David Thompson


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May 08, 2008


Ophelia Benson

Hmmm. I'm not sure I recognize Sam Harris's definition of liberal there. At least, I consider myself a liberal - more so than in the past, when I was stupid enough to think that 'liberal' meant feeble and compromising rather than adamantly concerned with rights - and it is precisely as a liberal that I do believe jihadists mean what they say. I do believe they believe their god wants to take my rights away. I have zero trouble believing that. I think it's deranged, but that doesn't mean I don't believe it.



“I do believe they believe their god wants to take my rights away.”

And it’s for your own good, which is nice.

It’s funny, as I was posting this I immediately thought of you. Obviously, the Harris quote is quite a generalisation, and I can think of at least half a dozen exceptions; but still, it’s not entirely without truth. Seumas Milne is an obvious example, as are a number of his colleagues, and the archives here have plenty more. Many of the self-defined lefties I know have a marked resistance to acknowledging the theological motive and its fundamental importance, preferring instead to focus on more familiar and negotiable, or ideologically agreeable, factors.

John D

"Omitting the role of Islamic theology, whether for reasons of preference or embarrassment, leads one to inaccurate or perverse evaluations of what we are faced with and how it might be stopped."

But -- all religions are exactly the same! Jihadis MUST be angry about poverty and imperialism –- because that's what WE'RE angry about!


The denial of religious fervour as a pivotal factor in terrorism is related to the usual egalitarian fluff about all religions being “just as bad”. As if, despite all evidence to the contrary, Islamic theology couldn’t possibly have any uniquely disagreeable features of its own. It also relates to the readiness with which the term “Islamophobia” is deployed, often to imply there are no rational reasons to view the spread of Islam with concern.

And for the notion of American villainy to prevail, as much of the left thinks it should, the rest of the world must be stripped of agency - especially unfamiliar agency - and depicted wherever possible as heroic anti-imperialists. Thus, the “root causes” of jihadist terrorism are, allegedly, Western “imperialism”, or global capitalism, or poverty, or the need for fossil fuels, etc. In short, whatever it is the commentator in question doesn’t like.


It seems the commentariat attempts to reduce Islamic terrorists to faceless actors devoid of any agency. This way they can be deployed as a sort of rhetorical gambit to argue the case of whatever position needs being put forth. Example:

"The poor jihadists are angry at the hegemony of the United States. Ergo, they blow themselves up in cafes."

Nowhere in that argument are the motivations of the suicide bomber given any serious credence. They in fact don't matter. Only the root problem - American power - is of importance. It's as if the point of the action is completely missed in favor of the agenda of those who comment upon it. To miss the religious fervor in favor of reading one's personal ideals into the action seems highly insulting to the jihadist. I'm beginning to wonder if they have already lost their holy war because we can't seem to take their stated reasons for hatred seriously.


Saw Iron Man last night David. Good to see the Taliban types get a good kicking - or, rather, a good killing. Slightly disappointing (although not entirely surprising) that behind that particular band of baddies was, of course, a big bad American capitalist.

Excellent film though. One for the boys. And the girls - you could hear the women sighing in the cinema every time Robert Downey twinkled. Or was that just my wife?

Oh, and did you also stay past the credits to see Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) telling Stark he wanted to talk to him about the 'Avenger project'? Ooooh.



“This way they can be deployed as a sort of rhetorical gambit to argue the case of whatever position needs being put forth.”

Robert Fisk, Seumas Milne, Martin Jacques, Tariq Ali, Imran Khan, Karen Armstrong, Michael Moore, Cilla Elworthy and countless other commentators have directed blame to wherever suits their own preferences, despite the fact the same jihadist phenomenon bedevils countries with no involvement whatsoever in the “root causes” they allege. The Socialist Worker claims it’s a defensive reaction against U.S. “imperialism”, but it’s also a “reaction” against free-thinking Muslims, especially women, and against Buddhists, Hindus, Copts and Jews, and against aid workers, medics and schoolteachers. We’re often told the jihadist phenomenon is “all about Iraq” - but it’s also about India, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Germany, Turkey, Nigeria, Malaysia, Sudan, Thailand, Singapore and about a dozen other countries.


