Islam as Default Adjective
I read these headlines and their associated articles and felt inclined to respond. Look, it is not my intention to rehash the same old arguments. This project is not an echo chamber. The hypocrisy of requiring the “Islam” modifier in reference to specific acts of violence while ignoring this syntactical requirement for, say, The Lord`s Resistance Army as “Christian terrorist” organization is clear, and has already been elaborated.
What is interesting to me, sociologically, is the insistence among organizations and institutions involved in knowledge construction at the social level, policy institutions, their associated party apparatus and the responsive media, for this syntactical convention. Culturally, we profess values of individual merit and the inherent unfairness of ascribing the actions of a few unto a population as a whole, yet central institutions in our society insist, just insist, that any crime committed by a Moslem be attributed to Islam as a whole. This should not surprise us. It is a standard feature of groupthink to demand standards of the out-group that is not expected of the in-group. The individualist standard is the very value system embraced by conservatives when confronted by the actions of groups like the KKK, which validate their hatred using Christian doctrine. The standard rejoinder is that such groups do not represent “true Christianity.” Of course, this is more or less true even in the face of the immense complexity of what constitutes “true” Christianity. Collective responsibility, however, is required applies of Moslems who are expected to apologize for the crimes committed by extremist groups acting under an Islamic pretext. This is not a moral issue, it’s a group dynamic that says more about the in-group demanding the collective standard than it does the out-group.
The fact is that we all know, based on our own, professed American values, that ascribing extremism to 1.5 Billion Moslems based on the actions of a miniscule fraction of this population is wrong. That such an ascription is unreasonable is a mainstream truth, not a radical exercise in ethics.
To confirm this, we can do a simple experiment. The co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai is a Muslim. Find one reference to her actions being referred to as Islamic Peace making. In fact, an Islamic Peace Movement does exist. Where is any mention of this in the mainstream media? One would be hard pressed to find the word “Islamic” applied as a modifier to any terms other than “terrorist” or “extremist,” whereas similar adjective use of “Christian” or “American” is vehemently resisted.
…Is vehemently resisted because it is wrong. Such terminology is inherently derogatory, exclusionary and antithetical to the formation of any productive relationship based upon mutual respect. For this reason, the President is correct in refusing to apply this ignorant, all-encompassing term in his speeches or in his policies, and Vox, usually well thought out and informative (if not a little Vanilla), is wrong. Insisting that this particular group of extremists, ISIL, is tagged as “Islamic” will, in no way, serve any useful purpose. It will not force Moslems to confront the extremists in their own midst any more than Christians are inclined to confront the KKK for its use of Christian doctrine. Everyone, regardless of faith or politics, knows that ISIL is a violent extremist group. Adding “Islamic” does nothing to alter that designation.
Demanding that “Islamic” be the default adjective for “terrorist” will only encourage the very defensiveness that we see from any reference group when compared to its worst elements. At worst, and most likely, this syntactical convention will serve as just one more point of alienation for one of the world’s largest reference groups at a time when there is already too much dissonance. It makes no sense to alienate the very people with whom we must work if any reasonable solution to this problem is to found. I, as an Italian American, am not more inclined to condemn the actions of the Mafia if its actions are ascribed to me.
Secondly, the most dangerous consequence of using metaphors in any form of writing is that doing so tends to constrain our understanding of what might be complex issues. The actions of ISIL cannot be attributed to a simple interpretation of the Qu ‘ran. There are complex political and cultural issues involved. Interpersonal forces are in play to convince people to join and participate in acts of extreme violence. A couple of verses from an ancient book are not enough, in and of themselves, to accomplish what these extremist groups have accomplished. Extremism of any kind, political, religions, philosophical, or any combination thereof, cannot be divorced from the social context.
People with extreme and violent views can be found in any society, but under what conditions do such groups vie for power in any realistic or threatening way? Under normal, functional social conditions, there are society controls in place that keep such groups from expanding beyond the narrow, subcultural, systems that they occupy. No. extremist groups thrive in in social dysfunction and instability. The paradigms used to justify these movements are nothing more than pretext, discursive formations by which people can justify the otherwise irrational. ISIL and Boco Haram are no exceptions to this rule.
Yet the “Islamic” metaphor lends itself to simplistic interpretation of motive, organization, resolve and cause. In the United States, with contemporary political discourse, this adjective lends itself to an unrealistic, irrational, ‘Clash of Civilizations’ paradigm that does not offer a real solution. Indeed, this Clash of Civilizations paradigm may actually be a causal factor in creating this crisis.
