Saturday, December 13, 2008

Complexity and Simplicity

There is a time for complexity, and there is a time for simplicity.

On Jihad Watch today, Kathy Shaidle
interviews Robert Spencer. The interviewer asks him the simple question, Is Islam itself the problem? and Spencer replies like a weaselly, expensive defense attorney trying to keep his corrupt politician from going to the slammer. His value as a Communicator and Analyst in this kind of context is in my view significantly impaired.

Spencer should begin his answer with a simple response
Yes, it is. (or: No, it is not.”)then he should unpack it and apply weaselly oil to lubricate it if he wants, and then the reader can see more clearly if:

1) he is either trying to have his cake and eat it too; or

2) he does NOT in fact think that Islam itself is the problem; or

3) he is genuinely and logically explicating important nuances which nevertheless do not vitiate his initial simple response.

Similarly with his response to the second question
is moderate Islam even possible?Spencer should simply begin withIn my opinion, No. (or: In my opinion, yes, though it is extremely unlikely)then proceed with the complicated unpacking.

If his response is the latter, then part of that unpacking must include a statement directly and clearly addressing the usefulness of our admission that there exists a possibility that is nevertheless
extremely unlikely. If he cannot present a cogent argument defending the usefulness of our admission of the existence of such an extremely unlikely possibility, then he should not even mention that possibility at all, or only mention it negatively, as something other people believe but which for the purposes of our self-defense, is a worthless statement.

Once he presents an argument defending the usefulness of our admission of the existence of such an
extremely unlikely possibility, then the reader can determine whether that argument is cogent or not. Otherwise, Spencer is, in terms of this precise and particular problem, just presenting a complex bundle of gobbledy-gook. And he has been doing so for years, and has only stubbornly repeated that gobbledy-gook when challenged on it by readers of Jihad Watch, as partially documented on my now retired blog Jihad Watch Watch.

Spencers response to the third question directly undermines the crucial and paramount axiom of holistic analysisBecause we cannot sufficiently tell the difference between harmless Muslims and dangerous Muslims, we must assume they are all dangerousby reiterating once again the useless likelihood that harmless Muslims exist somewhere out there, but not providing us with a key to pinpoint who and where they actually are.

That third question was:

What about genuinely concerned, patriotic and devout Muslims? Are they confused? Will they one day have to choose between religion and country?

And Spencer replied:

They arent necessarily confused. They may have grown up and learned their Islam in areas of the worldCentral Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africawhere the Islam that has evolved historically simply did not emphasize jihad warfare. . .

Spencers response is technically correct, but worthless for the purposes of our self-defense, since we cannot sufficiently tell which Muslims are moderates and therefore harmless to us. It does not matter that they exist (which they most likely do): what matters to us is where do they exist and who are they specifically? For various reasonsmost importantly the culture of taqiyya in Islamwe cannot sufficiently answer these questions for the purposes of our self-defense. So to assume they are answered in the favor of a certain number of Muslims is to put our self-defense in jeopardy.

This example of Poor Analyst Spencer Redux is hardly the only example since I retired my blog Jihad Watch Watch back in May of this year; but, like his opening observations about the supposedly
anti-terrorist Muslims protesting Mumbai about which I complained recently, it was sufficiently egregious to warrant notice. If Spencer would stop pushing his penchant for poor analysis above the threshhold of egregiousness, I wouldn’t feel the need to remind my readers of the original need for Jihad Watch Watch.


Erich said...

Note to readers: I realized rather late that I had misworded my suggested wordings for Spencer's answer to the first question. Now it is corrected.

Anonymous said...

I assumed that Spencer, with his knowledge of Islam, would have to have compelling reasons for not wanting to rule out the possibility of a "moderate" Islam, for instance he might know about something within the core texts of Islam that suggests a potential that might in certain circumstances be used to reform and moderate Islam. At the very least, I thought he could point to something specific that would explain his reluctance.

A few months ago, I therefore asked him the following:

[I]f we are to take Spencer at his word that he "would never say that Islamic reform is absolutely impossible", then it would be immensely interesting to hear from Spencer himself exactly what it is about Islam that makes him unwilling to rule out the possibility of Islamic reform altogether.

("Islamic reform" is of course the process through which a moderate Islam would be created.)

Spencer then replied:

Nothing about Islam. Everything about human nature and human experience.