In a sense, we in the West are in a double blind. Secularists (a better wrapping than "liberals"), have a problem getting into the heads of Jihadis, so look for political motives, and, of course, find tham. Meanwhile, Christians are reluctant to criticise "faith". In their souls they may see Islam as an abomination and Mohammad as the Anti-Christ, but are only too aware that secualrists will jump on such sentiments as risible mumbo-jumbo. Americans, in particular, are trapped in the view that faith is an unbridled good, and find themselves quite non-plussed when they come across a warrior faith. Robert Spencer describes this phenomenon here - http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay?docid=2241550816112243907&q=robert+spencer+freedom+of+speech&ei=-fQjSMfKIoPeigLVs8ixDA&hl=en

It is not as though we have not seen this before, in the Kamikaze warriors of WW2 Japan, though Shinto is now seen as a primitive and simplistic religion of little consequence.

I think John D has fallen into the secularist trap with his remark "all religions are exactly the same". Absolutely not. This is to mistake the politicised Christianity that has existed since Constantine as having much to do with the message of Jesus. Christianity has become a faith with illegitimate politics attached, while, in contrast, Islam was born as a polity with the unanswerable justification of faith. As an agnostic, I look at Jesus as a philosopher, and a very remarkable one. As a philosopher his message is very different from that of Mohammad. Islam is also unique among faiths in its denial of the Golden Rule to any but its own.

Another problem with the Western perspective is objectivity. We look at Jihadis in their Middle East habitat much as we would look at the wars of black and red ants. This mindset prevents any moral judgement, yet in order to me motivated to fight jihadis, we have to judge them as bad, bad, bad. The moral world looks very different from the inside, when you and yours are under threat, than from the outside.

Finally there is the problem of applying ethics and legal systems to groups instead of individuals. Ethics apply solely to individuals, and mostly so does the law, as it should. A woman being abused by her husband should be treated under the law that prohibits violence, but there is the tendency (and the actual case of a Muslim woman being returned to her abusive husband by a German judge), coming from the fallacious Multiculturalism, to apply the Law to Muslims as a group, privileging their culture over their individuals.

Islamists mercilessly and skilfully play on all these weaknesses (secularist, faith, objectivity and group rights) in our culture. Many of us know this in our bones, and instinctively mistrust anything that nearly all self-appointed Muslim spokesmen say. But until we can nail their fallacious and devious arguments (like Sarkozy did with Ramadan), we shall be fighting them with one hand tied behind our backs.


"I think John D has fallen into the secularist trap with his remark "all religions are exactly the same"."

I think John D was being sarcastic!


“Islamists mercilessly and skilfully play on all these weaknesses (secularist, faith, objectivity and group rights) in our culture.”

They’ve certainly played on a selective incuriosity regarding traditional Islamic thought. For instance, I’ve lost count of how many editors and commentators have given a platform to Islamists (from the MPAC, MCB, MAB, etc) while failing to register the Islamist redefinition of basic moral terms – “oppression”, “innocence”, “freedom”, etc. Many commentators seem unaware that while they may use the same words they’re often talking at cross purposes. Without, for instance, pinning down whether “innocence” denotes all non-combatants, Muslim and non-Muslim, regardless of their feelings towards Islam, the word can be – and often is – utterly misleading. I’ve seen interviews in which the definition of “freedom” implied submission to Islam – a total inversion of its more common meaning – yet the interviewer simply continued as if this understanding were compatible with, and synonymous with, our own.

It’s not entirely clear whether such exchanges are the result of ignorance, political preference or a feeling that it would somehow be impolite to press for clarification.

Ophelia Benson

David, ah, but Seumas Milne is no liberal! To put it mildly. That's just what's wrong with him. He flings liberal values away from him with epithets. He's an illiberal fool.



“David, ah, but Seumas Milne is no liberal… He’s an illiberal fool.”

Since Milne is choosing to ignore obvious facts and disregarding repeated correction, I’d say he’s actually dishonest and malign more than foolish*. And much as I understand the urge to disown him, as it were, there’s a problem. Literally dozens of Milne’s Guardian colleagues have expressed very similar views. Ditto the New Left Review, the LRB, Daily Kos, Crooked Timber, etc. So, can we dismiss Milne – a former comment editor and current associate editor - and those like him as unrepresentative of a large chunk of leftist – supposedly “liberal” - opinion? He and his colleagues remain regular, statusful fixtures at the mainstream organ of the British “liberal” left. Can we then dismiss them as entirely aberrant? Unhinged and dishonest, yes. But without an audience, a constituency?



