Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic?

This is a question that has garnered a large amount of press in the last few weeks. The cover article in The Atlantic's monthly print edition, 'What ISIS Really Wants' (March 2105) played the part of catalyst.

The article was written by Grame Wood, a Canadian journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. Reaction was almost instantaneous. News feeds exploded with more or less--sometime more and sometimes less, in my estimation--credible reactions to Wood's claim that there is something deeply Islamic about the 'ideology' or 'worldview' that inspires the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIL, which stands, more broadly, for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Certain more radical strains of politically conservative and liberal punditry seized on the idea that ISIS was deeply Islamic. For what were naturally different reasons. Conservative commentators wanted to see something deficient in Islam itself to explain its inability to be modern, Western and European, to generate the institutions that support civil society, to develop the rule of law. Liberal commentators saw Islam as inherently patriarchal, oppressive, or, at least, repressive, and saw ISIS as only the most recent expression of this. Other, more centrist positions, call for a more moderate interpretations with a measured reticence like President Obama, who is staunchly opposed to identifying ISIS with Islam. For some, most likely pragmatic, raison d'etat, he opted to use the label of 'violence extremism.'

Of course, this does not exhaust all the possibilities. An article in Salon, usually a more radical, left-leaning news source, by Haroon Mughal was titled 'The Atlantic's Big Islam Lie: What Muslims Really Believe about ISIS.' The article described the recent history of the region that birthed ISIS, highlighting the United States' disruptive influence in the region. It also made the important point that the vast majority of Muslims, in fact, do oppose ISIS' extremism. If the group has been able to flourish, that has more to do with the lack of legitimate local authority to check the its growth and progress. The disruptive influence of the United States, again, has played no small part. Fareed Zakarai addressed Wood's contentions on his Sunday morning CNN show, Global Public Square. In a related article, 'The Limits of the "Islamic" Label,' he makes the point that 'many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology.' But if we only understand the ideology, we will never what motivates individuals to become extremist.

I myself am of two minds on the question. I think ISIS is Islamic insofar as it deviates from the Islamic norm; but insofar as ISIS deviates from the norm, it is not Islamic. Clear-thinking persons, who insist on the absolute validity of the principle of non-contradiction, may accuse me of positing a doctrine of double-truth. However, the reason that I am of two minds is really quite straight forward. The question has two possible answers, one factual and the other normative. ISIS is Islamic insofar as its language, the authorities to which it appeals, and its general ethos are Islamic. But ISIS is not Islamic insofar as most persons and groups, including those within the region, that self-identify as Muslim reject its claims.

The matter can perhaps be stated more clearly in these terms: the Islamic community broadly conceived, or what Muslims know as the Ummah, has existed since the 7th century, and can today count around 1.6 billion members, in its various fractious manifestations. ISIS, as an infinitesimal part of that larger whole, has been around for a couple of years; it's numbers are maybe in the tens of thousands. Now it is simply inconceivable that ISIS stands for the Islamic community as a whole. ISIS is a flash-bang in the frying-pan: its extremism is simply not sustainable, and so it's essentially Islamic character (both factually and normatively) must be seriously doubted. The Ummah has lived and will continue live on. ISIS? Not so much.

This, at least, seems to me a credible position to take for a person who is moderately well-informed about the Muslim world. The position balances between the different sort of concerns that crop up whenever one tries to define groups with respect to each other (or with respect to sub-groups or off-shot groups). The act of defining a group presumes some normative identity, whereby we can discriminate what does and does not count as being part of the group. But the definition also has a 'factual' (or actual) point of reference; namely, the persons who are defined as belonging to the group or not.

The problem with the present conversation that has grown up around the Wood's article, it seems to me, is that it misunderstands the essentially communal nature of Islam. As it is with most other classical religious traditions (perhaps with the exception of Greco-Roman traditions of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, which are escapist doctrines), so it is with Islam that theology is sociology. The Christian Church, the Jewish Covenant (or Chosen) Community, and, to a lesser degree, the Buddhist Sangha and the Confucian family, are comparable examples. Doctrine informs of communal way of life, which includes basic moral norms and also ritual practice.

The present conversation in widely-read North American new sources fundamentally misunderstand the communal nature of religion. It bounces back and forth between defining Islam, on the one hand, in abstraction as a body of doctrine, or an outlook; and, on the other hand, as an object of sociological study. Commentators begin by distinguishing theology from sociology, and then try to figure out afterwards how they fit together, with ambiguous, often one-sided success.

