Tag Archives: islam

Arabs: surprisingly non-identical

The New York Times has really suffered from some decline in recent years – look no further than Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone’s recent reporting on the developing crisis in Egypt. It’s rich in generalizations from the region to Egypt and from Egypt to the region. The real core of their point seems to have been:

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. […] What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.

The strangeness to the article’s argument is underneath it’s waffling examination of the futility or effectiveness of the Arab Spring and its subsequent results. The odd framing of it rests in this way of considering the whole Arab world, which reduces it down into a singular political experience, an “Arab politics” of sorts. While dynamic in that it admits that political upheaval has happened, it creates a sense of profound continuity in that it presents the dysfunction found in several Arab states as a comparatively stagnant trait. Arab people are consequently in this view tied together and tied to the past century’s politics.

But are those assumptions warranted? As yesterday’s coverage by Egypt-based media outlets showed, Christian minorities in Egypt have played a very dynamic role in first tentatively supporting the revolution and now tentatively supporting the counter-revolution (in response to seemingly unorganized so far anti-Christian violence). This stands in contrast with the situation in Syria and Tunisia, actually, where Christians have respectively long had a much closer relationship with the state power structures for many decades and are a significantly smaller part of the population.

(Tunisia is the darkest green value with nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim population. Egypt is a notably lighter green with approximately 10 percent of its population being Christian. Syria has even larger non-Muslim minorities and is also, unlike Egypt’s and Syria’s, very divided between Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.)

In fact, Tunisia’s internal issues can be fairly easily summarized as being two overlapping conflicts – one over how to fix the ailing economy and another over what degree of islamist political influence is ideal. While economic issues are common to the region (and rooted largely in common difficulties with unemployment, rising utilities costs, and housing), the particulars of the religious population of those three Arab-majority nations is reflected in what social fault lines exist (both among Muslims and between them and other religious groups).

Properly understanding those unique aspects to various predominantly Arab countries is central to evaluating their different conflicts as well as built on a way of talking about the Arab world (which by most estimates is significantly larger than the United States in population) that doesn’t reduce it to a singular set of conditions. That’s what the New York Times did yesterday, however, and its readers understanding of what’s happening in all of those countries potentially suffered for it.

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How we still talk about Islam without talking about Islam

TW: islamophobia, sexism, heterosexism

In case you missed it, part of the response to the on-going anti-abortion legislative shenanigans in Texas was one protester searching to find a visual vocabulary for how the new policies in Texas impacted her, and dressing herself like this:

(A protester dressed in a burqa while holding the accessories of a beauty contest winner, from here.)

In a word, she donned a mock burqa. Another protester held up a sign conflating these new measures with Islamic sharia law, apparently unaware that sharia law permits abortion in many cases and is typically interpreted as merely disapproving of (not banning) abortion in other cases. That sharia and burqas were the first words that protesters grasped in trying to describe the violence that Texas’ SB5 and subsequent bills enacted on the people of Texas shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – that’s become a common part of political language in the United States.

Less than two weeks previously, former NOM spokesperson Maggie Gallagher discussed the fact that Justice Kennedy found arguments against striking down the Defense of Marriage Act unconvincing as a “fatwa” against supporters of it. A fatwa is a declared opinion from an Islamic scholar, which in systems of sharia law may be legally binding. For Kennedy’s legally relevant decision to support the liberal justices’ opinion to be considered a “fatwa”, you must technically consider him to be as much as moral and religious figure as a political one, and at that an Islamic one.

More or less, this is an established part of how people in the United States conduct their political trash talk – by inflating or explaining the gravity of an act or decision by their opposition in specifically Islamic terms. Often, these are even radically misapplied concepts, but they’re still a part of the vernacular. This is particularly common in discussing actions that are, or a person wants to be considered to be, violent. It’s become positively colloquial to refer to centers of fanatic reverence for any particular idea or person as “Meccas”, showing how these more political uses are built on and reinforce popular ideas of what Islam is like.

Again, it’s always an image of Muslims that frames them as unjust, unreasonable, and even openly hostile. This sort of language, common in discussions that have nothing to actually do with Islam, is rooted in islamophobic ideals. In short, an immovable part of how many people in the US think about themselves and their society is based in opposition to their understanding of who Muslims are and what they believe. It’s become an essential part of our cultural conception of ourselves, as an antithesis to Islam.

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David Brooks isn’t good at his job

TW: islamophobia, abilism, violence against protesters

Sadly, that’s the inevitable conclusion of his column yesterday, which concerns the coup in Egypt. Now, while I’ve contributed myself to the various analyses on how the now deposed President Morsi effectively alienated just about every major political bloc in Egypt, I’ve been careful to state that this was a coup and that it does present a worrisome precedent (that the Egyptian military can veto democratic elections when leaders become unpopular). President Obama seems to have attempted to skirt the issue even more than me, with his policy declarations (that if elections aren’t quickly held, there will be ramifications) treating this as something like a potential coup, dependent on whether the military inhibits or facilitates further democratic representation.

