Monday, May 28, 2007

Dave Sim's blogandmail #258 (May 27th, 2007)

There was an interesting piece in yesterday's National Post Issues & Comment pages, written by Douglas E. Streusand. The credit reads:

"Douglas E. Streusand is a professor at the United States Marine Corps Command & Staff College. His opinions are his own and do not represent any U.S. government agency."

More's the pity since he makes a number of salient observations. I'm sort of hoping that Mr. Streusand isn't one of those writers who is blind to the contradiction between the free exchange of ideas and an over-zealous fear of copyright violation because I plan to quote pretty extensively from his article here – probably more than is warranted by any narrow definition of proprietary interests. He writes:

"In the current conflict known as the Global War on Terrorism or the Long War, the socialization of the conflict – that is, who takes which side – will affect the course of the conflict significantly and perhaps decisively. Al-Qaeda, its competitors, affiliates and franchisees seek to define the conflict as a struggle between Islam and the West, and thus to win the broadest possible support among the world's Muslims. The United States and its coalition partners seek to define their enemies as narrowly as possible, portraying themselves as fighting not Islam but a deviant ideology that is as inimical to Islam as to the West. By doing so, the coalition would deprive the hostile networks of the popular support on which they depend to survive."

This is good stuff, closely reasoned as long as we genuinely believe we are fighting a deviant ideology and not just calling it that. One of the stumbling blocks I see is the use of the terminology "portraying themselves" which, to me, bespeaks Western corruption of feministic origin having a comparable nature to the use of the term "role model" which also originates on the unfairer sex's side of the ledger that holds that portrayal and reality are interchangeable. To me it's an insidious worldview that is growing in the West like a cancer and that's the reason that I think it needs to be rooted out (although I'm pretty much a minority of one in thinking so). We are not, in my view, "portraying ourselves" as "fighting not Islam but a deviant ideology that is as inimical to Islam as to the West." We are actually doing so. Or, at least, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, me, the U.S. military and a handful of others are doing so. It's quite possible, however, that there is a certain amount of portrayal going on: members of the coalition, as an example, who just flat out hate Arabs and Muslims but are happy to keep that fact to themselves and portray themselves as fighting only against Muslim extremists as long as they continue to have a license to kill x number of Arabs and Muslims. A certain number of extremist Muslims might, likewise, just have a "mad on" about Westerners out of envy and are willing to keep that to themselves and portray themselves as fighting in the name of God against only the serious infidel so long as they get to kill x number of rich Westerners in the course of doing so. I think there is probably a higher level of actuality (or perceived self-confidence in actuality) on the Muslim side than on the Western side. Depending on how balanced the forces at work are this could be crucial in arriving at hoped-for outcomes. My own core hope is that the West's (however nebulously construed) core belief is in the inviolability of freedom of choice, particularly in religion and in lifestyle and that that isn't a portrayal in any way, shape or form.

"The Western coalition faces numerous obstacles in achieving this goal. Only Muslims themselves can decide whether al-Qaeda and its outriders represent Islam or not. Islam, like any other faith, becomes what its followers make it. Al-Qaeda's transformation of Islam into a totalitarian ideology is a pronounced deviation from the historical mainstream of Islam in practice and in theory, suggesting that in the long run the vast majority of Muslims WILL reject it. But the West has only limited leverage in deciding how long the run is."

Well, this isn't particularly accurate and tends, in my view, to be a "Christo-centric" way of looking at it, presuming that all religions are pretty much like Christianity in that they start with very high ideals and scrupulous faith and then gradually erode into basic secularism with a certain amount of lip service and religious observance restricted to specific holidays but with the entrenched priesthood quietly marginalized and ignored as the religion advances into modernity. The secular view that when religion is kept to the fringes, a society has finally "grown up".

