GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 7, 2015

The Future Must Not Belong to Those Who Slander the Prophet of Islam (President Barack Obama)

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:20 pm

Of course not–that’s why insults to the prophet need to be avenged.

Now, I’m not saying that Obama wants insults to the prophet to be avenged, just that his way of thinking perfectly complements those who do. Catering to Muslim sensitivities, being careful to avoid any perceived insult, policing ourselves for the slightest inkling of a “backlash”–all this encourages terrorism. That most in our political, academic, and cultural elites don’t see how obvious that is is an index of the level of civilization we have attained. It is precisely the most civilized among us who can’t imagine anyone having recourse to barbarism and savagery without having suffered unspeakably and thereby warped not just at the hands of the so-called civilized world, but as a result of the hypocrisy of that world. According to that logic, the more barbaric they are, the more barbaric and hypocritical “we” must really be–“we” being, in fact, “they,” those whom the ultra-civilized wish to distinguish themselves at all costs, the middle class barbarians who have really only retained a patina of civilization. In order to make this distinction absolute, reality must be inverted, and the victims of terrorism must be its cause.

Someone for whom the mass murders in Paris are yet another one of those events about anything but Islam has probably already pointed out how much more likely the average citizen of the Western world is to die of an auto accident than a terrorist attack. What today’s attack reminds us, though, is that no one will ever refuse to publish a story, or a cartoon, or make a movie, or write a book, because they might be in an auto accident one day.

The media of the Western world should do this anyway, but one positive effect of every media outlet publishing the cartoons over which the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were killed is that it would test the proposition that such attacks are carried out by a few “extremists,” or even lunatics, who represent nothing in Islam. If Muslims genuinely want to be full participants in the modern world, they would urge on such a universal snub of the “prophet,” precisely so that they can show that they can respond to it in a civilized manner. And they would set up “watch” sites “outing” every Muslim leader who said anything that could construed as encouraging violence, working with police and intelligence agencies to have them expelled, their citizenship revoked, etc. But, then, they would be doing that already. (Would we be able to recognize them as anything but “Uncle Ahmeds,” though?) American leftist Jews agonize constantly and publicly over what Israel does, purportedly “in their name.” From their perspective, they’re right: regardless of the fairness of it, your complicity in the acts of others is not completely up to you, and so it’s best to be safe and disown actions which might implicate one. For that matter, American leftists in the academy, media and culture industry who are ashamed of their fellow Americans’ barbarous behavior throughout the world are right to make it clear that they would like to see a different America. But that means the supposed vast majority of innocent Muslims would be right to do the same.

Eric Gans and I engaged in a dialogue a few years ago over the relative weight of physical fear and white guilt in the cringing attitude of Western elites to Islam. This seems like a good time to revisit the question. The conclusion I arrived at after further reflections on that dialogue is that for those having to decide what to publish, produce and disseminate, the overriding factor is certainly fear; but white guilt is the reason that fear is the only response available to them. People are afraid in all kinds of circumstances, but they don’t always let fear control their actions. When they don’t, the reason (leaving aside extraordinary cases of individual bravery) is the shame they would feel in the face of those people with whom they have exchanged promises (tacit or explicit) to have one another’s back. Those consumed with white guilt have no one’s back and would be ashamed if someone had theirs–that (necessarily exclusionary) solidarity is the very source of the guilt.

One of my own renunciations (imperfectly practiced, no doubt) is the use of the word “should,” especially in the context of some kind of criticism. It seems to me intellectually lazy, like relying on a standard plot point to finish up a movie–the West should stand up for itself, etc. It’s also an admission of impotence–if they’re not doing it, obviously they don’t think they should, so what does saying they should add, exactly? It’s better to simply lay down markers to determine what things mean. It is to his great credit that Bill Maher speaks openly about the difference and danger of Islam. I hope he has a good security detail. But he doesn’t expose the political and cultural leaders who exempt “moderate Muslims” from the task of cleansing themselves from association with their barbaric co-religionists. The only really meaningful response to the implication of Islam (not “radical Islam,” not “Islamism”) in contemporary barbarism and savagery is to insist as a condition of residence, much less citizenship, Muslims be required to forswear allegiance to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and articles of faith that are habitually implicated in that savagery and barbarism. (Maybe, airport security style, we should demand this of everyone requesting a visa.) The analogy here is to Europeans coming after World War II who were required to swear that they were not members of the Nazi or Communist Party. Here, as well, moderate Muslims would be happy to help draw up the lists, and eagerly take the opportunity to put the weight of social sanction and public opinion in the balance in reforming their religion. Needless to say, this is not very likely. It’s still worth proposing it, though, as a marker of how diametrically opposed prevailing Western habits are to the qualities needed to resist barbarism and savagery.


