Posted by: L | May 11, 2007

Ali Eteraz On Extremist Islam

Ali Eteraz, a young human rights champion turned blogger, has a piece at Huffington Post, calls on Noam Chomsky to voice more criticism of Islamic extremism. He invited me to comment and I will be happy to do so, as it touches on an extremely crucial and sensitive issue for antiwar activists.

Eteraz lists sundry crimes – from honor killings to censorship and 9-11 – that he places at the foot of a politicized Islamic extremism funded by Muslim industrialists:

” Yet, the fact is that today, globalization, which Chomsky always said was the handmaiden of neo-liberalism, and a construction of powerful Western governments, has an equally sordid evil twin, and this is the globalized monstrosity of extremely extreme extremist Islam. By the way, when I talk about extremists, I am not referring to terrorists alone. Would it were that this globalized undercurrent of violence was merely political! There exists today a form of globalized lifestyle and cultural extremism galvanized and organized and idealized by millions. This extremism, where it is not suffocating art, scholarship, freedom and love, it is murdering, killing, and beating to death. It must be identified and spoken out against with the same gusto reserved for neo-imperialism and corporatism. Dissent against all three is not inconsistent as they each mutually feed one another and leave vast numbers of human beings without a voice, without life.”

And this:

“I just read that Hezbollah is now operating in South America (quite distant from Lebanon, no?), recruiting and drug-running like common thugs, and we have known this since 2002. I just read of “ninjabis” in Pakistan – veiled women who with sticks and rage beat brothel owners, music store owners and video store clerks. I just read of Iranian police officers who kick and beat women for daring to wear earrings. I just read that in some places (Saudi Arabia) women are being beaten so they will wear the veil; in other places women are being beaten (Mogadishu) so they will not wear the veil. I just read that in the world there are over 5,000 (reported) honor killings every year including in places as forward and progressive as Turkey, Italy and England, and in most places courts routinely fail to prosecute offenders. I just read of a German judge affirming that Muslim men are supposed to beat their wives (alternate view here). I just read of a British school where the Jewish Holocaust is no longer discussed because it hurts the feelings of the Muslim students. I just read of imported Muslim brides in the West who are shackled at their new home and beaten and expected to behave like slaves, and this behavior is given legitimacy by male and female scholars of Islam that they purport to follow. I just read that a powerful Iranian cleric called for the death of a journalist who published the Danish cartoons, while an American cleric on a mosque payroll wished that a popular female thinker should be removed to a Muslim country so she could be killed for being an apostate. I just read that a journalist in Canada was beaten with cricket bats after he questioned a Pakistani cleric’s metaphysical ability to reveal the face of the Prophet Muhammad on the surface of the moon.”

My Comment:

It’s an interesting post and one with which I agree on many points. However, it sets up an equation that I’m not entirely comfortable with. Is Islamic extremism really the “evil twin” of empire? To begin with, that denotes a measure of equality and power that Islamic extremism doesn’t seem to me to have. It’s also important to remember the extent to which this extremism was brought to the center of the political stage by systematic policy decisions and covert actions undertaken by the United States. In that sense, it’s a reaction — which is probably one of the reasons Noam Chomsky doesn’t engage it in the same way he does American foreign policy. One shouldn’t forget that there are many influential human rights organizations funded by the United States (to one degree or other) that are already busy evaluating and criticizing the abuses about which Ali writes.

Chomsky ‘s silence is meant to balance those pretty loud voices, I think. Voices that sometimes use human rights as a cover for imperial policies, as a number of observers have noted.

It would be as if a activist in Indonesia (to take an example), were to criticize the Indonesian government’s foreign policy in, say Island X, which involved killing a large number of Xers, and the criticism of the activist was that, well, various Xers are also involved in dope-smuggling in Country Y, why don’t you criticize that too. It’s essentially a red herring. If you object to the government bulldozing a neighborhood, it is no defense for the government to argue that the home owners weren’t that nice. It’s strictly beside the point. It’s even less relevant if the government’s defense is that some people who share the same beliefs of those home owners, somewhere else on the planet, are beating their wives.

