Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Surprise me for a change
I haven't checked the Jihadica website in about a year, and it's always a treat to see it evolving predictably (i.e., not really evolving at all) along its self-imposed paradox of a vector which combines a sincerely concerted and talented attention to real details about "Islamist extremism" around the world, with an axiomatic prejudice rendering impermissible certain interpretations of those details -- to wit, the metastasizing data of the problem of Islam around the world which that attention otherwise notices quite clearly, and studies quite diligently.
Before I get to what I found there recently, the reader might wish a little background on what the Jihadica project entails.
In an essay I wrote here two years ago, Another particular mechanism of the PC MC template, I described the Jihadica project thusly:
The folks at Jihadica focus their study of rebel militant violence on Muslim groups. A curious tension is generated by such analysis, a tension between two poles:
1) a prejudicial axiom guiding the analysis that resists unifying all the complex disparate data of various jihad groups under the umbrella of their common motivator, goal and blueprint: Islam
2) a genuinely and intelligently pursued scientific analysis that does not ignore or suppress the real data of these various jihad groups.
The more that the folks at Jihadica engage in their analytical project (#2), the more they amass a mountain of dots that positively scream for connection; but their eternal loyalty to the prejudicial axiom (#1) forces them to refrain from the one most rational way of connecting all those dots: Islam.
In an earlier essay which I wrote in 2009 -- Jihadica: pulullating mosquitoes, the swamp, the camel, and no cigar -- I went into somewhat more depth examining this fundamental tension at the heart of the Jihadica project:
Jihadica is an amazing website. Its contributors, from what I can gather, seem to be remarkably intelligent and learned analysts who can read (and understand) one or more of various relevant languages in the sphere of terrorism analysis—including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and probably several others.
They probably also work for various think tanks and/or government agencies, and Jihadica represents a kind of moonlighting venue for their work, as well as perhaps a useful storehouse for the fruits of their labors possibly even pragmatically related to their “day jobs”.
And yet, for all their amazing work, one gets a sense, after spending some time reading through some of their archives, of something rather odd, and monumentally misplaced about their whole enterprise...
However, because they have their “extremism detector” set on high and are apparently willing to notice a massive and globally widespread array of data indicating such “extremism”, they themselves put a paradoxical strain on their guiding axiom....
The tensional juxtaposition of Jihadica’s guiding axiom with the sheer quantity and quality of data increasingly conflicting with that axiom leads its theoreticians to resemble madly industrious taxonomists trying to catalogue and organize an explosion of data dizzyingly complex and exponential in its mutations, pullulations, variety, causes, effects and dispersal. A considerable relief of their exhausting industry could be gained by simply rejecting their guiding axiom—namely, that Islam itself is not the source of all this massively myriad data they are studying.
Their taxonomy thus acquires the burden of a great deal of needless protean complexity by their implicit insistence that Islam itself is not the problem, and that the problem is really “extremist perversions” of Islam reflecting implausibly explicable and seemingly randomly generated epidemics of “radicalization” of otherwise ordinary—and therefore of course heretofore harmless—Muslims.
So what did I find about a week ago when I decided to check up on Jihadica after a year?
Same old same old -- though they have got a new look, vaguely resembling a post-modern artist's impression of the rough, battle-scarred underside of a submarine or perhaps a metal military bunker; perhaps to add a bit of gritty no-nonsense "on-the-field" panache to their otherwise quasi-academic and intellectual endeavor.
At any rate, in what could have been an interesting essay examining the "scope" of the problem of Islamic terrorism ("Countering Violent Extremism, Pt. 2: Scope"), the writer, Will McCants, pretty much from the get-go makes a wrong move.
If the folks at Jihadica just stuck to their day job -- dutifully collecting and cataloguing the bewilderingly complex and ever-metastasizing taxonomic data generated by Muslim "extremists" around the world -- that would be one thing. But when they insist on supplementing that important but perhaps menial task with interpretation and analysis of what that data means, they invariably start edging out onto thin ice. This happens because, as I noted above, they tend to delimit their attempts at interepretation and analysis by an artificial stricture they impose upon themselves -- namely, the stricture that assumes, without a shred of evidence proferred to support it, that mainstream normative Islam cannot be the substantive direct source of the data about worldwide terrorism which they are meticulously amassing, organizing, interpreting and analyzing.