  1. As to laying down markers, i am curious to what degree you would identify today’s killings and similar acts as barbaric, or, savage. Can we deepen our understanding of (Islamic) terrorism by careful use of these terms?

    Comment by John — January 8, 2015 @ 12:01 am

  2. Yes, good question–I don’t employ the distinction here, precisely because I wasn’t sure. In this case, given the insistence of avenging an insult (which makes it an honor killing), I would say it is barbaric. The more random attacks, committed to spread general mayhem and fear, would be savage. That would mean the Islamic terrorists are both imperialists and nomad raiders. That’s a preliminary accounting, at any rate.

    Comment by adam — January 8, 2015 @ 5:40 am

  3. This post rather highlights the challenges of your philosophy. These three young men were exercising their freedom to run amok with machine guns. Promoting their vision of social alternatives. This is what freedom looks like, and it is not pretty!

    Comment by Alan — January 9, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

  4. A privileging of freedom is hardly “my philosophy”–I’d say I share it with most post-Enlightenment philosophies, in particular the one named after it–liberalism. It’s the philosophies that argue for minimizing freedom in the name of some greater good that have a lot more explaining to do. Anyway, all of those freedom first philosophies, whether it’s John Stuart Mill, the Federalist Papers or Hegel, agree that freedom is a shared, social phenomenon: each person’s freedom is bound up with everyone else’s, which means freedom is inseparable from law and civil society. The point is that more law and more civil society means more freedom, not less–again, unless your view of freedom is literalist and physicalist, i.e., the gazelle in the Sahara is the most free being imaginable.

    Comment by adam — January 9, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

  5. Everybody has explaining to do if they are to be understood. Words like Freedom are especially problematic as everyone seems to have a privileged definition – and then get shocked and offended when they are misunderstood, or confronted by someone actually exercising their freedom.

    And, yes, I am challenging nearly everyone simply calling for freedom as that is emotional rhetoric that is necessarily misunderstood.

    If you want something but ask for something else, you will always get the wrong thing.

    Comment by Alan — January 9, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

  6. Remember these are native sons, born in France. They require no visa (I don’t think) – I think they have permanent residency status through a ‘former French colony’ loophole. But they have never been socialized into French society. They are second class (probably non-) citizens with poor work prospects, and their home ghetto has more community affinity with foreign Muslim communities than with domestic ones. That is why your suggestion of ‘get them to out their violent neighbors’ will not work – any more than that works in US ghettos vs. police (absent a lot of community relations work first).
    I’m not at all sure that this particular pathology is curable as one (or three) nuts can turn up anywhere (Columbine anyone?), but there is a culture of unrest in Muslim France that I think can be solved through intense (pro-France) propaganda and cultural outreach. Every country has a lot of poor, but the poor who feel included (here I would include much of the US Tea Party) are not particularly anti-social.

    Comment by Alan — January 9, 2015 @ 5:12 pm

  7. By having some explaining to do, I meant something more like a lot to answer for, because it is the political movements calling for collectivism and order over liberty that have caused the most harm over the past century or so. And that must be the case, because to suppress the liberties acquired over the past few hundred years (of trade, movement, speech, association, thought) would require enormous destructive energy.

    Yes, I suppose everyone can define freedom as they like, but if they want to clarify things together, it will turn out that some ways of using terms do so better than others. If you want to overturn modern, liberal (in the broadest sense) thought, you have your work cut out for you, but who knows? Maybe it will lead somewhere. I’m not so sure that a demand to be free to publish cartoons that mock “the prophet of Islam” is so easily misunderstood. The same for plenty of other calls for freedom. But let’s get started this way: I have been saying that inherited roles and rules are intrinsically limited, and of necessity we either have authorities granted extraordinary powers to determine the content of those roles and rules, or we leave it up to people to extend, revise, overturn, etc. those roles and rules, assuming that people can respect each others’ freedoms as conditions of their own (free speech, for example, isn’t worth much if there’s no one to talk to). That’s what I’m calling freedom. Meanwhile, it seems to me the burden is on you to explain why, for example, there shouldn’t be government censorship of all intellectual, artistic, etc., activities–why shouldn’t we have to submit our posts here to a censor? Perhaps wiser minds than our own can detect potential for incitement to disruption in them. Or, why, for example, a medical procedure that would neutralize all aggressive impulses shouldn’t be mandated (if it could be proven effective) for all citizens in the civilized world? By all means, expand the discussion, and let’s see what our respective understandings can do.

    Comment by adam — January 9, 2015 @ 5:20 pm

  8. Are the members of the Tea Party generally poor? That’s news to me–but also a side issue here.

    My proposal is not meant to work–it’s meant to show what it would mean to believe that a vast majority of Muslims are “moderate” and wish to participate fully in the society they live in. It is my way of articulating my skepticism of the claim that the terrorists are a tiny extremist minority that have nothing to do with the larger community. Things would be playing out very differently if that were in fact the case.

