Like most people I’m a mix of clever and stupid. I’m good on abstract thinking, verbal reasoning and synthesising disparate information to draw robust – if at times startling – conclusions, via cogent arguments that engage with relevant realities. Not everyone can do that.
I’m middling on numeracy, unreliable on emotional intelligence and frequently naive, especially in interpersonal relations. On matters of judgment I’m not so great either; too many shocking lapses you see. I don’t just mean that dark three piece whistle, double breasted and pin-striped, I was sporting a few years back; a look you need to be at least six foot and powerfully built to pull off, especially if you insist on adding tie of emerald luminescence with top pocket hankie to match. I’m thinking more of the time I quit a well paid academic job, one I liked and was not bad at, to sit at the feet of a charismatic ‘spiritual teacher’. He led his students down a blind alley, as those in his line of work invariably do, and the price – though in truth he taught me much – was not paid by me alone.
That’s just setting the scene before homing in on one particular error of judgment; by no means my worst but it touched a raw nerve in liberal circles to draw opprobrium from a couple of my peers. Eight years ago, after Iraq and Kings Cross but before Libya and Syria, I put out a post entitled Am I Islamophobe? Probably. In it I foolishly located the roots of Salafist violence in Islam’s core tenets, singling out the fact that, unlike post-Enlightenment Christianity, Islam has had no Reformation, leaving Muslims with no real alternative to literalist interpretations of its scriptures.
There was a great deal wrong with that argument. As one versed in Marxist (hence materialist) thinking, my major epistemological sin was idealism. (Letting go of a materialist outlook was one of the prices of following that teacher: though there’s subtlety here, to be explored another time.) To locate the roots of Salafism in Quran or Hadith while ignoring centuries of exploitation of the Global South in general, post Ottoman Middle East in particular, is the antithesis not just of Marxism but, I’d now argue, of any approach claiming to engage with the relevant facts. Yes, many still buy the arguments I advanced in that 2008 post and some, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have large followings. I respect these men as eminent in their disciplines, biology and neuroscience, and admire both as lucid communicators. I also share their feelings of alarm over ignorant meddling by some – not all – religious authorities on the teaching of science in schools. But these things notwithstanding, I’ll go head to head with either on the question of what drives violent Islamism.
In short, I’ve had my own little Reformation. I still deem some responses, to my spectacularly ill advised and ill informed post, ugly by virtue both of their venom and failure to offer anything close to a counter-argument …
(Eight recipients were of Sunni or Shia background but, with a sole exception I’ll return to, none objected. The worst came from white middle class liberals, foreshadowing vitriol to come in encounters over the US election just past. There too I would experience abuse and refusal to reason, vindicating that old saw about scratching a liberal to find seething intolerance below. That I see as one aspect of a cluster of tendencies – others being excessive focus on sexism in grammar while ignoring women’s exploitation in Colombian Coca Cola plants, and sheepishly making our own beds in five star Mumbei hotels but saying nothing as Obama and Clinton rain death on the Middle East – to be explored in another post. These too are forms of idealism.)
… but as anyone who reads my blog will know, I’ve moved a long way from the myopic view of Islamist terror I briefly held in 2008. There are several reasons for this. The big ones are the establishment, in Libya then Syria, of a pattern you have to be ignorant or wilfully obtuse not to see: an oil rich Middle East reshaped by and for Washington in a neoliberal rolling back of state capitalism represented by Ba’athism – which for all its harsh repression delivered standards of welfare, literacy and prosperity exceeding those of all comparable states – while locking out Chinese and Russian influence, preserving a morally indefensible status quo in Palestine and laying the bases for violently subduing Iran – if not returning it to something akin to the client status of the Shah’s day.
