GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 17, 2006

Engaging the Other

Filed under: GA — adam @ 11:05 am

…by playing in accord with his own rules.  More precisely:  we demand an apology from every Muslim cleric, every Muslim head of state, every Muslim legislator, editorialist, you name it, who has incited violence against the Pope, being as we see this as a direct attack on our civilization.  And if the apology is refused…well, they know better than anyone the consequences.  We can just choose at random one of the psychopathic placards from an equally randomly selected “protest” to determine the proper punishment.

 The emerging question among those serious about our enemy (i.e., not liberals and leftists) is whether the view that we are fighting “extremists” who have “distorted” an otherwise “peaceful” or at least “reformable” religion remains sustainable, even as a polite fiction–or, are we simply at war with Islam?  My view has been, and remains, that we should defer this question for as long as possible, and meanwhile craft policies which will be effective regardless of what the answer turns out to be; and policies that, furthermore, will supply us with data that will ultimately enable us to answer, when we have no choice.  For this very reason we need to take actions that let us see whether your average Imam who screams “Death to America” every Friday does so because he knows there is no price to be paid and a cheaply won popularity to be gained, or whether he indeed wishes to “engage” us.  We must begin to force the question, in other words, even as we continue to defer any definitive answer.

 Scenic Politics


  1. One of the better deferrers (in a good sense) of the question is the INDC blogger (who also thought the Danish cartoons were a very bad idea):

    He’s responding to a strictly sacred/scriptural analysis (worth reading, if only for reference), and I think INDC comes off far better in the exchange.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 19, 2006 @ 4:58 am

  2. This is a valuable link, Matt (and the internal links are well worth following as well) but the lesson I take from it is that the only degree of certainty available to us regarding the intentions of the majority of Muslims worldwide flows from our insistence that they fight alongside us as allies (which, of course, implies our providing steadfast support to such allies as well)–this reasoning would by itself be enough justification for our intervention in Iraq, where we have discovered that, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police are willing to be trained by and fight with Americans against other Muslims; and that many millions more are happy to live within the new civil order we have helped them create. All the other evidence will be inevitably vague–various Sheiks and Imams issue condemnations against terrorism, fine, but are we able to see all the implicit loopholes? Do they issue them time and time again, or just once, for the media? How often do they name names? Etc. One blogger linked to says there are TV commercials in the Islamic world denouncing terrorism in the harshest possible terms (presumably their equivalent of a PSA)–that’s very good to know, but in competition with what other commercials, framed by which victimary and conspiracist narratives broadcast daily and nightly? The only thing we can know for sure is who is willing to publicly and consistently defend something diametrically opposed to totalitarian Islam–but this further implies that we can’t simply let the life of the average Muslim remain undisturbed, protecting them from “offensive” images and hard choices. Quite to the contrary, in fact: we must set the tempo which will place these hard choices before Muslims, with our only obligation being that we provide the resources to make a real choice possible. Then we will find out whether the majority of Muslims are essentially hostages of the totalitarians, or the sea in which they swim. My guess is, and always has been, much more the former than the latter–but I have no reason to expect anyone to credit my guesses more than I would credit theirs.

    Comment by adam — September 19, 2006 @ 8:02 am

  3. My guesses aren’t any better than yours.

    Amy Welborn (a Catholic blogger who’s been a great aggregator of links and commentary on this) links hopeful responses from Muslims here:

    Since most here probably deplore the orchestrated, made-for-tv rage, perhaps we should try not be too susceptible to it ourselves.

    As a Christian (or miserable excuse for one), the mode of deferral is “Bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you.” Which doesn’t mean don’t do anything else. But it establishes, perhaps, a framework for anything else that might be done. Prayer is the ultimate deferral, in any case, I suppose.

    For me, we are NOT at war with Islam and I’ve never found quotations from sacred Islamic text (whether for or against the proposition) particularly useful or illuminating. The ideologies we are dealing with are patched together affairs derived from Pan-Arab nationalism (a secular movement which in my view crippled the ME), and European fascist or revolutionary ideology. Islam itself I find immensely attractive, especially the Sufi stream (perhaps I’m under the influence of Doris Lessing). (But I’m a Catholic and there’s no way I could give up the doctrine of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc.)

