06 October 2005

Evil and Islamo-fascism; blues and hope in New Orleans

Evil is back in the news, thanks to President Bush's latest rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

At the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush outlined an analysis of Islamo-fascism (one of the names for the "evil, but not insane" phenomenon he's describing). This is an important speech. It is as close as I've seen him come to a detailed description of the assumptions behind his lethal adventure in Iraq. It is important for the administration's critics to read and respond to such material, because at the very least, the President is absolutely right concerning the global importance of the issues and trends he's addressing. Just to work the Christian angle for a second: we can neither love nor confront our enemies if we are not willing to look at them straight in the eyes and take in the full measure of their actions, motives, and capabilities.

Unfortunately, the speech does not measure up to what I'd hoped and yearned for—an intelligent, respectful engagement with the claims and grievances (justified and unjustified) and assertions of the presumed enemy. It is a rhetorical hatchet job—frankly, low-grade demagoguery—that does not respect the intelligence of observers either in America or in the rest of the world. Why can't our leaders manage better? Surely Bush and his speechwriters are more intelligent than this—do they think that a more dispassionate, thoughtful, self-reflective analysis would signal weakness? In my mind, this sort of sloganeering presented as leadership is far more damaging.

Some examples:

And we remember the calling that came to us on that day [9-11-01], and continues to this hour: We will confront this mortal danger to all humanity. We will not tire, or rest, until the war on terror is won. (Applause.)

Which war is that? A reminder: Iraq, under the control of a secular socialist government, had nothing to do with September 11. And a war against all terror cuts many ways that we might not prefer to cut. Later, Bush decries allies of convenience who shelter Islamic extremists; besides leaving out the supporters of extremists who happen also to be our allies of convenience, he glosses over all forms of terrorism that are conducted with our own support or connivance. Even some conservative observers (for example, Vladimir Bukovsky) have spoken eloquently about the uselessness of the concept of a "global war on terror."

Apparently not tiring or resting does not involve the sacrifices normally connected with a great national effort: for example, we won't reverse tax cuts to avoid harm to our own poor people, including hurricane victims, as we pour money into this undefinable war. Nor does not tiring or resting include shorter vacations for the president, or sending the leadership's children to serve in the war. I suspect that where the president and his allies won't "tire or rest" is in using the rhetoric of war and terror to excuse themselves from normal accountability to the nation.

Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom. These extremists distort the idea of jihad into a call for terrorist murder against Christians and Jews and Hindus -- and also against Muslims from other traditions, who they regard as heretics.

The president is right to call attention to all this. His critics are wrong to gloss it over or make light of it. In fact, the concern is serious enough that Bush should not use rhetorical shortcuts to gloss over the complications. His listing of terrorist incidents and groups and philosophies includes a wide range of organizations, sects, cults, and groups. It may be convenient for the political purposes to group them all together, but we have to do better than that if we're really going to understand what is going on. I can't blame the president for not conducting an advanced political science class on the occasion of a speech like this, but it is not legitimate to fudge a complicated issue for the sake of alarming the audience with a one-enemy specter. Especially if the audience probably already knows better.

Another issue that Bush fudges is the relationship of radical Islam with Islam. No doubt his political advisors made him say that this phenomenon is very different from Islam and exploits Islam. The reality is far less clear. First of all, since when does a Christian get to tell Muslims who is really Muslim and who isn't? Next, I'm fairly sure that some political terrorists are cynically using Islam for non-religious goals, but others are quite willing to cite chapter and verse to illustrate how they are in fact calling believers to a more faithful standard of submission to Allah, and a rejection of Western corruption. Some of them display remarkably little understanding of the West that they criticize, but they all identify things that some of us in the West, too, would ruefully admit we're not proud of. (For examples, see Osama bin Laden's open letter to Americans.)

