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Life Arts    H2'ed 7/11/09

The "War with Islam"

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John Perkins wrote a book called Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (and more recently The Secret History of the American Empire) about his experiences working for the government / powerful corporations to gain political power over other countries through economic means. What economic hit men do is they go to "underdeveloped" countries and they explain to the leadership why they should invest in American industry. They fix numbers and show the leaders why, while a power plant of size x would power their entire country, they should build one ten times that size. They tell them that the standard of living will go up for their country, but this is a lie. The standard of living goes up for a handful of individuals and the rest of the country goes into destitute poverty. What happens is they get them to sign off on the deal, we loan them more money than they could ever pay us back, we fix the books to make sure that they never do pay us back, and then we own them. If we need a U.N. vote, a coalition of the willing, for them to destroy certain agriculture we don't like, or for them to hand over their natural resources at a price reasonable to us, they have to do it if they want to be a part of the global market. Now, they really do pay us back, because most of the money we loan them goes into American industry anyway, but on paper they are perpetually in our debt and we own them.

If we want to control a country, war is usually the last resort in today's world. It's just not practical anymore. It's far easier to conquer other nations economically-but it doesn't always work. If the leadership doesn't make a deal with us, the next step is to send in people to stir up resistance groups within the country and try to get them to overthrow the current administration. If the resistance groups succeed, we make our deal with the new administration, which we helped to put in power. If they don't, then we turn to war. Which brings us to Iraq. In the lead up to war, we heard a lot about how Saddam Hussein was a butcher who treated his people horribly. This may have been true, but our leadership didn't really care about that. If Saddam Hussein had played ball with us we would have loved him. We would have talked about how great he was. We would have given him the same deal we gave the Saudis-sell us oil at a price acceptable to us and we will keep you in power indefinitely. But he didn't, and we weren't able to dislodge him by stirring up resistance, so we ended up going to war.

For the first time in the history of the world-and this is still following what Perkins says-we have a world empire, though it is largely invisible since it exists mostly economically rather than militarily. The problem is that empires always fall. Always. Why? Because they are structurally unsound. You can't exploit the majority of the people indefinitely without having serious consequences. Terrorism is one of those consequences, and it's only going to get worse. It's not that I wish it upon America-I very much wish the opposite-but if we keep dealing with things the way we currently are, we are going to suffer more terrorism. You can count on it. You can't ultimately stop terrorism by killing terrorists-like with antibiotics, you are only going to breed a stronger strain. And unlike with antibiotics, you are going to exhaust your own resources in the process.

But there is hope. Because at the same time that we have the first global empire in the history of the world, we also have the potential for the first global federation. Perkins points out that all the institutions are in place so that if we wanted to we could extend the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to everyone in the world. He argues that MacDonald's could feed everyone in the world, Nike could clothe everyone in the world, and Home Depot could create housing for everyone in the world. They could do it inexpensively and efficiently, and we would pay for it through taxes at a fraction of the cost of war.1 Politically, we could use our economic leverage to get despots to be more responsive to their people. That may be the only way to end terrorism. People turn to violence when they feel it's the best way of advancing the interests of either themselves or their people. If we don't want people to turn to violence, we need to provide them with better alternatives. Nihilism is a terrible thing. If people feel the cards are stacked against them and they can't succeed, they will turn to anything to try and feel themselves as powerful. "We would rather will nothingness than not will" (Nietzsche). So the question is, how can we work with all the peoples of the world for a better future? All the institutions are in place-the only resource we are lacking in is consciousness. We need people to be aware of these inner workings to be able to do this. The corporations that traditionally fund campaign elections (I say traditionally because Barack Obama has been a shining example of how the Internet may save us from this situation) are not going to be inspired to promote it through the goodness of their own hearts-we have to force their hand. One could argue that the poor in this country have more in common with the poor in the Middle East than they do with the rich in this country-and even the rich are not supporting something that is going to be good for them in the long run. Whether or not these groups are aware of these things is another matter.

In reading The End of Faith, I think that Sam Harris may not give enough weight to the fact that fundamentalism (Islamic or Christian) gains a lot of influence from economic desperation (and in the case of Islam, military antagonism), even though not all members of it are poor or ill educated.

"Many commentators on the Middle East have suggested that the problem of Muslim terrorism cannot be reduced to what religious Muslims believe. Zakaria has written that the roots of Muslim violence lie not in Islam but in the recent history of the Arab Middle East. He points out that a mere fifty years ago, the Arab world stood on the cusp of modernity and then, tragically, fell backward. The true cause of terrorism, therefore, is simply the tyranny under which most Arabs have lived ever since. The problem, as Zakaria puts it, 'is wealth, not poverty.' The ability to pull money straight out of the ground has led Arab governments to be entirely unresponsive to the concerns of their people. As it turns out, not needing to collect taxes is highly corrupting of state power. The result is just what we see-rich, repressive regimes built upon political and economic swampland. Little good is achieved for the forces of modernity when its mere products-fast food, television, and advanced weaponry-are hurled into the swamp as well.

"According to Zakaria, 'if there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world.' Perhaps. But 'the rise of Islamic fundamentalism' is only a problem because the fundamentals of Islam are a problem. A rise of Jain fundamentalism would endanger no one. In fact, the uncontrollable spread of Jainism throughout the world would improve our situation immensely. We would loose more of our crops to pests, perhaps (observant Jains generally will not kill anything, including insects), but we would not find ourselves surrounded by suicidal terrorists or by a civilization that widely condones their actions."

