Last week David Solway at Frontpage Magazine published an entertaining article ridiculing people who try to “understand” jihadism and its “roots” (his quotation marks). These people are like the cartoon characters shmoos (see also here), because, like the shmoos, they “recognize no threats, treat everyone as a friend and, even as they are about to be voluntarily exterminated, are all smiles and contentment.”
Solway proceeded to highlight yours truly as a resident of the “Valley of Shmoon” in good standing, describing my review essay in the Times Literary Supplement as an excellent example of the “sacrificial” attitude to jihadism.
As someone who studies jihadism for a living, I do not often find myself accused of not taking jihadi terrorism seriously. I am sometimes criticised for emphasising the political over the theological sources of jihadism, but usually by people who actually know what they are talking about (such as Raymond Ibrahim).
The Frontpage article is extraordinary in that it actively argues in favour of ignorance. For Solway, detailed knowledge about the jihadis, their backgrounds and their thinking seems irrelevant. Trying to understand the myriad of factors that influence militants’ readings of scripture and the different tactical conclusions they draw from those readings is humanizing the enemy, a moral transgression. Jihadists are religious fanatics and it is enough to know where they are so we can bomb them.
The irony here is that the people who work the hardest to “understand” jihadism and its “roots” are not academics or leftist intellectuals; they are the analysts in the intelligence community. The Valley of Schmoon, I’m afraid, covers most of northern Virginia.
Well, when you’ve got it all figured out, things like facts and understanding can be such a nuisance. I mean, you could hardly make an argument like this one (from Mr. Solway’s essay) with a straight face:
“Nevertheless, the shmoos of the day insist upon ‘engaging’ our enemies in endless palaver. The motives of those who have mobilized against us must be respected, their resentments understood, their economic prospects improved: fine words, empathy and a flow of dollars will do the trick.”
If you knew the that same magazine you’re publishing in ran an article castigating those who refused to recognize the effectiveness of The Surge. After all, it succeeded because of fine words, empathy, and a flow of dollars directed toward the Sunni tribes who had previously been blowing up coalition troops with IEDs.
If you just ignore such facts, you can rant about “the Left” and other terrorist coddlers all you want, unencumbered by empirical reality. It’s so much simpler.
welcome to the long and prestigious list of people criticized by the flat-earthers at frontpage…
I believe that frontpage doesn’t want to know anything about the jihadis, because it might interfere with their desire to turn parts of the Middle East into nuclear glass…
You know these guys are total whackjobs when Charles Johnson, proprietor of Little Green Footballs, washes his hands of the lot of them and then gets excoriated on jihadwatch [a subsidiary of frontpage] today for being insufficiently bloodthirsty. Johnson parted ways with the frontpage crowd after he decided he didn’t want to be lumped in with them. He wrote on his blog today: “His [Spencer’s jihadwatch] website has descended into a true hate site at this point, dominated by extreme, bigoted commenters who regularly advocate genocide and mass murder of Muslims.”
Seriously, I wouldn’t worry about what frontpage says. They’re slowly but surely marginalizing themselves.
The Frontpage article was definitely in the spirit of attack and the rhetoric leaned to the hysterical and the article by Raymond Ibrahim gets across because of the obvious lack if epithets. For myself, I do feel that ideology plays a large role in how how jihadis operate and that the differences can lead to very acrimonious relations.
I tend to not blame Salafi-Wahhabist ideology itself but how Islamic theology is used to rationalize violence. As I’ve mentioned in previous postings the stages of violentization that a person goes through is critical in assessing their propensity for violence. With Muslims there is an interplay of the theological and the social context in which a person develops full “malevolency” and as can be seen from the past even Sufis have been been brutal.
It just requires a cultivated sense of collective paranoia with an ever-quicker drum beat that is augmented by selected (and unabrogated) verses from the Q’uran ahadith as well as books of tasfir. As a memetic that provides a myriad of platforms Islam’s teachings are still based on it’s central text and jihadis have the backing of those texts to a much greater degree that non-violent Muslims. The latter are usually only acquainted with the surface details of Islam (like the 5 Pillars) and have not truly researched and discovered what their Prophet was really like.
I may not make a living writing about the things I do but I understand that believing in the true, violent Islam can be either a result of direct domestic upbringing or an incremental process in which a person becomes more resentful and prone to violent acts. I don’t accept the notion that the terrorists are “not true Muslims” but accept the fact that the nominal Muslims who say such things are in fact, misinformed and they (and the people they convert) who believe that Islam is “peaceful” are both victims and perpetrators of what I can only call “Islamic blowback”. Which isn’t too hard to achieve since most the world’s Muslims do not read nor understand Arabic and do not have easy access to the Internet where they can find out for themselves.
In my years at the circus known as the Other FFI (faithfreedom.org) it has become the norm to see many Muslims find out they are only “nominal Muslims”. The nasty realization they experience is that in Islam the religious is political and try as they might, reforming Islam is a noble but ultimately futile enterprise.
But I still like reading your articles . . . . .
I wonder whether it is a “moral transgression”, too, “trying to understand the myriad of factors that influence” David Solway to publish such statements.
But there is a slight bias, isn’t there?
As an academic, it is important for you to seem objective. However, the people you quote, the people you link to, and the blogroll you endorse all seem to be of the same opinion as yourself. This may be unconcious, but it is still the stark fact.
It would be wiser not to allow jihadist studies to veer into the same pedantic echo chamber of Middle Eastern studies. Otherwise, there will be no escaping the sort of criticism that the article makes.
