The Balfour Declaration: 100+ Years of Ethno-Nationalist Apologetics

Some food for thought, in “commemoration” of the Balfour Declaration, drafted 31 October 1917, adopted by the British Government 2 November 1917.

(1) Lord Arthur Balfour, speech to Parliament on the need for the British to retain control of Egypt (1910)

First of all, look at the facts of the case. Western nations as soon as they emerge into history show the beginnings of those capacities for self-government…having merits of their own…You may look through the whole history of the Orientals in what is called, broadly speaking, the East, and you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries–and they have been great–have been passed under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation–and they have been great–have been made under that form of government. Conquerer has succeeded conqueror; one domination has followed another; but never in all of the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of those nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government. (Quoted in Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 33)

(2) Balfour Declaration, Zionist Draft (July 1917)

  1. His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.

  2. His Majesty’s Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organisation.

(3) Balfour Declaration, Final Draft, (finalized 31 October 1917, adopted 2 November 1917)

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. (Both drafts quoted in Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents, 8th ed., p. 94)

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Happy Halloween 2017

I’m reblogging this post I did in 2014 and 2015, modified after taking a year off in 2016.

Halloween has, for as long as I can remember, been the only holiday I’ve ever been able to take seriously or wholeheartedly to celebrate. As a nominal Muslim, I fast during Ramadan, but Ramadan isn’t really a holiday, and unfortunately, none of the Muslim holidays (the Eids) are seasonal, seasonality being an essential property of a real holiday. In fact, generally speaking, Muslims have trouble figuring out when exactly their holidays are supposed to take place–another liability of being a member of that faith.

Having spent a decade in a Jewish household, I have some affection for some of the Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur and Passover, though not Hannukah or Purim–but always with the mild alienation that accompanies the knowledge that a holiday is not one’s own: it’s hard to be inducted into a holiday tradition in your late 20s, as I was.

I like the general ambience of Christmastime, at least in the NY/NJ Metro Area, but unfortunately, once you take the Christ out of Christmas, you take much of the meaning out of it as well, Christmas without Midnight Mass being an anemic affair, and Midnight Mass without Christ being close to a contradiction in terms. Not being a Christian, I find it hard to put Christ back into Christmas, mostly because he’s not mine to put anywhere in the first place. (Same with Easter.)

Diwali I just don’t get. Continue reading

Orientalism, Racism, and Islam: Edward Said Between Race and Doctrine

David Riesbeck’s recent post on essentialism reminds me that I have a paper on a loosely related topic that I’ve been meaning (for eight years!) to revise and submit somewhere. As I’m teaching Edward Said’s Orientalism in the fall, I figured I’d make the time to revisit the book and the topic, and finally revise the paper. So here it is, in the interests of feedback from PoT readers, and potentially, for purposes of comparison and contrast with David’s post. Originally presented at the California Roundtable on Philosophy & Race, Hampshire College, October 2, 2009.


Orientalism, Racism, and Islam:
Edward Said Between Race and Doctrine

  1. Introduction

Edward Said’s Orientalism has gotten relatively little attention from philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition. Arguably, though, the book has been at least as influential in contemporary political thought as has the work of say, Rawls, Nozick, or Dworkin, and has probably been more influential across the breadth of the humanities than the combined efforts of the sum total of analytic normative theorists. Widely regarded outside of philosophy as the foundational text of postcolonial studies, and as the touchstone of a progressive conception of comparative politics and area studies, Orientalism is also a pioneering contribution to race theory. Where English-speaking race theorists had, prior to Orientalism, devoted the bulk of their attention to anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, Said was one of the first academic writers to draw sustained attention to Western conceptions of the Arab/Muslim Oriental.  As one early reviewer concisely summarized the book, “Professor Said uses [his] privileged vantage to observe the West observing the Arabs, and he does not like what he finds.”

