Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New Terms in the Islamological Lexicon: Essentialist and Phenomenological

Along with the terms asymptotic and holistic, I now add essentialist and phenomenological to the lexicon of the anti-Islam movement.

To recap on the first two:

I. Asymptotic refers to a partial approach to the problem of Islam:

1) Islam itself is not the problem, or only a part of Islam is the problem;


2) Muslims qua Muslims are not the problem, or only a minority of Muslims are the problem.

Asymptotic analysis admits of degrees, and positions range along a spectrum: on the high end, we have analysts who come close to completely identifying Islam itself as the problem, but they never quite get there (hence the use of the word asymptotic). Similarly, they may move from identifying a large minority of Muslims as the problem to a majority and even to a vast majority, but never seem to be able to break the force field into the logical conclusion of all Muslims. On the low end, we have analysts who allow for detaching a problematic Islam from the larger unproblematic Islam, and similarly detach a small minority of problematic Muslims from the vast majority of unproblematic Muslims. This low end merges with the high end of the un-asymptotic view that is generally pro-Islam and indeed believes in helping Islam and Muslims and integrating them into the fabric of our sociopolitical culture.

II. Holistic refers to a complete approach to the problem of Islam:

1. Islam is the main source and vehicle of the problem of Islam.

2. All Muslims are problematic, meaning that all Muslims are to be considered as equally dangerous, for the reason that we cannot sufficiently distinguish harmless Muslims from dangerous Muslims.

Now, the terms essentialist and phenomenological refer to qualities of the aforementioned analytical positions: essentialist refers to what something really is; phenomenological refers to what something seems to be. The essentialist with regard to the problem of Islam could take any one of three positions:

1) Islam is beneficial and there is no Islamic problem;

2) the problem of Islam reflects some specific part or parts of Islam, not the whole, and only a subset of Muslims (usually a minority of one size or another) are problematic, not all of them;

3) Islam itself is the main problem and all Muslims are problematic if only by virtue of the practical fact that we cannot tell the difference between problematic Muslims and unproblematic Muslims.

Lets flesh this out with concrete examples:

A particular asymptotic analyst who believes that only a relatively small minority of Muslims are problematic may believe that this accurately describes the reality of the Muslim world. Daniel Pipes seems to be an essentialist in this regard. The problem immediately arises: How does he know this? And how does he identify both this small minority and the larger majority with which this small minority is contrasted? The only logical response a Pipesian could make to these questions would be that such identification must rely upon visible behaviors and tangible expressions of ideas in speeches and writings, and his knowledge about these things is largely dependant upon inference (since we are dealing with masses of data too numerous, complex and elusive to be accounted in sufficiently simplex form). Therefore, in Pipesian essentialism, any given Muslim who acts and speaks right is harmless, and any given Muslim who fails the test would be considered part of the extremist minority. The practical problems of this rather simple-minded system should be self-evident; and, furthermore, we see here a fundamental flaw in any asymptotic essentialism concerning the problem of Islam: namely, the magnitude of that problem is too complex and elusive to ground any essentialism and recourse must therefore be sought in inference and hypothesis, belying the practicality of the essence that asymptotic essentialists pretend to enjoy. The holist essentialist, by contrast, does not pretend to have such knowledge of such a disparate, gargantuan and complex beast as Islam. The holist essentialist with full clarity and transparency admits that he is proceeding on the basis of axioms dependant upon inferences that are not, and cannot be, proven scientifically for the purpose of establishing certitude. Put another way, we can say that, strictly speaking, it is impossible to be an essentialist about the problem of Islam, but that, practically speaking, one can take what is a de facto essentialist stand on it. It is the latter sense that we intend in this essay.

Robert Spencer, on the other hand, seems to be a phenomenologist: he does not claim that what he finds to criticize and/or condemn in Islam and among Muslims represents anything actual or not about Islam qua Islam or Muslims qua Muslims: what he finds and publishes are simply there as data that have to be noticed, accounted for, refuted or accepted, and if accepted, then dealt with. Spencer thus couches everything in terms of the level of data, not the levels of interpretation of data and then judgement of truth about data. To put another way, when for example Spencer reports on data of Muslims using Islamic texts in order to justify repression and abuse of women, Spencer is not making a statement about the inherent anti-woman stance of Islam qua Islam or Muslims qua Muslims: he is only making a statement about the ostensible anti-woman stance in this part of Islam, and among these particular Muslims. He leaves any wider interpretations of these data (as well as the larger mountain of Islam-damning data he has been publishing over the years) up to the reader, and does not offer any of his own.