This is a very real problem. If theology is sociology, then the definition of Islam will be derived from the entire history of the Ummah, beginning with the Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622, when the Ummah formally had its beginning. Rather than cherry-pick examples, which can be spun to fit any narrative, the definition will contend the moral arc inscribed a Muslim's account of Islam's own history. But if theology and sociology are first regarded separately, and only afterwards related to each other, then we land in the absurd situation where the question, Is ISIS Islamic? is debated at length and with great sincerity.

The case in point here is Wood's article. The argument of the article can essentially be boiled down to the claim that if it looks like Islam, smells like Islam, and feels like Islam, then it must be Islamic. As Wood commented in a follow-up article, he subjected himself to a rigorous early-morning regime of consuming as much hate-full ISIS propaganda, hoping that the effects would wear off by the evening, so he could sleep. He wanted to inhabit the extremist universe. He noticed that ISIS language borrows heavily from existing Islamic tradition. The apocalyptic language that it employed was especially striking. Wood, at this point, made a genuine contribution to the public discourse on ISIS. What rationale does the organization have for provoking absolutely everyone? They are trying to bring about the end of the world. He points out, 'The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.'

Certainly, this is true. Apocalyptic movements often act in ways that defy the conventional norms of rationality. ISIS does not appear concerned, for example, in the slightest with self-preservation. It wants to be the harbinger of the Last Day. And even though it cannot be sure that it is (such things belong to God alone), it can at least hope.

But Wood's argument gets a little fuzzy at this point, for the reasons I pointed out above. He, if you will, has in his possession a pair of ideas. The first idea is generic conception of Islam, its doctrine and its practice, abstracted from the material record of its history. The second idea he has is of ISIS, both what it claims for itself and what it has actually done, which it has done a very good job of publicizing on its own. One is timeless, for all intents and purposes; the other is in time. He holds them up for readers to see. And he suggests an answer to the question, Is ISIS Islamic?

To his credit, Wood backs away from explicitly calling the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam. Alternative Islamic voices are cited towards the end of the article. But his own position is buried in the later half of the article. Commenting on Salafi preachers, who he sees as an ISIS analog in the West, he says, 'To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.' That some of his readers have not been so reticent to call the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam is not surprising. The article moves in the direction, even if it never arrives at the destination.

Wood's opposes an of an abstract idea about Islam to a vanishingly small group of Islamic extremists. In his eyes, the transience of extremist movements and the accumulated wisdom of past generations counts for naught. Human history has no depth; tradition, no weight. Wood quite literally cannot see the Ummah. Everything is made to stand and fall on a single judgment about a tiny group of individuals, in their tiny corner of human history. The question, Is ISIS Islamic? is not only the wrong question; the terms on which it is asked are entirely out of proportion.

The problem that Wood and so many other scholars is that they diagnosis the pathology of extremism by pathologizing religion. They pathologize religion by cutting the human world in two: doctrines and practices go on one side, groups of people go on the other. Where does that leave him? Wood's most recent article, 'What ISIS Really Wants: The Response,' cites as sources actual members of ISIS, who have reacted positively their portrayal. But he does not see the interpretive dilemma.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Manual Labour

The virtues of manual labour are not something very often celebrated. Nor are those of its unskilled cousin, menial labour. Why this is the case should not be very hard to figure out. Everyone wants ‘meaningful’ work, which manual labour is not; or is not supposed to be.

Meaningful work is a job that pays well, finds you at a desk, and does not require you to take a shower right after you return home. It engages your mind, let’s your creative juices flow. It finds you in Richard Florida’s creative class, which is at the forefront of the new ‘knowledge economy.’ It may even allow you to be your own boss, set your own hours, pursue your own goals. Meaningful work, in other words, is not the sort of work that most people end up doing. 

So it is commendable that Brian Dijkema has taken up the cause of manual labour in his latest piece ‘The Work of Our Hands.’ The dignity of manual labour, he says, is the conversation we are not having, But we should be. The God who has created all things is the Great Equalizer; he plays no favourites, has no obvious preferences: sees the good in everything and everyone. Building buildings, stocking shelves, pouring coffee, cleaning floors, and preparing food are just as good as running businesses, writing books (and blogs), designing homes, and running country. So far as the Almighty goes, every job is worth doing—though with exceptions, one may suppose, like pimping and high finance.

