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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

Controversial Statement of the Week

May 10, 2011 6 comments

Chomsky isn’t satisfied with mere equivalence:

Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.

You’d think a linguist would have a better grasp of the word, “uncontroversially.” Hitchens responds:

[I]t is remarkable that he should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court. This form of 9/11 denial doesn’t trouble to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society. After all, as Chomsky phrases it so tellingly, our habit of “naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk … [is] as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ” Perhaps this is not so true in the case of Tomahawk, which actually is the name of a weapon, but the point is at least as good as any other he makes.

Is Religion a Force for Good?

November 30, 2010 7 comments

I encourage everyone to watch this debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on whether religion is a force for good in the world. I’ve watched Hitchens debate and speak on the topic of religion countless times and this might be his best performance.

Start at 3:50 to get past the introductions.

The rest of the debate can be found (at least temporarily) here.

Homily

Of course religion inspires people to do good works and to commit evil acts. Apologists like to point out all the good parts of the religious traditions – Sermon on the Mount, love thy neighbor, etc – while opponents point out the barbarous portions – Leviticus, Crusades, etc. I have no problem admitting that religion motivates acts of compassion and no problem recognizing the cruelty religion animates. The trouble with religion is precisely the nature of that malleability. The traditions, texts, rites, and dogmas are still part of a set – you get the good and the bad yoked together pulling the fracturing cart where you sit.  Reason works differently: there are good ideas and bad ideas. Do nonreligious people commit acts of wickedness because of nonreligious reasons? Of course. But as reasonable people we’re free to reject bad ideas in favor of good ones.

Faith in any religion (or secular ideology) makes it impossible to successfully arbitrate between the epistemological truth of one interpretation over another. Not only that, but the more faithful one is to these ancient texts cruelty often becomes easier to justify. Apologists like Tony Blair believe his peaceful and tolerant form of religion is true, but he has no recourse in faith to undermine more extreme strains. God, for some reason, seems content to remain mute. By contrast, ideas held by reason are amenable to correction in light of new evidence and argument.

You might be tempted to counter that religious people ignore the bad bits in their religion despite, for example, the bible reminding Christians that every jot and tittle of the word of God should be fulfilled and Muslims believing the Quran is the perfect unalterable word of the Creator. Certainly the religious often neglect to carry out every commend of their holy book, but notice that it is precisely because they are dismissing part of their religion that the religion becomes more benign. I’m always surprised how often religions’ apologists argue that people doing good by ignoring religion shouldn’t be counted as a strike against religion.

Not being religious doesn’t compel a secular thinker to repudiate the positive messages found within religious texts. I need not refuse to be a good samaritan. I need not rebuke the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita.  I need not rebuff non-violence because it is practiced by the Jains. Inspiration can be drawn from Shakespeare or Dickens, from Bentham or Kant, from Jesus or the Buddha. Skepticism just repels treating any book as inherently superior or moral. It is a component of religion that appraises its message as unearthly. Admit it or not a religion is, among other things, a set of beliefs supposedly divinely inspired. Once someone accepts that a set of beliefs came from God or from a prophet of God only skepticism of those beliefs or our innate and culturally formed compassion can temper any of the pernicious dogmas of that faith.

Religion cleaved from its superstitions and creeds is not religion. If you insist that you are still a Catholic if you don’t believe in Catholic dogmas, the divinity of Jesus, or the holiness of the bible you’re not actually religious. You might identify with that culture, but that’s not religion. It’s for that reason a Jewish atheist, for example, isn’t an oxymoron. Subverting the supernatural need not crumble our communities.

So ask yourself, would the world be better off if people became more religious or more reasonable?

Guest Post: Religious Apologists and their Role in Oppression

October 13, 2010 4 comments

Many activists today hate their own societies so much that they defend barbaric customs typical to religious cultures because they feel guilty recognising the ethical superiority of secularism.  There’s a disturbing trend amongst these activists to label themselves progressives, when more accurate labels would be “religious apologists” and “religious pluralists.”

