Saturday, February 21, 2015

Clash of Worldviews: Islamist Terrorism Edition

MODERATOR: Welcome, viewers, to another clash of worldviews, the show that pits philosophies against each other. This evening, we’re joined by noted liberal secular humanist, Adam Garnett, self-proclaimed postmodern pessimist and cynic, Heather Fogarty, and influential conservative Muslim philosopher, Tariq Shadid. Recently, Islamist terrorists have been in the news for ISIL beheadings and immolations in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, shootings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and the killing of Parisian cartoonists and Danish Jews and free speech supporters. Adam, why don’t you start things off by laying out the liberal’s case against those terrorists’ ideology?

ADAM: Sure, but I wouldn’t call it a “case,” exactly. A case is an argument that supports a viewpoint in a rational context in which the listeners understand and assent to logic and the rule of evidence. Religious faith, though, has utterly overtaken the sanity of these radical Islamists. Debating their ideology would be like teaching quantum mechanics to a four year-old.

But let’s begin by familiarizing ourselves with some highlights of the history of how we got here. In the eleventh century, al-Ghazali, the jurist, Asharite philosopher and Sufi mystic refuted the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, in the name of Islamic theology. Whereas that philosophy was naturalistic, al-Ghazali’s book, Incoherence of the Philosophers, contends that nature entirely submits to God’s will, having no independent causal power. The laws of nature are just elements of God’s rationality, so that all the events we perceive are caused directly by God. When faced with the epistemological problem of skepticism about knowledge of the external world, al-Ghazali retreated to a kind of mysticism that substitutes God for that world and appeals to faith that God can do anything. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes, the medieval polymath, defended classical philosophy, but while that defense led to the rise of naturalism and secularism in modern Europe, Averroism was rejected by most of the Muslim world, and so the way was cleared for today’s Islamist puritans who scoff at modern science and liberties. “God is great!” they chant, meaning that defiance of God is impossible because Islam is the one true religion that reflects God’s oneness and supremacy: the whole world isn’t just created by Allah but sustained, moment by moment, by him, so that when the radicals act out of intuition that they carry out God’s will, it’s God who acts through them. There is only illusory opposition to God, since everything must submit to the mightiest being, by definition. That’s the Asharite mysticism that al-Ghazali codified, which places revelation and mystical intuition before reason.

Later, in the eighteenth century, the Salafi reformer, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab, preached that Muslims should return to monotheistic purity. He made a political pact with Muhammad bin Saud, who used the fundamentalist ideology to conquer territory and establish the Saudi state that survives to this day, by funding Salafism but directing it outwards to alleged external threats to Islamic purity, thus protecting the decadent Saudi family. Salafis reject scholastic philosophy (kalam) as a foreign, ancient Greek import that encourages free-thinking and debate to make theology rational. Adhering to a minimalist interpretation of Sunni, that is, the equivalent of Catholic Islam, Salafis regard speculative philosophy as a heresy of arrogance, of setting us up as rival gods who can learn the truth through our rational powers, without divine guidance, whereas the Islamic imperative is to submit to Allah. Salafis thus preach that the Quran, Hadith, consensus of elite Muslim scholars, and traditions from the first three generations of Muslims provide sufficient guidance for Muslims. In essence, this Salafism, which dominates Saudi Arabia and the UAE and which is the source of most Islamist terrorism today, is about submission to dogmas.  

