06 January 2005

Jolting Islam Forward

Herbert E. Meyer has just issued "an open letter to opponents of the war in Iraq," arguing that, given the stakes involved (winning a war for the future of Western civilization), the least we opponents can do is be responsible and get with the program, stop whining, and actually do something to shore up the areas where we think the program is weak. To do anything else is aiding the enemy.

A Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend posted this open letter on several Yearly Meeting e-mail lists, saying that "I found this interesting, and thought it worth sharing. While I am against war, Herb has many interesting points to think about."

He was right on several counts. The letter is interesting on its own merits, and gives insights on the ways people in and near power justify the Iraqi war intellectually. Judging by those who link to Herb Meyer's writings, however, he appears to be a hero to many who utterly dismiss us opponents of the war, who celebrate the apparent ascendancy of the neoconservative vision in Washington, and whose rhetoric ranges from sober and intellectual thinking to complete and idiotic nonsense. Some of the latter is sprayed with a repulsive christian deodorant. Why, goodness me: it seems to be the mirror image of much of the left side of the spectrum! On that side of the spectrum, too, there are thinkers, clowns, prophets, and opportunists, both paid and unpaid.

I'd like to think that Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends is small enough that we haven't divided into mirror-image factions doing nyah-nyah contests without any real interaction. With that motivation, I overcame my post-Fallujah burnout and wrote the following response to Herb Meyer's open letter as presented on our lists.

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Dear Friends -

There is a lot that is interesting in the Herb Meyer piece, despite my distaste for the way he markets his material.

On some wide-scale issues, I agree with his assessment of the stakes involved in "getting it right" in our relationship with Islam, and in not fooling ourselves about the seriousness of the issues. However, I object both to his strategic vision and to his political requests.

Strategy first: He says, "...Give a moment's thought to what we are asking of the Iraqi people. After all, the President's entire policy rests on a change of attitude within the world of Islam itself. We are asking the Iraqis, and others in the Middle East, to abandon their tribal, if-you-win-then-I-must-lose way of thinking; to shift from oppressing other ethnic groups to co-operating with them; to move from totalitarianism to democracy. In short, we are asking them to make a mental leap from the Middle Ages to the modern world - fast."

I interpret this as saying, "We are asking a whole region at the point of our guns to change their ways of thinking to ones that we define and find congenial." What evidence do we show, beyond our ability to exercise brute force, that we are a trustworthy source of models for what their new way of thinking ought to be? I'm not asking what evidence we have, but what evidence they have in the Middle East. They look around and see plenty of evidence that we are not trustworthy:

- we keep favoring Israel over the Palestinians (NOTE: I'm not saying that we should do the opposite and favor the Palestinians -- there are few white hats on either side -- but we apparently bless and subsidize an appalling apartheid that would not be tolerated anywhere else in our sphere of influence)

- we have not figured out how to wean ourselves from Middle Eastern oil, and are busy making arrangements for convenient access to even more oil sources from the former Soviet Union, creating the appearance of a desire for economic domination even as we talk the language of democracy

- our Western culture floods the world with vulgarity and conspicuous consumption; this is what much of the world sees of our vaunted "Western civilization"; even the cultured proponents of conservative values seem very affluent and out of touch with either Eastern or Western everyday realities (this does not deny the presence of vulgar and superwealthy elites in the Middle East, but reduces the credibility of our critique)

- we have made it hard for Islamic and Middle Eastern scholars to enter the USA

- we have made it abundantly clear that we don't believe due process applies to human beings who oppose us overseas, or who get caught in our dragnets, and Guantanamo remains an embarrassingly obvious blot on our democratic pretensions

- worst of all, we do not directly challenge, through courteous and persistent debate at the highest levels, any of the accusations leveled at us by the spokespeople for radical Islam, perhaps first and foremost Osama bin Laden, whose rhetoric remains all the more persuasive because we have not responded to it in the hearing of his thousands of followers except by declaring war on them

