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Maajid Nawaz and the Hadith Qudsi

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- coded signalling, or "a nod is as good as a wink" ]
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Maajid-Nawaz 602

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Maajid Nawaz‘s An Ex-Radical’s Open Letter to ISIS Fighters: Quit Now While You Can! just published by The Daily Beast gives us an invaluable insight into the way a Muslim can skilfully address the “foreign fighters” who have migrated to join ISIS. His final paragraph contains the words:

.. you take one step to the good, we will all make leaps towards you.

What interests me about this is its close correspondence to the end of a Hadith Qudsi, or narration recounting in the Prophet’s own words, some truth that God revealed to him in person:

Abu Hurairah (RA) reports that Nabi (SAW) in a Hadith Qudsi narrated that Allah Ta’ala says:

I treat My slaves according to his expectations from Me. I am with him when he remembers Me; and if he remembers Me in his heart, I remember him in My heart; and if he remembers Me in a gathering, I remember him in a better and nobler gathering (of angels). If he comes closer to Me by one span, I go closer to him an arm’s length; if he comes towards Me an arm’s length, I go towards him two-arm’s length; and if he comes to Me walking, I run to him.

Anyone familiar with the hadith will recognize the allusion, and in fact Nawaz’ referencing it in this way can be considered akin to George W Bush‘s use of the phrase –

there’s power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people

— in his State of the Union address, 2002 — knowing that while those words would slip past most Americans without holding any special significance, to those familiar with the hymn “There is Power in the Blood” it would strike a distinctively Christian note.

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In Dog-Whistle Politics, Coded Communication and Religious Appeals, Bethany Albertson gives other instances, citing Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as Bush, and quoting the religion scholar Bruce Lincoln as saying of Bush:

Aware that he must appeal to the center to secure reelection, he employs double-coded signals that veil much of his religious message from outsiders ..

It’s interesting to see a Muslim (and a politican, too, for Nawaz is currently running as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the seat of Hampstead and Kilburn at Westminster) using the same rhetorical form of coded messaging.

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All of which puts a new spin on the words:

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

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Gaza symmetries and asymmetries

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- "hatred of the other" viewed as a cognitive matter, and Richard Landes on the capacity for self-criticism ]
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Credit: Amir Schiby

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Nicholas Kristof has a post today for the NYT Sunday Review, Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East? — in which he explores the symmetries and asymmetries playing out in Gaza. He concludes with the following paragraph:

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

Let that stand as the epigraph of this post, while we turn to EO Wilson for a theoretical basis:

Reification is the quick and easy mental algorithm that creates order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail. One of its manifestations is the dyadic instinct, the proneness to set up two part classifications in treating socially important arrays. Societies everywhere break people into in-group versus out-group, child versus adult, kin versus non kin, married versus single, and activities into sacred and profane, good and evil. They fortify the boundaries of each division with taboo and ritual. To change from one division to the other requires initiation ceremonies, weddings, blessings, ordinations and other rites of passage that mark every culture.

Rush Dozier in Why We Hate picks up the thread:

Us-them stereotyping emerges directly from the primitive neural system’s basic survival response. It is a form of categorical thinking in which the categories are mutually exclusive. To the primitive areas of the brain, one is either “us” or “them.One cannot be both.

Jesus is reported as saying both “he that is not against us is for us” [Mark 9.40] and “He that is not with me is against me” [Luke 11.23], whereas GW Bush offers less ambiguity: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Dozier again:

It appears that this kind of either-or analysis results from the pre-conscious alerting system’s need for extremely rapid processing, which requires that phenomena be simplified as much as possible and placed in unambiguous categories.

The alert with its binaries, and the analytic, with (hopefully) its nuance — which would we be better advised to entrust with such major matters as war and peace?

Jesus again, overriding the binary opposition [Luke 6.27-28]:

I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

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Let’s move to one specific distinction — one that provide us with a binary, while arguably transcending binary thinking.

Richard Landes makes a strong point in his post titled Self-criticism and cultural development, when he asserts:

Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society.

He continues:

Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop. Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth (no matter how convinced they might be of their “Truth”), can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence. Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making, can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The distinction, the asymmetry I’m interested in exploring today is that between those who self-criticize and can accept criticism, and those who neither self-criticize nor accept criticism.

In my reading of the two quotes from Netanyahu and Diskin that I paired at the tail end of my post Israel / Palestine: some delicate balancing acts, Netanyahu seems to me averse to Israeli self-criticism, while Diskin clearly welcomes and practices it.

Here’s an individual, unofficial example. In an “eyewitness account of how the synagogue of Rue de la Roquette [in Paris] was attacked by a mob, and fought back” titled ‘Yesterday, a Part of My Love for France Left Me’, Aurélie A. wrote:

I can already see myself jumping at the throat of one of the keffiyeh wearers shouting “Death to the Yids!” He wants to kill Jews???!!! I want to leave him for dead! I do not recognize my own hatred!

