Tuesday, September 19, 2006

[Foreign Policy]

Is Islam the Problem?

In the constant process of liberal self-flagellation over the boiling Mideast, a fake dichotomy has come to rule the argument. Why can't liberals admit that Islam is essentially an evil religion, find moral clarity on this fact, and move with the resolve of Republicans to stomp it out? In other words, the only thing wrong with the neocon agenda is that the neocon were the ones doing the stomping. This debate has flourished on an email thread among a group of my friends, spurred by an article by Sam Harris. First, let us get to the pith of his argument:
The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.
The faults of the argument are evident in just these two sentences. "Multiculturalism" is used here as a red herring, a substitute for Harris's critique that liberalism fails to have the moral clarity he desires. He therefore rigs the argument: you're either a clear-eyed moral absolutist or you muck in complexities, but anything other than moral absolutism is wrong. Like Henry Ford said, you can have any color of car you want, so long as it's black. The second fault is the assumption--necessary for clear-eyed absolutists--that the source of violence is religious extremism. Let's not cloud the waters with any other factors: behavior is dictated by a single cause. Very clear. If you accept these two premises, the final argument is obvious--you must, in the clear-eyed manner of our witch-burning forbears--condemn the evildoers. (And probably with the business end of your gun.) Americans have always loved penitence. Everywhere on the right and left, Americans seem to be wanting Muslim penitence so that we may cleanse them of the stain of wrong belief.

Liberals accept this Rovian-packaged deal at their peril. Islam is not the sole cause of violence, any more than Christianity can be blamed as the sole cause for our invasion of Iraq (though surely only the naive will fail to see its contribution). Religion is an accelerant. Bush is using it in the White House like gasoline on the fire of his corporate-military policies, and Muslim leaders are using it throughout the Mideast for their own ends.

I regret that I don't have the time to source the following factors. If I were getting paid to do this thinking, it'd be less hinky. I'm not, so hinky it is. Anyway, here are some of the other reasons the Middle East is destabilized:
  • Oil. For a number of reasons, countries where oil--is the sole or dominant source of GDP are violent and destabilized. It is easy to control oil and support a dictatorship when you control oil revenues. Even Russia, with a large and diverse economy, is seeing the destabilization of rich oil barons.
  • Education. Most of the populations in the Middle East have no access to education or alternative models of reality. One of the reasons Islam is so persuasive is because it has no counter in secular education.
  • Employment. The Middle East has the highest rate of unemployment in the world.
  • Age. The Middle East has a burgeoning population of youth (a third to half the population) who are uneducated, unemployed, and poor, fueling destabilization.
  • Isolation. "Connectivity" that quality of penetration from the outside world, is a corollary to education. Exposed to cultural influences beyond their own world, countries begin to open up, as China has done since the 1990s. Citizens of the Middle East remain disconnected, again, further empowering the voice of radical clerics.
There is nothing intrinsic to Islam that makes it violent. Religions are complex and often contradictory. Evidence abounds that supports violence in the Bible, and it is often cited by radical Christian clerics to foment violence in the US and Europe. Most Christians rightly reject the idea the Christianity is a violent creed, yet it is used as an accelerant by people like John Hagee. To declare Islam a faith of radicalism and violence is to ignore the entirety of the theology. It's possible, but it's wrong.

Finally, there's this: the US bears a large measure of the responsibility for Middle East instability. It has kept our cars full of cheap gas for 50 years. When Iran struggled toward democracy, we stifled it and re-installed the Shah. When Iran and Iraq went to war, rather than take an internationalist approach, we backed one warlord against another. When our warlord invaded Kuwait, we ran him back to his own oil fields. It has been in the interest of the United States to keep citizens of the Middle East poor, uneducated, disconnected, and oppressed.

For liberals to now blame those poor, uneducated, disconnected, and oppressed citizens for radicalizing does them a grave disservice. Worse, acting on the believe that the destabilized Mideast is the result of "Muslim radicalism" will get us more of the idiocy George Bush has been peddling for six years. Islam is an accelerant--it's not the problem.


evansarak said...

Good article. You do, however, lean heavily on the "poor and uneducated" explanation for the rise of extremism, as well as the unemployment factor. Harris' argument specifically sites the number of educated terrorists in refutation of this point (engineers strapping bombs, etc...). You also seem to be focusing on the Mideast countries themselfes. Doesn't explain educated muslim extremists in London suburbs. I know you don't have time...but I am interested in your response to this assertions.

Jeff Alworth said...

