Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sullivan's Damage Control

Andrew Sullivan finds himself in the all-too-familiar position of having to clarify remarks he made about Islam and Muslims that have been, he says, misinterpreted. At issue is an August 11 post called "Quote for the Day", in which he discusses one of the would-be terrorists in the alleged plot to blow up airliners using liquid bombs. Here's the paragraph that's causing all the fuss:
...what does it say about the state of Islam that one of its young believers believes that the best way of "standing up for his community" is not to make arguments, or proselytize, or campaign - but to murder innocent civilians he has never met. There is something terribly sick within the Muslim mind at this moment in history. It is Nietzsche's ressentiment, but with God re-attached. We should indeed fear these people for the hideous carnage they can wreak for the sake of their God. But we should never let our fear overwhelm our contempt for them - their sickness, their evil, their petty insecurities, their inability to live meaningful lives and their attempt to assuage this by murdering others in God's name. Yes, they evil [sic]. But they are also pathetic, miserable excuses for human beings. (emphasis added throughout)
Sullivan starts out by talking about an individual "he", and then broadens the scope to refer to "them". The only sentence between this switch is the one about the sickness of the "Muslim mind". The problem is that he never defines who "they" are.

There are two likely choices: other terrorist Muslims like the "young believer", or Muslims in general. Take the former point of view, and there's nothing to argue with. Take the latter and you've got an ugly slander against over a billion people. Unfortunately, Sullivan sets himself up for a fall by generalizing about the "Muslim mind" without clarifying what he means. Obviously, the "Muslim mind" refers to the faith as a whole. But is the sickness universal? He doesn't say, so the only reason we have to assume he didn't intend the latter is that it would be such a bestial thing to say. Undone by grammar, as it were.

Sullivan has a long history of letting his emotions run ahead of him when it comes to writing about Islam. I wrote a number of posts on this subject in the thick of the Muhammad cartoon incident. With the emotions several steps ahead of the intellect, Sullivan tends to dash off sloppy posts about Islam, and this is a perfect example. It's clear that he didn't realize how what he wrote could (and, arguably, should) logically be interpreted.

His first clarification is really little more than defensiveness. After claiming that his post was misinterpreted and he doesn't think Muslims are universally evil, he writes this to a Muslim reader who says he was "emotionally devastated" by Sullivan's piece:
I'm sorry if the truth hurts. But I'm not interested in writing lies. If more Muslims were as "emotionally devastated" by the carnage wrought in their name as the words on a blog, Islam would have a much healthier future.
Normally, the best way to distance oneself for the appearance of over-generalization is not to make more sweeping generalizations. From this response, it's clear that he doesn't quite understand how his earlier post could be interpreted.

In fact, this "clarification" was so unsatisfying that he had to revisit the topic a day later.
I hope my postings did not conflate all Muslims into the bad category. I am sorry if they unintentionally did. My intent was the opposite: to clarify the sickness that is there and encourage the healthy within the Muslim world to combat it.
Fair enough. I've read Sullivan enough to know that he's a serious, thoughtful guy, and this clarification is sincere. But the defensiveness is still there:
The problem is, in part, however, the touchiness of the healthy. They shouldn't immediately suspect every Western criticism of Islamism and Wahhabism of being criticism of Islam as a whole.
Looking at the original post, Sullivan is in no position to dress anyone else down for "touchiness." His sloppiness resulted in a number of people thinking he was making a criticism of Islam in general. Now, if a reader has justifiably interpreted his post thus, it's disingenuous to then accuse him of overreacting to a criticism of "Islamism and Wahhabism". The whole point is that the reader thought the criticism was of Islam in general. Given that interpretation, it's not at all touchy to take offense at all the adherents of a religion being called "evil" and "pathetic, miserable excuses for human beings."

The error was in Sullivan's writing, not in the reader's interpretation. That's what he still fails to realize. I believe him when he says his conflation was unintentional, but it takes a good track record to be given the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to his writings on Islam, the track record has been spotty at best. Emotion is essential to good writing, but it can't stand alone. A few more minutes proofreading with the intellect and things will be fine.
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