Shelby Steele, in a column in the WSJ, addresses one of the key problems of our ability to perceive what’s happening. It illustrates what I call “cultural AIDS.”
Life and Death
Western guilt blinds us to the nature of Islamic extremism.
BY SHELBY STEELE
Sunday, August 27, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT
The simple back-and-forth of war can create the illusion that both sides have a legitimate point to make even when this is not so, and it is clear that Hezbollah’s cause has greatly benefited from war’s “equalizing” effect. This Shiite militia seems to have known that merely fighting Israel would gain legitimacy for its cause. A cease-fire would make it a “partner” in peace. The Goliath Israeli military would make it a David whose passion proved the truth of its cause. But amid all the drama of this war there has been very little talk of exactly what Hezbollah’s cause is.
And, of course, it is not just Hezbollah’s cause. There is Hamas, one more in a family of politicized terrorist groups spread across the Muslim world. Beyond these more conventional groups there is the free-floating and world-wide terrorism of groups like al Qaeda. In Europe, there are cells of self-invented middle-class terrorists living modern lives by day and plotting attacks on modernity by night. And around these cells there is often a nourishing atmosphere of fellow traveling. Then there are the radical nation-states in league with terrorism, Iran and Syria most prominent among them. From nations on the verge of nuclear weapons to isolated individuals–take the recent Seattle shootings–Islamic militancy grounded in hatred of Israel and America has become the Muslim world’s most animating idea. Why?
I don’t believe it is because of the reasons usually cited–Israeli and American “outrages.” No doubt Israel and America have made mistakes in the Middle East. Certainly, Israel was born at the price of considerable dislocation and suffering on the part of the Palestinians. And yes, there will never be a satisfying answer for this. Yet every Israeli land-for-peace gesture has been met with a return volley of suicide bombers and rockets. Palestinians have balked every time their longed-for nationhood has come within grasp. They have seemed to prefer the aggrieved dignity of their resentments to the challenges of nationhood. And Hezbollah launched the current war from territory Israel had relinquished six years earlier.
If this war makes anything clear, it is that Israel can do nothing to appease the Muslim animus against her. And now much of the West is in a similar position, living in a state of ever-heightening security against the constant threat of violence from Islamic extremists. So here, from the Muslim world, comes an unappeasable hatred that seems to exist for its own sake, a hatred with very little actual reference to those it claims to hate. Even the fighting of Islamic terrorist groups is oddly self-referential, fighting not for territory or treasure but for the fighting itself. Standing today in the rubble of Lebanon, having not taken a single inch of Israeli territory, Hezbollah claims a galvanizing victory.
All this follows the familiar pattern of a very old vice: anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite is always drawn to the hatred of Jews by his own unacknowledged inadequacy. As Sartre says in his great essay on the subject, the anti-Semite “is a man who is afraid. Not of Jews of course, but of himself.” By hating Jews, he asserts that his own group represents the kind of human being that God truly wants. His group is God’s archetype, the only authentic humanity, already complete and superior. No striving or self-reflection is necessary. If Jews are superior in some ways, it is only out of their alienated striving, their exile from God’s grace. For the anti-Semite, hating and fighting Jews is both self-affirmation and a way of doing God’s work.
So the anti-Semite comes to a chilling place: He easily joins himself to evil in order to serve God. Fighting and even killing Jews brings the world closer to God’s intended human hierarchy. For Nazis, the “final solution” was an act of self-realization and a fulfillment of God’s will. At the center of today’s militant Islamic identity there is a passion to annihilate rather than contain Israel. And today this identity applies the anti-Semitic model of hatred to a vastly larger group–the infidel. If the infidel is not yet the object of that pristine hatred reserved for Jews, he is not far behind. Bombings in London, Madrid and Mumbai; riots in Paris; murders in Amsterdam; and of course 9/11–all these follow the formula of anti-Semitism: murder of a hated enemy as self-realization and service to God.
Hatred and murder are self-realization because they impart grandeur to Islamic extremists–the sense of being God’s chosen warrior in God’s great cause. Hatred delivers the extremist to a greatness that compensates for his ineffectuality in the world. Jews and infidels are irrelevant except that they offer occasion to hate and, thus, to experience grandiosity. This is why Hezbollah–Party of God–can take no territory and still claim to have won. The grandiosity is in the hating and fighting, not the victory.
And death–both homicide and suicide–is the extremist’s great obsession because its finality makes the grandiosity “real.” If I am not afraid to kill and die, then I am larger than life. Certainly I am larger than the puny Westerners who are reduced to decadence by their love of life. So my hatred and my disregard of death, my knowledge that life is trivial, deliver me to a human grandeur beyond the reach of the West. After the Madrid bombings a spokesman for al Qaeda left a message: “You love life, and we love death.” The horror is that greatness is tied to death rather than to achievement in life.
The West is stymied by this extremism because it is used to enemies that want to live. In Vietnam, America fought one whose communism was driven by an underlying nationalism, the desire to live free of the West. Whatever one may think of this, here was an enemy that truly wanted to live, that insisted on territory and sovereignty. But Osama bin Laden fights only to achieve a death that will enshrine him as a figure of awe. The gift he wants to leave his people is not freedom or even justice; it is consolation.
White guilt in the West–especially in Europe and on the American left–confuses all this by seeing Islamic extremism as a response to oppression. The West is so terrified of being charged with its old sins of racism, imperialism and colonialism that it makes oppression an automatic prism on the non-Western world, a politeness. But Islamic extremists don’t hate the West because they are oppressed by it. They hate it precisely because the end of oppression and colonialism–not their continuance–forced the Muslim world to compete with the West. Less oppression, not more, opened this world to the sense of defeat that turned into extremism.
But the international left is in its own contest with American exceptionalism. It keeps charging Israel and America with oppression hoping to mute American power. And this works in today’s world because the oppression script is so familiar and because American power cringes when labeled with sins of the white Western past. Yet whenever the left does this, it makes room for extremism by lending legitimacy to its claim of oppression. And Israel can never use its military fire power without being labeled an oppressor–which brings legitimacy to the enemies she fights. Israel roars; much of Europe supports Hezbollah.
Over and over, white guilt turns the disparity in development between Israel and her neighbors into a case of Western bigotry. This despite the fact that Islamic extremism is the most explicit and dangerous expression of human bigotry since the Nazi era. Israel’s historical contradiction, her torture, is to be a Western nation whose efforts to survive trap her in the moral mazes of white guilt. Its national defense will forever be white aggression.
But white guilt’s most dangerous suppression is to keep from discussion the most conspicuous reality in the Middle East: that the Islamic world long ago fell out of history. Islamic extremism is the saber-rattling of an inferiority complex. America has done a good thing in launching democracy as a new ideal in this region. Here is the possibility–if still quite remote–for the Islamic world to seek power through contribution rather than through menace.
Mr. Steele, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is the author of “White Guilt” (HarperCollins, 2006).
For those interested in further analysis along these lines, I also recommend a close reading of the work of Pascale Bruckner.