(Harris, The End of Faith, 147-148: quoting Zakaria, Future of Freedom, 138 & 143.)

I think Harris is being somewhat one-sided in his assessment of Islamic and Jain fundamentalism. I think that Islamic fundamentalism is problematic, but I also think that it serves a purpose for those being mobilized by it that shouldn't be overlooked. Similarly, the spread of Jainism may improve our condition, but not necessarily the conditions of those he seems to envision adopting it. While I agree with him that the specific beliefs a group holds are an important factor, I think he doesn't seem to appreciate that dogmatic nihilism, too, exists because it serves certain purposes. How can you successfully promote pragmatic idealism in the absence of peaceful and economically successful conditions?2 When people are surrounded by desperation, they don't have the luxury of dispassionate intellectual inquiry. They will believe anything that will help them survive as a group, even if not as individuals. Even if the specific terrorist bombers are middle class and well educated, they are members of an ideology that has its foothold, its economic and emotional base, in the poor and distraught. Islam being untrue is really besides the point if it helps Middle Eastern groups mobilize against their very real economic, military, and political enemies. Fundamentalist groups are able to exploit the poor and the "poor in spirit" because we ourselves allow individuals to exist in such states of poverty. As comedian David Cross explained, "I don't think Osama bin Laden sent those planes to attack us because he hated our freedom. I think he did it because of our support for Israel, our ties with the Saudi family, and all our military bases in Saudi Arabia. Do you know why I think that? Because that's what he said!"

And though we may not agree with Osama bin Laden's motives, those would seem to be concerns as reasonable as any that have ever been given for going to war. We might not like their tactics, but the British didn't much like ours. Were we cowards for not dressing up in bright uniforms and marching towards our enemies in straight lines? Anytime any new or unconventional tactic has been used in the history of war, the other side has always regarded it as unfair, cowardly, monstrous. But al-Qaeda has no means to fight us "our way"-so they do what they have to do to obtain their goal. And we do the same. How is it that we complain of the loss of our innocents,3 but regard Hiroshima and Nagasaki as legitimate? After all, we didn't have to fight Japan. We could have given up. And that is essentially what we would be asking our enemies to do in not fighting us through terrorism.

Approximately 3,000 people died in the September 11th attacks. In contrast, as few as 50,000 and as many as over half a million people have died in the war in Iraq as of June 2006 (the lower number being based on the Los Angeles Times estimate and the upper on the 2006 Lancet survey of mortality). Among the casualties are the deaths of 3,601 members of the U.S. armed forces (as of July 7, 2007) if that makes any difference to you. Approximately 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 74,000 people in Nagasaki died as a result of our nuclear attack-the great majority of which were civilians. Approximately 24,000 people (8 times the number that died in the 9/11 attack) die every day (every day!) of starvation, despite the fact that there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. Osama bin Laden wanted America to attack the Middle East because he wanted to unite the Muslims in the Middle East in a struggle against their common enemy of American injustice. And the Bush administration, at least, helped him succeed in that. If our goal was to end terrorism, our behavior was irrational, because it didn't support the attainment of that goal. In fact, it contradicted it.

I think the world would be better off without Islam, just like I think the world would be better off without Christianity. And I think the world would be much better off without fundamentalism of every kind. But again, virtue must be cultivated. It cannot be forced. That Islam is untrue is really besides the point if it helps those in the Middle East to organize against their very real economic, political, and military enemies. Sam Harris says that he doesn't support pacifism, and yet he also seems to lament that Islamic rather than Jain fundamentalism is spreading. One wonders if he regards the people of the Middle East as ends in themselves or cares about their interests at all. How convenient it would be to have the masses we exploit take strict Jain vows of nonviolence. But I for one do not ask that of them. Their lives are every bit as precious to me as those of Americans. While it may be impossible to deal diplomatically with fundamentalists, our question should be "How can we best dissolve fundamentalism and promote enlightened reasoning here and abroad?" I don't know for sure, but it seems safe to say that exploitation and war are not the most effective ways to go about doing this-even if war is sometimes necessary.4

Noam Chompsky considers what the U.S. has been doing terrorism under his definition of the word, and I see no compelling reason to regard our brutality as more legitimate than that of our enemies. The irony is that if you really want to end terrorism, you have to promote harmony between countries and social welfare across the world.

Some Muslims from the Middle East have called Osama bin Laden the savior of the Muslim world. When I hear that, I cannot help but think, "History repeats itself." The Jesus character couldn't fly planes into buildings, but he did the time and place equivalent of that. People won't like to hear this comparison, but it's apt. Jews were upset that the Romans taxed the Jewish temple, even though the Romans used this money to pay for public works projects like roads and aqueducts for Judea. Really the Jews, considering themselves the chosen people, didn't like being occupied at all. To attack the moneychangers during Passover-themselves "innocents" helping Jews coming to the temple from all over the empire obtain Judean currency to purchase sacrifices they required to fulfill their religious obligations-was an unambiguous declaration of war against Rome to anyone observing it at that time. It was an attempt to start a riot which, if all things went well, would segue into an all out uprising against the Roman occupation. But of course this didn't work. The Roman soldiers guarding the temple, at high alert against the possibility of a riot during Passover, would have immediately captured anyone foolish enough to do this, try the person in a minor court, and have the person executed in the manner designated for terrorists against Rome-crucifixion.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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