Moderate Muslims and milquetoast centrists like President Obama contend that these terrorists merely distort true Islam and that no major religion justifies their savagery. Invariably, they remind us that the vast majority of Muslims reject the terrorist’s interpretation of Islam as “extreme” and as a “distortion” of the faith. Of course, anyone saying this should drop what they’re doing, pick up the nearest whip and flagellate the flesh of their back for wasting their listener’s time with a fallacious appeal to popularity. It goes without saying that the “correct” theological interpretation needn’t be the one that most people accept. More importantly, this debate about whether today’s militant jihadists betray or practice their religion isn’t worth having. There is no correct answer to the question, because the debate is theological. It’s exactly like asking which interpretation of Christianity is correct, Catholicism, Protestantism, or Fundamentalism (Evangelicalism). Even in Christianity, which at least honoured classical wisdom in medieval scholasticism, leading to naturalistic, systematic theology which ironically opened the door for modern science, reason has a precarious position, because of the alleged rival sources of knowledge in revelation, faith, and intuition. As I’ve just recounted, Islam as a whole lacks even the pretense that its theology owes its worth primarily to reason. Of course, for Muslims, reason is supposed to be compatible with faith, but that’s only because reason—like the whole of nature itself—is assumed to submit to God in the sense of being nothing without the deity. Christians went as far towards rationalism as to entertain deism, the possibility that God created an autonomous world that operates according to natural rather than divine laws, which reason can discover. By incorporating Sufi mysticism, Islam left no such room for reason’s authority and thus no room for modernity.
But my point now is just that because this is so, Islamic hermeneutics isn’t subject to fact-based standards of correctness. Reason or evidence has no final say in the matter of whether the Quran supports the notion that disbelievers who insult the Prophet should be beheaded (8:12; 33:57, 61; 47:4). The power of those entrusted as authority figures in Islam is paramount. Revelation is compelling not because it’s rational to assume that the angel Gabriel spoke to Muhammad, but because good people are supposed to have faith that scripture is a message from the Supreme Being. Faith, trust, intuition—these are Islamic virtues of submission to the most powerful individual, and they’re what make for the Muslim’s peace: peace by not banging your head against an immovable wall. Are there more tolerant ways of interpreting the many militant, indeed apparently savage passages of the Quran? Of course there are, because Arabic words can have many different meanings and because theology isn’t a science that proves anything without resorting to fallacies of force. All that matters here is that because Islam privileges faith far more than reason, Muslims have surrendered their ability to decisively refute the terrorists’ fundamentalist ideology. And the majority will accept an interpretation of their religion that makes its practice relatively easy, because most religious people aren’t saints or martyrs and so they succumb to secular temptations.

Given, then, that militant Islamist fundamentalism stands as a legitimate form of the religion, which has an alien epistemology that denies the independence of both reason and nature, what should a modern, civilized person say about the terrorist’s jihad? The modern world is plainly at war with fundamentalist Islam and potentially with the whole Muslim world, because there is no reliable opposition in that world to the terrorists. True, only a tiny minority of the huge Muslim population takes up arms against the West or kills civilians. But most Muslims are Sunnis, which means they’re conservative and thus liable at any moment to agree with the terrorist’s call for ultraconservatism, that is, for a puritanical, literalistic interpretation of Sharia and the other Islamic scriptures. Again, having disarmed themselves by embracing mysticism, most Muslims have mainly their cowardice or heretical attraction to secular Western ideals to prevent them from fighting against globalization, which is the spread of the Western monoculture. Theological moderation in Islam is an utterly perilous venture; indeed, since Muhammad himself defended Islam for ten years as a military commander, assuming he existed at all, the Muslim moderates are pitifully outmatched by the militants.

TARIQ: You’ve no need to convince me of the legitimacy of the mujahid’s interpretation of Islam. I support the jihad against Western domination of the Middle East through puppet dictators. This is a war for the preservation of Islam’s purity, and unlike the Church which gave in to secular temptations by allying itself with the pagan Roman Empire and then with classical rationalism in the modern period, Muslims have the faith to resist, if that be Allah’s will. The true Christians, the Gnostics and mystics, were persecuted as heretics by the faithless orthodox Christians, who reduced God Almighty to his mere temporary mouthpiece, Jesus. In Islam mystics rule, which means only that Islam is a genuine religion, not a farce like Christianity, let alone like Judaism which in practice is the worship of law or money.    

