Robert Wright is an interesting case study the mixture of LCE (liberal cognitive egocentrism) combined with MOS (masochistic omnipotence syndrome). After the collapse of Camp David, when the progressive left should have been begging the pardon of the Israelis for having urged them to take enormous risks with Arafat for the sake of a peace they were sure would come, Wright came out with a ringing defense of Arafat (elaborating on the work of Malley and Falk[!]), that embodies for me the moral failure of the left in the period after 2000.
Now this is perhaps related to his error-ridden work on the important issues of game theory and morality — The Logic of Non-Zero — in which he reads the record backwards and comes up with a model of inevitablility for the victory of positive-sum relations. It’s as if LCE were a part of our genetic make-up, and therefore, we begin assuming everyone’s on that page.
Let’s look at how he handles the case of Major Hasan and the Fort Hood massacre.
IN the case of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and the Fort Hood massacre, the verdict has come in. The liberal news media have been found guilty — by the conservative news media — of coddling Major Hasan’s religion, Islam.
Liberals, according to the columnist Charles Krauthammer, wanted to medicalize Major Hasan’s crime — call it an act of insanity rather than of terrorism. They worked overtime, Mr. Krauthammer said on Fox News, to “avoid any implication that there was any connection between his Islamist beliefs … and his actions.” The columnist Jonah Goldberg agrees. Admit it, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times, Major Hasan is “a Muslim fanatic, motivated by other Muslim fanatics.”
The good news for Mr. Krauthammer and Mr. Goldberg is that there is truth in their indictment. The bad news is that their case against the left-wing news media is the case against right-wing foreign policy. Seeing the Fort Hood shooting as an act of Islamist terrorism is the first step toward seeing how misguided a hawkish approach to fighting terrorism has been.
The American right and left reacted to 9/11 differently. Their respective responses were, to oversimplify a bit: “kill the terrorists” and “kill the terrorism meme.”
I would have put it very differently. Some people (I won’t call them the “right”) said, “What’s wrong with these people that they hate us so?” The others (I won’t call them “left”) said, “What’s wrong with us that they hate us so?”
Conservatives backed war in Iraq, and they’re now backing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Liberals (at least, dovish liberals) have warned in both cases that killing terrorists is counterproductive if in the process you create even more terrorists; the object of the game isn’t to wipe out every last Islamist radical but rather to contain the virus of Islamist radicalism.
Interesting. Would be nice to have some references to how this is an active campaign to strike at the terrorist meme (the closest I could find was this from 2004), rather than mere appeasement, which is what the argument that you can’t fight back lest you anger them produces most often.
One reason killing terrorists can spread terrorism is that various technologies — notably the Internet and increasingly pervasive video — help emotionally powerful messages reach receptive audiences. When American wars kill lots of Muslims, inevitably including some civilians, incendiary images magically find their way to the people who will be most inflamed by them.
Now here’s a good one. One of the main points I try and make in my presentations — most recently at Rutgers — is that the Western MSNM, the NGOs and the UN Missions all emphasize the humanitarian catastrophe and civilian casualties in order to pressure Israel to stop fighting.
They think they’re fighting for peace, but they’re feeding the Jihadi war machine. As Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al Quds put it to a BBC reporter (soon on Youtube):
Hamas enjoying a huge media sympathy in the Arab world. They have very popular channels like Al Jazeera and al Arabiya and al Manar, and they are repeatedly putting Hamas’ point of view 24 hours a day. And what’s happening in Gaza, the carnage, is helping Hamas point of view and making its spokesmen’s jobs much easier…
Somehow, I doubt that Wright would be in favor of having the MSNM express deep suspicion at the casualty figures coming out of Gaza or any other place that Western forces are fighting Jihadis, while emphasizing how Hamas victimizes its fellow Muslims to gain the kind of PR victory that Atwan is talking about. But he will use the impact of this kind of propaganda as a way to suggest we do nothing that might enable it. He is, in other words, a prisoner of his own analysis and his own fears. And as a result, he’s aggressively timid.