In what way is Orientalism a contribution to race theory? The question leads to a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it is hard to deny that there is some such contribution. On the other hand, the contribution in question turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specify with any precision. I want to suggest that the conundrum arises from a systematic equivocation that runs throughout Said’s treatment of Orientalism—namely, his persistent conflation of claims about the essence of Oriental racial identity with claims about the essence of Islamic religious doctrine. Contrary to Said, a critique of the first sort of claim, however cogent and insightful, is not easily (or at all) transferable to claims of the second sort. The failure to distinguish race from doctrine undermines what is valuable about his account and abets serious confusion.

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SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

Should I stop reading BHL? Or should I keep reading and stop criticizing it? You tell me, PoT readers, because I find myself shaking my head at some of the stuff they’ve been producing lately.

Take Mike Munger’s latest post on religious toleration. Munger opens with some comments on Trump’s views on Muslims, then quotes a bit from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, then “concludes” (sort of, but not really) that while he thinks Trump is wrong, Locke’s Letter convinces him that he’s not sure that Trump is wrong. The conjunction of the two claims skates perilously close to Moore’s Paradox, but set that aside, if you can. What exactly is the argument that convinces Munger that Trump might be right?

It’s mainly this passage from the Letter, overtly discussing Muslims, covertly discussing Catholics, but taken by Munger to apply implicitly to Trump and to Muslims today:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Munger’s comment:

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

I think the “relevant question” is how any commentary on this subject could get this confused this fast.

First, a pedantic opening criticism: Munger gets Trump’s views wrong. He describes them like this:

He [Trump] has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.

The link goes to a December 7 article in The Washington Post. A day or two later, however, Trump had changed his tune:

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

I quote this not just to score points–though I don’t mind doing that–nor just to make hay, for the nth time, of BHL bloggers’ strained relationship with the realm of fact. I say it because there’s something really implausible about thinking that Trump’s views are stable enough or theoretically interesting enough to have their roots in Locke’s Letter. Trump doesn’t mention Locke. Nor does he make arguments. What he does instead is to tweet 140 characters at a time, yell down his interlocutors, and let everybody else do his work for him by pretending that he’s said something that counts as political discourse.

So I have to wonder: what is the point of putting theoretical arguments in the mouth of a politician who doesn’t have any arguments of his own, and seems to want to turn the country into a police state? From treating Trump’s claim in heuristic fashion as if it were Lockean, Munger somehow skates in a clause or two to the claim that it just is a Lockean argument. At this rate, I guess BAIR is a Lockean organization, and an armed mob’s surrounding a mosque is a Lockean activity. What next? Lockean internment camps?

So let’s return to the text and try to understand the contorted route by which Munger wants to make Locke relevant to Trump. Though the passage is about Muslims, Munger takes it to be a shot against Catholics, then infers that what is true of the Catholics of Locke’s day might be true of the Muslims of ours. Here’s a suggestion: why not skip the pointless intermediate step and just read the passage as stated?

Here it is again:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

I won’t comment on how this passage applied to the Muslims of Locke’s day, but it has almost zero application to the Muslims of 2015.

First, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate, but there is no caliphate today (even ISIS only aspires to become one), and there hasn’t been a “real” one since 1924.

Second, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate to which Muslims universally or at least ubiquitously swear allegiance, but Muslims didn’t universally pledge allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate even when it did exist. To cite just the simplest and most obvious example, the Muslims of the Palestinian national movement rebelled against the Ottomans during World War I.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find universal allegiance to any caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 AD). The disputes over caliphal succession began with his successor, Abu Bakr, and have continued to this day. Dispute over the legitimacy of this or that caliphate has been one of the major themes of Islamic history ever since. (Has anyone at BHL heard of the Sunni-Shia split?) To write about Islam and not know this (or not show any sign of knowing it) is like writing about Islam from the historiographical equivalent of a blank slate.  You might as well write about Christianity without having heard of the Protestant Reformation. It adds insult to injury when what you’re doing is making Trump into a Lockean while scratching your head about the plausibility of his proposals to violate the rights of American Muslims.

Third, caliphate aside, there is no global analogue to a “Church” among contemporary Muslims. The closest analogues might be individual mosques or Islamic Centers, or at best larger scale organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. But these don’t differ from their Protestant or Jewish analogues, and no respectable person is sitting around wondering whether we should deprive Protestants or Jews en masse of their rights because they belong to religious organizations that could conceivably (in someone’s morbid thought-experiment) rival the states we live in.

