November 30, 2021

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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.

I don’t think the reason is the nature of Islam, or of ‘Islamic civilization’ (or religion), but rather a deadly combination of the social, economic, and legal deficits most Muslim polities face AND jihadi religion.

You set this up as an opposition, when those social, economic and legal deficits you identify owe something to the kind of religiosity – triumphalism – that I’m talking about, and that has a strong place both in Islam and in the failures of “Islamic” countries.

I just don’t buy the ‘clash of civilizations’ framing. I know enough deeply frum Muslims whose worldview is closer to mine than mine is to Donald Trump’s or Donald Rumsfeld’s to reject that framing.

I’m interested in your opposition to the “civilizational” framing here. Is there a principle involved? Or do you want to avoid being associated with Huntington’s formulation because it seems antagonistic?

Granted, they are mainly well-off, educated Pakistanis and Indians who left south Asia for Canada, and hardly represent the ‘Muslim street’, never mind the anti-Semitic, honour/shame-driven, ego-wounded Middle Eastern street.

There is, by the way, a great play by Ayad Akhtar, a Pakistani/Indian Muslim who’s a lawyer in New York, called Disgraced

But they do represent a form of extremely cultured Islamic civilization whose members are not in the least fussed by not living in an Islamic polity — in fact, they chose one on purpose. One of my very best students, now in law school (whose physican brother and journalist mother I have also taught) is writing a book about why it is better for observant Muslims to live in secular societies than in theocracies/Muslim states.

That’s true for all religions: voluntary adherence is always more valuable and genuine than coerced, even if you’re on the winning side. But as you admit, this is a self-selecting population. How successfully can they transmit such attitudes to the next generation? In Europe, the success rate is much lower.

BTW, these people are no more or less sympathetic to Palestinian grievances than I am — they just don’t see the Palestinian cause as either central to their worldview or black-and-white. They are worried primarily about Saudi Arabia, and then about Iran; and about jihadis in general. They certainly share our values. As frum people, even more so.

I’ll have to take you word for it. The attitude towards Israel is perhaps the hardest for Muslims to not side with “their own side.” Very hard for them to look closely at the evidence with an attitude of “whoever is right, my side or not.”

I don’t have a better way to frame what you are talking about as ‘civilization’, admittedly. I prefer to think of polities and specific instances. Christian/Sunni Lebanon is very different from Hezbollah Lebanon, for example, and the fact that they share one Lebanese passport is surely kind of irrelevant. Lebanese Sunnis and Christians have a lot more in common with Egyptian Copts than with Lebanese, Iraqi or Iranian Shi’ites. Moroccan Sufis have more in common with British, Sudanese and Pakistani Sufis than with any other Muslims.

I don’t know where you get these generalizations, some of which may be correct. But you’re not factoring in tribal, clan dynamics. Taken from the perspective of zero-sum “honor-shame” dynamics, this is a clash between two different modes of social and political organization, and when mixed liberally with religious teachings, it becomes pretty civilizational.

I think a large portion of the world’s Muslims live in and are part of ‘western civilization’ very broadly defined (granting the term for the sake of argument) in any case — e.g., urban Turks, educated European and North American Muslims, among others.

I find that statement strange. Out of the 1+ billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority of them live in Muslim majority societies.

And even within the Western sphere of influence, things are not going the way people who think like you (and I once did) expected. Muslim populations in the West are undergoing some particularly difficult times, and their varying responses show how tenuous a “part of ‘western civilization’” some of them and their children really are.

To call Middle Eastern honour/shame cultures a ‘civilization’, or ‘Muslim civilization’ gives them too much credit.

I won’t quibble with you on these matters. At some level you’re either handing out brownie points (Western civilization, yes; Arab civilization, no), or you’re ignoring the role of honor-shame in great “civilizations” (or at least empires), like the Roman.

Arguably, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire articulated Sunni civilizations, or traditional Persia a Shi’ite civilization… but whatever Islamic civilizations once have might existed, I don’t think there is any single such thing today. The Muslim world is just too fragmented and divided amongst and against itself.

Let’s call it a civilizational style. When militarily successful, triumphalist Islam produces empires, sometimes of great wealth and learning. When militarily weak, and in proximity to successful neighbors, it produces widespread dysfunctional behavior, especially political. That Islam is capable of peaceful and productive manifestations, I believe. That it will make good on that potential is the issue. Right now it’s not a pretty picture.

So I’m not so sure we need to “defend our values” against an opposing ‘civilization’: A) they are fairly solid, and B) they are neither perfect nor sacrosanct, as they are not always without stain (Trump, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al.). We need to examine and refine our values as much as anything–

A) I don’t think they’re solid at all. I think the West’s values of tolerance and freedom have collapsed like a cultural Maginot Line in the face of triumphalist aggression. Just look at what happened to the French schools in the early aughts, and what’s happening to American colleges today.

B) “Without stain”? No one is without stain. We need to “examine and refine our values,” for sure. But when you say “as much as anything,” you set up a slippery slope to the collapse of those values. Triumphalism needs much greater attention and challenge than a further refinement of our already highly advanced levels of self-examination and our embrace of vulnerability.

The danger is that, given the adamantine resistance of the triumphalists, and the easy recourse to self-criticism among ourselves, we fall into the trap of masochistic omnipotence syndrome: “it’s all our fault and if we could only do better…” So much easier for us to answer the post-9/11 question: “Why do they hate us so?” with self-accusations (à la Chomsky); so much easier for triumphalist Muslims to answer that question by blaming us, whether in terms of how we deserved it, or, still better, we did it.

Result: the marriage of pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism that characterizes so much post-colonial discourse. And where clash of civilizations are concerned, we get an internalization of the clash – Left vs. Right – in which we see more difference between two competing interpretations of classic liberal values as more significant than that which differentiates Western liberal commitments to freedom of speech and tolerance than what differentiates us from a radically different political culture. That was the purpose of my final reflections.

But we do need to defend our bodies, our institutions, and our homes from jihadis. Much more careful screening of immigrants would be a good start, though the cat is clearly out of the bag in western Europe since Syria imploded. I’m not at all sure what can be done there. Germany was unable even to register, never mind investigate, hundreds of thousands of refugees who poured across their borders in the last year. Some of those people will no doubt turn out to be violent jihadis.

I have offered triumphalist religiosity as the issue about which to start fighting back (and which you never once mentioned in your comments). Jihadis are merely the most extreme (most apocalyptic) of the forms it takes. The actual jihadis among the immigrants are only one aspect of the problem. It’s the much larger contingent of triumphalist Muslims who think that Taharush is a fun game that asserts their superiority. Triumphalism is inimical to democracy (which I presume you’ll grant is a civilization). What’s wrong with calling that a clash of civilizations?

I used to think I’d like to retire in France. No longer! I don’t really want to visit any more, though of course I will — eventually (unless the FN form government).

And who among us, at the turn of the millennium in 2000, would have imagined you might say such a thing 15 years later?

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