These are people—including “atheists,” agnostics, and theists of all kinds—who argue that religious faiths are reasonable and defensible, and that all religions are equally valid.  They’re usually only concerned with defending human rights when they personally feel oppressed, or when they believe their own societies oppress others.

However, as religious cultures violate the human rights of millions of people, apologists and theists defend these crimes with the two-faced shield of normative relativism and argue that we have no right to judge other cultures.  More specifically, apologists argue that we have no right to judge religions in general, even though religions themselves claim superiority over all others.

Many theists have thus invented an imaginary right to not be mocked or criticised for their ridiculous beliefs, claiming that religion serves the interests of the abject, impoverished and despairing.  However, theism only serves to empower despots.  In fact, theism itself is so fundamentally authoritarian that it threatens our most basic rights to life, liberty, and security of person.

Disgusted by imperialism and xenophobic rednecks, apologists fancy themselves anti-nationalists and resort to normative relativism to make sense of the differences between Western culture and those of the “colonised.”  Such apologists are most commonly young college students or recent graduates, and they typically have developed their relativist philosophy as a means of rebelling against the bigotry of their parents or other people they have come to hate.

Combined with the questionable ideal of multiculturalism—i.e. diversity for diversity’s sake—these apologists have resorted to an unreasonable tolerance that compels them to defend all sorts of dysfunctional cultures despite the overwhelming evidence that they are harmful, barbaric and incompatible with our own.

For example, Daniel Bragança recently argued that the West has “the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.”  Bragança criticised Afghanistan’s culture for its ingrained paedophilia: Afghan men regularly keep underage boys as lovers and status symbols because misogynist Islamic principles require women to be covered from head to toe.  However, as clearly wrong and ill-conceived this practice is, Bragança was met with a chorus of apologists—some atheist, some agnostic, and some theist—who claimed that his criticism of Afghan culture was radical and misguided.  Seriously?  Is it seriously radical to point out that sexual molestation and misogyny is wrong no matter where it happens?  Is it radical then to not mutilate a child’s genitals?  Is it radical to believe that you shouldn’t rape kids, kill people you dislike, or pretend to know things that you don’t?

There’s an inherent irony in using relativism to defend theism and its by-products because religions themselves are straightforwardly objectivist: to the religious, right and wrong are matters of divine authority, and are not susceptible to the whims of forward-thinking philosophers like the Founding Fathers or Enlightenment thinkers.  Christian theists proclaim their absolutist objectivism on a regular basis: “Homosexuality is an abomination!”  “Premarital sex is a sin!”  “Nobody reaches God except through Christ Jesus!”  But as soon as a secular thinker applies reason and scientific inquiry to religion, theists and their apologists claim critical immunity: “If it’s right for us or them, who are you to judge?”

“We have a right to not be mocked or offended,” the religious say, as was the case with Muslims in response to the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy of 2005, or with Christians in response to any sort of social progress in the United States.  Luckily for the West, we know how to define human rights: they are are legal, social or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement which apply to all humans.  Human rights are conceived entirely within an egalitarian context—all people have equal rights and should be treated as equals in certain respects—and the only atmosphere that is conducive to these human rights is one that is free and democratic.  Anything that threatens that atmosphere, such as the moral dictatorship of theism, threatens human rights in general.  Thus, anything that requires the curtailing of freedom and democracy—such as “a right to not be mocked or offended”—cannot possibly qualify as a human right.  Nonetheless, religious apologists argue that religion does the weak and the disenfranchised some sort of good that atheists should acknowledge and respect.

