Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

Islamophobia Lite or Trump’s Academic Enablers

A review of Kelsay’s Islam & War

John Kelsay. 1993. Islam and War. Westminster John Knox Press.

As we reflect on the increased visibility of racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-semitic words and often deadly deeds around the rise of Donald Trump, we should pause and reflect on the decades of “Orientalism” and Islamophobia that have proliferated since the first Gulf War and laid the ground for them. Even more importantly, we, as intellectuals, academics, lay citizens, must be more alert to sloppy, misleading, or offensive “scholarship” that has, especially since 1991, served to enable fear, hate, and discrimination, even after it no longer worked as a rationalization for colonization. While American culture now generally denounces and censures sexist, racist, or antisemitic work, this is not yet the case for Islamophobic writing and media productions, which makes it more difficult to criticize hate-mongers who rely on these sources. This is a small step towards changing that status quo.

John Kelsay’s 1993 attempt at a “comparative ethics of just war” between the “West” (often confounded with Christianity) and Islam ends where it begins, as a sort of soft Orientalism, a 90s version of Islamophobia lite. A phobia which in 2016’s USA—characterized by brutal attacks on “Muslim-looking” individuals, the burning of mosques, the removal of airplane passengers overheard speaking Arabic, and the election of Donald Trump—one might feel a certain nostalgia for. On the other hand, this book counts among the early interventions that primed the pump of the neo-orientalist, Islamophobia industry in academia, the popular press, television networks, and Evangelical radio stations throughout the United States since the first Iraq War. As an early, and well-written, exemplar of the trend, it is worth a read. As scholarship on Islam, it is not.

The very title Islam and War: The Gulf War & Beyond undermines its purported aim to set out an Islamic ethics of war. In starting not with the promised exposition of Islamic views on war (when it might be deemed necessary or how it might be fought) but rather with a discussion of Saddam Hussein’s desperate invocation of “Islamic symbols” while under international attack, it immediately associates Islam with a widely despised military ruler. That Hussein was notoriously secular, that apparently no one in the Muslim world thought to come to his aid, and that Muslims everywhere mocked his sudden grasping for a religious cause, do not seem to matter for Kelsay. Moreover, he proceeds to end where he began, with George Bush’s vision of a “New World Order” of non-aggression and cooperation, “a world of open borders, open trade, and most importantly, open minds” (112). The layers of ironies may be lost on Kelsay, but they will not be on the mildly aware reader.

Kelsay builds up Islam up as a menacing Other via three moves common to colonialist, racist, and warmonger alike, followed by a fourth, particular to anti-Islamic Orientalism. First move. Set up a monolithic us and them, here Islam and “the West.” Now, the counterpart of Islam is Christianity, and the figure chosen to stand for “Western” just war theory is Paul Ramsey, a Princeton Christian ethicist; but the reader is perhaps not supposed to notice the elisions. Second move. Make sure the “Other” is irredeemably savage and threatening except perhaps via “our” tutelage or subjugation. In this book, it is achieved by choosing extreme spokesmen and silencing all others. Third move. Set up a “clash” between “ways of life,” and, importantly, together with the impossibility of dialogue. Fourth move. Keep the Muslims outside of the Abrahamic family that they so stubbornly claim. Otherwise, they may become “us” through the innumerable ties of genealogical, religious and historical connections. The following comments about specific parts of the book will all fit one or more of these four moves.

Kelsay assumes, without discussion, a monolithic “Western” theory of just war, but cites two Christian ethicists (one Catholic, one Protestant) as its spokespersons. He gives us no reason to believe that Murray or Ramsey represent what the “West” thinks about the ethics of war or that they in anyway relate to the wars being waged at the time of the book’s writing. Why not Augustine, often credited as the pioneer of  “just war” and whose aim was to encourage Christians to engage in war? Turning to Islam, he similarly picks representatives in a rather peculiar way. As foremost authority for what “Islamic ethics of war” we are given an eighth century scholar, al-Shaybani, who wrote under the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, at about the hight of an Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to India. He dismisses contemporary authorities out of hand, in particular the Imams of al-Azhar and Ayatollahs of Iran, because they operate under government pressure, and therefore, can only be deemed “apologists” for their regimes. Why is al-Shaybani not a “mere apologist” of the Abbasid Empire? Why is Ramsey not a “mere apologist” of the American Empire? If they are “classical” periods that he would compare, why choose the 8th century to represent Islam and the 20th to represent Christianity?