Nor is any decent person asking whether we should do the same for Catholics, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively makes adherence to consequentialism a sin against conscience (#1789), and regards abortion as morally on par with murder and genocide. The potential for conflict with the rule of civil law is pretty obvious on both counts: abortion rights are the law of the land, and “interest balancing” is an essential feature of contemporary jurisprudence. In fact, experts on the subject tell us that anti-abortion views entail violent civil disobedience, not that I agree. So  if we’re going to take Lockean worries about Catholicism seriously, we needn’t get lost in the thickets of Locke’s polemical intentions or the details of English history ca. 1688. Locke’s worries can be raised about Catholics today and used to buttress Trump-like proposals today–used, at any rate, by anyone whose commitment to the principle of rights is weak enough to be tossed about by the winds of Donald Trump’s oratory.

And then there’s the issue of the Church’s view on its lack of accountability to “the civil authorities” regarding accusations of pedophilia engaged in by Catholic priests. In the Apostolic letter Sacramentoriam sanctitatus tutela (2001), then-Cardinal Ratzinger  argued that “Cases of this kind [=accusations of pedophilia against priests] are subject to the pontifical secret,” i.e., that the Church has no binding obligation to report the findings of internal investigations into allegations of pedophilia to the civil authorities, even if it finds the accused guilty. I think by now we all know the story of how Cardinal Law escaped the law, whether or not we’ve seen “Spotlight” (I haven’t, yet).

The Vatican has long regarded itself, and its canon law, as above the civil law of any country and above international law as well, at least in cases of conflict between them.* And canon law binds all Catholics as firmly as sharia binds Muslims. So once again we confront a moral-political equivalence, not an idiosyncrasy of Islam: adherents of both faiths claim the right to supersede civil law, and both claim that God’s law stands above human law. (It should go without saying that I don’t mean that Catholics or members of any other religious denomination should be treated in the way that Trump wants to treat Muslims.)

Bizarrely, despite Munger’s misinterpretation of Trump, he doesn’t think Trump is limiting religious freedom, even if we (falsely) take Trump to be barring literally all Muslims from the United States. Here is Munger again:

That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

“The claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.” No, not at all. I wonder whether Munger has heard of Trump’s proposals to close down mosques. Or to put Muslims in internment camps. Or the suggestion (if that’s what it is) that Muslims be put on a registry–not ruling out the possibility that they have to sign up and register for it in the way that 18-year-old males currently have to sign up for Selective Service.  If these aren’t limitations of religious freedom, how would he characterize them?

But maybe he wants to focus narrowly on the issue of barring entry to Muslims, including citizens. Fair enough: here’s a real-life example. My parents spent the last three weeks in Pakistan, returning last night at JFK via Dubai. They’re both naturalized citizens. Though my mother is religious and my father is not, for present purposes let’s call them both believing Muslims.

So imagine that my parents arrive at JFK bearing visa stamps from Pakistan and the UAE, and bearing a Muslim-sounding name like “Khawaja.” On Trump’s original proposal, they wouldn’t be allowed back into a country that they had lived in for forty years. They’d never see friends or family again–and if Muslim, their American friends and family would never see them again, for fear of not being allowed back to their homes after visiting them abroad. My parents would forfeit all of their assets, including their house, and possibly including their bank accounts and their prospective retirement income. Since they’re not dead, their will wouldn’t apply, so all of those assets would revert to the state. They would have to find a home back in Pakistan, a place they left forty years ago–or else in the UAE, where they would lack citizenship and not know the language. They’re both in their 70s, but they’d have to begin their lives anew. (Would it be money laundering if I cut my parents a check or two for food? Would I be materially aiding the enemy if I sent them a care package of rice, lentils, and achaar?)

