Some days, there’s an op-ed at CNN proclaiming that Star Wars is more Islamic than Islamic State is. When that happens, you have to seize the moment.
The editorial, entitled “Star Wars or ISIS: Which is more Islamic?”, is by H.A. Hellyer, “a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, and International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.”
Mr. Hellyer is reportedly a Jedi, and also a Trekkie. (Which tells you something about his affinity for Star Trek, since he ought to be a Trekker if he’s for real, and yes, I’m hard over on that and you should be too. Original Trekkers have dibs, in any case, on all naming conventions.)
One can’t but love his essay. It’s full of logic-chopping and nonsense – and it got published by CNN, which does all go together, but usually not with a Star Wars-n-Islam theme.
To make his case, Hellyer has to ignore every aspect of Islam except Sufism – and the ideal of Sufism, to boot, as opposed to what you might find if you walked down a street with a magical dragnet that could haul in only self-proclaimed Sufis for empirical inspection.
It seems that what Hellyer really means to say is that the Jedi concept of Star Wars is kind of like the Sufi ideal, and neither one is like what Islamic State does. Which seems fair enough. But this narrowly filtered comparison doesn’t actually tell us anything about Islam.
Fortunately for our funny bones, however, Hellyer’s assertion is that it does.
Take Obi Wan Kenobi, for example, and his relationship with Luke Skywalker — as well as Skywalker’s relationship with Yoda. … The notion of the “Jedi Knights” is built very much on the quintessentially Muslim phenomenon of tariqah Sufism — or the spirituality of the Sufi order.
Put aside the fact that all the Jedi nights have a garb that is basically a North African djellaba, which became popularized by Western adepts of Sufism in the 70s and onwards — actually, let’s not put that aside. But in any case — it is abundantly clear that the small, green, Yoda is the Sufi master — the murshid, or guide, that takes young Skywalker through the different levels of spiritual advancement, as he pursues the Absolute, al-Samad — one of the attributes and “Names” of God in Islam. Or, if you prefer, “the Force.”
So the good news is that Hellyer really means it. (If he doesn’t, and this is an elaborate hoax, my hat is off to him.)
The code that the Jedi upholds in these films is clear — it is one of absolute chivalry to the outside world on the one side, and one of complete and total control over one’s own self on the other.
That dual responsibility of awareness to oneself and ones surroundings is, again, a repeated theme in Islamic spirituality — centuries ago, Abu-l-Qasim al-Qushayri wrote “Risala al-Qushayriyya,” the “Qushayri Epistle,” where the author goes into a good deal of depth of what “futuwwah” or chivalry is meant to be for the serious believer.
Well, sure. There’s a lot more, but allow me to focus on one particular passage. Emphasis added:
As al-Qushayri notes: “The root of chivalry is that the servant strive constantly for the sake of others. Chivalry is that you do not see yourself as superior to others. The one who has chivalry is the one who has no enemies. Chivalry is that you be an enemy of your own soul for the sake of your Lord. Chivalry is that you act justly without demanding justice for yourself. Chivalry is [having] … beautiful character.”
Indeed, in the 12th century, a Muslim leader, Nasir al-Din, created an order of Muslim knights — indelibly connected to Sufi orders, and honour bound to follow the instructions of spiritual sages. They were famed for hospitality to travelers — but also harshness against oppressors — how Jedi, indeed!
And there you have it: the enduring fable of selfless knights striving constantly against oppressors, for the sake of others. Robin Hood, in short.
But let’s look at that “against oppressors, for the sake of others” clause. Recognize any themes of the political left?
“Liberty” versus “oppressors”
Here’s a contrast to think about. What’s the difference between striving for liberty, for the sake of yourself and others, and striving against oppressors, for the sake of others but not (purportedly, at least) for yourself?
The difference is that you have to define liberty through principles, as an end-state: an end-state that is measurable, and doesn’t divide people but treats all as moral equals. It’s also an end-state that you, personally, intend to live under.
You don’t have to define oppression. You can rely in perpetuity on people having an emotional sense of oppression, one way or another, whether there’s an objective or principled reason for saying they’re oppressed or not. The resentful sense of oppression is a fountain of youth for all forms of radicalism.
If we think of principles as fundamental concepts you’re not planning to deviate from, you don’t have to define those either. Your war is not for a principle, or even against one. It’s against other people, who are categorized at a given time as “oppressors.”
A struggle “against oppressors” – and notice that’s the language used; not a struggle against oppression – is perpetually divisive, and perpetually undefined.
This struggle’s perspective on your lame self, unless you either join it or render yourself as helpless as possible before it, is something along the lines of “Die, you gravy-sucking pig!”
The perspective of liberty, by contrast, can be roughly expressed as “Back on your side of the property line, you gravy-sucking pig!” (Followed, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by “Approach with better manners, and maybe we can agree that neither of us is a gravy-sucking pig. You a beer-drinker?”)
The fable of the knight striving against oppressors, for the sake of others, is just that: a fable. Men have always wanted to believe that there is such a model in the real world. But there isn’t.
There is, however, a model in the real world of men fighting to establish the principles of liberty, for themselves and their families, and for others. Liberty inherently requires that liberty be for all (which is why it could not coexist with slavery in the United States, and why slavery had to rend the nation in two until it was eliminated). The concept of liberty doesn’t divide people into groups by resentment or hatred – but the concept of striving against oppressors does.
Something to think about.
H.A. Hellyer has done us a useful service by pointing out the fabulist character of at least some Sufism, and its resemblance to the predictable cultural phenomenon of the “Jedi” construct in cinematic fiction.
How often does one get to write about these things, after all? As to which is more Islamic, Star Wars or Islamic State: you decide.