This calls into question our nearly obsessive focus on Al Qaeda — the deployment of whole armies to uproot the organization and to finally harpoon America’s white whale, Osama bin Laden. If you’re a Muslim teetering toward radicalism and you have a modem, it doesn’t take Mr. bin Laden to push you over the edge. All it takes is selected battlefield footage and a little ad hoc encouragement: a jihadist chat group here, a radical imam there — whether in your local mosque or on a Web site in your local computer.
This, at least, is the view from the left.
I think he’s damned himself with his own analysis. It’s a classic case of what Charles Jacobs calls the “Human Rights Complex,” in which the “third world” “other” is treated as little more than a moral animal — ironically the title of one of Wright’s books — that is, he expects no real moral struggle or integrity from these folks. Show them pictures of injured and killed Muslims — obviously not those killed and injured by fellow Muslims, what could they do with that! — mix in some incendiary preaching available on the internet or local mosque, et voilà! …Jihadi terrorist. It’s so obvious. If this is the view from the “left” then I’d say we’re dealing with covert racists who have no moral expectations of Muslims.
Exhibit A in this argument is Nidal Hasan. By all accounts he was pushed over the edge by his perception of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He also drew inspiration from a radical imam, Anwar al-Awlaki. Notably, it had been eight years since Major Hasan actually saw Mr. Awlaki, who moved from America to Yemen after 9/11. And for most of those years the two men don’t seem to have communicated at all. But as Major Hasan got more radicalized by two American wars and God knows what else, the Internet made it easy to reconnect via e-mail.
The Fort Hood shooting, then, is an example of Islamist terrorism being spread partly by the war on terrorism — or, actually, by two wars on terrorism, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Fort Hood is the biggest data point we have — the most lethal Islamist terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. It’s only one piece of evidence, but it’s a salient piece, and it supports the liberal, not the conservative, war-on-terrorism paradigm.
Mind you, this is written by someone who fancies himself a serious, even “scientific” thinker. He hasn’t yet taken the step of saying, “so let’s not fight back, so we don’t upset them further,” but it seems like it’s clearly implied.
Let’s try the “war-on-terrorism paradigm” as he calls it, or the HSJP (Honor-Shame Jihadi Paradigm) as I call it, and see what it comes up with as an explanation for the problem. The deepest problem with Islam today, yesterday and, alas, tomorrow, is it adherence to the most extreme version of the meme: my side right or wrong.
Wala’ wa Bara’: Perhaps best translated as “loyalty and enmity,” this doctrine requires Muslims to maintain absolute loyalty to Islam and one another, while disavowing, even hating (e.g., Koran 60:4), all things un-Islamic — including persons (a.k.a. “infidels”). This theme has ample support in the Koran, hadith, and rulings of the ulema, that is, usul al-fiqh (roots of Muslim jurisprudence). In fact, Zawahiri has written a fifty-page treatise entitled “Loyalty and Enmity” (AQR, p. 63-115).
One of the many Koranic verses on which he relies warns Muslims against “taking the Jews and Christians as friends and allies … whoever among you takes them for friends and allies, he is surely one of them” (Koran 5:51), i.e., he becomes an infidel. The plain meaning of this verse alone — other verses, such as 3:28, 4:144, and 6:40 follow this theme — and its implications for today can hardly be clearer. According to one of the most authoritative Muslim exegetes, al-Tabari (838-923), Koran 5:51 means that the Muslim who “allies with them [non-Muslims] and enables them against the believers, that same one is a member of their faith and community” (AQR, p. 71).
Sheikh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), takes the concept of loyalty one step further when he tells Muslims that they are “obligated to befriend a believer — even if he is oppressive and violent towards you and must be hostile to the infidel, even if he is liberal and kind to you” (AQR, p. 84).