Perhaps Munger thinks that a barrier on entry back to one’s home country is not a limitation of specifically religious freedom, since the people in question are not returning home for a specifically religious reason. (Well, let’s be careful here. My mother is a kind of folk occasionalist, so as far as she’s concerned, every action is a divine action, and everything is a “religious reason.”). But obviously, their freedom would be limited on religious grounds–i.e., because they were Muslims. It seems obvious that Trump’s claim can accurately be characterized either by saying he wants to limit religious freedom, or more pedantically by saying that people’s freedom should be limited on a religious basis. One obvious way of reading “limited” would be to take it as a euphemistic synonym for “violated.” In other words, the proposition Munger is considering is: “Should we or should we not, on a Lockean basis, violate people’s rights, as long as they’re Muslims?” Is that really an improvement on Trump, or is it evidence that he’s managed to sweep libertarian academics into his juggernaut?

We’re left with one last issue. What if Islam “ipso facto requires…that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws”? Gee. In other words: what if Muslims were…anarchists, like half of BHL? Then we’d really have a case for keeping them out of the country. I guess this means that the next time Michael Huemer leaves the country, he’s indefinitely to be detained at the border and refused entry back into the United States. Same with Gary Chartier, Roderick Long, and all those other anti-authoritarians at C4SS. I can’t wait for the next time APEE holds a conference in Guatemala City, and half of the libertarian movement is stuck there for the rest of their lives. That’s a long time to have to pore over Locke’s Letter.

I guess the advice I’d offer here is: instead of speculating whether Islam “ipso facto requires” the rejection of non-Muslim civil authority, why not do some actual research and discover the answer? Every religion, and probably every major secular doctrine, can be interpreted in such a way that it entails a rejection of “civil authority and its laws”–Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, and (believe it or not) Lockean libertarianism. And every religion and every major secular doctrine has been interpreted so that it has implications that involve the rejection of such authority on particular occasions. The same is true of Islam. But the obvious inference is that every religion and every major secular doctrine can also be interpreted so that it’s compatible with civil authority, and compatible most or a lot of the time.

The vast majority of American Muslims interpret Islam in this latter “compatibilist” way. (The majority of them are garden-variety Democrats.) The relative minority who don’t accept Islam’s compatibility with “civil authority and its laws,” are, to be sure, a political, cultural, and security problem. But they aren’t a unique security problem, and we don’t need to target every adherent of the faith to deal with them. In case you haven’t noticed, Trump is focused on Muslims as such. He intends to target all of them. So it’s not to the point to haul out a version of Islam that no longer applies, to haul out centuries-old texts entirely irrelevant to our situation, and to wonder whether that’s why Trump is saying what he’s saying, and well, if so, maybe he’s got a point. That’s not why he’s saying what he’s saying, and he doesn’t have a point.  To write as Munger has is to ignore the obvious while creating mysteries where none exist.

Predictably, the BHL discussion devolves into claims like this:

Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

I’m sure the results would be pretty ugly. Of course, they’d be equally ugly if we widely publicized and held a Draw Fagin and/or Shylock Contest, offering a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry, and permitting contestants to festoon their drawings with choice quotations from “On the Jewish Question,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or Mein Kampf.  But even if all of the contestants of this would-be contest ended up dead at the hands of Jewish terrorists, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to embark on a witch hunt against “domestic radical Judaism.” Practically speaking, the implication would be that we’d have to exercise vigilance against these terrorists, and (without banning them outright) also have to question the wisdom of holding such contests. Exactly the same reasoning applies in the Muslim case.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, every passing day brings increasing confirmation of Edward Said’s much-derided but very prescient speculation that anti-Muslim bigotry (“Orientalism”) is a covert and modified form of anti-Semitism. He speaks in this passage of Arabs, but the point he’s making applies generally to Muslims, whether or not they’re of Arab ethnicity.

The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target [is] made smoothly, since the figure [is] essentially the same. …

Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels toward the Orient. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist…, and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental (Orientalism, p. 286).

Try that hypothesis on for size. I think it explains a lot about life in the Age of Trump, Cruz, and Carson.

In any case, witch hunt is a good description of what Trump is after. I realize that one isn’t apt to discern a witch hunt if one has never been accused of witchcraft, but take it from someone who has: Trump & Co are out hunting witches. It’d be nice for libertarians, of all people, to see that, and to deal with it with the seriousness it deserves.

