Friday, February 03, 2006

The Opposite of “Salafist”

Gates of Vienna has recently acquired a new reader. Ali Eteraz, who came to this country from Pakistan, has been commenting here during the past week. Having visited his blog, Unwilling Self-Negation, I recommend him to our readers.

There is a link to one of his essays, Because Allah Wills It, which was published in Killing the Buddha (“a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches”) in 2003.

Mr. Eteraz’description of his experiences as a child in Pakistan within the traditional fatalism of Islam is powerful:

Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, is one of those continually endangered communities where outrageous fortune visits often in the form of drought, disease, and heat. Life is unchanging and tedious… Parents worry that their youth will join the new “Islamic Organizations” — which, in Dera Ghazi Khan, are words that refer to any group of divinely sanctioned extortionists intimidating the shop owners.

This is one of those cities where the harshness of life has made the exterior of its citizens tough enough to withstand the heat of the desert. The spirits of its people, on the other hand, are not as taut and unbending as their bodies suggest…

The type of man borne from the sermons in Dera Ghazi Khan welcomes sorrow, relishes pain, and exalts suffering. For him there is no value in the success of his relationships unless they add to one's misery; there is no value in tears because they would mitigate the sorrows — and that is not wanted. The irony is that even if one comes to realize the unhealthiness of such a way of life, the impractibility of always being life’s martyr, one dares not let go of it, because being happy now, in this life, means being damned tomorrow. After a life in Dera Ghazi Khan, no one wants an even worse afterlife.


By 1993, the militant Islam that had helped to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan had been imported to Dera Ghazi Khan. It acquired its legitimacy by a backwards reading of Islamic texts; and it supported the imposition of Islamically sanctioned public stonings, floggings, amputations, and crucifixions. Such Islam was made to pander to cruelty. Consider the paradox: the same Islam which in passage after passage of the Koran promises its believers green gardens in exchange for their moral lives now promised them satisfaction by sanctifying cruelty upon other men.

The intervention of the Pakistani government has prevented the spread of such punishment-based religiosity. The impulse, however, remains unsatisfied. Thus, it occurs that the desire to see cruelty in action simmers into the general populace and creates two sub-cultures. First, there are the sort of people like my cousin Tazir. To him, to be Muslim is to be nothing more than to be someone who must support the expansion of the flags of Islam throughout the entire world. He has no conception of the consequences. Second, there are people like my aunt Bushara. Her husband took on a second wife without her consultation and then moved said second wife into the same house as her. Instead of rising in resistance, she simply went to pray.

Unfortunately for Mr. Eteraz, coming to America did not guarantee that he would leave all this doleful religious baggage behind in Pakistan.

So I became fatalistic and apathetic like Aunt Bushara. I remained within the folds of Islam because it gave me a framework in which to be submissive; and in being submissive, remain static. It let me believe that my inertness was tolerable, if not altogether ideal.

I always chuckle when I hear the political pundits calling people like me, us placid pools of personality, the “saving force” of Islam simply because we are not firebrands like Bin Laden. I’m also amused when I see some of those who share my faith, from places not unlike Dera Ghazi Khan, strutting around and considering themselves the highest of Muslims in the world simply because they are removed from the difficulties of “the old country” even though they live a life of silence.

Many pundits, both inside and outside the community of immigrant American Islam, have rested their hopes upon us muted ones. They expect us to free global Islam from the Tazirs and Bin Ladens of the religion. Somehow we cows, chewing on the cud of our paranoia-stricken life, have been labeled “moderate” as if we offer a counterweight to the extremists. We don’t.

So don’t expect any optimistic outlook from this particular Muslim. He does not hold out much hope for his side of Islam as a force of change.

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In the comments section on my Flight 93 post, Mr. Eteraz and I got into a discussion about “moderate Muslims” and the appropriate terminology for them. One of his comments is worth reproducing in full:

hi baron,

thanks for the acknowledgment. as far as classifications go, you should call all ‘moderates’ simply “Muslim” and when you come across the violent/nut-job Muslims, call them Islamists or Wahhabi. But if you do this, this way of speaking would have to spread to everyone who wants to see changes in Islam and holds out hope for the ‘moderate’ element winning.