Your rationalism amuses me, though, Adam. Salafi Islam is lunacy or transparently fallacious, you say, the mere groveling before powerful authorities. But your appeal to Reason indicates that you’re committed to obsolete modern myths of progress and of humanity’s virtual godhood through our rational self-control which allegedly allows us to become omniscient through science and omnipotent through technology. Are you unaware that those myths have given way to postmodern hyperskepticism even in the West, let alone in the Muslim world which was never foolish enough to fall for modernism, the West’s substitute religion? Are you truly so uninformed that you think Einstein and quantum mechanics haven’t undermined the earlier deterministic materialism; that Sade, Freud and Darwin didn’t demolish the pretensions of modern civility; that Marx didn’t establish the unsustainability of unbridled capitalism; or that the American left-wing itself, from Chomsky to Taibbi haven’t shown that American democracy is a fig leaf for that country’s plutocracy? From Nixon to Bush II and Barak “Drone King” Obama, American democracy has perpetrated one fiasco after another, so that only the most blinkered Americans still retain faith in their fevered dream of liberty. You think the jihadists are insane, but whence the sanity of the average American who still thinks her government looks out for the middle class more than for the top one percent?

Even in science, the purported haven of rationality, utility is more important than truth. Ask scientists whether their theories are True and they’ll shake their heads with pity, itching to ignore your time-wasting philosophical musings so they can get back to work. Science is a pragmatic business and its methods of openness and experimentation are means of achieving practical goals. Scientists employ models or simplified maps of what they call natural reality, but they don’t believe there’s any magical correspondence between the two. Maps are tools that enable the user to navigate the land. 

So when you speak of Islam’s failure of rationality, take care to ensure you haven’t just arrived at this brave new world, skipping over the last couple of centuries like Rip Van Winkle. Your rationalism is old and musty and covered in cobwebs. Welcome to postmodernity in which the Western secularist doesn’t enjoy an intellectual advantage so much as a taboo against disposing of the neoliberal doubletalk that props up the modern myths even while taking technocratic steps to secure an increasingly dystopian global society that makes an utter mockery of those myths.   

ADAM: Let me get this straight: you’re saying you agree that civilians should be killed just because they’re not Muslims. In effect, you’re praising bin Ladin, for example, for the attacks on 911. Is that right?

TARIQ: You yourself said there’s a state of war between the West and the Muslim world. You want the mujahidin to fight that war according to the conventions worked out by the Western victors of WWII. That’s because you Americans, Canadians, and Europeans are living in the past like old Van Winkle. You decry the so-called terrorists for not waging war in the conventional fashion which holds between states and which therefore requires that both sides be equally wealthy to afford tanks, jets, and warships. What happens when one side dominates the other through proxy regimes which steal their people’s wealth and squander it on private palaces? If the impoverished people can summon the courage to rebel, they fight as insurrectionists in which case the targeted nation state will call the rebels brigands or terrorists and hold the insurrection as unlawful. Here again we encounter the pretense of modern civility, the bizarre notion that modern warfare all by itself hasn’t warranted a repudiation of the Age of Reason’s conceits. Millions died in the two global wars in which the combatants included the so-called enlightened, liberated, capitalistic nation states with their advanced weaponry. German liberals fell under the sway of the demagogue Hitler and helped him scapegoat and exterminate the Jews, while the noble Americans firebombed Tokyo and nuked Nagasaki and Hiroshima. After the carnage, the civilized statesmen drew up some laws of warfare to preserve “stability,” which is another way of saying that the conventional view of warfare is an instrument for preserving the status quo in which America and its allies dominate the rest.

You speak of innocent civilians, thus betraying your lack of confidence in your liberal institutions. Don’t the majority of civilians rule in a democracy? Don’t Americans insist on civilian control of their military? And yet Americans are so cowardly that they’ll hide behind their soldiers as though the civilian consumers were blameless for what the denizens of their sprawling military bases do even though the civilians vote for centrist political parties that agree on the fundamentals of neoliberalism and American hegemony. You whine when mujahidin kill American civilians on your home soil, when those Muslim purists are obviously seeking revenge for the tens of thousands of Muslim civilians killed in the Middle East in conflicts sustained covertly or overtly by American-led powers. When a drone pilot kills a Muslim family or wedding party, mistaking the civilians for terrorists, that’s called “collateral damage,” because Americans are experts in using technocratic language to dehumanize themselves and others, having become the slaves of their technology. But when jihadists kill American civilians, that killing’s denounced as “savagery.”

