Spell it out

John Carter Wood has a different take on Kelek, Buruma and the rest. He thinks Bruckner did a hatchet job on IB and TGA. Maybe so, but I have more reservations about their replies to Bruckner than John does. They’re somewhat elusive reservations though…a matter of sensing, or thinking I sense, implications, of fitting statements into an existing context where they seem to me to take on a significance they wouldn’t have without the context. See what I mean? Elusive stuff. I wonder if I can pin any of it down…

Try Buruma.

Having turned from devout Islamism to atheism, she tends to see religion, and Islam in particular, as the root of all evils, especially of the abuse of women. Cultural traditions, tribal customs, historical antecedents, all of which are highly diverse, even inside the Muslim world, are flattened into a monolithic threat. Islam, as practised in Java, is not the same as in a Moroccan village, or the Sudan, or Rotterdam.

That’s a good example of what I mean. That first sentence is a familiar kind of thing. Atheists get told that kind of thing a lot at the moment, and there’s usually an agenda behind the telling. And I’m not sure I believe his account. Does AHA see religion and Islam as the root of all evils? I don’t know, I haven’t read enough of her work to know, but I wonder if that isn’t just the same kind of canard that gets tossed at Dawkins a lot. So I’m suspicious, doubly suspicious (of the agenda and the accuracy), but I can’t be sure it’s flat wrong. The third sentence is also a familiar kind of thing, and it’s one that’s very popular with defenders of Islam and not terribly popular with critics of Islam, for the reasons that Kelek indicates: in some important ways Islam is ‘the same’ everywhere; that’s why there is such a thing as the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. There are reasons to think that fact should not be obscured by endless reiteration of the assumption that Islam differs from place to place. To put it another way, it may be true that the practice differs, but if the theory is 1) the same and 2) bad, it is still worth pointing that out. It’s much the same with the pope. Lots of Catholics ignore the pope; very good; that’s not a reason to think the pope is entirely harmless.

In Europe, even the issue of headscarves cannot be treated simply as a symbol of religious bigotry. Some women wear them to ward off male aggression, others because their parents insist on it, and some by their own choice, as a defiant badge of identity, even rebellion. Bruckner admires rebels. Should we only side with rebels whose views and practices we like? Or does living in a free society also imply that people should be able to choose the way they look, or speak, or worship, even if we don’t like it, as long as they don’t harm others? A free-spirited citizen does not tolerate different customs or cultures because he thinks they are wonderful, but because he believes in freedom.

Again – that paragraph seems more reasonable than it is. It’s sly. I’m sorry, but it is. It’s sly because it doesn’t say what ‘the issue of headscarves’ even is. It doesn’t say that the French ban is on headscarves in schools and government jobs, not everywhere, nor that even in a free society people can’t ‘choose the way they look’ in every possible situation and location. The paragraph is incomplete and manipulative and sly in a way that is all too familiar, and I don’t trust it. I don’t trust the intentions. And then in the last few sentences of it it’s all full of questions that desperately need qualification. ‘Should we only side with rebels whose views and practices we like?’ Well, yes, frankly. Depending of course on what is meant by ‘side with’ and ‘rebels’ and ‘like’ – but that’s just it. That’s another familiar ploy – rhetoric about freedom or tolerance or rebels or respect without specification of what is meant. But am I going to ‘side with’ ‘rebels’ who want to beat up women for refusing to move to the back of the bus or put on a niqab? I’m damn well not. Am I going to side with ‘rebels’ who would merely like to persuade women to do those things? No I’m fucking not. I choose my rebels, thanks, I don’t side with all rebels merely as rebels, I side with people I want to side with and I oppose people I don’t want to side with. Why wouldn’t I? Unless by ‘side with’ Buruma simply means something very minimal, but if that’s what he means he should say so. This is why I don’t like his article and why I think he’s being sly. And it’s all like that – full of innuendo and lacking needed specifications. John says it’s ‘carefully argued, well-written and – despite an understandable testiness – thoroughly reasonable.’ But I really don’t think it is. I think it looks that way on the surface, but that it’s terribly underspecified and elusive underneath. I think Buruma is trying to make his case while avoiding spelling out what he means by it – and I really do not trust that kind of thing. Bruckner may have been wrong, but I’m not convinced IB and TGA are right. I’m suspicious.

But then I sometimes overdo the suspicion, so who knows.

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