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Ed Webb

The White Christian West Isn't What It Thinks It Is - 0 views

  • Throughout what is commonly known as the West, there has been a slew of books, articles, and public interventions calling attention to the notion of a cultural crisis within. Such a phenomenon ought to be followed by self-reflection, self-interrogation, and retrospection. By and large, however, the past decade has seen far more of the opposite: The alarm surrounding crisis has been more of a call for “us” to attack and problematize “them,” which invariably leads to propositions such as “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board,” as Douglas Murray, a hardcore right-wing pundit, once argued—not to mention conspiracy theories that blame all the ills of the modern world on those who look different than “us,” meaning white Europeans, or, worse, pray differently than “we” do.
  • Ryan identifies the West as an intellectual space, rather than solely a geographical one. His model of what the West entails has three pillars: “the belief in a moral endpoint; the trio of republican values (liberty, equality, solidarity); and universalism.” Ryan correctly points out that all of these pillars are in crisis—and yet, the situation is, he argues, “not entirely hopeless.”
  • When it comes to conceptualizing themselves as a Western “us,” European Christendom has historically done so by positioning itself against the Muslims of the Mediterranean, be they Ottomans or Arabs
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  • a project that institutions such as the British Council have tried to bring to fruition, through enterprises like “Our Shared Europe” and “Our Shared Future,” which sought to uncover the huge amount of historical evidence that showed that Muslims and Islam played much wider historical roles internally in the West than was hitherto understood.
  • a form of Christianity that focuses on solidarity with the oppressed, rather than promoting tribalistic hate against the “other,” is precisely what Europe needs more of
  • If the West is to look for a better future, intellectuals ought to be transcending untenable readings of their history and looking for better ideas.
  • one could write an encyclopedia that focused only on the history of Muslim European communities and figures, be they in premodern Spain and Portugal or the Emirate of Sicily or indeed the many Northern and Western Europeans who became Muslims. Framing Islam as a newcomer immediately restricts the scope of discussion that is needed. And such framing leads to a focus on salvaging broken models rather than seeking a new model for the West.
  • Righting that wrong means not simply reimagining a new national myth to gather around, but Westerners forging a new narrative that dispenses with the historical marginalization of “them” in favor of creating what has always been a mythical “us.” What is needed is a new notion of “us” that emerges strongly and true, based on values and principles that the peoples of the West will be able to rally around in a cohesive manner for generations to come.
Ed Webb

Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker's embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for ra... - 0 views

  • Steven Pinker is fond of definitions. Early on in this monumental apologia for a currently fashionable version of Enlightenment thinking, he writes: “To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason.” Well, it’s good to have that settled once and for all. There is no need to trouble yourself with the arguments of historians, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, who treat religion as a highly complex phenomenon, serving a variety of human needs. All you need do is consult a dictionary, and you will find that religion is – by definition – irrational.
  • in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume believed being reasonable meant accepting the limits of reason, and so too, in quite different ways, did later Enlightenment rationalists such as Keynes and Freud.
  • He is an evangelist for science – or, to be more exact, an ideology of scientism. Along with reason, humanism and progress, science features as one of the core Enlightenment values that Pinker lists at the start of the book. But for him science is more than a bunch of methods that are useful in conjecturing how the world works: it provides the basis of ethics and politics.
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  • There is nothing novel in scientism. The Victorian prophet of social evolution, Herbert Spencer, believed that the universe, life and society were moving from undifferentiated simplicity to a higher state of complex order. In politics, this meant a movement towards laissez-faire capitalism. In social contexts, “survival of the fittest” – an expression Spencer invented after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – meant that anyone unable to stay afloat in such a society would struggle, sink and then disappear. Spencer welcomed this process, since for him it was evolution in action – the movement from lower to higher forms of life.
  • Many early-20th-century Enlightenment thinkers supported eugenic policies because they believed “improving the quality of the population” – weeding out human beings they deemed unproductive or undesirable – would accelerate the course of human evolution. When Pinker touches on eugenics in a couple of paragraphs towards the end of the book, he blames it on socialism: “The most decisive repudiation of eugenics invokes classical liberal and libertarian principles: government is not an omnipotent ruler over human existence but an institution with circumscribed powers, and perfecting the genetic make-up of the human species is not among them.” But a theory of entropy provides no reason for limiting the powers of government any more than for helping the weak. Science cannot underwrite any political project, classical liberal or otherwise, because science cannot dictate human values.
  • Exponents of scientism in the past have used it to promote Fabian socialism, Marxism-Leninism, Nazism and more interventionist varieties of liberalism. In doing so, they were invoking the authority of science to legitimise the values of their time and place. Deploying his cod-scientific formula to bolster market liberalism, Pinker does the same. Scientism is one of the Enlightenment’s bad ideas. But bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They keep on recurring, often in cruder and sillier forms than in the past. Pinker’s formula for human progress is a contemporary example.
  • Like the faithful who tell you Christianity is “a religion of love” that had nothing to do with the Inquisition, Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth.
  • the 19th-century French positivist Auguste Comte – not discussed by Pinker – promoted a brand of scientism that was overtly anti-liberal. Human progress meant following the path of reason and moving from magical thinking to scientific inquiry. In a society based on science there will be no need for liberal values, since moral and political questions will be answered by experts
  • Comte’s core ideas – reason, science, progress and humanism – are precisely those that Pinker lists at the start of this book as the central values of the Enlightenment. Interestingly, neither of them mentions freedom or toleration.
  • Instead of acknowledging that the Enlightenment itself has often been illiberal, Pinker presents a Manichean vision in which “Enlightenment liberal values” are besieged on every side by dark forces.
  • The message of Pinker’s book is that the Enlightenment produced all of the progress of the modern era and none of its crimes.
  • Enlightenment Now is a rationalist sermon delivered to a congregation of wavering souls. To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. Much of its more than 500 pages consists of figures aiming to show the progress that has been made under the aegis of Enlightenment ideals. Of course, these figures settle nothing. Like Pinker’s celebrated assertion that the world is becoming ever more peaceful – the statistical basis of which has been demolished by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – everything depends on what is included in them and how they are interpreted.
  • If an Enlightenment project survives, what reason is there for thinking it will be embodied in liberal democracy? What if the Enlightenment’s future is not in the liberal West, now almost ungovernable as a result of the culture wars in which it is mired, but Xi Jinping’s China, where an altogether tougher breed of rationalist is in charge? It is a prospect that Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other exponents of enlightened despotism would have heartily welcomed.
  • even if Pinker was capable of providing it, intellectual inquiry is not what his anxious flock demands. Only an anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt
  • Judged as a therapeutic manual for rattled rationalists, Enlightenment Now is a highly topical and much-needed book. In the end, after all, reason is only the slave of the passions.
Ed Webb