In a speech dubbed “The Tyranny of a Callous God,” Christopher Hitchens asks what it means to believe:

[T]hat there is a divinely supervising father [...], that there is someone who knows, and watches and cares.  What does it mean to believe that?  I think it has two very disagreeable implications.  One is that we are subjected all the time to a permanent, unending, ’round-the-clock surveillance that begins at least when we’re born, some would say before, and doesn’t even quit when we die.  There’s no privacy, there’s no freedom, there’s nothing you do that isn’t watched over, and that you can be convicted of thought crime.  You are already guilty, because we know you at least were going to think about it.  This is an absolute definition of unfreedom—it’s what Orwell means when he says that all totalitarianism is essentially theocratic.  Is this for the weak?  No, it postulates a hideous strength, to borrow a C.S. Lewis term, a horrible, unchallengeable despotism that could never be voted out or overthrown or transcended.  [Theism] is not the small voice of compassion—it’s the utter arrogance of absolute power.

It’s a mistake to separate the cultural authoritarianism of religion—the dogma that morality is a product of divine authority—and political authoritarianism, as Kevin Carson explains in his recent article:

Cultural authoritarianism—such as occurs in the family, church and workplace—tends to exist in a mutually reinforcing relationship with political authoritarianism. Authoritarianism isn’t easily compartmentalized. People who are in the habit of unquestioning obedience to authority in a major part of their lives, and have their freedom of judgment subordinated to the will of others, are unlikely to fight very vigorously for their personal liberties against the claimed authority of the state.

In a world where religion is accessory to oppression, to shield it from criticism and mockery is to forsake the lives of the millions oppressed, and to pervert the very idea of a human right.  That’s why I confidently criticise, mock and offend the sensibilities of theists and their apologists.  I can’t help that they get offended because of their childish, backward insecurities and medieval morality.  Their true discomfort, though they won’t admit it, is with my belief in universal human rights and with my adherence to reason.  In some cases, they’re offended by reason itself, and in the words of Jonathan Swift, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

This is why I support Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.  It’s why I support charging and trying the Pope and members of the Catholic Church for the child abuses they have committed, concealed and denied.  It is why I oppose arranged marriages and criticise other cultural practises that violate human rights.  It’s why I argue with the supposed “liberals” who defend such barbaric customs.  Theism—religious faith, by any other name—opposes freedom itself.

And thus, I reject God.

Thomas Iodine is a political writer from New England living in California.  The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Daniel Bragança.

"The War Against Thanatos", ctd: Everybody Pray For Hitchens Day

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Well today, September 20th, is “Everybody Pray For Hitchens Day.” I’m not necessarily going to promote that action – however much I’m sure he appreciates the motives – I think it’d be much better for his morale if you purchased one of his books. That will certainly have an effect in the material world. But look, I agree with Hitch, if praying makes you feel better, pray away.

Religious Freedom Trumps Our Feelings, ctd

August 16, 2010 17 comments

In my previous post on this topic, I laid out my argument and others’ for allowing the proposed mosque to be built. President Obama courageously and dutifully addressed the nation and also supported the religious freedom of Muslims to build a mosque on private property.

I completely agree when the President says,

As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.  And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America.  And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.  The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.  The writ of the Founders must endure.

He or I did not, however, comment on what he calls “the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there.”

Well Sam Harris tries to thread the needle by distancing himself from “many who oppose the construction of this mosque [that] embody all that is terrifyingly askew in conservative America—“birthers,” those sincerely awaiting the Rapture, opportunistic Republican politicians, and utter lunatics who yearn to see Sarah Palin become the next president of the United States (note that Palin herself probably falls into several of these categories). These people are wrong about almost everything under the sun.” He’s attempting to jab his carefully threaded needle into the wisdom without puncturing the liberal values of America’s founding and its citizens’ constitutional rights. Outside the piece he explains that he wrote this article before President Obama gave the speech – the editors wrote the title and lead in. Within his essay, I do think he bursts President Obama’s diplomatic statement that “Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam -– it’s a gross distortion of Islam.  These are not religious leaders -– they’re terrorists who murder innocent men and women and children.” I do worry that careless readers with fall into the trap of thinking Harris is too easily grouping moderates and extremists; failing to discriminate. Further in however Harris’s thread comes close to falling out.