Why is it that we feel compelled to identify a sole source? All of these factors play into it. The problem is, you can't strip away the variables and see how they function in a pristine, uninflected environment. If you put people in a very tough situation, they become far more interested in radical solutions.

As to the education business, it's another bogus example. While it's true that some of the people involved in 9/11 were educated, the vast majority of suicide bombers are folks who aren't. There's a conflation of the bombers and the organizers.

If it were simply religious, why isn't there more violence in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia--contries with large Muslim populations? Indian Muslims are Shi'ites--the most dangerously unhinged of all the unhinged dangerous radicals, if boneheads like Harris are to be believed. Yet Hindus and Muslims manage to live together with almost no violence. People highlight the India/Pakistan tensions, but that doesn't explain why the 150 million Indian Muslims don't attack their countrymen. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal--many countries have Muslims without violence.

Oh, one other factor--history. The West is keen to see the Middle East just shape up now. But Europe has not been free of violence, either. From Belfast to Barcelona to Belgrade, Europe has its own ancient enmities. They're not so easy to put aside.

A little bird said...

There were violent religious extremists in the Middle East long before we got there. Our foreign policy has certainly been a disaster and we’ll never fix it with violence. On both sides, religion is playing a part in dictating that foreign policy. It leaves little room for negotiation or mutual respect. Yes, we’ve exacerbated the problems of poverty and lack of education in the region. Yes, we’ve supported the regimes who give us what we want in economic terms. By the same token, the connectivity you espouse is seriously decried by Islamic conservatives as being tools of Western corruption. They don’t want our version of connectivity. Modern terrorist leaders don’t come from the peasant class, they come from the middle and upper classes. These aren’t revolutionaries fighting for a better life for their people. They’re fighting to rid themselves and others of temptation from the Infidels. If they say it’s about religion, then it’s about religion. I’d say the accelerant is our horrible foreign policy, dependence on oil, and general lack of respect for other cultures.

Islam isn’t inherently evil, any more than Christianity. Sadly, both are being used as tools of oppression and control by those who want power. Unemployment, discrimination, and disenfranchisement from Western culture in the suburbs of Paris and London give radical clerics a handy platform. All they have to do is turn the source of that resentment into a representation of the Great Satan who must be defeated. Rather than put it in terms of spiritual defeat of earthly temptation, they put it in terms of physical eradication of the temptation itself. It’s not unlike the excuse used to cover women from head to toe in cloth and keep them under lock and key. Eradicate the source of temptation and there’s no problem, right?

I agree that our current track is a disaster. Violence begets martyrs and sympathy from otherwise moderate Muslims. All I can think to do is clean up our foreign policy (not being a foreign policy expert I’m not sure how exactly to go about it), tell the oil companies to shove off, support alternative fuel sources, vote to keep religion out of our politics, and establish ourselves as peace brokers. Radical religion doesn’t leave room for the kind of non-violent diplomacy we need.

The issue is extremely complicated and I don’t believe for a second that the solution will be any less complicated. Shock and Awe is handy when you’re bombing Nazis (hah! I got the Nazis in there for Joe) but not so handy for terrorism. Radical Islam is there and always will be. I’d say we need to withdraw the accelerants of poverty and disenfranchisement if we want things to settle down. Even then, I think we’ll be blown up on occasion.

Chuck Butcher said...

There are a couple aspects that are peculiar to Islam vs Christianity. Christianity went with the idea of "render unto Caesar what is his" and Isalm entwines faith and government. Christianity in its prophet's words is peaceful (I didn't say practice),Islam despite Muslim denials, is not. These very things aggravate all the factors Jeff aludes to, but it also means that Islam IS a part of the problem.

Now this scarcely means that Christianity as practiced isn't also a problem, but that is a heretical practice as opposed to a sanctioned practice. One would think organized religion would be a boon for mankind, instead of a bane. I guess that's what happens when you let people muck about with a god.

My point is that we err signifigantly by ignoring the structure of a religion or its practice while looking at economic and governmental influences. In no religious nation is that a good way to predict behavior in general or outcomes from certain stimuli. That doesn't mean Harris isn't an ass, either.

Jeff Alworth said...

One last thing on this. I do believe Islam is a factor in all of this. I categorize it slightly differently than some of the other factors, which look to me like root causes. That's why I called it an "ccelerant"--added to any situation, religious belief can catalyze a population. Islam has been used and in many cases exploited to muster mass support.

But no one could reasonably argue that it's not a factor.