Dijkema finds himself in good company. The pedigree of his argument goes back at least as far as Martin Luther, who held that some jobs are not better than others on account of the favour they allow you to curry with divinity. It is not better to be a priest and less good to be a day labourer or a tradesperson or a civil magistrate. Each contribute their part of the workings of the community, which allows the whole to thrive. On that account, each are as good as the others.

This, in a short summary, is the Protestant ethic animating what Max Weber called the spirit of capitalism. Through the medieval period, religious authorities believed secular labours as less important than sacred duties in the larger scheme of things. This world has passing away. It's relative means paled in comparison to the heavenly kingdom. But after the Protestant Reformation, all believers were now priests, and all their secular labours, now sacred.

If the religious language is off-putting, consider the same claim in a more secular idiom. Today, when money reigns supreme, we would say that it is not better to be make more money as a professional and less good to be a wage-earner. Everyone's job possesses equal value. Everyone has their part to play. 

So manual labour possesses an intrinsic dignity. It is good work, work worth doing, and so worth doing well. It is worth celebrating. But this is not to say that manual labour cannot still be dehumanizing. We read that the Almighty placed human beings in the pristine garden to cultivate it. We also read that he cursed human beings to toil by the sweat of their brows, after they ate an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The lesson seems to be that knowledge always comes with the price. If we would ‘master’ the world, we must toil as a consequence.

Dijkema wants us to see the dignity in manual labour, but he warns against forgetting that work is often ‘toilsome.’ The message is one that I heartily applaud. However, Dijkema's antipathy towards a Marxist analysis of class conflict seems to stunt the moral force of his argument. He is able to admit that manual labour can be toilsome, that it can be exploitative, that is can be dehumanizing; he is ultimately not able do say why these things are the case.

Witness: 1) Dijkema claims that manual labour possess an inherent dignity, but can be toilsome (and so without apparent meaning for the labourer).

Witness: 2) Dijkema claims that we often toil among 'thorns'--with appropriate biblical references to the Fall into Sin (Genesis 3) and to the Vanity of Vanities (Ecclesiastes 1).

But witness: 3) what Dijkema leaves out.

Both of these are true, so far as they go. The problem here, it seems to me, is that Dijkema never gets around to explaining why manual labour should possess an inherent dignity, which, by extension, would explain why it can often be so miserable. Dijkema wants us to celebrate manual labour (for God's sake), but never gets around to explaining what is in it for us. 

Is it not simply that labour, including manual labour, is meaningful because it allows us to secure the means for life? Labour puts food on the table, clothes on one's back, and a roof over one's head. The person who does not work, does not eat; or so the old saying goes. Whereas the person who does work is able to eat and (in our capitalist economy) more.

And is this not also the reason for why so much labour can seem meaningless? A lot of what counts as manual labour is menial in every sense of the term: it enables one to live, but hardly to live well. It finds persons going through the same motions, day after day after day. It dissociates the person who toils from the products of their labour, which serve the material interests of others. And that is if they can find a job. 

Now, this is not true across the board. A good number of professions that fall into the category of manual labour are paid quite well. These provide a sense of personal fulfillment and enable persons to live well. And, of course, if you are being paid well, maybe the need for a sense of personal fulfillment is not as high. You can go home at the end of the day and enjoy life with family and friends. 

But it is true in more than enough cases to warrant a skeptical read of a defense of any argument that seems to suggest a person ought to simply 'work-for-the-sake-of-working,' or force meaning of labour because God wants them to. This is disingenuous in the extreme, and forces one to wonder what god, in fact, is being served. If WE talk the talk of meaningful manual labour, then WE also have to walk the walk by paying a living wage for it.

That is the real discussion we should be having. Indeed, if you think that the human being is created in God's image, that is the only discussion you should even consider entertaining. 

I am vain enough to think that, deep down, Dijkema agrees with me. He just needs to let out that little Marxist living in each of us. Then he will be able to talk about the existential distance between what a person is and what a person does; to talk about how far out of sync these have to be in order to claim that persons are dehumanized. 

Also see: Menial Labour

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Presenting a Dissertation

There comes a time when every Ph.D. must present the contents of their dissertation.