ISIL is the birthchild of policies based on the premise of a Clash of Civilizations and the consequent swath of destruction left in its wake. Any further rhetoric that reinforces this Medieval Paradigm only fuels ISIL`s cause. So long as this, and any future such group, can plausibly make the claim that it is the only defense against a postmodern Crusade it will be empowered. So long as Moslems look out upon ruined villages, bomb craters and the graves of their loved ones, they can be tempted by extremist rhetoric. After all, the evidence is all around them that they are living in an extremist world.
The Clash of Civilizations rhetoric, however, also serves the purposes of certain western groups. So long as this is true, any attempt to understand this crisis will be retarded by a simplistic yet dramatic wrong explanation.
ISIL is the ultimate justification for our continued imperialist pursuits in the Middle East: brutal the point of psychopathy even and especially toward those recognized as ‘their own people’, extremist, and clearly easily identifiable as “the other.” It is impossible for even the most open minded peace advocates and anti-imperialists to try to advocate tolerance and understanding. Expending significant military energy to ISIL’s destruction is an easy sell so long as such policies are effected under a pretext of policing and international law. That’s not to say that it is an honest sell, but it is an easy one for the American people, fatigued from over a decade and a half of warfare in that region, to accept. Just another sacrifice on the part of us Americans, stoically accepting our burden as the world’s indispensable nation. What’s not to love?
Best of all, a Clash of Civilizations paradigm sells advertising space where complex sociological analysis inspires nap time and turning the channel to Big Bang Theory re-runs.
Linking ISIL to Islam as a whole, however, serves a broader purpose. After all, if Moslems are unable and unwilling to control their own extremists, then the United States simply must maintain its presence in the region in perpetuity. For the sake of the world; for the preservation of civilization, U.S. hegemony over the Middle East is the only solution. Of course, we didn’t ask for this responsibility. We don’t want to do it. For the good of all, however, the burden must be borne, and it must be borne by us.
What? There’s oil, too? You don’t say!
From this perspective, ISIL arrived onto the world stage just in time to save a failed imperial policy and to breathe new life into a foreign adventure that most Americans are ready to shed.
Look, the “Islamic” modifier and its Clash of Civilizations context, serves a host of purposes, all of them racist. Refusing to accept this context does not mean that we are denying the role of Islam as a motivator for this and similar groups as the Vox article infers. Certainly, groups like ISIL, Boco Haram, al Qaeda, are influenced by Islam. But so is Malala Yousafzai; so is Rep. Keith Ellison, for that matter. There are 1.8 billion Moslems in the world, and roughly 1.8 billion slightly different ways that Islam influences each. Islam, like all religions, is not a monolithic entity entire unto itself. The religion itself is complex, multifaceted, fragmented by sectarian, cultural and geopolitical differences.
We may not be able to disconnect Islam from the atrocities of these groups, but we also have to understand the larger political context. By destroying the social fabric in the Middle East, the United States and its allies did their share in fertilizing the field for this particularly poisonous crop. The hundreds of millions of Moslems living in peace throughout the world are not inclined to sympathize with terrorists. The political context of war, destruction and desperation is a more valid explanation for what we are seeing in Iraq than is the default “Islamic” adjective. Any solution to this crisis will have more to do with functionalist sociology than it will the Clash of Civilizations. Military power will only fuel the crisis. A functional society cannot be bombed into existence. True nation building means providing the resources as well as the autonomy necessary for a society to work through its own conflicts and settle upon its own values and institutional constructs.
Accepting this, however, plays against our understanding and embrace of our so-called civilizing mission in the region. Rather than a nuanced understanding of complex factors and acceptance of the role we played in creating such monsters, it is easier and more self-aggrandizing to write off extremism as a product of some innate quality of the other. In turn, we can also pat ourselves on the back for our own moral superiority while we engage in our own crimes against humanity. The United States government has never faced a crisis for which militarism was not the favored solution. Hence our current situation.
President Obama and any conscientious press outlet is right in not pandering to this base sophistry. Alienating a diverse community of almost two billion people is not only immoral, puerile and racist. It’s bad policy. If extremism can be defeated in any real sense it will not be through force of arms. The only path to defeating ignorance, even violent ignorance, is by marshaling the cooperation of the communities from which these groups recruit their support. After all, those who rush off to join extremist groups often do so because they are attracted by the promise of empowerment, pride and respect that their societies cannot or will not provide for them. We must be part of empowering communities in securing the futures of their citizens without being so much of a part of this process that our very existence discredits such efforts.
I don’t know if Obama’s refusal to use stigmatizing rhetoric will translates into better policy. I’m not holding my breath. The President, like his predecessors, has demonstrated that hegemony remains the United States’ foundational foreign policy. In this small matter of syntax, however, he is right.