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Comments by John

On “Dialogue with John: Sacred Texts/Tests


There is a lot I might say in response to this post. Considerations of time and the risk of going off in many directions and losing any kind of coherent conversation means I am for now just going to address your opening remarks. We'll see how things look when I next have a moment to return to this.


the only remaining question is advancing the realization in time, through politics, of those determinations, on the way to what Kojève defines as the “universal homogeneous state” embodying the “rights of man.” In that sense there would be no essential philosophical argument (or conversion) still to be sought

-well, leaving aside that few people are converted by philosophical arguments in any rigorous sense - as opposed to the revelatory power of events and the signs that attend them - even if we have reached a point in history where the liberal state as protector of human rights has now no serious competitors among those enamored of philosophical thinking, we are still forevermore stuck with the need of protecting this liberal regime from the many and great resentments it itself produces (to the extent it gives us freedom it gives us many pesky differences unjustified by any sacred order). These resentments tend to erode the freedom by which human rights are at once recognized and lived. It is curious that you would make this argument in an age when claims of "hate speech" are widely made to stifle free expression, when claims to group rights and privileges erode individual choice, opportunity, and property rights, when the leading forces in the economy seek rents and protection from emerging competition, when the US has practically bankrupted itself to privilege today's consumers at the expense of the freedom of future generations, when the "rights of man" are claimed by people who want to destroy the freedom of men that we may be returned to some more totalitarian order.

In short, what we still need to do is convert people to the faith, and not just reason, that will lead them, in those somewhat rare moments when we can make a difference, to take a stand in defense of freedom even when all kinds of short-term interests encourage many of us to just worship the empire and its ideology of "progress", hope and change, and just get our share of the dole.

It is just the nature of the beast that everything I say about our present corruption is contestible, that the proof of the need for such a conversion, whereby we chuck one paradigm of orderly conduct and shout "let's roll", is not to be found in a complete philosophy of history, or in any set of (once justifiably established) assumptions about the liberal order, but in our experiences and intuitions about the course of events and of corrosive forces that mitigate against any renewal of faith in the untold possibilities that real freedom might hold but that can never be demonstrated in advance and so are always discounted by those who favor rent seeking and risk control over productivity. (Adam K has taught me much about this though I perhaps formulate things in ways he might object...)

The conversion we need or seek in others is not to one or another metaphysics, but to an understanding of events that will never be experienced in the same way twice, howevermuch we all have come to agree on the basic requirements of a liberal society.
Philosophically, it's fine to bitch about Pamela Geller. But if we find ourselves in a place and time when every (of many) public representations of Islam is coming from Islamists who insist that they are being orthodox Muslims - a not entirely implausible claim - then one has to wonder if the rightful fear that the West's successful habit of keeping formal, discrete "religion" out of "politics" can really avoid a politicized questioning of "Islam" for its lack of certain distinctions, and instead simply sustain a critique of "Islamists" and Islamophobes.


Perhaps at some point you can expand on this question and why you see guilt as fundamental conceptually or practically.

-Let me first say in response to the preceding discussion here in the comments that what likely made Jesus different from many other itinerant Jewish preachers was that when he was executed for disturbing the peace, his followers did not so much foresake him as just another Jew who went too far. No, the emergence of the Christian religion in the sustained memory of the event can be explained by the overwhelming sense of guilt that must have sustained a need for faith in the resurrection. In other words, to offer an account in the vein of Rene Girard, the guilt was the recognition of a shared truth (about the human need for a sacrificial victim, about the victim's identity with our understanding of divinity, about a dawning recognition that pagan gods are but mythologized human victims) that had not previously been well understood among Jesus' followers.

In general, guilt is fundamental to anti-sacrificial religion because it is a sign that we remember why the scene of victimization is objectionable (to God and man). Guilt becomes a feature of one's sense of living in covenant with such a God (or his secular, anthropolgical equivalent), as the impetus to recognition of one's obligations to maintain the shared freedom that allows us to minimize our need for scapegoats/excuses in face of the never-ending corruption of freedom (and the manipulation of guilt) by those who seek a quick and easy sacrificial feast in either a ritual-bound tribe or a big state controlling and redistributing wealth.

