September 15, 2007

Analogies and how not to use them

Richard Munday wrote an article recently about why Britain should bring in liberalisation on gun laws. Now I'm not questioning or discussing his main points- but at one point he quoted Thomas Jefferson about the way that guns in the hands of the public reduced crime. The problem is that when Jefferson wrote that, he wrote it about a society that had no police force, was predominantly rural and was also very parochial. Mr Munday should realise that what was right and proper for Thomas Jefferson's society might not be for ours. Its worth bearing this kind of lesson in mind: historical analogies work only if you establish that the situation you are dealing with is similar- in this case no matter what your views of the central issue, your views on law enforcement and gun law are very different depending on the society that you live in and Jefferson's society was very different from ours today.

September 14, 2007

Self Righteousness

Ruthie triumphs again with this post about her encounter with some pro-life activists. Ruthie is actually herself pro life- but realises that this is a complicated issue- its not an easy one. Furthermore she has taken out of Christianity what I think is its most powerful lesson- that judgement of others is for God to wield not human beings. That complacency is the true enemy of Christ. I am not a Christian but the doctrine of not casting the first stone and of understanding before condemning is one of the noblest achievements of mankind in any era. That doctrine completely undermines what either those pro-life activists heedlessly condemning others to hell were doing or indeed what other groups (say those who presumed guilt in the Duke rape case and even today criticise for a crime that was never committed) do. If we judge others and use harsh rhetoric on the provision that we never make mistakes, then out of our own mouths let us be condemned. By the judgements and sentences we pass, we should judge ourselves.

This blog occasionally, indeed often can, stray into selfrighteousness- for that I want to offer an apology. Its something that I ought to say more often- that this blog makes endless mistakes- I hope though it doesn't extend to the smug complacency of the anti-abortion activists of the Duke Professors that Ruthie and the Economist rightly have attacked this week.

September 13, 2007

Justices on the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States must be one of the oddest bodies on earth, its geriatric membership are appointed for life and can expect to sit for ten years at least before retirement or death and yet they wield vast powers to determine what policies the United States will follow. One of the oddities of their tenure is that justicies often appointed for one end- to be good conservatives (David Soutar comes to mind) for example- will immediatly act to another end. An interesting article on Salon discusses them in this context.

The problem is that thinking of Supreme Court Justices as conservative or liberal often mistakes what they actually are- afterall legal philosophies are not so neatly divided- though their consequences may be. However even despite that its difficult often to see consistant legal philosophies being applied by each justice in each case- and particularly by the court as a whole where the swing justice (at the moment Anthony Kennedy) can often decide which kind of judicial interpretation will win this week. Rather the Court seems to decide issues based on a complex interrelationship of personalities where private friendships and enmities decide great issues of state.

And ultimately it is what one might expect. Shut away in a room alone the justices debate and have debated in some cases for almost twenty years. Two new justices may have joined them over the last couple of years- but there are still appointments sitting on the court from the eras of Nixon and Reagen, Bush the elder and Clinton. Old disputes and old friendships are revived and some are unexpected. They owe nothing to anyone outside that room, nothing to any constituency and so decisions are made on internal logic within the nine.

Its an interesting system to decide the government of a nation upon- but its the system that often great issues of state like the rights of terrorist suspects ultimately come down to in the states. It will be interesting to see what happens after the next Presidential election- afterall various of the justices are as ever aging- even a recently appointed justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the only woman left) is in her seventies and that forgets the fact that the oldest justice John Paul Stevens is in his late eighties.

We shall see- but one thing we can be certain about is that imperceptible movements amongst the nine will decide many vital issues within America in the years to come.

September 11, 2007

September 11th

Lord Nazh who often frequents these parts, has just put up a post in remembrance of the events of September 11th 2001. I agree with him that the people who died on that day deserve remembrance- but I am not sure about the status of September 11th in the popular mind at the moment. I have severe doubts about whether that day should be remembered as avidly as it is: in language that is almost religious. What happened was horrifying but compared to other things that the last hundred years have allowed humanity to witness, its horror diminishes- America ultimately was attacked but is not a victim as a nation generally.