A specialist in foreign policy is – unless he is exceptionally arrogant – going to stick to foreign policy. A self-avowed anarchist like Chomsky is going to be concerned with matters of the state, not of society. Honor killings are a social evil, just as child abuse in the US is. Chomsky also does not discuss child porn or sex abuse of children in the US or alcoholic wife beating or gang violence or any number of other social ills, as far as I know. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t evils too. They just aren’t very central to a discussion of foreign policy. Nor is honor killing, although some people would like it to be – liberventionists.

So – no. Of course, not all evils in the world are the fault of the US. That’s never been argued by any activist I know. But night after night, we see American and European TV journalists covering human rights abuses all over the world (quite selectively), with all the financial clout their huge networks have, making the opposite case — that all of the world’s ills stem from Islamic terrorism. So, if a few alternative journalists debunk that claim and actually have the cheek to hold the US government to its own standards, so what? That doesn’t mean we support Islamic terrorism, from which, I of Indian origin, have suffered about 20 times as much as anyone here in the US has (over 60,000 people killed by terrorist attacks) – I’ll check that figure – at the hands of Pakistan, a country whose military dictatorships have been funded and supported by – guess who? – the US.
So anti-Americanism is often ( I won’ t say always – because of course, there are always activists whose criticism of the US government camoflages their own political agendas, but they are not necssarily any more likely to be foreigners or immigrants as native born) simply a way to discredit activists and can reflect an inability to answer criticism.

Another point ( I just added this) – who do you suppose shapes the U.S. government? Lobbying groups – many of them from all over the world, representing all sorts of interests, from financial to human rights to imperial. Our policy in Afghanistan was motivated by a Pole’s (Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s secy of state) extreme distrust of the Soviets (stemming from Polish history) and his willingness to trade luring them to a debacle in Afghanistan by financing Islamic militants there against a world wide increase in Islamic militancy. Which is what we have now. So, it seems a bit thick to blame Islam for this, even though now Saudi financiers are probably fuelling what is already out there.

What I ask Americans is – why are you identifying with a bunch of people who are not acting much in your interests at all? The government – the state – is not America. Not in my view. It’s a part of it. A mechanism to protect the people and culture. It’s not the same thing.

And by the way, although my interest in foreign policy first came from reading Professor Chomsky, I am a right libertarian, and interested in Austrian economics — which is diametrically the opposite of Chomsky, in some ways. It’s simply that Chomsky’s critique of US foreign policy is, in fact, substantially the same as the libertarian right critique of Murray Rothbard or Garet Garett – nobody would call them anti-American would they? And also – apart from the statism – of the old right.

But unfortunately it’s not a well known tradition. This blogger also wonders about the influence of anti-Americanism in this debate. As I said, that’s a word that can sometimes have purchase, but in relation to US foreign policy, I believe it’s more than a little misplaced.

I’ve made the argument about liberventionism, by the way, in a piece about the abuse of Iraqi female prisoners. The condition of Iraqi women deteriorated on every count after the US invasion, despite a lot of prewar rhetoric from female commentators that the invasion of Iraq was motivated by a desire to liberate women from Islamic fundamentalism. That rhetoric overlooked the fact that Iraq under Saddam was a secular state with a well-educated female population. (“Iraqi Women and Torture: Part IV Gendered Propaganda, the Propaganda of Gender,” Dissident Voice, August 9, 2004).

Chomsky himself argues – more controversially – that US aid is often inversely related to human rights abuses.

I have n’t studied that proposition myself in any systematic way, so I won’t go there.

But in brief, I would say that Islamic extremism may be a foundling child of empire, but descent and equivalence are two different things.

Let me make it clear that, as an individualist, I have a special antipathy toward all forms of thought control. Other forms of coercion – physical or legal – seem far less intrusive and dangerous than power over our thought processes. In fact, I started this site hoping it would become a forum for dissecting some of the mental blinkers we routinely wear. So I do share Ali’s repugnance at what extremist Islamic clerics are demanding from their flock. Nobody could watch these pictures of the stoning of this poor girl in Kurdistan without horror.

That said, however, I think that, at least with regard to honor killings and proscriptions on brothels or sexually explicit imagery, he is comparing two incommensurate things.

Honor killings, to repeat, are more aptly seen as social evils, similar in type to female foeticide in India or of infanticide (the US, for example, has a high rate of infant homicide), or in some people’s view, abortion. Whatever we think of any of these practices, they are a coherent part – even if we think of them, depending on our point of view, as an appropriate or vile part – of a world view.

