Wednesday, January 21, 2009

“Liberal Muslims’ Double Jeopardy - Militant Mullahs and the Angry West”

This is a guest post by Taj Hashmi, whose recent move to the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies was Canada's loss. Hashmi was among the 11 prominent Canadian Muslim intellectuals who signed this declaration [pdf] against Islamist despotism and for free speech a couple of years ago. His perspective, especially on the degenerate-left postures counseled by the counterculture icon Tariq Ali, provides a useful buttress to this analysis, by Toronto's Imtiaz Baloch. In considering the recent work of Canada's Tarek Fatah, Hashmi points to a phenomenon that is rarely acknowledged in the "west," and in Canada, almost never. That's why it's here.

Despite the prevalent Western misgivings about the bona fides of the Muslims as peace-loving, normal human beings, the impassive facts remain unaltered: the Muslim community is neither an amorphous monolith nor are the overwhelming majority of Muslims supportive of terror and violence in the name of their religion.

Again, what often goes unnoticed is the rising voice of the liberal Muslim throughout the world. Liberal Muslims – irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds, differences in their political ideologies, levels of education and devotion to their faith – across the board, especially since Nine-Eleven, have been registering their contempt for the so-called ideology of jihad which promotes murder and terror, including suicide attacks on Muslim or non-Muslim non-combatants and innocent people anywhere in the world. Not only modern-educated, well-to-do and middle class Muslims represent the liberal stream, but the bulk of the orthodox and conservative clerics, sufis, shopkeepers, peasants and artisans who adhere to Islam may also be categorized as liberal and peaceful.

Nevertheless, liberal Muslims do not always reap the right harvest. While militant mullahs and terrorists despise and often attack them physically for opposing Islamism and terror, Western media, intellectuals and policymakers in general either ignore them as irrelevant, and even worse, portray them as silent or potential supporters of Islamist terror. Of late, a few leftist Muslim intellectuals (often agnostic and atheistic) have been romanticizing and glorifying Islamists, including the Taliban, as the last bastions of anti-imperialist freedom fighters. Then again, sticking to their guns, the more numerous and influential liberal Muslims have been denigrating both the Islamists – including the ultra-orthodox Saudi and Iranian regimes, al Qaeda and Taliban – and Western highhandedness and even cynical promotion of Islamism and autocracy in the Muslim World.

In view of the above, Canadian Muslim author and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Tarek Fatah has raised his voice both against Islamism and imperialism posing the question of whether liberal and secular Muslims can work together to neutralize the militant mullah and his angry and uninformed counterpart in the West. His recent lecture at the Family of Hearts convention in Toronto on January 11, 2009, “The Challenge of Fundamentalism and Imperialism: Can Secular and Liberal Muslims Work Together?” was simply inspiring and dazzling; worth wide circulation among liberal Muslims and non-Muslims for the sake of peace and order in our life time. As renowned Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have endorsed Fatah’s moderate and conciliatory views as expressed in his book on the mythical “Islamic State”, so are they full of praise for this lecture.

As Fatah has stipulated in the lecture, it is time Muslims across the board realize that as Western imperialism is baneful to human progress and global peace so is the dogma of hate and intolerance that invokes Muslims to hate everything the West represents through democratic and secular values. Most importantly, Tarek’s razor-sharp critique of some leftist intellectuals condoning Taliban atrocities and portraying them as merely “Pushtoon nationalists” is very timely and insightful. He has aptly cited the yawning gap between the “indigenous” and “foreign” secular/liberal/leftist Muslim perceptions of the so-called Global Jihad.

While the former group of Muslim intellectuals, due to their first-hand experience of Islamist terror and intolerance in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries consider the Islamists as backward-looking monsters, their secular/liberal counterparts mostly living in the West, romanticize the Islamists simply as “friends” out of sheer lopsided logic and understanding. He has rightly singled out Pervez Hoodbhoy and Tariq Ali as representatives of the “indigenous” and “foreign” Muslim secular/liberal intellectuals, respectively.

