Nothing To Get Hung About

Just a short note about a pet peeve: can we stop premising arguments on the notion that there is an objective “real” this or that – a “real” Islam, a “real” Christianity, a “real” American, a “real” woman – whatever. There’s no substantive content whatsoever to the modifier. With respect to Islam in particular, I hear these sorts of arguments all the time, on both sides of any given dispute. “Real” Islam, someone will say, is a religion of war and of conquest, incapable of peaceful coexistence; anyone who tells you otherwise is either a dupe (if he’s not a Muslim) or is lying artfully to try to dupe non-Muslims (if she is). Oh, no, someone else will say; that’s Islam-_ism_, not Islam. “Real” Islam is peaceful; “real” jihad is about internal struggle against sin; and anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to badmouth Islam (if she’s not a Muslim) or is trying to hijack Islam for an extremist political agenda (if he is).

These are not arguments. They are unfalsifiable statements without any substantive content designed to avoid an argument. They are unseemly and condescending when they come from a random blogger; how much more so when they come from someone as august as the British Prime Minister.

Islam “really” is whatever professed Muslims, in aggregate, do or think they ought to be doing at a given point in time. Or, alternatively, Islam “really” is what Islamic authorities recognized by other Islamic authorities think, in aggregate, Muslims ought to be doing at a given point in time. Given the nature of things, both of these measures are going to give you blobs with a considerable degree of diversity, even contradiction, within them, and the blobs are going to evolve.

I used to get all bothered about “moderates” versus “extremists” because often the moderates on one vector were actually quite extreme on another vector, and also because “moderate” and “extreme” mean very different things depending upon one’s point of reference. (Example: so many white people think of Martin Luther King as the “moderate” voice of the Civil Rights Movement because we would like to pretend that his commitment to nonviolence was about being opposed to violence, about not wanting to take things too far, but that wasn’t the case at all; King’s opposition to violence was about trying to change the world in radical ways, about a certain theory about how the world worked and what a successful radicalism required. He was a hugely radical person – an extremist, even – and in no meaningful sense a moderate.) But the “moderate” versus “extremist” dichotomy looks pretty good to me relative to a dichotomy between “real” and “unreal.”

If you want to argue that a particular individual or group or point of view is unrepresentative – use that word. That’s something that, at least in principle, can be checked. But otherwise, just drop the point.