Seeing this pattern, on top of a hundred years of western subordination of the Middle East and the failures of other movements resisting that subordination, made a nonsense of the idea of Al Qaeda and Islamic State as driven primarily by the violent tenets – in any case replicated in the other two Abrahamic faiths – of a Reformationless Islam. In a 2015 post, for example, I wrote:
a century of western exploitation did indeed beget regionally seismic resentment. Resentment that generated aspiration. Aspiration that searched every which way – Pan Arabism, Ba’athism, Parliamentarianism and non violent Islamism – for regional pride and real independence from the west. It takes analytic obtuseness in spades to divorce the calculatedly horrific acts of Isis from the despair and crushed hope left by Nasserite and Ba’athist failure to deliver on that pride and independence – http://steelcityscribblings.uk/wp/2015/11/17/mangled-thinking-mr-behr/
But I also have to thank a particular individual for helping me along; the one person who did counter that 2008 post with reason and argument. To be sure, they weren’t the best arguments but then they didn’t need to be, to better mine! With courtesy and reference to Islam this man, of Muslim background and on the left, challenged my theist view of Salafism. He too had pieces missing from the jigsaw puzzle, however, given that the removal of Gaddafi, attempted removal of Assad and in both cases lethal mayhem and rise of Islamic State still lay ahead.
I mention this man’s response because he is a follower of my posts in more recent years, and from time to time has written approvingly of both my political and travel writings. His most recent response was to my last post, Friendship and politics, where I spoke of the strain my anti-imperialist perspective has placed on some of my friendships, in particular with regard to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. For reasons not entirely clear to me – I’ve written back for clarification but not yet had it – he raised the matter of that 2008 post and his response.
What I didn’t get was the relevance of my 2008 post to the one he was ostensibly responding to, especially since he knows my position is now radically altered. I’m not entirely in the dark though. Like other friends, more socialist than liberal, his Facebook posts suggest he too saw Clinton as lesser evil – the bone of contention in my less than popular views on the American election. Perhaps he is simply reminding me I have form when it comes to poor judgment.
If so I’m duly grateful. The nature of what I do has me sticking my neck out, over and over. Pair that with my tendency, acknowledged in paragraph two, to lapses of judgment and you see the inevitability of pratfalls. But isn’t that the essence of inquiry? And isn’t that why people like me, and that friend, perform a vital service in advancing – in however small a way and whether we are right or wrong – human understanding?
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NB – I no longer have that 2008 post. This isn’t my attempt to erase the evidence. One aspect of Going Public, even in the limited way I do, is you can’t get away with that. Several changes of email address – for years I posted by distribution list – haven’t helped but it’s more likely I deleted it as an embarrassment I wanted to forget. It’s possible someone reading this was on my original mailing list and may have kept it. If so, I’d be glad to receive a copy, for publication here – with suitable health warning, naturally.
I look forward to reading your blog Phil (and enjoying the photos) – I appreciate the reflective zig zags as your views evolve. Helps me reflect and review where I am.
This particular journey you describe reminds me of Adam Curtis’s most recent film ‘Hyper-normalisation’ – I expect you know it, if not I recommend – is on BBC iplayer where its listed as a film rather than documentary – documentary footage crafted into a counter cultural story.
Hi Mike. Thanks for kind words. One of many things that teacher got right IMO was urging us to cultivate an impersonal perspective on personal experience: neither denying nor wallowing in our feelings. That’s easier said than done, especially in the grip of strong emotions, positive or negative. I do think, though, that one of the good things about getting older is a greater willingness to accept ourselves, strengths and limitations both. That seems to me a valuable asset in appraising the zig-zags – let’s get posh and call this dialectics – you speak of.
I did see the Curtis documentary, and found it brilliantly insightful in part but in other places flawed by an excess of idealism and too little knowledge of on the ground realities. One example was the view that the ‘Arab Spring’ lost momentum in Egypt because it ran out of ideas. I had intended to review the film here but didn’t because a reliable commentator on the Middle East, Jonathan Cook, said everything I’d have said and a few things beside. I’d have been kinder on Curtis (and on Putin!) than Cook is, but on his substantive points can’t fault him. See his review, it’s quite short.
Good post papsy! Fran x
Thanks Fran – my beautiful daughter! On the matter of sticking one’s neck out I recall our mutual friend Pippa, specialist on disability, speaking of the stifling – corrosive even – effects of fear of saying the wrong thing. In her inclusiveness sessions it would be a blessed relief when somebody came right out with it: I don’t want my child held back by some retard in the classroom. Only then would folk drop their Sunday Best and Walking on Eggshell behaviour to get real.
That ‘spiritual teacher’ had us look deep into the difference between wanting to do the right thing, and fear of doing the wrong thing: correction, fear of being seen to do the wrong thing. In his book it was the worst aspect of political correctness gone bad. I no longer put it in the number one slot, but it’s still a close second!