Politics

Douglas Murray, Islamophilia

I must confess: About a third of the way through Douglas Murray’s Islamophilia, I tossed it onto the discard pile. (islamophiliaOK, not really, since I was reading it on my Nook.) But before I abandoned this book, my conscience got the better of me. I re-launched the file and read to the end.

I am very glad I did.

If I were to blurb Islamophilia, I would say, “Douglas Murray has provided us with a document that is challenging, bitter, distasteful, and difficult to digest. And it may well be one of the most important books of the past few years.” (Hey Mr. Murray, don’t forget me when the print edition goes to press.)

In this short book (more of an extended essay), Murray vents over post-9/11 media treatment of Islam, which he considers to be inconsistent with treatment of other religions. For Murray, Islam is like an update on the Seinfeld episode when a reporter thought Jerry and George were a couple, prompting qualified denials (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

Unfortunately, this is not a book with a strong sense of humor, and it reads more like a polemic than an essay. In the early pages, Murray’s anger overshadows his argument. For example, Murray expends much energy going after the 1001 Inventions multimedia education project, which spotlights Muslim contributions to science and technology. He argues that the exhibit crosses over into historical revisionism, and perhaps he’s right. I’ve never seen the exhibit myself, but he’s not the first person to make this critique. But regardless of the factual accuracy, his mocking tone is more befitting a late-night drunk dialogue.

Here is where I shut it down.

I intentionally avoid politics in this column, particularly because I believe—excepting the extremely polarized rants on the nonfiction bestseller list—that literature is one of the few uniting or at least neutral spaces remaining. (I would say animals and football are the others. Folks love their dogs no matter where they stand on universal health care.)

But due to the subject of this book, I feel some disclosure is appropriate. I am a liberal, yet what drew me to this book is that I agree with Murray, a neoconservative. It’s an area of contention with my liberal friends, who apply inconsistent standards toward Islam. Were the Catholic church to require women to wear hijabs and be accompanied by men in public, it would be denounced as part of the church’s war on women. But when mandated by Islam, it’s dismissed as a cultural difference.

I’m not asking my liberal counterparts to feel one way or another about these religions, but as a matter of intellectual integrity, I do expect them to be consistent.

So, I was drawn to the thesis of this book, but turned off by the tone. What made me pick it back up?

Cartoons.

When it comes to Islam and art, there are three events that are indefensible: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (for writing a novel); the brutal assassination and near-decapitation of Theo Van Gough (because of an 11-minute film); and the more than 200 people who have been killed in response to Danish cartoons.

And then there was the censorship of the animated show South Park and the death threats aimed at the show’s creators. Murray writes:

“This, however, is the new normal. Cartoons are censored. Any possible offence to Muslims is averted by series and broadcast networks that routinely and enjoyably satirise everything else under the sun, including all other religions.”

Here, Murray hits his stride. He addresses the violent backlash against artists and how it has led to pre-emptive self-censorship. For example, The Jewel of Medina, a book Random House dropped for fear of attack—a merited fear as weeks later a book publisher in Britain was fire-bombed for agreeing to release the book (which Murray says has still not been released in Britain).

What’s happening now, he argues, is self-censorship for fear of reprisal. Something absent following critiques of other faiths:

“Artists and writers have been caught off-guard. Having poked at empty hornets’ nests for so many years they have forgotten the courage required to do the necessary poking at full ones.”

Murray then sounds the call for bravery and the courage to support artistic freedom. He closes with some of the book’s most thoughtful passages and proposes solutions to overcoming both phobias and philias.

It is this last part that really elevates Murray’s argument, and makes me glad I stuck with the book.

Like I said, this is a difficult read, but an important one. I often disagree with Murray, and at times he made me cringe, but in the end, his argument is thorough and thoughtful and worthy of consideration.

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Review, On Dissent: Its Meaning in America

On DissentNot many books from Cambridge University Press make it to the summer reading list, but On Dissent: Its Meaning in America is one of the better ways to revolt against the light-hearted beach-readers out there. Hell, it’s patriotic. America was born in dissent, and we celebrate it still. With fireworks—even illegal ones (though from now on I argue that M-80s are not outlaws, but rather the tools of dissent).