On the contrary, as I pointed out in my column on The Twelfth Imam, evidence suggests Islam tends to pull itself in the direction of just such flaccid secularism and the erosion of strict observance and then, just before Islam crosses the Rubicon into a marginalised fringe state, it goes through convulsions that take everything back to the seventh century. You have only to look at any given Muslim society to see what stage it's at in that process. Iran has gone as far back to the seventh century as it can and is now working its way "forward" again. Since 1920 Turkey has been struggling to stay in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries under the watchful eye of its military without whose interventions in the nation's politics they would have gone back towards the seventh century several times. If you told me that thirty years (heck, THREE years) from now, under the influence of a charismatic Imam, Turkey would return to the seventh century I would be less surprised than if you told me Turkey is fated to remain strictly secular from now until Judgement Day. The current crisis hinges on strict Islam incrementally making a comeback and the United States, at least for the moment, is taking the side of the Islamists over the secularists. Whether you agree with it or not, that (to me) is what makes Islam impressive as a formal religion. It is pretty much immune to permanent marginalization.

Arguably Darfur is becoming the serious problem it is because it has gone back to the seventh century. In Afghanistan we're fighting to bring the Afghans back to the twentieth century (or, maybe the nineteenth) after their recent trip back to the seventh century under the Taliban. Chechnya is going back to the seventh century. One of the overlooked aspects of Israel's war – or, rather, "war" – in Lebanon last year is that when a modern country attacks a Muslim country, the modernists/secularist Muslims flee the conflict and the hard-core Muslims stay and fight no matter the extent to which they are deprived of material comforts and, with material comforts taken out of the equation, the society thereby begins to revert rapidly to the seventh century. The question is which is real? Modern Secularism or the seventh century? To Westerners, it's modern secularism. To Muslims, it's both. No one wants the Taliban dictating to them, but as Muslim society erodes and standards of behaviour become swinish, you can pretty much set your watch by the appearance of the reformer promising a return to True Islam. It's a self-correcting societal apparatus that Jews and Christians either lack or have outgrown.

Trying to look on the bright side, there is one thing that Westerners can do which is to usurp the terminology. The definition of Islam is Submission to the Will of God and of Muslims as Those Who Submit to the Will of God. The West can easily appropriate that by saying that we in the West are those who Submit to the Will of God and the Will of God is that people be allowed to make choices. "You to your religion and me to mine." Except in this case, adding a new interpretation of what Islam means.

I don't think that will happen (and I am personally amused that the reason that I don't think that will happen is because the countries formerly known as Christendom are more Christian than they care to admit and would rather be metaphorically flayed alive and dipped in sea brine than to have any genuine "truck or trade" with Islam) although I do think it's the most tactically sound approach (in the same way that Christianity tore the guts out of Greek philosophy by usurping and redefining Logos -- The Word).

"The West can, however, help itself by doing everything possible to demonstrate that we do not identify Islam as the enemy, or identify the enemy with Islam…"

As Lyndon Johnson used to say (if what is being suggested is a basis for dialogue between the West and Islam – and what other motive could there be?) "That dog won't hunt." The problem is that the West DOES identify seventh century-style Islam as the enemy. If you think that stoning adulterers is wrong, cutting off the hands and feet of malefactors on opposite sides of their bodies is wrong, flaying the whore and the whoremonger is wrong (and all of these, I might hasten to add, are back on the negotiating table in Turkey with the United States at least giving tacit endorsement) – as all sensible people in the West do -- and, conversely, if you are tolerant of those who join gods with God and those who deem men and women to be equal (as everyone in the West, apparently, besides me, Sandeep, Jeff, Billy and David does) and these are issues you are willing to lay down your life for -- opposing what you think is wrong and supporting what you think is right – even where those are at variance with revelations in the Koran -- then you are definitely identifying seventh-century Islam as your enemy. All you've left open is the question of whether you are willing to die for your beliefs as the Americans and the coalition are doing or if you are just going to roll over and die like France had pretty much elected to do (although their recent election that delivered a decisive blow to mealy-mouthed socialist secularism offers some hope).

