Glenn Greenwald, Murtaza Hussain, Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and others have been debating, rather vehemently recently, the subject of terrorism. The primary rift between them is whether or not the violent acts of Muslim extremists are motivated by religion or politics. In my opinion both are integral and it’s dishonest to pretend differently.
Greenwald and Hussain are of the opinion that- as stated almost universally by each suspected terrorist from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon– Western foreign policy, with its brutal occupations, bombings, drone campaigns, and propping up of oppressive dictators, is actively creating more, not less, of the very thing the “War on Terror” is designed to extirpate: the threat terrorism. Their argument is that it is naive to believe that Western actions do not play a significant role in the blowback we experience in the form of terrorist attacks on Western soil. For them, the simple logic of cause and effect is our guide: If you indiscriminately target citizens and support regimes that kill innocent people in other countries, for the sake of national interests, all while citing “freedom and democracy” as justification for being there, you should not be surprised if retaliation is sought. Greenwald and company do not justify that retaliation, as some of their critics have wrongly asserted. They are merely underlining a rational set of reasons for “why they hate us”, in an effort to counter the “they hate us for our freedoms” narrative that is often force-fed to Western citizens by their governments.
Sullivan and company would disagree about Western militaries indiscriminately targeting civilians. They would suggest that this is where the fundamental distinction between “us and them” lies. We do not purposefully seek to kill innocent civilians when we attack. They do. I’m not convinced this is entirely true. I think both sides are guilty of this motivation. The difference of opinion here is where the ambiguity of the word terrorism is most apparent.
Greenwald finds the word “terrorism” devoid of meaning, stating that it has been euphemistically hijacked and is never applied consistently. He believes that the use of the word is entirely dependent on who the violent actor is. If it’s a Muslim person or entity, and is directed toward the West, the violence is unquestionably labeled terrorism. If the act is committed by a Western nation or entity, different standards within the media and intelligentsia apply. Therefore the violence perpetuated by the West is rarely dealt with honestly. Any attempt at drawing a parallel, or merely questioning if certain Western aggression should be called terror, invites the harshest hyperbolic condemnation from critics, causing genuine efforts to engage the substance of the debate to flounder. This lack of consistency renders the word, in Greenwald’s opinion, meaningless.
His critics seem to disagree. In their view the distinction between what the West has done, and what radical Islam strives to do, is clear. The Fundamental difference, in someone like Sullivan’s mind, is intent. If this is true, then aren’t we guilty of a biased postulation that “our” intent is always noble, and “theirs” is not? Are we even capable of judging this impartially? And doesn’t it betray a certain nationalistic hubris to argue in this way? If the intent is to coerce a populace by means of fear, in order to achieve a political end, it’s hard to look upon Western interventionism honestly and find every instance innocent of that intention. Since I largely agree with Greenwald on this point, I’m not going to penetrate further as I’m more concerned with areas that I think both sides aren’t treating with total veracity.
Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and several other critics, conversely believe that US and Western involvement in the Middle East is not the primary cause of attacks on Western soil. Events like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon, according to them, aren’t as much political as they are religious in nature. Global jihad and the annihilation of the infidel, is the only object on the mind of Islamic extremists that continue to attack the West.
It is their contention that Islam poses a unique threat in the world because currently, it is the only faith that unabashedly incites its followers to violence. They acknowledge the fact that radical Islam is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but they reject the notion that it is just a fringe movement. They believe that it is not relegated to the periphery, but is instead very much a central doctrine that at present inspires far too many people (and governments) to not only look upon the infidel as a perpetual enemy, but also fellow Muslims and countrymen who adhere to subtle nuances of the faith. The sectarian violence that is currently destroying countries like Iraq and Syria are prime examples of the inflexibility of Islam, and thus, entire swaths of Muslims who share a common nationality are being killed for what Freud once called “The Narcissism of the Small Difference.” For Harris and Sullivan, it is the way fanatical interpretations of any faith seem to justify anything, including violence against innocents, which makes radical Islam especially pernicious.
In spite of the validity of their arguments, I can’t help but detect a willful dishonesty on both sides of this argument in certain places.