And the erection of a mosque upon the ashes of this atrocity will also be viewed by many millions of Muslims as a victory—and as a sign that the liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice. This may not be reason enough for the supporters of this mosque to reconsider their project. And perhaps they shouldn’t. Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.

Harris might be right that it is unfortunate that these peaceful American Muslims would want to build their mosque so close to Ground Zero if they are actually interested in easing tensions between communities (clearly that isn’t working yet), but I’m not sure he’s right that it shows that “liberal values of the West are synonymous with decadence and cowardice.” Even if some terrorists overseas view it that way, in my mind it highlights the strength of our values to withstand even what a majority of our citizens find “offensive.” I don’t want to be held hostage to whatever religious terrorists may think about our decisions or values. Furthermore, allowing the construction stands in stark contrast to how many in the Muslim world treat things they find offensive. Christopher Hitchens spotlights that gambit.

A widespread cultural cringe impels many people to the half-belief that it’s better to accommodate “moderates” like Rauf as a means of diluting the challenge of the real thing. So for the sake of peace and quiet, why not have Comedy Central censor itself or the entire U.S. press refuse to show the Danish cartoons?

This kind of capitulation needs to be fought consistently. But here is exactly how not to resist it. Take, for example, the widely publicized opinion of Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Supporting those relatives of the 9/11 victims who have opposed Cordoba House, he drew a crass analogy with the Final Solution and said that, like Holocaust survivors, “their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.” This cracked tune has been taken up by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who additionally claim to be ventriloquizing the emotions of millions of Americans who did notsuffer bereavement. It has also infected the editorial pages of the normally tougher-minded Weekly Standard, which called on President Obama to denounce the Cordoba House on the grounds that a 3-to-1 majority of Americans allegedly find it “offensive.”

Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy? To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is “offensive,” and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument. You are even allowed to admit, as does Foxman, that the ground for taking offense is “irrational and bigoted.” But, hey—why think when you can just feel?

I have to admit, when I first heard that they were building a “Ground Zero Mosque” I assumed it was going to be in the new Twin Towers. Viscerally and immediately I opposed that; but once I learned it was being built on private property and off the site of the Twin Towers, I couldn’t find any reason for restricting the freedom of fellow Americans. Now I still don’t think I’d argue in favor of putting a mosque there if I was making the decision (fortunately in America we don’t allow the opinion of random citizens to decide such questions), and I can’t help but understand the emotional appeal of people like this 9/11 firefighter in opposing the mosque’s construction (which I watched as I sat in the ER). I don’t agree with all his arguments but I can empathize with his perspective. This puts me in a difficult place. How can I on the one hand give his argument from offense weight while actively instigating offense in campaigns like “Draw Mohammed Day” (e.g. here and here)? Well to me it illustrates the essential difference in supporting freedom in practice to just giving it lip service. Conor Friedersdorf puts the opposition to the test.

Imagine a suburban street where three kids in a single family were molested by a Catholic priest, who was subsequently transferred by the archbishop to a faraway parish, and never prosecuted. Nine years later, a devout Catholic woman who lives five or six doors down decides that she’s going to start a prayer group for orthodox Catholics — they’ll meet once a week in her living room, and occasionally a local priest, recently graduated from a far away seminary, will attend.

Even if we believe that it is irrational for the mother of the molested kids to be upset by this prayer group on her street, it’s easy enough to understand her reaction. Had she joined an activist group critical of the Catholic Church in the aftermath of the molestation, it’s easy to imagine that group backing the mother. As evident is the fact that the devout Catholic woman isn’t culpable for molestations in the Catholic church — in fact, even though we understand why her prayer group upsets the neighbor, it is perfectly plausible that the prayer group organizers never imagined that their plan would be upsetting or controversial. In their minds (and in fact), they’re as opposed to child molestation as anyone, and it’s easy to see why they’d be offended by any implication to the contrary.