Here’s why. Right now ‘moderates’ like me have to spend *way* too much time defending Islam from those people who want to put all Muslims in one box. As a consequence of this, we have very little time left to actually go and confront the Islamists and Wahhabis. I engage in a lot of debunking of Wahhabis and Islamists, mostly because I have consciously chosen to forego making non-Muslims aware of all these distinctions. Most moderates, though, are not that brave (or thick-skinned). Yeah you can say they are a little timid. In other words, they are like those insecure girls you had in high school who would only do something unless you were totally on their side.

Also, the BIGGEST reason that Wahhabis and Islamists get so much clout is because non-Muslims don’t distinguish Wahhabis and Islamists from “normal” Islam. In other words, critics of violent Muslims simply call the perpetrator “Muslim” while reserving the more specific “moderate Muslim” for the peaceful Muslims. It needs to be the other way around. It is the Wahhabis who need to be called “extremist Muslims” or “violent Muslims” and the moderate Muslims who need to be called “Muslim.” Language is powerful and it is not on the side of the ‘moderates.’

See, when you call us “progressives” or “reformists” you undermine our authority against the Wahhabis who consider themselves “traditionalists.” At this point in time, the fight within Islam isn’t about who is the most forward looking. It is about who best reflects Muhammad’s name. In other words, its a fight about who controls history. For ‘moderates’ to win, we need to be able to demonstrate that we are the better and correct representatives of the era of Muhammad’s life.

Fair enough, Mr. Eteraz. But I still need a separate term for the “moderate.” After all, the extremists consider themselves simply “Muslims” and use the word to describe themselves. To avoid confusion, we need another word or phrase. Any suggestions?

After all, the Mormon religion is based in Christianity and Mormons worship Jesus Christ. But their religion differs significantly from Christianity, so we call them “Mormons” to distinguish them (and it’s shorter than “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”).

We already have a term for the Islamists, for the violent extremists. The Wahhabis and their South Asian cousins, the Deobandis, are known collectively as “Salafists”.

What’s the opposite of “Salafist”?

I can list the characteristics of the hypothetical anti-Salafists:
1.  They acknowledge freedom of religion, including the right to practice any religion, to convert to or from any religion, or to practice no religion at all and live as an atheist. They insist that no one has the right to coerce anybody into any religious practice, or prevent them from practicing their faith.
2.  They acknowledge freedom of speech, including the right to insult, ridicule, denigrate, and demean the religion of others. They insist that no one has the right to coerce silence or “correct” speech from anyone.
3.  They acknowledge that women have full rights, equal to those of men, and that those rights include the freedom to marry or not marry anyone they like, to be subject to a dress code no more restrictive than that applied to men, and to have a full and equal rights in a court of law.
4.  They acknowledge the existence of the rule of law. This means that they accept that the acquisition of political power, through democratic means or otherwise, does not confer impunity upon political leaders; that those leaders are subject to the same laws as everyone else.
5.  They acknowledge that the above conditions may not be violently abridged by groups working inside or outside of state control; that those who do act violently will be punished to the full extent of the law.
These are the basic rules common to what is known as Western Civilization. If some “moderate” subset of Islam, as yet unnamed, were to publicly embrace them and incorporate them in its political structure, than that group would join the West and leave the East to the Islamists, the Chinese, and Kim Jong-Il.

I doubt that you or anyone else expects something like this to happen anytime soon. These principles contradict what is written in the Koran and what has been practiced by the vast majority of Muslims since Mohammed entered Mecca. A Muslim who embraced these principles would find himself forsaking his own religion.

But I won’t rule it out. Christianity and Judaism went against some of their own religious scriptures when they produced secular modernity, so anything is possible.

And here’s where I take issue with you. You say:

Right now ‘moderates’ like me have to spend *way* too much time defending Islam from those people who want to put all Muslims in one box. As a consequence of this, we have very little time left to actually go and confront the Islamists and Wahhabis… Also, the BIGGEST reason that Wahhabis and Islamists get so much clout is because non-Muslims don’t distinguish Wahhabis and Islamists from “normal” Islam.