As to not "identify[ing] the enemy with Islam" this verges on the solipsistic. If Osama bin Laden isn't a devout Muslim, what is he? You can say that he's misguided but it would be a lunatic approach to wonder where his motivation comes from as if that point of origin was somehow in doubt. The doubt is purely Western and purely mythical. "Maybe he was abused as a child or he just has severe unresolved anger issues. Maybe he just needs a group hug or some counselling. Maybe, like Al Franken, he just has to look in the mirror and say, `Darn it, I'm a nice person…and people like me.'"

When push comes to shove I wouldn't put too much faith in the possibility of successfully persuading Muslims to re-imagine Islam through Sigmund Freud's and Oprah Winfrey's bifocals.

"And one way to do this is by changing the public discourse about Islam.

"One prominent example of this is the widespread practice of identifying our enemies as jihadis or mujahidin. English dictionaries consistently define jihad as holy war, but jihad is not an English word. In Arabic, it is a verbal noun that means striving or making effort. (the phrase `fi sabilillah' – `in the path of God' – completes the expression – as in `Jihad fi sabilillah' – though it is generally omitted.)"

This seems at least potentially useful although dramatically unlikely to me. I don't think you even have to go so far as to express it in Arabic, but I do think a frank statement that the West believes itself to be "striving on path of God" -- in advancing the idea that each individual is free to choose his or her own form of striving and to reap the benefits and suffer the consequences of those choices (`God will not wrong you so much as the husk of a date stone') -- and that we consider those who judge and punish the striving of others to be anathematic to our own best judgement of God's will -- would probably communicate the idea pretty effectively. The thing is, I think this would again swerve dangerously in the direction of portrayal. Does the West actually BELIEVE that it is striving on path of God?

Unconsciously, yes, I believe so – on the same level where the countries that make up Christendom are still Christian countries and the inhabitants of those countries are (unbeknownst to most of them) Christians at heart.

Consciously, I would have to say no. I think there exists in our present-day world at least an illusion of consensus in the West that belief in God is little more than a quaint affectation that needs to be sequestered at the margins of society. I think most Westerners would describe "striving on path of God" as "the human urge to do good works" or something equally blandified and secular in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright said that he believed in God, he just calls Him "Nature". Too glib by half in the context that Islam occupies. Right now most Westerners don't see themselves as having anything in particular at stake in the Clash of Civilizations. Of course as the conflict continues to move forward that's apt to change much as we saw recently in France with the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy who was and is universally despised (within the same consensus illusion that is growing like a cancer in North America) by the feminists and fellow travellers: You can use the feministic approach of shunning Islam if you want, but it doesn't tend to make Islam go away, it just strengthens Islam. You can address the problem now or you can address the problem later but it is as certain as God made little green apples that you will have to address the problem at some point. The feminists, as exemplified by Sarkozy's opponent Royal adhere to the viewpoint that everything unpleasant that they don't want to face can just be ignored to death. That's true of everything except Islam, in my view.

"In the earliest Muslim texts, most notably the hadith, the reports of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, jihad refers primarily to warfare in the name of the faith. And so one cannot deny that its meaning includes holy war. But Islamic law also includes rigorous standards that military activity must meet to qualify as jihad. Engaging in warfare in violation of those standards is sinful. Al-Qaeda and its allies and fellow-travellers assert vociferously that their actions qualify as jihad; their rhetoric uses the term repeatedly. The legitimacy of their actions depends entirely on qualifying as jihad.

Thus, describing them as jihadis or mujahidin (participants in jihad) not only validates their claim to legitimacy but also implies that we consider Islam itself our enemy. From the perspective of strategic communications, calling our enemies jihadis or mujahidin is counterproductive. It makes as much sense as calling Nazi SS units `National Socialist Aryan heroes.'

What term, then, SHOULD we use for al-Qaeda and its activities? In the Islamic legal tradition, the best term for warfare that does not meet the standards of jihad is hirabah, which originally meant brigandage but now denotes sinful warfare in general. Another potentially useful word is irhab, the Arabic word for terrorism. Irhabi is the literal translation of `terrorist'."

Again, I can't really see the West adopting Islamic terminology with the idea of usurping the ability to frame its meaning but if such a thing is possible (even a) remotely and b) in some distant future), it certainly seems useful to me. I have no problem seeing things framed in just such absolutist terms. "I am striving on path of God but YOU are engaging in sinful warfare. I call on God to judge between us and I am prepared to live with His verdict."

