Monday, August 01, 2005

Logical Fallacies and Flawed Polemics

Those whose arguments are weak or who cannot support their position with evidence frequently resort to logical fallacies, methods of argumentation that are inherently fallacious. Among the most insidious of the classical logical fallacies is the ad hominem attack. This seeks to focus on the person rather than the argument and frequently takes the form of insult or personal abuse. For example:
Jones' thesis about Descartes is wrong, because Jones is a Labour party member.
The political party that Jones supports has nothing whatsoever to do with either the validity or falsehood of his arguments concerning 17th century philosophers.
You should not listen to Smith because he is a complete lunatic.
Here we have a classic version of the abusive ad hominem attack. Rather than rebut Smith’s arguments, you insult him and hope people will not hear what he has to say.

This latter example is almost identical to the way that the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) like to proceed; a favourite insult used by the MCB to rubbish their opponents is indeed that they are insane, mad even, and thus sensible, sane people should not listen to them. We shall explore this motif in the book the MCB brought out in 2002 as a response to 9/11: The Quest for Sanity.

If you're not for us ... you're insane

Whilst The Quest for Sanity (henceforth TQFS) is a collection of essays written by a wide range of authors, it is published and promoted under the MCB's name, so it would seem only fair to take it as representative of their opinions. Writing in the introduction, Abdul Wahid Hamid sets out the division of the world into two, those who are full of hate and those who are "sane":
It is the voices of hate and bigotry that are often louder and bolder ... again, as always, there have been sane voices bucking the negative trend ... (TQFS, p. xvi)
We see no engagement with the arguments of those who are being attacked; whoever the MCB are thinking of are simply full of "hate" and "bigotry" and are "negative". So who do the MCB have in mind in this heated attack? Right-wing racists like the BNP? Muslim radicals like Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjem Choudhary? Are these the people the MCB is concerned to rubbish? To answer this question, you need to read the collection of quotes entitled 'Of Sane and Other Voices' (TQFS, p. 61-73).

Sane people hate America; insane people question Islam

The "sane" voices are an eclectic bunch, ranging from the American academic Noam Chomsky, to journalist John Pilger and Labour politician Mo Mowlam. What then are these sane voices saying? Allowing for the fact that the MCB do not tell us the criteria by which they have collected these quotes, so we cannot judge the context, a pattern quickly emerges:
  • Sane voices accuse the USA of state-sponsored terrorism (Noam Chomsky [TQFS, p. 62]; George Monbiot [TQFS, p. 63])

  • Sane voices suggest the war on terrorism is designed to allow America to maintain its global hegemony (John Pilger [TQFS, p. 62])

  • Sane voices equate the 9/11 attacks with the war in Afghanistan (John Berger [TQFS, p. 64])

  • Sane voices suggest Muslims might be right to see the war in Afghanistan as a war against Islam (Robert Fisk [TQFS, p. 64])

  • Sane voices see Islamophobia everywhere and suggest it a legacy of the Crusades, designed to produce a new enemy now the Cold War has ended (Faisal Bodi [TQFS, p. 66-67])

  • Sane voices suggest the Iraq war is purely about America's long-term control of Middle Eastern oil (Mo Mowlam [TQFS, p. 69])
Something of a theme has quickly emerged here. "Sane" voices are those that attack America and its foreign policy and speak appreciatively of the MCB and Muslims. Notice that no support or argumentation is given for these voices — they might be right, they might be wrong, but the MCB simply quotes them. This arguably adds another logical fallacy to that of the ad hominem attack, in this case argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority).

We have seen, then, those voices the MCB considers sane. Who then are those who are not sane, who speak with, presumably, madness and insanity? Again, there is an eclectic mix, from Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund, a charity supporting Christian minorities persecuted in Muslim-majority countries, to The Spectator magazine, to American writer and broadcaster Daniel Pipes, to the academic Patricia Crone. Here are some of the things they are saying:
  • Insane voices claim that Islam justifies the use of violence (Patrick Sookhdeo [TQFS, p. 70])

  • Insane voices state that some passages in the Qur'an "legitimate hostility" towards infidels (The Spectator [TQFS, p. 70], Franklin Graham [TQFS, p. 73])

  • Insane voices suggest that the USA needs to fight militant Islamists wherever they find them, including Afghanistan, whilst also promoting moderate Muslims (Daniel Pipes [TQFS, p. 70-71])

  • Insane voices argue that: "Mohammed's God endorsed a policy of conquest, instructing his believers to fight against unbelievers wherever they might be found. In short, Mohammed had to conquer, his followers liked to conquer, and his deity told him to conquer." (Patricia Crone [TQFS, p. 72])

  • Insane voices suggest that militant Islam is a global threat to culture, peace, reason and women (Samuel Brittan [TQFS, p. 73])
The main problem here is that the MCB lack the ability or the willingness to actually argue with these voices and prove they are wrong, instead preferring the ad hominem approach of labelling them as "not sane".