Let me clarify, that I am not directly equating the killing of a woman with abortion, here. I am simply saying that certain issues have to be discussed in cultural, societal terms rather than purely as legal individual rights. Otherwise, our ability to either understand them or effectively reduce them becomes limited. I, personally, am firmly pro-choice, and iterate that view in this piece on the right to death.

However, one part of opening a dialogue that enlarges human sensibilities is understanding the world views of those who differ from us. To dismiss anti-abortion activists as deluded fools or misogynists simply won’t do, any more than denouncing Islamic theocracy as nothing more than oppressive patriarchal chauvinism. That is, we cannot refuse to see the people we criticize solely in our own terms.

When a considerable number of intelligent and well-intentioned people believe something radically at odds with your belief, it pays to try to understand things first before acting. You have to affirm your common humanity with the other – and isn’t the religious world view most completely the other of the secular? – before you differentiate yourself.

If you subscribe to the idea that a woman’s sexual purity is part of her family honor and if that honor is given a premium in your society, then, putting to death a woman who violates that honor would be a coherent act, even if it were abhorrent to others who didn’t buy your world view. It would probably also be coherent to the victim, even if she rejected it.

It is that coherence that enables us to attack – or defend – infanticide, honor killings or euthanasia or other similar practices as social evils rather than simply criminal acts. In a similar way, if you believe that a woman’s bodily integrity and volition as an adult is of more consequence than a conglomeration of living cells in her body that you believe lacks ‘personhood,’ then abortion will not strike you as morally wrong.

That is, the participants in something like an honor killing genuinely subscribe to the set of beliefs from which the practice arises. Of course, I’m not talking about murders from some other motive (say, financial) that are simply palmed off as honor killings.

In India, the closest phenomenon would be dowry killings, I think. (On rereading this, I don’t think dowry kilings belong here as they are motivated by financial reasons primarily. The old practice of widow immolation – sati – is a better choice. Dowry killings don’t belong to a coherent moral universe).

In European history, something similar, perhaps, might be the old practice of killing wives found in flagrante delicto or, more recently, the passage of lesser sentences for crimes of passion.

A human rights expert writes, “In countries where Islam is practiced, they’re called honour killings, but dowry deaths and so-called crimes of passion have a similar dynamic in that the women are killed by male family members and the crimes are perceived as excusable or understandable. The practice, goes across cultures and across religions.”

I strongly condemn these abominable practices, but I also think that they often predate the presence of Islam. They are socio-economic in nature and are exacerbated by poverty, war and economic dislocation as this Counterpunch piece describes.. I think the right way to effectively end them is through cultural critique, the empowerment of women (and men) through education and vocational training (the perception of economic dependence is one reason women are devalued), as well as the modification of religious laws or traditions shielding perpetrators. An extended and empathic approach has to supplement a purely legalistic one.

If you wanted to help, here is a site, Madre, which works to empower women in Iraq and other places to stand up to violence against them.

You can come out of an ethos of ‘universal values’ and find human rights at stake in such practices, but you should remain aware that they are at stake in what is also a universe, only one that has defined its values differently from ours. You could then undertake the difficult and delicate task of engaging and enlarging that world view, but only while being aware, simultaneously and humbly, that it is a coherent one and that your own position as arbiter of universal human rights is fraught with ambiguity and not quite Olympian.

I have written about this in an article on female foeticide, “Missing Women, Missing Selves” (Gowanus Review),
where I argue for leniency toward women who commit infanticide in India and compare it as a practice to abortion – rather than murder – in the West.

On the other hand, imperial war, The Global War on Terror, to give it its full capitalized dignity, is not a coherent project in the same way. Those who direct it, those who enact it and those who suffer from it are not equally participants in any coherent world-view. They are mechanically enmeshed by propaganda, inertia, ideology, lies, ignorance, greed and a host of fragmentary forces that arise from the nature of the state and its bureaucracy.

The state is not society…. nor culture.

