Thursday, March 25, 2010

A somewhat uninformed screed that didn't fit in Slate's comment box

I skimmed this piece by Ron Rosenbaum on Slate about a book on the persecution, and insufficient condemnation of said persecution, of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of Islam who has been under death threats for years because of it. I've seen Hirsi Ali; I don't like Hirsi Ali, I disagree with Hirsi Ali, although as I point out below, I certainly believe she shouldn't be threatened and should be protected from the threats on her life. From my reading of her, her strident critiques of Islam are of a piece of Hitchens' and other "New Atheists'" critiques on religion more generally. That is, absolutist critiques that, in their condemnation of persecution, intolerance, and irrationality, veer into irrational essentialism in characterizing religion (Islam or otherwise).

What follows is not an entirely coherent rant, from skimming a piece I found tiresome and somewhat coherent, even if I agreed with the underlying point. I really should address my direct criticisms of Ali at some point, but for the time being, here's my somewhat befuddled, procrastinatory words on Rosenbaum's piece:

Wow... I consider myself an intellectual, but obviously not nearly enough--I haven't heard of most of these people (excepting Hirsi Ali). So I can't comment on, what is to me, the inside baseball here. All mainstream intellectual commentators I know of have condemned violence against dissidents generally and against Hirsi Ali specifically, should the subject arise. And the probability I'm going to read Berman's book is near zero. But from Rosenbaum's piece, it seems like if you strip the sarcasm from his caricatured hypothetical reaction to Rushdie's persecution ("Sure, I'm for his not having his life threatened and all, but I'm tired of all this magic realism stuff, and he seemed arrogant when I saw him interviewed on TV. Maybe he was too contemptuous of the culture of the people who want to murder him"), the main thing wrong with it is the obvious indifference to the threat. But once you mount a vociferous defense of their rights to be free from persecution -- along with whatever material support one might muster as a public intellectual -- isn't taking a critical look at the actual work, attitude, motivations of the persecuted a perfectly valid pursuit? That is, do the "tired of magical realism" and "arrogance" critiques really belong with the lukewarm defense of Rushdie or Hirsi Ali's rights? And should it be verboten to think that, perhaps someone *is* too critical of the culture of the people who want to murder you? After all, if it's *not* possible to be *too critical* of such a culture, then the civilians who have died or been persecuted by US actions, say, under imperialism, foreign adventurism, Iran-Contra, etc. etc. are absolutely justified to have any level of anti-Americanism. (And mayhaps they are.) Or, does persecution only count when it is intellectual, and not when it is, say, blatant disregard for your right to and quality of life? If it's not possible to be "too critical", then both the most extreme Palestinians and the Israelis are right in their abhorrence of the other (if not right in violent actions against one another).

While violence against someone for their ideas -- or nationality, or siting above a resource you covet, or strategic importance of their country -- are all reprehensible and should be opposed in the strongest terms, I don't see why that would exempt the persecuted from criticism. Shouldn't it be possible to abhor the threats against someone, but disagree with them in whole or in part? I agree that the criticisms listed here against Hirsi Ali by intellectuals I've never heard of sound petty and insubstantial, but in my own reading and listening to Hirsi Ali, I find much to substantively disagree with her on, regardless of the righteousness of her freedom to express it and the clarity of *parts of* her critiques.

Since I don't know these intellectuals that are being chided, perhaps they deserve it -- from their quotes here, they do. But the conflation of their pettiness with larger issues of tolerating intolerance and the Enlightenment enterprise itself is, to me, somewhat unconvincing as it's all placed within the rarefied air of commentators I've never heard of. *I* think Hirsi Ali is arrogant, too sweeping, and in a way, racist in her anti-racism, so to speak. I'm no public intellectual, but for me there is no conflict -- I disagree with her on many points, but she should certainly not be threatened. That seems to be a mainstream consensus -- how much does it matter that the Intellectuals' Intellectual are insufficiently down with it? I read two hours of news a day, have a PhD, and feel totally outside of this. I suppose since it's the circles Hirsi Ali, Berman, Rosenbaum and Hitchens move in, it makes sense to be upset at their anti-racism-racist apostasy--for them. But attaching it to a larger critique of Enlightenment and modern liberalism requires more practical connections to the rest of us than this rarefied screed seems to take into account. Otherwise, the implication seems to be simply that one can't criticize the unjustly persecuted--or that one must be very careful to balance enough defense with your criticism, another form of relativism. It's clear that we must defend the persecuted--but what this piece doesn't seem to deal with is how to distinguish the defense of people we disagree with from the obligation of an intellectual to voice disagreement; implying that such disagreement equates to being objectively pro-persecution is an insufficiently rigorous proposition.


Anonymous said...

Although it is from last year, I think you may find this book review useful. The author comes from a Muslim perspective and reviews her works. The link is here ... it is good to hear other opinions and ideas.

Hope you find it interesting.

Daktari said...

This is why I don't concern myself with "pure" philosophy. I just get the feeling that I'm looking into a house of mirrors. None of it is real and it is all designed to make me feel unbalanced.

When people start talking about "the Enlightenment" and relativism and anti-racist racism and, in particular, critics of criticism, it just makes my effing head spin.

You're a better man than me, Dr. J.

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