The behavior of non-Muslims does not cause Muslims to do whatever it is they do, or give any particularly group of Muslims more or less power.

The West has historically had no more knowledge or understanding of Hindus than it has had of Muslims. Yet that did not turn some subset of Hindus into radical bomb-throwers, nor empower any one Hindu group at the expense of any others.

One of the chronic conditions of Islam, moderate or otherwise, is to blame non-Muslims for the problems afflicting Islam. It’s like the alcoholic who blames his wife’s behavior for his drunken binges.

It’s time for Islam to live with the hangover and sober up. And, perhaps, go to an AA meeting and start on the first of the Twelve Steps.

UPDATE: Mr. Eteraz has responded in the comments, and points out that his essay in Killing the Buddha was primarily literary, and that the conclusions about his own fatalism here in America were meant ironically.

He says, “In short, your statement, ‘He does not hold out much hope for his side of Islam as a force of change.’ is patently *wrong.* I am *precisely* the kind of creative and subtle thinker that gives Islam its hope. We who are conversant (and in my case, in love with) Nietzsche; and Rousseau; and Montesquieu; and Aquinas; and irony; and the surrealists. The fact that sometimes I choose to make my points in satirical ways should be a sign of intellectual maturity; not hopelessness. I encourage you to revise your views.”

And so I have. Mr. Eteraz is a subtle writer, and I am re-reading his essay with that in mind. I urge other readers to do the same.


Jason Pappas said...

I don't buy this "moderate Islam." Yes, the fellow may be moderate but if Islam is moderate he shouldn't be wasting his time telling that to non-Muslims. What does he care what non-Muslims think? The problem isn't non-Muslims. Again we see the need to scapegoat non-Muslims. The problem is internal to Islam.

If we are wrong about the extent of the problem or our lack of belief about the potentialities of reform, time will tell. The proof is in the creation of positive change sustained over time. To paraphrase Learner and Lowe: don't talk of peace, don't talk of justice, don't talk or civility, show me!

al fin said...

It is the core truth of Islam embedded within both the written and the spoken tradition, that creates an atmosphere of intolerance. If some Islams are content to worship in peace, and tolerate non-muslims, they do so in contradiction to tradition. I salute their rejection of traditional intolerance.

It is a radically different life experience--most westerners will never understand it. Militant misery, supremacist suffering, missionary masochism.

I recommend the feature film "End of the Spear" as a way of understanding a completely different culture.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I don't give a crap about the different kinds of muslims. I just want to keep ALL of them out. We don't need their dysfunctional baggage added to that which already exists in our own various western societies. We have enough of our own problem children. Let them stay home. Why come to what they consider the "decadent" west anyway? I don't get it.

A. Eteraz said...

thanks for that post baron.

with regards to the killing the buddha article you need to know one thing: satire or irony. i generally tend not to talk about my works of art. but i feel that i owe that here. here's the thing: for what it's worth, I'm an artist first and foremost; even when i write an essay I do it with an eye towards it literary stylings.

those paragraphs where i am being downright "hopeless" are ironic paragraphs. statements such as, "I always chuckle when I hear the political pundits calling people like me, us placid pools of personality, the “saving force” of Islam simply because we are not firebrands like Bin Laden" are statements of satire.

why would i talk about how ignorantly the idea of hell is used to manipulate the sermon givers and then conclude the article by talking about how i only care about avoiding the hell-fire? that's satire.

i could have written the entire essay as "muslims need to fix this!" but instead I chose to go a more subtle route. i thought it was creative and the editors of the magazine saw that.

in short, your statement, "He does not hold out much hope for his side of Islam as a force of change." is patently *wrong.* I am *precisely* the kind of creative and subtle thinker that gives Islam its hope. we who are conversant (and in my case, in love with) nietzsche; and rousseau; and montesquieu; and aquinas; and irony; and the surrealists. The fact that sometimes i choose to make my points in satirical ways should be a sign of intellectual mauturity; not hopelessness. i encourage you to revise your views.

finally, i see your point about needing a word to describe 'moderates.' i'll get into that discussion in a separate post.

please continue visiting my blog. i think the most paramount thing i do and plan on doing on my blog is bridge some gaps between east and west. i am uniquely situated for so doing because i have lived the best and worst of the East, and also lived the worst and best (nowadays) of the West.

