What X-ists do

I spent most of my adult life as a professor of engineering science; I still have the title, with “emeritus” thrown in. My work involved primarily teaching, doing research in, and writing papers and books about the mechanics of solid bodies. Now most people know that mechanics is a branch of physics, usually the first subject matter that is taught in physics classes. But the kind of mechanics that I worked in — classical or Newtonian mechanics — stopped being of interest to physicists early in the 20th century, when relativity theory and quantum mechanics came into play. And so, in accord with the maxim “physics is what physicists do” (of unknown origin, though often attributed to various famous physicists), the work that I did was not physics. Applied physics, perhaps, but not just-plain physics.

Now, of course, most physicists do a great many things in their lives that non-physicists do as well. “What physicists to” has to be construed as “what physicists do when they are doing physics,” which is almost circular, or “what physicists do as physicists”: teach physics classes, perform experiments in physical laboratories,  publish papers in physics journals or present them at physics conferences.

I have often though of “X is what X-ists (or X-ians) do” (with the qualification I just discussed) as a kind of meme that can be applied not only to other sciences but to other fields of activity. For example, religion: one could say “Judaism is what Judaists do,” except that that the saying would have to apply to each of the several Judaisms ( in North America, for example, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform), and one would have to emphasis Judaists and not Jews (who may or may not be Judaists).

Similarly — and this is my main point — one could say that “Islam is what Islamists do.” I used to say “Islam is what Muslims do,” but there are many people who think of themselves as Muslims by cultural heritage but do not practice the tenets of Islam, and so the distinction between Muslims and Islamists becomes useful. But what practitioners of Islam as such do can be used to define Islam; not what a supposedly objective reading of the Qur’an or the Hadith might say, but what those who teach and preach Islam claim it says. And so, whatever political correctness might dictate, I am afraid that female genital mutilation, the execution of Christians on charges of blasphemy, and the various practices of Islamic State are Islam. The fact that IS’s propaganda readily finds recruits wherever there are Muslim communities is only one indication of many.

I have been meaning to write on this topic for a long time. What has spurred me this time is the currently ongoing debate on Islamophobia and “Islamorealism,” which seems to have split the left in the United States into acrimoniously opposing sides. I don’t think of myself as  -phobic in any way: I have no irrational fears that I know of. I do think of myself as a realist: I like to see things as they are. That puts me on the side of “Islamorealism,” I suppose, except that I have no sympathy with Pamela Geller and her ilk, who are the spearheads of the fear-mongering movement brandishing this banner. And, if Islamorealism is what Islamorealists do, then I am not an Islamorealist.


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