Considering all enemies of your enemy as friends could at most be cynical, at worst counterproductive and dangerous, so goes the main thrust of Fatah’s argument. As innocent victims of Western imperialism in Iran and Afghanistan have been suffering today for preferring Islamists as lesser evils to the pro-Western Shah and pro-Soviet communists respectively, Tarek’s warning is very pertinent and timely, especially for the secular/liberal Muslims in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. He has appropriately congratulated Pakistani and Bangladeshi (Muslim) voters for their en masse rejection of mullahs as their representatives. What he wants to see in the Muslim secular/liberal camps is solidarity against all forms of imperialism, intolerance and terror, Western and Islamist.

Registering his contempt for many Westernized bourgeoisie in Pakistan, who in his inimitable style, are “infatuated by the Islamists, romanticizing them in the same way a yuppie drives a BMW while wearing a Che T-shirt”, Fatah has provided an eye-opener for us all. His citing Hoodbhoy to warn the unaware is incisive: “A Taliban victory would transport us into the darkest of dark ages. These fanatics dream of transforming the country [Pakistan] into a religious state where they will be the law. They stone women to death, cut off limbs, kill doctors for administering polio shots, force girl-children into burqa, threaten beard-shaving barbers with death…. Even flying kites is a life-threatening sin.”

One could not agree more with his insightful syllogism drawn from the lessons of history:

Thus when Japan attacked the US, its anti-American stance could not be and was never understood to driven by an anti-imperialist doctrine. Similarly, when Hitler’s Panzer divisions fought advancing American and British troops in Western Europe, only a fool would have placed Nazi Germany into the camp of anti-imperialism.

Today, just because the Taliban or Hezbollah or Iran attack Americans or blow up their embassies and fly planes into the New York Towers, does not mean their anti-Americanism translates into anti-imperialism [italics mine].

Tarek Fatah has demolished the Trotskyist Tariq Ali’s position that Islamist Iran could be considered as “anti-imperialist” while the country practices “unbridled capitalism”, where even the sea ports are privatized and trade unions banned. He has appropriately cited Mark Twain as an example of anti-imperialist intellectual in 19th century America, lamenting the fact that there are not that many Mark Twains [let alone a Bertrand Russell or a Noam Chomsky] in the Muslim World; and hardly any voice among Arab Muslims to speak out against “the occupation by Arab countries of Kurdistan, Western Sahara and dare I say, Darfur.” He is also critical of Pakistan’s sixty-year old military operations in Baluchistan.

His “maverick” (from the conservative Muslim view point) albeit constructive ideas for a rapprochement between the Western and Muslim worlds are timely and commendable. His bridge-building ideas are noteworthy: “The Western tradition is not Western in any essential sense, but only through an accident of geography and history. Indeed, Islamic learning provided an important resource for both the Renaissance and the development of science [in the West]. The ideas we call ‘Western’ are in fact universal, laying the basis for greater human flourishing.”

The inherent optimism in Fatah’s writings about secular/liberal Muslims uniting to fight Western hegemony without compromising with the Islamists in the long run is noteworthy. One may cite his path breaking book, Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State (Wiley, Toronto 2008), in this regard. His stern warning against supporting the Islamists who in the name of fighting the West (which has been both hypocritical and opportunistic) want to establish fascism in the name of religion is very well-timed and laudable. Most definitely, Tarek Fatah is the voice of “liberal Islam” – for Muslim regeneration, enlightenment, progress and above all, “peace within and peace without”, the cardinal principle of Islam.

- Taj Hashmi.

I'd quibble with Hashmi's characterization of Tariq Ali as a Trotskyist, as I'm sure Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers Liberty would as well, judging by Matgamna's bracing critique here: The Reactionary, Right-Wing Politics of the Gaza Demonstrations. See also Tahir Aslam Gora's Of Muslim Leftists and Liberalism and Naeem Khan Wardag's Tariq Ali, Pashtun Nationalism and Taliban.

29 Comments:

Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

I'd quibble with Hashmi's characterization of Tariq Ali as a Trotskyist...

He was a member of IMG and part of the Fourth International's executive committee. Doesn't that qualify?

12:55 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

No. That only qualifies him as a former Trotskyist.

