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July 15, 2005

Returning Islam to Greatness

As my mother was frying up the karela today, she mentioned that the London bombers all appear to be British men of Pakistani origin.  One of them, as she said, had an eight-month-old child.  Another, who killed seven people, came from a family that owned a fish-and-chip shop.  A third, who killed thirteen people, told his parents that he was going to London to attend a religious studies seminar.  When they couldn't contact him after the bombings, they called police to report him missing. 

There's a tendency to see our current struggles against terrorism as part of some great clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, in which two civilizations go in and only one will come out alive.  It's manifest, explicitly or implicitly, in almost everything Tacitus writes --

Perhaps the villains' expectation is that the Briton will quail as the Spaniard, reacting to massacre with headlong flight from foreign fields.  I think not.  About me, I see older Scots with a steely flint in their eyes.  The reckoning will come.

Can you hear how the names of ancient Western nations are invoked? Can you see the Scots' claymores gleaming?  It's understandable that many people in the West would see a war between two civilizations here.  After all, it's how anybody willing to commit terrorism against us would see it, and it might seem that the only way to take a terrorist act seriously is to endow it with the greatest significance possible -- often, the same grand significance that its perpetrators give it. And so the frame is built.  George Lakoff may talk a lot about framing, but Osama Bin Laden is actually good at it.  The War on Terror isn't first Bush's frame, it's the other half of Osama's, and it's the one that Tacitus now operates in.  Of course, Tacitus is right in defending the West as a morally better civilization than much of the Islamic world -- something for which we have feminists, antislavery crusaders, and others in the liberal tradition to thank.  But the way Tacitus conceives of the relation between these two unequal civilizations is parallel to the way Bin Laden conceives of it -- a war between two civilizations, only one of whom will survive. 

I see the struggle differently.  Societies based on Islamic conservatism have deep problems.  Many are horrifically sexist, suffering from inequalities of wealth that are worse than our own, and leading their members to occasional acts of mass murder.  But these things are not going to go away as the result of a protracted military operation*.  Rather than betting on the defeat of Islam through war, I'm hoping for a gradual transformation in which the Islamic world takes up liberalism just as the West has over the last few centuries.  I think they'll be able to transform much faster than we did, given that there's already a large part of the world that has taken up liberal values and that we have a global media that can transmit those values across national borders.  Our goal is to facilitate this process.  This is a complicated thing to do, and it'll require a lot of creativity and subtlety on our part.  Islamic conservatives are doing everything they can to block the Western media, and overcoming their efforts is essential to victory. 

What happens if we succeed?  Moslems may still hold holy the name of Allah and pray towards Mecca five times a day, but they'll ignore the more vicious parts of the Koran, just as most of us ignore the more vicious parts of the Bible.  Not seeing any great enmity between themselves and the West, they'll feel no need whatsoever for terrorism.  The Islamic world won't have fallen, it'll have completed its return to the global leadership it had back in the days of Omar Khayyam, when Europe was still stuck in a Dark Age. 

The conservative mullahs of Iran will still oppose us just as much (if not more), and Osama will fight us with no less fury.  But we'll have a much better hope of gaining support from ordinary Muslims, the people on whom any strategy for cultural transformation depends.  If we present ourselves as being involved in a war where we fight for the end of their civilization, we'll lose any chance of their support.  Some who live in the West will think that being good Muslims requires them to fight back by any means possible, including suicide terrorism.  To describe this train of thought isn't to excuse its consequences.  The London bombers, and nobody else (possibly excepting al-Qaeda members who hoped to inspire such acts), are morally responsible for the bombings.  It's simply to point out the effects of accepting Bin Laden's frame, and to recommend what I think is a better strategy. 

*Conservatives may point to the social transformations we engineered in post-WWII Germany and Japan.  But those were young nationalistic ideologies we put down, and the utter defeat of your nation in a big war followed by an careful re-education program by the victors can make you restructure your nationalism.  Islam is not a young nationalistic movement but an ancient world religion, and if one wants to call our victory in the Second World War an easy one, it will not go down so easily.  Even if we could take over all the Islamic nations in the world and install anti-Islamic governments, Islam would still flourish as an underground religion, and terrorists would keep blowing things up to avenge its mistreatment by the West.

--Neil the Ethical Werewolf

July 15, 2005 in The Middle East | Permalink

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Comments

"Perhaps the villains' expectation is that the Briton will quail as the Spaniard, reacting to massacre with headlong flight from foreign fields.  I think not.  About me, I see older Scots with a steely flint in their eyes.  The reckoning will come."

What a pretentious fucking wanker.

