Saturday, March 1, 2008

Last Wednesday evening I drove in to Boston to see Daniel Pipes speak at Northeastern University. It was coooold and when I showed up there was a sign that said you needed student ID to get in. Fortunately there was someone there to sign me in. Here are some notes from the talk.


As always, security was tight. Bags and banners were not allowed, and the person who signed me in was informed in no uncertain terms that they would be responsible for me. Sponsored by the College Republicans and CAMERA, the student who gave the introduction made it clear that no disruptions would be tolerated, and that everyone present should please treat the speaker as they would any of their professors. Frankly, this is the way to run an event. I'm sorry to report to my blog audience that the event went off without a hitch or distraction -- perfect for Pipes to get his message across and serious listeners to take it all in. I forgot my recorder and left my video in the car, but I did remember my camera and took the picture you see here.

Pipes' delivery is quiet and intellectual. He's not the entertainer that a Mark Steyn is, but there is a lot of meat on the bones. He started by explaining that in his opinion, Radical Islam is a "transcendent" threat -- one that takes precedence over others. In this, says he, he agrees with the Republicans more than the Democrats. It's no coincidence that he was invited to speak that evening by the College Republicans.

The War began in 1979 with the seizing of the embassy in Iran. There are two main questions:

1) Who is the enemy?
2) How do we respond?

Regarding question 1, it's important to name the enemy. There are three points of view on this question:

POV1 is encapsulated by in a quote by Colin Powell after 9/11 saying the problem was terrorism and not Islam itself.

Skipping to POV 3, there are those who believe that Islam itself is the problem, and has been since its aggressive beginnings. Pipes disagrees with this viewpoint. There are several problems:

  • It is a-historical. Islam hasn't always been like this at all times and places -- think Germany with its long history, compared to Nazi Germany which represented an episode in Germany's history.
  • It is bad because it alienates all Muslims, including Muslims we need to be working with.
  • Finally, there is no possible policy that goes with this viewpoint. If all Islam is the problem, how can we possibly deal with that?

Pipes says his own is POV2 that stands in between these others. There is a terrorist version of Islam that goes by various names -- call it Radical Islam.

Islam and Judaism are similar, in that both are Law based religions. The difference is that in Judaism, law is a private matter (meant for Jews), but in Islam, the Law is a public affair.

Islamists, in particular, are uncompromising in their application of Islamic law, and some of this is new. Islamic Economics, for instance, is an innovation that's come about only since the 1920's.

Many of the early Islamists, like Hassan Al-Banna in Egypt, were inspired by the Fascism of Mussolini as well as Communism. It's better to compare their Islam to these totalitarian ideologies than to compare them to other religions. There are certainly differences, but it is a useful comparison -- it allows policy formulation. We can look and see how we dealt with totalitarian movements to guide us in how to deal with the Islamists.

There are two major movements among the Islamists. There is a violent arm exemplified by people like Bin Laden with their suicide bombings, large and small-scale attacks... We know how to deal with this movement. We have police, fire, armed forces, a government that can enact policies. Their overt outrages also galvanize the population to stand and fight against them.

The second movement is "lawful Islamism". It is not violent, it is not terrorist. It is about working through the system. Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan is an example of this movement. These Islamists simply utilize different means to achieve the same goals as the first group. For instance, compare the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the Communist Party in France -- one murdered millions, one didn't, yet they both share the same end goals.

This second arm of the Islamists is far more worrying than the first.

Pipes estimates that 10-15% of Muslims world-wide subscribe to the Radical view, and that's far more people than all the Communists and Fascists ever. It also seems to be working and spreading.

This Radical Islam comes from Islam but is an extreme, murderous, terrorist version.

What do we do?

Our goal in this war should be the modernization of Islam.

We must:

1) Defeat Islamism by seeing the War on Terror as a Cold War that we can win. Fascism and Communism still exist, but they are no longer a serious threat to us. We must marginalize the Islamist movement. We have the power to do this but we are not united in this effort as Pipes' intro concerning Republicans and Democrats suggests.

2) Offer an alternative. This is where the Moderate (Reformist) Muslims come in, though we can help them.

If you are a Muslim and wander into a Mosque, the literature you pick up there will in all likelihood be Islamist material. Alternatives are needed -- here Pipes names examples like Irshad Manji and Naser Khader of Denmark. What is needed are real reformers.

Pipes Concludes:

This is not a clash of civilizations, it is a clash within civilizations. Within Islam the battle is between Islamists and moderates. Within the West the battle is between those who recognize the seriousness of the threat and those who don't -- is it just a nuisance or a serious challenge?

