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Terrorism and Islam and Our Response

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Another week of remembering 9/11 has nearly passed, the fiery immolations, the destruction of the WTC, destruction at the Pentagon, and death in the hills of Pennsylvania.  There have been some very interesting new perspectives taken on the events and aftermath, and we should understand these to be part of the long process of finding a good place in our memories to file this awful event.  Among the more poetic new renderings of 9/11 was that penned by John Carroll, a columnist of the Boston Globe.  He concluded his "The end of civilization" article on Monday with this:

...In that destruction, we saw the destruction of the mainspring of meaning and hope -- not the clash of civilization, but the end of it. This was more than a sense of individual mortality, the sure knowledge of a coming death that each one carries. We humans live with that by assuming the open-ended continuation of other lives, our children and their children -- on into the indefinite future. But on 9/11, we saw the future itself as mortal.

In that vision, all that ordinarily separates humans was instantly ash. With the future ripped away from us, there was only the present. For a moment, we stopped struggling against time, and entered its most sovereign province, also known as providence. If all things will cease to exist, then the wonder is that they exist right now. With the fateful indifference of history so instantaneously clear, the human rejection of such indifference loomed as the magnificent exception. So, of course, we turned toward one another -- what else to call it? -- in love.

I am moved by the notion that what keeps us from "providence" is our struggle against time.  It is a rich metaphor and lingers in the imagination.  Yet, there are other things going on here, too.  We, of course, turned to one another in a nameless state of horror.  If love, it were a fleeting moment at best, a momentary lapse from our guard, a frantic turning to others for signs of willingness to fight back, a bereaved pause, nothing like agape, a brief moment of recognition that we are strangers here and may now be thrown into the same foxhole for a while.  Or, maybe Carroll was right, that in our horror we saw the fragility of civilization and quickly vowed to hang on by any means—including love—as long as we can.

Beginning an essay on Islam and our political response to it with this stalking horse of poetry out of Boston has its purpose.  It is to give rise to the idea, if not actually convince all of you, that the Christian ideal of "love thy neighbor" (agape) is certainly less firmly rooted in our civilization than we sometimes imagine or hope.  Our civilization seems to ignore it broadly by invoking war often as the true test of righteousness.  In this respect Judeo-Christianity differs little from Islam.  Both have strong militant strains within and both quickly draw the sword before the pen or prayer.

This essay was conceived in the strange umbra of a statement made by retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni last Sunday on Ted Koppel's "The Price of Security" program on the Discovery Channel.  Zinni is an well-known exponent of the "the long war" idea.  He does not promote "long war"; he merely acknowledges that the war we are in will be long because the enemy "chooses" it to be.  Why the enemy chooses "long war" is the question that Zinni answers with another very interesting idea, namely, that inevitably this war must be "decades long," "generational," because it is an artifact of the slow maturing of Islamic civilization from its tribal, warlike postures to a more stabile and peaceful stage.

Because we all wrote in our essays in the days and years after 9/11 about the relative backwardness of the Islamic forces arrayed against us, we tended to discount the ability of Islamic forces to resist a modern technocratic military such as our own.  Inadvertently, we had subscribed to a fallacy of thought and reason very much like the fallacy in Zinni's thesis.  That fallacy is the notion that there is an entelechy—a direction and goal—of civilizations that they proceed "forward" toward democracy, individual liberty, and peacefulness.  Smuggled in with this concept is the real absurdity that western civilization has somehow survived its period of tribe-like warring and settled down to enjoy the fruits of 18th century Philadelphia and 20th century Maastricht, the Euro and the Dollar wedded in a holy matrimony of post-industrial economic bliss.  It is to hope beyond the facts that we have achieved this "millennium" and that having thought so even more ludicrous to believe we are a model for Islam (and others) to follow in their appointed turn.

The other assumption in Zinni's thesis goes by us so fast we scarcely notice.  He is a Marine, so it is understandable that he thinks in terms of war when someone knocks down our buildings and perforates his headquarters.  But war is not the answer to every provocation.  I will maintain it is probably not the best answer to any provocation, for holding out the efficacy of war for some situations provides the all-too-unresisting mind of man with war as some level of semipenultimate resort, not the last resort.  Obviously, Zinni's thesis assumes war because of the warlike provocation.  It does not follow logically, only emotionally.  The analogous question goes something like this: would you respond to Al Capone's mob with Elliot Ness or the Forty-Second Airborne?

Yes, there are vast areas of Arab Islam that have not emerged from the tribal reflexes and mores that existed a hundred years ago ... and a thousand years ago.  Yes, there has not been a renaissance of the classical Islamic culture in modern terms.  Perhaps this is because of the overwhelming contact with western civilization. 

Yes, some of the clergy of Islam are far more apt to take their own path and their own reading of the Q'ran than would the comparable clergy in Roman Catholicism, excepting the early Jesuits, of course.  But, this is not universally true.  Most Muslim clergy are peaceful and devoted to the husbandry of souls, not incitement to jihad.  But even here the analogy is constructed between the twentieth floor of one edifice and the second floor of the other.  Islamic clergy at the street level are well in advance of the illiterate mendicant friars of medieval Christendom, and they are not like the literate clergy of the various orders, which were supposed to carry the current message of the one true faith. There is a political nature to the clerics in modern Arabian Islam that has no real counterpart in the west ... well, until Jerry and Pat (and several others) arrived on the scene.