Even so, the Socialist Workers Party, for instance, is still called the Socialist Workers Party, comes from that same 4I tradition, relies on the same lexicon, but I am not alone in denying that it can be understood as even being on the left. Personally, I consider them to be a sort of Mosleyite phenomenon.

As for Ali, I think he fits perfectly within the Potter-Heath notion of the way the counterculture has completely replaced socialism as the avant-garde response to capitalism. Who knows? Whatever it is, Matgamna's essay illustrates more than adequately that something else is going on, and it involves a sort of left-fascism.

1:32 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

I've been laughed off by secular Jews for using the term "secular Christian". The Jews are a nation as well as a religion, they say, which is why we can be secular Jews. But a Christian is a believer in Jesus as the son of God, or he is not a Christian, just an American, Frenchman, or what have you.

But, I reply, it should be obvious to Jews, if not to Christians, that secular modernity in the West is in certain important respects a secularization of the specifically Christian revelation. Only Christians could have invented the free market and liberal society, however much Jews (and others) have learned to break with their traditional ethics (communities bound by a strict code of law and ritual) and adapted successfully to it.

However, when it comes to "secular Muslims" I still wonder what people are talking about. I can appreciate that there are Muslims who want to embrace liberal modernity and who would also be uncomfortable in identifying themselves primarily according to some secular ational identity, e.g. Pakistani. Whether or not this is because Islam has destroyed too much of the ethnic or regional identity to make it a viable basis for modern life, or because of a more certain (leftist-internationalist) rejection of the future of such "racial" identities, or of specific nationalisms and ruling classes, I'm not sure.

Anyway, I would like to hear more about what writers like Taj Hashmi intend when they take up a leftist anti-imperial rhetoric like Fatah's. (That Fatah did not help found the Pakistani-Canadian Congress only begs the question whether his leftism is truly less imperialist than that he ascribes to the USA, leaving aside for the moment any partisan valuation of the two agendas).

I remain with a question I think liberal or secular "Muslims" need more seriously to address: how is it possible to read the Islamic tradition in a way that provides a unique way to engage liberal modernity (with its now single global economy and few hundred distinctive states)? Islam, as many wish to remind us, means submission to what is proclaimed to be the eternal or original truth and the final divine revelation. Islam also has an imperial history that has drawn into its orbit much classical learning present in the lands that became Islamic; but how is that learning specifically "Muslim", for those building on it to develop identities today?

When I read people like Fatah I am disappointed how the hard questions eventually flow into an anti-imperialist rhetoric. No doubt the US has made many mistakes in its foreign policy, but how could any global leader not be terribly human and prone to tragic errors? All our actions take place amid great uncertainty as to outcomes. So just how, beyond the tragedy, is the idea of further integrating the now single global economy (a reality which does not entail a single state or political agenda, and I doubt ever will) an imperialist project? The acceptance by the world of the US dollar as the reserve currency funds the military machine that sustains a global trade and market (and frankly, a degree of peace) in which resources are distributed by open auctions accessible to all with money. US "imperialism" funds with petro dollars the US's greatest enemies. US "imperialism" risks bankrupting itself by going to war with Saddam, instead of just buying the oil from the bastard, or taking it without royalties.

In short, I think the anti-imperialist rhetoric masks an incoherence (that perhaps can be overcome) in the identity of a secular or liberal Muslim.

“The Western tradition is not Western in any essential sense, but only through an accident of geography and history. Indeed, Islamic learning provided an important resource for both the Renaissance and the development of science [in the West]. The ideas we call ‘Western’ are in fact universal, laying the basis for greater human flourishing.”

-this is a confusion about what a universal idea is. What is universal are certain attributes of our shared humanity. But the ways of understanding the universal are by necessity always something that reflect on the particular time and place of their historical emergence and development. (And it is for just this reason that we can't hope to do away with particular traditions of religious revelation in favor of some universal religion - the truly universal would have no specific content with which people could share some meaningful faith or identity).

What is distinctive about the European Renaissance is the way it mixed specifically Christian and classical world views in a distintively neo-classical esthetic and ethics leading to particular national identities that were nonetheless universal in their aspirations. It was a specifically Western way of (mis)understanding our universal humanity, and one that often developed dangerously Utopian "universalisms" in violent desires to overcome the particular.

