Saturday, February 10, 2007

The fog of warring discourse

At Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has written a response to my comments on the Sign and Sight multiculturalism debate. (This is a misleading title in many ways, since the debate seems to have been more about the egos of some of its contributors than the issue of multiculturalism, but that’s what Sign and Sight is calling it and so, for the sake of convenience, shall I.)

In her response, she explains that, despite the ‘surface’ reasonableness of Buruma’s commentary, she’s left with a ‘sense’ -- and even something as strong as a ‘suspicion’ -- that behind his sensible-sounding words lurks something…else. Precisely what is uncertain, but it’s definitely something sinister. Underneath all this reasonable rhetoric, she believes to sense Buruma’s readiness to sell out to politically correct liberalism and European identity politics.

In what Buruma writes, she hears echoes of other speakers, other writers, many of whom have dishonestly sought to use moderate words to hide radical (or cowardly) agendas.

I know what she means. Really, I do. I don’t like those people either.

Nonetheless, sharing, as I do, her commitment to fair and open debate, I would point out that my own words did not seek to support some presumed cultural agenda being pushed by Buruma and Ash (whatever that might be).

Instead, I had the rather more limited aim (pursued at somewhat relentless length, I know) of critiquing the hysterical and intellectually dishonest attacks on those two men by Pascal Bruckner, Necla Kelek and Paul Cliteur. I took issue, in short, with their words and their approach to argument, logic, evidence and (dare I say) the truth.

Which, as we know, matters.

The point I was making was not what might be wrong with Buruma's point of view, but whether the comments of these three commentators were any sense fair, either to Buruma or to what he had written.

To put it succinctly, whatever positive elements that trio’s arguments may have had (though, to be honest, I didn’t really find them nearly as insightful as they seem to have thought themselves to be) they were, in my view, fatally undermined by their selective appropriation of Buruma’s and Ash’s writing, their all-too-obvious rhetorical sleights-of-hand and their overblown posing as true heroes of European values and brave opponents of Islamist radicalism.

Sad to say, there’s more than a hint of Ann Coulter’s rhetorical style -- the needless hyperbole, the twisted logic, the hair-trigger accusations of ‘treason’ (see Bruckner’s reference to ‘jihadist collaborators’) -- in these attacks.

And that’s not a compliment.

I do indeed think it’s vitally important to debate the key issues of our day in a clear and honest language and to employ logic, reason and evidence. Otherwise, as Ophelia points out in a response to a critical blog commentator, we’re left with 'ambiguity and fog'.

Oh yes, I definitely agree with that.

However, I think that in pursuing this goal, it would be helpful to apply the same rigorous criteria to Bruckner and Kelek and Cliteur as one applies to Buruma and Ash. We should expect the same fairness and intellectual rigor from those with whom we agree as from those with whom we disagree.

But in the cases of Bruckner, Kelek and Cliteur, it is not necessary to rely on hunches and guesswork to see where their reasoning might have gone astray.

Leaving Bruckner aside (I think I’ve written enough about him), what do we make, for instance, of Kelek’s insistence that Buruma’s comments about the diversity of Islam are ‘true in the details, but not in the fundamentals’? What does that mean? Does it mean anything precise? Are the differences in Islam as practiced in, say, Saudi Arabia and that observed in those more integrated segments of immigrant communities in Europe (or even in the western parts of urban Turkey) simply a matter of ‘detail’? (While a university English instructor in Germany, a few of my most talented students were young women who somehow managed to be both Muslim and modern. Were their experiences as Muslims different from those of women living under Wahhabist fundamentalism only en detail? Or were they not really modern, as they hadn’t gone the extra step and rejected Islam tout court?)

What are we to make of Kelek’s ringing declaration that ‘Islam is a social reality’ when, in the very next sentence, she exchanges ‘social reality’ for the realm of ‘writings and philosophy’?

Her detailed analysis of the ‘Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam’ is very interesting (and it is certainly a disturbing document). Nonetheless, I not only fail to see its decisive impact in forming ‘social reality’ nor do I see how it undermines Buruma’s point about cultural diversity. He at least made his arguments on the basis of an actual investigation into the ‘social reality’ of Islam in the Netherlands. (Additionally, as I pointed out previously, Buruma’s simple and obvious point has been made by at least one person whose anti-jihadist credentials are quite solid. Kelek’s eager efforts to transform Buruma’s statement about diversity into a sign of his ‘cultural relativism’ lack not only good taste but also several logical steps and any piece of significant evidence.)

I would, furthermore, be willing to bet (a small amount, but still) that very few of the socially real Muslims interviewed by Buruma in Amsterdam had ever heard of the Cairo Declaration. In fact, I suspect the Cairo Declaration itself – as frightening as it sounds (and, yes, as accurately as it might describe the sorry state of law and equality in many Muslim countries) – is as little known by Muslims as, sadly, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is known by westerners in general.

So, yes, interesting, even scary it might be; however, what value does it have as evidence for the argument she’s making? Very little, I think: if you want to find proof of the 'social reality' of Islam today, I suspect one of the last places to go looking for it is to a document expressing a ‘minimal consensus’ signed seventeen years ago by 45 foreign ministers in Cairo.

Buruma, after all, never denies that there are global commonalities in Islam (and here, again, all of the commentators who critique Buruma on such points make the wholly unjustified assumption that he’s a fool); his assertion, which he argues convincingly and with evidence, is that there are also differences worth taking into consideration in order to have any kind of reasonable discussion about integration. I don’t for the life of me know why this claim throws Kelek into such a fit of outraged disgust. Really, I don’t.

Kelek’s essay might contain some accurate – and unsettling – points about Islam; however, her criticism of Buruma (which was, after all, what she mainly intended and was, in addition, what I wrote about in my blog post) boils down to one part exaggeration, one part misrepresentation and one part ad hominem attack. I fail to see how this brings the cause of reason, enlightenment and liberation even a single step forward.

Finally, there are, of course, various ways to read Buruma’s response to Bruckner: one can – if one chooses – accept that Buruma means what he says; alternatively, it is always possible to assume that what he means is actually what other people have meant, or even that he means the opposite of what he writes.

OK. That’s fine. It’s fun to speculate.

But I expect a particular set of good reasons to make the latter assumption. In the absence of such grounds, I’m not exactly sure why we should suspect Buruma of meaning anything other than what he says he means. And if we disagree with him we should explain why we disagree with what he says, rather than with what we think he might have meant, unless we can present good evidence that he has a history of lying.

And even if one were to disagree with Buruma or Ash on some points (and there might be good reasons to do so), it totally escapes me why they should be labelled ‘enemies of freedom’ operating in the spirit of ‘inquisitors’ (Bruckner), ‘cultural relativists’ (Kelek) or ‘nihilists’ (Cliteur).

Here, I must say, find myself in a fog of ignorance.

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