You see parallels to the Milne phenomenon in the communists of the 1950s, caucus politics in the Unions before Thatcher, the "unwritten rules" of the Mafia and the militias of Ulster, most vicious revolutionary movements back to the Jacobins, and, or course, militant Islam.

The motivation is essentially the same - power and a desire to change society, sometimes according to a well-intentioned Utopian mirage, but just as often to establish a dictatorship to the pecuniary, material and sexual advantage of the leaders. You can judge the degree of malevolence by the degree of absurdity of the shibboleths required of the disciples. You can also judge by the body count and the types of people removed by the new regime - but then it is way too late. Often it is the high-principled supporters of change that are first against the wall, as their very integrity that is the threat to the inevitable thugs that end up on top. Comment is Free is heavily edited against right wing correspondents - I have been banned.

Illiberal - absolutely, malign - in Milne's case I think so, though in his way Rowan Williams is also a hindrance to fighting intolerance.

It is a problem mainly of the Left, due to the fact that they prioritise Marx over Darwin - an untenable, irrational but distressingly common position. They have to be opposed.


I agree, of course, that Milne and his ilk are illiberal, reactionary, and certainly not “progressive”. But they’re hardly alone, here or in the U.S. I tend to think of myself as being fairly “liberal” - in the sense of a *classical* liberal – in favour of individual freedom, etc. This puts me at odds with much, perhaps most, of the movement that now calls itself “liberal” and “progressive”. Again, there’s an appropriation of language, with terms being given very different meanings to the ones generally understood. And there are terms that are thrown around freely despite being utterly vague, question-begging or hugely tendentious. “Cultural racism” is a Guardian favourite, though I’ve yet to see it defined by any of those who use it. “Social justice” is another, and again the meaning is never quite pinned down. Yet it *sounds* like something one *ought* to be in favour of, which is, I suppose, the point. This use of fuzzwords is, I think, quite sinister.

There’s a parallel here with my earlier point about the Islamist corruption of basic moral terms. This matters a great deal if the subject is, say, “oppression” - which in Islamist thinking ranges from actual physical coercion to anything deemed insufficiently flattering. This sweeping redefinition, which is exploited regularly, is not exactly unknown in traditional Islamic theology. For instance, mainstream commentaries on the Qur’an, including those by Ibn Kathir, explain in great detail what constitutes “provocation” and thus justifies jihad. Like many other scholars, Kathir defines as “provocation” pretty much anything that hinders the spread of Islam or contradicts its message. Thus, the threshold of grievance is so low - and of course so unilateral - it enables the aggressor to imagine himself a victim. This historical line of thinking explains in part the passive-aggressive tone so common to Islamic rhetoric.



I think you *must* expand this theme into a full post. Corruption of the language is a grave threat, because it informs how we are able to think at all. If we all think in terms of "political correctness" we will be unable to see it as the sham it is. Obvious parallels with _1984_ and Newspeak suggest themselves.

Also, I'm with you on the *classical* liberal philosophy. It can be hard to define myself in discourse with others, as the terms which I should identify myself with have been appropriated by those who in practice stand diametrically opposed to their meaning. So I find myself having to give tedious and lengthy discourses (such as this) to explain how I am in sooth, a Liberal. Literally I am a Progressive as well. Deploying those terms, however would label me as a big-state appeaser who feels she could run the lives of others better than they could. Sigh.

At any rate, I am 100% in phase with you on your last comment.


Orwell was certainly on to the corruption of language, but Islam has turned such tactics into a fine art, after all it has had a lot more time to refine them than Goebbels. Dawa ("invitation" to Islam) is indeed an insidious practice, being in essence a prelude to jihad. We all know of the placative remarks in English for our consumption, while they speak jihad to their followers in Arabic. But even in English, such common words as "peace", "freedom" and "tolerance" have almost inverse meanings.