    A personal response which is probably not very useful.

    Not all of the questions you ask need to be answered right away, I think, and some are really unanswerable outside a lot of truly daunting data-gathering projects. But, in response to “the only degree of certainty available to us regarding the intentions of the majority of Muslims worldwide flows from our insistence that they fight alongside us as allies” I would suggest that it’s not so cut and dry. First, we don’t need certainty (or reassurance or whatever), which again I think is unobtainable, and in the big scheme it’s not all about us, after all. Further, the situation is too variegated to say we insist that the fight be fought alongside us, as allies. Other countries or areas are going to be dealing with violent nihilism in a variety of ways, whether directly aligned with us or not. This too bears watching, support, etc. And lots of prayer, if that’s on one’s menu bar.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 19, 2006 @ 6:59 pm

  4. It’s not clear, though, whether you think we’re at war with anyone. I say that because if we think in terms of war, we certainly do strive for some degree of “binary” clarity–in any war, you might be able to accept some neutrality on the part of some minor players, but ultimately you want to know where the agents who could really help you or harm you stand. If I believed, for example, that a democratic Iraq would most probably lead to an empowered fundamentalist Shia government which would be a satellite of Iran and a sponser of a new wave of terrorism against the U.S. and U.S. interests, I would probably argue for quarantining Iraq (and much of the region) rather than fighting alongside those who will soon be trying to kill and help others kill Americans. In such circumstances, the idea that we can’t really know all that much because it’s all very complicated and multidirectional, and we don’t really need to know that much because a lot of it has nothing to do with us anyway is not exactly satisfactory–the response will have to be, let’s do better and know as much as we possibly can, the kind of knowledge that you gain from the inside of the process, not the kind historians sort out after the fact.

    Comment by adam — September 19, 2006 @ 7:36 pm

  5. I feel a bit weird, because on a list (populated mostly by Girardian pacifists) I was arguing like you (clarifying bi-polarity is needed) and presented with arguments (some quite good) for comlexifying nuance. So, I can’t say whether to what extent its the discourse mode between you and me or myself that is determining my answers now . . .

    Saying that we can’t know everything we would like to know in order to think, talk or act (especially in an evolving, dynamic situation where thinking, talking, acting effects the situation and hence the data) is not the same, I guess, as saying wait till all the data sets are in before doing, saying or thinking anything. I hope I wasn’t saying the latter.

    In a multi-front and complex conflict, clarifying bi-polarity may or may not help. I can’t really say. Some bi-polarity is already out there and is clear enough (at least to you and me, probably): religious compulsion and religious executions are bad, religious freedom is good; totalitarianism and autocracy are bad, representative government is good; poverty is bad, economic development is good; market forces can be more or less good, while paternalistic distribution of goods and services is generally bad; terrorism against civilian populations is bad, etc. etc. After that, it gets complicated. Think of Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (just as examples). Each is different in relation to these things and in relation to us.

    I personally don’t think a Shia government in Iraq would be an Iranian satellite, unless coalitions forces followed Cindi Sheehan’s advice and just suddenly up and left–leaving Iran to move and fill the chaotic vaccum (that nature and culture abhor)

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 19, 2006 @ 9:40 pm

  6. I also don’t think the Iraqi government is moving in that direction, but, first, there are quite serious people who do, and they have some evidence in their favor; and, second, it’s possible to argue about it and point to evidence for our hypothesis because the Iraqi army is growing and impriving and doing so in tandem with our own, and that would, it seems to me, be unlikely if Iraq were genuinely becoming a another Shia terrorist state. So, this provides us with a binary more concrete and more useful than the broader ethical ones you cite. Now, if we do indeed want to “think” Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and so on, the way to do so is to modify our relationship with them so that they are confronted with difficult (I don’t say–certainly not in every case–overwhelmingly difficult) choices, those which they can presently evade, thereby sending new data streams our way. One place to begin might be (since we began this discussion apropos of the demented attack on the Pope across the Muslim world) to start pressing these countries on Christian rights–the right of Christians to worship freely, the right to convert, the right to prosletyze. Then we’ll find out a lot about out antiquated the Muslim willingness to defend the faith using violence really is.