The Q&A went very smoothly. Here are a few noteworthy moments:

Asked whether he would compare the situation in Islam to that of the Reformation 500 years ago he made the point that 500 years ago, all three major monotheistic religions allowed slavery, yet in Islam the decision to repudiate that hasn't been reached yet. Muslims have a huge number of decisions ahead of them that Christians and Jews have already been through.

A gentleman from the American Islamic Congress (a group which Pipes remarked he respected very much) asked what he thought about people who thought we should have contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. I missed his initial response, but, turning his attention to the government in Turkey admitted that a policy answer was very difficult. He wouldn't want to create a crisis between the US and Turkey, so governments must be diplomatic. It's a very difficult issue.

A Poli-Sci student asked why, since we are so flawed (racism, sexism...), by what authority do we dictate to others [high on Chomsky no doubt]. Pipes remarked that just because we are not angelic doesn't mean we can't speak out.

A question came up about Obama and Islam. Pipes accepts that Obama is Christian, though he's not sure that he was never a Muslim -- his dad was Muslim, Hussein is a uniquely Muslim name, his relatives say he did go to Mosque as a child... There are several implications here:

  1. Is he telling the truth about himself? This is important in a candidate.
  2. How will Muslims around the world view him? Is he opening himself up to the charge of apostacy?

A young Muslim in a hijab asked why Pipes thought people in the West like Malcolm X and Yvonne Ridley become Muslims? What is the attraction? Pipes answered this thoughtfully and at length. I thought his third point was most noteworthy. For some, conversion to Islam is a wonderful way to live in the USA but separate yourself from your fellow Americans -- people you may have a great deal of contempt for. Becoming a Communist suited this purpose in the past, now becoming Muslim has taken its place.

[Yvonne Ridley is a good example as she's gone from being a Taliban hostage to a radical Islamist -- she's nuts (my words).]

The final question was from a young guy who was clearly trying to make a point by remarking that he was an Indian and they have a large population of Muslims there, yet it seems to be always the USA in the center of world conflict -- first the Cold War against Communism, now Radical Islam and the War on Terror -- so...who's next according to people like Pipes...?

Pipes got a good laugh when he deadpanned, "China".


POV2.5 is appealing as well. I'm not at all convinced these categories are so discrete and separable as Pipes is - or at least seems to be - suggesting. A religio-political monism, one that conceptually collapses the religious into the political - appears to be much more pervasive and foundational within Islam than Pipes might allow.

Likewise, the Jewish segregation of private law based religious concepts, arguably and for practical societal purposes, is more akin to Christian based conceptions of the separation of church and state ("render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's ...") than an Islamicist monism or even broader Islamic based monism. Even the Talmud receives its ultimate authorization upon the basis of historical revelation (i.e. faith, not law) and certainly not an autonomous Rationalism as can be found within notable strains of post-Enlightenment thought, foremost Marxism. Of course that purely autonomous Rationalism itself receives some forceful critiques, from people like Kant, Gödel, et al., but also, for example, Buddhist thought and conceptions.

Regardless, all that at least hints at what needs to be addressed, even while it's granted nothing conclusive or definitive is being suggested.

I agree with Pipes' tone and interests while disagreeing with some of his particulars. Some of those particulars have archimedean implications.

they need to unifiy the kurds, sunni and shite, just a though on Iraq and the Taliban, they killing 2 birds with one stone

I disagree with Dr Pipes on the reformability of Islam. There may be some moderate, marginal Muslims who don't kill and die for Allah, but they haven't got a leg to stand on when it comes to the believers who take their religion seriously.

No, I subscribe wholeheartedly to the concept of Hugh Fitzgerald who calls for disengagement and a separation from the ummah Islamiyah. We cannot coexist. They will assimilate us if we let it happen.

If you are a Muslim and wander into a Mosque, the literature you pick up there will in all likelihood be Islamist material.

Most of that Islamist material is created and paid for by our Saudi allies. Since they're also probably paying for the mosque and for the Imam's education, it's not likely that they'll let the moderate literature past the front door.

We could try to outspend the Saudis, spend billions of dollars on a program to 'moderate' Islam, but we'd probably have to borrow some of that money from the Chinese. And the results would be about the same as if we'd tried to 'moderate' German culture during the early 1930's.

Islamism is a political and an ecomomic movement. Our money would probably be best spent fighting it on those terms.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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