The drones kill civilians by accident, you’ll say, whereas the jihadists intend to kill “noncombatants.” Again, there’s no need at all to respect the distinction between American soldiers and civilians, because if the civilians are innocent, that could only mean they have no control over their country’s war machine in which case their liberal institutions are bankrupt and a revolution is in order. The jihadists might then be thanked for getting the ball rolling. Otherwise, the civilians who vote their commander-in-chief into office can’t be considered blameless for what their military does in the name of their country’s ideals. And has it occurred to you that the cowardice of neoliberals like Obama who use drones to attack America’s impoverished foes from a position of complete safety is as offensive to virile Muslims as a beheading is to the squeamish, feminized American consumers? Your military uses tanks and warplanes to swat a fly and then you cry that you didn’t intend to flatten the house in which the fly buzzed—when that’s the obvious result of such a disproportionate use of force. You let loose the proverbial bull in the china shop and then pretend to be so stupid as to have not foreseen that the bull would shatter some plates. Why should Muslim insurrectionists care more about American intentions than about the natural consequences of certain actions? And why respect American talk of immorality when there’s no secular basis for morality in the first place? Again, welcome to the brave new world of postmodernity, Mr. Van Winkle.  

ADAM: Disgusting! I’m just appalled that you haven’t already been arrested and carted off to Guantanamo.

TARIQ: I’m a thinker, not a soldier. I don’t participate in the jihad. I’m merely trying to understand the world we inhabit. If you ask me whether I think the so-called terrorists are justified in waging war against modernity, I’d say first that talk of such justification is itself obsolete. Wars happen when worlds collide. And in this case, what we’re seeing is the inevitable conflict between Islam, the pinnacle of monotheism, and modernism. If you ask whether I applaud the killing of Western non-Muslims by Muslims, I’d say I’m a harsh critic of Western cultures and I suspect the jihadists will eventually be hailed as heroic rebels who fought bravely against dystopian, deeply self-deluded regimes. The chief difference between jihadists and Western progressives is that the latter lack the will to die for anything, because they believe in nothing as a result of their growing disenchantment with the modern metanarratives. Both sides agree on their radical rejection of the status quo of globalization and American consumerism.

The second difference between them, though, is that the jihadists would replace the new world order, the so-called Pax Americana, with a caliphate, whereas progressives ultimately have no idea what they’d substitute for dysfunctional democracy, capitalism, and the materialistic Western culture. Progressives demand a return to Glass-Steagall and to a higher tax rate to support the middle class, as though the American middle class wasn’t an aberration due to global asymmetries resulting from the Second World War, and as though the American government hasn’t been captured by the factions it would be charged with regulating. Again, American progressives look to the Democrats to fight for their values, as though that party hasn’t likewise been captured by centrists and neoliberals. Progressives have nowhere to turn to and postmodern hyperrationality has subverted their values, so they denounce jihadists out of jealousy. If only progressives had something worth fighting and dying for, they could see that they should be sympathizing with the jihadists rather than demonizing them.

ADAM: Sympathize with the maniacs who want them dead? Yeah, right! Anyway, Tariq, you’re mixing up politics and religion, but let’s focus on the religious motivation. After all, the most comical terrorist act is the killing of cartoonists for mocking Islam. That wouldn’t happen without the Quran’s many fractious passages. There’s just no respect in Islam for freedom of speech. God allegedly wants everything to submit to him, as though disobedience could be possible without freewill. If God made us free, maybe we’re supposed to exercise our judgment and God should respect our efforts to find our way, just as we admire our children as they grow into their adult character. If we’re not free, defiance is impossible, so by murdering cartoonists the terrorists themselves are blaspheming by implying that God doesn’t already cause the cartoonists to draw their satires.

TARIQ: If you deserve to die because you’re implicated in mass murder and in destroying whole ecosystems and threatening the planet’s ability to sustain life, maybe you should indeed sympathize with your executioner.

