June 25, 2006
Who Was David and Who Was Goliath?
I don't have particularly strong feelings about the Middle East, beyond a fervent hope for peace and a suspicion of anyone who goes overboard in proclaiming the virtue of one side against the viciousness of the other. Maybe that's why these quotes Laura Turner found, from novelist Amos Oz, appealed to me so much.
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.
June 15, 2005
Make Some Noise
Mukhtaran Bibi is under arrest. You remember her, in a world of Jackos and Rumsfelds and celebrity relationships and deified presidents, Bibi is an actual hero, a Mandela-esque story of courage and forgiveness. She's a Pakistani women whose brother committed a crime and, under the barbaric codes sometimes enforced in rural Pakistan, was condemned to public, forced gang rape to atone for him. When the four men had finished raping her, she was forced to walk home, nearly nude, while hundreds of onlookers laughed and jeered.
She was supposed to die.
If all had gone as planned, she would've grabbed a knife and slit her throat, or maybe her wrists. She would've accepted that she had been sacrificed for a male, that it was more than a fair trade, and that no one could move on until the last spark of life had vanished behind her eyes. And she would've hurried up and and finished the affair.
All did not go as planned.
The knives stayed in the drawer. Her nude body found clothes. She convinced a local Islamic leader to back her as she took her rapists to court. They were convicted. They were locked away. She got a settlement.
One could, at this point, forgive her for jetting off. For paying however many rupees it took, settling back into a plane seat, and appyling for asylum in America, hitting the lecture rout, leaving. She didn't. Instead, she built schools. Two of them, one for boys, one for girls. She took special care to enroll the children of her attackers, banishing venegeance and cutting the generational cord of ignorance. She enrolled in her own school to learn to read. She started a shelter for abused women. She decided to found an ambulance service so the rural sick could reach high-tech hospitals. She spoke out against honor killings and rapes. And she was going to visit America.
Pervez Musharraf, our erstwhile ally in the War on Terror, couldn't have that. Mukhtaran Bibi was put under house arrest last Thursday. When she tried to walk out, police pointed guns at her. When she tried to make calls, they snipped the landline. When she moved to the cell, they took her to Islamabad and put her in prison. Then, for good measure, they released her rapists -- a warning shot.
Having Mukhtaran Bibi speak out about Pakistan's brutal side didn't fit the softer, more Western image Musharraf wanted to project. What he really didn't count on, though, was a columnist for the New York Times taking up the case and making more noise than she ever could've. And I bet he's not expecting outraged e-mails from all over the world to fly into his government's inboxes. Which is why they should be. And they should be loud, outraged, and laced with threats about how many congressmen will be informed and how much noise will be made. They should, above all, be perfectly clear on one count: if she dies, her voice will be far louder than if she lived.
His Excellency Mr. Jehangir Karamat email@example.com
Mr Mohammad Sadiq is Deputy Chief of Mission and assists the Ambassador in the overall functioning of the Embassy. He deals with both political and administrative issues. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr Aslam Khan is Minister (Political) and deals with political issues email@example.com
Mr Shahid Ahmed is Counsellor Community Affairs and deals with the Pakistani community in the United States. firstname.lastname@example.org
Brig Shafqaat Ahmed is the Defence & Military Attache of the Pakistan Embassy. email@example.com
Mrs Talat Waseem is the Press Minister and Media Spokesperson of the Embassy firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: Just to be clear, Tom Watson did the legwork gathering these e-mails, not me. Credit where it's due.
May 02, 2005
Responding to Democracy
Wesley Clark's contribution to the Washington Monthly's Democracy in the Middle East forum is a great, great read, much better than the title made it sound. On one level, the essay is the surprisingly adept effort of a 2008 presidential candidate to account for hopefully signs in the Arab world. Clark does so by leveraging his Reaganite past and demanding humility from the Bush administration:
The administration has generally responded to these openings by adding to the pressure, calling for withdrawal of Syrian forces and for democracy. But like the rooster who thinks his crowing caused the dawn, those who rule Washington today have a habit of taking credit for events of which they were in fact not the primary movers. Many of them have insisted, for instance, that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was largely the consequence of President Reagan's military policies. As a military officer at the time, and a Reagan supporter, I would be happy to give the Gipper that credit. In truth, however, our military posture was only one factor. As in the Middle East today, individuals who labored for freedom within these countries performed the bulk of the work. Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other contemporaries looked at America as an ideal, not as the muscle, on every street corner. Other, truly transformative agents of Western influence, such as Pope John Paul II, the labor union movement, international commercial institutions, and the influences of next-door neighbors like the Federal Republic of Germany were at work.
Today, American democratic values are admired in the Middle East, but our policies have generated popular resentment. Although it may come as a surprise to those of us here, there is a passionate resistance to the U.S. “imposing” its style of democracy to suit American purposes. Democratic reformers in the Middle East don't want to have their own hopes and dreams subordinated to the political agenda of the United States. It's for this reason that the administration shouldn't try to take too much credit for the coming changes. Or be too boastful about our own institutions. Or too loud in proclaiming that we're thrilled about Middle Eastern democracy—mostly because it makes us feel safer. A little humility is likely to prove far more useful than chest-thumping.
That's a pretty impressive response, I think. The guy's learning. But on another level, his piece is a blueprint for how America should be responding to overseas developments. And that's where Clark is at his most interesting. Too much US involvement, he argues, can actually co-opt democracy movements by making them appear a front for American interests or an imposition of foreign values. That means that when we crow over our remarkable achievements in liberalizing the rest of earth, we may inadvertently be aiding and abetting Islamists who want to take these burgeoning democracies and leverage them into repressive theocracies. If they can paint the liberals as American stooges, their job becomes ever-easier.
One force Clark implies, but doesn't really address, is the danger that American pressure is forcing rulers to make superficial alterations in their political processes, which are in turn allowing them to retain their dictatorships, weakening their country's pro-democracy movements, and strengthening their regimes by spurring them to make surface changes that look like, but aren't, substantive concessions. So by forcing small changes to come from the top we're setting back the fundamental reforms that can only rise from the population. Not sure if that's true, but it's something worth thinking about.
March 07, 2005
The Pink Revolution
Has anyone else found it a bit odd that every single magazine cover lauding Lebanon's march towards freedom has personified the uprising in hot women? Newsweek did it (and here), as did The Economist, and US News and World Report, and the Weekly Standard, and, if I had a copy of Time, I'm sure I'd find the same. It's not that I have any particular problem with the idea, but is there some archetype I'm unaware of that paints Democracy as a slim, 5'4"-5'8" women with curly hair and soft features? Are the schools segregated and only the female institutions are offering their charges the day off to protest? And, more to the point, isn't this emphasis a tad counterproductive? I'd be interested to see what imagery the Arab media is using (paging Abu Aardvark), as nothing seems quicker to instigate a fundie backlash than painting the movement as a girls-only uprising.
Speaking of which, it does seem that the fundie backlash is beginning, in the form of Hizballah-led peaceful rallies. With any luck, they'll stay that way.
Update: Seems that Insty noticed this too.
February 17, 2005
I haven't said anything on the Lebanon/Syria situation because I don't know anything about Lebanon or Syria. I do, however, know enough to recommend Praktike's comments on the matter. And by the way, are you reading Liberals Against Terrorism? Cause if you're not, you should be. Even Haggai's hanging out there now.