Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Wars of Identity

The author of Imperial Hubris
"contest the argument put out by members of the Bush administration that Mr. bin Laden wants to destroy America because he hates our values, freedoms and ideas. In Anonymous's view, the Qaeda leader hates us "because of our policies and actions in the Muslim world" and Al Qaeda's attacks are meant to advance a set of clear, focused and limited foreign policy goals."

As I have posted before, I am very critical of this view. Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and other top Islamist ideologs may think this way but I don't think so. The troops in the field, including the serial killer Zarqawi, do not view this is a struggle over policy. People don't kill themselves over policy. People, even soliders and thugs, don't mutilate humans over policy.

This is a Muslim civil war and it is primarily a war over identity. This is not as strange as it may sound. The American Civil War was not a war over policy. The average Union and Confederate soldier did not think that was a struggle over the policy of State's rights. These men knew that the war was a struggle over who we were. Slavery was part of the identity of every Southerner, not just the slave-owning minority. Abolishing slavery radically altered the nature of Southern society, the way people thought and felt about themselves and others. It was a profound (and to us simply unimaginable) change.

Or the American Revolution. Whether one lives in a monarchy or a democracy is not a policy; it is an identity. Democractic societies are not simply a set of institutions; they are an interrelated set of beliefs and attitudes and values that thrive far beyond the narrow realm of policy.

Is the difference between Germany today and German of 1938 reducable to a set of policies? Of course not. Germans lived in both but the kind of German has changed. Pacifism and anti-militarism in Germany and Japan are wide-spread social values and deeply held personal beliefs. Are North Koreans and South Koreans only separated by policy? Don't be silly. (Not all wars change identity but they are an attempt to do so. If the British had won the War of 1812 Americans would have become British subjects. A serious change of identity.)

The War Against Jihad is the same. It is a war between Islamism and Western civilization but more importantly it is a war over what it means to be a Muslim. The man who runs my local liquor store is an Iranian refugee who told me the Iranian goverement is "nasty." Do you think this man and bin Laden would agree on what it means to be a Muslim? That is what this war is about. Young Saudi men aren't driving truck bombs to change policy. They are doing so to change Muslim identity - how Muslims relate to modernism and capitalism and democracy; how Muslims view and interact (even if they interact) with non-Muslims; the role of women is sociey and the family.

Can you be a member of a tribe and a clan and be part of a democratic society? Can freedom of expression work in a Muslim society? Freedom of religion? Is theocracy compatable with the modern world? What is the rule of law or an even more basic question, what is law? These may sound like abstractions but they are woven into a person's world view. If your son brutally killed a defenseless man, would you turn him in? What if he raped a woman of a different religion? These are not policy questions. They go deeply into your identity as an American, a Christian, a human. The answers are what people fight over.

I've been thinking about this thanks to a book I'm reading about Jesse James. The author is quite persuasive. He posits that James was, by modern standards, a terrorist who was fighting to avenge the destruction of a way of life, of an identity. His family owned a few slaves but the policy change abolishing slavery would not have destroyed his way of life in a purely economic sense. Abolishing slavery would, and did, destroy the social, religious, familial, cultural world he grew up in. (I'll post more on the lessons from Jesse James later.)

The point (as rambling an semi-coherent as it may be) is that policy does not drive people to war. Police arrest people because of policies. It's their job. Mercenaries fight over policy. People, both citizen-soldiers of developed democracies and religious terrorists, kill and die over deeper, even intimate, issues - what is means to be who you they are; what kind of social hierarchy you live in; how you fit into or oppose the modern, industrialized world; how you believe in God.


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