    Comment by adam — September 20, 2006 @ 7:17 am

  7. I’m not in disagreement, except that there may already be things going on here under the radar (like underground Christians similar to the “kakure [hidden] Christians” in Japan during the Edo period, or the underground jews in Spain). Re: Pakistan: first would be simply emphasizing the right to worship freely and tread gingerly after that (especially on the proselytization issue), for the simple reason that pressing it too much would put Christians there in greater danger (the pope must be aware of things like this). We can’t make precisely the same type of human rights appeal like Carter or Reagan did with the USSR, I think (because some ME nations have mastered the fine art of “unofficial” persecutions).

    On the other hand, the pope has demonstrated how easy it is to send a “new data stream.” It might take much less than you seem to suggest.

    But of course, I don’t know.

    If it were me, I’d consult with escaped persecuted Christians or those knowledgable about their plight before proposing policy shifts, especially policy shifts that would effect the lives of the persecuted so drastically.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 20, 2006 @ 8:19 am

  8. Well, the “how” of things always has to be managed by those with the requisite power and accountability–I would simply suggest that the purpose is not only to make things better for Christians in these countries (although that would in itself be a very worthy end) but to stage confrontations within the Muslim world that would not otherwise take place between defenders and opponents of freedom. In a sense, we are both instigating and seeking to channel the civil war that is already immanent in the crisis of the Muslim world–and we are intervening in that civil war with the aim of bringing it to a favorable resolution because it has already spilled over its boundaries into our lives and we can no longer ignore it. In the short run, we might make things worse for some Christians by drawing attention to their plight, but in the long run we would only make things worse by making commitments and failing to fulfill them. (And people who don’t want change always point to short term “collatoral damage” to protect the status quo, and one will always be confronted with the disagreements between experts and those involved, so in the end the empirical conditions and “consultation” never exhaust the decision making process and can never subsitute for a principled approach)

    Comment by adam — September 20, 2006 @ 12:09 pm

  9. I see Welborn links to Ammar
    ( )
    at his “Heretic’s Blog”:

    Comment by stking — September 21, 2006 @ 11:30 am

  10. Roundup at Benedict Fan Club blog:

    (also via Amy Welborn)

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 27, 2006 @ 7:48 am

  11. Heated exchange in the blogosphere along similar lines to our exchange above.

    Dean Ismay does an “open letter” type thing to Michelle Malkin and the Hot Air crowd:

    Donald Sensing responds to Ismay:

    Muslim veiw from Eteraz:

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 29, 2006 @ 5:05 am

  12. Yes, this question is becoming central right now, and how it gets set up and debated will determine our attitudes and policies for years, perhaps decades to come. Our interest should be, it seems to me, as originary thinkers. So, in terms of the originary hypothesis, how do we think the relationship between the original scene posited by some religion and the hierarchy of doctrinal formulations predicated upon it, on the one hand, and the far more diverse and complex lived experience of believers, on the other; the relation between the religion as an internally coherent entity and as a long series of dialogues and struggles with other religions and cultural forms more generally, etc.? The only rule, I think, must be that we not cover up anything because recognizing it will lead us to think not-so-nice thoughts, or increase the seeming difficulties of our position. The truth will out sooner or later one way or another. And we have to think this in terms of what may very well be a crisis in Islamic civilization, couplede with and mutually exacerbating a less severe but real crisis in Western civilization. Ultimately, originary thought suggests, I think, that even the most powerful historical determinants give way to our capacity to innovate, to discover/articulate a new, saving sign, in the midst of crisis.

    Comment by adam — September 29, 2006 @ 6:20 am

  13. The smarter voices among the bloggers speak better than myself, and here is another contribution to the discussion:

    Sadly (and it IS sad) the left has defined itself out of this discussion and is pretty much incapable of having it–the default mode being either collective cultural breast-beating or reactive hyperventilating that fancies itself “speaking truth to power.”

