Men, not gods

The New York Times Magazine has a long profile up of Yasir Qadhi, a religiously conservative American Muslim cleric. It is long and worth reading in and of itself, but I want to focus on one section:

American Muslims, Qadhi told the audience, needed to abide by the laws of their country, understanding that had they been born in Palestine or Iraq, their “responsibilities would be different.” He did not elaborate.

It is this kind of ambiguity that gnaws at some of Qadhi’s students. “We just get wishy-washy nonanswers,” one female student told me, adding that Qadhi’s “jihad of the tongue” was unconvincing. Being martyred in the battlefield, she said, is “romantic,” while “lobbying your congressman is not.”

I think Qadhi hits upon something real and important here: there is a distinction between universal and particular identities, affinities, and loyalties. Religious individuals who adhere to a profession of belief which is in its fundamental grounding universal in message and claim of truth have loyalties which expand beyond that of the nation or tribe. Even explicitly national religions, such as Judaism, have a component of universalism. Orthodox Jews assert that members of the Jewish nation much adhere to the commandments which their god enjoined upon them as outlined in the Hebrew Bible, but they also assert that gentiles should adhere to the Noachide Laws. Those of us who are explicitly or implicitly secular in our outlook have our own view of what is, and is not, universal, in terms of morality, often bracketed under “basic human rights.” The enumerated rights may differ from person to person, but there is an intuition that such a set does exist.

And yet one issue which crops up periodically, and is becoming more pervasive in our global world, is the elision of the distinction between universal and particular. We remove particular loyalties and affinities from our moral calculus in rhetoric. A Palestinian has obligations to a Palestinian which are not identical to the obligations of a Palestinian to an American. An American has obligations to his family which can not simply be reduced from his obligation to his nation. An individual is to some extent a bundle of identities, and sometimes those identities work at cross-purposes.

This is a problem for many Muslims. I do not believe that America is explicitly and consciously driven to be “at war” with Islam. But it is a reality that the United States is, and will be, involved in conflicts within the Muslim world, where American men and matériel will cause the deaths of Muslims, some innocent, and some not so innocent. There are structural facts about the reality of our universe: the concentration of oil in the Muslim Holy Lands, the existence of Israel in the heart of Islam and America’s powerful Jewish community, and America’s role as international policeman, which make the connections of American Muslims with those abroad problematic for them. The problem is greatest for those who espouse Salafism, which is notionally a thin spare doctrine which ideally makes no truck with practical considerations. The harsh logic of Salafism explains their war against the personalized forms of worship which have become common across most of Islam. This war is made most concrete in their destruction of holy sites which became objects of pilgrimage and veneration from other Muslims. The Salafists reject human nature, and wish to interpose in its place a holy nature of their own making, though they ascribe it to the divine.

What Qadhi’s students naturally observe is that the simple and clear Salafist logic, where the world is ethically flat and invariant in relation to their god, entails conclusions which are at contradiction with pragmatic existence within this world. Salafism realized in its pure form is as viable as the theocracy of Munster. The human moral calculus is not derived from logic, rather, we generally twist our own logics to align with our intuition. This is what Qadhi seems to be doing. Qadhi may be a orthodox Muslim, for whom the United States is secondary to the god on high whom he venerates, but his upbringing, family, and experience, draw him back to this nation. In theory before god all this should be nothing, but often the awesome god must give ground to the banal pleasures of human life. God can not grow where man can not flourish.

The tensions which serious Muslims must confront are today for us a boundary condition. Many of us face other such tensions, if submerged by the reality that we do not have to face two choices which satisfy different loyalties. I have discussed these issues with Jewish friends who were avowed Zionists. Though some dissent, by and large American and Israeli interests are aligned in such a fashion that the question of dual loyalties is not pervasive in the lives of American Zionist Jews (and more and more, Zionist Evangelicals), though even here it does manifest itself.

Another aspect of this problem is the more general one where Americans forget that what is good for America may not always be good for the world, or a specific nation. In other words American nationalism is conflated with universal morality and well being. The American nation has interests, and we do not live in the “best of all worlds,” and hard choices must be made. Whether those choices are just or unjust may vary depending on your perspective. Men will steal so that their family does not become destitute. Such men need to be punished by society if their crimes are caught, but we as humans understand that on occasion what is right and good for the individual may not be right and good for the society. It follows therefore that what is right and good for Americans may not be right and good for non-Americans.

We are who we are. We are Americans, members of a family, members of a church, etc. Our interests will vary. The ethical universe is not flat, and to be fully human we must acknowledge that. Both for ourselves and for others. Until that day we won’t be able to go beyond trite sloganeering.

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7 Responses to Men, not gods

  1. John says:

    Interesting post.