How can studious political observers like Harris and Sullivan not think that what Western nations have done, and continue to do, throughout the Middle East, has no bearing on the motivations and actions of those who retaliate? Do they hear captured terrorism suspects when they state that they sought revenge on the West for its sustained occupation of Muslim countries, and think they are being disingenuous? That they are choosing to artfully beguile us into believing that this isn’t about religion? Are we supposed to hear those confessions and forget about them, choosing only to focus on the fact that the attackers scream “Allahu Akbar” as they kill?
I’m equally confused by Harris and Sullivan’s willingness, at times, to overlook the circular nature of this conflict. Whether or not you think US intervention is a force for good, it is shortsighted not to see how our presence in the Middle East creates powerful tools for the recruitment of future radicals. Whether it be sanctions or bombings that kill thousands of Iraqis, indiscriminate drone attacks known as “signature strikes” in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the constant support we grant to some of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the region (including what is arguably the most fundamentalist of all the Islamic governments, Saudi Arabia), the unwaveringly unilateral support for Israel, or the indefinite detention of Muslims in spite of being cleared for release in places like Guantanamo, these realities are known and used to create and solidify anti-Western sentimentality. You cannot possibly expect for Muslims to learn of these policies, accept them insouciantly, and believe that Western “liberators” have their best interests at heart. This is not a defense or justification for the violence that is committed because of the way the aforementioned realities are exploited. But consider the inverse. How would you expect the US and its allies to react if similar practices were directed towards them?
We know exactly how we would react. The way the US exploited the travesty of 9/11 to justify an egregious attack on a nation that had nothing to do with it, was edifying. Furthermore, the US continued to propagandistically exploit the ensuing fear that followed 9/11, as a way to treat human beings- some of whom we call fellow citizens- as second class citizens. Could you imagine what we’d do if we faced the kind of sustained attacks that Middle Easterners are accustomed to? This is not to say that Islamic extremists don’t exploit potential adherents in much the same way. They most certainly do. Hence the circular nature of this “war”.
It’s strange when someone like Sullivan attempts to cite events like our invasion of Iraq, the support for Afghan radicals against the Soviets, and the financial aid we’ve given to regimes like Egypt, as proof of our benevolence in the region. This is once again his way of trying to define intent. The irony of course is that if you look at Afghanistan in the 1980’s, when we armed warlords and radicals with weapons and money in order to kill Russians, the US chose radical Islam over allowing Communism to gain a major foothold in the region. (This was when Communism, not radical Islam, posed the great existential threat to our nation. This is when the same modern day propaganda being used to inspire fear against Islam, was directed against all things Communist. Exchange radical Islam for Communism in any of the writings of the most ardent supporters for perpetual war at that time, and notice the similarity in language; the constancy of the peril we live under; the perverse evil of the imminent threat we must always be prepared to fight. The fact is radical Islam was seen as the lesser of two evils back then; a necessary risk in order to defeat a larger and more ubiquitous threat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the roles have reversed.)
Closer examination of our involvement in the Middle East reveals that we have invariably supported some of the most brutal Islamic fundamentalist regimes in the region, selling many of them arms that they use against their own people who are struggling for democracy. Does Sullivan actually think we care about these citizens? Does he think we are concerned about their civil rights? About their freedom of expression? We shouldn’t pretend our intentions are anything but self-serving. They always have been. Is Islam- in that part of the world- failing to embrace plurality and modernity? Yes. But it seems that millions of Middle Easterners, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, want something different, as the last two years have indicated with the varying success of the Arab Spring.
The question is this: Do the people in these nations suffer more because of the effect that Islamic radicalism has on their governments, or because Western interventionism- with its long history of colonialist imperialism- has installed puppet regimes that care more about profits and power, than they do about governing their people? And are the two ideas- in concert- not equal conspirators in a larger geopolitical game?
