A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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The clash within civilisations

 
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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the clash of civilizations theory, but Samuel P Huntington was wrong.

Thursday 28 March 2013

A decade has passed since the blood-drenched invasion of Iraq began, unleashing a wave of destruction not seen in that part of the world since at least the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century.

Unsurprisingly, the 10th anniversary has prompted immense media attention, in the United States and Europe, as well as in Iraq itself and the broader Middle East. In light of the carnage that has ensued following that fateful decision to invade, a lot of the public debate has focused on whether the war was justified and worthwhile.

The cheerleaders of the war argue that the invasion was just, the subsequent carnage was an unfortunate but collateral consequence of a benign act of goodwill, and that errors were made in the execution of the campaign but the principle was essentially sound.

Critics, like myself, see the wholesale destruction of Iraq and the chaos besetting it – which was chillingly illustrated by the deadly car bombings which rocked Baghdad on the 10th anniversary – as clear proof that the US-led intervention was not only unjustified but flawed.

In order to understand why, we need to rewind another 10 years, back to another important anniversary which has largely fallen under the media’s radar. Through some fluke of history, the theory which largely justified the Iraq war and provided it with its ideological underpinning was formulated exactly a decade earlier.

In an incredibly influential essay published 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P Huntington first outlined his clash of civilisations theory, which he later elaborated on and fleshed out in a book published in 1996.

Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural”. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued.

Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

On the 20th anniversary of this controversial theory and given how influential it has been and remains, it is useful to analyse whether or not Huntington was right. Has a clash of civilisations emerged, as Huntington predicted, over the past two decades?

Supporters of Huntington’s hypothesis answer with an unequivocal “yes”. They point to the inhumane atrocities committed in the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001, the subsequent clash with al-Qaeda, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Islamist parties during the “Arab Spring” as confirmation that a clash is underway.

Critics, like the scholar Noam Chomsky, have maintained that the clash of civilisations is simply the symptom of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The late Edward Said, the renowned author of Orientalism, saw in Huntington’s theory an extension of the pseudo-scientific Orientalist scholarship which had been used for at least a couple of centuries to justify European and Western hegemony. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorances¸ published shortly after 9/11, Said argued that Huntington ignored “the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation” and “the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture”.

Personally, I find that, though the idea, in one form or another, of a clash of civilisations is as old as the hills – examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by most dominant powers throughout the centuries – this does not make it any more valid or true.

Far more often than not, what has been dressed up as a clash of values is really just a clash of interests parading as something less selfish than it actually is. Although culture and ideology can, on rare occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

And in such a context, proximity is traditionally a far greater cause of friction than culture. That is why conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are often greater than those between them. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other, as the carnage of two world wars in Europe shows all too clearly.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports around the region and the world, and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September attacks.

And alliances which cut across supposed civilisational lines have an ancient pedigree. Examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans in World War I against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

Moreover, Huntington’s hypothesis is further undermined by what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Each so-called civilisation is actually a volatile, constantly changing hybrid of ideas and cultural influences.

In fact, if we must group civilisations together, then I would place the West and Islam in the same group because they both share common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, as well as the modern importance of the Enlightenment, not just for Western reform movements but also for secularising and modernising movements in the Middle East. I would go so far as to say that Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

So, if there has not been a clash of civilisations, what has emerged since the end of the Cold War?

At one level, there are the brewing clashes of interests between the great powers, as America tries to hold on to its waning global reach, Russia tries to claw back the influence it lost following the implosion of the Soviet Union and China, after years of quiet growth in the background, begins to flex its muscles on the foreign stage, both to advance its emerging “strategic interests” and for prestige.

On another level, cultures have clashed, but not between civilisations, as Huntington believed they would, but within them. This clash within civilisations is currently playing itself out most visibly in the Middle East.

In addition to the sectarian monster unleashed by the anarchy in Iraq, the revolutionary wave that has swept through the region has brought to the fore, and into sharp relief, the major fault lines and clashes within each society and, to a lesser extent, between them. There are the conflicts between the secular and religious, between majorities and minorities, between women and men, between the young and old, between modernists and traditionalists, between the haves and have-nots, and so on.

Although less pronounced, at least for the time being, these same internal tensions are being witnessed in the West, as reflected in the rising influence of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and the extreme right in Europe, as well as the large-scale social protests, from years of street battles in Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the “99%”.

In Europe, particularly, class conflict is intensifying on the back of the economic crisis triggered by neo-liberal excess, as the poor and middle-classes are forced, through bailouts and austerity, to finance what has effectively become a welfare state for the rich. This is putting in jeopardy not only the much-vaunted European social model but also the EU enterprise itself.

If the European Union is not reinvented along more equitable lines and emerges out of this crisis, instead, much weakened, then it will likely leave a petty-nationalistic sized hole in the European arena which could eventually cause the conflicts currently taking place within individual countries to spill across borders.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a major challenge facing us all is not the clash of civilisations but the clash within civilisations. This internal cultural struggle is largely caused by the growing socio-economic inequalities that have emerged in just about every country in the world.

If these inequities are not addressed effectively, at both the local and global levels, then intolerance will grow and conflicts will continue to consume individual societies, with the danger that they will spill over into other countries, potentially spiraling out of control.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 21 March 2013.

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