But you want to talk about freedom of speech. What you fail to see, Adam, is that children don’t grow up if they’re permitted to say or to do almost whatever they like. You think American secularists are more mature than Middle Eastern Muslims? No, your fellow secularists are infantilized because they have too much liberty for their good. You respect the wrong kind of freedom, the freedom to choose between options without having any higher guidance as to which option is best. You think any such restriction infringes on your absolute right to self-determination. So you whiz back and forth, consuming this and that, ever more discombobulated and anxious that maybe materialism and hedonism—which the unguided, isolated individual inevitably embraces thanks to the manipulation by demagogues—are curses rather than blessings. You’re entranced by things that don’t matter in the end, by techno-toys and houses and cars and jewelry and even family, ignoring the Absolute rather than perceiving it through religious ecstasy or a sense of the sublime. You think you’re a self-controlling individual even after cognitive science has found no basis at all in the brain for genuine freewill. You’re a machine, according to your rational, naturalistic worldview. Yet you still bloviate about your precious freedom, Mr. Van Winkle, as though you were entitled to that bit of Judeo-Christian ontology that modern science has made untenable for you. You want the freedom to say whatever you like, as though the speech of lost, selfish, infantilized, feminized consumers were worth more than an infant’s prattling.

HEATHER: This is all very rich, dipping into postmodern critiques to prop up the medieval religion of Islam, just like how the undercover terrorists themselves enjoy the benefits of modern society before they lash out at it. A most hypocritical tactic, I must say!

TARIQ: No, it’s heroic rather than hypocritical, hiding in the belly of the beast, enduring Western beastliness until the opportune moment when you can free yourself from the materialistic inanities by sacrificing yourself as you take a piece of the monster with you. Again, I suspect that in the coming centuries the mujahidin will be widely praised as martyrs for the greater good.

HEATHER: Nah, those thuggish cultists are pathetic because they’re humiliated by America’s earthly success. What a paradox is set before these true-believing Muslims: they worship the one true God but the Great Satan evidently rules the world. And Allah allows that defiance to happen for what reason exactly? Is Allah so impotent or hidden, after all, that he allows the infantile Western world to trample the Middle East, to force Muslims to submit not just to Allah but to those puppet dictators? The cause of terrorism isn’t religious ecstasy or divine guidance or anything like that, but rank cowardice. The terrorists want to blot out the world that causes them so much distress by threatening their religious faith and rubbing their nose in the fact that functional atheists are presently much more powerful than God-worshippers. Instead of reconciling themselves to the harsh truth that Islam itself is utterly backwards and irrelevant, given what we now know about the natural world, the most resentful Muslims take up arms to destroy the West to eliminate the ground for that crisis of faith.

The terrorist wants to say, “See, the Great Satan isn’t so powerful after all. We’ll bring down the United States just like we brought down the Soviet Union. And Allah won’t be so easily mocked.” But what these Muslim fundamentalists don’t want to realize is that not only is Allah indeed being mocked every day—and not just by cartoonists but by the very existence of modernity—not only that, but God can’t be what these fundamentalists think he is, given all of that mockery. As Adam was saying, mere secular disobedience should be impossible if God is so great that submission to him is metaphysically necessary. How much more theologically intolerable, then, must be the earthly supremacy of America’s relatively liberal, anti-Islamic culture? As they currently stand, the existence of the United States and of the other modern societies such as Israel is a sufficient disproof of mystical Islam. That’s ultimately the root of Islamist terrorism.

TARIQ: You may be right that the mujahidin are appalled by America’s success. But you’re wrong to discount religious experience as a large part of their motivation. They interpret natural order as a sign of Allah’s rationality, so that they sense that God is behind every event they experience. Imagine their excitement and camaraderie as they honour that feeling of divine unity by smiting the deluded secularists who think nature is godless and self-sustaining, who are misled by the illusion of God’s absence.

ADAM: What illusion? Show me Allah! Point me to his voice so I can hear it.

TARIQ: He speaks through angels and prophets and scripture.