You might be interested in the ongoing discussion by Gil Bailie (in various blog posts over the last months) of Phillip Rieff's book, Charisma. Rieff argues:

"In the making of a covenant, guilt is the main mechanism. A covenanted culture cannot exist apart from a sense of guilt, for the most obvious fact of experience is the difficulty it presents in keeping a covenant - more important, the temptations it presents not to keep it."
The covenant was the way in which the charismatic quality was verbalized, the contents of which thus penetrate and organize the common life. The covenant may be considered the particular and deliberate expression of moral order through negation and denial. Breaking the covenant becomes an expression of guilt; the covenant itself is a charismatic recognition of the ambivalences felt among the keepers of the covenant. To honor the maker of the covenant, the god-term, is to prefer him and his representatives precisely in their charismatic quality of the self; to respect the covenant more than the self is an articulation of that renunciation of "instinct," which is not only the essential form of all social organization, but also indicates the essential form of culture."

Another way of saying this is that guilt coresponds to a freedom within and to renew a covenant betwen man and God that distinguishes Judeo-Christian religion from those societies bound by a rigid code of ritualized conduct in which one feels honor and shame to the degree one is in sync with the expectations of ritualized norms in a world in which one cannot argue with God and reinterpret with men the meaning and requirements of His revelation. This is an all too short introduction to another question for Colin & Co.: what do you mean by "Abrahamic" faiths, and why do you think Islam is one? Whatever Islam's use of figures and stories present in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, do we not asume that it is in one's understnading of the divine that religions are essentially defined? and what is it about the Islamic understanding of Allah that makes it rather more and not less like Judaism and/or Christianity? Isn't Allah unknowable and completely Other? If so, that is something quite different from the Jewish or Christian divinity.

On “Islamophobia = Islamism (Replies to John)


I'm grateful for such a thoughtful reply. But I am slow to respond (at least in blogging terms) as I mull over what to make of such a carefully-hedged statement. I don't disagree with it so much as wonder what possibilities it points to for a political discussion that does not only insist on decorum but opens up some real exchange of differences that can be truly revelatory, to those involved. If one is not actively trying to convert the other, professing good and evil, pushing revelation, is one having a political conversation? and can politics ever approximate an ideally-disinterested academic discussion, with its ways of mixing disinterested commentary and particular confessional statements?

There are contexts in which I share your revulsion for collective guilt. Even though I consider what i would call "faith/guilt" societies to be freer and more productive than honor/shame societies, guilt to be productive needs to be freely accepted as part of one's understanding of a shared covenant. Does it also have to be freely offered?

One has little patience for the person who says all Christians are in some degree guilty of Nazi crimes because some Nazis were nominal Christians and this shows some logical endpoint of Christian thinking (say the Gospel of John). And yet, at the end of the day, one has to be able to acknowledge on some level that the Nazi movement was some kind of perversion of the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) tradition. But to be confident in calling it a perversion, I have to have some decided sense of what Christianity (or the Jewish model of nationhood) properly entails. On what grounds might I claim such? Are broad brush strokes only to be allowed or encouraged of charitable interpretations?

I am confounded by statements like this:

It’s conceivable that the evolutionary process may be accelerated in our time. If so, the examples – successes as well as detours – of reformers and revolutionaries of the Western Enlightenment may be helpful, and it may be from this perspective that we can begin to talk about Islamic law, philosophy, culture, history, and tradition “as such.” Characteristics of Islamic thought, culture, and practice that are typically ignored – where not belittled and ridiculed – by Islamophobes may also prove helpful.

