17 November 2009


In between the continuous stream of college basketball, I was skimming over this.

I'm not surprised to see that the natural reaction to the anarchism and militarism of Islamic radicals is to present a united front of peace, and start working to alleviate the problems and claims. Note previous comparisons of fundamentalist religious claims and anarchists or socialists from the 19th century, with the same relative forms of attack and rebellion against large impersonal forces. Their ranks are swelling only when those impersonal forces are perceived to be callous and brutal, and wavering when those impersonal forces acknowledge the claims and messages of the more moderating radical.

It is most clear that what is desired by the Muslim community abroad is to be left alone and unmolested. Bombs and detentions (with trials at some point) are useful weapons against violent opposition and assault. They're not the only tools in the war shed and they're not weapons that will, in Sun Tzu/Clausewitz terms, break the will of the enemy to resist or fight. The bombs are in effect an acknowledgment that we have failed to keep a lid on the simmering anger and oppression (or rather, we have failed to allow the steam to bleed off by supporting repressive regimes in Pakistan and Egypt for example).

There are a tiny percentage of free radicals who will always find something detestable enough to bomb and attack society. They will, in the absence of obvious causes that others can relate toward, fail to draw others into their movements and will remain as violent outcasts. It is necessary therefore to deny those obvious causes to our enemies. Putting a couple people on trial, even if they are show trials, would be a nice start. Closing Gitmo is a useful symbol, but it's of little use if we're going to continue denying the rights of these detainees to seek redress of their rights if we have violated them (be this through torture or through merely denying their ability to challenge their detention status and be presented with some proof and justification for it, even if it must take place in a secret tribunal). Or if we're simply going to leave the prisons over in Afghanistan or Iraq or some other foreign land with less respect for rule of law than we are titularly capable of having.

Here's the tricky part. Islam is, by comparison to fundamentalist strains of western culture (ie, Christianity), young. It's widely circulated amongst peoples who are often barely literate, certainly poorly educated or of limited wealth (again, by Western standards). It is also a religion that is of great appeal to the vast swatches of displaced peoples who have departed these impoverished countries to come to America, to England, to Germany, and so on, as a way of retaining some ethnic or cultural bonds. The paradoxical feature of Islam has often been that it is these worldly refugees who attach the strongest most fundamentalist language of literalism to their world views, and not the pitiful masses that they supposedly fight for, raise money to support, and so on. It is a religion in some respects composed of intellectuals. By contrast, intellectuals within the western world cannot get away from at least literal if not even metaphorical translations of the Judeo-Christian realm fast enough. In the west, this fuels a great deal of powerful debate over the theology within more moderate religious strains, and at the very worst, is responsible for a great deal of internal strain between fundamentalist religious groups, or rather their politics, and the general public. In Islam, this division exists solely out of the repression of elites within Islamic countries. It's possible that the lack of strength within Islamic nations hasn't allowed for public debates over the fallibility or the metaphorical premises of a text written over 13 centuries ago, that this sort of debate is a luxury of a strong and stable internal society. It's also possible that that sort of debate becomes impossible in societies with so strong of internal repression and obvious perceptions of external powers working against it which create far stronger impressions than those a rational mind might come up with. Since there is not any serious discussion toward seeing a strong Islamic state or pan-state, and, more importantly, there is not any serious discussion toward opposing openly the dictatorial regimes of Egypt or Saudi Arabia and giving Islamic peoples some margins of political freedom to exercise for themselves (even though it is not clear what they would do with that freedom, and even though we supposedly went into two countries for the purposes of providing that freedom), there is little need in the minds of many Islamic communities and their leaders toward looking for other explanations beyond "the infidel and his puppet leaders" to satisfy the problems there. There is thus little need to seek a more metaphorical explanation for the cosmic worldview put forward by the literal Qur'an. Until there is a change in the worldviews and the actions and attitudes of western cultures and leaders, I don't think that, outside of a few sheltered western enclaves or a few perceived "radical" clerics in places like Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, or even Egypt, there will be a great debate to settle the views of Islam into a more moderate or secular world. We have done a few things which might be satisfying for these changes but have also adopted others which are ultimately self-defeating. For example, the human rights council's provisions on religious "freedom" and expression or defamation therein I think in the long run are contrary to the needs of Islam to bring itself into a secular worldview. Islam needs critics and those critics are the people who need protection, not the other way around.