So in the article I mentioned above, the Jihadica analyst McCants is examining the phenomenon of the "scope" of Islamic "radicalism" and in doing so, within his first paragraph, slips on the thin ice of his paradigm. All of us concerned about terrorism wonder about its "scope" -- which, in a nutshell, means:
How many Muslims around the world are actually enabling such terrorism, and what kinds of enablement are we talking about, and how can we distinguish these aiders and abetters of terrorism from the supposedly harmless Muslims we assume must exist in large numbers (else we would be forced to face the horrible conclusion that over one billion Muslims are our deadly enemy)?
Needless to say, McCants doesn't approach the problem this way; for that would be to think outside the box (in which, alas, he is firmly and comfortably ensconced). He writes:
In my previous post, I proposed a minimal definition of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) as reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means. I also suggested that the spectrum of support ranges from those who are vulnerable to becoming supporters to those who are engaged in criminal activity. There are pros and cons associated with intervening in each group. The three groups at the far right of the spectrum are the easiest to identify because they have either consistently voiced their support for a terrorist organization or taken action on its behalf. Although they are extremely difficult to dissuade, focusing on them risks less blow back from the broader communities of which they are a part. There is also less risk of straying into the policing of thought crimes. Conversely, the two other groups, “vulnerable” and “radicalizing,” are theoretically easier to dissuade than the others but they are far, far harder to identify. Because they are harder to identify, focusing on them risks alienating the broader communities of which they are a part and can easily stray into the policing of thought crimes.
I lodged a comment on their website (which no one bothered to reply to, of course), responding to this attempt by McCants to deal with the problematic reality of Islamic terrorism through his curiously roundabout and surreal methodology dictated by the axioms under which everyone at Jihadica, apparently, labors. I hereby polish up my comment to make my point at this juncture:
Concerning the two layers of the onion labeled “vulnerable” and “radicalizing,” McCants writes that "they are theoretically easier to dissuade than the others but they are far, far harder to identify. Because they are harder to identify, focusing on them risks alienating the broader communities of which they are a part".
This means that we have yet another group to add to the Escher-like spiral of the problem of "Islamism" (that is, the problem artificially generated by avoiding the problem of Islam proper): namely, that apparently broader and apparently more innocent category of the all too easily alienated Muslims who resent the measures we have to take to protect our societies from their deadly fanatical brothers and sisters.
The harmlessness of this broader category is, of course, apodictically assumed by McCants without a shred of proof. After all, they must be harmless; for they number too many. The prospect that these millions and millions may be actually enabling the extremism at the heart of Islam that radiates out into the manifestations which Jihadica analysts notice on their delimited radar screens is, quite simply, unthinkable. So it is not thought. And in fact all thought is concentrated, under the Jihadica paradigm (which is just a more intense and professional version of the general PC MC that continues to addle the hearts and minds of most Westerners today) upon finding elaborate and complex ways to avoid thinking it.
And yet, although assumed to be harmless, McCants can't help but factor them in as a relevant factor in the problem of the pullulation of Islamic (sorry, "Islamist") extremism around the world. That's the unremarkable, and incessantly repetitive, paradox at the heart of the Jihadica project. reflecting the incoherently nougaty center of PC MC in general on this issue. For, being good taxonomists, as dutiful and otherwise talented students of Islamic (sorry, "Islamist") extremism, they can't help noticing the minions of dots of data that keep multiplying in dizzyingly copious ways like perpetually exploding kaleidoscopes under their lens. They notice them indeed, and they meticulously catalogue them. Then, unfortunately, they start to think about them and analyze them, under the rules of their impaired and bankrupt paradigm.
Thus, the "broader communities of which they [the "extremists" and the "potentially radicalizable" Muslims] are a part" reflects a vast population of Muslims that constitutes a broadening of the "scope" of the problem which McCants can't help but notice.