    As a moral universalist who does believe the ethical universe is flat, here’s my take:

    There are interests, and there are rights. If my family’s interest conflicts with my country’s interests, then I have a difficult problem. I have to weigh the relative importance of the interests and the relative value I place on my family and country. However, if one’s interest conficts with another’s right, then there is only one choice. The right takes precedence. For instance, if my child wanted to steal candy from a store, I would tell him no. Even though I love my child more than I love a store owner, the store owner’s rights take precedence over my child’s interests.

    If I am deciding whether or not America should do something in the foreign policy arena, I use the Krauthammer rule: for America to act, the act must be
    1) morally right, and
    2) serve America’s interests
    If this rule is followed, there will be a few things in America’s interests that we wouldn’t do (invade Alberta and take their oil shale), and some things that would be morally OK, but not be in our interests (giving large amounts of humanitarian aid).

    I owe loyalty to my family, country, career, friends, ect. and I look out for their interests. Sometimes the interests conflict, and I have to make a call. But I won’t violate morality.

  2. David Hume says:

    There are interests, and there are rights. If my family’s interest conflicts with my country’s interests, then I have a difficult problem.

    your logic is precise and clear. the issue is that i don’t think it captures the real texture of life. so, as per your example, the *interest* of your child in stealing candy is relatively frivolous on the grand scale. now, consider a man or woman whose child has been brutally raped by an adult pedophile (take as a given that the child lives, and has been traumatized by the event). the law will hopefully render justice. but what if the parent takes the law into their own hands and kills the pedophile? the parent should be prosecuted for engaging in vigilante justice. but i will admit that there may be structural reasons why the revenge murder was likely in almost a deterministic fashion in some situations. extra-judicial killings are highly disruptive to social order and must be punished. but are they deeply morally wrong in all cases?

  3. jb says:

    The problem with privileging rights over interests is that rights are just as much a human invention as anything else. Rights are most useful when people tend to agree — for example most people have no trouble accepting a human right not to be murdered. But if someone asserts that human rights also include a right to decent housing and a well paying job, how do I argue with him? It basically just turns into a religious argument, with each of us convinced that we are obviously right.

    I think one of the deepest mistakes human beings make is thinking that there exists some correct universal moral calculus which, if only we could discover it, would consistently resolve all our problems, and give us true guidance. I don’t think any such thing exists, so we have to make do as best we can without it. It’s interests and compromise all the way down!

  4. Caledonian says:

    Rights are most useful when people tend to agree — for example most people have no trouble accepting a human right not to be murdered. But if someone asserts that human rights also include a right to decent housing and a well paying job, how do I argue with him? It basically just turns into a religious argument, with each of us convinced that we are obviously right.

    The only difference between the two situations is the level of agreement. In the first case, it is also a religious argument, with each side convinced they are right – it’s just that the people involved happen to be on the same side.

    Your latter point is also problematic. If it’s just interests and compromise all the way down, a system of rules describing interests and compromises will exist – and thus the universal moral calculus will be.

    If there’s a universe, there will be universal models. Period.

  5. John says:

    “but are they deeply morally wrong in all cases?”

    This is a tough one. I have thought about whether or not there ought to be some legal right of revenge–such as killing the person who killed your spouse. There would be a lot of problems with this (would lead to feuds, innocent people might be killed, ect.), so society had decided, with good reason, that revenge killings should not be allowed.

    In a Hobbesean world with no government, I don’t think that a revenge killing like this would be wrong. In our current civilized society, well…

  6. Susan says:

    It could be a question more of emotion than legality or even morality. Most people (I assume) are justifiably sickened and outraged when they read of the rape and murder of a child. But they don’t have a desire, that they act upon, to seek vengeance against the rapist/murderer. They hope the criminal will be caught, tried, and either executed or imprisoned for life, with no parole.

    On the other hand, if it’s YOUR kid who’s been raped and murdered…yes, there’s a perfectly understandable desire to hunt the perpetrator down and kill him, probably as painfully as possible. I don’t have children, but if I saw someone raping my two-year-old niece or nephew, I think I’d grab the nearest bludgeon-like instrument and go to work on him before I called 911.

    But I’d be acting out of my emotional connection to the child rather than out of a sense of morality or justice.

  7. Grettir Ásmundarson says:


    Can we say that society, by which I mean a concensus, decided against revenge killings and blood feuds as an acceptable means of resolving grievances? I’m not an expert, but wasn’t legislation against blood feuds part of an expansion of the powers of rulers and later the Modern bureaucratic state, the state’s monopoloy on violence, and the professionalization of law enforcement?

    The question, I guess, is to what extent the state reflects the society that it rules. If the state is a mirror of its subject society or societies then John and David Hume are correct, extra-judicial killings are socially disruptive. I would say each instance must be taken on a case by case basis. In some instances an extra-judicial killing might difuse communal tension and would not necessarily lead to further violence.

    The common Western association of blood feud and extra-judicial violence with a Hobbesian jungle shows how quickly humans internalize political dictates and assume that they are organic or, for some, Divine revelation.

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