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*For a book length argument, see Geoffrey Robertson QC, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse (2010). Coming from the reverse political direction, many left-wing Catholics have insisted that illegal immigrants should enjoy legally incontestable sanctuary in Catholic churches. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the move, it’s a rejection of civil authority.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, my mentor Alasdair MacIntyre used to make a special bragging point of Catholicism’s rejection of civil authority when it clashed with some claimed prerogative of the Church (e.g., the confidentiality of confession vs. the duty to report a crime to the police). He interpreted his liberal students’ indignant reaction to his views as evidence of their debt, and liberalism’s debt, to Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism (cf. Leviathan, Part IV).

Postscript, December 29, 2015: Having seen “Spotlight” since I wrote this post, I highly recommend it–for the acting, for the story it tells, and for being the rare movie to dramatize intellectual inquiry in an effective way. It also nicely focuses some of the issues discussed in the original post. The next time someone describes political Islam as being a unique threat to American liberty–there’s no Catholic equivalent of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or sharia, after all–it might be worth asking what Islamic institution has sexually violated as many children and done as much damage to the rule of law in the United States as the Catholic Church. Still, that’s not a reason for violating the rights of Catholics or of anyone else. It’s a reason for re-doubling our commitment to respecting and protecting rights on principle across the board.

Eleven years ago, by the way, I was writing online essays like this one. No one can legitimately accuse me of being uncritical of Islam or of events in the Islamic world. But my views haven’t changed. What’s changed are the double standards that surround us. From cutting Muslims a bit of slack in the name of multicultural tolerance, we now seem to have slid to the reverse extreme of demonizing Islam as the root of all evils in the contemporary world. A little objectivity and sense of balance would be nice.

Postscript, February 25, 2016: I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I wish I’d said this in the first place. Munger had said:

Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

How is covert rejection of the civil authority and its laws an overt incitement to violence and revolution? That claim is self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if incitement is overt, and we assume that incitement is justly illegal, where is the puzzle involved in dealing with it? The solution is obvious: arrest all and only those engaged in the illegal activity.

Munger appears to avoid this dilemma by predicating “threat” and “incitement” not of agents but of “religion” as such. But since a religion is not an agent, its content only becomes threatening or inciting when an adherent makes it one. Threats and incitements that sit within the pages of some dusty tome can only sit there until someone makes use of them. If the sheer existence of claims is to be regarded as inciting or threatening, you may as well start legal proceedings against the books themselves.

Bottom line: in addition to all of the other problems Munger’s view faces, it faces a fatal and obvious dilemma. And yes, I’m done discussing it.

Hussein Ibish on Muslim Identity

Hussein Ibish has an interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Pages, “Who Is a Muslim?” It takes off from and criticizes Donald Trump’s proposal to “bar entry to Muslims,” and then goes on to raise “two fundamental but largely unaddressed questions: Who and what is a ‘Muslim'”? I certainly agree with Ibish’s critique of Trump on moral as well as strictly logistical grounds. Moral issues aside, Ibish is right to say that “implementing such a policy would be completely impossible under the current circumstances,” for many of the reasons he gives. But I think he overcomplicates the answers to his “who and what” questions. The answers are in fact pretty straightforward.

In fact, the “who” and the “what” are closely related and nearly indistinguishable questions. The necessary and sufficient condition of belief in Islam is sincere avowal of the shahada, the profession of faith. (By “avowal,” I just mean explicit affirmation of the propositions involved in the shahada. It need not be avowed out loud to count as an avowal.) In Arabic, the shahada makes this assertion:

La illaha illal’llah, muhammad ar-rasullulah,

which works out to

There is no deity but the One God, and Muhammad is His Prophet.