If Liberal Muslims choose to downplay their potential national identities (which I would assume are more capable than the strictly Islamic or "post-nationalist" of developing new ethical and esthetic tradtions in respect to the universal) in favor of remaining "Muslim" and "secular", they have to find some such historically innovative integration of the Islamic with classical, modern, postmodern, and other world views. And trying to retrospectively colonize the distinctively Western history won't be a very productive way of creating the ground on which we can negotiate our different identities and common future, I would guess.

1:40 PM  
Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

Well, as the old joke goes, when you put two Trotskyists in a room together, you end up with three political parties, each of which is derided as not being Trotskyist by the others.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Somehow I think that something more consequential than that is going on.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Bernard von Schulmann said...

Thought you might find this story interesting.

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1232292907998&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

Hamas amazes me

2:59 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Saw that, Bernard.

Sadly predictable, but no less appalling for that.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Francis Sedgemore said...

Thank you for this, Taj Hashmi.

As for Terry's characterisation of the SWP as a Mosleyite phenomenon, I've done this myself over the past few years, but am no longer sure it's appropriate. While the label certainly applies to the Dishonourable George Galloway MP, who has clearly learned a thing or two from Oswald Mosley's demagoguery, what the SWP has transmogrified into is something different. That said, I'm not yet sure how to define it beyond the catch-all of "left-fascist".

3:07 PM  
Anonymous york said...

"Tarek Fatah has demolished the Trotskyist Tariq Ali’s position that Islamist Iran could be considered as “anti-imperialist”

What an absurd mischaracterisation of Tariq Ali. A snippet from his "Letter to an Islamist" taken from the brilliant "Clash of Fundemtalisms"

"What do the Islamists offer? A route to a past which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed. If the ‘Emirate of Afghanistan’ is the model for what they want to impose on the world then the bulk of Muslims would rise up in arms against them. Don’t imagine that either Osama or Mullah Omar represent the future of Islam. It would be a major disaster for the culture we both share if that turned out to be the case. Would you want to live under those conditions? Would you tolerate your sister, your mother or the woman you love being hidden from public view and only allowed out shrouded like a corpse?"

http://www.tariqali.org/ExtractClashLetter.html

Tariq Ali's crime is that he is a principled critic of both religious fundenetalism and western imperialism, the latter which has in very recent history reinforced the former. That this doesnt go over well with people who would rather blabber on about a protest in Vancouver instead of the use of white phosphorus against the people living in a ghetto called Gaza isnt really his problem

4:50 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

York: Ali wrote that six years ago. It was unimpressive then, too. You want "absurd mischaracterization"? Ali calling the Taliban an indigenous expression of Pashtun nationalism.

Here's another way of looking at Ali: A Socialist who Defends Barbarism:
http://www.principiadialectica.co.uk/blog/?p=213

And drop dead with your insults.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous york said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:03 AM  
Anonymous yates said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a dear friend who is a principal in a Toronto elementary school. He is a Muslim and confided to me that he would LIKE to practice his faith here in Toronto, Canada, but every mosque he has been to and every imam he has heard preach in Canada endorse non-assimilation, hatred of the West and non-Muslims, and (too often) outright violent jihad.

So I DO know that there IS such a thing as a practicing Muslim who does not subscribe to Islamofascism. Problem is, here in Canada, there is NOWHERE for such Muslims to practice their (non-violent Muslim) faith.

That's just ONE reason why people refer to Canada as "Cana-duh" and "the Demented Dominion of Canuckistan".

12:45 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

"Finally came the bombshell. Instead of denouncing the atrocities carried out by the Taliban, the beheadings and the throwing of acid on the faces of schoolgirls, Tariq Ali eulogized the neo-Taliban as an indigenous movement representing Pashtun nationalism."

- Imtiaz Baloch.

"I preferred to stay away, as Tariq Ali has betrayed the principles of progressive politics by making common cause with Islamists. He considers Hezbollah heroic and the murderous Taliban as a Pushtun movement."

- Tarek Fatah.