Presented with that situation, how should the other people on the street react? Should they try to get city officials to prevent the prayer meetings from happening because they perhaps violate some technicality in the neighborhood zoning laws? Should they hold press conferences denouncing the devout woman? Should they investigate the priest who plans to attend? What if he once said, “Child molestation is a terrible sin, it is always wrong, and I am working to prevent it from ever happening again. I feel compelled to add that America’s over-sexualized culture is an accessory to this crime.” Does that change anything?

I’d certainly side with the woman who wants to hold the prayer group, and her fellow orthodox Catholics.

Does anyone think any of those talk-radio hosts opposing the mosque would similarly oppose the Christian prayer group? What about Gingrich or Palin? Certainly, the mosque case is more extreme in degree, but I fail to see any difference in principle.


I still believe that once tensions simmer down, America will be stronger for allowing this construction. As I argued before, we’re not so fragile that we can’t live with this. We must remember that even if it is unadvisable or unwise for these Americans to build their mosque here, they aren’t responsible for 9/11. Feelings aren’t permanent, freedom should be. And, hey, we can always support building a gay bar next to it.

"The War Against Thanatos", ctd

August 9, 2010 Leave a comment

"The War Against Thanatos"

August 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Christopher Hitchens writes about his battle against cancer

I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

(image from Wikipedia

The World Cup, The War in Iraq, and The Moral Weight of Nationalism

First, congratulations to Spain for winning its first ever World Cup! They definitely deserved the honor as the best team. This tournament got me thinking about nationalism and its many faces. After all, isn’t that what the World Cup is really about? It’s fun rooting for your nation – or at least the ones you like better if yours unfortunately gets knocked out. Also who doesn’t like rooting against France if you’re American or against America if you’re from anywhere else? Of course all major sports harness the allure of tribalism for the entertainment of its fans; but the World Cup, probably above even the Olympics, is the ultimate pastime for the nationalist. Sometimes fans take the in-group, out-group rivalries too far, but most recognize that it’s all in good fun. 
In areas other than sports, nationalism has always made me a bit uncomfortable intellectually. After all, why should invisible arbitrary boundaries and the lottery of genetics make one human being more important or valuable than another? Even if one were to accept that certain states are more valuable as a force for good or that certain cultural values within specific nations are more moral that doesn’t mean that each individual within those borders is more useful or moral or valuable. My logic, informed as it is from the enlightenment, tells me that a person’s nationality shouldn’t press on scales of morality. Yet without wading too deeply into the usefulness of states as political entities, we should remember that the Treaty of Versailles enshrined the right to national self-government. This permits individuals, now citizens, who share common values to form a political and legal community of their choosing. Liberals such as John Locke can see the moral value in that; so can I. Thus, if we grant that nations usefully enhance the lives of individuals, can utilitarian hands reach and tip those moral scales at all? 
Let me take a difficult moral question for me to juggle (like any good futbol player) with these ideas. The conflict in Iraq may have been a moral no brainer for many, but not me (which I’m often ashamed to admit). I may be the only person alive who initially opposed the intervention into Iraq but became more convinced of its positive moral case as the situation deteriorated. Before any readers confuse correlation with causation, let me say that it was not because the situation deteriorated. Obviously the intellectual debate raged on after Saddam fell and the reality grew worse. I began reading both sides of the debate including the moral cases built by many in favor of the war prior to its launch. Without rehashing the cases now, just understand that the liberal hawks and intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens had a profound and persuasive effect on my understanding of the moral value in attempting to liberate a people from a tyrannical and sadistic monster like Hussein. 
During the horrible violence unleashed during the attempted building of democracy in Iraq, I read Peter Galbraith’s End of Iraq (while traveling in Spain) which while revealing the most devastating catalogue of incompetency in America’s execution, it also instilled in me a deep sympathy for the Iraqis, especially the Kurdish minority, under the barbarous rule of Hussein. As it became obvious to people like Andrew Sullivan and the majority of the American populous that supporting the adventure into Iraq had been a mistake, I began to wonder if the execution of the mission should carry moral weight about the rational to enter the conflict. After all, it is certainly possible that we had moral justification to try to aid the people of Iraq, but just did a terrible job. Or even if a noble mission is doomed to fail, can it be good? 

