Friday, September 14, 2007

Islamists: Humiliated by God?

Martin Amis on Islamism: 9/11
He's got their number...
(Image from Wikipedia)

My online meanderings take me all over the place.

In looking for an article by Christian Smith on Christianity's unexpected resurgence in what was supposed to become an ever-more-secular world, I happened to notice that my old Berkeley advisor Robert Bellah was celebrated in the summer issue of the journal Sociology of Religion (Volume 68, Number 2, Summer 2007). Six articles from the "Symposium on the 20th Anniversary of Habits of the Heart" are included in this summer issue.

Congratulations to Bellah and the other authors of that seminal book.

Anyway, as noted, I stumbled across this journal issue as I was looking for an article by Smith, "Why Christianity Works," which purports to explain Christianity's success not only in surviving but also in growing phenomenally well in a world of countervailing forces. What had led me to look for Smith's article was an interview with him by Hunter Baker in Christianity Today, in which he said the following:
Smith: According to my argument in this article, Christianity "works" from a sociological perspective because it is able to successfully address a whole set of basic human needs and desires, particularly offering an emotionally as well as cognitively satisfying experience for ordinary believers. Whether or not various philosophers and scientists raise objections to Christianity, the fact seems to be that in believers' phenomenological experience, there is tremendous power in living in a theistic universe, having a way to deal with moral failure, believing one is loved and cared for by God, having communities of worship and belonging to be a part of, and so on. For many millions of people, that is much more compelling than arguments Freud or Darwin might have made. ("Christian Smith on Why Christianity 'Works,'" Christianity Today, 9/13/2007)
Perhaps Richard Dawkins should read Smith's article to discover why Christian memes have been so successful in propagating themeselves? But let that be. I haven't read Smith's article myself, for I'd have to subscribe to the journal to do so (unless I can access it through Kyung Hee University), so I don't even know that I'd find the article persuasive. But Smith's emphasis upon "community" suggests an intersection with Bellah's work on Habits of the Heart, so there might be something fruitful there to look into.

But whatever it is that 'explains' Christianity's success in the putatively secular world of our postmodern time, would it also explain the successful spread of Islam today? Or are other factors at work for Islam's appeal?

Something would also be needed to explain the appeal of Islam in its radical form of Islamism, which attracts not only Muslims who have become radicalized but even non-Muslims who convert and quickly move to the jihadist forms of Islam.

Martin Amis, in a recent article, suggests retrograde reasons:
The rolling creed we call Islamism is also an embrace of illusion, as indeed is religion itself -- a massive and multiform rearguard action, so to speak, against the fact of human mortality.
But this seems belied by the title of his article, "9/11 and the cult of death" (Times Online, September 11, 2007), as well as by the content of what Amis says about Islamism. After all, what is it that's appealing about a death cult that "is racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist, and genocidal"?

Amis also wonders about this:
[W]hat do all the UK jihadis have in common, these brain surgeons and jailbirds, these keen cricketers and footballers, these sex offenders, community workers, former boozers and drug addicts, primary-school teachers, sneak thieves, and fast-food restaurateurs, with their six-litre plastic tubs of hairdressing bleach and nail-polish remover, their crystalline triacetone triperoxide and chapati flour, and their “dockyard confetti” (bolts and nuts and nails)?
And he proceeds to suggest:
[T]he answer to that question seems to be slowly dawning. What they have in common is this: they are all abnormally interested in violent death.
Which seems odd, for it includes their own violent deaths. One might attribute this to religious certitude, but Amis thinks not:
There is religious passion too, of course, but even the bruited, the roared fanaticism seems unrobust. It may even be that what we are witnessing is not spiritual certainty so much as spiritual insecurity and spiritual doubt.
I've been considering the same motive behind Islamism, that its moving force is not so much authentic belief as profound doubt and an accompanying desire to 'prove' one's true faith against one's actual doubt by killing and dying for the Allah that one doesn't really trust.

Just "imagine," suggests Amis, "how it feels to be humiliated, not only by history, but also by God."