Most Brits, and especially Scots (a good proportion of which are outright socialists, Tacitus my friend), have wanted out of Iraq for a long, long time. It's got nothing to do with quailing. Nor had the Spanish withdawal, either.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 15, 2005 3:36:30 AM

Yeah, Ginger. The Spanish vote after the Madrid bombing was mostly about their government being dishonest to them.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 15, 2005 3:44:20 AM

Good post, Neil!

Those who advocate a war of civilizations (like Tacitus) would lead us into Orwell's constant war, updated with modern asymetic terrorist techniques. We should not expect that kind of war to be fought only in distant places.

A far better model: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in Spain in the height of Islamic cultural influence.

Since we still haven't 'learned' the lesson of what Iraq has taught us, we are probably doomed to more of these same mistakes before we get the message.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 15, 2005 3:47:54 AM

It is not a matter of choice that the war is framed in such a manner. The enemy has framed it for you. Just look at any of the writings. To them it is, indeed, a war of two civilizations.
I might also add that this is part of a larger historical picture. It is the third major push to expand Islam, each being by war. Good luck to you who feel you have some control over how this war is framed simply by flapping your gums....you don't.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 15, 2005 6:55:19 AM

"It is not a matter of choice that the war is framed in such a manner. The enemy has framed it for you. Just look at any of the writings. To them it is, indeed, a war of two civilizations."

Well, duh. The point is that by framing it that way ourselves, we fall into their trap. Every step the West takes that reinforces the notion that this is a war between Christianity and Islam, or powerful West versus downtrodden East, boosts support for Al Qaeda. If we want to change the way people think about Al Qaeda, the most effective means is to show that it's not true, that it's about freedom vs totalitarianism and about shared humanity vs murderous divisiveness.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 15, 2005 9:34:16 AM

Robert,

So your willing to let a bunch of terrorists define what this war is about? That sounds fairly defeatist. If we let the terrorists define what this war is about then they will win, at the very least they will win control of the Middle East, which seems to be what many of them want anyway.

If the people of the Middle East see this as a clash of two civilizations (West vs. East, secular vs. relgious or at its worst Christan vs. Islam) then their hearts are going to follow the "home team" and we will lose them. Period. This is the same mistake the US government made in the 60s and 70s in Iran, where the Shah became identified with the West and the religious fundamentalists were able to frame their revolution as a true Islam vs. Western secularism/imperialism argument.

Look, I'm a big believer in understanding your enemy. If we know what their motivations are for fighting us, we can use that in multiple ways (to undercut their "base" of support, or to know how they are recruiting soldiers), but we must never, ever set our motives up to be the opposite of theirs just because they are our enemy. That's ceding important psychological landscape to them that they shouldn't have. If we allow them to make this whole thing nothing more that "Islam vs. Western culture" we cut off a bunch of Muslims who want to support us right at the knees.


Posted by: NonyNony | Jul 15, 2005 9:49:21 AM

I like the way you try to stick 'conservatism' in there when you are talking about radical Islam.

------"I'm hoping for a gradual transformation in which the Islamic world takes up liberalism"

Yeah, imagine all the Muslims at Disney-World's Gay-Days! Wearing their turbins, sucking face, grabbing each others ass. I think that was Mohamad's vision.

Moderate Islam will never embrace homosexuality and abortion. No major world religion embraces queerness or abortion, two cornerstones of today's liberalism. Let alone all the other perversions of liberalism.

Liberalism is far from the cure to the world's ills. This country is moving away from it after flirting with it for the last forty years. It just doesn't work.


------"Germany and Japan. But those were young nationalistic ideologies"

Imperial Japan? I am not real familiar with Japan's history, but didn't Japan have a multi-century monarchy?

What about the massive deaths in battles with the US cuz the Japanese refused to surrender? What about kamikazes? They sound like they were pretty radical to me.

------"terrorists would keep blowing things up to avenge its mistreatment by the West."

This is the epitomy of today's liberalism. Blame America FIRST when terrorists attack us or our allies.

As far as a 'frame' or directing the war, Bush has directed it. We have taken the fight to them. Terrorists are streaming into Iraq to be mowed down by our soldiers, instead of planning attacks on us here.

George Bush gave birth to a democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has freed fifty million people who were subjects of opressive regimes.

'Smoke a Fatty, It's Friday!'