The last issue I take with Sullivan and Harris’ side of this argument is the notion that 9/11 is somehow when this conflict began; that we in America were neutral businessmen in the Middle East, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, Islam attacked us. This reeks of historical revisionism. And that history goes both ways. This war is an ancient one, and has been a self-generating conflict for centuries. (At the heart of the conflict was, and maybe still is, religion on both sides. The religiosity from the West has been used- as Greenwald has stated- rather conspicuously in myriad speeches by Western military and government leaders. In not so subtle language they have stressed that this is an ideological war; that it is the duty of all Christians to combat this enemy, and that the wars in the Middle East have as much to do with religious conviction, as they do anything else.)
Greenwald’s larger point is that Western “interventionism” precedes 9/11; that 9/11 was the manifestation of decades of Western injustice in the Middle East, which in turn caused the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating the rationale for subsequent terrorist plots against Western entities ever since. 9/11 was not the beginning of this conflict; it was the continuation of it. Just as the attacks on the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the USS Cole were before it. The war, on both sides, is perpetual by design.
Regardless if you believe “we” are just, and “they” are not, you cannot possibly be acquainted with the realities of this conflict and think that what the West has done in that part of the world, for a very long time, is in no way part of why so many hate us there. Refusal to accept this indicates a blind nationalistic fervor that is just as corruptible as any religion, and is often led by the same irrationality and shunning of evidence that accompanies religious faith.
Any cursory examination of the history of Islam reveals that it isn’t an innately evil force or faith. The Quran, much like the Bible before it, suffers from the duality of its message. It bears the mark of the world it was written for. Like other institutions and faiths, it also possesses a rich cultural history that can claim significant discoveries in science, mathematics, poetry, music, art, and literature. But Islam has not experienced a lasting Reformation. It has not endured a period equivalent to what is now known as the Enlightenment in the West, in which free thought and most importantly doubt, was granted free expression. There exists still, horrid discrimination against atheism and other ideas that are antithetical to Islamic fundamentalism, and often times one takes his or her life into their hands if they are courageous enough to dissent. The right to openly deny and question, that which Islam says is absolute, is foreign to many Muslims living in the Middle East.
Christianity used to be this way until it endured a series of gradual changes that forced the religion to evolve. That’s not my way of saying that Christianity is superior to Islam. I’m simply stating that if we use history as our guide, the various movements that softened the ultra-conservatism of Christianity were a positive for millions of human beings, if not immediately, then certainly over time. Similar changes have not occurred on the same scale in Islam. True we shouldn’t expect Islam to follow the same course that Christianity has. There are innumerable external factors that play into this, many of which involve the history of colonialism. But in theory at least, as I’m sure Harris and Sullivan would agree, an introduction of liberalism is badly needed in Middle Eastern Islamic nations. And by this, I’m not implying that this liberalism should come from the West.
I agree with Harris when he asks if a play like the “Book of Mormon” could expect the same peaceful reaction if it were written about Islam? Could such a satire transpire? Would anyone risk undertaking it? These are valid questions. One has to believe that right now, the answer is no. Greenwald, who is as fierce an advocate of the unequivocal necessity for free speech as we currently have in political commentary, knows this better than anyone: that no idea, philosophy, political ideology, or religion, should be exempt from scrutiny, debate, criticism, or ridicule. Islam struggles with this concept internally, let alone with anyone outside the faith, and on questions of expression and the freedom to examine the realities of the religion, it is failing to engage itself thoughtfully and compassionately. (If we’re being honest, US foreign policy is failing in the exact same way.)
This is not to say that all Muslims think this way. There are far too many examples of Muslim scholars, writers, politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders condemning terrorism and espousing freedom of expression, to think this is true. And to insinuate that over a billion people believe free expression should be stifled, or that Islam is at its most authentic when it’s violent, is a gross misrepresentation of the faith. But there is a very real extremist element within that poses a threat- most commonly to other Muslims- and makes the need for self-criticism all the more difficult, but necessary, in 2013.