ADAM: Then you’ve shown me only intermediaries who offer hearsay. 

HEATHER: And even if natural laws could be interpreted as signs of an intelligent designer’s rationality, that rationality would have to be alien and inhuman, because quantum mechanics, for example, is counterintuitive to animals like us. Why be so quick, then, to worship something you can’t possibly understand? Moreover, why submit to something just because it’s much more powerful than you? Don’t you know that might doesn’t make right?

TARIQ: Allah is morally perfect, not just the inescapable master of the universe. His mercy and compassion are beyond compare.

ADAM: Yeah, he’s merciful and compassionate as long as you do exactly what he wants, submitting to him as a slave—and it’s everlasting hellfire for the rest. You call that moral perfection? Who’s living in the past now, Mr. Van Winkle? Welcome to the Age of Reason in which we’re free to see through such theological rationalizations of tribal bigotry.

TARIQ: There’s no illogic there, contrary to your prejudice against authentic religion. Allah’s benevolence is manifest in his granting eternal paradise to those that please him, whereas he could destroy us all without warning and start again or not be so generous as to create a world in the first place. God’s morality is fearsome in its rigidity because his morality is real, unlike the moral value of modern libertinism, which is bogus. Meandering freedom to consume is merely an excuse to sin in perpetuity. There is an absolute difference between right and wrong only because there’s a singular God with a definite character who establishes the moral law. Without God, there would be only our feelings of what we like or dislike, which would make morality as arbitrary as our taste in fast food.

ADAM: Regardless, you’re misusing the words “merciful” and “compassion” when you apply them to such a monstrous deity who punishes us either for exercising our God-given freedom or for doing exactly what some of us are evidently programmed to do, which in the modern world is to see for ourselves how the world works and to use that knowledge to our advantage—all in the obvious absence of any Supreme Being who might disapprove. You can resort to the mystical distinction between God’s transcendent oneness and nature’s illusory multiplicity, but that’s just another way of saying that God himself is evidently nowhere to be found.

TARIQ: And why should that be otherwise? Who are you to stand face to face with the source of the universe? Do you know how much urine would flow down your leg were you forced to witness even the Big Bang, let alone the unutterable majesty of the Supreme Being? Your eyeballs would fall out of their sockets, your brain would explode, and that ocean of urine I spoke of could hold a whale. But of course you suffer from Faustian arrogance because you feel you’re the master of your little artificial world. You drive down the streets and stare at passersby as though you were invulnerable, ensconced behind your seatbelt. Not even the 911 attacks woke you up for long: it’s back to sleep in your dream world in which you’re safe in the bosom of the transnational corporations. What a shock the last Americans are in for when their sins will finally be paid for in full and their free society is free to sink back into the earth.

HEATHER: Even if that were to happen, it would prove nothing, Tariq. Societies come and go. So what? Did the collapse of the Ottoman Empire demonstrate Allah’s nonexistence? Of course not, since your theistic beliefs aren’t meaningful enough to be falsifiable.

TARIQ: Ah, but Muslims are humble before God so they’d accept their destruction as God’s will. Western secularists are arrogant because their current hegemony deludes them into thinking they’re gods upon the earth. There is no God but Allah; all before Allah are nothing by comparison.

ADAM: But since you yourself admit that Allah is necessarily hidden from us, because our brain would explode from an encounter with him, you’re implying now that Muslims are nihilists, because they occupy a world they consider unreal and can’t support their claim to have God’s word in their possession. Maybe that’s why some fervent Muslims are so quick to maim, murder, and destroy. If the natural world were so insignificant compared to Allah’s greatness, what would be the difference if civilians were beheaded or ancient Buddhist statues were dynamited or the Twin Towers were reduced to rubble and ash? Set your sights on that which can’t be seen, meanwhile ignoring everything perceivable. And they call that the deepest spirituality…

MODERATOR: Well, I'm sorry to say that that will have to be the last word for now. I’d like to thank our participants for their stimulating discussion. Stay tuned for a soap opera or for some such triviality.

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