Very straightforward in my own frames of reference.

The counter-assertion from Muslim fundamentalists seeking to refute me would be verses and Suras from the Koran – most particular Sura 8 "The Spoils". My answer to that would be that I believe a large part of striving on path of God is reading Scripture critically, that God expects us to judge what in Scripture comes from Him and what comes from His adversary and I believe both are viewpoints are represented extensively in the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran. If they would indulge me (which I don't think they would) I'd be happy to go through "The Spoils" line by line and say "This is from God, this is from YHWH, this is from God, this is from YHWH".

I reserve my right to stake my soul on my choices and to allow everyone else to do the same. Again, I happily call on God to judge between us in that belief and in my own choices and I am prepared to live with His verdict.

I think the average Western mind would come seriously unhinged to even contemplate expressing Western beliefs in those terms. Virtually the entire West (seeing itself as the West and not as Christendom) is still, I think, at the point of denial and labouring under the illusion of hoping that Muslims can be persuaded to understand and negotiate on the basis of secular mythologies if those secular mythologies can just be explained in an attractive enough way. The West is still trying to figure out how to deal with Islam while dealing God out of the card game. We had metaphorical "home field advantage" against the Soviet Union because we weren't entirely godless -- as they were by choice -- even at our worst. Now, as far as I can see, the Muslims have home field advantage because we are trying to make ourselves either godless, near godless or entirely godless and to try to get them to do the same.

"On the other hand, if our goal is in fact to convince the Muslim world that we do not consider Islam and Muslims our enemy, why not declare them non-Muslims? Some analysts advocate doing exactly that. But mainstream Muslims (unlike the extremists) have traditionally refused to condemn other professing Muslims as apostates. They reject the doctrine of takfir, which permits one Muslim to condemn another professing Muslim as an unbeliever (kafir). If Muslims refuse to condemn others as apostates, it would be the height of arrogance for non-Muslims to do so."

Well, yes, because it smacks of gamesmanship rather than belief…as if you are using Muslim frames of reference to tie them up in theological knots rather than having a philosophy more closely aligned with God's will than theirs is. Put another way: Did the West defeat the Soviet Union because we believed in God and they didn't and we believed that freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion were two sides of the same coin? or did the West defeat the Soviet Union because we had better weapons and better nightclubs, movies and television? In 1989, the general Western answer would be "What's the difference? We won and that's all that counts." It seems to me that in going toe-to-toe with Islam there is a great deal of difference and making the right choices both as individuals and as a society will settle whether we win or lose.

"Getting our vocabulary right will not, of course, affect directly the behaviour of our actual adversaries. It is only part of what we need to do to accomplish the mission of weakening their support base throughout the Muslim world. But it is an essential part."

I think this misunderstands both the strategy we need to win The Long War and what is at stake in The Long War. It is, to be sure, a matter of "spin doctoring" (in Western terminology) but "spin doctoring" in terms of how we present the Truth as we perceive it to those who don't share our beliefs (what I see as the core of monotheistic faith: "We hold these truths to be self-evident…") rather than as a way of making a lie appear to be the truth (what I see as being the core of feminism, Marxism, secularism, multiculturalism and all the other Anything-But-God-isms).

I don't think the West is there, yet. When we get to the point of recognizing that we are and always have been "striving on path of God"-- as a society -- then I think the correct vocabulary will be there as and when we need it. As the Synoptic Jesus instructed his disciples. "Take no thought for what you might do or say…" Let God speak through you in a way commensurate with your own faith in Him. I think we can match Islam point for point in any discussion of who is on path of God and who is engaging in sinful warfare. What I don't think we can hope to do or aspire to do is to persuade Muslims to join the West in jettisoning God and erecting all our isms in His place.

If that's the course we insist on and persist in, then I think the West (formerly known as Christendom) has nothing to look forward to but its own 1989 and the collapse of its own metaphorical Berlin Wall.

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