"His recent commentary on Afghanistan came in his talk to the South Asian Forum at University of Toronto on November 14, 2008. This time Mr. Tariq Ali was more emphatic in pointing to US-imperialism as the fundamental cause of the problem and went a step farther to call Taliban a legitimate resistance movement against US occupation and an expression of Pashtun nationalist sentiments."

- Naeem Khan Wardak.

"'York' is a moron, and banned from here."

3:50 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

'Yates' is a moron. Banned.

This is fun.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Louise said...

Excellent analysis, Mr. Glavin.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

I always enjoyed reading Tariq because even though I didn't always agree with him he made me question my preconceived notions and had some worthy contributions. However, if he said those things you quoted, Terry, he's lost the plot, and any interest I formerly had in his prose.

He needs to FO

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPWVq6MwW4E

10:03 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Love that Billy Connolly clip, Kurt.

Tariq Ali on Canada: "The last Canadian prime minister who tried to strike out an independent position for Canada was Pierre Trudeau. Since that time, things have got worse."

His problem, I think, is he's just a decrepit old geezer who's upset he doesn't get the attention he used to. As in: "When the ideological system and the media networks need such people as [Manji], they arrive and they emerge. And this applies not just to Islam and Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who produce the most appalling second-rate—if not third-rate—material based on a combination of encouraging ignorance, willful untruths in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, utilizing some episodes in their own past to make generalizations which don’t apply, and then are treated as if they were the modern Voltaire. Basically, when you have a wave of Islamophobia, these people play a very pernicious role, but are needed, and are used, and are promoted, and this happens systematically in the western world. Why these third-rates are published and treated like this is not a mystery to me, because [the elites] need them. . ."

'No one thinks I'm cool anymore. Waa waa waa.'

10:16 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

First of all: Yeay Terry: I love the way you use that "comment deleted" button. And i'm not being sarcastic.

2-Truepeers: You can't be serious that "only Christians could have invented the free market and liberal society, however much Jews (and others) have learned to break with their traditional ethics (communities bound by a strict code of law and ritual) and adapted successfully to it." What a load of self-serving nonsense. Can you explain what makes Christianity so special: its ban on usury perhaps?

5:53 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

I'm serious. What is a free market, first of all? Most simply, it is a place where everyone gets the same price regardless of their social relationship, or lack thereof, to the seller. In other words, I don't have to give you a privileged deal because you are my uncle's friend, my landlord/violence protector, etc.

As such, the free market is an inherently radical thing from the perspective of any traditional, or classical, society, where codified rights and privileges that are unequally enjoyed by individuals, guilds, special orders of various kinds, are the norm. One thing Karl Polanyi got right is how revolutionary was the "Great Transformation" - that has only ever "fully" (but I don't think completely) occurred in the West and here it is in places at most 300 years old, and in many places far less than that - how at odds it was/is with the sense of reciprocity in traditional societies.

What we need to consider is the nature of reciprocity in both pre-modern and free market societies, or more specifically, the relationship of economic life to the ways a society represents or organizes itself according to its ethical self-understanding.

Economics, in my understanding of the historical process, is not a primary driving force. Economics is subsidiary to, or a reflection of, the ethical. You cannot have a free market economy develop until you have an ethics justifying it or allowing for it already in place.

Traditional societies are hierarchical and centralized because the dominant forms of economic distribution are more or less dictated by one or a few big men controlling the ritual/ethical centre of society. All significant economic relations reflect in a rather direct fashion on people's ritualized roles in relationship to one or a few important centres of ethical life.

What is inherently radical about the Christian revelation (and that lingered barely realized for the first 1500 years of Christianity) are the ideas or narratives that 1) Jesus called on us to maximize human reciprocity here on earth and that 2)all Christians share equally in the personhood of the Christ who is a "God" who goes further than any other in minimzing the distance or difference between God and man.

In other words, inherent in the Christian revelation is the potential to understood each and every person as a ritual or ethical centre in his or her own right. This is not an equality in submission to a uniquely correct ritual/legal order, as in Islam, but equality in the socially transforming idea of building as yet untold forms of reciprocity, the kingdom of God to the extent it can exist here on earth.

