Monday, January 10, 2005

Our Task is More Difficult than Fallows Thinks

James Fallows is a thoughtful writer. I just finished his article in this month's Atlantic Monthly, Success Without Victory. (You must be a subscriber to get full access.) I found parts of it just bizarre.

The first three or four pages are right on, summarizing the utter foolishness of the TSA's airport security procedures and the idiocy of the way the Dept of Homeland Security allocates money. Good stuff, but nothing new.

The weirdness starts in a section titled "The War of Ideas." First is the old standby, "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom', but rather, they hate our policies." I addressed this popular and I believe false idea last summer but as it is still popular and false I think it should be revisited. This idea is false because it is making a distinction that is without difference. Our policies (at least the ones that Muslims complain about) are an outgrowth of our freedoms. To reverse the formula, our freedoms and our ideals generate our most important policies.

For example, our policy of using our military and our money to help tsunami victims comes from our ideal of human compassion, and our freedom to give money, to raise money, to organize and communicate freely. Another policy that comes from our freedom is that women can and do work throughout the U.S. A two-birds-with-one-stone post at Ask-Imam.com nails both of these (HT: lgf)

The west is often criticised by Muslims for many reasons, such as allowing women go to work. But shouldnt the west also recieve praise because its always them who intervenve when muslims r being tortured,they stopped Milosovic kiling muslims and sent their own troops to the country,they r usually the first to send aid when theres a flood,they r also intervening in Isreal and condeming them killing Muslims ,so should we appreciate their efforts or not?

Answer 1394. In simple the Kuffaar can never be trusted for any possible good they do. They have their own interest at heart.
Mufti Ebrahim Desai


Or take homosexuality. Our policy of tolerating and accepting homosexuality comes from our respect for the freedom to be homosexual. Guess what? Muslims aren't hip to the gays. Just ask Irshad Manji, the Canadian, Muslim lesbian who routinely gets death threats, even to her face. You think the guys who threaten her make a fine distinction between the 'policy' of accepting homosexuals as opposed to the 'freedom' of homosexuals? Come on. How about our policy prohibiting the freedom to marry multiple wives? The policy and freedom to sell and drink alcohol? Pornography? How does Fallows think Muslims view my favorite freedom, the freedom of expression? Gee James, I don't know? Let's ask Theo van Gogh.

Gravity is both a particle and a wave. In these cases policy and freedom cannot be separated.

Then Fallows writes that Muslims object to our "longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states." How does that explain the Syrians, the Libyans, or the Lebanese objections? We have spent decades opposing those oppressive governments without a peep of support or thanks from any Muslims that I am aware of. And our support for the governments above does not preclude any democratic reforms they wish to make. Just because we don't publically bitch at Mubarak doesn't mean we wouldn't welcome reforms in Egypt.

Here we are caught in a lose-lose situation. If we support these non-democratic regimes we are accused of oppresing Muslims. If we call for elections and more open government we are accused of imperialism, of trying to 'export democracy,' trying to change indigenous institutions. And naturally we get no credit for our longstanding support of Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO. Does Fallows and the rest really think that supporting democratic reforms in Jordon would change the way anyone feels about the U.S.? Please.

In this section Fallows writes, "Fighting terrorism and understanding Islam is as fertile a field as Soviet studies were during the Cold War." I couldn't agree more. And this is precisely what I think Fallows and others fail to do: adequately understand Islam.

He brings up the Muslim ideal of justice. Islamic political parties often go by the label "Party of Justice" or something close to that. "[I]n much of today's Muslim world "justice" is a more compelling ideal than individual "liberty." ... Why has America had a harder time lately pushing its vision of justice?

The Western idea of justice is quite different from the Muslim idea of justice. In the Western tradition, justice, like freedom, like civil rights, is seen as an individual ideal, justice for someone. An individual cannot be discriminated against based on his/her race, religion, age, sexual preference, etc. An individual is guaranteed a fair trial by jury, etc. This is Western justice. In the Muslim tradition the focus is on communities. Laws against blashemy for instance, are based on the idea that it is unjust for people to be exposed to things they find offensive. Groups of people are guaranteed justice. Think of the millet system in the Ottoman Empire where different civil laws applied to different religious groups. And of course in Muslim law the testimony of a non-Muslim is worth less that that of a Muslim. Why has America had a harder time lately pushing its vision of justice? Because our idea of justice is philosophically at odds with the traditional Muslim ideal of justice.

Fallows has a different answer. One of the "major obstacles is America's need for foreign oil, which forces it to coddle regimes it would otherwise blast as anti-democratic ..." That explains why we don't blast the Saudis (and no one is more critical of them than Rant Wraith). But how does that explain why we coddle Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan, Muslim nations without a drop of oil which Fallows included on his list of tyrannies above? And what about oil producing Libya which we refused to trade with, bombed, and criticized for two decades? Did this win us any friends? No.