Is Iraq worse off now? If so, will it be in the future? The dead Iraqis are clearly worse off.  Many that were previously oppressed are now better off. In the calculation of the complete moral tally of the Iraq enterprise, the sum is unclear to me. When I judge the Iraq conflict now, I can’t help but view the situation through the lens of an American. For the United States, it seems an unqualified failure and mistake. This brings me back to my original point; should I be looking at this as an American as opposed to the perspective of, say, a Kurd who’s family was gassed by Saddam or a Shi’ite who would have been tortured and killed if Saddam remained in power? Nonetheless, if someone forced me to say if we should have gone into Iraq knowing what I know now, I’d have to say, ‘”no.” The neoconservative cheerleaders fail to acknowledge reality, but many opponents and reformed souls too often don’t like to admit the continued difficulty in the moral case for and against intervention. Anytime someone points to the number of dead Americans or cost to American taxpayers, I wholeheartedly empathize but the provincialism registers with me. I’m not discounting it or faulting it. I think those statistics are important, valuable, and persuasive measures for the ethical case against intervention. But if we were Iraqis fighting for our own home, would 4000+ dead servicemen and a multi-trillion dollar price tag be not worth the cost for the overthrow of a brutal dictator and the promise of self-determination? 

These questions puzzle me as a liberal humanitarian. The case for nationalism here is powerful. The nation, as the political entity we’ve created to advance our individual interests, must seek its own self-interest. It is plausible to me that the invisible hand of self-interest works for nation-states causing a greater good for other parties. As for our political representatives, we elected them to represent our interests over others as long as we hold to basic human decency. So, shouldn’t I encourage them to value an American life over an Iraqi’s if that means greater good for all in a utilitarian calculation? If our nation weighted everyone in the world the same, it wouldn’t have the resources to improve as many lives. The combination of scarcity with the practicality of local action suggests that more people benefit by an individual state favoring its own interests.
As may be apparent now, a contrast exists in valuing all humans equally while thinking nations best serve individuals. I haven’t reconciled it yet. Iraq is not only a chockstone for the Middle East, but also precariously wedges together difficult moral precepts for me. The intervention into Iraq may be noble mistake, but both sides in the debate need to acknowledge that strong moral factors sit on both sides of the scale. 
(photo 1: New York Times
(photo 2: Me in Spain at a Kurdish kebab shop)

WIth Apologizes to Trotsky: The Dangerous Romanticization of Muslim "Moderates"

July 1, 2010 1 comment
In Foreign Affairs, Marc Lynch writes a thoughtful critique of Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals. Berman’s book (which I haven’t read yet) describes the way that Western intellectuals have balked from criticizing Islam and even defended illiberal ideas. I read Berman’s 2007 “Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?” piece in The New Republic, which Lynch says the book is based. Berman blasts various Western intellectuals and journalists who profile of Ramadan without exposing his more toxic history and beliefs. Here’s an encapsulation of Berman’s view of Ramadan (which he believes many miss):

The problem lies in the terrible fact that Ramadan’s personal milieu—his grandfather, his family history, his family contacts, his intellectual tradition—is precisely the milieu that bears the principal responsibility for generating the modern theoretical justification for religious suicide-terrorism. Yet what can Ramadan do about this horrific reality—turn against his family? He is his family’s prince. He has timidly offered jurisprudential proposals contrary to Qaradawi’s; but Ramadan, unlike Qaradawi, is a university philosopher, a secular figure (in spite of everything), and not an authoritative theologian. Ramadan’s opinions are opinions; Qaradawi’s opinions are law. What is Ramadan to do, then? To challenge Qaradawi’s authority would mean challenging the system of authority as a whole, which is something well beyond the salafi reformist idea. So Ramadan writes op-eds, which are not fatwas. And he devotes his life to burnishing the prestige of his father and grandfather and their works, and to promoting the cause of salafi reformism, which means promoting the authority of true and authentic Islamic scholars such as Qaradawi.