A. Eteraz said...

I just saw your updates, Baron.

I *really* appreciate your intellectual honesty.

hopefully through people such as yourself, people like phillipinephil will learn how to think as fairly as you do. and hopefully through people like me, muslims who don't realize how many sweet things the western world has created, will learn to appreciate them, and much more.

finally: you really should open your comments to non-blogger registered people as well =)

A. Eteraz said...

re: titles for Muslims who embrace those 5 points.

here's the dilly (to borrow from busta).

1. in my daily life i go with secular-muslim. unfortunately, in intellectual circles secular-muslim gets conflated with the 'secular-elites' of the current muslim third-world, who are incredibly destructive people. i.e. Saddam.

2. i mildly like 'enlightenment muslims.' after all those are enlightenment points you listed. but you can only appreciate 'enlightenment' after you've read kant, and most people don't do that. so they are likely to think you are talking about light fixtures.

3. i used to REALY REALLY like 'liberal muslims.' a lot. charles kurzman has an anthology by that title and it has some of the most diverse and unique minds in the muslim world. what was fascinating was that the title seemed broad enough to encompass a whole range of muslim thinkers. the problem with this term is THAT EVERYONE THINKS THAT IF YOU'RE A LIBERAL YOU ARE A LEFTIST -- and franky, no one wants to be a leftist. I certainly don't. That's actually why I stopped using the term to myself.

4. 'moderate' muslim means nothing to me. i have no interest in this terminology. its farcical. to me a moderate is someone who is a vacillating, unstructured, undisciplined mind, who knows nothing better than to 'to be in the middle.' it is no surprise that self-prcolaimed 'moderate' muslims don't actually do anything.

5. 'reformist' comes to mind. and it makes you laugh, because the original salafists were reformists. not only that, but they were reformists in the sense that they wanted to integrate humanist values into the edifice of islam. some of the great 19th century 'reformists' in islam -- rashid rida, al-afghani, sir syed ahmed, were salafists. but now salafist has been appropriated by wahhabis. i have no idea how, to be honest. so 'reformist' is out.

6. there's 'revivalists' - but they are often associated with spiritual revival. that is to say, they believe that islam will only be corrected once the soul is purified.

in conclusion, i guess you could go with Liberal Muslim. I certainly don't hold myself out as one, but it seems a flexible enough term for now. Its easier than having to invent a new one (which is what I initially thought I should do). *However, please note*: "Liberal" should be seen as a reference to classical market-liberalism, not to Hillary.

Gryffilion said...

You left out #6: abolition of all forms of slavery, and any attempt of man to dominate man through subservience. As far as I know, slavery is still a thriving business in the Muslim world.

Eleanor © said...

A Muslim, any Muslim, can be coaxed and cajoled into becoming an extremists by holding him/her up to ridicule by other Muslims, labelling non-Muslim, or apostate. The problem is with Islam and Mohmmed and those concepts that are immutable. Eventually every Muslim must make a choice to emulate Mohammed or face the scorn of other Muslims. Eteraz should be talking to other Muslims about reform...but don't hold your breath.

Papa Ray said...

I think the truth is that an Islamist of any ilk is just marking out the various degrees of fakery.

Islam advocates deception towards infidels.

Infidels are unbelievers and are worthy of nothing except submission or if deemed worthy of conversion, they may be spared and welcomed into the cult of Islam. But observed so as to assure that they do not waver in their devotion to Allah and most importantly to Muhammad .

If the above is not possible, the Qur'an says to kill them.

Papa Ray
West Texas

A. Eteraz said...

eleanor, look out for a post about apostasy on my blog. i wrote a 100 page islamic law review article on the subject and intend on synthesizing it for blogging purposes.

A. Eteraz said...

dan m

is that straight from the book of revelations? get real dude. you don't win people over to your side of the equation by threatening them with total death. use those hyperbolic words in more constructive ways. create some dialogue. perhaps if you stopped calling me chaff i'd be a little more interested in your opinion.