Tim Stanley is the man who argued — with a straight face — that boredom, not Islam, motivated young Muslims from the West who went to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. In this new piece, he digs deeper. Comments interspersed below:
“Bill Maher is wrong: we can’t blame Isil on Islam,” by Tim Stanley, the Telegraph, September 12, 2014 (thanks to Joeb):
Is Isil Islamic or not? It’s an interesting, obviously sensitive question that I’m not super qualified to answer – and it’s important to display a little intellectual humility when examining something so complex. Bill Maher did not do that when he got into a row with Charlie Rose about the matter – in a clip that is now almost as popular on social media as a kitten falling off a TV set. He made three points that seem to form the crux of the “Islam is the problem” argument:
1. The Koran contains passages that urge intolerance towards non-believers and thus is reasonably used by Isil as justification for its militarism.
2. Islam as a cultural, global phenomenon is intolerant to a degree that, again, makes Isil look extreme but still part of the same family.
3. Ergo, Islam poses a unique threat among religions towards liberal democracy.
I can’t answer these questions from a theological perspective because I don’t read Arabic and my knowledge of the Koran is slight (although if we’re condemning something based upon selective passages then I could write an entire blogpost illustrating why Christianity or Judaism are equally anti-social).
“…My knowledge of the Koran is slight” — ah, well, there’s your problem right there. Tim Stanley is attempting analysis of something about which he knows little, and admits that his ignorance encompasses the core document to which the Islamic State points as its primary justification and motivation.
Nonetheless, he immediately ventures: “if we’re condemning something based upon selective passages then I could write an entire blogpost illustrating why Christianity or Judaism are equally anti-social.” I’d like to see him try. The idea that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are equivalent to the Qur’an in their capacity to incite violence is extremely common, but that doesn’t make it true. There is nary a single passage in the Jewish or Christian Scriptures that is remotely equivalent to the open-ended, universal command to believers to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers found in Qur’an 9:29.
There are violent passages in the Jewish Scriptures, but these are descriptive, as opposed to the Qur’an’s passages enjoining violence, such as 2:191, 4:89, 9:5, and 47:4 — no one is called to imitate them. The Qur’an also contains numerous exhortations to imitate Muhammad, who himself, according to the earliest available Islamic sources, led wars against unbelievers, participated in beheadings, etc. There are also passages enjoining draconian punishments, but both Jewish and Christian exegetes have understood these in ways that reject literalism — which is why you don’t see adulterers stoned today except by Muslims, even though the punishment appears in the Bible as well as in Islamic law.
In short, Stanley’s airy confidence that he “could write an entire blogpost illustrating why Christianity or Judaism are equally anti-social” as Islam is based on ignorance of the texts involved, as well as by how those texts have been interpreted by the mainstream interpretative traditions of all three religions.
But, thinking about this as a historian, Maher’s analysis does share something in common with the fundamentalists he despises: he thinks that religion is static and not susceptible to political interpretation. As such, he buys into Isil’s own claim to be a legitimate expression of Islam. That’s naïve.
No. Maher doesn’t necessarily think that at all. To think that Islam is uniquely capable of inciting its adherents to violence is not at all to say that “religion is static and not susceptible to political interpretation.” But those interpretations are indeed guided by the scripture of the religion in question, even among those who reject literalism and fundamentalism. It is not possible rationally to hold, as Reza Aslan does, that religions can be made into whatever those who believe in them want to make them, which is an essentially nihilistic claim that words mean nothing, and that ideas have no effect. Believers can make their religions into many things, but as a train is guided by the tracks, so what they can make them into is generally guided by the religion’s core principles.
Islam is not a monoculture. Sunni and Shia look very different, both have generated schools of thought that take starkly contrasting approaches towards issues of gender, the relationship between church and state, and the role of Jihad.
Really? Then why do Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, both Sharia states, look so similar in their oppression of women? Why do the Shi’ite Khomeini’s statements about jihad and Islam sound so much like the Sunni bin Laden’s? And as for “the relationship between church and state,” both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran viciously oppress and persecute the church — but of course Stanley is actually speaking in a clumsy manner about the role of religion in politics, about which Sunnis and Shi’ites do indeed divergent views, although in both traditions the ideal state is one in which Islamic law is implemented.
Both have evolved within cultural contexts that have helped to shape their outlook; their impact upon those societies has waxed and waned. Take a trip to urban centres in the Islamic world in the 1970s and you’d be struck by the degree of freedom enjoyed by women, secularisation and the relatively limited role played by Islam. I’ve just finished reading Rodric Braithwaite’s account of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghantsy, and he notes how the explosion of rural fundamentalism took urban dwellers by surprise – after all, women in the 1960s enjoyed access to primary school education, university attendance and the declining use of the hijab. Likewise, Michael Axworthy’s Revolutionary Iran points out that even after the Islamic revolution had taken place the country’s new leadership would not dare to take away women’s right to vote. Politicised Shia, argues Axworthy, did not run away from modernity but instead tried to find some synergy with the needs of Islam. Educational opportunities for women actually expanded.