Of course, that’s a rather binary way of thinking – that this is either a democratic reboot that’s liberating Egyptians from an increasingly unrepresentative and abusive government or a coup that risks undermining the revolutionary changes still underway in Egypt. Why can’t this be both? David Brooks, often considered to be the thoughtful conservative contrarian in the United States, doesn’t challenge that presumption that the events in Egypt are either one or the other. He actually opens the piece by saying:

Those who emphasize [the democratic political] process have said that the government of President Mohamed Morsi was freely elected and that its democratic support has been confirmed over and over. The most important thing, they say, is to protect the fragile democratic institutions and to oppose those who would destroy them through armed coup. […] Those who emphasize substance, on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy.

His position as a writer for the New York Times, I would hope, involves either informing people of what they don’t know or challenging them on what they already hold to be true. But from its outset, this column does neither. It works with well-reported information on Egypt, so it doesn’t provide much in the way of news, and it works with that established dichotomy of what could be considered to be happening in Egypt, so it avoids much in terms of useful analysis. The only purpose of this piece seems to be to confirm conventional thought: beginning with a very simplistic understanding of the coup.

The piece continues, however, and lends Brooks’ support to all sorts of common views of Muslims. He argues that it should be anyone and everyone’s goal to “weaken political Islam, by nearly any means” without assessing why political Islam is so powerful. The politically and demographically diverse countries he lists as having proven the failures of “political Islam” include Iran – which is something of an iconic example of how corrupt, undemocratic, but secular governments in predominantly Muslim areas have made Islamist politics seem attractive.

Opposition to “political Islam” by people like Brooks has taken “nearly any means” including in this case apparent military conflict. An alternative that works with well established populist notions of justice (as assorted Islamist movements have) and often seems to the average person more committed to peaceful conduct and representative government is going to attract more supporters.

Brooks has just embodied why Western efforts to “democratize” predominantly Muslim countries has failed – because it refuses to consider what democracy, justice, or liberation necessarily include from the perspective of average people in those nations, and often uses drone strikes, occupations, and other acts of violence. With distressing frequency, it’s people like Brooks who win out in terms of what governance in the Middle East or Mali or any other part of the Islamic world should look, and not the people who live under those governments.

Not content to leave it there, Brooks searches for the cause of this mismatch between his beliefs and theirs, ultimately reducing Muslims the world over to fanatics who have no concept of objective facts outside of their own opinions. He seeks out legitimacy for this position by quoting one Muslim at a pro-Morsi rally (one Muslim to speak for a nation of ) and in more depth the analysis of Adam Garfinkle, of the The American Interest. That’s, of course, a paper that our good friend Niall Ferguson often comments at, so you should anticipate a high level of critical thought there.

In any case, those radical views are according to Brooks the only viable political voices within civilian government in Egypt and potentially the whole Muslim world. Never mind whether Egyptians elected Morsi or someone similarly distasteful to Brooks, he can declare them “outside the democratic orbit” and therefore proclaim that a coup against them is justified and also not a coup (since its illegal for the US to provide foreign aid to governments which came to power through coups). Brooks has apparently declared that all civilian politics from an ill-defined region or social group are predisposed to making “democratic deliberations impossible” since they’re inevitably Islamists who “lack the mental equipment to govern”. Yes, Brooks just said that some unclear portion of the world’s population (Islamists? Middle Easterners? Muslims?) are too stupid for democratic government.

Of course, the government Brooks is glad is gone because it “cracked down on civil society” and “arrested opposition activists” was a civilian administration and therefore falls under his criticisms, but the military interim government which has already killed peaceful protesters is only “bloated and dysfunctional” with nary a mention of those and other violent acts, since they committed them while being secular. After all, Brooks and his audience know that Islamism is “the main threat to global peace” and therefore this isn’t even about the democratic processes Egyptians should feel entitled to participation within or even their basic rights to protest – it’s actually all about Brooks having the freedom and right to live in a world without politics influenced by Islamic beliefs.

(Islamist protesters in Egypt carrying another protester who had been shot by the military in Cairo earlier today, from here.)

When it takes quite a few more words to evaluate how a columnist failed to inform their readers about the world, take another look at how to piece together information, or even quite obviously made their coverage all about them, we have a problem. David Brooks is officially no longer providing a public good, and consequently should come under review by the New York Times for whether his abilist and islamophobic coverage is something they should really pay for.