In any case, we need to be honest about the genuine difficulties that arise in Islamic-Western communication. Evangelical Christians who see the Islamic world as a legitimate mission field (just as the "neopagan" West is a mission field for both Christians and Muslims) must be especially attentive to theological and cultural issues, both in our diagnosis of bondages we feel are inherent in Islam, and in our sensitivity to the Islam that actually exists (and its variety) rather than the caricatures, benign and malevolent, that abound in the West. In any case, Bush's fudge ("this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam") is not helpful except to his own effort to set up a terminally evil pseudo-Islamic monolith that, in this pure form, simply doesn't exist.

He goes on to acknowledge that it is a fragmented movement:

Many militants are part of global, borderless terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, which spreads propaganda, and provides financing and technical assistance to local extremists, and conducts dramatic and brutal operations like September the 11th. Other militants are found in regional groups, often associated with al Qaeda -- paramilitary insurgencies and separatist movements in places like Somalia, and the Philippines, and Pakistan, and Chechnya, and Kashmir, and Algeria. Still others spring up in local cells, inspired by Islamic radicalism, but not centrally directed. Islamic radicalism is more like a loose network with many branches than an army under a single command. Yet these operatives, fighting on scattered battlefields, share a similar ideology and vision for our world.

To some extent this is right, although there is absolutely no evidence that all or most of these groups would ever tolerate a unified command such as would be necessary to take over the world. We need to demand far more rigor in grouping and distinguishing these groups than this analysis indicates; otherwise there is every incentive for our leadership to assert links that don't really exist, in order to sell a policy or squelch dissent.

If in fact there are autonomous groups operating in the name of radical Islam in various parts of the world, the sad truth is that each situation will demand its own approach. There is no one "war" that can confront all these situations simultaneously, with one effective formula, from one centralized command post. Criminal gangs and drug cartels also have very similar goals and methods within their categories, and operate autonomously in many places. It make sense for the police forces and tax authorities and pharmaceutical distributors and others to exchange information on these criminals' activities, but we would never consent to turning ourselves into police states for more efficient prosecution of the war on crime.

In confronting the fragmented international phenomenon we've labeled radical Islam, we are likewise going to have to rely on local police methods and local police responses in light of actual behaviors, not American-sponsored vague invitations to paranoia coupled with blank checks to the military. We cannot fool ourselves with the loaded word "war." Sorry—the only use that word is being put to is an illegitimate psychological power grab. Coupled with ordinary decent police work, we need to rise to the occasion of the ideological struggle with radical Islam by publicly enunciating our quarrels with those ideologies (plural intentional). That public conversation will only succeed if it is truthful and respectful and uses Islamic terms and categories accurately.

This is partly why the president's speech is such a disappointment. How can he be an effective spokesperson for this important confrontation if he says things like this?—

We know the vision of the radicals because they've openly stated it -- in videos, and audiotapes, and letters, and declarations, and websites. First, these extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace, and stand in the way of their ambitions.

We, of course, in the West, have never used the media to enunciate anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiments. Aside from that, Bush's assertion contains a blatant rhetorical distortion: ... the "extremists" want to remove our influence from the Middle East "because we stand for democracy and peace." That word "because" is sheer demagoguery. It is an inflammatory leap, a slap at any form of respectful conversation, a signal that the president is not engaged in serious communication. Osama bin Laden is explicit in challenging our allegedly hypocritical use of the word "democracy" as well as our arrogant and warlike behavior. We have not always stood in the way of their ambitions, however; when Osama and his crew fought the Soviet Union, we stood with them.

Defeating the militant network is difficult, because it thrives, like a parasite, on the suffering and frustration of others. The radicals exploit local conflicts to build a culture of victimization, in which someone else is always to blame and violence is always the solution. They exploit resentful and disillusioned young men and women, recruiting them through radical mosques as the pawns of terror. And they exploit modern technology to multiply their destructive power.