The point is that political Islam is a recent invention – a reaction to the failure of post-war Arab nationalism and socialism – and not the definitive form of historical Islam.
It is true that Muslim societies just a few decades ago were much more secular and Western in outlook than they are now. But this doesn’t prove that “political Islam is a recent invention” — quite the contrary. Secularism and the Western outlook were the recent inventions in the Islamic world. Then they were overwhelmed by a reassertion of traditional Islam and Sharia, including political Islam. And those who were doing the reasserting appealed to Muslims precisely on the basis of loyalty to Islam and the need to heal their societies, as they saw it, by restoring the proper obedience to Allah.
Indeed, it breaks down the wall of separation traditionally found in Muslim societies between church and state
This is pure fiction. Has Stanley never heard of the caliphates?
and reflects the rural conservatism and near-feudalism of a vanguard that felt dispossessed by globalisation, American intervention and liberalism. It is a particular historical experience of Islam in the same way that the Spanish Inquisition was for Catholicism or the Defenestrations of Prague were for Protestantism.
Isil’s extremism is not the norm across the Islamic world. Maher cited a Egyptian Pew poll in his interview that, he impled, showed global Muslims are militant and radical. I’m not familiar with that poll, but a 2013 Pew poll of the entire Islamic world found massive variation in attitudes. Plenty of support for democracy in South Asia but little in Pakistan; 89 per cent said women should not be compelled to wear the hijab in Tunisia compared to just 30 per cent in Afghanistan. All Muslim societies contain majorities who say that people should not be compelled to follow Islam and that suicide bombing is wrong. Only in two areas is there something closer to conservative unanimity. First, Muslims want access to Sharia courts – which is entirely reasonable given that a) it’s their cultural norm and b) in some countries those courts might be regarded as less corrupt and less prone to political manipulation than the state’s alternative.
Does Stanley realize what Sharia courts are all about? Does he have any idea about the contents of Sharia mandating the second-class status of women and non-Muslims?
Second, Muslims retain conservative opinions on women and homosexuality. That’s sad, but it’s not just a Muslim thing. Russia and Africa are also deeply homophobic.
Africa is a complex case with the anti-gay persecution in Uganda, but Russia doesn’t hang gays from cranes in accord with religious law, as does Iran.
That unpalatable views can be found in all societies is reflected in poll numbers that finds 16 per cent of the French feeling sympathy towards Isil (that’s 27 per cent among those aged 18-24). Only 5 to 10 per cent of France is Muslim, which suggests that sympathy for the devil is found among many non-Muslims, too.
Indeed — after all the Western cultural self-hatred that has been dominant for the last forty or fifty years, this is no surprise.
Does all of this mean that we can safely say, as the President did, that Isil has “nothing to do with Islam”? That, too, would be naïve. Historically, Christianity has the capacity to and has produced movements just as horrific as Isil
Really? Name one. The Crusaders committed atrocities, but never on as thoroughgoing and systematic a basis. And even during the time of the Crusades, many Muslims found the Crusader lands preferable to the neighboring Muslim lands.
The Spanish Muslim Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217), who traversed the Mediterranean on his way to Mecca in the early 1180s, found that Muslims had it better in the lands controlled by the Crusaders than they did in Islamic lands. Those lands were more orderly and better managed than those under Muslim rule, so that even Muslims preferred to live in the Crusader realms: “Upon leaving Tibnin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj [Franks, or Crusaders] —may God preserve them from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims, Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lot to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.”
Who were this Christian equivalent of the Islamic State, if not the Crusaders? The Inquisitors? The Spanish conquistadors? Only the latter even come close, but most of the deaths they caused were through accidental spread of diseases to which the Native Americans were not immune.
– but what matters is that this contemporary threat has emerged from an Islamic society and, therefore, is something that we obviously have to address as an Islamic problem. But British intelligence also indicates that many Jihadis have a surprisingly slightly understanding of their chosen fundamentalism, and it may well be that violence and chauvinism are the real motivators for something to which Islam merely provides the language of expression.
British intelligence, after all its disastrous failures to distinguish “moderates” from “extremists,” and its craven appeasement of Islamic supremacists, is hardly an impressive authority to invoke.
Put it this way, is North Korea Marxist? Technically, yes. It emerged from the communist expansion of the 1940s, it adhered to Stalinism long after everyone else abandoned it, and it still favours command economics over the market. But it is also a racist monarchy that has asserted the primacy of nationalism over the class struggle. And if we accept its own claim to be socialist, are we not a) legitimising it and b) in some way implying that all of socialism has a little blood on its hands?
Uh, yeah. And it does.
The latter proposition is patently absurd. Pyongyang no more speaks for the Labour Party than Isil reflects the opinions of your local mosque.
To say that North Korea is socialist is not in the least to say that it speaks for the Labour Party. This kind of muddled thinking, so widespread today, is one reason why Britain and the West in general are in the fix they’re in.