Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Developing Narratives

Jacob Bronsther worries that Obama faces serious credibility problems in the Middle East, not because of recent history, but because of "the Muslim fascination with conspiracy theories."

It goes beyond Saudi schoolbooks that teach as fact the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a demonstrably bogus Jewish "plot" for world domination) and Tehran's sponsorship of a Holocaust skeptics conference. The 2004 tsunami? That was possibly caused by an Indian nuclear test, ably assisted by experts from the US and Israel, according to Egyptian newsweekly Al-Osboa. According to the 2006 Pew Global Attitudes Project, majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, and Turkey do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. And when asked in the same survey what is most responsible for Muslim nations' lack of prosperity, about half of those in majority Muslim countries responded "US and Western policies" either first or second, beating out "lack of education," "government corruption," "Islamic fundamentalism," and "lack of democracy."
This is nicely done. The tsunami theory is utterly ludicrous, of course. But the Muslim suspicion of "US and Western policies" is somewhat less so, and the non-conspiratorial answers don't actually contradict it; there could occasionally be some connection, for instance, between government corruption and US policies.

Treating totally different types of argumentation as equivalent is a typical centrist gambit, though; this is how we know that Ann Coulter is the Right's version of Noam Chomsky, and Martin Durkin and James Hansen are both dubious sources for information on climate science.

Anyway, conspiracy theories are problematic, and here's why:
[W]hen Mr. Obama promises X Thursday, a great percentage of Muslims will believe he really intends Y or that some shadowy organization will ensure Z.
If this doesn't sound all that different from everyday life in these United States, you're obviously overlooking the uniquely Islamic character of the Islamic fascination with Islamic conspiracy theories that arise from the Islamic influence of Islam in the Islamic world.
Every culture exhibits some interest in conspiracy theories (see "The Da Vinci Code"), but they are especially resonant in Muslim contexts, and Western leaders need to find a way to mitigate this problem.
Sometimes I feel I must go mad. Bronsther has the opportunity to discuss conspiracy theories — specifically as they relate to the anti-American policies of an Islamo-Marxist president with no birth certificate who once launched a terrorist attack on a South African rugby team — and he trots out The Da Vinci Code as an example of conspiratorial thinking in the West.

Never mind that it's not only possible but respectable for American politicians to claim that global warming is a Marxist conspiracy, that evolution is an atheo-nihilist conspiracy, that the aim of higher education is to produce an army of radical Derridean firebrands who'll vote robotically for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, that Saddam dragged all his weapons to Syria right before we invaded, and that there's some sort of ideological alliance between fundamentalist Islam and the pro-sodomy babykillers and feminazis of the Left.

Never mind the 9/11 "truthers," who are too busy fretting over particle-beam weapons and hidden explosive charges and barrels of thermate to realize that the Twin Towers didn't actually need to collapse to provide a justification for war. And never mind our flocks of amateur Antichrist-hunters, and the world-hating ghouls who treat every deadly Third World mudslide as a glad tiding of the Rapture. Outside of our brief fascination with the dime-novel exploits of a fictional Harvard symbologist, we've managed to avoid the worst excesses of the conspiracy-theoretic mindset...thanks, it turns out, to our Judeo-Christian heritage:
In Islam there is a necessary link between religiosity and worldly power and success....Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man's tribulations – the Kingdom of Heaven. Not so in Islam.
Having been promised riches and power by Allah, and not having gotten them, Muslims naturally invent conspiracy theories to explain their failure to thrive. QED!

I'm not quite convinced. Though I'm not an accomplished Islamic scholar and exegete like Mr. Bronsther, I've read a bit of Islamic scripture and commentary in my day, and my impression is that one is welcome to strive after wealth -- so long as one uses a portion of it to benefit the poor -- but it's not guaranteed to anyone who prays strenuously enough, and rich Muslims aren't automatically thought to be more virtuous than poor ones. (The implication that fundamentalist Christianity has been inhospitable to conspiracy theories, and never treats wealth as a symptom of godliness, has a few problems as well.)

What's confusing me, possibly, is that I'm failing to read "Ialam" as a polite code word for "the brand of radical Islam promoted by Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi in the latter half of the last century":
Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi, one of radical Islamism's founders, sermonized: "Your honor, which no one dared to touch, is now being trampled upon.… You are Muslims and yet are slaves! This situation is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black."
Mawdudi's explanation for this "impossibility," as Bronsther almost acknowledges, is as follows: "[I]f you believe that the reward of obedience to God can never be in the shape of disgrace, then you will have to concede that there is something wrong in your claim of being a Muslim." Which is not really conducive to conspiracy theories and ressentiment, in my opinion.

Whether Mawdudi's "radical Islamism" guarantees all true believers a gazillion dollars in gold and a pony, I'll leave you to judge from this passage:
If [a Muslim] sees harm in a certain work but the Master says that it must be done, he must in any case do it though it may entail him any amount of loss in life and property. As against this, if he expects profit in some other work but the Master forbids him from undertaking it, he must never touch it though it may bring him even the wealth of the whole world...This is the knowledge and conduct by which a Muslim becomes a true servant of God.
Elsewhere, Mawdudi says that the ideal Muslim "will be contented with whatever he earns fairly and honestly and however much ill-gotten wealth is heaped before him he will not even look at it. He will have peace and contentment of heart — and what can be a greater wealth than this?"

Maybe it's a little silly to act like Muslims are far more prone to outlandish conspiracy theories than the rest of us, especially since our best and brightest routinely portray single-payer healthcare as a trapdoor to the Gulag. And maybe Bronsther's scholarship could've been a little more thorough and thoughtful in a couple of spots. But does any of this detract from his main point, which is that Muslims are to blame for their own goddamn problems, and ought to clean up their own backyards instead of whining about what goes on in Gaza and Abu Ghraib? Of course not. Nor does it detract from the essential nobility of his solution:
One bold step would be a pledge of US funding for many poor Muslims to go on hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, one of their religious obligations. This would astonish the Muslim world.

Such proposals might enable Muslims to trust America a bit more, and begin to realize that their problem is endemic corruption and lack of education, rather than America or the Jews.
It's worth a shot, I guess. But let's not set our hopes too high, because after all, "conspiracy theories are in the Muslim cultural DNA"; they may simply assume, as usual, that we're promising X, but intending Y.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish up my expose on the Gulf War soldiers who are supposedly missing in action, but actually died in the Dulce Wars.


Jazzbumpa said...

what is most responsible for Muslim nations' lack of prosperity, . . . "US and Western policies", "lack of education," "government corruption," "Islamic fundamentalism," and "lack of democracy."
In fairness, wouldn't you say it's a little difficult to pick the winning horse in that field? Or that maybe western policies have contributed in some way to the effects of all those other things?

radical Derridean firebrands
Am I going to have to read Derrida just so I can understand your rants?

is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black. Is it impossible that Mawdudi has both heard and not heard of Barack O'bama

WV: tarkin - Ah'm tarkin 'bout X, but pertendin' Y. And Y not?

Phila said...

Or that maybe western policies have contributed in some way to the effects of all those other things?

No no no. You're in the same boat with those goddamn Muslimians, who don't get that it's all their fault, and always has been.

Am I going to have to read Derrida just so I can understand your rants?

Can to read be to understand, or to understand be to have read, given the givenness of what inevitably exceeds language when I am called upon by the other to respond to and before the other, as the other of the other? Is a more impossible impossibility possible?

(I actually like Derrida, although he often frustrates me aesthetically and politically. But then, I have a masochistic streak, as you may've noticed from some of my other reading material.)

Tlazolteotl said...

Very OT, but this is for Phila