What Prager really demands of Muslims, and why he can’t recognize this

James N. writes:

I was listening to a podcast of ur-right liberal Dennis Prager going on and on about Johnnie at Columbia. Advocating an aggressive prescription for Iran, Prager said, “Iran has one of the worst records in the world in basic human rights,” as an intro to why we needed to “do something.”

The question that popped into my head is one I have never considered thoughtfully before, and it should be addressed to all right-liberals who are upset, like Mr. Prager, at the state of human rights in the Muslim world.

The question is, “Do the Iranian (or other) people have the right to practice Islam?”

All they are doing in Iran, in Egypt, in Indonesia, in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, is practicing Islam. Does Dennis Prager believe we have the right to deny them that “basic human right”? Or does he believe that “basic human rights” RULES OUT the practice of Islam?

On this, as with so many other things, Mr. Prager’s conservative emotional preferences conflict with his universalism and the nondiscrimination imperative.

Doesn’t that make his head hurt?

LA replies:

Exactly. This is the foreign policy analogue to his absurd anger over Keith Ellison’s swearing in on the Koran. He wants Muslims to come into America, then gets furious when they behave as Muslims. He inchoately expects them to assimilate, but hasn’t thought critically about what this would mean.

When he says Muslims must assimilate, what he really means (though he will never recognize this) is that they must give up Islam.

When he says Iranians must practice human rights, what he really means (though he will never recognize this) is that they must give up Islam.

If he recognized that his demands for Muslim assimilation and for Muslim practice of human rights would require that Muslims give up Islam, which short of mass apostasy is impossible, his non-discriminatory position, based on the assumption that all people are basically alike, would fall apart. So instead he speaks of an undefined assimilation and human rights.

- end of initial entry -

Sebastian writes:

Thanks for the compliment and the article Lawrence. I’ll respond to both directly in time but I wanted to add something to the discussion on Dennis Prager while it’s fresh on my mind.

Yesterday Prager interviewed Paul Collier, a British economist and author of The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. The discussion was an ostensibly conservative take on the subject suggesting something beyond foreign aid was necessary to solve these nations’ problems. It turns out three of the poorest nations are Sierra Leon, Nigeria and Uganda. Prager then wondered what made Uganda so different from, say, Hungary or Chile. They listed a series of differences. Corrupt governments was first, but according to the expert Uganda has a relatively benign government as of late (though why it is prone to bad government, including once having a cannibal as head of state, was left unasked). After going through the usual economic list—natural resources, access to water, industrial production—Collier suggested that Uganda had “bad neighbors” whereas Hungary and Chile had good ones. At no point in the hour was the culture of these three nations mentioned as having anything to do with their relative economic states.

Now, Chile is the most European of Latin American nations except for Argentina. Since Pinochet left office in 1981 (in a voluntary plebiscite) Chile has enjoyed the fruits of the economic reforms he initiated. The majority of the Chilean ruling class is Basque in origin, along with large numbers of Italian and German descendants, and of course native peoples, a very stoic, solid type I might add. Whatever is responsible for Chile being Chile and Mexico being Mexico, much less Uganda, has nothing to with any of this. Mexico’s natural resources dwarf Chile’s by the way.

Hungary, too, was reduced to outside variables. The fact that this ancient nation was once a genuine power with Austria and takes a back seat to none in its classical music tradition and its intellectual heritage is irrelevant. But here is what gets me:

Prager, rightfully so, is very proud of Israel. Yet he denies everyone else what he readily assumes of Israel, namely, that its ethno-cultural makeup have something to do with its success and its very being. If five million non-Jews settled in Israel it would cease to be Israel, but somehow if five million Ugandans settled in Hungary it would still be Hungary? It has been said, correctly in my view, that if a Jewish state had been created in modern day Uganda it would be an economic success. Can one think of a state with 1) worse neighbors, or 2) scarcer natural resources than Israel? Given the economist’s criteria, there is no way to explain Israel’s position vis-à-vis Uganda except to ask about the culture, including the ethno-culture, of each.

This is something I have noticed among liberal Jews: a refusal to allow others to affirm what is celebrated in one’s own—distinctiveness. This is why I often tell people we need to be more Jewish. Trying to explain this to the liberal mind is impossible because once a group is deemed victimized its exclusivity is taken as a symptom of discrimination instead of a sign of vitality. Too large a subject, I know, but it has come to mind.

But Prager claims to know better, and that is what I can’t stand about him.

LA replies:

Your summary of the discussion about the bottom billion and the flat-out evasions of the obvious therein is hilarious. I agree generally with your drift. But on Jews and Israel I think you have one thing wrong. I have never talked with a self-identified Jew who assented to the idea that Jewishness has anything to do with ethnicity, meaning a peoplehood formed at least in large part of common descent. It is an absolute axiom with Jews that Jewishness does not involve ethnicity. Culture, religion, shared history and values, yes, but not ethnicity. That the most famous ethnic people in the world deny that the are an ethnic people is pretty funny, but there it is. It’s another of the consequences of the world’s 12 year experience with Adolph Hitler that the very people he sought to destroy as a people, now, as a result of that event, deny that they are a people—for the same reason that the whole Western world says that ethnic or racial discrimination is the worst evil.

Since Prager (I’m assuming) does not acknowledge a Jewish ethnicity, he is not attributing Israel’s success to ethnicity while ignoring the role of ethnicity in other peoples’ success or failure, and so there is no double standard.

However, you said that Prager and his guest not only ignored race/ethnicity, but ignored culture too. There you may have him in a double standard. My guess is that they stayed away from culture because, ahem, culture gets too close to ethnicity, in the sense of something that is passed on from generation to generation and therefore expressing the essence of a group. To suggest that the cultures of sub-Saharan Africans are dysfunctional, is too close to saying that sub-Saharan Africans themselves are dysfunctional.

James N. writes:

With regard to your reply to Sebastian on the “what Prager really demands” thread:

Africans, in Africa, behaving like Africans, are only dysfunctional if you assume a universal human condition.

Removed from Africa, or living in Africa under Western forms of society, yes, they are dysfunctional. But asking Africans to become not Africans is like asking Muslims to apostasize. Can it happen on an individual scale? Of course. Can we remake the world in our image, by changing social, behavioral, and religious fundamentals on a planetary scale?

Of course not.

LA replies:

James caught me out. When I was writing that, I was not easy with my choice of word, “dysfunctional,” but didn’t take the time to refine my meaning further.

Would Africans be seen as “dysfunctional” if they were living in their traditional tribal ways? I don’t think so. But in the context of a modern state, they are.

But—to return to a subject we’ve discussed before—how could this have been avoided? It seems to me there are only two ways. Either by completely leaving Africa alone, leaving it as the “Dark Continent,” leaving it as Richard Burton and other explorers described it in the 19th century, which seems inconceivable. Or by bringing Africa under some kind of outside leadership. Many VFR readers voted for leaving it alone. I leaned against that. As I wrote in 2006: “[M]y idea is not that the West literally return to colonization, but that it take a authoritative leadership role in the Continent on the explicit basis that the Continent is not capable of running its own affairs (because only if this is made explicit could we avoid a return to liberal guilt and liberal illusions).”

This is one hell of a problem for mankind. What does the human race do with a whole continent, Sub-Saharan Africa, where the mentality of the people suits them for a tribal type existence in which they would not be dysfunctional, but not for the way of life of the rest of mankind, in which they are dysfunctional?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 27, 2007 10:04 AM | Send

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