Thoughts on Islam and the West


In the aftermath of each terrorism event, there is usually a flood of comments in the media seeking to explain why it happened. We have had incidents of this type attributed to individuals from the full spectrum of backgrounds and characteristics. Christians, Jews and Muslims have all killed and destroyed in the name of their faiths, and not only in the distant past. Nevertheless it is undeniable that the defining characteristic of violent extremism today is a connection to Islam. Be honest, when you see the latest atrocity on the TV news, don’t you nod your head resignedly when you hear the names of the suspects?

Trying to understand this absorbs us. We ask, “Why do Muslims hate the United States?” No one, other than perhaps Donald Trump, thinks that this is a universal attitude. But the general perception persists, based on recurring terrorist acts and also the sight of cheering crowds in the Muslim world whenever some disaster befalls the West, and in particular the United States. If they don’t hate us, they are certainly putting on a great performance. Nevertheless, any generalization encompassing 1.5 billion individuals world-wide must be viewed skeptically, many of whom probably have little or no interest in the United States.

This topic whetted my curiosity, so I made my usual excursion into the wilds of the Internet. There is no shortage of opinions, many filled with supporting data. The sources cover the gamut from academic scholars to the clearly deranged. It is fairly easy to filter out the latter since their diatribes usually veer into off-topic rants. Keeping in mind the limitations of this kind of research, I did find a fairly clear dichotomy of views.

One large group of postings challenges the premise of the question. They usually point to peaceful statements and actions of many Muslims, here and abroad. They note the great contributions of American Muslims to our culture and economy. They record almost universal condemnation of terrorist acts. In other words, they see the terrorist incidents that worry and inflame us as an aberration, unrepresentative of Muslim attitudes. Their conclusion is that Islam is a peaceful faith with no ideological animus to the West or the United States. Scholars also mention that readings from the Qur’an that seem antagonistic to nonbelievers are taken out of context and often represent anachronisms or mistranslations. Our Judeo-Christian texts certainly are subject to the same problematic interpretations.

The second equally large group of postings, quite to the contrary, point to historical actions by the West over centuries that fully justify fear and hatred by Muslims, including here at home. These actions include direct conflicts between Christianity and Islam as far back as the Crusades. To demur on the basis that such ancient grudges are irrelevant today is to misunderstand the way Islamic scholars pass down oral histories from generation to generation. In addition, western colonialism and the slave trade are also cited as more recent wrongs. While we may view these as secular issues, Islam doesn’t make the same fine distinction between matters of church and state that Christianity does. Or course these perspectives are often overstated for effect. Nevertheless, the basic historical context appears reasonable to a degree. Their conclusion is that Islam has every justification for seeing us as an enemy to be feared and opposed, violently if necessary. Far from denying that Muslims hate us, they see this as an entirely reasonable attitude, exactly as we would feel in their place.

So where does that leave us? Both of these viewpoints can’t be simultaneously correct, or at least not generally speaking. The Islamic world is no more uniform than is the Christian world. For those portions properly characterized by the first viewpoint, we have nothing to fear and should not paint them with such a broad brush. For the rest, we must be wary and careful in our dealings. The problem is that people don’t come with nice identifying badges on their clothing. So the widely mocked proposal by Trump to “ban them all” can’t be rejected out of hand. The real problem is that we cannot insulate ourselves thereby. No wall is tall enough and no immigration policies are impenetrable enough to keep out a determined foe.

I have no prescription for resolution of this issue, and I suggest that anyone who tells you he does is likely a fool or an ideologue. But some actions could help, and for these we must look both to ourselves and to those Muslims in leadership roles, here and abroad, who desire a rapprochement.

For ourselves, our first step should be to recognize the dichotomy I have described and cease lumping all Muslims in the same category. We can have friends in the Muslim world if we treat them as we would wish to be treated. We should not hesitate or fear to negotiate with Muslim nations, regardless of their discouraging rhetoric. It is true that we have made mistakes in the past in some negotiations and treaties, but avoiding diplomacy on that basis is to assume that we don’t learn from our mistakes. I believe that, in general, we do. Most importantly, we need to cease assuming that our ways should be theirs too. Beliefs that we deem unseemly or even barbaric may be intrinsic to their way of life and not, as we often assume, simply deviant behavior. Basically, trying to “reform them” to our way of life, politically or socially, is none of our business and, worse, is a fool’s errand.

But as I have said, both sides of this dispute have a role. I don’t claim to be well-informed, but it appears to me that friendly Muslim leaders here and abroad have not been pulling their weight in resolving our differences, even if we take at face value their remonstrations to the contrary. The promotion of hatred within Mosques and Madrassas is a matter of record. I see little evidence that those in a position to change this have done much at all, while it is no secret that some governments continue to provide financial support for this regressive activity. None of our actions will succeed while this pattern of subversion continues. All this talk of spying on religious institutions at home betrays our values and would likely be counterproductive. However, American Muslim leaders surely know where to look and they could reform from within if they truly wanted to. I think we should put them to the test.