An interesting omission, with respect to Christian ethics of war, is Augustine. In 300 C.E. Christianity was a minority, often persecuted, religion in the Roman Empire and war was strictly speaking un-Christian and not allowed. By 400 C.E. it had become the official religion of the Empire. Augustine, writing in the middle of that century, tried to distinguish wars in which a Christian can take part in and kill enemies without being considered a murderer. If Kelsay is interested in comparative ethics, why not compare this early Christian “just war” theorist with an early Muslim theorist?

From al-Shaybani Kelsay wants us to see the Islamic war ethic as a near “duty” on all Muslims to bring God’s peace and order on Earth by expanding Islamic rule, a pax islamica everywhere, forever. That al-Shaybani worked under Abbasid rule, 750 C.E., when the “ethic of empire” was not so much an “Islamic” prerogative as much as it was a universal ideé reçue—that the only way for empire to ensure peace was to defeat its potential rivals, demand tribute from its inferiors—is taken as irrelevant by Kelsay, not even Greek and Roman history. Or if he would like to compare Medieval periods, why doesn’t he juxtapose treuga dei and pax ecclesiae with similar concepts in the Islamic 12th and 13th centuries?

When he turns to 20th century Islam, he chooses the extremest of groups, such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Hamas. The latter tuned down its rhetoric and reformed its image as it sought electoral politics, but EIJ is considered one of the most dangerous terrorist groups of recent history, responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, known to his fans as the “pious president.” This irony is also lost on Kelsay together with the oddity of choosing terrorists groups as spokespersons for the mainstream ethics of a religion. If he is concerned with how religious rules conducted wars, why does he not compare the Papal States with some the early Caliphates? If he is concerned with contemporary understanding in Christianity and Islam, why not compare his Princeton scholar with an al-Azhar scholar of similar renown?

Throughout these orientalist moves, Kelsay fails to take account of historical, social, economic and geopolitical factors in Christian and Muslim discourses about just war. For example, if Mohamed was born at the height of the Roman Empire in Jerusalem would he have been a political figure telling his followers to “fight back,” or would he have been a preacher of “turn the other cheek,” one who martyred himself on the cross? But Kelsay wants us to believe that a missionary expansionism is part of Islam, something laughable to modern Muslims. In a funny twist, the PLO a very secular organization that counts many Christians among its most prominent members is made to speak in Islamist language as if by ventriloquism.

Even setting aside the thirteen centuries of history that are ignored, we are left puzzled why Kelsay wants to compare Islam and “West,” and not for example, the West and the Middle-east. He assumes that the Middle-east is not secular, despite the fact that nearly every country in the region, besides Iran and Saudi Arabia, are purportedly secular. If we are not to take them at their word, then Kelsay must make an argument why not. These omissions are surprising given his hope that perhaps a universal just war ethics can be approached, if not achieved. Throughout the book, he paints Islamic modernity as necessarily a manipulation of a classical past, a past that Kelsay puts himself in a superior position to interpret than actual Muslim scholars who are either silent or labeled “apologists.” This is because the purpose of the book appears to frighten the reader, something that it does quite well.

Kelsay is ambivalent about whether he would like to “dialogue” with Muslims, whatever that means–itself ambivalent because at times he calls it “internal.” Note, for example, the back and forth he goes through on pages 116-8; first saying dialogue appears impossible, then hinting it is, then again concluding that it may not be. What the arc of the book makes clear, however, is that he does not want his reader to.

The book’s concluding chapter is telling. Kelsay assumes a privileged position to decide what counts as “West,” what counts as “Islam,” and what their respective points of view are, without consulting the subjects themselves. When, during an inter-faith dialogue, Prof. Ali declines to make a judgment on the Gulf War on behalf, saying this war appears to have “nothing to do with Islam”—perhaps because he does not want to be a spokesperson for an entire civilization on a specific event, or perhaps because he is tired of having to do so—Kelsay takes him to task for “missing an opportunity to educate” his audience and proceeds to tell us what Ali should have said. Her is an example of one taking himslef as spokesperson for one civilization, while defining the terms on which the other can ever speak for another. Putting words into Ali’s mouth, and silencing all other Muslims, he concludes the book with an unavoidable clash between a well intentioned “West” and a stubbornly incorrigible “Islamic East” unable to translate itself or make itself legible.

Unfortunately, the moves mentioned above are why any “clash of civilizations” thesis is nearly always self-fulfilling prophecy, and nearly always tragic.

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This entry was posted on 2016-11-11 by in Uncategorized.
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