In many respects, it reminds me a great deal of western educated intellectuals becoming terrorists and anarchists in the 19th and 20th century. If they went and visited the societies that they had idealized and formalized as the ideal, they might understand that there's a problem. Islamist states in the modern world seem so vastly out of sorts, in utter chaos, without bastions of stability, progress, peace, or any other form of prosperity. They're very much like those Eastern Europe republics founded formally on a notion of the people's republics. Sure there are some cognitive dissonance effects to be used as foils and blames, like "the great Satan", but in the end, it is the people there who have made those countries into what they are. Afghanistan never materialized into some sort of Muslim paradise for a good reason. Its people were busy fighting over power still. They were not Muslims at all, but human beings using Islam as a weapon or a tool for their own gratification. Once it becomes clear that this is the only means for the Islamist to exist, either to seize power for its own ends or to resist perceived incursions onto the autonomy of Muslim states, it is a self-defeating projection. The unfortunate role for America is that we have cast ourselves, partly by our own design and partly out of a convenience of history, as the villains in the Islamist's play. More pressing still, I do not feel that this play is in its 3rd act or climax yet. I think the forces working from within to stay the hands of violent resistance are still forming, still at a crucial stage that we must do our best to avoid tampering with lest it be destroyed by lazy arguments about the cruelty or vileness of our ways and our affairs abroad.

In the 1960s, Soviets and East Germans could show the cruelty and oppressions offered up by segregation and proclaim the righteousness of communist ideals of equality. Today it seems the arguments are made lazy through the policies of aggression and cruelties committed abroad, given flavor with the idea that democracy means establishing a decadent society where anything goes and that this is the world we wish to see created with our bombs, our petrol dollars, and so on. Nevermind that in neither case was a prospective vision of what their own world would look like being articulated, how it would avoid these pitfalls inherent to any society, how it answers questions and how it allows for progress and optimism over the mechanisms it uses to fuel rebellion. It took the Soviets almost 80 years to figure out that this problem didn't have a better answer simply because they told everyone it did. I'm guessing that even with Wahhabism having had a good run so far, it will take a while before Muslims figure out that they're being had as well. After all, these are populations with far greater aversions to the prospects of education, with all its attending "questions", than the Russians were during their Soviet era. The problem for us is to figure out what to do in the meantime until Islamists drop their firebrand methods and do so in large and significant groups (as in Indonesia or Turkey, parts of Iran, and most North American expatriated Muslims) while still dealing with the violence in a responsible way to defend civilians against aggression. I can't advise everything but a few modest suggestions would be among the following to start with
1) stop torturing people and hold the people accountable for having done so within our government. Also: indefinite detention is a bad idea as evidenced in part by the ability of some Islamists to renounce their ways over time. Being left to rot in prisons is not an effective means to get someone to challenge their world view and adopt a more moderating tone.
2) defend the ability of Muslims to practice their faith equally within predominately Christian societies (but try to do it without allowing them to set up sharia enclaves with distinct separation from the rest of society). Free exercise of conscience is one of our higher ideals in liberal societies but every time we run around proclaiming "this is God's country" and "this is a Christian nation", it sort of defeats the purpose. If a Christian wants to convince a Muslim of the supposed folly of their ways, go right ahead and begin a theological harangue and discussion of the benefits or demerits of your relative faiths. Don't do it by making it an impossible and repressive atmosphere for that Muslim to practice their faith.
3) Push for Israel to abide by a two-state solution, including the reduction of illegal settlements. Our "hypocrisy" can be limited to defending another nation state against Islamic aggression, but it cannot be extended to defending that nation-state's aggression.
4) Put people on trial when they are captured or detained for charges of violence and terrorism. Provide the same basic legal rights where possible. People captured on a battlefield are a different category of legal rights from civilian courts, but this is not by and large the population of supposed offenders.

In essence what this boils down to is this: "practice what you preach." If we're hypocrites about what a liberal society means and what it produces, then we will get called out for being hypocritical and rightly so.
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