There is much truth here. I just wish I saw more self-reflectiveness to give these points credibility in the discussion. On September 11, 2001, we in the USA certainly saw ourselves as victims, for which someone else was completely to blame and violence was the only solution. Much Hollywood entertainment is based on a similar premise. As a Christian leader, Bush has remarkably little—actually zero—to say about the power of grace and forgiveness as an antidote to the poison of resentment and revenge. He does not address the question of a competing message to deliver to those resentful and disillusioned young people, even as evidence suggests that U.S. operations in Iraq are generating more of them. Just today I read in a Christian Peacemaker Teams dispatch that the detainee section of the Iraqi Assistance Center in Baghdad now has a 50% "hit rate"—they're now able to provide information to inquiring families on 50% of the detainees. The atmosphere must be getting jollier already.

Some have also argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001 -- and al Qaeda attacked us anyway. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse. The government of Russia did not support Operation Iraqi Freedom, and yet the militants killed more than 180 Russian schoolchildren in Beslan.

No paragraph is a better example of rhetorical shell games. Yes, some peace people have been glib about terrorism's roots being American action, but their naivete is no excuse for Bush to ignore how his actions have poured fuel on terrorism—by generating more victims, reducing much of the Iraqi middle class to destitution or exile, and making Iraq a free-fire zone for all sorts of terrorists, including those whose primary targets are Iraqis.

The statement, "We were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001—and al Qaeda attacked us anyway," makes no logical sense at all. Neither was al Qaeda in Iraq in 2001, but we attacked Iraq anyway. And the connection with Beslan is equally unclear; the terrorists there were explicit about their ancient and specific grievances against the Russian government. Much as we hate what they did, we have no reason to doubt that they stated their case accurately from their own viewpoint.

In characterizing the violence in Iraq, it is also convenient for the USA to extend its sovereign magic cape over that country as if the world, and every non-extremist Iraqi, had recognized the complete propriety and legality of our invasion. In most cases, when foreign armies invade a country, they expect to be shot at, in the settled tradition of war. I'm not approving, just observing; I don't want anyone to be shot, on either side, but it happens. Why are we mortified when our fully-armed invaders are shot at by the invaded? I keep asking myself, why do we see every Iraqi who is angry at the USA, angry even to the point of violence, as a terrorist or member of an al Qaeda affiliate? Isn't it possible that some genuinely patriotic Iraqis still haven't reconciled themselves to having been invaded by other countries' armies? With all the chaos and destruction and corruption of the post-invasion scene, isn't it possible that some simply haven't been won over yet by our selfless benevolence?

I'm not asking for a reverse stupidity here: some Iraqis have been won over, and the actions of many warm-hearted soldiers and civilians from outside Iraq have contributed hope to the country's future. (And most Iraqis fighting against the American-led forces are probably not straightforward Iraqi versions of the American Revolution's Minutemen.) I'm simply asking for honesty and self-reflection. Honesty demands that we recognize that not everyone opposing the USA and its allies in Iraq is a terrorist or radical Islamist. But that recognition gets in the way of the monolithic interpretation of Iraqi violence demanded by Bush's vision.

Over the years these extremists have used a litany of excuses for violence -- the Israeli presence on the West Bank, or the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, or the defeat of the Taliban, or the Crusades of a thousand years ago. In fact, we're not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed. We're facing a radical ideology with inalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world. No act of ours invited the rage of the killers -- and no concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder.

This is another paragraph that concerns me deeply. Not because it is completely false, but because it is dangerously incomplete. It divides the realities we face into two conveniently neat groups: on the one hand, those who claim to have grievances against the West or the USA or whomever Bush is speaking for; and, on the other hand, our friends, those whom we like and who like us, and who have no grievances. Bush's statement is dangerously close to foreclosing the possibility that some people have genuine grievances against us.