If only we would put world-class resources and commitment into genuine intellectual confrontation with radical Islam!! It frustrates me that we put billions and billions into an unwinnable (in the long term) military war and almost nothing into either criticism or self-criticism at the leadership levels. Why should Americans believe the neocons about the stakes involved when our President and his cabinet never participate in these public debates personally, and simply paint the enemy in the most insulting and simplistic colors? If there really is a war, it is first and foremost a war of ideas and ideologies, where a huge amount truly is at stake, but our agenda simply cannot be advanced by a carnal war of attrition where a huge proportion of the dead and injured are, with respect to the controversies involved, totally innocent.*

On the political level, Meyer says, "...if you are just an ordinary American who believes the President has made a terrible mistake, keep in mind that while you have every right to demonstrate against the war these demonstrations play directly into our enemies' hands." If we are for democracy, how can the exercise of democracy play into our enemies' hands? However, I do agree with Meyer that whining is useless. We need to play a positive role. We cannot ask the powers that be to define for us what that role is, nor should we allow them to prohibit roles that are positive but make life awkward for them. (Our leaders might find it more efficient to operate without transparency, without awkward questions, but that is not democracy.) Still, if we believe that the stakes are high in our confrontation with ideologies that have no room for forgiveness or grace, that have no patience for dialogue, and that are personified by people willing to seduce and recruit suicide bombers, we need to be part of the struggle. If not their struggle (as defined by governments), then some struggle. If our governments are following a wrong, even wicked strategy, as I believe they are, then we need to propose and follow a good strategy.

What are the elements of that good strategy? Here are some ideas:

First of all, I believe that spiritual warfare underlies a lot of what we see going on globally. Any ideology (whether non-Christian or ostensibly Christian) that is spiritually oppressive needs to be opposed with spiritual weapons. Some of the signs of spiritual oppression are precisely those attributes of Middle Eastern ideologies that are simplistically enumerated by Meyer and others like him: tribal and win-lose worldviews, the objectification of enemies, preaching of interfaith hatred, inability to forgive, etc.; all of which are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christianity, and none of which are exclusive to the Middle East or to selected sectors of Islam. I believe that the demons that were unleashed by our governments' military actions, and their deceptive promotion right from the start, are also a part of this picture. So is the cynicism that poisons the attitudes of so many so-called progressive people.

For believers, I believe the strategic response must be evangelistic in the widest sense. Some elements:

- not separating our prayer and devotional lives and our political lives, SO THAT our community life of prayer and Bible reading illuminates and empowers our political behavior, and our communities become so trustworthy that we can disagree politically, even argue passionately, and still be loving; ALSO so that our political analysis is sharpened by our spiritual awareness

- constantly seeking awareness of how our Christian witness appears to nonbelievers, and how our witness is weakened by our attachments to privilege, ideology, infighting, etc

- seeking every opportunity to encourage travel, exchange, missions, business, scholarship, etc., across cultural and interfaith lines, while lobbying our governments to open more space for such openings

- confronting anti-Christian attitudes in the Western intellectual communities that scandalize many conservative brothers and sisters as well as being totally inconsistent with truth

- confronting false statements about liberals, etc., among evangelical brothers and sisters ... there is an epidemic of these right now

- staying current with developments in the news and in missiology, media technology, etc

- not expecting each of us to be equally good at each aspect of Christian witness, but communicating and encouraging each other into a respectful division of labor.

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* Among the innocents, I would actually include many if not all of the soldiers, who honestly believe, I'm sure, that the normal and sad rule of human history (uninvited soldiers from another country get shot at by some elements of the country they've invaded) somehow should not apply to them. They're caught up in a larger picture, after all, the selfless agenda of Jolting Islam Forward.

PS concerning civilian deaths I have added the Iraq Body Count to the banners in the personal section of this weblog. [This feature didn't survive conversion to newer format.] Another member of Reedwood Friends Church has taken on the ministry of posting the the numbers of the dead on all sides in the Iraqi war, as far as can be determined, on a bulletin board display just outside the main meeting room.

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