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jul 15, 2005 10:54:09 AM

It would seem the leaders of both sides would frame this as a fifth(?) crusade.One for actual religous reasons and the using religon as a motivator.
However Islam is slowly quietly undergoing an evolution, Islam has gained many converts in Asia that is Mynamar,Indonesia,Thailand, and is moving in to Cambodia. This has brought about a term I've never read on any blog but have heard a number of times "buddhi-moslem" the hybridising of Buddhism and Islam need-less highly modifying both, this is slowly making it's way back to the mid-east and is gaining popularity among younger people there. If there is hope for the future it may well lie with this.

Posted by: kate | Jul 15, 2005 11:23:35 AM

Captain Toke,
You've already lit one up I see.

-Most Religions are conservative. Calling Islam conservative is probably redundant.

-Libralism works. It is what made this country great. The whole idea that people are the government and that god didn't choose the king is not a conservative idea. The whole idea that everybody has equal rights is definitely liberal. Even though the idea was in the constitution, it has been a liberal struggle to get those rights for everybody.

Japan had a weak monarchy for many centuries. They also had Shoguns who controled the military. The emperor was pretty powerless. I think what the writer was trying to get through is that Re-educating someone in their nationalist ideas might be easier than trying to convince them that their entire religion is wrong.

Why is that every time someone points out that someone doesn't like our policies, they are blaming America? That comment was about why they attacked. Earlier in the piece he talked about our culture being morally superior.

I've heard that the stuff has gotten stronger the past 20 years. I hadn't realized.

Posted by: Dan | Jul 15, 2005 11:24:53 AM

"As far as a 'frame' or directing the war, Bush has directed it. We have taken the fight to them. Terrorists are streaming into Iraq to be mowed down by our soldiers, instead of planning attacks on us here."

Speaking as a Londoner, fuck off.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 15, 2005 11:30:51 AM

Perhaps the villains' expectation is that the Briton will quail as the Spaniard, reacting to massacre with headlong flight from foreign fields. I think not. About me, I see older Scots with a steely flint in their eyes. The reckoning will come.

Read it aloud, it's five times funnier that way.

Posted by: kth | Jul 15, 2005 11:48:11 AM

Radical Islam is 'radical', not conservative. Moderate Islam, Christianity, Judaism are conservative.

------"Libralism works."

HA!

You ever hear of the Great Society? Liberals spent a trillion dollars keeping the black community dependant on the left. It has destroyed the black family.


------"The whole idea that people are the government"

That is communism. That is where the idea of redistribution of wealth comes from.

The American dream of working hard and succeeding with little gov't interference is a conservative idea.

If you want to liberal societies, look at some European nations. High unemployment, outrageous taxes and a lower standard of living.


When someone says 'terrorists attack to avenge mistreatment by the west', in case you can't follow that, The US (the west) is being attacked cuz the US mistreated someone. That is what I call blaming the US or the west for the attacks we incur.

Was the 9/11 attack in response to our mistreatment of some group?Who were we mistreating to be attacked on 9/11?

'getting stoned and enlightening liberals'

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jul 15, 2005 11:49:21 AM

"This is the same mistake the US government made in the 60s and 70s in Iran, where the Shah became identified with the West"

Now, where did they ever get that idea (from 1953 on, when the US covertly overthrew democracy in Iran)?

"Look, I'm a big believer in understanding your enemy. If we know what their motivations are for fighting us..."

How about understanding your own government first, and understanding *other civilizations*, not 'enemies'?

Do you know why the US is fighitng in Iraq?

Are you aware of the "Project for a New American Century"'s belief that what the world needs is US hegemony, for the sake of the human race, and that the way to go about it is to take advantage of our powst-cold-war sole superpower military advantage?

That the Iraq is about that, the US increasing power, not about Saddam's crimes, or WMD, or liberating Iraqis.

Posted by: Craig | Jul 15, 2005 11:52:06 AM

Thanks for the example Ginger.

Blame Bush or Blair for the terrorist attacks in London. It is not the terrorist's fault.

I think England has realized they need to start incarcerating Imam's who preach and incite death to non-believers.

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jul 15, 2005 11:59:53 AM

first a few thoughts, then some troll-feeding, because i have taken friday off and have nothing better to do.

the clash of civilizations thing goes back to the profoundly mistaken and quite painful white man's burden/imperialistic philosophy. the terrorists are using the same idea but changing the white man to muslim man. taking a cue from theextremely successful bastards at the british east india co., they use tactis that divide us so that the predictable fearful reactions can be manipulated by them to mean whatever they want. while what they do is vile and ultimately tragic, it is quite beyond us to say that we must invade their countries and install our philosophy into them. part of this is because they have no country... when will people understand that a war is being fought but for the other side it is a philosophical exercise where lives lost means nothing.