Here you seem to allow for what you reject elsewhere (at least in the domain of political speech): generalization about the nature of Islam "as such". I suppose you recognize that on some level we must be able to talk about an Islam "problem" - the very nature of the Koran as a response to pre-existing forms of monotheism constitutes the problem which Islam generally discusses in terms of the turning away of historical Jews and Christians from the eternal truth of Islam. And yet the Islam problem - with the "unbeliever" and his (only apparent) precedence in the history of monotheism - should not be politicized you seem to say (I hope I am not framing your words too freely):

I don’t accept that we are discussing “Islam,” or that we should even try to discuss “Islam” in such terms. Any attempt at a political discussion of Islam as such is an affront to Muslims first, but beyond that the very mode of speaking is an affront to all who believe in freedom of conscience.

Confronting some Islamic essence – talking meaningfully and responsibly about Islam as such – is far beyond conventional political discussion, and, where not “foolish and dangerous,” it is at a minimum disrespectful to pretend otherwise. Very few of those compulsively discussing Islam have in any respect established their qualifications for doing so. Fewer still can pretend to do so from a neutral, balanced, or objective standpoint.

No doubt those politicizing Islam are generally without qualifications, neutrality and objectivity. But just how can we begin to imagine a world in which Islam - and I think the vast majority of Muslims would recognize that Islam has at least some political dimensions - is not politicized, least of all in a country founded as a self-ruling republic with a deep populist impulse (your argument might get more traction up here in Canada)?
Just how can the problems you recognize - "valid and inevitable responses getting channeled into counterproductive pathways" - be mediated productively by those with the kinds of bona fides you seem to desire? As we seek to inflect the valid and inevitable response, do we not have to defer more to the kind of polarized world in which we now live?

Collective guilt is a problem but it is the problem of our times. The guilt ascribed by Islamophobes to Muslims is perhaps a response to the culture of White Guilt that has arisen in the West in the last 20-40 years, or it may be an inversion of the Koranic discourse against the kaffir. I see in a more recent post that you belittle Shelby Steele's call on Westerners to feel less guilty - as if his suggestion is feel-good propaganda. YOu do seem to want to hold us to high standards by which a liberal society functions, to demand observance of a shared covenant for protecting the other's freedom, a covenant which should produce in us a high degree of guilt that we may sustain our responsibilities.

What would you say to the hypothesis that the only way we are going to get a renewal of shared covenants by which civil society can evolve and mediate present tensions is if we all learn to affirm a good deal of guilt and that this must entail all of us, including Muslims, better seeing and recognizing (our) victims and the potential for victimization in the very founding revelation and forms of our religious and political faiths? If one allows for some such hypothesis, one must then return to the question of what kind of politics will be more likely to produce it in a (populist) constitutional democracy like the USA. I am not convinced that your seeming ode to the era of liberal experts centering public discussion has still the means to create new iconic persons and memorable events that will redefine civil society and make personal what ultimately must become personal.

You also say:

I’m going to skip over the interesting quote from Roger Scruton, because it addresses a particular radical community and set of conditions (at most a set of particular communities), without a clear justification for more general application – and thus takes on the the form of the same collective judgment/non-pluralist/etc. approach I’ve been arguing against all along.

-Scruton does refer to the situation in the UK and the problem of Islamism but it's unfair to write him off because he seeks some general application for an understanding of core Islamic concepts like the waqf. Whatever the diversity in the ways of being an Islamic society, it's surely the case that one can identify much which is generally characteristic of Muslim-dominated societies, in comparison to others. And surely it is important to note and discuss these things, politically and otherwise.

Just as an aside, I came across this very curious story today. [Later Edit: I just reread the story and it may be that the description of the "offensive" book that follows is not quite right; still, the idea that there is a conpsiracy to mislead the Aga Khan speaks to Scruton's point] Apparently there are a couple of Ismailis who profess loyalty to the Aga Khan but who refuse to recognize that he is the author of some writing with which they apparently take offense. They insist there is some great conspiracy to create a forgery even after the Aga Khan signs a notarized affidavit that he is the author. It strikes me that here is a unique instance, in a community not generally considered "radical", of what is recognizably, to my mind at least, the general problem of which Scruton talks.

Finally, I'll just ask you about this:

we can also expect that the Sharia absorbed in the relatively distant future on a global level would look a lot more like advanced, relatively “decadent” (pragmatic, adaptive, re-interpreted) Sharia, than like the fundamentalist-literalist Sharia of revolutionary Iran or a village in Waziristan (or an Islamophobic blog post).