So, according to a paradigm that doesn’t project our liberal attitudes onto Muslims, but pays attention to what they (are supposed to) believe, we are in an impossible situation: their most fanatic adepts aggress us (despite the overwhelming support the USA has given Muslims worldwide before 9-11 in Bosnia and Somalia), and when we fight back, more of them are drawn into the web of “resistance.” Wright may not notice it, but this “my side right or wrong” is the most fundamental of zero-sum memes.
When the argument is framed like this, don’t be surprised if conservatives, having insisted that we not medicalize Major Hasan’s crime by calling him crazy, start underscoring his craziness. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they’ll note, aren’t wars against Islam or against Muslims; Major Hasan must have been deluded to think that they are! Surely we can’t give veto power over our foreign policy to a crazy … well, not crazy, but, you know, not-entirely-sane person like Major Hasan.
Surely we can’t. It’s the same thing that the 7-7 bombers were trying to do to the British, and the Madrid bombers with Spain. And the “moderates Muslims” in those countries worked the blackmail: “Hey, we want to keep the Muslim community moderate, but as long as you pursue a foreign policy that offends us, we can’t keep them from acts of suicide terror.” As one of my French friends put it, “The French Arabs act as if they have a knife to our throat, and we act as if they do.” So does Wright.
It’s true that Major Hasan was unbalanced and alienated — and, by my lights, crazy. But what kind of people did conservatives think were susceptible to the terrorism meme? Like all viruses, terrorism infects people with low resistance. And surely Major Hasan isn’t the only American Muslim who, for reasons of personal history, has become unbalanced and thus vulnerable. Any religious or ethnic group includes people like that, and the post-9/11 environment hasn’t made it easier for American Muslims to keep their balance. That’s why the hawkish war-on-terrorism strategy — a global anti-jihad that creates nonstop imagery of Americans killing Muslims — is so dubious.
Gotta love the “any religious or ethnic group…” meme. Good old moral relativism. But other religions have much more resistance to the terror meme, despite extraordinary provocation in the case of the Israelis.
Imagine if we were to apply Wright’s grotesquely low moral expectations to Israelis — given all the carnage they’ve seen on their TV screens — even though their news media systematically downplay it — they should be extremely vulnerable to the terrorist meme. And yet, not only are Jewish terrorists extremely rare — a handful vs. tens of thousands of Muslims — but the Jewish and Israeli public are profoundly hostile to them. As opposed to the 80% of Palestinians who, during the Intifada, as their TV’s were constantly inciting them with images of Muhammad al Durah, the overwhelming majority of Jews, including “fanatic” rabbis on the West Bank, condemned Baruch Goldstein and now, Jacob Teitel.
Or how about asking why American Germans didn’t start blowing up Americans when we bombed Dresden? (Now there’s a case of targeting civilians!) Either Wright is inexcusably uninformed, incapable of the basic history exam question — “compare and contrast — or he won’t let anything get in the way of his “leftist” paradigm. Either way, he lacks intellectual and moral integrity.
Central to the debate over Afghanistan is the question of whether terrorists need a “safe haven” from which to threaten America. If so, it is said, then we must work to keep every acre of Afghanistan (and Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, etc.) out of the hands of groups like the Taliban. If not — if terrorists can orchestrate a 9/11 about as easily from apartments in Germany as from camps in Afghanistan — then maybe never-ending war isn’t essential.
Maybe I misunderstand. Is he saying that if they can operate from the West, then we don’t need to fight them? If not, surely he’ll have some suggestions for how to fight them in the West, no?
However you come out on that argument, the case of Nidal Hasan shows one thing for sure: Homegrown American terrorists don’t need a safe haven. All they need is a place to buy a gun.
Concerns about homegrown terrorism may sound like wild extrapolation from limited data. After all, in the eight years since 9/11, none of America’s several million Muslims had committed violence on this scale.