Terrorism is not distributed randomly over the world; it originates predominantly in places that are occupied or dominated by Western forces carrying alien (from the local viewpoint) cultures or beliefs. No doubt some who hold grievances are exploited and attracted by cynical terrorist operatives, but that doesn't diminish our obligation to acknowledge and remove grievances rather than defining them in advance as illegitimate simply because evil people exploit them. Hopefully we can eliminate injustices before they become the subject of violent campaigns against us. However, we should never be afraid to do the right thing simply because our doing the right thing is demanded by people we don't like.

It is not enough for Bush to say that "no concession, bribe, or act of appeasement would change or limit their plans for murder," even though that truly does apply to the most evil of our opponents. There are others for whom concessions, confessions, respect, and redress are important, whether it involves removing our bases from Islamic holy lands, or taking a more evenhanded approach in Israel and Palestine. Again, declaring in advance that, by definition, every demand for concession is illegitimate, is a dangerous dead end, an indication not of wise strength but of arrogance.

Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims. Its leaders pretend to be an aggrieved party, representing the powerless against imperial enemies. In truth they have endless ambitions of imperial domination, and they wish to make everyone powerless except themselves. Under their rule, they have banned books, and desecrated historical monuments, and brutalized women.

Again, here the issue is not falsehood but incompleteness. Some leaders make this aggrieved pretense; others are genuinely scandalized by perceived Western arrogance, double-standards, and infectious decadence. Some are totalitarian; others have a vision of a transnational Islamic caliphate that may not be to our political taste but is not intended to be naked self-interested top-down totalitarianism. The vision is of a more perfect community of submission to Allah. There are elements of American Christianity that superficially approach this vision, complete with book-banning and second-class status for women.

Speaking of the status of women, brutality has not been a feature of conservative Islam, and Islamic women are informing Karen Hughes that they have their own definitions of women's empowerment; imported American definitions are not required. There are deeper issues here than Bush's speech allows for, although I tend to have an abiding suspicion of claims of equality of sexes when only men are in charge of deciding what equality means.

Among Osama bin Laden's charges against the West, by the way, is the charge of objectifying women, as demonstrated by the use of sex in popular culture. "You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them. ... You then rant that you support the liberation of women. ... You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism and freedom, and other deceptive names you attribute to it." This to me is the language of fear rather than of a creative alternate cultural vision, but it has a ring of sincerity that does not quite square with Bush's charge of pretending to be aggrieved. In any case, I would be able to take Bush far more seriously if he showed any signs of being able to look more deeply at our own sins and their scandalous impact on Islamic sensibilities, not just at the monolithic enemy he presents us.

The rest of Bush's speech outlines his strategy for dealing with this evil phenomenon. Along with proposals that, with charitable interpretation, deserve support, the speech is full of wild generalizations and bombast. Again I picture the international audience of intelligent people, many of whom know more than Bush about the subjects he's speaking on, and I ask myself, is this the best we can do?

Maybe it is not right to expect another Abraham Lincoln, but one of Lincoln's most endearing attributes was not a product of stratospheric IQ or uncanny wisdom, it was simply the ability to express a crucial spiritual insight: the purposes of a sovereign God are never the sole province of one side of a conflict. This kind of depth, this inoculation of anti-arrogance, is what I want the USA to project into an almost terminally polarized political atmosphere at home and abroad.

Bush ends: "We do know the love of freedom is the mightiest force of history." That statement is inadequate on two counts: first, the definition of freedom, as Osama bin Laden or Pat Robertson might well point out, is crucial. Second, love itself—utterly without political qualifications—is the mightiest force of history.

Since we're on the subject, evil is one of my preoccupations these days.
Ben Pink Dandelion and Jackie Leach Scully are co-editing a book on Friends' views of good and evil.

I agreed to write a chapter surveying how evangelical Friends understand evil. Do we as Quakers have insights into evil based on our patterns of biblical interpretation, our understanding of sin, our insights into the principalities and powers, or the teachings of early Friends? Do our cross-cultural experiences, our peculiar patterns of church government, or our testimonies of discipleship, affect how we see and respond to evil? Most of all, what have we learned from our own confrontations with evil?