the best thing that we as a people can do is lead by example. you dont win hearts and minds, as some wiseguy once said, by blowing them up. and it is precisely that battle we have to win. nothing else will stop terrorism but convincing the people of the world that being free and pursuing happiness is not such a bad thing after all.

now, on to the troll-feeding

Was the 9/11 attack in response to our mistreatment of some group?Who were we mistreating to be attacked on 9/11?
look through the haze, my dear toker. the many tapes of Tupac.... i mean OBL clearly indicate that he advertises his methods as a way of liberating Islam from western oppression. looking at the middle east which is under the yoke of oppressive tyrants fuelled by (mostly american) military presence and western oil money, it's quite easy to see why such a violent method especially under the cloak of religion is tempting to the youth over there.


as to this:
-----"Libralism works."

HA!

You ever hear of the Great Society? Liberals spent a trillion dollars keeping the black community dependant on the left. It has destroyed the black family.


------"The whole idea that people are the government"

That is communism. That is where the idea of redistribution of wealth comes from.

The American dream of working hard and succeeding with little gov't interference is a conservative idea.

where do i get what you're smoking? and how much does it cost?
because succeeding with little government interference is profoundly a libertarian philosophy. also the idea that people are the government is a democratic one, not a communistic one. of course it was first popularized over 200 years ago and it seems the red menace has occupied the paranoia caused by your self-professed toking, but the communistic philosophy in purely marxist terms is a staging ground to defeat capitalism before the ascent into a classless society.

please listen to your wellwishers. please do not toke and type. the only thing you are enlightening is the end of your joint.

Posted by: adithemopur | Jul 15, 2005 12:21:59 PM

btw, where the heck do you get karela's neil? i've been looking for them for the past 4 years and can't find any... let me know

Posted by: almostinfamous | Jul 15, 2005 12:23:52 PM

Did I say anything about blaming Bush and Blair? I was pointing out that it's fucking offensive to bang on about the success of supposed flypaper strategies when 54 people have just been killed in London.

And incidentally, Britain was already arresting Imams who preach death to non-believers. Ironically enough, they did it under the racial hatred laws that conservatives hate so much.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 15, 2005 12:46:22 PM

As far as a 'frame' or directing the war, Bush has directed it. We have taken the fight to them. Terrorists are streaming into Iraq to be mowed down by our soldiers, instead of planning attacks on us here.

George Bush gave birth to a democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has freed fifty million people who were subjects of opressive regimes.

If you don't see the inherent conflict in those two statements, I feel pity for you. Yes, lets FREE those in Afghanistan and Iraq and at the same time use their land as a magnet to blow up terrorists. Unfortunately, some of them will just have to accept that they will become collateral damage to our weaponry and tactics, not too mention nice targets for the terrorist themselves.

My, such respect for the innocents of this plight. Looks like indifference to their plight to me.

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 15, 2005 1:33:45 PM

Ok, magnets don't blow up people bombs do. My metaphor's sound like Tom Friedmans'!

Posted by: Adrock | Jul 15, 2005 1:49:38 PM

Ginger Yellow said, "I think what the writer was trying to get through is that Re-educating someone in their nationalist ideas might be easier than trying to convince them that their entire religion is wrong."

Isn't that the point of nation building in Iraq?

For the record, I believe the writer was saying this:

"I'd like to buy the world a coke and teach the world to sing." But they would only turn the bottle into a molotov cocktail and throw it at you.

Posted by: Independent | Jul 15, 2005 1:58:23 PM

I didn't say that, Dan did.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 15, 2005 2:14:32 PM

Often you have to go to an Indian or Chinese grocery to get karela, as it's sort of a specialty item. I don't like it very much, since it's incredibly bitter.

When I was first thinking about the post, I planned to write a little more about the assimilation of immigrants, using my fairly high level of assimilatedness as a data point. Exotic veggies give a story some immigrant flavor. But I ended up dropping that part.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 15, 2005 3:55:28 PM

I think it sound quite arrogant to say that these nations should become more like the West. I think there is a lot to be gained by absorbing aspects of Muslim civilization into our own. The last time we did that on the large scale we had something called the Rennaisance. One lesson of America is that you can take the best of many cultures and absorb it into your own.

Posted by: CTBigBear | Jul 15, 2005 4:08:48 PM

Those Europeans, such as Ginger, who think they will reason away this third wave of Islamic terrorism by flapping their gums are in for a rude awakening.

Posted by: Robert Zimmerman | Jul 15, 2005 5:48:50 PM

BigBear, if you're 12th century Europe, I'd say it's a great idea to absorb some 12th century Islam. But right now they're not doing so well.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 15, 2005 6:17:57 PM

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