I’ll confess some mild disappointment with Amartya Sen’s recent book Identity and Violence. It is, as Philostrate might’ve put it, some 200 pages long, which is as brief as I have known a book, but by 200 pages it is too long. The core idea—that we need to see people as “diversely diverse” rather than as defined by any one all-embracing identity or civilizational group—is sound and important, but gets repeated, in nearly identical terms, quite a bit more than it needs to be. This is a book that should’ve gone on Atkins until it was a monograph. It is, on the other hand, a quick read and full of interesting little historical illustrations along the way, so if it’s not up to Sen’s usual high standards, it’s still worth a look.
I never need to report disappointment with a Michelle Malkin, on the other hand, since I have no expectations to disappoint: She is tedious and obtuse with charming consistency, and her 9/11 column is no exception. Since I doubt anyone worth convincing, whatever their politics, puts much stock in Malkin as it is, I’ll resist the tempatation to fritter away an hour or two of my afternoon hacking through this farrago in any comprehensive way—though as an exercise for the curious, you might look into the doctrines of Taqiyya or jihad and compare her treatment. I will call out one bit that illustrates a point in Sen, though:
Apologists claim “jihad” means a peaceful Muslim striving for spiritual perfection. But the late Ayatollah Khomeini rebuked Religion of Peace propagandists back in 1942: “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those (who say this) are witless.”
Here, as in the rest of this flailing, confused piece, Malkin seems unwilling to entertain even the conceptual possibility of a distinction between “Islam as interpreted or practiced by terrorist fanatics” and “Islam simpliciter.” In short, if some doctrine X is part of Islam, then however most insane extremists interpret X is what it must “really mean” in Islam. Who is the authority on what constitutes the essence of Islam? Who should Muslims turn to if they want the One Correct Interpretation of Islamic doctrine? According to Malkin, to Ayatollah Khomeini.
Which brings us back to Sen, who observes that framing the issue as being about whether “Islam really is” a religion of peace, who a few nuts have “perverted,” or whether “Islam really is” intrinsically violent, misogynist, intolerant, and so on. Obviously, a particular religious text or body of texts can provide more or less fodder for one interpretation or another, requiring more or less elaborate contortions, but texts don’t interpret themselves either. You can ask whether a certain type of electronic surveillance should be considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment in light of the concerns that motivated the framers, the jurisprudential tradition that’s accumulated around it, and so on. Sometimes the balance of reasons will clearly cut in one direction or another, sometimes it will be more ambiguous. But if you think you’re asking whether the actual 19th century document “really does” prohibit this particular form of surveillance, well, you’re talking a lot of nonsense. I don’t know why we think ancient religious texts—and, more importantly, fluid religious practices—are any more apt to have some kind of True Essence.
There’s a striking example from Reza Aslan’s book No God But God that’s always stuck in my head. Aslan offers two different translations of the same passage from the Quran:
Men are the support of women as God gives some more means than others, and because they spend of their wealth (to provide for them) …. As for women you feel are averse, talk to them suasively; then leave them alone in bed (without molesting them) and go to bed with them (when they are willing).
Not bad, as centuries old religious texts go. And here’s another:
Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made some of them excel the others, and because they spend some of their wealth…. And for those [women] that you fear might rebel, admonish them and abandon them in their beds and beat them.
Aslan’s point isn’t that the first, more sympathetic translation is “right” and the latter “wrong,” but that—and since I don’t read Arabic, I’ve got to take his word for it here—both are perfectly plausible readings of the original text. (The “beat”/”go to bed with” ambiguity may seem implausible until you consider that it’s tough to know without context whether the prospect of “getting fucked” is one you should look forward to or dread.) From a secular perspective, Islam’s defenders and detractors are equally off-base here, since there’s just not going to be any one authoritative answer to questions about what it is “really like” or what jihad “really means.”
Now, arguably, a convinced Muslim should not be quite so amenable to this loosey-goosey “many valid interpretations” sort of talk. If the Quran is verbatim from God’s mouth to Muhammad’s ear, then presumably he really did have one particular meaning in mind, which (God being omnipotent and all) really does cover all possible past and future contingencies. (Fortunately, as Sen points out, the historical record shows plenty of instances where Muslim leaders and scholars were willing to take a somewhat more pluralist approach.)
What’s not clear is why Malkin, or anyone else who doesn’t think the Quran is the verbatim word of God, should want to take that sort of essentialist view. It does, I suppose, make for a thrillingly Manichean “clash of civilizations” narrative. But I doubt that’s a story that ends well under any interpretation.