The Idea of the Muslim World and the global politics of religion - The Immanent Frame - 0 views

  • The stabilization and reification of Islam and other so-called world religions that I have remarked on in the theory and practice of international relations make The Idea of the Muslim World not only academically prescient but politically necessary. It allows us to reevaluate, and perhaps unlearn, some of the powerful yet nearly imperceptible assumptions about religion and politics that inhabit us as moderns.
  • The idea of the Muslim world enables narratives in which Islam “causes” people to do things. It allows for the depiction of Islam as the religion that is most recalcitrant and resistant to Western-style modernity, an agent that defines all aspects of life. Like other religions, only more so, the “Muslim world” requires management with white gloves, and sometimes the use of force, to prevent it from igniting into violence.
  • This narrative requires certain preconditions to take root and flourish. It needs stable entities called “religions” that are taken for granted as drivers of (peaceful or violent) forms of politics, (amenable or hostile) social relations, and (oppressive or emancipatory) legal and social systems. It is in this environment that something called “Islam” can be successfully portrayed as a “cause” of violence. It is in this environment that Ted Cruz’s preposterous assertion during the presidential campaign that “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror” could be a plausible statement to more than a few supporters
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  • political gestures whose cumulative effect is to create social and political worlds that are saturated with naturalized distinctions and suspicions between Muslims (and other religions/races) and others
  • The idea of the Muslim world enables the specific forms of politics and religion that structure contemporary international relations, many of which are premised on the protection of individuals and groups on the basis of religion. This is why his book is so important. If we were to take Aydın’s thesis to heart, programs to cultivate tolerant Muslims and suppress Islamic extremism that are premised on the notion of a stable “moderate” Muslim identity would be unimaginable. Instead policymakers would have to contemplate a much broader and more complex set of factors and forces
  • “Muslim” as a politically salient ethnic, religious, and/or racial identity is the product of political and religious discourse and history
  • n the 1990s, Bosnians who saw themselves as atheists before the war woke up to find themselves identified—and divided—by a newly salient religious identity
  • pan-Islamism—the idea that there is such a thing as a “Muslim world”—is a new and historically strange invention, a legacy of imperial racism
  • “the racialization of Islam was bound up with its transformation into a universal and uniform religious tradition, a force in international politics, and a distinct object in a discourse of civilizations. Political strategy and intellectual labor made this new reality, and both Muslims and European Christians took part.”
  • “Racialized Muslim subjects,” Aydın concludes in a key passage, “remained the real heart and animating force of pan-Islamism.” It is this perception of solidarity—a particular and historically contingent species of racialized colonial and postcolonial solidarity—that mattered, and that still does
Ed Webb

The Muslim world: Political fiction and sociological fact? - The Immanent Frame - 0 views

  • In his important new book, Cemil Aydın asserts “the ‘Muslim world,’ as a catchall description of people recognizing themselves as Muslims, has never been more than an illusion.” The idea of the Muslim world, Aydın argues, emerged through an exchange between European imperialists and Muslim intellectuals during the late-nineteenth century, and has enjoyed a cyclical revival post-WWII. What Aydın identifies as “the legacy of imperial racialization of Muslim-ness” was met with “Muslim resistance to this racialized identity,” thereby producing a notion of Muslim civilizational and geopolitical difference distinct from the West.
  • Aydın suggests that pan-Islamist ideology today “relies on an ahistorical caricature of the caliphate, one that seems derived more from Islamophobic stereotypes than from Abbasid or Ottoman practices.” What Aydın refers to as historical amnesia also afflicts American and European proponents of anti-Muslim policies, which compel Muslim solidarity and thereby foment pan-Islamist responses.
  • Is it possible to refute a claim as expansive as global Muslim unity without proposing a similarly totalizing theory?
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  • Edward Blyden, a black Protestant in West Africa whose article “Mohammedanism and the Negro Race” interpreted the fate of Muslims and blacks distinctly from white Christians; the British historian Arnold Toynbee best known for his anti-Turkish propaganda; and Ernest Renan, the leading French historian and philosopher who claimed that Islam was incompatible with modern science
  • The continued popularity of the idea of the Muslim world cannot be attributed to the elite alone. Today’s public spheres are saturated with political novices and seasoned politicians, academics, curious observers, and a vast range of nominally interested pundits, all of whom, it seems, have something to say about Muslims and Islam. Comment has never been freer and more pernicious. Any and all opinions find expression through more diffuse communication technologies than ever before. There are no guarantees that the provenance of a concept confines its use within the social networks that may have once given the concept meaning. If Aydın has written the history of an idea’s emergence, to what extent must its endurance account for a wider social field?
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