Friday, December 29, 2006

"Being Muslim: A Groundwork Guide" by Haroon Siddiqui

I often find that reading or arguing with an opinion I completely disagree with can be as conducive to clear thinking on my own beliefs as reading a persuasive account of my own views. This book was something of a whitewash of Muslim behaviour while overexaggerating the West's influence when he accepted that things do go wrong in the Muslim world. A recurring example of this was the almost total responsibility for Saudi Arabia given to the United States. There are rather too many important mistakes in this book for a comprehensive fisking to be helpful so I'll describe some common misdirections instead. I'll also leave out the discussion of Islam's older history as it takes a long time to analyse and is less important than the parts about the present and recent events.

His style somewhat grates as it is very heavy on rhetorical questions. This tends to be used to cover up for rather tenuous assertions. The first example to hand, he takes the statement which does, indeed, preface some articles my moderate Muslims "I am a Muslim but I am not a fundamentalist Muslim" and follows it with "(Do Christians say "I am a Christian but I am not an evangelical Christian?")". The answer to this question is that, in discussions where they defend the majority Christians as moderates, many do say just that. These rhetorical questions are not designed to be genuinely thought about but to encourage outrage and they are rarely helpful.

He also blows some, rather trivial, Western criticisms of Islam, such as that Mohammed's marriage to an underaged wife was immoral, way out of proportion into a caricature of obsession. If this obsession does exist in the Western media I have not seen it and the only time I have seen the issue of Mohammad's marriage come up is in connection with the discussion about Mohammed following the Danish Cartoons crisis as people try to build a balanced picture of the man being discussed.

His biggest error though was in his assessment of what was going wrong in the Western engagement with European Muslims. His contention was that the main Muslim grievance was Western foreign policy and that the demonstrations over the Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoon crisis were largely legitimate responses to a serious offence.

His response to the threats and violence over the Satanic Verses and Danish Cartoons was the fatuous line that I've heard before from an associate of Hizb ut Tahrir. He argues that it is legitimate to argue that freedom of speech does have limits. This is correct but he does nothing beyond arguing that they involve a mischaracterisation of Muhammed to argue that either the Satanic Verses or the Danish Cartoons were beyond a sensible limit. A common bar to that limit is the encouragement of violence which neither offence can be construed as doing. His other strategy was to argue that these are exceptional cases but this is also not true as South Park's censorship and the other Dutch cases which sparked Jyllands-Posten to act attest.

Equally, the bigger problem wasn't that the Muslim demonstrators were wrong but that there were far too many Muslims threatening violence in an attempt to get their way in policy. If the extent of free speech is decided not by rational debate and democratic choice then speech is not free and an awful incentive is set up to use this threat more regularly. This is an existential threat to free speech. It is a particular problem for public policy, and distinct from other violations of free speech such as holocaust denial laws, because it cannot be challenged through democratic means which means it can only be confronted through defiance, as Jyllands-Posten attempted, or through draconian security measures.

A similar critique applies to his judgement that much Muslim discontent is due to foreign policy. Disagreeing with foreign policy is fine but a community becomes dangerous when it cannot accept that the decision on foreign policy by the country they live in belongs to its government. Equally, it is unfortunate that the Muslim population takes any attack on someone who is a Muslim as an attack upon themselves. Saddam attacked Muslims as much as Milosevic did so why, the quality of execution of the war aside, is an attempt to remove him, which would prevent him doing this further, any less pro-Muslim than our actions in Kosovo or Bosnia which, he believes were received gratefully?

I also challenge his assertion that all was well before the Iraq war apart from Israel-Palestine. We know that many of the 9/11 bombers were recruited with stories of abuses in Bosnia despite that being a war the US was on the "Muslim" side of; this would not appear to be a response to genuine foreign policy grievances with the West. The vigil post-9/11 in Tehran which he mentions is also far from representative as many in 'Muslim lands' celebrated the attacks.

Finally, we come to the Quranic link to violence which he argues does not exist as the verses often quoted are, when read in context, only supportive of violence if the faith is under attack. The problem is that too many Muslims have a very low bar to seeing things as an attack upon their faith. If a cartoon showing Muhammad in a compromising position or a war against a majority Muslim nation, unfortunate in its leaders, abroad are attacks on a Muslim's faith then the religion clearly does become a deeply violent one.

This leaves the most serious problem with Muslims in the West being that an intense and often misguided sensitivity to attacks on the faith leaves many Muslims vulnerable to an understanding that the Quran's calls to violence are applicable in the West today. This then feeds, in a minority, into a lack of respect for democratic and peaceful process which liberal societies have a very hard time dealing with even if the offending minority is only small in number. In order to defend democratic decision making any liberal society which is not lucky enough to have sufficient voices in the media and politicians willing to risk violence will require draconian security measures which may still fail to provide security despite their strength. Unfortunately, the Muslim attitude which makes such security measures necessary is supported by their implementation as measures like racial profiling are seen as further attacks.

This problem is incredibly serious and unless the Muslim community can get over the siege mentality Siddiqui's book may, I fear, have contributed to in some small measure then Muslims in the West will continue to be associated with a massive threat to democratic stability and there will be more of the policies coming from Western governments, aimed at forcing the pace of integration or ensuring security, which Siddiqui so loathes.

Toronto vs. Vancouver

Yesterday I flew from Toronto to Vancouver for the World Universities Debating Championships. Since then I've become a finalist in the Master's competition (a separate mini-competition for judges); the final is next Tuesday. Till then I'm judging which might leave me a bit more time for blogging.

I enjoyed Toronto. There's a lot to do. However, just like Berlin I was somewhat left wondering what the point of the city was, at least from a visitors point of view. But for having friends there I'm not sure I'd have gone any time soon and I'm not sure what would drag me back. It operates somewhat like a sanitised New York and I am pretty certain guarantees a superb quality of life for its residents, felt very safe and was clean and good looking but had a shortage of what makes a city really interesting; to me at least. It seemed rather too new.

Vancouver is absolutely beautiful. Set against the mountains with a lower skyline than many North American cities but design that seems far more settled. I don't think I have ever seen the Pacific before (my trip to China was only to Beijing and I was in the middle of Russia) but I am told this is what a West Coast city feels like. It has some European character to it which makes it an interesting contrast to New York, Philadelphia, DC or the other East Coast cities. It is probably closest to Boston. We went to an Italian restaurant today which combined North American ease with European quality and distinctiveness. I would recommend it, Savory Coast on Robson Street if anyone should find themselves in the city any time soon.

My only real reservation over Vancouver is that I'm told to expect hippies. This may cause my current good temper to fray.