Essentialism – God help us

It is quite possible to live a happy and fulfilled life without ever having to consider the idea of essentialism. In fact, if I were you, I would close this down immediately and go and do some gardening or learn to dance. It’s just that when some clever dick airily dismisses your views on Islamic supremacism as resting on an essentialist understanding you might want to know what to do next. If that’s the case let’s plough on together.

When I was a lad essentialism was the opposite of existentialism and “existential” meant hanging around in French cafes smoking terrible cigarettes and being very bleak whereas today it means mortal as in “existential threat” (although not as in “all men are existential”).

Words used today as synonyms for essentialism include culturalism and orientalism. Terms used as antonyms include social constructivism, empiricism and contingencism. You have to wonder whether anything which goes under so many aliases might not be a bit crooked.

Confused already? Let’s start at the beginning. In Aristotle’s view the essential qualities of an object are “those properties that make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing”. In contrast, a non-essentialist view would be that “for any entity, there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess in order to be considered that entity”

As an example let’s consider a male to female transgender person. An essentialist might say that a mutilated man is not a woman. On the other hand here is a quote from a social (or gender) constructivist: “Anyone who identifies as a woman, regardless of how their body is configured, whether they have or want children, or their dress and grooming habits, is a woman. Period.”

These two positions differ on two points, not just on one. Firstly on whether an entity’s defining qualities are inherent to it but also, by implication, on how fixed they are over time. For our essentialist a man will be a man until he dies no matter what you do to him whereas our social constructivist could alternate between being a man or woman depending on how they regard themselves.

In the real world these two positions merely represent the extremes of a continuum. Most things can be placed somewhere along that spectrum, subject to both inherent and external factors, for instance your personality which is the result of the interaction between innate tendencies and social influences.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does because academics, governments and commentators are all ranged somewhere along this spectrum, generally not explicitly but in terms of their assumptions, their intellectual underpinnings or their ideology, and it helps to understand where they are coming from. Also, it is important to note that those toward the essentialist position tend to be on the political right and those toward the non-essentialist position tend to be on the left because they are bound to look for causes in external factors such as political, social or economic conditions.

In terms of Islam, who would be found where on this continuum?

Well, Allah was a fairly essentialist sort of being:

“And the word of your Lord has been accomplished truly and justly, there is none who can change His words, and He is the Hearing, the Knowing.” (Sura 6:115 )

So was Mohammed, in theory at least, but he was known to adjust the timeless, uncreated truth from time to time to accommodate external factors such as his followers’ reaction to his Satanic verses faux pas or his intentions towards his adopted son’s wife.

Coming more up to date there are the following, all of whom definitely believe there is something inherent in Islam which accounts for the violence and oppression which always seem to appear with it:

Wafa Sultan who wrote in “A God Who Hates” “No one can be a true Muslim and a true American simultaneously”.

Andrew Bostom who writes on the history of Islamic militancy, most notably in “The Legacy Of Jihad”.

Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch who, among other things, details the geographic spread of Islamic attacks today.

An example of the opposite would be Arun Kundnani who recently wrote “The Muslims Are Coming”. This is an excerpt from a review of the book:

“Even if you don’t share Mr Kundnani’s relentless scepticism, it’s worth engaging with his critique of the lazy thinking that is sometimes called “culturalism” or “essentialism”—the idea, simply put, that militant Islamism simply reflects something fundamental about Islam, and its propensity to inspire violence, rather than anger triggered by the realities of life in Gaza, Kashmir or Chechnya. Mr Kundnani isn’t a theologian and he refuses to enter theological debate; he assumes that Islam, like almost any other religion, can in different contexts be an inspiration either to violence or peace—and that religion itself is not the main variable.”

There are several things to note, and here I have to declare my hand:

Firstly, the idea that there might be something in Islam which causes militant Islamism is dismissed as lazy thinking. In that case William of Occam was the laziest man in history. I can just see Mr Kundnani standing in the middle of the china shop after the bull has left, asking himself “What could have caused all this mess – probably something to do with the way it was stacked and the working conditions of the stackers”.

Secondly, he dismisses theology. Can you imagine anything more ludicrous than that when, on average, five deadly attacks per day are carried out somewhere in the world to the refrain of “Allahu akbar”?

Thirdly, he misrepresents the geography. In the conflicts in each of his examples, and many more around the edges of Islamdom (for instance, off the top of my head, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Dagestan) there is one common factor, Muslims on one side. But that does not matter to Mr Kundnani. The problem in each case must have been caused by some local conditions.

Fourthly, he assumes that “Islam, like almost any other religion, can in different contexts be an inspiration either to violence or peace”. Well, you can assume that a tiger is vegetarian but it will not affect the outcome. It is hundreds of years since any other religion has inspired warfare in its name whereas today Islamic fanaticism is to be found everywhere that Islam is found. Apologists counter that Christians also engage in war but it should be obvious that they do so for oil or territory or geo-politics, not because they believe Jesus instructs them to kill non-Christians.

Quite honestly, some of these leftist academics make the professors of Laputa seem grounded. The left start from the position that “politics is everything and everything is politics” so the possibility that there is something about Islam that is especially conducive to violence can simply be assumed out of the equation. Invoking essentialism is not necessary to this exercise but it helps to impress the impressionable. The truth of it is that “essentialism” is just another of those words like “nuance” used to confuse the issue and give the false impression of a greater sophistication of thought.

Anyway, to get back to the original question; what if, at your next salon, someone accuses you of being an essentialist? Well, you could try to explain about false dichotomies and continuums or you could just go straight to the snappier version, “Too true chum, and the same goes for anyone who has an understanding of Islamic theology, history and geography, and who hasn’t completely lost contact with common sense”.


4 thoughts on “Essentialism – God help us

  1. J

    How about, conversely, the leftist convention that someone can become a racist without self-identifying as one? How does another gain the power over you to determine that your views are not what you say they are, but what they say, no matter what you say or do?

  2. Richard

    Thank God we still have essentialists building bridges, designing cars, treating illnesses etc etc.
    Heaven knows what would happen if non-essentialist thinking were to invade science, engineering or medicine!

    1. ECAW's blog Post author

      Yes, you’ve made me realise this was what Buster Keaton was trying to warn us about when he threw an anchor overboard which then floated, and a lifebelt which sank. What a far-sighted man!

  3. Bradamante

    I love the way that, in that book review, arguments that Islamic theology has elements that incite violence are dismissed as lazy thinking, yet the reviewer outright admits that the book’s author simply *assumes* that the opposite is true — and nevertheless lauds the book. If applying double standards were a recognized art form, I think that performance would be nominated for an award.

    I appreciate the explanation of “essentialism.” I’ve wondered what on earth they were on about.


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