That aside, a further issue is that these voices are so wide-ranging. Does the MCB really support the radical Islamists to the extent that Daniel Pipes is mad? Is not the work of the Barnabas Fund a good thing or do only lunatics think the death penalty for apostasy in Islamic law a bad thing? Is The Spectator really mad to point to verses like Q. 2:216; 2:193; 9:5; 9:29; 48:29; 60:1? And whatever one thinks of Crone, the Islamic conquests of AD632-732 would surely suggest that at the very least, many early Muslims themselves thought that following in Muhammad's footsteps and serving Allah meant territorial conquest? (Incidentally, Patricia Crone wrote Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam in 1987, long before the events of 9/11. You would not know this fact from the quote in TQFS, which was actually lifted from a magazine article without checking the original source. A little scholarly rigorousness goes a long way ...)

In short, most of these voices have good arguments and deserve far more than being termed insane. Indeed, if mindless attacks on Muslims can be classed "Islamophobia", the MCB here seems to be displaying "criticophobia", a paranoid hatred of anybody who questions anything about it or Islam.

Further problems

Aside from the downright rudeness and the intellectual vacuousness of the MCB's ad hominem attacks, this whole approach of attacking people rather than the argument and spewing bile at anybody who asks questions raises a number of profound issues.
  1. The division of the world into "sane" and "insane" represents the same bipolar epistemology that is reflected by radical Islamists. Groups like Al Qaeda and ideologues like Sayyid Qutb divide the world into two, the Dar al-Harb (House of War) and Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and humanity into Muslims and infidels. This division serves an important psychological purpose, facilitating an easy demonisation of the other. If the MCB are the moderate organisation they claim to be, they should distance themselves from this kind of methodology.

  2. It is noteworthy that no radical Islamists are included among the insane voices. Does this mean that the MCB do not consider Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri Muhammad, or even Bin Laden himself "insane"? One suspects not, given point (1) above --- in the MCB's lexicon, "insane" equates to infidel and these Islamists, whilst the MCB disapprove of them, remain Muslims. Unity within the ummah is more important than division, as the MCB have stated elsewhere. This would also explain why the MCB include those who attack radical Islam or Islamists among the insane voices.

  3. Furthermore, the MCB's refusal to include moderate Muslim voices among the sane voices is very telling. For example, Irshad Manji, the Ugandan-born Muslim writer, has written that moderate Muslims need to bravely admit to the existence of problematic, violent texts in the Qur'an and then move on to find a new, peaceful hermeneutic for the twenty-first century. Is she insane or sane?
Ironically, in verbally abusing those who disagree or raise difficult questions, the MCB is acting according to the same mindset as the radical Islamists. The Islamist mindset sees Islam as inherently superior, infidels as inferior, and from there it is a small step towards using violence against those who are not Muslims.

The MCB has likewise divided the world into sane and insane, Muslim (and friends thereof) and infidels and proceeded to attack those who are other, in this case with words and abuse, not bombs and guns. Whilst I for one would prefer to be called insane than actually blown up, until the MCB engage in argument and debate, recognising that it is perfectly possible to criticise Islam and Muslims without being some kind of demonic lunatic, then the MCB is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

All this also suggests that our basic thesis is correct — that the MCB are more radical than they claim and do not deserve either their moderate credentials, nor the ear of the government and media. We need to find new voices in the diverse British community who are willing to engage properly in debate and dialogue. Until then, we are left with the MCB and the childish insults of the kindergarten.


At 12:05 pm, August 01, 2005, Anonymous oliver said...

Good post. The MCB, in common with other Islamic advocacy groups, specialises in the politics of resentment. Their methods are tried and tested: to gain entry to the public discourse via the weak spot of the host community, namely the pervasive guilt (often described as 'post-colonial' but I think part of a wider group-think) which is exploited in order to back-foot the vital criticism and internal analysis the Muslim community needs if it is to move beyond its self-exclusion and dangerous siege mentality.

Such a strategy (if it can be dignified by such a word) relies on extreme selectivity of information, aggressive moral inversions (see Bungler, below...) and an utter lack of reflection on the responsibility of Muslims themselves. It is unsustainable, not only because much of the public can see through it, but also because it relies on a dwindling well of good will and benefit-of-doubtism. The recent Islamic terror attacks - two major attempts at civilian carnage in two weeks! - have caused a considerable hardening of attitudes which cannot be paid off by the usual smears of 'Islamophobia' etc etc yadda yadda. The fault is with Islam, and Islam has to change.

At 5:44 pm, August 02, 2005, Blogger Cyrus said...

Impressive analysis. I'm currently reading Irshad Manji's book - if you haven't, read it!

At 4:31 pm, August 03, 2005, Blogger Flanstein said...

Excellent analysis. Most Muslim lobby groups in western countries employ the same tactics as the MCB - not surprisingly - because they work.

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