Saturday, February 21, 2015

Making Stuff Up - The Toxicity of Spin

Why is Obama's interpretation superior to hers?
President Obama held a summit on violent extremism (seriously - since we're going to be talking about words here, think about those. And think about who didn't go to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.) over the weekend, and in it he went through some pretty amazing verbal gymnastics to try to take the position that the actions of the 'Islamic State' actually had nothing to do with Islam. Stop laughing. I'm not making this up. "We are not at war with Islam" the President said. "We are at war with the people who have perverted Islam". This, coupled with his somewhat infamous recalling of Christian atrocities in the Crusades and the Inquisition seem to be his primary message. And yeah, you can see why he's doing it.

He wants to isolate the killers from their natural constituency, and he wants to try to push back against the rising tide of ethnic and sectarian hatred, particularly against Muslims and Jews. So he attempts to separate the criminals from their proximate motivations. Even as the right wing purveyors of tribal and sectarian hate attempt to coerce the President to use particular words in order to better inflame a sense of otherness, a time honored way to define and even dehumanize 'the enemy' so as to better facilitate industrial scale killing. A refusal to pander to their base desires is probably an honorable thing, even if it is not particularly pragmatic.

But one has to ask oneself: in major conflicts from Kashmir to Quetta, from Afghanistan to Jerusalem, from Syria to Mali, from Iraq to Nigeria, what is the overarching commonality? Why it is clearly the invocation of Islam as the reason, the justification, the agenda and the goal. People both within the Muslim faith and from outside can insist as stridently as they wish that this is not Islam, that it is, in the President's words, a 'perversion' of those scriptures, but this is meaningless, a distinction without a difference. There is no methodology for defining the validity of a set of religious beliefs. What the worshipers believe is THEIR true faith, and to attempt to insist that these Jihadis do not represent a true and pure expression of their faith would be as if to refuse to accept that abortion clinic bombers were motivated by their Christian dogma as interpreted from their holy scriptures.

The Muslim world is in upheaval, and we can learn from the events of the now defunct "Arab Spring". The people had genuine grievances, from poverty to a lack of opportunity to dysfunctional kleptolcratic authoritarian governance, but it turned out that those seeking a modern democratic political solution were both outnumbered and outgunned by those who had been indoctrinated to seek a medieval theocratic government structure with all its taboos, fears and hatreds in full deployment. Poverty and lack of opportunity are problems, but if you want people to go to war for you you need to give them more. Religious indoctrination has been known to be a powerful tool when raising an army for millennia, and it's especially helpful if it makes your young cannon fodder fear death just that much less.

Of course, in the end, knowing that the primary problem is Islam does not bring us closer to a solution. But there is no 'solution' that can be provided or imposed on the Muslim world by the more prosperous west. They will have to decide what's important, and build their communities based on those priorities. The first step is to recognize that, to a very large degree, these are not American problems. Using American military power against them just reinforces the sense that they are at war with the US, while it solves no real problem. America has been bombing and invading the middle east for a quarter century - can anyone point to a single positive outcome of all that bloodletting? There is none. As long as external forces keep coming into the fight on one side or another the fight cannot end - it can only continue or escalate. There are natural tensions - Sunni/Shiite, Arab/Persian, Modernist/Fundamentalist, Secular/Theocratic and Authoritarian/Socialist/Democratic that will have to work themselves out - there is nothing an external party can do to drive that process.

So the words we use are important - but only to a certain point. You can no more control the human being's impulse to hate by not using certain words than you can understand a conflict by pretending that one of the key drivers of conflict does not exist. The 'Islamic State' is Islamic - one might even say VERY Islamic. Publicly acknowledging that basic and undeniable fact should not be a point of debate - better we should think very much harder about the blind assumption that we have no alternative but to go there and fight them.


  1. ...but it turned out that those seeking a modern democratic political solution were both outnumbered and outgunned by those who had been indoctrinated to seek a medieval theocratic government structure with all its taboos, fears and hatreds in full deployment.

    Imagine what our country would be like if a foreign superpower changed out our rulers whenever multinational oil companies want it done?

  2. Yep. What you get is failed states, ungoverned spaces and tribal rulers. At some point our leaders are going to have to absorb the lessons they've spent so much blood and treasure to learn...

  3. My take on the Islamic world is that it is in a position similar to that of Europe during the Thirty Years' War, a time when simple doctrinal differences (consubstantiation or transubstantiation?) could determine whether you were killed and your village razed. If it hadn't have been for the violent decades of the Reformation/Countereformation, would there have been a largely secular European continent? Indeed, if it hadn't have been for that legacy of religious violence, would the concept of freedom of (and from) religion have gained a foothold?