Can you in any way begin to imagine what this Sharia (sacred) law would look like? How will it get around the problem that Islam, I think we can generalize, does not have an easy time thinking of itself as a historically-unfolding revelation? As far as I am aware no school of fiqh allows for continual reinterpretation of its classical jurisprudence. Rather Islamic law evolves not so much by secularization - representing the old sacred in some distinctively new dress - but rather through the "Islamization" of new knowledge, through attempts to maintain the sacred forms of the original revelation and its classical interpretations. Or is this just another false generalization - but how could you prove it if so (what measure of sameness or difference could convince me? must you not offer also a politicized faith?)

On “Cost of Islamophobia 3 – Islamism and Modernity


Thanks for taking the time to respond at length. In general, I share your understanding that a religious revelation can only be well understood by compiling multiple (emic, etic) perspectives, by attending to all the forms of representation that it generates. But it is just this sensibility, I think, that led me to wonder why you were (or, more to the point, why this is a common instinct of much liberalism) so dismissive of the "Islamophobes". I hardly take Robert Spencer & Co. to be a sufficient guide to Islam, but then who is? My question was along the lines of why make the claim that their approach is useless or dangerous to understanding the complex that is Islam and modernity? Especially if you claim that they are the mirror image of the Islamists, I would think we should take them seriously in an age when, whether it is singular or multiple, Islamism is on the rise. This is not to say we should not re-present, supplement, change, etc., their conclusions. But you seem to imply that we could somehow better understand the complex of Islam by absenting those who are proving successful in drawing warring lines. Why? Why simply take it on faith that Geller & Co. are either A) a sideshow of little importance to understanding what history will reveal about Islam in the long run, or B) an important, but dangerous force with potential to corrupt what history will/should reveal? Why assume that the "Islamophobes" are only fostering a hopeless dead end; why not think that Islam has come, in its historical evolution, to a major roadblock and only by taking seriously the terms of the Islamist/Islamophobe conflict can we hope to join and broaden the debate and find a way around to a point where a religion truly compatible with liberal society can grow in various forms freed by a radical revelation of what was truly a dead end? If we go looking for another, more expert, more liberal, center of opinion around which to discuss Islam and the West, just what is it about the present situation that makes our quest likely to succeed? How come all the liberal and "moderate" Islamic experts have so far done little in way of focussing the debate? Is it really because Pamela Geller (etc.) keeps getting in the way?

I don't quite understand why you think my statement implies that Islam can be funneled into a singular mediating process. No doubt any mediation is something of a funnel; how could I begin to discuss Islam without some such device? But yes, there are many scenes on which questions of Islam and modernity are being mediated.
Nonetheless we have to make bets, if we are to make political choices (a point you make but whose implications remain unexamined). And, as a non-expert with a rather modest understanding of Islam, it's not satisfactory simply to be told that we must wait some time for history to show what are and aren't the more powerful trends. While it is more important for us to focus on what we love and to advance its claims for renewal over our desires to express resentment of others, attending to the latter is necessary to help clarify the former and create terms for alliances and honest enemies.


We have no objective standard for declaring unitary and abstract mediation – televised terrorism or high-level political negotiations – as more authentic or more important than countless, polymorphous “mediations.”

This evolution cannot be televised: That doesn’t mean, of course, that changing relations, perceptions, and possibilities will not show up as more or less discrete expressions in the funhouse mirror of the television screen or computer monitor.

-historical evolution is not the product of hidden "material" forces, howevermuch biological forces must be taken into account, but rather a question of what can, at any point in time, be represented/organized. The evolution may not be televised but if something can't appear on some kind of screen somewhere it's not really happening because it is quickly forgettable.

You are right that modernity includes all manifestations of Islam. But it is just this ready "screenability" that the Islamists and terrorists contest: their aim is to destroy the world, with its decentralized capacity endlessly to stage scenes within scenes, in order to return the world to the kind of "classical" scene in which there is but one public scene on which everything politically knowable and memorable takes place.