He notices, but is too afraid to venture out onto this broad terrain where, deep down, he knows its ground is riddled with holes from which will pop the multitudes of moles which our Western governments will continue to have to whack in order to keep just barely one step ahead of another 911 -- or another several 911s. McCants is timid to venture out because, deep down, he knows that it will lead him to the unthinkable conclusion: Islam itself is the problem, and thus also, as it inexorably follows, are all Muslims who support and enable Islam. I.e., McCants has glimpsed the broader horror: hundreds of millions of Muslims spread out in a diaspora all over the world in nearly every country on Earth, may be seriously part of the problem of which terrorism is the fiery flare-up popping up in various places all over the world.
So McCants shrinks back and redoubles the Escher-like complexity of the Jihadica methodology whose very raison d’être is to protect Islam, and most Muslims, from culpability.
An example of the subtle paradigm under which these Jihadicisits seem to be working:
In his essay on Zarqawi, "A Portrait of the Terrorist as a Young Man," another Jihadica analyst, Joas Wagemakers (praised, incidentally, by McCants in the latest essay there, "Joas' Oeuvre"), mentions two of Zarqawi's ideological idols, al-Qayyim and Ibn Taymiyya of the 13th-14th centuries, and writes this:
Although Ibn al-Qayyim is generally a favourite among radical Muslims for his uncompromising and strict views on various issues – like his teacher Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) – the fact that he was persecuted and imprisoned because of his ideas may also have inspired al-Zarqawi.
The way Joas phrases this he makes it sound as though Taymiyya's and Qayyim's ideological rivals -- scholars of the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria at the time (early 14th century AD) -- were by apparent implication not themselves "radical extremists" and were rather persecuting Taymiyya and Qayyim for being "radical extremism". Joas gives no proof of this insinuation; it is subtly and subliminally indicated by the closely related assumptions that
1) mainstream Islam cannot possibly be intrinsically extremist itself, and that
2) any Muslims or Muslim group who persecute ostenible "extremists" (such as Taymiyya and Qayyim) must ipso facto by logical contrast, be not "extremists" themselves -- a logical conclusion that does not necessarily follow and for which proof would have to be adduced to be persuasive.
It is, in fact, a logical conclusion that is spasmodically generated when one assumes as a given the PC MC paradigm about Islam -- that Islam itself is not extremist, and that anything we deem extremist which happens to be seen to be practiced by Muslims and defended by them as Islamic, cannot in fact be Islamic, but must be non-Islamic extremism.
Who is to say that Taymiyya and Qayyim's Mamluk punishers were not themselves extremists? It's not as if we do not see every day violent clashes among different Muslim extremists the world over. And who is to say that either the Mamluk scholars, or Taymiyya and Qayyim themselves, were not simply extrapolating normative mainstream baseline Islam?
Has anyone at Jihadica actually laid out in thorough detail -- with corroborating evidence from all the relevant texts in the Koran (sorry, refuse to spell it correctly), Sunna and Tafsirs -- all the ways in which Islam differs from "extremist Islam"?
If they haven't yet done this, they are making rather sweeping assumptions as they continue assiduously their taxonomic project that ignores the Tree for the Forest as it pursues the ever-elusive species of butterfly (Latin name, the Muslimica Extremica Non-Islamica), and leaving the ground for our never-ending all-too deadly game of Whack-a-Mole.
But I suspect that Joas and his colleagues and agreeing readers at Jihadica are so deeply inculcated with their paradigm -- to wit, that mainstream baseline Islam is not extremist and that "extremism" is rather, and only, a "twisting" or "hijacking" of it -- they neither notice such insinuations when they read them nor when they themselves casually regurgitate them by dashing them off as parts of their analyses of the problem of "radical extremist Islamism" as opposed to the problem of Islam proper.
Thus we (i.e., the folks at Jihadica and by extension all PC MC Westerners) are telling the Muslims whom we label extremists what Islam is, and what the, by definition, un-Islamic extremism is which they are practicing. Indeed we are telling Muslims what Islam is, and isn’t. And, of course, under certain propagandistically opportune circumstances, many Muslims (including many Muslim “extremists”) are only too happy to let us continue this enterprise — as long as it leaves Islam qua Islam smelling like a rose.