Yes, this is as bad as it sounds. A dissertation can run from 250 to 300 double-spaced pages of text and upwards from there. At 300 words per page, that come out anywhere between 75,000 to 90,000 words or more. They aren't nice words either. A dissertation is a peculiar sort of technical writing that involves talking at the same thing from a wide variety of perspective. It is an ugly process, whose only product is cumbersome, laborious sentences, cobbled together paragraphs, inaptly named sub-sections, and on, and on, and on.

Presenting a dissertation is a rather different beast. Here one's ability to summarize matters. Why did they (in this case, me) write on topic X? What did I find interesting about topic X? More to the point: what will other people find interesting in topic X? And the kicker: what should other people take away from my dissertation? Succinct summaries are the order of the day. Time is money, and the rest of the world has very little of either.

Such questions are the bane of every Ph.D.'s existence. Most have to fight hard, I suspect, to stifle feelings of resentment about having to justify their dissertation at all. The academic's temptation is as it has always been: intellectual vanity. The temptation is visited doubly on the Ph.D., who at best is an academic in training. Like the accredited academic, they live in the space between ideas in a person's head and words on a page. But unlike accredited academic, they have not yet anything to actually be proud of.

The academic of 10, 15, or 20 years or more is justifiably proud of something. They have tangible accomplishments to point at. They did this, or wrote that. The Ph.D. only has thoughts, words, and maybe a few short papers, which, if they had more time, they could tidy up for publication. But in the larger scheme of things, they have nothing at all.

And this can be profoundly unsettling, and is probably mildly unsettling most of the time. The Ph.D. is bound to look around them at their accomplished supervisors. They will look a little further afield at friends, old and new, who have found gainful employment engaged in other non-academic things. Then look down at their own hands to see very little at all. The reason, of course, is that there actually is nothing in their hands. No degree (except for a undergraduate and a Masters, but who is counting those these days?), so no sale-able skillset (even if they are actually able to do things, like mentor students, teach classes, edit papers or articles, write), and no immediate prospect for income. Nothing that can be translated into an equivalent material value; nothing that can objectively justifies the price tag of the education. Not a damn thing.

Well, you say, that is what the presentation of the dissertation is about. That is why you pour years of your life--your blood, sweat, and tears, all your 'treasure'--into writing the dissertation. So that it can be...monetized.

But just think about what you are saying. All of that work needs to be compressed into a few short, snappy sentences, which might, just might, pique someone's interest. Like the proverbial rich man who has a better chance of going through the eye of needle than into the kingdom of heaven, the Ph.D. student's prospects never seemed so dismal.

Feelings of angst aside, there is an important moment of truth in the need to present one's dissertation. The reason why one presents one's dissertation is ready-to-hand. The academic-in-training (in this case, myself) needs to remind themselves of this for time to time. The academic life may be a life spent reading articles and books 99.999998% of the world will never even hear of. The academic may engage in conversations with other academics that are utterly unintelligible even to an educated audience. The academic nonetheless must communicate their work in some way to someone, anyone--just not to no one.

I will indulge my academic training for a moment. Ancient Greek philosophers made a lot of use of the term logos. The term meant something along the lines of 'reason' or 'rationality.' It referred both to ideas and words; that is, both to the ideas floating around in a person's head and the words they use to communicate those same ideas to other people.

The upshot of the dual-meaning was that you could have a rational (or logical) discussion with another person so long as recognized that there was an intrinsic connection between the ideas and the words used to communicate them. If other people were unable to make sense of your words, it might be that you were talking irrationally (or illogically). Or it might simply mean that you had spent a sufficient amount of time explaining yourself. The discussion would have to continue in order to clarify exactly where the difficulty lay. If other people were able to make sense of your words for themselves, then thoughts and words were in alignment. The discussion could come to an end. It had achieved its logos, its reason.

Refusing to present the contents of one's dissertation, in light of the Ancient Greek example, would amount to being irrational. Feeling resentment about having to justify the contents of their dissertation, while understandable, would also be irrational. One ultimate aim of a dissertation is not to develop a private language that unintelligible to everyone but yourself. You do your academic work in order to communicate its results--not to everyone, of course, but at the very least to a small groups of someones.

The point may seem a small and insignificant. Ask yourself a question, though, about how many people go about their days doing what they doing, without a thought about what it means to/for other people.

Most people, I suspect. Including aspiring academics. Would that more would do so.