One last point, I should note that my field of training was in Anglophone intellectual history, international relations and US foreign policy – I feel comfortable dealing with issues of the state and of politics for which I am equipped. I have no special expertise in Islam that would enable me to say something useful on the subject. Besides, being what I call a Christo-Hindu, I feel that the cultural or religious critique of a major religion like Islam, which is already at loggerheads with Christianity and Hinduism in many areas, is better left to liberal Muslim voices, such as Ali’s. There is thus the matter of who says what that needs to be considered here. I can feel comfortable criticizing the policies of a country in which I have been resident for over twenty years and with whose language and cultural traditions I am completely conversant. I am less happy to criticize a tradition to which I do not belong. That seems less than civil to me. It is entirely consistent and not to be taken as selective at all.

Those are my rather unfinished, not-completely-thought-out reactions to Ali’s thoughtful and heart-felt piece…

Meanwhile, I came across this wonderful piece that describes the accomplishments of Islamic scientists in the middle ages. I am linking it here, because the relentless association of Islam with only its most extreme elements fails to give the average American reader a fair picture of the past or present of this religion. It’s as though we were to judge Christianity only by the worst excesses of the Conquistadors or by the Atlantic slave trade.

Callimachus at his blog responds and a reader from foreign policy in focus adds a link:

which is an interview with Chomsky about the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic terror groups.

Well – I have not quarrel with any of that and it shows that Chomsky is fair and not one sided. But I don’t see that he focuses on honor killings or any other societal issues that are exacerbated, no doubt, by war.

I certainly have never denied the existence of Islamic terrorism. India has suffered about 60-65000 deaths from it – from both Pakistani groups and others. Here is a link referencing some of the groups and where they are funded.

Here are some pieces of mine that reference that terrorism; no one’s denying it exists but is it an equal and evil twin of empire?

and again here,

and here:

I don’t think that any of that sounds like I don’t think terrorism exists.

But this is the problem:

selective human rights focus – taken out of context and used incorrectly. And I think HuffPo and other places do that all the time. As an antiwar activist, I will devote my time to providing the context.



  1. interesting points lila. ill get back to you with comments.

  2. […] was up a few days ago. Lila Rajiva, author of an incredible book about Abu Ghraib and torture, evaluates my article quite critically: It’s an interesting post and one with which I agree on many points. […]

  3. […] 19th, 2007 by lilarajiva Just to underscore my earlier posts on Ali Eteraz’s criticism of Islamic fundamentalism and on “liberventionism” (human rights or other universal, liberal values used as cover for colonial policies), I am posting […]

  4. I may not know much, but wouldn’t it be proper blog etiquette, and just plain intellectual honesty, if you’ve substantially changed the text of a post, in reaction to a criticism of it, and included a linked dig at the critic in your revised post, as well as altering some of the language he quoted in criticism, to at least acknowledge that the current post is not the original one? Or would it be too much to allow that an ignorant blogger could have some effect on your refined thought?

  5. I am not calling you ignorant nor was the word ‘refinement’ meant as a put down. I have been polite to you I think.

    I have changed my reference to your link, if you feel it was.

    Nor anything to do with intellectual honesty. My first post clearly stated, ‘more later’, as I was rushed. I even wrote (I think that part’s still there – that my thoughts were rough and not well thought out – and Ali responded also roughly saying he would return to it).
    I began blogging a month ago and do it in between my other work.
    I don’t know what blogger etiquette is and don’t usually entertain comments unless I think I might actually change some one’s mind or have a mind worth changing or add something substantially to the debate.
    I actually didn’t even have time to look at his links or facts.
    I post a lot and quite lengthily (over 70 in a bit since I begain in a month) is very difficult and I prefer to publish and then work on it so that at least I get out the comment and get the debate going or the synergy is lost. I rework all my posts and add links and make them better. I did not and do not change positions at all and I am usually just adding things to make it clearer or just responding to someone. I dont want to get into lengthy threads most of the time.
    But you sounded like an ethical person and you listen to Bach and read Tolkien, so I made the effort. Otherwise, I prefer to just present material and not really get into engagements with people – not worth the effort. You would be amazed at how many people feel qualified to discuss things they know little about.
    No hard feelings. Think what you like about my motives. What is happening in the world right now is much greater than petty feelings. Two major religious traditions in the world with adherents of over a billion each are getting more and more into a very serious confrontation. As I said, don’t read foreign born critics. Read James Bovard, or Lew Rockwell, or Justin Raimondo or Anthony Gregory (you would like him, I think).
    IMHO the underlying issue is the massive power of the state.
    Thanks for your time and criticism. I appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: