Callously putting aside the loss of life, and speaking from a pragmatic perspective, 9/11, was one of the worst, and most frustrating, events for those who agitate for positive change in the lives of average people across the Muslim world. … Read More

By / September 14, 2007

Callously putting aside the loss of life, and speaking from a pragmatic perspective, 9/11, was one of the worst, and most frustrating, events for those who agitate for positive change in the lives of average people across the Muslim world. The plan of its cold and hyper-rational masterminds was to create a reverberation of irrational reactions. They did not know what irrational things would happen, but they knew horrible things would. Such things occurred, in fact. One can sit and count each and every one of these reactions — Bush's invasion of Iraq (which Bin Laden celebrated), the expansion of Russian dictatorship police state, the re-entrenchment of Muslim dictators, the demonization of Iran (which Zarqawi wanted), the list at the international stage is really endless. There were two other things which the 9/11 masterminds did not foresee but which have had terrible consequences for us who agitate for positive change in our lives and those of others.

First, the evisceration of our civil liberties. Second, the collapse of any meaningful use of language (failure to keep our isms straight).

I want to concern myself with the second.

One can go to any part of the West's newest obsession — Islam — and there find information that can be classified, roughly, into three types. The first is what I call news about anarchist violence. This is news about al-Qaeda, about Islamic Jihad, about the hundreds of other copycat groups and individuals, all of whom are intent on creating mini 9/11's, want to create disorder, have some money and notoriety, but have little or nil ability to lead a nation-state. The second is news about institutional Islamism, which is about groups like Ikhwan, Jamaat e Islami, Hamas, the AKP Party, the government of Iran, and any other Islamocentric group which has grassroots power, international recognition, and seeks to, or already has, access to the reigns of power of a state. The third is about news about general acts of Muslim "stupidity", which is news about an acid attack by a Muslim, about a mentally handicapped Muslim shooting someone down, about censorship, exclamations of blasphemy, about honor killings, female genital mutilation, or even Muslim bestiality.

In an act of collective guilt, everyone from the right-wing, to President Bush, to lay-people, to progressive Muslim organizations, have for the most part, collapsed all three of these types of news into one, and concluded, in an act of myopic monism, that everything is equivalent, all at once. Non-Muslim groups and individuals in the West, peddling all of this mish-mash as one, market themselves as "anti-jihad" or "anti-Islamism" or "anti-Islamofascist" or "anti-Islam" — whatever it is that they think will lead to them acquiring the most number of followers, so on one page of their website they will discuss the recent averted terror attack, and on the next, complain about Muslims who complain about nudity. Muslim groups and individuals in the West, often taking on the term "reformist" or "progressive" or "apostate" or "contrarian" — whatever will sell the most books or lead to a sponsorship with a major think-tank — also peddle this random mish-mash of things, linking the history of their personal misery with the future of Muslim violence, or on one hand speaking up for Salman Rushdie's freedom to-do-this-and-that, while lambasting a Muslim woman's freedom to-dress-as-she-pleases.

Galvanized by the existence of such numerosity, a class of "intellectual" arises. They are men and women who are lucid enough to recognize that we have today a compendium of different things under one label. However, rather than pointing out how each one of these things are distinct from one another, their ability lies in finding ways to link all three types of information with each other — a project for which they, in order to be intellectual, hit the books. They will take an anarchist, and attempt to lay bare his connection with a fringe element of an islamist party and then link the two elements together with the "incontrovertible tendencies" of Islam in the 20th century. Or, they will take a hoary crime, or attempt at censorship, and link it to some observation about Islam made by a historical Western personality. These intellectuals, running out of connections mostly because they all read the same books, then enter into a greater debate — between one another — as to who is accurate and who is secretly infected with the jihadist/islamist malaise and thereby perpetuating it. Then they fight to exclude such a person from their midst, or invent altogether new words — "Horrorism!" — in order to maintain their intellectual uniqueness. In other words, unlike the Nietzschean intellectual spoken of in The Gay Science, these intellectuals do not put up their hands to stop and question their era; rather, they bow their heads, pen in hand, and scribble all the ways in which the pre-dominant narrative of their era can be justified. They believe that such thinking is necessary because being popular is what makes an intellectual correct.

For those, Muslim or non-Muslim alike, who genuinely care to improve the lot of Muslims — because Muslims are a sub-set of humanity — the world after 9/11 is not a hospitable one. If these people, humanists on any side of the political divide, have any shot at accomplishing their goals, one of the first thing that must occur is an immediate cessation of conflating jihadism with islamism. The former is rational violence perpetrated to engender irrational reactions. The latter is a rational program perpetrated to acquire political power. To recognize such a distinction is not to be an apologist for either one of them. One can (as I do) oppose Bin Laden while simultaneously being supportive of separation of mosque and state. Jihadists, if they have a political philosophy, believe in Sunni-dominated totalitarian theocracies closed to women acquired via the bomb. Islamists, who do have a political philosophy, believe in Muslim-dominated democratic theocracies open to women acquired via the vote. They are both illiberal, and that is where the similarities end.

As for Muslim stupidity — it is a subset of human stupidity. The same Europeans that almost wept at not being able to place cartoon bombs in Muhammad's turban, do not raise a peep when Spanish police raid newspapers blocking the publication of cartoons that depict their monarchs having sex. Human stupidity cannot be "reformed" or "resisted" or "counter-jihaded." Has not our own Darwin awards, which salutes the most absurd act of death, shown us this? The worst of stupidity can be criminalized, and the mildest of it can be laughed at. What should not be allowed to happen is for it to create a culture of prejudice and superiority which distracts from the real task at hand: creating conditions for maximizing human liberty.

Today, we are in dire need of going back to our philosophic roots. We are Aristotle's children, and he is relevant to us because he exceeded all others in creating distinctions (not conflating them). Wittgenstein, the greatest of the 20th century philosophers, showed to us not just that words matter, but that language itself is woven into the fabric of our lives. The discussion about Islam consists of independent atomic facts — states of affairs — out of which larger facts are built. It is true that these facts, articulated in propositions, books, media, polemics, are connected to the larger issue that we call Islam. However, we cannot meaningfully operate, analyze or discuss those issues which we do not know how to evaluate atomistically. A jihadist is not the same as an islamist; a conservative islamist is not the same as a liberal Muslim; Qutb gives tools to kill but if you ask Wadud he also gives tools to do away with patriarchy; some American actions directly increase the power of conservative islamists; a domestic terrorist is not necessarily motivated by the same intentions as a foreign terrorist; a secular solution is only better if it increases freedom; there can be a fundamentalist that is more peaceful than a self-styled liberal; an individual acting alone tells us nothing about the worldview of "the Muslim."

Words matter. They must be used effectively. The failure to use language creates a cacophony which is the equivalent of silence — and the world today requires that we cease our blubbering and articulate ourselves better.

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