Presumably, belief in the prophet entails belief in his prophecy, which is contained in the Qur’an. Arguably, it’s contained in other sources, like the ahadith (the supposedly verbatim sayings of the Prophet), sunna (the ‘way’ or actions of the Prophet as recorded in accredited sources), and ijma (the consensus of the Islamic community as a whole; roughly similar to the ancient Greek idea of an endoxon). But people disagree about all that and can legitimately do so while professing the shahada. You can consistently avow the existence of God and the prophecy of Muhammad, and consistently believe the contents of the Qur’an, while disputing the historicity of just about everything we know about the Prophet’s non-Qur’anic sayings and actions, and disputing the claims or existence of communal consensus.

Hussein mentions his own case, implying that it’s a difficult one:

My own case is instructive. I am a citizen of the United States but born in a Muslim-majority country (Lebanon), and, on my father’s side, into a clearly Muslim family. Moreover, my first name, Hussein, is one of a few in Arabic that is practically exclusive to Muslims (Arab Christians and Jews are not given this name).

While my father was a devout Sunni Muslim, my mother remains a devout Anglican Christian. So, despite my name and place of birth being clear indicators of a “Muslim origin,” the reality is more complex.

Moreover, I never embraced either religion, and had agnostic tendencies even as a child. Yet I identify with the Muslim-American community for social, cultural and political reasons. I am part of, and from, the Muslim community, but in terms of belief I am not and never have been a Muslim. So, how would I be categorized?

This doesn’t strike me as a hard question. He’s not a Muslim. Ibish may identify with the Muslim-American community for social, cultural, and political reasons, but those aren’t faith-based reasons. Because they aren’t, he’s in no sense a Muslim regardless of the degree of his identification with Muslims. You can’t just “identify with” God or the Prophet Muhammad; you either believe in God and Muhammad’s prophecy, or you don’t. If you don’t, you’re not a Muslim, end of story.

The scholar Marshall Hodgson made the crucial conceptual contribution here: he coined the term “Islamicate” precisely to distinguish things that are loosely “associated” with Islam from things intrinsic to the religion itself. Having a Muslim name; living in an “Islamic” country; having had a Muslim upbringing (or having Muslim parents); having an alief-based aversion to pork and/or alcohol; feeling a strange urge not to eat or drink during Ramadan; enthusiasm for qawwalis and naats; enjoying the sound of the call to prayer; eating sweets and expecting gifts on Eid; defending the Palestinian (or Kashmiri, or Kurdish, or…) cause; occasionally feeling the need to chop people’s heads off:  all of this, when divorced from sincere avowal of the shahada, is merely Islamicate. Expressed in a given person’s life it’s more of an ethical, political, or aesthetic-cultural thing than a religious one.

By contrast, believing in God, praying to God, fasting for God, paying zakat for God, doing the pilgrimage for God, fighting at God’s command, hoping for a reward in the afterlife, having real faith in the words of the Qur’an: all of this is Islamic, even if you’re doing it in English, in Peoria, Illinois, while wearing a bikini, and while feeling no particular sense of identification with the Muslim community (cf. Veena Malik).

In other words: You can be as Islamicate as you like and not be a Muslim, and you can lack almost all Islamicate attributes and be a devout Muslim. This is one thing that Islamic fundamentalists get half right (not that you have to be one to get it right): they firmly distinguish the Islamic from the merely Islamicate. Unfortunately, they can’t seem to grasp that a genuine Muslim is a genuine Muslim even if he or she doesn’t share your particular sectarian version of Islam. (These aggressively sectarian sorts of Muslims are known as takfiris–‘excommunicators’.)

Ibish continues:

Seen in this light, the range of Muslim beliefs and behaviors is more or less indistinguishable from that of the rest of humanity. The word “Muslim,” without any further qualification, and the word “person,” are, for practical purposes, synonymous. One doesn’t actually tell you anything meaningful beyond what is already suggested by the other.

I don’t buy that. How many non-Muslims wake up every day, before dawn, engage in ritual ablution, lay out a rug, face Mecca and pray–then do it again, four times a day? If that strikes you as a trivial difference, try making a resolution to get up every day before dawn for the rest of your life, wash, do ten jumping jacks while reciting your multiplication tables, and then go back to bed. See if you last a month. Trust me, a genuine commitment to Islamic prayer is not at all trivial. Only true devotion to something deity-like can rouse a person from bed at that hour over the course of a lifetime.

