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17 September 2007

After Words: Raymond Ibrahim, editor and translator of "The Al Qaeda Reader" interviewed by Lawrence Wright

Interview on The Al Qaeda Reader. Can't vouch for anything on this -- translations, background of interviewer or interviewee -- but it's worth watching, I think.

Ibrahim has been a welcome contributor to the National Review online; Wright is apparently quoted with approbation by Hugh Hewitt -- whether accurately or not, I don't know.

I think we can guess the "spin" of this interview, at least on Ibrahim's side, but it'd be interesting to hear this in any event.

Here's another interview with Wright (not embeddable, unfortunately; from Kreisler's Conversations with History, a usually excellent show). A recent talk here.

Later: A few minutes in, Ibrahim's biases are clear: he's (mostly) lumping Islam -- the centuries of varied practice in myriad cultures, as well as the Koran, the Hadith, etc. -- with Al Qaeda. Wright seems far more open-minded about how complex any ideology (religious or not) is: there is no direct, deterministic line that can be drawn between sura x and political action y. That kind of textual functionalism, which make a huge causal claim that leaps over the most important territory, actually, is typical of overly text-centered academics. And of propagandists, of course.

As for no violence in New Testament, that's simply wrong. Off the top of my head: Matthew 3 and Luke 3. Of course, these two examples of violent speech, if not an incitement to violence, are no more deterministic of what, say, some rightwing Christian wacko believes when he kills an abortion doctor than the ugly lines in the Koran. We could supply examples from any religion, obviously.

Look, the bottom line is that any complex set of ideas can be used as a quarry of ideas for diametrically different purposes.

For example, Darwin wrote tens of thousands of pages; his theory was quite complex and wide-ranging. Now, someone like Kropotkin read Darwin's term "struggle for existence" to mean a struggle between the biotic world and the abiotic environment, whereas English evolutionists tended to read the very same term as an injunction for permanent inter- and intra-species competition.

Thus, to Kropotkin, mutual aid among conspecifics was ratified by nature; to English social darwinists, an invisible-hand-like hyper-competition within races and among races (as they defined them) was ratified by nature. Both readings are latent in the text -- are "readable." What matters is not what the text "really" says but how the text -- and why the text -- is differently deployed by different groups. Which gets you right into the current sociopolitically and socioeconomically grounded reality. That's what the key level of analysis is, in this particular case.

We know Al Qaeda's stuff is propaganda; what matters is not parsing the words (primarily, though it is important to read it), but reading through the words to undercover the "objective" intent, to indulge in a very useful Marxian term. (No, you don't need to be a Marxian to use this term; I'm not.)

Still later: To Ibrahim's credit, he just made the above distinction, at least to some extent (at around 39 minutes). It's at least partly lip service. Wright is way more level-headed and clinical about the topic. Very worth watching though. I wonder what other Arabic scholars think of this translation.

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