It is, however, important to realise that no such incongruence is obvious to the devotee - they themselves are also victims, as Renan observed 150 years ago. The happy slave is the greatest enemy to freedom.

Ophelia Benson


"I tend to think of myself as being fairly “liberal” - in the sense of a *classical* liberal – in favour of individual freedom, etc."

Well that was my point. It's not that I'm disowning Milne as part of the left, it's that I'm saying he's just not a liberal. I don't think he would call himself a liberal. I don't take 'liberal' and 'left' to be interchangeable - I thought that was more a US thing than a UK one? Here liberal usually is synonymous with left, but I thought in the UK it wasn't. Is that wrong?

"Literally dozens of Milne’s Guardian colleagues have expressed very similar views. Ditto the New Left Review, the LRB, Daily Kos, Crooked Timber, etc. So, can we dismiss Milne – a former comment editor and current associate editor - and those like him as unrepresentative of a large chunk of leftist – supposedly “liberal” - opinion? He and his colleagues remain regular, statusful fixtures at the mainstream organ of the British “liberal” left."

But there is a split in the left, of course - and it is around precisely these issues. I don't think that branch of the split is generally supposed "liberal" - I think it's generally supposed left but not particularly liberal.



“I don’t think that branch of the split is generally supposed ‘liberal’ - I think it’s generally supposed left but not particularly liberal.”

Well, most of the left-leaning sites I read regularly are on your side of the tree, as it were; and some of the most pointed critiques of Milne et al have come from Harry’s Place, Norman Geras, etc. But it’s significant, I think, that those sites appear to be in a *minority* and are most often attacked from among the “liberal-left” than from anywhere else. Harry’s Place isn’t besieged by uppity Tories; it’s besieged by uppity lefties, many of whom read the Guardian and call themselves “liberals”. The problem, I think, is that the terms have become interchangeable in the minds of many of those who define themselves as “liberal-left”, for instance at the Guardian, Daily Kos, etc. There’s no end of commentators for “liberal-left” mainstream publications espousing views that are decidedly illiberal, collectivist, revisionist, authoritarian and reactionary. From identity politics and “anti-imperialist” knee jerking to the-end-is-nigh ecomentalism and a fondness for censorship.

If a person has a genuinely progressive and liberal outlook - in the classical sense - there’s no obvious reason I can see to be drawn to those who use the terms “liberal” and “progressive” most often and most readily.

Ophelia Benson

Hmm. But Daily Kos is different from the Guardian, not least because it's US-based not UK-based. I'm still not convinced that people on the left in the UK routinely call themselves 'liberal-left.' I don't think the minority sites you mention are attacked from among the liberal-left, I think they're attacked from people on the left. I just don't think people on the Suemas Milne left (let us call it for convenience) self-describe as liberal very much.


Well, yes, Milne would probably cough blood if anyone called him “liberal” to his face. (I think he grumbled about Nick Cohen and Andrew Anthony for suggesting some continuum of leftism and liberalism, or rather pseudo-liberalism.) Milne is a reactionary authoritarian fantasist, and proud of it, apparently. He’s certainly unrepentant and impervious to logic. And he’s far from alone at the U.K.’s mainstream “left-liberal” paper.

Fairly similar views to Milne’s, based on broadly similar assumptions, are common currency among writers who *do* regard themselves as representative of what they themselves call “liberal” opinion. (Is Madeleine Bunting liberal? Is Natasha Walter? Peter Wilby? Zoe Williams? Timothy Garton Ash? Offhand, I struggle to think of a regular Guardian commentator who is liberal and progressive in any meaningful sense.) If I’m looking for an argument I’d regard as liberal, as opposed to reactionary pseudo-liberal, the Guardian isn’t the first place I’d look. Or the third. So where’s the mainstream hub of actual liberal opinion (besides, say, the Times)?

Ophelia Benson

That I really don't know. I don't think there is one. There isn't one in the US either. The New Republic partly fits, but it also partly doesn't. Dissent, maybe - but that's not mainstream. No, genuine liberalism is not all that mainstream - which is odd.


Isn't the Times a "conservative" paper? :)



It’s much more liberal – classically liberal - than the Guardian, which is sort of my point. :)

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