    If France were capable of sustained pro-France propaganda, even among its own people, we would’t be having this conversation because these events wouldn’t be occurring. (What, exactly, do you imagine to be the content of this prospective propaganda?) Your proposal, in other words, is really a “marker,” as is mine: by pointing to what should obviously be done, it raises the question of why it obviously won’t be done. The Europeans have gone all in for multiculturalism–events like these are likely to be taken to suggest that we need yet more of it. Which would seem like the shortest path towards pacifying Muslims: trying to forcibly include them in some French identity unconvincing even to the French, or to recognize their own religious and ethnic difference?

    You see the slaughter as a pathology, but since the political purposes religious sanction of such attacks are very clear, why medicalize it?

    The analogy with American inner cities is relevant, but limited–it is interesting that much of the testimony that cleared Officer Wilson in Ferguson came from African Americans, even if they don’t seemed to have wanted their identities to become known. It’s hard to tell how much of the black population of the inner cities is willing to cooperate, and indeed does cooperate, with the police. Unlike Europe’s Muslims, though, America’s blacks are not part of a worldwide movement, with control over much of a significant portion of the world, and a centuries old faith steeped in resentment toward Western civilization.

    Comment by adam — January 9, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

  9. Meanwhile, the hardcore Girardians (if i may somewhat glibly refer to ’em so) are currently running hot with excerpts from this book of Cavanaugh’s, in which we might say the “law of mimesis” suffices to explain away almost everything, and saying “my bad” to one another at last would mean we are more than halfway to a full worldly recovery!How do we distinguish such a “law” – if law it be – from a physical one and a legal one? For are we not verging here already on the horrid notion of a divine, invisible administration at work somewhere, almost like that of the repulsive (instant version?)doctrine of “karma”? Anyway AKz as the most unfailingly thought-producing entity I know of on this earth, I do have to run this past you now for comment – the imaginal picture of William Casey attempting to mobilise a billion freshly, even spontaneously aroused Muslims against the Soviet Union at the time spoken of is a wild one indeed! Link coming in another post as c & p has gotten lost somewhere…

    Comment by Lightweed — January 10, 2015 @ 12:39 am


    Comment by Lightweed — January 10, 2015 @ 12:43 am

  11. I do have to note that that excerpt from Cavanaugh doesn’t actually quote Casey on the “billion Muslims,” and the Patheos blog’s resistance to the law of mimesis seems to involve resisting Catholicism’s assimilation to modernity. But maybe that’s what faith does best.

    But the bigger question of what to do with the “law of mimesis” is a very important one. How many actions and reactions are we capable of seeing ahead of us? Whenever I read foreign policy treatises saying that such policy should be guided by “long-term American interests,” or “fundamental American interests” I laugh, and usually stop reading, because the premise behind those cliches is that we can transcend the law of mimesis and abstract ourselves from an action-reaction series and look ahead to, say, some long-term regularization of market exchanges carried out globally. When anyone can see that a single well placed bomb can upset the dozens of steps one had imagined oneself to have planned out to get to the long-term and fundamental.

    But I’ll use the terms I have been working with to answer the question: savages cannot see beyond a single action-reaction cycle: someone acts, and you react immediately, with whatever resources you have available. Barbarians can see past a single one: if someone insults you, they are testing you to see if you will accept the insult, proving your vulnerability; you, therefore, must respond in such a way as to show you cannot be insulted with impunity, thereby pre-empting the next insult. Civilization is founded on the discovery that “honorable” action-reaction sequences lead to a potentially “endless cycle,” making the defense of honor meaningless. But, this discovery is inherently vague, and the actual means of breaking the “cycle,” and keeping it broken, must be subject to a constant trial and error process. What it does require, though, is a third person not subject to the cycle–a king, or a system of law controlled by magistrates considered impartial. Of course, this doesn’t have to be an actual third person (although at some point there had to have been one)–the third person becomes embedded in social practices, e.g., a sense of fair play–then, we’re really civilized. But never once and for all: the third person will always be tempted to join one side or the other, or to become a side against everyone else in his or its own right. The law of mimesis is mitigated, though, through its conversion into our imitation of that third person–the most powerful example of which is still that One God whose name is I AM THAT I AM. But there may sometimes be no other choice than to support the barbarian against the savage, the more civilized barbarian against the less, and even the savage and barbarian against the monstrously totalitarian. Sometimes there’s no choice but to enter the action-reaction cycle, because that’s the only way of preserving the figure of the third person who can get us out of it, eventually. It seems to me that people who focus on when we ended up aggravating the action-reaction cycle tend to overlook other times when perhaps things worked out much better–in other words, they’re really just joining the cycle themselves, on one side.

    Comment by adam — January 10, 2015 @ 6:26 am

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