Nothing about the multiple — how many? — efforts that were thwarted. Does Wright live in a world where all the efforts of the FBI and Homeland Security are basically wasted time?
That’s a reminder that, contrary to right-wing stereotype, Islam isn’t an intrinsically belligerent religion.
Wow. That’s quite a conclusion, and confirms my question: he wants to believe that rather than a constant war going on domestically and abroad with a profoundly militant Islam, that’s it’s merely a matter of our not provoking them. The idea that you can prove that Islam is not intrinsically a belligerent religion — something that both Islamic texts and history confirm — by pointing to the lack of major attacks on American soil in the last ten years, constitutes a leap of logic the defies all sober analysis.
Still, this sort of stereotyping won’t go away, and it’s among the factors that could make homegrown terrorism a slowly growing epidemic. The more Americans denigrate Islam and view Muslims in the workplace with suspicion, the more likely the virus is to spread — and each appearance of the virus in turn tempts more people to denigrate Islam and view Muslims with suspicion. Whenever you have a positive feedback system like this, an isolated incident can put you on a slippery slope.
Of course, what if, as the HSJP suggests, every time you do not confront Jihad you strengthen it; every time you pretend Muslims are a religion just like the other civil religions we have, at great effort, generated in the democratic West, you encourage Muslims who do not share our liberal/left/progressive ideas about tolerance and separation of mosque and state, to push harder. Is that even on Wright’s radar? It’s a domestic replay of Goldstone’s folly.
And the Fort Hood shooting wasn’t the only recent step along that slope. Six months ago a 24-year-old American named Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad — Carlos Bledsoe before his teenage conversion to Islam — fatally shot a soldier outside a recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark. ABC News reported, “It was not known what path Muhammad … had followed to radicalization.” Well, here’s a clue: After being arrested he started babbling to the police about the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, we should stop fighting there? Or our media should constantly emphasize the disgusting way that Jihadis kill fellow Muslims in these places? After all, when it comes to killing Muslims, we don’t hold a candle to Muslims killing Muslims.
Should we be gentle and delicate with Islam, or should we be tearing aside the hypocritical masks it wears and reveal the soul of terrorism that resides at the heart of its most vocal and most violent proponents, and the soul of fear and appeasement that resides at the heart of its “silent majority.”
Both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were supposed to reduce the number of anti-American terrorists abroad. It’s hardly clear that they’ve succeeded, and they may have had the opposite effect. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, they’ve inspired homegrown terrorism — a small-scale incident in June, a larger-scale incident this month. That’s only two data points, but I don’t like the slope of the line connecting them.
If all Mr. Wright has to work with are two data points, maybe he should just comment on something he knows about. Or maybe he should spend six months exploring this site before publishing another word on the “non-belligerent” religion of Islam.
Sept. 11, 2001, though a success for Osama bin Laden, was in the scheme of things only a small tactical triumph; his grandiose aspirations go well beyond the killing of a few thousand people and the destruction of some buildings. Maybe he feels that our descent into the carnage of Iraq and Afghanistan has moved him a bit closer to his goal. But if he succeeds in tearing our country apart along religious and ethnic lines, he will truly be able to declare victory.
As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.
In other words, rather than get to the heart of the infection, let’s put on a band-aid and act as if, if only we’re nice them, they’ll be nice to us. Ten years and going… and the only thing the self-proclaimed “left” like Wright, has learned, is to repeat the same nonsense.
In fact this kind of cowardly appeasement, in which we pretend that Islam is just like any of our “civil religions,” makes things much worse. It empowers the radicals, who can push as hard as they want, and we’ll back off; and it disadvantages the real moderates, who are just as afraid as Wright and his fellow “leftists,” to confront these radicals. Talk about the trahison des clercs — only this time, it’s the left that’s betraying our values.
Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God” and the editor in chief of the blog The Progressive Realist.
Heaven and earth, save us from progressives who think they’re realists.
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