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How many dead

TW: islamophobia, mass killings, genocide

So, of course, in the wake of the Boston Bombings, this happened:

(Erik Rush responded to being asked if he was blaming Muslims for the Boston attacks by saying “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.”)

I think after the decades of the US being at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and arguably secretly too in Yemen and Pakistan, people in this country have gotten accustomed to extreme displays of violence towards (presumed) Muslims. I don’t think the actual magnitude of this statement, which frequent Fox News guest Erik Rush walked back as “sarcasm”, has sunk in for many people.

There are about 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. That’s nearly a quarter of the entire world’s population. Killing every single one of them, as Rush cavalierly suggested (oh sorry, “joked”) would be equivalent to more than 200 times the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. That’s more than 145 times the total deaths in the Holocaust. That’s more than 66 times the military deaths in World War II. That’s almost 39 times the military deaths in both World Wars. That’s still about double the largest estimates for deaths under Mao Zedong’s governance in China (which were primarily from starvation, but also included several million political killings). To call the number of people Rush joked about killing staggering seems like an understatement.

The sort of mass killing Rush referenced seems to fit more effectively into eradications that history textbooks describe as occurring across continents and over centuries: the colonization of the Americas, the “settlement” of Australia, the exploitation of Africa. Even compared to those, Rush’s “sarcastic” remark falls short: indigenous peoples saw their lives destroyed on an unimaginable scale in each of those historical processes, but there were survivors. In a very real way, what Rush “joked” about was a level of murder unprecedented even in those cases, that would have lead to the depopulated path leading from the western coast of Africa into central Asia.

(Percentage of the population in a given country that’s Muslim. The darkest color, which is most prevalent in North Africa and the Middle East, represents that at least 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Click to enlarge.)

In spite of how much this remark, if translated into action, would be a new chapter in an already bloody history, it’s actually shocking how well it fits certain legal language: that of genocide. To the surprise of some, the legal definition of genocide is actually quite narrow, since it was written by the US (which had just used nuclear weapons against enemy civilian populations), the UK (which still had it’s empire, including the brutal local governments in south Asia and south Africa), France (which had brutally repressed its colonial subjects in Algeria and would do so again after the war), the USSR (who at that time was governed by Stalin), and China (what was in the midst of a massive civil war that would lead to Mao’s death-happy rule). The hands that conceived a legally actionable idea of what were and weren’t crimes against humanity were careful to make sure their past and future actions weren’t themselves quite within the boundaries of the definition.

In light of that it’s something of a shock how easily Rush’s comments fit into this deliberately narrow definition: the intent or act of killing in whole or in part an ethnic, religious, or racial group. Muslims are pretty clearly a religious group, which he quite clearly advocated killing of in whole. With so little wiggle room, the only defense he has that he didn’t advocate genocide is to claim “sarcasm” – and lo and behold he has.

While I don’t intend to suggest we should limit speech half as much as we do now, it seems like the US public and Fox News in particular could make clear that we aren’t on the same page as Erik Rush. So, I hope you’ll consider signing this petition which requests that Fox News cease hearing from him permanently.

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Who benefits from a Jewish Israel?

TW: antisemitism, the Holocaust

Why is the Israeli President meeting with various French imams to address the killing of several French Jews in 2012 by a Muslim? Why isn’t a French official who is Jewish or simply a French and goyim official who is concerned and wants to coordinate with various French Muslims and others leading the charge?

Israeli official with Israeli flag discussing antisemitism in France with French imams
(The meeting, from here.)

There’s a conversation to be had here, that tends to oscillate back and forth between whether Israel is over shadowing the various Jewish communities around the world or whether it’s benevolently offering them sanctuary and providing them a voice in international forums. I neither want to intrude on that discussion, nor am I equipped for it.

There’s another point to be made though: where are the French who are not proclaimed to be “cultural others” in that meeting? Does the framing of Israel being the Jewish state absolve them of responsibility? The crimes occurred in their jurisdiction – shouldn’t French officials be included as part of discussing how the enforcement of protections for Jews and all other people in France broke down? Is that not the same France that banned yarmulkes along with the hijab from public schools (under the guise of liberating the Jews from being publicly recognizable)?

This seems to tap into a deeper issue involved in the creation and maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state – does it absolve states of antisemitism that occurs within their borders provided they can distance themselves from the perpetrators? Much as the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust understandably wanted to relocate away from the horrors of the camps and killings, didn’t that action in some sense complete the ethnic cleansing of much of Europe? Does having a Jewish state create a body to deal with antisemitic events so that other states don’t need to even address the fact that Jews are being killed in their own countries?

This may be an unintended effect of the modern Israeli state, but it still seems to be one.

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