This phenomenological approach has its advantages: it might keep at bay PC MC critics who want to pin down and/or smear the phenomenologist with accusations of various sins, ranging from the vague constellation of thought crimes such as bigotry, Islamophobia and racism, to the more dangerous policies to which those thought crimes are supposed to function as the slippery slopemass internment, deportation, genocide. However, this advantage so far seems to be only theoretical. It seems to me that more often than not, Spencers phenomenological approach does not placate the PC MC critics one whit. No matter how carefully he avoids the semblance of the holistic view, he still gets vilified as implying it, if not even advocating it. This same quandary besets the essentialist asymptotics as well: no matter how careful Pipes is to state that he is not anti-Islam, that in fact he believes in a viable Islam that could be a harmless partner among the worlds cultures and religions, and no matter how carefully he reiterates that he only thinks the problematic Muslims are a small minority and that, in fact, he holds out hope that the majority of Muslims will help us to deal with their bad applesstill, more often than not, Pipes gets vilifed as a crypto-holist, if not a blatant one.

Another advantage of the phenomenological position (or non-position, since only essentialism commits itself to a position, strictly speaking) is that it provides the critic a wide range of flexibility for just how deeply and broadly he wants to criticize Islam: as long as he does not impose upon himself the rigid limitations of an essentialist asymptotic view, the phenomenologist can go wherever the data leads him. If the data seems to be indicating a much deeper and broader, and therefore systemic, problem within Islam, then so be it. The phenomenologist will not artificially interpret or recontextualize that data in order to save Islam and/or Muslims from implications the data might point to.

At the same time, however, the phenomenologist tends to eschew making any interpretative (much less judgemental) pronouncements about the phenomenon he is studying, leaving that, apparently, up to others. The problem with this is that we have, in the growing anti-Islam movement, a movement whose methodology and whose pragmatic manifesto are still in a state of flux, and this flux is not a desirable thing for any sociopolitical movement: Clarity of positions and of options is direly needed, as these qualities make a movement that much more effective and coherent
particularly one dealing with the perilous exigency of the global danger of an Islam Redivivus. In this context, Spencers phenomenological approach tends to be counter-productive, unless others were to aggressively take up the slack and assertively force the issue of the exigency of a consensus on methodology and pragmatism for the movement. I.e., if the anti-Islam movement was already moving toward collective clarity about methodology and pragmatism, Spencer could then continue to operate as he is now, happily waxing phenomenological, and all the complex data he is amassing about Islam would then be deployed by the movement in the context of whatever methodology (or methodologies) it had agreed to clarify. But, since the anti-Islam movement is in a state of flux and lack of coordination, Spencers phenomenological approach tends to perpetuate that flux and lack of clarity. As a consequential byproduct, this also tends to reinforce the essentialist asymptotic view, with all its internal ambiguity that in turn facilitates a labile imprecision among the spectrum of asymptotic degrees, whereby a strong asymptotic can too easily slip down to, or embrace, or support, or be confused with, a weak asymptotic—with the ever-present tendency to thereby reinforce the prevailing PC MC paradigm.

Aside from Spencers deliberately and carefully phenomenological approach, many asymptotic analysts are de facto phenomenologists, by virtue of the fact that they indulge in sloppy methodology and apparently dont think to care about being more precise, or simply havent thought much about the larger questions with regard to Islam and Muslims. They thus tend to just roll up their sleeves and get into the business of criticizing this or that Islamic behavior, expression or idea, and supplement that slapdash activity with generous borrowings from the templates of others (usually in ill-digested cut-and-paste blocks)irrespective of whether those templates themselves are rather incomplete, if not even, at times, incoherentand never get around to taking any essentialist stand of their own.

The most comprehensive problem with the phenomenological approach to the problem of Islam is that, by limiting itself only to phenomena (i.e., data) that presents itself to our awareness and by thus implicitly or explicitly ignoring whatever is not data, it tends to solidify the asymptotic delimitation of the problem down from Islam in its entirety, and thus tends to solidify the principle that all of Islamand by logical extension all Muslimscannot be the problem and that therefore we must assume axiomatically that it is some part of Islam, and some subset of Muslims, that are the problem.

This would be all well and good if Islam did not show signs of an organic, systemic inter-relation of parts among its whole, however diverse and un-monolithic that whole seems to bean inter-relation of parts, furthermore, that poses an ongoing and complex danger for all non-Muslims. It is thus only reasonable, in the pragmatic interest of our ongoing safety, for us to axiomatically assume the precise reverse: that, in fact, all of Islam and all Muslims are dangerous. We have no way of knowing whether this or that part of Islam is harmless. It is only prudent, therefore, to assume that all parts are dangerous, and that, furthermore, all parts interact in a complex, cooperative symbiosis whose precise nature and mechanisms we, as non-Muslims, are not predisposed to know sufficiently to satisfy the asymptotic essentialists (much less the PC MC essentialists).

All parts
—the whole kit-and-kaboodle, all of Islam and all Muslims—constitute the problem and menace we have to deal with. This would be the essentialist premise-and-conclusion of the holistic analysis, contrasted with the various essentialist positions of asymptotic analysis (and of the PC MC axioms), and contrasted with the tendency of the phenomenological non-position.