The question is why? What is it about Islam that makes the extremist element prone to violence on such consistently large scales? And is it really “more dangerous than other faiths”, or is that Western propaganda manipulating our perceptions? Are we not wrong to implicate Islam as a whole? Isn’t it prejudicial to assume that all Muslims think and believe in this way? One might say that Western foreign policy is to blame for why radicalized Islam is so violent. But it’s also Muslims, not Westerners, who suffer most. Is this the result of some inherent evil of the faith? Or is the religiosity merely a front for the political divide that is at the heart of so much Muslim on Muslim violence? I’d never suggest that there isn’t a political underbelly to suicide bombings, but without the credulity of the believer, and his/her unwavering faith in an eternal reward, the entire practice is neutered. Religion has the monopoly on this kind of thinking, and it always has. But unlike some in this argument, I’d include nationalism in that religious-like description. I think it too demands blind faith to the point that it can inspire people to behave irrationally in certain situations; maybe not for divine rewards, but for the mythology of their nation’s “exceptionalism” in the world.
Where we in the West are most often failed, in terms of our perception of Islam, is how it is treated by the media. We very rarely get to hear from moderate Islamic voices in the wake of terrorist attacks, and the primacy of religious extremism is always promoted- often before it’s definitively known if the suspect is even Muslim- and very little to no focus is placed on the political motives that these terrorists proclaim. The vilification of Islam as a whole is undertaken with relative ease for these precise reasons, and the media circumvents every opportunity to critically debate Western interventionism. It simply doesn’t fit the pervasive narrative that our government promotes. Western media obsequiously ignores the political side of this issue, at the government’s bidding, like the good stenographers that they are.
But, there are valid points to be made when talking about fundamentalist governments like Saudi Arabia, and its efforts to thwart free expression and education; the right to talk openly about the good and the bad of any ideology; the right to satirize and have a sense of humor about religion; the right to compare and contrast; the right to ask for evidence when an institution that makes large claims for itself demands that it is the source of truth; the right to challenge the superstitious, by asserting that life in the here and now is far more entitled to respect than any religious interpretation of the hereafter. This is what made the Reformation- and ultimately the Enlightenment- indispensable in the Western world; the freedom to question government and religious institutions, without fear of being deprived of one’s life or liberty.
Greenwald would probably argue that perhaps the vociferation of extremist elements in this debate is a direct consequence of Western aggression and occupation. As I stated above, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Western involvement in the Middle East has empowered Islamic radicals both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s also plausible to argue that many Western leaders believe in a Christian mission to “tame the savage barbarian” and that aggression is the only way to do so. But isn’t it true that moderate Islam must be more vocal and active throughout the Middle East; that it needs to combat the domineering perception permeating the non-Muslim world that Islam is inherently violent, by first accepting the fact that at present, extremists control the global platform; and that elements of Islam have a problem with modernity, free expression, education, women, freethinkers, and homosexuals? Shouldn’t moderate Islam acknowledge that no idea or institution is beyond reproach and demand that it be the clamoring voice in this discussion?
The West, on the other hand, cannot expect to assuage the threat of terror by using terror. That circular logic has only succeeded in aiding Islamic extremists in gaining support, even from those that don’t condone the ideology. In all of the back and forth between Harris, Sullivan, Hussain, and Greenwald, the question that never gets asked is, what is the US and her allies doing in that part of the world? Why are we really there? The short answer is “national interests”, which is just a euphemism for oil. But the larger issue is more complex, and it is in that complexity that the West must also be honest about what its motivations are and how it can expect perpetual war if it doesn’t change its policies or leave the region. To discern this one needs only to attempt to see from the eyes of the occupied. We once knew that feeling well in this country, just a few centuries ago. Today we’re convinced of our unparalleled amity and of our sincere desire to bring democracy to the world. As many Middle Easterners have stated, the reality on the ground doesn’t jibe with these assertions.
This problem is as old as recorded human history: the struggle for freedom, power, religious liberty, empire, self-governance, expression and equality are constants in our world. Until all of these issues (and the discrepancies within) are dealt with honestly, any hope at constructively addressing radical Islam and Western occupation is futile. I think both sides do a disservice to their positions- and the debate at large- when they refuse to recognize the validity of their opponents’ stronger points. All of these issues play a role in the dilemma of Western and Middle Eastern violence, religiosity, politics, equality, and sovereignty and it’s naïve to suggest otherwise.
In answer to several comments made about this piece, I offer an addendum that can be found here: https://roundersandrogues.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/addendum-to-arent-religion-and-politics-both-to-blame-for-the-war-on-terror/
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