But why is dissent so much of our DNA? What does it even mean to dissent? These were the questions nagging at Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, two esteemed political scholars who were surprised to find that there was no true analysis of the concept of dissent.

That’s what they set out to create with this short, thought-provoking work.

For the most part, Collins and Skover accomplish their goal. The tone is philosophical in nature, and the authors begin by attempting to define dissent and identify its practitioners. Sure, anyone can point to the examples of Thoreau, King and Paine, but the authors take on trickier issues, such as how clear the line is (or isn’t) between civil disobedience and criminality. What role does violence play in dissent, or does an action cease to be dissent once it becomes violent?

Collins and Skover do a great job, and scholarly service, by identifying the fundamental traits of dissent, such as its being goal-oriented and indicative of a power dynamic. They buttress their definition by exploring hypotheticals and philosophical dilemmas (is a hired protester a dissenter?), and they do it all with an accessible writing style that will appeal to non-academic readers who might not otherwise seek out this book.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and the biggest issue I have is with the authors’ overreliance on expert commentary, such as that of Howard Zinn and Ralph Nader. The quotations are often redundant and unnecessary. The collective intellect of Collins and Skover is authoritative enough, and I recommend skimming through the offset commentary.

But there’s nothing else I would skim over in this book—particularly the epilogue. Here, the authors move away from definitions and thought experiments and present their own take on dissent—that contrary to rebellion, dissent is a vital and cohesive component of a democracy:

“Consent and dissent are two sides of the same coin. Without dissent, consent is meaningless; without consent, dissent loses much of its animating purpose” (152).

On Dissent is a quick and wonderful read. It will get you thinking. It will get you talking. It will remind you that though we may disagree, the freedom to disagree and express opposing viewpoints is what makes us strong.

The End of Righteousness

OK, the title of this book review is admittedly ambitious, but now that the election has finished, perhaps we can all sheath our knives for a week or so–and stop screaming long enough to breathe.

Or better yet, to read a good book.

To nurse that campaign hangover, I recommend moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt‘s new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I read this over the summer, and I think it should be required reading for anyone running for office. And it’s the perfect antidote for any residual post-electoral rage.

Haidt begins with a simple, yet quite genius premise. He looked around at his countrymen, divided by a vicious culture war, and discovered more commonalities than differences. For all our diversity, American culture is quite homogenous. (No surprise: “Melting pots” are designed to synthesize many ingredients into a unified whole, not keep them separated.)

We have common experiences, languages, and yes, values. No matter what the campaign ads say, is there anyone on either side that doesn’t want the economy to improve, for their family to be safe from attack, to have excellent health care and receive a good education?

There are philosophical differences on how to achieve these goals, true, but when it comes down to it, all any sane person wants is to be happy, to provide for their loved ones and live a good life.

So why all the vitriol? How can a society with such common goals claw at each others’ eyes with such entitlement? How can we so easily demonize and dismiss someone who disagrees with us?

Well, it’s complicated, to be sure. But Haidt sifts through scientific research, anthropological findings and the evolution of intellectual thought to divine some underlying truths. One of the biggest is the notion that intuition guides our beliefs more than reason. This is why logical arguments are often ineffectual against deep-rooted beliefs–why discussions become debates, and debates devolve into bumper-sticker slogan shouting.

“…don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.”

In other words, it is not evidence that shapes our worldview. We are naturally and subconsciously drawn to evidence that confirms are worldview. We intuit our morality first and support it with arguments later. That’s why it’s so easy to become entrenched in our beliefs and intolerant of opposing viewpoints.

The Righteous Mind does skew toward the academic, and can be challenging at times. But hey, nobody said bipartisanship was easy! Once you’ve grasped the science and moral theory, you’ll have a better grasp of Haidt’s conclusion.

And this is where the author truly shines.

“Part III: Morality Binds and Blinds” synthesizes all that came before and presents an insightful view of human beliefs and behaviors. How would conservatives fare without liberals? Liberals without conservatives? Haidt makes a compelling case that each would fail without the other. This book is worth it for this section alone.

Here, Haidt summons the great utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill and his take on both sides of the aisle. “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

Perhaps after reading this book, we’ll treat one another with a little more respect and a little less righteousness.