The free market can only work if I can build trust relationships with all kinds of people who are ethical centres in their own right, who can take personal responsibility without having to defer to some kind of feudal order or trade hierarchy, or to the communal ethic of a minority group of traders, like the medieval Jews.

The Protestant Reformation and the often under-appreciated importance of phenomena like Freemasonry (which was the founding religion of the civil society that accompanied the culture of tradespeople in the Anglosphere's free market) is that every man becomes a *Priest*, capable of taking a lead in a decentralized ritualism and religious discourse.

Anyway, this is just a quick sketch of an idea, which is not my invention but something I have learned from more brilliant minds. I can point to sources. But maybe consider first how simply difficult it is for any non-Western society to join the global free market today, even when you want to (and when you don't how intense can be your hatred of it - e.g. bin Laden and Co.) Even a country like China which has seen what works and committed itself to economic liberalization is still so enmeshed in a culture of special rights and privileges for all kinds of officials and kin that the future of the CHinese model of modernization is in doubt: how far can it go without a further *ethical* or political revolution akin to that which has occurred in the West? Christianity is growing in China and it seems to me that we cannot understand this without appreciate how the Christian ethic serves people once they have been ripped away from the traditional world's ways of insuring widespread deference to a few common centres of sacred attention. The existential crisis they face is intense.

The free market is in no way normal to human beings at this point in our history. It is thus best understood in terms of its unique point of historical emergence. To say it could only have happened in a Christian culture is a bit hypothetical: other cultures could presumably have evolved to the point where they could have discovered the posssibility of the free market; but that evolution would have required something like the Christian revelation into the nature and possibilites of human beings.

9:42 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

"The free market is in no way normal to human beings at this point in our history."

-should read, no way normal to *most* people at this point in history. Which is why we face today the threat of some kind of re-feudalization, led by the forces of a transnational bureaucratic elite. The "norms" I would defend are those radical norms of Christianity, and associated Judeo-Christian forms of political covenant or national constitutionalism, without which I doubt we can maintain a maximally free world where ordinary people can work together in making their own history.

10:02 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

Sorry, I should make one more point, not that I want to colonize Terry's blog. I don't mean to imply that Christianity invents the notion of human equality and that this notion is not something every human has some sense of. I believe our intuition of some fundamental equality is orginal to our humanity, tied to the nature of language. But in traditional tribal socities, equalitarian values are exercised in the context of a uniquely correct ritual order, an order that becomes hierarchical in agrarian societies. What the free market does is abolish the idea that there has to be one way of doing things. And that comes from an emphasis on the sacredness of almost divine-like individuals, at the expense of those forms of the sacred that idealize society as a whole, and its chiefs, as exemplary of some larger cosmological order.

10:28 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

More self serving nonsense. The whole argument seems to boil down to these two premises: "1) Jesus called on us to maximize human reciprocity here on earth and that 2)all Christians share equally in the personhood of the Christ who is a "God" who goes further than any other in minimizing the distance or difference between God and man."

Look i'm an agnostic. but the above could easily apply to Judaism and probably to other religions i'm not as familiar with. Human reciprocity here on earth is not exclusive to Christians or Jesus. It's also a Jewish concept (and possibly others like Buddhism, like i said i'm no expert on religion). The same applies to "minimising the difference between god and man.
Jewish history is one long story of adaptation, so to imagine that the Jews were locked into some sort of ancient tribal system that would have remained forever had not the Protestant reformation and what followed it brought freedom is really to be ignorant of all but Christian history and the Christian revelation. Not to mention the Japanese, who have managed quite well without the influence of "christian ethics."

In short, more self-serving nonsense, just more of it with an intellectual veneer.

11:08 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

Look, I agree that every religion emphasizes the importance of reciprocity. And it is just this that makes the break from a traditional society to a free market so difficult and why the free market may be dieing in our own times. Reciprocity in the traditional world is founded primarily on gift exchange, on a series of inter-personal obligations that grow and are discharged and grow over time. Reciprocity in the free market is founded on abstract transactions that can be one-off in nature. That's something very difficult for all people, not least Westerners, to get their ethical minds around. What's more, the free market alone is not self-sustaining; it has to be framed by some kind of political or ethical understanding, and this framing can't be just anything under the sun, which is why you simply won't find a free market in all kinds of cultures. The kind of political frame a free market needs simply isn't intuitively "right" to most people's presently received sense of just reciprocity.