And his final message, therefore, ends up calling for—but what is his final message with regard to violence? It is a double message. The first message condemns terrorism. The second message lavishes praise on the theoreticians of terrorism. (my emphasis)

Even Ramadan’s personal beliefs shouldn’t make liberals comfortable. Take his view on the stoning of women. In a debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan argued that a “moratorium” should be in place on stoning women for adultery until a “true debate” can take place. Berman points out that many commentators see that view as “progressive.” Of course it is only progressive when judged next to the views of extremist muslims. Unfortunately, I suppose, much of the muslim world needs to engage in just that sort of debate – but there is nothing “moderate” or “progressive” about it in a Western liberal context. It’s ghastly.

Marc Lynch himself writes, “Ramadan’s call in 2005 for a moratorium on the implementation of hudud penalties — including the stoning of adulterers — is mocked relentlessly by Berman as too little, but in fact it posed an intensely controversial challenge to the heart of Salafi political agendas and jurisprudence.” I suppose a similar argument is often made for Christian figures like Rick Warren who hold shockingly ignorant and repellent views on gays and women but are a little nicer than Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps so he gets more mainstream praise. It all just seems condescending to me, “Oh look at their faith communities, they can’t be expected to be completely reasonable!” When did anything short of outright violence become a commendable standard?  


Lynch does notice some of the danger Berman illustrates, here he gets it:

This does not mean that liberals should not have misgivings about Ramadan’s project. He defines sharia — the system of Muslim jurisprudence — not as the law of the land but as a personal moral code, sustained by the faith of the believer. Why should such a belief be alarming? After all, this is how many people of faith have reconciled themselves to civic states. But in practice, this evangelical project of societal transformation through personal transformation — changing the world “one soul at a time” — is more deeply radical than what violent extremists envision. Anyone can seize state power through violence and then impose his will by force. True power lies in the ability to mobilize consent so that people willingly embrace ideas without coercion — so that they want what you want, not simply do what you want. Nonviolent Islamists excel at this level of soft power and, in doing so, have succeeded in transforming public culture across the Muslim world. Walking the streets of Cairo today, for example, it is hard to believe that only a couple decades ago, few women covered their hair. (my emphasis)

Lynch’s main criticism appears to be “Berman’s lumping together of different strands of Islamism,” which would cause the West to “shun all Islamists.” I’m not sure if Berman has actually called for that, if so, I wouldn’t support it. I hope not to be accused of black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us thinking myself, but let me offer an imprecise parallel of what I see going on. Take the ideologies of Trotsky and Stalin. Since Trotsky’s and Ramadan’s ideologies remain on the official unemployment roles they seem less frightening. The easy romanticization of any jobless (not necessarily uninfluential) ideologue always softens the hasher reality of their beliefs. Fully realized libertarianism would have its faults glaringly revealed like every other ideology. The relatively reactionary Ramadan like the radical Trotsky hasn’t had to chance to fully implement their ideas into practice, which obscures their more hideous features. Ramadan’s philosophy is even more susceptible to this rosy blurring due to religion’s innate ability to be read ambiguously and Ramadan’s uncanny ability to weave perceptual burkas on naive and credulous Westerners through euphemism, “double discourse,” and evasion.


Trotsky’s undeniable ability as a thinker and writer made him a particularly appealing idol. Yet Robert Service, biographer of Leon Trotsky, peered upon the high pedestal and argues that many Trotsky’s ideas “overlap with those of Stalin.” Had Lenin got a chance to give control to Trotsky over Stalin (which he wanted to do after a change of mind) how much suffering would be mitigated? It is cliche to remark that the perfect shouldn’t get in the way of the good, but should we have hoped the bad get in the way of the terrible? If the Ramadans replace the Bin Ladens, Lynch is right, we’re better off (who would argue otherwise?). Well, we’re less worse off – but in a liberal renissance we’re not.