Thank you for your defense of Sun Tzu, as well as for all your other outstanding work. I look forward to meeting you at Will’s place next Wednesday, inshallah.
“Just a point,”
You wrote that the people Thomas links to his posts and his blogroll “all seem to be of the same opinion as [Thomas].”
Internet Haganah is on Thomas’ blogroll but resides in a very different ideological universe than Jihadica. But I suspect it’s on the list because its owner does excellent research and makes interesting arguments, which he backs up with evidence. The problem with Solway’s article is that it’s just pure polemic. No wonder Little Green Footballs has started shunning Frontpage.
Great commentary on that ridiculous editorial…
I don’t think, however, that Raymond Ibrahim is that interested in understanding the nuances. Whenever I have listened to him or read him, he comes across as chalking it all up to “‘Islam’ is just inherently violent.”
Welcome to the club, Thomas. Tim and I have been members of it since August 2008: hesperado.blogspot.com/2008/08/alasdair-palmer-marisa-urgo-tim-stevens. html
I’d ignore whatever Frontpage decides to defecate towards its daily readership of conspiracy theorists who believe that Obama is Malcom X’s son. I also lump Mr. Ibrahim into that category, so maybe I’m biased.
There is of course a great danger in studying any aberration, that you come to understand it so well that you sympathize with it–a variant of the Stockholm syndrome, perhaps. Some such sense may have inspired the article you object to. The tenor of some of your responses (‘defecate’, ‘conspiracy theorists’, ‘whackjobs’, ‘flat-earthers’) does suggest that your readership may be, um, a bit ingrown in their thinking, and scarcely more open to reason than the Front Page writer. You ought to be careful about contributing toward that. Blue skies! — Dan Ford
Debate over the value of trying to explain perpetrators or instigators of evil has a rich history in Holocaust studies. This thread suggest to me that elements of that debate are being recapitulated now in the terrorism studies arena (though it would seem, unfortunately, with less of a scholarly attitude).
Emil Fackenheim, one ofthe great Holocaust theologians, argued that even will all the facts Hitler would not be explicable even in theory. Ron Rosenbaum’s 1998 book, Explaining Hitler, explores the arguments for and against explanation in some detail and may be of value to the current debate.
One argument that has pragmatic relevance is that to explain is to condone. Prescriptively, to my mind, this does not seem to be necessitated since a system of ethics is based on what ought to be the case, not what is. From a descriptive standpoint, there is, however, some social psychological research to support the assertion. Here I refer the interested reader to the following:
Miller, A. G., Gordon, A. K., & Buddie, A. M. (1999). Accounting for evil and cruelty:
Is to explain to condone? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3 , pp. 254-268.
My own view is that attempts to understand and explain are essential, but that great care must be taken in the explanation process since explanation can itself be a basis for influence. Milgram’s obedience account of collective violence is a good example. I won’t reiterate all the reasons here. Those interested may read my critique of what I call the “obedience alibi” here:
Mandel, D. R. (1998). The obedience alibi: Milgram’s account of the reconsidered. Analyse und Kritik: Zeitschrift fur Sozialwissenschaften, 20, 74-94.
Studying the motives, tactics and strategies of the jihadists is all well and good, but if the analyst axiomatically and apodictically erects a prohibition against even considering whether Islam itself enables terrorism and provides the blueprint for the militant expansionism and supremacism that motivates and inspires that terrorism, then that analyst can study “roots” till he is blue in the face and never get to the underlying etiology.
Instead, most analysts operate from a prejudicial standpoint that assumes that Islam itself, and the vast majority of Muslims, are irrelevant to terrorism. Thus, they construct artificial appendages — “Islamism”, “Wahhabism”, “Salafism”, etc. — that function conveniently as scapegoats removed from Islam and from the majority of Muslims. Furthermore, they tend to reinforce and help perpetuate obfuscatory etiologies that locate the “roots” in everything under the Sun except for Islam — in geopolitics, in economics, in resentment at Western Colonialism, in resentment at Western post-Colonialist “interference” in their part of the world, in “fundamentalist extremism” that must, of course, be an anomalous aberration unrelated to Islam, etc.
Meanwhile, Muslims all over the world, from the Philippines to Malaysia to Indonesia to central Asia to India to the Middle East to Africa to Europe to North America — even to South America (two major suicide bombings in Argentina in the 80s — are committing outrageous ultra-violence — and that mountain of grotesquely ghoulish and dangerous data pullulating out of the Muslim world gets continually filtered through the PC MC paradigm in order to come out the other end smelling like a rose for Islam and for the vast majority of Muslims.
But that data to anybody with half a brain and a working nose still smells like toxic shit.
There is some truth to his criticisms. When you noted that people from jihadist websites were coming to this site, you edited your post to give them a warm welcome. Those people have a worldview that is violently incompatible to the one we hold dear. It’s one thing to mention that they are flocking to this site, it is a whole different story when you welcome them. And when I made a rude comment to give those readers a different kind of welcome, you did not publish it. The previous owner of the site, whose work I have read from the very start (check the comments section if you need proof), never refused to have one of my comments published. It’s insulting for you new owners to make an effort to accommodate these terrible individuals, while simultaneously silencing one of the site’s longest readers. I do not know of a single post by McCants that I have not read. On the other hand, from the time you refused to publish my comment, I have only visited this site sparingly. I do not take lightly those who would silence people who are both loyal readers and adversaries of jihadists. I would hardly be surprised to see this comment go unpublished as well.