Nobody said...

An intriguing side-thought on this is what direction an asymptotic phenomenologist would tend towards - the conclusion that Islam is fine and dandy, or the ultimate holistic essentialist position.

Incidentally, please don't add any more variables, or my ability to plot that on a graph would be destroyed ;-)

Blode032222 said...

So how do you tell which views someone holds? Is it by evaluating what he or she says in describing Islam, or by evaluating the policies he or she advocates as a response? Or something else entirely?

I mean, what if someone describes things in holistic terms (e.g. "Islam is a fascist ideology") but has asymptotic prescriptions (innocent until proven guilty, etc.)? I ask mainly because I'll wager a lot of people combine holistic (and essentialist) thinking with asymptotic and phenomenological policies.

Erich said...


I may not have been sufficiently clear in my essay, but let me clarify:

An asymptotic can be either essentialist or phenomenological.

A holist can also be either essentialist or phenomenological.

The line between essentialist and phenomenological may be rather fuzzy sometimes, which could make readers think it's not a very useful distinction, and I'm not entirely sure they would be wrong.

Basically, an essentialist is more committed than the phenomenologist -- though the most famous phenomenologist, Spencer, is stubborn as a mule about it, comporting himself philosophically almost like Derrida in terms of slinking out of any pronouncements of "reality".

Perhaps I should scrap the terms, since in a sense my holist position which I termed "de facto holism" to distinguish it from hard holism might as well be phenomenological itself -- since I believe that we cannot know the actual nature of Islam, but that for purposes of self-defense, we must err on the side of assuming it has the most dangerous nature.

Anonymous said...

[...] I believe that we cannot know the actual nature of Islam, but that for purposes of self-defense, we must err on the side of assuming it has the most dangerous nature.

May I ask Erich what he means by his statement that "we cannot know the actual nature of Islam"? Does he perhaps mean that we cannot know specifically how Islam will manifest itself through the actions of its adherents, or does he mean that we cannot know what constitutes the "essence" of Islam? Or maybe something else?

After all, isn't the conclusion that "for purposes of self-defense, we must err on the side of assuming [Islam] has the most dangerous nature" a result of a recognition of malign aspects of Islam that are inherent in its actual nature? Or am I wrong?

Erich said...


Quoting me:

I believe that we cannot know the actual nature of Islam, but that for purposes of self-defense, we must err on the side of assuming it has the most dangerous nature.

"May I ask Erich what he means by his statement that "we cannot know the actual nature of Islam"?"

I was a bit imprecise. By "actual nature of Islam" I meant Islam qua Muslims putting Islam into action. The evil, unjust and dangerous nature of Islam qua Islam is sufficiently knowable; however, knowability of how many Muslims actually follow that nature, or do not currently but will do so in the future, and all the sociological, psychological and cultural complexity this entails, is not knowable to the extent that it could be proved. However, it is my position that we should assume that Islam qua all Muslims is sufficientlly dangerous to warrant treating it as a vast movement of hostile enemies.

My distinction of two Islams depends upon the distinction between a religion in its essence, and a religion as concretized. I have long held the conviction that a religion is what its members do. With the history of Christianity, for example, if we apply my conviction to it, we would have to conclude that Christianity has a tendency to be ambiguous: it has been simultaneously violent & intolerant, and a promoter of peace, order, social progress and wisdom. At the same time, however, we have seen Christianity manifest an extraordinary ability to evolve and adapt and acquiesce often willingly and enthusiastically in its relatively docile domestication under the aegis of modern secularism.

Whether or not one would care to argue that Islam is subject to the same ambiguity or not is, unfortunately and grimly, irrelevant to the increasingly alarming danger it poses to the world -- a danger no other religion (indeed, no other sociopolitical movement) poses; a danger that presents sufficient indication that Islam is not capable of the same evolution as Christianity. Note: I would reject the contention that Islam is subject to the same ambiguity insofar as Islam's essence is not ambiguous in this regard, and the behaviors & expressions of Muslims that have reflected an ambiguity are not evincing the same paradox that Christians have evinced. The Christian paradox was conducive to its eventual evolution and domestication; the Islamic ambiguity has differed diametrically: I.e., when Christians have been bad, they were straying from the essence of Christianity; when Muslims have been good, they were straying from the essence of Islam. Thus, the essential nature of Islam reinforces the mechanism that tips the balance of Islamic ambiguity toward evil; while the essential nature of Christianity has reinforced the mechanism that tips the balance of Christian ambiguity toward the good of an open-minded (though of course not perfect) evolution toward maturity and tolerance.

Blode032222 said...

Erich, I think your terms make sense. This is all very new to me and it will take a few passes to get it right, I think. I am certainly no hard holist but I too think we may need to err on the side of caution. Anyway, you have a ton of new posts to read so I'll do that.