To put it in context on September 11th 2001, an unjustified, unwarrented attack was carried out on American soil. Osama Bin Laden and his allies were and are mass murderers who veil their murders behind the shield of a religious extremist obsession. His lordship considers that this event changed the nature of the world- it didn't. During the last ten years almost 4 million people have died in the Congo, since the invasion of Iraq 100,000 civilians have died, over that period hundreds of thousands have died in areas of the world that noone covers- from Chechnya to Tibet, from Darfur to Columbia. Whatever happened on September 11th pales when compared with this gory record- and furthermore with the gorier record of the last fifty years which has seen tyrants like Stalin, Kruschev, Mao, Pol Pot, Mugabe, and we could go on to mention even American allies like Pinochet and Suharto who murdered in some cases millions, in some cases thousands.

None of this excuses what happened on September 11th- but it does put it in context. The world changed possibly for Americans in that for the first time they realised that they too might come under attack- but for millions outside the United States the even was merely one of several bloody assaults on human dignity- some conducted with the approval of the United States. Obviously we should remember and regret those events- but lest we forget let them not obscure continuing genocides in other parts of the world- let them not obscure the fact that the United States is no unique victim in this world, indeed has done rather well- and let them not obscure the situations whether in Africa or Asia that are happening now- the slaughter in Darfur, Iraq, Zimbabwe and many other parts of the world. We can indeed as his lordship wishes use September 11th for a political reason- I'd suggest the best way to think about it is to think of New York on that day, as Sudan every day, Iraq every month etc- it can extend our humanity to understand other's sufferings. September 11th can be something that becomes a barrier between the west and the world, or it can become a bridge- enabling us to understand a little of the suffering of others through the suffering of the United States on that day.

And so personally I'd like to extend my sympathy to everyone who lost anyone from that vile mass murder- and also to anyone living where death and disaster aren't news but part of every day life.

September 09, 2007

Maajid Nawaz's defection

Maajid Nawaz has just left the British wing of Hizb ut Tahrir. Nawaz was an activist for the group- though only 29- he had been elected to the party's leadership committee in the UK and also had been involved in trying to set up Islamic parties in other countries. Nawaz was imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities for 4 years for his activities there in the early 2000s. Whilst he was not a key member of the party, he is obviously one of the more articulate members of the party. His defection comes hot on the heels of the former activist Ed Hussein's book- The Islamist- which came out recently. Nawaz though unlike Hussein has some rather precise theological reasons for leaving the group- theological reasons that deserve analysis because they demonstrate both the content of the core of Hizb ut Tahrir's ideology, which it holds in common with other radical Islamists, and also some of its vulnerabilities.

The party has been around for a long time. It's a party which is professedly peaceful but it shares ideology with some groups who are in favour of violence. Basically the party calls for the establishment of a Caliphate across the Middle East and central Asia, the destruction of the current status quo in the Middle East, the abstention of Muslims from the normal political process in the West and government through an Islamic state. Opposed to democracy and modernity, the group argues that a Muslim must live within a Muslim state- and argues that most of the states in the Middle East are not Muslim. They argue that a Muslim state denies Muslims the right to be Muslim- a right which they believe includes living under a Muslim state. Such a statement is incomplete but it is necessary before we dive into the more theological reasons that Maajid Nawaz has left the group.

Nawaz's departure from the group seems to have been for theological reasons- he has published an essay about his differences from them here, and it promises to be the first in a very interesting series. Essentially Nawaz argues that the central premises of the party's political involvement are dual- firstly that

Party members are obliged to believe that the whole world today is Dār
al-Kufr (contra-Islamic land), synonymous in its literature to Dār
al-harb (land of war)

and secondly that

So these texts indicate that to rule with anything other than the laws
of Allāh is a matter which makes it obligatory upon Muslims to declare
war against the ruler, and it is an evidence which indicates that
implementing Islām is a condition for having Dār al-Islām, otherwise
the ruler must be fought against.

Nawaz's argument mainly concerns first of these two principles. The principle was originally established in the work of Said Qutb. He argued that all the lands of the world are Dar al-Kufr and that consequently any Muslim must go to war with lands governed in such unIslamic ways. Qutb argued this in particular with relevance to Egypt under Nasser- an argument that became even more plausible when Nasser proclaimed the Egyptian, Syrian union from Moscow, the capital of Atheism in Qutb's view. Nawaz though discards this approach.