[UPDATE: The resulting book was published in 2007.]


Blues and hope in New Orleans: It was wonderful to see this article [expired] on Yahoo news: Walter "Wolfman" Washington playing blues in a nightclub in New Orleans. Perhaps it's not the most important sign of life returning to New Orleans, but one that has special meaning for that city.

My favorite line from the Reuters story: a National Guardsman, one of several watching these post-curfew goings on, eloquently expresses his intentions with regard to the curfew: "I ain't enforcing jack."
Wolfman Washington is a respected veteran of the blues and R&B scene. One of my favorite Wolfman songs: "Thinking for Yourself"...
You got to be thinking for yourself
You got to be thinking for yourself
I don't want nobody doing my thinking for me.

You go to the store you buy more than you need,
You blame me, you should blame it on TV
You got to be thinking for yourself...

You go to buy a car, you come back with a truck,
If you would have been thinking, you wouldn't have got stuck
You got to be thinking for yourself...

You go to the poll to cast a mayor's vote,
If you think its all fun and games, girl it ain't no joke
You call me on the phone, asking me which is which,
Gal let me tell you, you're in a doggone fix
You got to be thinking for yourself...

You're running over here,
you're running over there
Your so doggone turned around gal you ain't going nowhere,
You got to be thinking for yourself...
Hmmm, the next song that's playing after "Thinking for Yourself" is William Clarke's "Pawnshop Bound."


Anonymous said...

President Bush, no doubt, is sincere about being a Christian. But his faith understanding appears shallow. The Christian approach in the conflict would be to reflect on where we have sinned, repent for those sins, and turn from our sinful ways.

This would not only be true to the Christian faith, but very practical. If our nation would do this, support for the terrorists would begin to diminish. We need to address the conditions that foster terrorism, and the United States both governmentally and with our corporations has played a large role in exacerbating these conditions over a very long period of time.

We Christian pacifists keep being accused of being impractical. Going to war against a country we didn't like but which was not involved in the terrorist acts in this country is what is impractical. It has caused massive loss of life, disruption to the social infrastructure of Iraq, and many other harmful effects while playing into the hands of terrorists by giving them more basis for their rhetoric. The Christian way of repenting and turning from sin would have been much more practical.

Johan Maurer said...

Bill, your comments on Bush's sincerity reminded me of two earlier posts: Redemption and politics and Public Christianity.

Sometimes I think it is a functional atheism resulting from a compartmentalization of faith into the private-life-only sphere that keeps public Christians from trusting in God and the power of prayer and repentance. But then I need to remember that, according to an article in today's Scotsman, God gave George Bush the missions of invading Afghanistan and Iraq.

Paul L said...

The thing that bothers me about Bush and this kind of rhetoric isn't that he talks about Evil. I don't object to a political officer recognizing and warning about the existance of forces of Evil -- except where he personalizes it to a particular person or group and makes the false and misleading statements you point out, Johan.

What bothers me is what he says about Good: We must be, since they're Evil. Where is the "all have sinned & come short" recognition?

Your invocation of Lincoln's authentic humility is exactly right. He did what he had to do, but he didn't try to sanctify it into anything other than the bloody shame it was.

(Did you know his grandfather was a Quaker?)

Thanks for another excellent, thoughtful post.

Johan Maurer said...

I love the perspective that Elias Chacour brings to these issues. At the 1999 Friends United Meeting triennial sessions (and probably elsewhere) he said something along these lines: I am a Palestinian, I am an Israeli citizen, I am a Christian priest, but before all of these things, I was a baby—and so were the Jews and everyone else. (And, we could add, so were the radical Islamists and the terrorists. It doesn't let us off the hook of living in truth and reality, but it does rearrange our perspective, perhaps slowing us down in our rush to objectify others.)