The question of what Islam is is perhaps the question of how readily the scenes of Islam can be multiplied or differentiated. As Roger Scruton notes (

ASSOCIATION TAKES a very different form in traditional Islamic societies, however. Clubs and societies of strangers are rare, and the primary social unit is not the free association, but the family. Companies do not enjoy a developed legal framework under Islamic law, and it has been argued by Malise Ruthven and others that the concept of the corporate person has no equivalent in shari’ah [2]. The same is true for other forms of association. Charities, for instance, are organized in a completely different way than are those in the West: not as property held in trust for beneficiaries, but as property that has been religiously “stopped” (waqf) [made non-negotiable]. As a result, all public entities, including schools and hospitals, are regarded as ancillary to the mosque and governed by religious principles. Meanwhile, the mosque itself is not a corporate person, nor is there an entity which can be called “the Mosque” in the same sense as we refer to the Church—that is, an entity whose decisions are binding on all its members, which can negotiate on their behalf, and which can be held to account for its misdeeds and abuses.

As a result of this long tradition of associating only under the aegis of the mosque or the family, Islamic communities lack the conception of the spokesman [3]. When serious conflicts erupt between Muslim minorities in Western cities and the surrounding society, we have found it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate with the Muslim community, since there is no one who will speak for it or take responsibility for imposing any decision upon it. If by chance someone does step forward, the individual members of the Muslim community feel free to accept or reject his decisions at will. The same problem has been witnessed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries with radicalized Muslim populations. When someone attempts to speak for a dissident group, it is very often on his own initiative, and without any procedure that validates his office. Like as not, should he agree to a solution to a given problem, he will be assassinated, or at any rate disowned, by the radical members of the group for whom he purports to be speaking.

Is it a stretch, CK, to say that your objections are but a variation on the problem of there being no legitimately representative figures in Islam? But if so, aren't we already on the road to intuiting what is and isn't going to be possible in the name of Islam, when it comes to liberalizing, or not, the ways this religion is represented?

For Ibn Khaldun, Islamic history was a great cycle between the claims of established political orders that inevitably grew decadent as their Islam came to terms with all manner of worldly and pragmatic realities, and the eventual return at the behest of angry tribesmen from the margins of the urban or imperial world of a more radical or literal or simplistic reading of the Koran, until the new order that any successful tribesmen established in turn faced the need to compromise with worldly realities and in turn face up to to its own "reformers". Can Islam now invent a quite new breed of reformers without developing the kind of representative figures on which Western civil society is based? The latter would seem to require some kind of fundamental shift in Islamic self-understanding, perhaps one that will require us fully to engage and not withdraw from present battle lines.


there is no way to measure the comparative significance of an international news event like the “Gaza Flotilla” versus the filtration of secular humanistic values and discourse via Arab Idol, a border-crossing Turkish Soap Opera, or the democratic capitalist lyric poetry of the television commercial.

-Maybe, but so what. First, if we are concerned with the survival of Israel, and the values it represents, we can hardly be nonchalant about what is unknowable about the future: we have to take seriously the apparent fact that what so many of the "polymorphous mediations" of the Islamic (and non-Islamic) world presently share is a desire or need for a "Zionist" scapegoat. Second, to return to Scruton, while soap operas are very popular in much of the Muslim world, and while they will change Muslims in varius ways, just how can they ever change how Islam can be represented by figures with more or less legitimacy to do so?


All “interactions” knowable to modernity are internal to modernity. In most of these, the radical Islamists must struggle at least as hard to keep up as everyone else. In many critical respects the response they represent puts them at an extreme material disadvantage. In other, perhaps even more basis respects, these material disadvantages are the original conditions calling forth the Islamist response.