Spencer thus proved my assumption wrong - in spite of all his knowledge of Islam, he still could not point to anything about Islam that would explain his reluctance. He did point to something else, though, namely "human nature and human experience".

The obvious question is, what is the relevance of "human nature and human experience" if there's no potential in Islam for humans to use to reform and moderate Islam? Is Spencer among those who think that Muslims could simply will a moderate Islam into existence, disregarding the foundation and essence of Islam in the process?

Since Spencer insists that "[a]nything is possible" and thus frames the issue of the creation of a moderate Islam as a matter of probability instead of possibility, I think it is fair to expect him to explain how the advent of a moderate Islam might happen, and most importantly, how such a "moderate Islam" could still be considered Islam (as opposed to just an unprincipled lesser degree of adherence to Islam).

Erich said...


It seems to me that Spencer's answer to you reflects one particular problematic axiom of the PC MC paradigm -- namely, the superimposition of Western ways and Western development upon the Muslim world. There are many ways this superimposition manifests itself: in this specific instance, it is something I have written about before back in July of 2007 (and when I wrote about it before, I took Spencer to task for not factoring it in) in an essay titled One piece of the PC puzzle:

In the particular example noted above of the Muslim father apparently noticing the phenomenon that increased Islam might well correspond to an increased likelihood of terrorist action, what Spencer misses is the reason why this is not noticed by the PC mainstream, and how this is misunderstood.

What is going on here, I think—and here we come to the piece of the puzzle in question—is that Westerners, at least those millions who have been formed by the PC paradigm, superimpose upon Islam and upon Muslims a peculiarly Western feature of religiousity that involves the ongoing evolution of Judaeo-Christianity in the modern West—an evolution that Islam has not gone through except insofar as the West has insinuated and/or imposed its invasive influence upon the Muslim world increasingly over the past 300 years or so. Over the past 300 years or so, Judaeo-Christian religiousity has undergone profound changes, dislocations, shocks and refinements.

Some key particular features of the current state of Judaeo-Christianity—and, closely intertwined with this, the current state of Western understanding of its own Judaeo-Christianity—are that:

1) “extremism” is a relatively minority phenomenon;

2) “extremism” is more or less equated with “fundamentalism”, and the latter is more or less equated with trying to revive the roots of the religion, or (in common parlance) trying to bring back the good old days;

3) attempts at revival of the roots of the religion are seen as types of a regression away from a progressive evolution toward increasing secularization which is at least tacitly acknowledged to have become the norm for modern Western Judaeo-Christianity;

4) current PC people even find it unremarkably reasonable to assume that attempts at revival—even if they are really rooted in an accurate version of the fundaments of the religion being revived—are for the most part forms of “hijacking” the religion.

Note: These four points hold sway in the modern PC MC mind incoherently juxtaposed with sometimes contradictory attitudes about so-called Christian “Fundamentalists” (along with an amorphous anti-Catholicism)—contradictory insofar as these latter attitudes presuppose a normatively extremist Christianity still threatening, in one way or another, the secular order (though the anti-Christian can rarely adduce sufficient data to warrant his concern, and simultaneously often ignores the sufficient data that can be presented regarding the legitimate concern about present-day Islam). It is an unremarkable—but, alas, all too common—feature of PC MC that incoherent paradoxes are often part of the routine mental process of the person deformed by it.

Now, here is the point: these four points do in fact pertain to the ongoing evolution of modern Western Judaeo-Christianity—for, at best, it has been undergoing a profound, amazing, yet disturbing and often vicissitudinous transition, spanning centuries, of actually opening itself up to change, enacting on a micro-civilizational scale the wondrous paradox of Eternity and Eternal Truths becoming living organic (and of course ever-imperfect) processes in time, in the living men and women who carry those Truths from generation to generation, on an adventure toward a mysterious future.

Now, one problem with Spencer's answer to you comes to relief: Has the Western process of progressive evolution of religiousity been merely a feature of "human nature and human experience"? Or is there a process more complex going on here, involving culture and sociology and, by extension, indicative of something civilizationally unique? If so, we see, with Spencer, an example of the problem of my essay here, in its first sentence, in reverse:

"There is a time for complexity, and there is a time for simplicity."

Spencer's answer to you was an example of erring on the side of over-simplification, when the phenomenon in question cannot be clarified without attention to the complexities involved. And those complexities would lead us back to a simplex formula, to paraphrase Kipling:

Islam is Islam, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.