Marx, Muhammad, and the Demands of Modernity
January 30, 2007
I’m tired of hearing that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In August of 2001, I believed that statement wholeheartedly. At any given time, you could catch me quoting Proudhon or Kropotkin, proclaiming that ‘Government is Violence.” Maybe nobody remembers now, but the middle of that September was to mark the largest protest against the IMF/World Bank since the fiery streets of Seattle. The city of Washington had dedicated millions to extra security–the demonstrations were expected to be huge. I had my gas mask and I was ready to go. In fact, I couldn’t wait. I hoped for upheaval and uproar. I might, that week, have walked with the anarchist black brigades, were it not for some other “freedom” fighters’ well-conceived plan to make lower Manhattan live up to its moniker. I woke up early enough to see the first plane hit the World Trade Center and I thought, “The Evil Empire’s finally got its comeuppance.” I thought it was a victory for our side. I thought it was the beginning of the revolution. I even thought they were part of the whole anti-globalization movement. They had hit at the heart of it all, the symbol of U.S. economic hegemony. I thought it was brilliant–a military strike, Baudrillard-style. I thought the workers inside were casualties of a war they had been unwittingly waging against the poor of the world, from Nigeria to Palestine. Too bad, I thought, these are the consequences of sustained exploitation.
September 11th was significant for me because I will never stop being ashamed of those feelings, but it isn’t shame ill-spent. By September 13th, I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about terrorism anymore. I hold this moment close in my memory because it reminds me of how cozy the recent current of leftist sentiments are with the forces of nihilism. The fact is, some people fight for freedom and some people fight to repress it. When Al-Qaeda wishes fire and damnation on us, it isn’t because they feel indignant about the lack of rights and liberties in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is precisely the opposite–they believe our way of life is evil in the eyes of God. They believe that the freedom to think and act as one chooses is, in fact, wrong because it does not comply with (their reading of) the Qu’ran. According to them (and, interestingly enough, contrary to the Qu’ran) there should be compulsion in religion. The religious texts can be difficult to interpret and can sometimes seem contradictory. What I do know is that some Muslims read the Qu’ran and find a loving God and others find a bigot and a tyrant. It is the latter that jihadists fight on behalf of, which makes them something far different from a freedom fighter.
There is another lesson to learn, though, not just the one about the err of equating terrorism with some Underdog Justice League. The trend of militant Islamic conservatism is not the result of lack of modernizing forces in the Middle East–it is a response to precisely those forces. It was a response both to the advance of more authentic imperial encroachments and to the spectre of Soviet-style communism (if you care to separate the two). In Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the effort to reclaim a Muslim identity was a way of resisting the British and French influence in the region. Later, as the Soviet Union began expanding both territorially and ideologically into the Middle East, the recuperation of an Islamic identity was a reaction to the failures of godless tyrannies (which, to be honest, looked as much like a religion as any religion). So we have both the ‘West’ and the Left to blame, sort of…
…there still remains the fact that these people really do believe what they say. More tolerant Muslims would like to claim that terrorists are the pawns for politicians who use Islam to persuade young illiterate men to die for their power games. Does this negate their belief? I don’t think it does. I might respond that religion has served this purpose more often than not, no matter what name God took (although saying so wouldn’t be novel, since Mikhail Bakunin wrote ‘God & the State’ in the 1800’s).
And the Evil Empire. How Evil are we? Battle tactics on the other side are predicated upon the assumption that American troops will actually be trying to reduce civilian death tolls, not raise them. Can anybody find a more crucial difference between coalition and jihadist forces? I find it difficult to trust reporters and policy analysts, since everybody’s data seems to fit their politics, not the other way ’round. I choose to remain skeptical about what’s “really going on” over there unless I am speaking, as I have had occasion to do, with people who have been there. All I can say is that the people I have spoken to know that times are tough, that things might look more stable right now had we not gone forward. But the key word there is “look” more stable. We thought Brent Scowcroft was right when he told us that the Middle East was the most peaceful it had been in decades. Meanwhile, poverty reigned, we supported and funded terrorists and dictators–in short, we dug the trenches that became the cesspools. Cleaning them up is not going to be easy, but we, more than anybody, owe them a bit of cleanup.