So you can reject my explanation, but if you can't provide another that satisfies the question of why the free market took so long to emerge in human history (why, for example, did the classical Greeks not develop one, why not the Japanese or the Jews?) and why it eventually happened in northwest Europe only 300 years ago, one might tend to think your complaint is against any kind of claim for the distinctiveness of modern Western history, or indeed any other, because of some kind of cultural relativism on your part.

I don't know what you mean by self-serving. I am occidentocentric, yes, but I am not a practising Christian, except perhaps in some secular sense. My point about religions is that they are forms of anthropolgy: they discover and institutionalize human self-understandings. The revelations that give way to these self-understandings tend to emerge progressively over time: we have ways of talking about our humanity that were not available to our ancient forebears because history is forever providing new events that show us new possibilities inherent in all people, in the shared event of our common human origin. And some religions have come to a greater human self-understanidng of these possibilities (because of events that have occurred within their history) than others, permitting freer societies to develop in their wake. I don't think you can begin to understand human history if you don't allow for such. The competition for survival among competing communities often at war, or competing in trade, makes a growth in human self-understanding and thus a greater capacity for freedom of movement within one's society central to issues of that society's survivability.

If you want to consider further the argument for the anthropological distinctiveness of the Christian revelation (which on the surface can look like any number of traditional myths about gods dieing and resurrecting), for Jesus' revelation into, and rejection of, our deeoply-rooted reliance on scapegoating as a way of creating human order (a revelation, in the name of the victim, which I imagine informs your own cultural relativism in a paradoxically unacknowledgeable way) and it's overcoming in the figure of the cross, that becomes a distinctive and queer (from the perspective of other cultures) guide to life for Christinas, and all the implications that has for our secular society today, you might begin with the anthropolgy of Rene Girard, (not that I find his account entirely satisfactory but it is where the kind of argument i am advancing stems from).

Yes, Jesus' revelation was anticipated in many ways by previous Jewish revelations into the evils of human sacrifice. But still, there is something new in the response to Jesus' cruxifiction that allows some guilty Jews (who for some reason really need to believe the Messiah has come) to start a new religion and that thus allows Jewish culture to be universalized, spread globally, in a way that slowly sets the stage for a global free market, it seems to me.

10:52 AM  
Blogger truepeers said...

It's often difficult to notice the importance of things that are not there. There is no Christian equivalent of Sharia's "total way of life"; there is no Christian equivalent of the many laws and rituals that governed traditional Jewish communities. Yes, traditional "Christian" societies had their codes and rituals but they were not specifically Christian for the most part. Give unto Caesar... What empowered Christians, espcecially the Protestants, to develop their modernity was the lack of specifically Christian restraints, as to how society must be ordered, and an emphasis on the individual, modelled on that divine rebel, Jesus, as the central source of sacred authority. When no one else has yet created the modern world and proven its economic or technical power, only such an emphasis on the divine rebel will allow people, who do not really know what they are doing, to destroy an old order and build a new one, built not on any specific model, but in freedom, with only the minimal but nonetheless powerful religious imperative: maximize reciprocity anticipating the kingdom Jesus promised, even if that means overturning the established order of reciprocity.

12:33 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

leaving all the theological objections aside -- as i'm not really qualified enough in that area to say any more than i've already said -- to attribute the free market and modern capitalism to Christianity just because Christianity happened to be the dominant religion and had been reformed makes as much sense as attributing it to their specific insular locations in relatively far-off northwest europe. The pre-capitalist rise of Venice also was due in large part to the fact that it was more easily defensible and more insular because of its location on a bunch of islets in a lagoon (note that Venice remained Catholic, and what prevented it from continuing to contribute to the development of free-market capitalism was not religion but the rise of the Ottoman Empire). Then the Netherlands, even more insular and defensible, and finally, Britain.