Difficult to imagine, but perhaps it has its motivating emotional force, at least for those trapped in the darkness of an Islamist worldview. But does it provide a genuine "way to deal with moral failure," authentic belief that "one is loved and cared for by God," or even true "communities of worship"?

Rather the opposite seems the case, so why does Islamism attract so many Muslims? Even more mystifying, why does it seem to attract recent converts to Islam?

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At 6:09 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Only a narcissist and egotist like Amis could consider being "humiliated by God". The Job complex sits well on Amis's shoulders.

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't know much about Amis.

I once bought a book of his essays, a series of interviews with people such as Isaac Asimov. The essays were sort of interesting ... but ultimately disappointing.

They never really burrowed into that depth of profound insight or took off along those fascinatingly unexpected twists that great essays do so well.

At least, despite his 'humiliation' (not his own, actually) he hasn't joined a death cult ... though some of his critics might still hope?

By the way, why do you call him a "narcissist and egotist"? Is he one of those totally self-absorbed sort of men?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The man has it nailed precisely.

Most martyrdom (or suicide) missions are useless from a military perspective, exceptions like 9/11 nonwithstanding.

Rather, the Arab world is permeated by an immense sense of failure and self-loathing, not only in the practical, civilizatorial arena, but also in a spiritual one: After all, Allah promised the faithful domination and success. They don't dominate and succeed much lately (+/- 300 years, actually), and thanks to satellite TV they're acutely aware of it now. Conclusion: They must be lacking in faith.

It's pretty easy to reconstruct how the above, combined with the prevalent human death wish (if Freud is to be believed), and the prodding from Koranic promises for jihadis fuse in lots of individuals to create the plentitude of suicidal Islamists we witness today.

I've never heard of Amis before, but judging from the photo alone, maybe "narcissist and egotist" is fair, even intended: He certainly tries hard to emulate that prototypical Gainsbourgh pose, open collar, cig in hand, mean looks. I've always found that aesthetic appealing, btw.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He's the son of Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, which was a sensation when published but which bored me when I read it as a 19-year-old.

I might react differently now, being more politically and academically aware.

Eshuneutics is British and an insightful fellow, so he doubtless has his reasons for characterizing Martin Amis as a "narcissist and egotist" -- hence my curiosity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: the Dawkins comment, Dawkins's friend-in-atheism Dan Dennett discusses exactly that. Christianity as a successful meme, religion as a development of evolution, etc.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, thanks for that. I figured somebody had done so (and maybe had heard about this having been done). It likely makes for interesting reading, especially from someone as bright as Dennett.

It perhaps makes for a case where one's scientific study comes into tension with one's Enlightenment proclivities ... but maybe not, what do I know?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennett at the TED conference.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That looks interesting, and I'll have to listen to it.

One caution for people clicking on the link. If I follow the link, my browser will take me there but won't entirely leave the TED webpage when I try to.

I can hit the back button and return the browser to Gypsy Scholar, but the soundtrack from TED continues. To exit completely, I have to close the browser window.

Maybe this is a glitch on my computer or my software, I don't know, but I've had this problem before when trying to exit from the TED webpage.

So, be wary when clicking on the link.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:00 PM, Blogger Dorian Gray said...


Nice comment by Erdal, dealing with the same topics for my research, I must agree.

Dawkins was interviewed to the last edition of Der Spiegel. I remember he was one of the scholars that signed the partition to, academically, boycott Israel. Meaning, for me, he might be smart, but not that smart.
He is more Antitheist by the way, not an Atheist.

Oh man, will have to mail you soon with millions of questions!

Have a gooooooood weekend!
(Sunday is OFF in Korea? I don't remember, I do remember they have lots of Christians...).

At 3:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Dorian, but as for questions, well, you know that I'm not a knowledgeable man...

Yeah, Sunday's a day off ... except that I have to make breakfast, get everybody ready for church, clean house, do a lot of editing, teach my kids English, and so on. A hard day...

Jeffery Hodges

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