In our counterfactual history, the Soviet Union may have less anti-Semitism with Trotsky, but the same isn’t so easy to see in our alternate modern Islamic nations. Of course, Service believes that the “risks of bloodbath in Europe would be drastically increased.” (my emphasis) Yet, that may have preempted Hitler and saved the world from the horrors of Nazism. Now we’re getting a bit too far down the road of “What If” history, but the point should be clear: we should be careful boosting any unsavory figures just because they’re moderating such an extreme. Service uses the phrase “Gentle Stalinism” for Trotsky; does Ramadan exhibit “Gentle Talibanism?”
Are Trotsky’s ideas more “moderate” than Stalin’s? Sure, but that’s a breathtakingly thin use of the word – you can almost hear the letters collapsing in on themselves. Berman seems to appreciate this and calls out journalists for being insufficiently critical. 

The equanimity on the part of some well-known intellectuals and journalists in the face of Islamist death threats so numerous as to constitute a campaign; the equanimity in regard to stoning women to death; the journalistic inability even to acknowledge that women’s rights have been at stake in the debates over Islamism; the inability to recall the problems faced by Muslim women in European hospitals; the inability to acknowledge how large has been the role of a revived anti-Semitism; the striking number of errors of understanding and even of fact that have entered into the journalistic presentations of Tariq Ramadan and his ideas; the refusal to discuss with any frankness the role of Ramadan’s family over the years; the accidental endorsement in the Guardian of the great-uncle who finds something admirable in the September 11 attacks—what can possibly account for this string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders?  

Two developments account for it. The first development is the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism. (my emphasis)



If Berman’s critique is reserved for intellectuals and journalists, I’m with him. Futhermore, Lynch is right that we can’t group disparate groups together or engage in binary thinking. I’m certainly not saying Ramadan and others like him are just like the Taliban or Bin Ladan or even Trotsky. As a matter of diplomacy, counterinsurgency, military, or political strategy it is probably of enormous use to carefully align ourselves with more “moderate” and “reformer” and nonviolent figures in Islamic civilizations. Yet our media or our universities and we as citizens and as skeptics have an obligation to the unveiled truth. Our intellectuals, as Berman believes, shouldn’t and needn’t be so diplomatic. Religious moderates have a role to play in curbing the more violent tendencies of fanatical Islam – and they aren’t a greater threat. But Western liberals who truly hold dear the values of the Enlightenment must be wary of, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “the soft mainstreaming of Islamic imperialism.” Journalists, public intellectuals, bloggers, community leaders all have to fight for our values and our culture against bigotry, barbarity, and those that seek to undermine the greater Enlightenment project of equality, liberty, secular rationality, and honesty – we won’t do that by biting our collective tongues with the teeth of political correctness.  

Lynch counters Berman writing that “ Ramadan may not present the only path to such an end — but he does present one.” Sadly, Lynch dismisses the heroic Ayaan Hirsi Ali writing, “real moral courage does not come from penning angry polemics without regard for real-world consequences.” May I offer that Ali may not present the only path for intellectuals to take – but she does present an honest one. 

Cancer Is Not Great

Christopher Hitchens has cancer. His statement released by his publisher reads:

Been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me.

You really have to admire the man. I hope the hard work of all the nurses and doctors aided by centuries of scientific and medical advancement can cure him. His mental constitution certainly won’t let him down. I admire Hitchens as much as any other writer, thinker, or public intellectual and wish him and his family the very best. Here’s an older piece of writing (it’s worth reading in entirety) from Dan Dennett when he was recovering from heart surgery – I’m sure Hitchens would approve:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence  is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea,  India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning  out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

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