Commitment to five daily prayers obviously distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims, and it’s just one of the five basic pillars of the faith. Add Ramadan, zakat, hajj, and the rest of sharia into the mix, and you have plenty of material by which to distinguish a devout and observant Muslim from a non-Muslim. It’s an open question how many Muslims are devout and observant, but every Muslim has the capacity for devotion and observance, and even that potentiality distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims. No non-Muslim has to wonder how devoted or observant to Islam he or she ought to be. But every believing Muslim does.

I get what Ibish is trying to do, and at some level, I sympathize with it. He’s trying to normalize Muslims in American society, and make them seem less alien, exotic, sinister, bloodthirsty, violent, and intolerant than the stereotypes make them out to be. Fair enough: so far, I’m on board. But like many secular writers with impeccable Islamicate credentials, he also ends up trivializing the faith and effectively writing it into non-existence for liberal political purposes. I don’t say that as a believing or practicing Muslim (I’m neither), but as an apostate who remembers what it was like to be a believing and practicing Muslim. And there is something it’s like to a believing and practicing Muslim–something distinctive (and, to some, attractive). We can defend the rights and dignity of Muslims without having to deny that. Muslims aren’t “just like” non-Muslims. If they were, they wouldn’t be Muslims.

Ibish ends his piece by citing a new book by the recently deceased Pakistani scholar, Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. I haven’t read it. It sounds interesting, but it seems to me that reasoning of this sort has, under the influence of theorists like Edward Said, been taken too far:

Anyone interested in exploring the intricacies and complexities of Islam as a religion, philosophical system and social text should study the new book “What Is Islam?” by the Harvard professor Shahab Ahmed. Professor Ahmed — who died at the age of 48 shortly before this book, his life’s work, was published a few months ago — carefully guides the reader through a detailed critique of the numerous received understandings of Islam. In their place, he proposes a subtle but accessible new framework for apprehending what Islam is and has really been, in all its multiplicity and endless complexity.

I don’t dispute that Islam can be complicated. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also a faith meant to be believed and practiced by scholars and non-scholars alike. Its essential features can’t be so complicated as to elude the grasp of the ordinary believer. And its content can’t be so indeterminate or ephemeral as to blend without remainder into any old ethno-cultural background. If respect for diversity means anything at all, it means that we have to deal with the fact that Muslims really are different from the rest of us. Sometimes the differences are problematic, sometimes they’re edifying, and sometimes the differences fade into insignificance against the more fundamental similarities that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity. But for better or worse, they’re there. They can’t be wished away.

Postscript, December 19, 2015: Hey, look–what perfect timing: a shahada story in the news! Here’s CNN,  The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Vice (the most tendentiously liberal of the four). And then there’s Breitbart, for editorializing and tendentiousness from the conservative direction.

One unresolved puzzle here is the exact source of the calligraphy lesson. It obviously didn’t originate with Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher who’s getting all the flak; she got it from a workbook variously described as World Geography or World Religions. Since textbook writers are presumptive experts in whatever subject they’re writing about, most teachers assume that it’s safe to rely on them. (So much for that assumption.) Despite showing us snippets from the book, few journalists seem interested in taking a look at the “primary text” to understand the calligraphy lesson in its original context. That’s what journalistic deadlines and pressure to keep up with the Joneses will do to a story.

The best commentary I saw was David A. Graham’s in The Atlantic, which saves me from having to write anything on the subject, since I agree with just about everything he says, and he says just about everything that needs saying.  In a paragraph:

No one comes out of this looking great. The assignment at Riverheads High School near Staunton—to copy calligraphy reading “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God”—seems well-intentioned but ill-considered. Parents may have been justified in questioning the assignment, but the level of fury isn’t commensurate with the offense, and it’s hard to imagine it happening with any other religion. And it seems like Superintendent Eric Bond, who made the right decision in refusing to fire Cheryl LaPorte, the teacher involved, overreacted by shuttering schools on Friday, especially as there were apparently no specific threats against the system of 10,500 students.

But go back to the primary text.