Friday, June 20, 2003

Organizing against Islamic Fundamentalism

Two posts ago, the Belmont Club discussed how Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals could be used to turn Islam against Islamic fundamentalism. Here's a case study. According to the Washington Post, Fundamentalists in Pakistan are banning all English books deemed 'un-Islamic', like Gulliver's Travels and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. They are also cracking down on the Westernized Pakistani elite, who have their own local productions of the "Vagina Monologues" and avante garde art. Parenthetically, the Post article mentions that "Islamic militants in the province's capital, Peshawar, have taken the law into their own hands, vandalizing satellite dishes and other things they see as symbols of Western decadence." Needless to say, nearly the entire Post article is devoted to the outrageous treatment of these artists who should be allowed their creative freedom. The question of the vandalized property is never mentioned again.

Yet from an organizer's point of view, creating an opposition based upon a crackdown on English classics, productions of the "Vagina Monologues" or the banning of art, is entirely the wrong one. The correct organizing point is the vandalism of satellite dishes and similar devices. Let us review what Saul Alinsky taught:

  1. Use the enemy's own stated values against himself. Islam, in common with other religions, has strict prohibitions against the destruction of property. Thieves can have their hands chopped off. Vandalizing satellite dishes is prohibited by Islam itself. Who knows but that the owner was watching Al Jazeera?
  2. Organizers should start from particular grievances, not general ideas. The notion of artistic freedom is an extremely vague one, and unlikely to create a focus for organization. But destroying a poor man's satellite dish in a country where it could cost many week's wages is something every poor Pakistani can identify with. People can get worked up about that. That's a good organizing issue.
  3. Organizers should persuade people to confront particular targets before they are prepared to face the "system". Starting a campaign to promote "artistic freedom" means that the entire Islamist system is confronted in all its generality. That is much too large a step. The enemy should be confronted piecemeal. The people who vandalize satellite dishes have names. They are low-level functionaries. They can be railed against. They can be confronted without much danger. They can be forced to pay for their destructive acts -- or else suffer the penalty under Islamic law.

Alinsky famously taught that people learned about freedom by defending their own liberties. It may seem that defending the right to own a satellite dish is wholly unrelated to the right to read Gulliver's Travels. Yet Alinsky's genius lay in the realization that if you taught people to defend themselves in small things, they would soon enough defend themselves in big things. Of course, the Washington Post writer doesn't see this. But then, he's a journalist, not an organizer.

... but if I did have to take on the Islamist's book ban

This is the way to do it.

  • Take the Islamist's efforts at face value and submit all the books that can be found in closets, attics, garage sales and dumpsters for their review. Say to them, 'we want to put these 500 books on the library shelves. Would you review them?' Ensure that a fair number of those submitted for review are in the Pakistani national library or are owned by prominent Islamic persons, so that if the books are banned, the religious police will have to enforce it against powerful persons or institutions.
  • involve the grassroots in the screening of objectionable video material. Make sure that videos like those featuring the 3 Stooges or the Roadrunner and Coyote are evaluated. Hope they are banned. If they are not banned, point out that the voice of both the coyote and the roadrunner is provided by a Jew. Point out that all the 3 Stooges are Jews.
  • Take the Islamist's efforts to ridiculous extremes. Propose a ban on medicines that were developed by Jews.

You can have fun and fight terrorism too. By the way, all these tactics can also be used against US-based Islamic groups. You can really have fun and fight terror too.