There’s the binary at work, generating hatred to meet hatred — and the reflective mind that sees the binary as simplistic, and moves self-critically beyond it.

Landes again:

Nothing contrasts more with Israel’s culture of self-criticism than its belligerent neighbors, especially the Palestinians. Here we find one of the most aggressive zero-sum political cultures on record. They accept no responsibility for the war they wage, and justify all their behavior — including how they treat their own people — as a response to the Zionists. They demonize the Zionists with conspiracy theories and blood libels drawn from the most delirious of European anti-Semitic fears to inspire their victimized people to take arms against this malevolent enemy. Who could self-criticize when being assaulted by such merciless and powerful forces? Self-criticism under such conditions is unthinkable, and dissent is treachery. The exceptional number of Palestinians killed by Palestinians suggests a culture in which intimidating dissenters and eliminating traitors is the norm.

Those who say all who criticize Israeli actions are “Anti-Semitic” are overreaching: there is certainly a strong current of anti-Semitism alive and at large in the world, but the capacities to self-criticize and to accept criticism imply that one may critique what one loves as an expression of that love.

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The image of the four Bakr boys no longer playing soccer on the beach which heads this post is the work of the Israeli artist Amir Schiby. You can read it as a pro-Palestinian work of propaganda — or as an artistic criticism by an Israeli of the current Israeli operation in Gaza. You can also read it as a simple, beautiful expression of grief.

Its beauty argues for one of the latter two interpretations, and Schiby’s own statement on his FaceBook page that he intended it “as a tribute to all children living in war zones” clearly suggests the third.

Not a binary, partisan statement, then, and not even the raising of a “provocative question” — but an arrow to the heart, a wordless pang of grief.

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Posts from my Coursera classes 3 — on knowing Shia from Sunni

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Bush, Reyes and McCain as leading indicators of a difficult learning-curve ]
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Here’s another in my series of posts taken from MOOCs I’ve been participating in. This one comes from the Changing World Order Coursera MOOC from Leiden University, and deals with the knowledge senior US politicians have shown of the distinction between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam — as fundamental as the distinction between Protestant and Catholic within Christianity, and similarly basic in that further distinctions of detail also merit our awareness and consideration.

I am posting it here today not just because it’s part of the series of “bigger picture” mini-essays [1, 2] I’m drawing together as I continue to participate in these MOOC discussions, but also so that I can link to it in my post on Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond.

Here’s the post in question:

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As to the knowledge of these distinctions present in American politicians, here are some data points, one from George W Bush shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, one from the incoming Democratic chair of the House intelligence Committee in 2006, and one from John McCain in 2008.

President GW Bush:

A year after the Axis of Evil speech, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans … As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites.  It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. … So two months before he ordered U.S. troops into the country, the president of the United States did not appear to know about the division among Iraqis that has defined the country’s history and politics.  He would not have understood why non-Arab Iran might gain a foothold in post-Saddam Iraq.  He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects that he did not know existed.

— Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End

Rep Silvestre Reyes:

In 2006, the New York Times reported on Rep Silvestre Reyes’ answers to two questions:

  • Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite?
  • Which sect dominates Hezbollah?

Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.

“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

— New York Times, Refresher Course for Congress: Telling Sunni From Shiite

Sen. John McCain:

Sen. John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to promote his foreign policy expertise, misidentified in remarks Tuesday which broad category of Iraqi extremists are allegedly receiving support from Iran.

He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives “taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate’s ear. McCain then said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.”

A McCain Gaffe in Jordan, Washington Post, 2008

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Somewhere between intelligence and decision-making, there’s a gap…

– hipbone

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Previous posts in this series:

  • Posts from my Coursera classes I — dehumanization, consequences
  • Posts from my Coursera classes 2 — angles on the Taliban
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    The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]
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    I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.

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    And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!

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    He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil

    Sunday, September 1st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- borrowing my title from Shakespeare, though Chaucer and Erasmus said it first ]
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    You may or may not like John Kerry. You may or may not like Assad. You may or may not like Mother Teresa, or Michèle Duvalier and Papa Doc. Rumsfeld and or Saddam. GW Bush or Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. But paired photos of someone you dislike with someone many of us loathe is a neat visual tactic in which the not-so-bad party of the first part is tarred by association with the way-more-evil party of the second.

    Does it ever work the other way around, though? is the party of the second part ever redeemed through contact with the party of the first? or even relieved of a few tens or hundreds of thousand dollars for authentic, charitable purposes?

    What would I know?

    The simplest way in which the two images above can be seen as similar to one another is that each one features someone named Teresa. But that’s not the point.

    And I do have to say, that restaurant in Damascus looks pleasant enough.

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