    Bush speaking alongside Karzai the other day was a powerful statement in itself, with Karzai being the more compelling and articulate of the two. Bush, for his part, should have been doing much more of this all along.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — September 29, 2006 @ 6:16 pm

  14. The argument you link to is all very well as far as it goes–which is not very far, though. I don’t think we can stay with these generic balancing acts–in fact, the reason we try to balance (Islam is a problem, maybe, but we’re not at war with it, etc.) is given in the post itself: the idea that we might be at war with Islam is staggering, if we take it literally. But that has nothing to do with whether it is true or false. The only real resistance in Muslim communities to terrorism and blackmail comes from those Muslims backed explicitly by us, and willing to be backed explicitly by us because the alternative is far worse, by any standard. The lack of any such resistance, at any rate, must have a great deal to do with Islam, and tells us at least as much as the assertion that the vast majority of Muslims are not signing up for suicide missions. Only external intervention will force the question and let us see whether when actually forced to choose, the vast majority of Muslims will take up arms, even alongside non-Muslims, against these “hijackers” of their faith. And this means we must–gradually, intelligently, but unmistakably–take away the corrupt middle ground where Muslims can express “offense” at a whole range of activities normal within a free society but without taking responsibility for that “offense.”

    Comment by adam — September 30, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

  15. “The only real resistance in Muslim communities to terrorism and blackmail comes from those Muslims backed explicitly by us, and willing to be backed explicitly by us because the alternative is far worse, by any standard.”

    I don’t think that is quite accurate. Saudi Arabia, probably not anyone’s best pal, Pakistan, somewhat dubiously democratic, Indonesia . . . I could extend the list quite far, I think. I would say there is “real resistance to terrorism” in these countries (not backed explicitly by the US), at varying grades, at least approaching the levels there might be in, say, France. And I keep remininding myself, per INDC’s post far above, that Iraqis are really on the front line–Muslims civilians getting seriously hit by terrorists, and seriously fighting back. At any rate, you MAY be putting things too starkly, and I am somewhat nervous about the “creative intervention” proposed–could backfire.

    There is simply no avoiding a “balancing act,” and something to be said for letting the choices become clear by internal consequences (cultural, political, security/militarily), so that the consensus against violent religious nihilism emerges from the bottom up in various places–and not some kind of external tinkering where the law of unintended consequences might take over.

    Not going so well for Nasrallah in Lebanon, by the way;

    (from Michael Totten’s blog–excellent ME coverage by Totten, by the way)

    This news development might lend credence to your view, or not–not sure.

    And again, though I seem to remain in the minority, the specific content of Islamic sacred text or tradition figures a lot less into this for me than many others seem to think it does.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — October 1, 2006 @ 8:27 am

  16. If the choice is between putting it too starkly and blurring differences (and will we ever get that balance completely right?) in times of crisis it seems to me better to opt for the latter, especially for those of us trying to think it through rather than taking direct responsibility for policy. Anway, the Iraqis are indeed on the frontline, and are doing far better than anyone else–for reasons that seem to me to be obvious. The Saudis and Pakistanis will fight terrorism that threatens their own regimes, while deflecting it elsewhere as part of the same imperative of regime preservation–and that seems to me to be a large source of the whole problem. (I’m not really competent to comment on Indonesia, but it doesn’t seem to me to be central right now) There will always be some balancing, but on the margins–the center should be occupied by our initiatives, selecting the right places to pose the necessary choices to various Muslim populations. (Even in terms of our own internal politics it seems to me we need to be on the offensive.)

    But your distinction between creative intervention and letting change emerge bottom-up is a very good way of putting the difference between us–and that difference might indeed follow from our respective assessments of the importance of doctrine which, in my view, might be modified by external events (it’s not eternally fixed, or driven solely by its own inner logic) but, at some point, needs to be decisively confronted.

    Comment by adam — October 1, 2006 @ 10:47 am

  17. There is some irony in having a solid GAer tell me that I rely too much on deferral.

    I agree with you that the “status quo” has been a big part of the problem, yet, the pressure to exert on some of these unsavory regimes might be fairly straightfoward, like basic human rights issues. And part of thinking things through means looking at what’s already happening.