It is true that Islam is the religion of poor nations across the desert belt of Eurasia and Africa, but Islam is not monolithic, nor is it homogeneous.  There are secular Muslims as well as radically religious Muslims, far more of the former than you might imagine.  Where there is no middle class (or a very small one) religious emotionalism takes root.  Where there are educated people with prospects of reasonably comfortable lives for themselves and their children, secular ideas are very much a part of life in Islam.  Yet there is the feeling among some observers that Islam has a fundamentally militant streak in it, a fatal flaw.  Most such observers are not Muslim.  One such is Haim Harari, whose views are presented more or less "moderately" in a speech a few years ago entitled "The View from the Eye of the Storm".  His thesis is that there are two problems in Islam.

The first problem is that poor Islamic countries are grossly overpopulated in relation to their economies, subjecting their citizens to subsistence living and the worst kind of morale.  These are, he says, the petri dishes of militancy, anger, despair, and sociopathic behavior.  It should be said—although Harari does not—that only a small percentage of the people in these situations become contaminated with hatred or become sociopaths.  The situation is familiar enough, since the slums of every western city contain the very same breeding grounds for discontent.  Harari says that Islam does a poor job of preaching suffrance and toleration.  I contend that he has not looked at the peaceful members of these societies closely enough, nor indeed the militant members of his own society.

The second problem, the one we have been contending with obliquely in Iraq and in the Levant, is the deliberate stimulation of these discontents with hate mongering and radically militant religious doctrines by persons who stand to gain from the disruptions, namely, tribal-like local leaders unable to deal with the modern world and the other groups, religious fanatics in Iran and elsewhere—the Wahabist underclass in Saudi Arabia, for instance.  Harari sees these provocateurs as little more than pimps and criminals.  It is an interesting point of view and recalls my early question about Al Capone.

The efficacy of Islam as a civilizing faith system that promotes peace and forebearance is already proven.  You need but look across the planet for the evidence.  Harari is wrong that it is fatally flawed.  It is no more flawed than any of the brands of Christianity or of Judaism.  And this leads to an important point.  A religious system is meant to have a certain amount of civilizing ethic within its creed.  Obviously, one of the reasons emperors and emirs subscribe to and take advantage of religion is for this benefit, the maintenance of good order and discipline with a modest expenditure of state treasure.

Is in not better to peacefully promote the peaceful aspects of a major religion rather than, as Pope Benedict XVI did this week, to attack it for a militancy that is part and parcel of his own religion and culture?  Doesn't that seem more rational and more likely to succeed?  Doesn't it at least offer the possibility of neutralizing, but probably enlisting, the peace-loving people among whom the terrorist sociopaths live?  Isn't it better to treat these sociopaths as individual criminals rather than as a numberless and anonymous guerilla army?  Aren't these the better starting points for a policy designed to eradicate terrorism?

The questions remain then of what to do about the radical belief system used to spur the proto-terrorist to action, and what to do about the excess of arms provided to them and their enemies.  As for the latter this is a matter of interdiction, but also includes stopping our own sales of arms around the world!

As for the former, the question of radical belief, James H. Dee, a retired Classics professor writes in his "Open Letter to Osama bin Ladin" in the Monday's Austin American-Statesman:

You're [to Osama] not alone in this self-absorbed madness. If you read Mark Juergensmeyer's "Terror in the Mind of God," you'll find multiple mirror-images of your fantasies of cosmic violence, couched in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist mythological imagery. A sane person might conclude that these mutually contradictory ideas cancel each other out and that all are equally false.

But the situation is even worse for the monotheistic "Peoples of The Book," whether the Bible or the Koran. Sustained criticism has undermined much of the basis of Judaeo-Christian beliefs; scholars are increasingly abandoning the factual and historical claims of the Old and New Testaments, and the English philosopher Nicholas Everitt's "Non-existence of God" (2004) has updated Michael Martin's classic "Atheism," showing that the traditional arguments for God (or Allah) simply cannot survive examination.

A similar skepticism is now challenging Islam's core as well. Two books, published by the necessarily pseudonymous Ibn Warraq, "The Origins of the Koran" and "The Quest for the Historical Muhammad," mark the beginning of your worst nightmare - not machine guns at the door, but the application of rational Western thought to all religious systems that have been forcibly imposed on millions of defenseless and impressionable children.

For the ultimate conflict is not between East and West, or Judaeo-Christianity and Islam, but between informed acceptance of modern reality and ignorant, blind rejection - and in the very long run, your side will lose.

Bravo, Professor Dee, but you, too, are a believer in inevitabilities, an historicist, and you are therefore wrong!  Moreover, there is no reason to believe that reason will naturally and inevitably trump emotion in individuals or even groups.  There is every reason to believe the reverse, in fact.  But, if you pare away the "inevitability" from Dee's insight, you get a glimmer of the way we must go.  We must assert and promote a rational view of modern reality and demote the sort of blind rejectionism that now flourishes in both our civilizations.  We must, in the words of Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress, in The Image understand that

Nowadays everybody tells us that what we need is more belief, a stronger and deeper and more encompassing faith. A faith in America and in what we are doing.  That may be true in the long run.  What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves.  What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America.  We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions.  We are haunted, not by reality,  but by those images we have put in place of reality.


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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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