it fundamentally that salafism has arisen. Salafis are moving against both the moderate institutional religious body of Islam and the institutional political body of the society that bore them, be that the West or the indigenous governments that they see as having been coopted by the West, all of which they view as despoiled. That is to say, they reject the established order and reserve for themselves an archaistic "pure" version of their religion -- but they also appropriate for themselves the ability to interpret that archaistic vision in any way they see fit. This is the obvious infection of individualism.
This is clearly very similar to the Puritan dynamic, which reacted violently against and fled the decadence of both the religious and political body of a Catholic Europe. American fundamentalist Protestantism bears many of the same marks identified by Roy on the face of fundamentalist Islam -- the quest to build a pure religious identity denuded Calvinism of its Christian history in Catholicism and cast it adrift from any institution, and debased of that grounding history it became the wellspring of all manner of violence and irrationality in the name of Christ -- foregoing the light of a law and reason based in experience (seen now as "oppressive") to embrace the intensely personal release and emotionalism of religious fervor as a salve for the insecurity of unsteady footing.
It seems very clear to me that the hope that moderate Muslims -- deeply faithful in the tradition and lawful order of the ulema whose doctrinal consistency has defined their existence through generations -- are going now to, faced with a Calvinistic movement from within the faith, embrace the ahistorical hyperindividualistic Calvinists of the West who sparked it as their allies is almost totally misplaced.
Unfortunately, Kurtz's utterly simplistic criticisms only exceed in magnitude the errors of D'Souza. To confuse salafism with Islam is to confuse Calvinism with Catholicism, and yet Kurtz does so regularly. Taking for example the point:
Actually, Islam has a long history of producing violent and radical sects (like the Kharijites and the Assassins) in times of crisis.
One must suspend one's disbelief at Kurtz's ignorance to address the "idea". The Hashshashins were a political sect, not a religious one -- he is here akin to confusing Catholicism with the Ku Klux Klan. Further, in supposing the rigorous technological and economic backwardness of the Islamic world, I am forced to wonder if he has ever been anywhere in the Mideast -- or if he can imagine the scope of the changes the Islamic world has adopted in just the last century. No one who has been to Istanbul, to Dubai, to Kuala Lumpur could believe something so devoid of both historical and contemporary context, could they?
I suspect instead Kurtz is hunting up a disposition to barbarism in Islam because he needs it to justify his cultural superiority and therefore the presumptive rightness of his emotional cause -- and with willful ignorance finds it. The evidence lays here:
Here D’Souza is glossing over the unique synthesis of “traditional” family life with egalitarian and individualist values that early Christianity began, and that Tocqueville’s America brought fully into harmony with democracy. Our war on terror has everything to do with the fact that Muslim society has failed to forge such a synthesis.
Indeed -- but Kurtz in his blurry Western ethnocentricity cannot see first that the failure of reconciliation is limited to salafists -- and second, that many in the West, particularly the United States, have in fact failed in that synthesis as profoundly as salafists -- and that they have been slowly pulling Western civilization to pieces for some centuries much as the salafists have just begun to.
It is a very grave conceit and deep historical error to confuse another civilization's manners for barbarism -- one which I like to think the best among us left in the 19th century.
I'm forced to suggest that, as wrong as I find D'Souza's concept and conclusions, he deserves a far better critic than Kurtz.
Labels: culture, terrorism