And the cleanup shouldn’t have to look Western or Islamic. This binary is a false one. The fact is, that the Western Tradition owes its survival to Islamic culture. The separation of the two is a mistake. This “Western Tradition” did not hop from Greece to Rome to Spain to England to the Americas. No, it stopped off, for quite a long time, in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Palestine. There, a culture flourished standing on the shoulders of the Romans and Byzantines that offered as rich an intellectual tradition as any. The influence of the Ottoman Empire on the so-called “Western Tradition” cannot be underestimated, from the zero to algebra to philosophy. Western thought owed it’s lifeblood to Greek philosophy, the records of which were preserved by the Islamic Ottomans, not by Europeans, who destroyed the texts in a Christian fervor. This is the story of a larger history. Our notions of modernity, all of these ideals about the freedom of (or from) religion, about self-determination and the evil of abject slavery, the glories of creativity, and those universal human rights–they do not exclude the Middle East, no matter how many Wahabbis would like to convince the people in the region that it does. Midnight Oil sang about the Aborgines, “it belongs to them, let’s give it back.” But do you give it back in the condition you took it? What if it has accrued interest–don’t you owe them a little of that as well? The impoverished populations in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve to have their legacy back, with interest, even if liars and killers have convinced them that there is some kind of divine vision that excludes all those modern values. They deserve an opportunity to hear the true story of great human progress where they are an integral part of it–not some fabrication of a hateful medievalist scoundrel. Making that known and acceptable is key to bringing down the curtain between “us” and “them”–even better, it is key to the realization that no such distinction exists. Tribalism and sectarianism won’t do, whether here or over there. This includes apologies for terrorism and nihilism in support of your local, radical team.
I’m sure I’ll be accused of supporting a new, improved version of Churchill’s “Empire on the Cheap.” Which is interesting to me since I feel that this conflict, with its tumultuous character, could actually be the beginning of undoing that policy. I’m quite aware of the degree to which United States business interests have been the beneficiaries of this war. But that doesn’t mean that I have to subscribe to the binary that proclaims that if the United States isn’t in this for absolutely selfless reasons, they must be in it for absolutely selfish reasons. There may be, as there almost always is, a more complicated way of portraying the scenario. I have heard repeatedly the claim that if the U.S. invaded every country and removed every dictator, we would have been at work long ago. The fact is, I agree. But this comes from the same lips that accuse the Bush administration of talking too tough with too many dictators. There is a consistency to this policy and it is one quite different from the days when the actions of Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon and the mullahs in Iran were only pursued softly and diplomatically through increasingly ineffectual institutions–when we didn’t rock the boat too much as long as we could come out on top. Now, we’ve rocked the boat, at risk of the lives of our soldiers so that a new order might take hold. And now the left chastises the action because rocking the boat is costing lives. Best to have left the wound (that we helped create) to fester, according to them. I can’t get behind that kind of criticism. It costs nothing, save for the well-being of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Palestinians. It lets the “radicals” keep their hands clean. They can Bike Against Bush or whatever the nonsense-of-the-day might be and call it compassion. They can keep saying, as Bill Maher joked last weekend, that re-confirming Saddam in Iraq is looking like a “viable option.”
The interesting fact is that many MoveOn.org sorts do, in fact, believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was part of the anti-globalization movement, even if they pay lip service to the idea that taking thousands of lives is unacceptable. Many of them–you can tell from their tone–sympathize more with jihadists than with coalition troops. They will expend more conversational effort admonishing the terrorists’ use of violence than they will acknowledging that our troops are, for once, fighting against the sort of forces that seek to repress freedom. That this change is not welcome by those who trumpet liberal values is, to me, a sign of very strange times, indeed.