Certainly the U.S. goverment needs to do more, or even anything, to reduce our need for oil. But Fallows is a smart guy. He needs to move beyond this to explain why we 'coddle' some non-oil producing nations and criticize and shun others without any effect in the way we are viewed in the so-called Muslim world.

I agreed with this part though. Stephen Van Evera, a member of the MIT Security Studies Program, says, "Public diplomacy—propaganda, if you will—should play a large role. But our efforts are halfhearted. Where are the coffee-table books about the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein? Where are the oral histories and documentaries?" I think the Pentagon tried something like that early in the Iraq War only to shut it down after severe media criticism. Propaganda is very difficult in our society as it involves lying, or near-lying, in the media itself. And since the media is global any mechanism that distributed propaganda overseas would be debunked here at home. The debunking would be exported undermining the original propaganda. A tough nut to crack.

Then the piece takes turn for the looney. Fallows quotes Brian Jenkins. "Our leaders typically issue horrified statements about the consequence of a bio-terror attack for Americans," he says. "Instead we should talk about the devastating impact it will have for the world—one fifth of which is Muslim. Despite the shortcomings in our public-health system, America will get through it. But a contagious disease, in today's circumstances? When it gets to Karachi or Cairo, it is going to produce a slaughter."

Excuse me? Dude, Muslims blame the U.S. for the freaking tsunami. (Egyptian Nationalist Weekly: U.S.-Israel-India Nuclear Testing May have Caused Asian Tsunami; The Goal: Testing how to Liquidate Humanity) They will certainly blame any outbreak on the CIA and its all-powerful secret weapon labs. Does he seriously believe that telling the Egyptians that we can help them avoid terrible loss of life from an unspecified contagious disease will elicit anything more than snickers and conspiracy theories? I don't even know where to begin with that one.

It gets stranger and stranger. After the Soviet Union fell, some members of formerly communist states said that jazz broadcasts on Radio Free Europe had attracted them; others listened to the news; others were inspired by speeches by John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan—or by Playboy magazine. Whaaa? Jazz broadcasts and Playboy? Those may have worked in Western communist nations. We shared similar musical traditions and a love of naked women, but the nations we are talking about are not Western. Saudi Arabia, like the Taliban, outlaws music. Ask-Imam puts in plainly, "Music Is prohibited" As for Playboy? Societies that don't allow women to show their hair and ankles in public (or in some cases their faces or any flesh at all) will not view Playboy as liberating but as another example of anti-Islamic crusader hegemony.

This is what I mean when I say that our task is more difficult than Fallows thinks. During the Cold War, the Free World and the Communist bloc shared the broad Western cultural tradition going back to the ancient Greeks. We shared the same philosophical, literary and artistic traditions. Indeed Communism was a mutant strain of German idealism. The West understood it as well or better than the Communists. The West also had a solid grasp of European and Russian history, culture and language (less so with the Chinese). Indeed something like Czech history is inextricably tied to the general history of Europe. That is why VOA could broadcast the Beatles into East Europe and the music found a receptive audience.

I think virtually none of this applies with Arab history or Islamic culture. For one thing Communism was an intellectual pimple compared to the 1400 year, multi-lingual history of Islam. Only the tiniest number of Westerns have an adequate understanding of this history. Likewise the West shares few if any usable traditions with the Muslim world. Music or visual arts? Nope. Philosophy or literary history? There are a few touch points but no artist or movement that both traditions claim. History? We may be able to agree on the facts but our interpretations of that history, in fact our philosophies of interpretation, will differ wildly. It will take us a long while to figure out how to communicate with foreign Muslim audiences, if ever. It's certainly not as simple as broadcasting jazz or inviting people to the White House.

Finally Fallows quotes Steve Miller (not the Midnight Cowboy). This is where my blood pressure shot up. "I want a flood of young Muslims studying here," Miller says. "Let's set up a King Hussein scholarship program, like the Fulbright scholars. Not every foreign student ends up loving or even liking this country, but on the whole, those who have lived here will have a much harder time demonizing America and Americans." (emphasis in original)

Stop. This is madness. Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologist of modern jihad, spent years studying in various places in the U.S. He returned to Egypt more convinced of American decadence and unbelief. Indeed he wasn't a jihadist until after his years in the U.S. His life and work is summarized in Terror and Liberalism, one of the best books available about the jihad worldview. The 9/11 hit teams were here for years. Living in America often has the opposite effect to what Miller intends: foreign Muslims become more anti-American. Some authors think that it is the disorienting clash between Western freedoms and Muslim traditions that helps generate the jihadist mentality in young men who are 'lost' in the West.

I agree there is much to be done. The TSA and Homeland Security are expensive jokes that do nothing to make us safer. We should spend more to secure Russian nukes. But the idea that we can talk our way into improving our image among Muslims abroad is a fantasy. Look at what we are doing now in Indonesia, saving the lives of perhaps millions of Muslims. Will Muslim opinions of America be more positive a year from now? Sure, just as much as saving Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo and Somalia improved our image. Zero.

Read the follow-up to this post, Cultural Exports and Cultural Obstacles.
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