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Islamic Extremists Have Some Valid Arguments

Ali Eteraz' post in Comment on reform in Islam is probably one of the more concise enunciations of the next thing the West is going to have to learn about Islam and Islamic history: Extremists, being dissenters to Islamic traditionalism, … Read More

By / September 25, 2007

Ali Eteraz' post in Comment on reform in Islam is probably one of the more concise enunciations of the next thing the West is going to have to learn about Islam and Islamic history:

Extremists, being dissenters to Islamic traditionalism, are not merely a reaction to external pressures like western foreign policy (which they are), but also a reaction to the traditionalist response (or lack of response) to internal problems as well.

The lessons have been slow-going; it's taken us since roughly 1979 to get to the point where some significant number of people on the street know that there are Sunnis and Shi'ia. You'd think that would have hit home long ago. Likewise with Wahhabism, but tragedy hitting close to home has everyone doing a bit more homework. Still the spectre of comparisons looms, and every halfway educated westerner is waiting around for Islam to catch up to Christianity.

Ali's post echoes the argument of fellow Jewcy contributor Steven Schwartz, and demonstrates that it's high time the West realize that history and culture are not marching toward some pre-ordained point, nor do they march in any sort of generally similar direction. The problematic moment in Ali's otherwise excellent post is the very end, when he declares:

Extremism is not just an irrational conflagration; it is rational, though misguided, dissent.

I get where he's driving here, but there's something about saying "extremism is rational"–just putting those three words side by side–that I can't swallow.

The distinction here is philosophical, but important even for plain speaking such as the kind used in Ali's piece. The demarcation should be should be between 'valid' and 'sound,' nothing to do with rationality, which is actually a discipline or stance that prizes general soundness over validity. In our every day speech we use most of these terms interchangeably, a good argument is sound, valid, and rational. But a valid argument needn't follow from true premises. The classic example: Napoleon was German, Napoleon was nice, therefore all Germans are nice. This formulation isn't improper. We can understand it, but we can understand it well enough to see why it's absurd. Napoleon wasn't German, there are plainly some mean Germans, Napoleon doesn't seem to have been so swell, therefore the entire argument is lousy. Validity only requires one proceed in formal logic in proper argumentative form. A sound argument, however is valid, it's premises are true, and therefore it's conclusions follow and yield a conclusion that is also true.

The claims of extremists, being amalgamated from amateur political critique and professional superstition, are comprised generally of mostly untrue premises mixed with some legitimate complaints about misuse of power, economic inequality, etc. Their arguments however are not only misguided, they are unsound. This means their conclusions are untrue and thus the 'conflagration' that is extremism cannot be considered 'rational' simply because it follows a recognizable pattern of argument while deploying a small amount of true premises with a large amount of false ones.

Ali's a lawyer, one of my favorite writers on this topic, and I'm sure I'm not telling him anything he doesn't know. I just it would be worthwhile to draw out a slightly more rigorous, even if somewhat surgical distinction from that statement.

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