Another Government Shutdown Looms

The latest minefield on the path to keep the government open is Planned Parenthood. This massive government-supported non-profit organization provides reproductive health and maternal and child health services to millions of American women. It has been a source of constant controversy because of its contraception and abortion services that comprise 34% and 3% of its activities respectively. The latest issue relates to an undercover video of Planned Parenthood officials discussing disposition of fetal remains.

Republicans view Planned Parenthood as an abortion mill and are adamantly opposed to government funding of an activity they find morally repulsive. This video really struck a nerve. Firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is leading the charge to eliminate its federal funding, however his pariah status in the Senate greatly blunts his efforts. However mainstream social conservatives Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) do plan to attach defunding riders to must-pass spending legislation in the fall, like the annual government funding omnibus bill.

cartoonBMeanwhile Democrats have vowed that they won’t pass any funding bill that guts Planned Parenthood as they see it as a vital component of health services for the poor and middle class. They point out that it is not redundant with the Affordable Care Act, providing different and otherwise unavailable services whose loss would be devastating.



This is a collision of mighty proportions that might very well result in another government shutdown. Everyone involved in the last shutdown from October 1 through October 16, 2013 vowed never to repeat it. The instigators gained nothing but opprobrium and the last thing either party wants is a reprise in the middle of election season. Nevertheless sometimes events just take over.

Interestingly, a largely government-supported Planned Parenthood had its genesis in a 1970 law signed by President Nixon with bipartisan backing. Democrats cheered its provision of contraception and family planning services to long underserved populations. Republican supporters mostly were crypto-eugenicists who hoped it would help cut down the multitudes who would otherwise continue to flood welfare rolls. It didn’t take long for this marriage of disparate interests to dissolve.

This may become a key issue in the coming presidential election campaign, and possibly we will get a preview in the first GOP debate next Thursday.

Supreme Court Ideology

TheFightThe relationship between the Presidency and the Supreme Court has often been a rocky one. Supreme Court justices have human frailties and a lifetime of developed opinions and political leanings. It is nonsense to pretend otherwise, although all go through the sham process of claiming total impartiality during their confirmations. Perfectly aware of this reality, Presidents try to select new justices who seem to lean toward the President’s policy agenda. Then, full of hope, they launch these justices on their Court careers and then watch helplessly as events transpire. Sometimes there are surprises. Justices either reveal heretofore hidden political leanings or they find that the heady atmosphere of the highest court causes them to re-evaluate their previous beliefs.

At the same time, the country as a whole constantly changes, demographically, philosophically and technologically. This inevitably affects the justices, and properly so. The Constitution is a living document, notwithstanding the antediluvian thinking of originalists like Antonin Scalia. As times change so do standards, beliefs and expectations, and this affects both the workload of the Court and the way in which justices interpret the Constitution.

As you might expect, given the powerful effects of Court decisions, the political leanings and evolution of members have been seriously studied. One of the best and most often quoted studies is by Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn. Using refined statistical techniques, the Martin-Quinn Score measures the ideological leanings of every justice from the term starting October 1937 to the one starting October 2013. This is graphically shown below. Note that the vertical scale and zero point are arbitrary; only the relative distance of the lines and their changes over time are significant. Each unique color represents a particular Court seat, so that transitions from retiring justices to their successors are easy to follow. Black lines designate Chief Justices, who have an outsize influence on the Court. The yellow line is an estimate of the median justice, showing how the court as a whole has evolved over time.

Graph_of_Martin-Quinn_ScoresThis graph is very revealing. Some of my conclusions are summarized below, but the overall significance seems to be that the popular conception of a static court, jarred only by periodic changes in personnel, is clearly wrong.

  • With a few exceptions, the justices’ ideological leanings change over time, often significantly. Look at Owen Roberts, William O. Douglas, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens for example. Sometimes this is more a function of the kinds of cases considered, but the bottom line is that almost all justices evolve in their thinking. Rarely do liberals turn conservative, or vice versa, but two examples of such turnarounds are Stanley Forman Reed and Harry Blackmun. And John Paul Stevens was hardly a reliable force in either direction.
  • Presidents sometimes get it badly wrong or perhaps are misled. No doubt FDR was disconcerted by Felix Frankfurter’s switch to a staunch conservative. I am sure Eisenhower was upset at Earl Warren’s progressive evolution, and Bush ’41 must have been dismayed by David Souter.
  • The current court consists of two Reagan appointees, one by Bush ’41, and two each by Clinton, Bush ’43 and Obama. Thus this Court trends conservative and, as the graph shows, this was a considerable and increasing trend by the end of the 2013 term. But something odd appears to have happened in the current term and I have discussed this unexpected occurrence in another post.
  • Sometimes voters choose a President partially because they hope he will have the opportunity to mold the court through appointments. This often doesn’t work as well as it is supposed. One factor is that Senate confirmation can be a difficult filter on extreme choices. But occasionally, as noted above, the unexpected occurs. Nixon was able to select Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, and William Rehnquist. This is more that most Presidents can accomplish. His choices were predictably conservative but not really reliably so, and they hardly changed the median justice line at all.
  • There are four current justices who are over 77, two Reagan appointees and two by Clinton. Thus, the next President will very likely change the Court’s predominant ideology, but exactly how may be a surprise to us and perhaps even to him (or her).