Its one thing to talk about the reformation in terms of its impact on well-placed cultures like the British and Dutch as an influence on the development of free-market capitalism, but quite another to then maintain that Christianity was a necessary precondition. That is quite a stretch, and no, i don't have to provide an alternative explanation. I leave it to professional historians, who even now, 500+ years after the events, have not reached any consensus about these issues, let alone the near-certainty you maintain without any real grounds.

12:46 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

I leave it to professional historians, who even now, 500+ years after the events, have not reached any consensus about these issues, let alone the near-certainty you maintain without any real grounds.

-historians, like all of us, think and work within paradigms, with which we make sense of our narratives and facts. Professional historians tell us many competing stories; what ultimately appeals to us depends on the (anthropological) paradigm or metanarrative we favour.

But what is the proper test of any such paradigm? It is not ultimately empirical, pace the historian, but a question of what those who are willing to think within and thus test different paradigms find to be the most efficient in explaining all the known facts and stories.

In making a blog comment all I can do is point to my paradigm; you will find it of interest or not as you wish. Anyone who wants can contact me for more info. Ultimately, the course of history will provide new events and realizations that will in future allow us to test our present hypotheses and paradigms: e.g. what will be the future relationships in the fates of free market society and Christianity? How do other cultures change, or not, in order to live fully in the free market? What is the ethic of transnational corporations, etc.? How "Christian" are the secular anti-Christians in the West?

This becomes also a question of how we choose to act in history. One may say I don't need to provide an alternative explanation, I'll leave that to the historians. But the claims we make about the past are not relegated to there. Ours remains of vital interest at this time when religions are re-asserting their centrality to the human condition. To leave it to the historians is to accept the passive role of the spectator, or to refuse to engage in constructing a common understanding of reality with someone you think is out to lunch. (But at some point, today's incessantly relativizing left are going to have to get back in the game of pointing to and constructing common - non-bureaucratic - realities if it wants to remain active in a self-ruling or relatively free society...)

To be engaged is to try to figure out what it means to think within various paradigms. And in doing the latter one will be inclined to ask, what is it that guarantees the possibility (or continuing co-existence) of this diversity in human religions or paradigms? And then one may see the paradox that a distinctive anthropology, or paradigm, that grounds us in what is common or unifying to all humanity is necessary to truly appreciating and respecting our human diversity. One cannot seriously shrug off the paradox of our need to respect both unity and diversity by invoking cultural relativism and the merely empirical, as is the fashion among today's Western academic anthropologists (who run from serious theory like the plague), because the question of human origins is variously implicit and explicit in all religions and paradigms we can choose to respect. To respect any culture is to take interest in the question of what it claims to be universal. And if one is not simply a blind follower, one engages critically with that question... leading to one's acceptance of some paradigm or metanarrative that transcends what one studies or truly respects.

And, when one comes to think through the question of our common human origin, one will come to appreciate better the historical power that previous (religious and secular) attempts to think through such questions, within the various traditions, have had.

Of course you or I can't disprove a negative about why the free market didn't emerge elsewhere. But, fwiw, within the (I think unprecedentedly efficient) anthropological paradigm to which I converted and now think within, something like the Christian undestanding of our common humanity is necessary to thinking how people could have separated themselves from the centralized hierarchies of the traditional world and come to create a world where every person is a sacred and exchangeable centre in his or her own right. (Men model themselves on their visions of the gods, and not vice versa - in other words the public god must be represented before the private identity.) As I think we are seeing on the streets today, such a world of individualism or omni-centrality really isn't compatible with the orthodoxies of certain other traditions (though traditions may of course change and evolve, or they may fail to do so, with often horrific consequences). I thus invoke the suicide bomber as one piece of evidence for my claim about what is compatible with the free market. There are others: for example, could we point to anything about slave-owning societies (i.e. most all societies, beyond the most simple, until very recently) that would enable them to develop a free market, or does it require a certain kind of identity that is neither slave nor master?

4:03 PM  
Blogger truepeers said...

A kindred spirit writing in the Timesonline: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset

10:18 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

RE: Your "paradigm" i.e. "the Christian undestanding of our common humanity is necessary to thinking how people could have separated themselves from the centralized hierarchies of the traditional world and come to create a world where every person is a sacred and exchangeable centre in his or her own right."

If you say so. I say it's bollocks.

1:05 PM  

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