Nawaz's argument is based on a jurisprudential approach to the problem of defining the Dar al-Kufr. As in most Islamic theology, there are many sources of legitimacy: the word of God, the Quran, the sayings of the prophet, the Hadith, and lastly the work of the classic Islamic Sunni jurists. Nawaz's argument is that the Quran says almost nothing about the dar al-Kufr and the dar al-Islam, neither do the Hadith. His argument is based upon the work of the Islamic jurists. He suggests that given that the Islamic jurists have differing attitudes to what the dar al-Kufr is, it is acceptable for believers to have differing beliefs on that as well. Hence he would argue that such a party which sought through force to rebel or even to overthrow regimes would arrogate to impose an interpretation of the scholarship of the past upon other Muslims. Such a line brings a key accusation against extremists that they arrogate the power to excommunicate- to declare takfir. This has for years been a very controversial opinion in Sunni Islam and as Fred Kagan rightly argues is something that other Muslims routinely accuse the extremists of professing.

Nawaz provides as the basis for his argument a series of citations from the Sunni jurists who seem to have distinct and very different arguments about what constitutes the dar al-Kufr. Lets examine some of them and I rely on Nawaz's own translations here, but his statements have been published on Hizb's website and they haven't been questioned there. Basically his citations come down to arguing for three definitions of a dar al-Islam (the opposite of dar al-Kufr). The first definition is straightforwardly that the dar al-Islam is a land ruled by an Islamic ruler- whether Muslims or non-Muslims live there. If the law imposed is the law of an Islamic state then the land is part of dar al-Islam (though that law Nawaz argues need not be the Shariah, just a law which maintains the 'safety to manifest such rulings'). It is not conditional to Dār al-Islām that Muslims reside there, rather being in the hands of the Imām and his Islām is sufficient. Secondly there is the definition of dar al-Islam which sees it as any land in which Muslims are in a majority and which doesn't share a border with a land within dar al-Kufr. Thirdly some scholars argued that the dar al-Islam is a land in which Muslims can practise their religion- that would make say the United Kingdom part of the dar al-Islam. Nawaz doesn't make any comment on what argument he supports- just suggests that there is enough room for genuine Muslims to have differing opinions upon. He definitely believes that there is such a thing as dar al-Kufr or even dar al-Harb but argues that their location can be a matter of dispute.

If one were to accept Nawaz's argument therefore there is no conclusive argument amongst the Islamic jurists which supports the suggestion from Said Qutb and the party that the lands of the Middle East are places in which a Muslim is enjoined to rebel or to politically agitate against. The point of this argument is that by creating uncertainty about that argument Nawaz effectively closes off Hizb ut-Tahrir's main policy platform. He suggests that it just is not true that to be legitimate- ie part of the dar al-Islam- its necessary for the government of the said country to be governed under Sharia or as part of a Caliphate. Any argument to that end, Nawaz suggests is actually a takfiri argument- it gives to the party, not the prophet or the jurists, the power to declare who is or is not a Muslim, what kind of government is or is not Islamic.

What I hope this episode suggests is the degree to which Hizb and other extremists are vulnerable because of their stance that the governments of the world if they are not a Caliphate or do not legislate Sharia are anti-Islamic is actually something that can be criticised. There are lots of arguments surrounding what is the true Islamic religion. As I've suggested before- those arguments are irrelevant so long as we are analysing Islam as a political or historical reality- and are not interested in the theological substance of the religion- then there is no essential religion to look at. Rather there are differing strategies for playing what is in Wittgensteinian terms a language game about the Quran, Hadith and rulings of the Scholars, what I hope this article suggests is that there are more ways of playing that game than merely the extremist option.

I am no expert in Islamic theology- and that shines through this article- but I do think that this argument between Nawaz and his former colleagues illustrates something else. Its worth us understanding the importance of this idea of the contrast between the dar al-Kufr and dar al-Islam and the way that that contrast works in different versions of Islamic theology, that and the distinction between those who believe in the admissibility of excommunicating other Muslims and those that don't. It is upon those distinctions and this ideological war- in which other factors, economic, social etc are involved- that the future of relations between the Muslim world and the West depends.

Crossposted at Bits of News.