-I'm not sure about this; let's remember the Muslim Brotherhood is known as the Engineering Brotherhood in Egypt - Islamism seems to be relatively more attractive to people in the West or with with feet in the global economy and knowledge sectors than it does to people still in the world of the village. So what are the relative disadvantages calling forth their response (you don't believe terrorism is the tool of the poor do you?), and just how much of a material disadvantage vis a vis Western powers should make us feel safe? Their project is to undermine and destroy modernity from within, to return the world to the kind of simplified place that can be ruled by Sharia and Caliphate. Destruction is much easier than production and requires far fewer resources. In any case, there seem to be many people unsatisfied with their modern lives willing to fund things like the Gaza flotillas that promise ultimately to be destructive of those same modern lives.

In short, if we are to defeat the more nihilistic forms of contemporary Islam, and if we are to avoid alienating all Muslim potential allies, can we really avoid the fight between Islamists and Islamophobes, instead of engaging it to represent it in ways that help push our fight along? The problem with Spencer, Geller, et. al, is that they are weak when it comes to articulating the faith that makes liberal society compelling. We should try to work on that without denying the necessity of at least some of their resentments.

On “The cost of Islamophobia

Well, the scholar in question said he is trying to publish his article in a newspaper, so we'll maybe get a chance to see it in full. He told me that he began the class by telling the students they could discuss the material from any angle and say what they like, including personal confessional expression. This teacher is an open Christian (I wouldn't deny that he perhaps harbors a private desire to convert) and when he asked for personal responses to the texts, a certain need to express one's commitments may have been in the air. I don't know of course. I told him that I thought that if students were expressing the belief that apostates should be killed - but why would anyone want to leave Islam, one student reportedly said - he should have pointed out that this was a belief that could not be expressed in a classroom without ruining the openness the teacher wished to uphold. Our conversation turned in this direction, to the question of what a university can permit and I didn't get further clarification of the dynamic in that classroom.

But yes, it's just one anecdote which leaves me too quite curious about what went on. But it wouldn't be hard to dig up comments from various informed students of the Islamic world that the dominant trend in Islam now is the rise of Islamist textual "literalism" (not that I think any text can ever just speak for itself).

I also think another important trend is a movement of Muslims in the West away from any serious interest in religion and a desire for a secular lifestyle. But by its very nature, this is a largely hidden movement that makes very little claim on the future of Islam and Muslims. And it's difficult for me to see many signs of significant new movements for a liberal Islam, constituting a full religious discipline, that are rooted specifically in the movement of Muslims to the West. This exists to some extent among Ismailis but I'm not sure how far it goes.


Isn't it rather pointless to be arguing over whether an organization that lacks the means has a completely genocidal intent? And yet shouldn't we judge ultimate desires - howevermuch they are at the moment grandstanding - in Nasrallah's most famous statement:

"if [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide." (as Wikipedia has it)

While I agree for various reasons with the general argument of the post that it is foolish and dangerous to think we are in a war against all Muslims, i think the "Islamophobes" do have a point that i would like to see CK address: notwithstanding all the sects and interpretations of Islam that evolved in the agrarian age, all the relatively peaceful local practises mediated by saints, shrines, and the pragmatic needs of Islamic societies, the interaction of Islam and modernity, espcially since the collapse of the cold war imperial order, is one, as many have noted, that is increasingly mediated by a radical Islamism.

I recently had a conversation with a scholar of Islamic texts who showed me a draft of an article in which he claims that in one of his recent classes at a major Canadian university - in which the students, many of whom are Muslims, read (usually for the first time) passages from the various sacred Muslim texts pertaining to punishments for repeatedly disorderly wives, thieves, apostates, adulterers (while noting discrepancies between Koran and Sunna, and being careful about the meaning of Arabic words) - all the Muslim students, to a man and woman, came out in favour of cutting hands off thieves, stoning adulterers, beating wives, and killing apostates (when the circumstances justified - because that's what the texts say). And they were not just saying this in the public of the classroom but also in the written work read only by the instructor. The Muslim students were about half the class and half of these were from sects we generally consider the most accomodating of modernity - Ismailis, Ahmadiyya.

Anyway, just a little anecdote to make of what you will. But so far I think it is fair to say that while it is easy to make the point that the Islamophobes have the same literal reading as the Islamists, this simple-minded return to the texts is the pre-dominant Islamic response to modernity.

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