Roger’s Rules

"Enemy Combatants," David Hume, and "Islamophobia"

I trust that you, Dear Reader, feel as relieved as I do that our government’s guests at Guantanamo Bay are, as of Friday, no longer to be denominated “enemy combatants.” What shall we call them instead? Our new Attorney General’s law firm has called them “clients,” which tells you something. And Michelle Malkin has got the re-branding ball rolling with a few suggestions: “Undocumented Protagonists,” for example, and (even better) “Next Life Enablers.”

Some reports stress that the change is largely cosmetic, since the Obama administration is still asserting its right to detain the combatants formerly known as enemy. I think it is something more than that. After all, five Guantanamo veterans, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, have just gone on record boasting about their extracurricular activities, admitting, inter alia, that they are “terrorists to the bone.”

Please refrain from criticizing them for this, though, because in their own eyes being a terrorist is not just a job, it is a badge of honor. If you happen to think steering jumbo jets into skyscrapers is not the sort of thing nice people do, that’s just your narrow, Western, bourgeois perspective on  the activity. In this multicultural age, you have to appreciate that different cultures have different values, yadda, yadda, yadda.

If you think I am indulging in caricature or exaggeration, attend to the letter signed by Messrs. Mohammed and his confreres. “To us,” they wrote, charges that they are terrorists “are not accusations. To us they are a badge of honour, which we carry with honour.”

Just as I was digesting this helpful expostulation, a friend reminded me about David Hume’s classic essay “Of the Standard of Taste.” Hume is primarily concerned in that essay with the question of aesthetic judgment. How do we know whether a given work of art is a masterpiece? asks Hume, and his answer, in brief, is durable appreciation: the judgment, that is to say, of the ages.

Hume has some interesting things to say about taste and its variabilities, and his discussion has pertinence far beyond the realm of aesthetics. There is, Hume observes, a remarkable cross-cultural “unanimity” about matters aesthetic and moral. “[S]ome part of the seeming harmony in morals may be accounted for in the very nature of language. The word virtue, with its equivalent in every tongue, implies praise; as that of vice does blame. And no one, without the most obvious and grossest impropriety, could affix reproach to a term , which in its general acceptation is understood in a good sense; or bestow applause, where the idiom requires disapprobation.”

In other words, candidness rescues us from “the most obvious and grossest impropriety” of deliberately calling things by the wrong names, e.g., calling vice–something bad, harmful, malicious–“a badge of honour.”

Hume goes on the to acknowledge that, unfortunately, there are plenty of uncandid people about. “The admirers and follows of the ALCORAN [i.e. the Koran], for example, who “insist on the excellent moral precepts interspersed throughout that wild and absurd performance.” Hume continues:

But it is to be supposed, that the ARABIC words, which correspond to the ENGLISH, equity, justice, temperance, meekness, charity, were such as, from the constant use of that tongue, must always be taken in a good sense; and it would have argued the greatest ignorance, not of morals, but of language, to have mentioned them with any epithets, besides those of applause and approbation. But would we know, whether the pretended prophet had really attained a just sentiment of morals? Let us attend to his narration; and we shall soon find, that he bestows praise on such instances of treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry, as are utterly incompatible with civilized society. No steady rule of right seems there to be attended to; and every action is blamed or praised, so far only as it is beneficial or hurtful to the true believers.

What do you suppose Hume would have to say about the decision to stop referring to Islamic terrorists as “Islamic terrorists” or “enemy combatants”? What do you suppose he would think of a group of self-confessed terrorists who, beyond the shamelessness of acknowledging the nature of their activities, presume to misdescribe wanton murder as “a badge of honour”?

In some Western countries today, to describe the Koran as a “wild and absurd performance” would be tantamount to “Islamophobia.” Ditto the description of Mohammed as a “pretended prophet” and his teachings as collusions with “treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry” that are “utterly incompatible with civilized society.” Was David Hume an Islamophobe avant la lettre? Or is the whole notion of Islamophobia one of those strange epistemic perversions of language that makes the just apprehension of reality impossible?

My own view is that “Islamophobia” is a misnomer. A phobia is an irrational fear. But what could be more rational that the fear of people who wish to compass your destruction while at the same time claiming that they regard doing so as “a badge of honour”? The issue is not “Islamophobia,” but Islamohobia-phobia: the entirely justified fear of those who parade around charging people with Islamophobia. I wish Hume were with us now to dispense some of the withering ridicule and contempt that our new multicultural euphemists so richly deserve.