The enemy of my enemy is my friend…or perhaps not

Brandon does some passive-aggressive self-chastisement:

I at least try to follow principles of amiability on this weblog. I do not always succeed; in a recent argument with Ophelia Benson in the comments thread to this post, when her response seemed to me to be a set of equivocations and red herrings of a pernicious kind that should not be tolerated on such an important subject as people’s lives, I became impatient and lost my temper; whatever the reason, however, the lapse of amiability was simply inexcusable.

I would say it’s not really the lapse of amiability itself that is inexcusable; I think a certain amount of heat is to be expected in substantive disagreements, and can be harmlessly expressed and perhaps dissipated by certain kinds of vehemence. What I think was wrong about Brandon’s reaction was the actual content of what he said – in particular this charge:

Don’t think it has escaped my notice in my years of reading you that on the topic of Muslims you only worry about the obnoxiousness and invidiousness of criticisms applied to you, and that while you’re quick to talk about Muslim liberal friends when you are being criticized, you only use them as shields against criticisms and not as friends to support in public.

That’s a very strong and very offensive accusation, and it’s also false. (Gina Khan’s Diary, anyone?) That’s what I object to – the content, not the heat. So it’s interesting and ironic and…somewhat distasteful that Brandon manages to combine this display of repentance with another round of offensive accusation. It’s interesting and distasteful that on the way to rebuking is own lapse of amiability he accuses me of pernicious equivocations and red herrings of a kind that should not be tolerated on such an important subject as people’s lives – meaning, basically, that I tell lies in an effort to harm or endanger people’s lives. Pretty poisonous stuff for a humble apologetic guy.

What’s the issue here? As near as I can tell, it’s the claim that beliefs are beliefs and that they affect 1) other beliefs and 2) actions. My underlying assumption has been that Islam entails some core beliefs, and that some of those are in tension with liberalism. Brandon’s assumption is, apparently, that Islam is completely irrelevant to how difficult it is for Muslims to be liberals.

Well…there is a sense in which that can be true: if one is talking about de facto Muslims as opposed to doctrinal Muslims. It may well be that that’s what Nussbaum meant in the Boston Review article – Muslims as a population, a group, a ‘community’ within the larger population of India. Certainly people are born into religious groups, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they sign up to all the official beliefs of the religion in question. But then – that is something that has to be cleared up. It’s not possible to be sure what is meant either way, unless it is spelled out, and in any case there is of course a huge amount of overlap: people are born into religious group X, but then the beliefs of X are handed on to them, and they may sign up to most or all of them. One can’t assume that the word ‘Muslim’ means someone who agrees with every word of the Koran, and one also can’t assume that it means the opposite.

Now, in a way, I think Brandon has a point about Nussbaum’s article. In a way my comment on it was ungenerous. Her main point was that Muslims are treated horribly in India – which is a subject I know more about because of her, specifically because of what she’s been writing about the Gujarat massacre ever since it happened. Intercommunal hatred is India’s nightmare (that is, it’s the nightmare of the people of India) – and I admire Nussbaum’s work in explaining that to Americans.

But in another way, I still think I have a point, because Nussbaum does tend to sentimentalize religions and religious beliefs, and to gloss over some unpleasant realities about them. Reading her is often an ambivalent exercise for me: I’m always having to bracket off certain bits where she lapses into rhetoric about profoundest precious etceteras. I prefer to turn a colder eye on religion.

It’s nice to think we can all get along, but it isn’t always true. The US thought the mujahideen were just the ticket for opposing atheistic global communism in Afghanistan, but that turned out to be a mistake. Before that the US thought the Shah was just the ticket for opposing the nationalization of British Petroleum in Iran, and that turned out to be a mistake too. The US made similar mistakes in Guatemala…Chile…and a good many other places. It’s better to ask searching persistent questions about exactly what we’re signing up to before we sign up to things.

Nussbaum quotes Hasan himself saying something related in her article:

The stranglehold of the orthodoxy, especially in its political and religious form, has to be loosened and slackened. The answer lies in more and more Muslim communities moving towards democracy. There is no short cut to democracy…There is no place for pharaohs in the modern world.

He’s saying there is a strangling political and religious orthodoxy which has to be loosened and slackened, and that more democracy is needed. He’s saying there is not enough liberalism, and there is a need for more. Well – that’s all I’m saying.

6 Responses to “The enemy of my enemy is my friend…or perhaps not”