    I’m not totally for sitting back and seeing how things turn out, though. There are a lot of things we could have been doing to make life interesting for the Iranian mullahs (who, if I’m to understand the underground information channels, are extremely unpopular with the average Iranian). On that score, I wonder what the relevant policy makers have been thinking all this time . . . Has Iran basically been ceded over as a European concern?

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — October 2, 2006 @ 2:25 am

  18. “The Saudis and Pakistanis will fight terrorism that threatens their own regimes, while deflecting it elsewhere as part of the same imperative of regime preservation–and that seems to me to be a large source of the whole problem.”

    Yes, of course you are right, but in this they are rather like Russia, China, France, most of Western Europe . . . need I go on? That’s one reason I am hesitant to play push the buttons. Lots of non-Muslim countries (and I assume a large portion of the left) would love to see violent religious nihilism deflected away from themselves, which means toward us. Playing smart means to some extent saying “Ohhh no you don’t” and parsing it out a little bit, and that means playing it somewhat cool.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — October 2, 2006 @ 2:49 am

  19. John J. Reilly reviews the recent book by Mark Steyn (whom EG mentions in CLR #327):

    Steyn’s rather grim:

    “We – the befuddled infidels – talk airily about ‘reforming’ Islam. But what if the reform has already taken place and jihadism is it?

    Comment by stking — October 2, 2006 @ 8:10 am

  20. Deferral requires a clear view of what one is deferring–it can’t really mean running away from confrontation or pretending it doesn’t exist but finding a new way of blocking, redefining, minimizing, etc. it–and this often means bringing it to the surface in ways that make it more vulnerable to our intervention (rather than letting it sneak up on us). And in the concrete situation the analysis gets more concrete: Our conflict with totalitarian Islam is coupled with our own internal conflicts, which feeds on the latter–the longer we allow the war to continue inconclusively the more domestic resentments find new grievances and ammunition there; the more decisively we conduct the war the more internal opponents of Western civilization (the multicultural left) will be marginalized and incapable of subverting a whole range of institutions. (Of course, I agree with you about Iran–we are losing a real opportunity there.) Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are different from your other examples insofar as they are among the primary producers of the toxin in the first place.

    More generally, we not simply deferring but defending a very advanced and in ways fragile mode of deferral, which is the most important justification for the use of force we could have.

    And, as the strongest party, we will, sooner of later, be obliged to deflect resentment toward ourselves, which is anyway its main target–so, again, the question is whether we do it on our schedule and in fora we determine or theirs.

    Comment by adam — October 2, 2006 @ 4:24 pm

  21. You’ve given me much to think about, Adam. As perhaps my final note on this thread, maybe I should say something that (I now realize) has been lingering unsaid from the beginning, in relation to your opening post. Your initial proposal (a creative cross-civilizational tit for tat with the pope as the flash point) is not something the pope himself would want. Since the pope would not want it, and since he is my pope, I’m very uncomfortable with it, and the same would go, I presume, for most Catholics, no matter what their political persuasion. So, when you speak of “we” in the opening post, you should realize that the “we” would not include the pope, and very likely would not include the vast majority of Catholics, even Catholics that might be in other ways sympathetic to many of your views. It would have been better if you had chosen some other religio-politico hyper-reaction to make your point (and there is certainly no lack of such reactions to choose from).

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — October 3, 2006 @ 5:10 pm

  22. Well, that’s certainly something to consider as we conclude this discussion–even from a purely political point of view, it would be difficult to conduct such a campaign if the Pope himself were to explicitly disavow it. As you say, the principle will hold across a wide range of pseudo-provocations. In fact, just the demand (or, let’s even say “request”) for an apology, without the attendant threat, posed in a more austere Christian manner (calling upon Muslims to live up to their claim to be the “Religion of Peace,” to show the respect they claim to have for Jesus), might be the more provocative response, if we were to stick to it and just continually reiterate it even in the face of violence. These proposals can only work to the extent that they maximize the commitment to the sacred that all the players involved (or as many as possible) might share.

    Comment by adam — October 3, 2006 @ 8:12 pm

  23. Just a note and link. Ammar’s blog is quite good:

    Thanks for linking to it, STKing.

    Comment by Matthew Taylor — October 7, 2006 @ 9:23 pm

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