Mideast vs West.
January 26, 2002 1:12 AM   Subscribe

Mideast vs West. From a conservative-libertarian point of view, what's wrong in the Muslim world, what caused 9-11, and how to fix it. Even if you don't agree with the author's conclusions (maybe especially if you don't agree with the author's conclusions) the piece is worth reading, as an exceptionally clear and forceful articulation of these ideas. Link found on Arts & Letters Daily.
posted by Slithy_Tove (19 comments total)
Excellent article. Thomas Friedman supports some of the authors conclusions with his own experience in a recent NY Times op-ed piece. (Requires registration).

I heard Bernard Lewis recently describe possible reactions of the Muslim world to their current state of affairs. One can ask, "what did we do, and how can we fix it?" or "who did this to us, and how can we get back at them?" The majority of Middle Eastern Muslims appear to be asking the latter question with an accusing eye toward the West. This question leads only to neurotic fantasy and delusional conspiracy theories. Until some real self-criticism takes place within Middle Eastern societies and Islam on a mass scale, Muslim civilization in the Middle East will remain where it is today.

Those who desire a resurgence of Islam through violence in the West, have now experienced how the West will respond.
posted by scottfree at 1:58 AM on January 26, 2002

A direct assault that could be simplified by noting that the separation of church and state is really the central issue that has made the West what it is today (recall the days of the ruler as also central religious authjority) and that has never truly taken place in most Muslim countries as yet, where Islam has a great hold over even the monarchs of say Saudi Arabia or the dictators of Syria, Pakistan et al.
Interesting tidbit: Clinton, attending an economic conference in Gulf area this past week told the Arabs leaders they needed drastic hanges in their education system. Today Arab papers note that Clinton no longer in [power so need not be worth listening to. By contrast, NeilBush told Arabs they needed better PR to catch up with Israel.
I perhaps have a bias but I note that in most instances, Muslims place religion above State in interviews taken among Western nations, where democracy exists, that is: their religious convictions are stronger than their national feelings. How many non-Muslims would say this?
posted by Postroad at 5:30 AM on January 26, 2002

so many adjectives!
posted by jamsterdam at 7:15 AM on January 26, 2002

Oh, I dunno, the last estimate was that we killed more than 4,000 civilians in our reprisal invasion. It's wonderful how moral superiority makes wrong things so right.

The author is living in his youth with a very idealized view of America. We do not have consensual government. We have a plutocracy. He needs to take off his rose-colored glasses.

We live in relative luxury while supporting unspeakable evil outside our borders. The thing is, people living outside our borders see the situation rather clearly. We are a super power and we interfere in any country's affairs anytime we feel a need. That pisses off other countries and breeds more evil toward us. Enuf' said.
posted by fleener at 8:23 AM on January 26, 2002

Check out the CNN poll this morning...

What should be the next battlefield in the war on terror?
1. The Philippines
2. Somalia
3. Iraq
4. Yemen

Could we be more flippant about murder and destruction?
posted by fleener at 8:31 AM on January 26, 2002

fleener, an unabashedly anti-war college professor may have "estimated" 4000 dead, but that doesn't make it an accurate estimate. You may call our assistance of the Afghans in regaining control of their country a "reprisal invasion", but then you reveal more about your own biases. Can't stand the thought that we did the right thing, can you?

To describe the author Victor Davis Hanson as "living in his youth" is laughable. Hanson is a classics professor in his late fifties who has written on politics, the military, and Western civilization for many years. To deride our constitutional form of democratic, federal, republican government as mere "plutocracy" -- while acceptable as an ironic stone-casting -- is simply ludicrous when placing it in comparison with the cynical autocracies of the Arab world, the only region that has not seen a general flowering of democracy over the last generation.
posted by dhartung at 8:54 AM on January 26, 2002

You have to set priorities somehow, fleener. However, making the first priority picking a battlefront is an oversimplification! I'm with postroad that the separation of church and state is the central issue on which everything else turns. First priorities should be providing secular education for the Arab world, and a new world policing system for WMD.

There are three major aspects to address in the political conflict. Unfortunately, it's difficult to integrate the arguements on all three fronts. Hanson's article was excellent on the first aspect, democracy vs. a culture without a democratic tradition. But Hanson doesn't fully address poverty, the second aspect. Western European leaders, Clinton, the UN, and critics of US policy have put together a variety of well-argued cases that America should make a serious, humble commitment to addressing world poverty. However, these proposals appear to be meeting with rejection, mostly on the grounds that we should not spend money on something that contradicts our know-it-all attitude, and that is impossible anyway. It's easier and more palatable to tell the Arab world that poverty is their own fault, due to their cultural tradition. The third aspect of the conflict is something very few people are truly prepared to argue- religious tolerance! Achieving religious tolerance is even more challenging than eradicating poverty, because it means working out some form of co-existence with wrongheaded, misguided groups and individuals.

Our first priority should be a campaign to make secular education systems available to the Arab world. It's the only way I see to make progress on all three aspects of the conflict simultaneously.
posted by sheauga at 9:02 AM on January 26, 2002

Secular education is very available to the Arab elite (recall how after September 11th, the US rounded up safely escorted home some two dozen of bin Laden's nieces, nephews, and cousins) ... and are used by them to perpetuate their corrupt control over the wealth and governance of their various states.
posted by MattD at 9:14 AM on January 26, 2002

A U.S. or U.N. backed campaign for secular education would be viewed by many Islamists as equivalent to our stationing troops on 'holy' Saudi soil. Most likely a fatwa would soon be announced to kill all Americans where they are found until the the U.S. ceases support of the new schools.

Secularization ala Ataturk has worked to mute Islamist influence in Turkey, but it took his iron hand to implement. Only a profound internal movement of secularization would take hold.
posted by scottfree at 9:29 AM on January 26, 2002

Anyone remember those missionaries who were arrested soon after this all began? I agree with scott.

I think that even if arab leaders wanted secular education, their citizenry might not let them do it. Arafat is having this problem; his people are so innoculated with knee-jerk anti-americanism that they aren't receptive to forward-thinking policies.

And fleener, buddy, I apologize in advance, but there's nothing more irritating than people like you. You seem to have the same knee-jerk anti-american sentiment as some of the people we're fighting. Like it or not, we live in an imperfect world in which foreign (and in rare cases, domestic) policy cannot always be pretty. Perhaps it is you that needs to take off the rose colored glasses.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 10:05 AM on January 26, 2002

dhartung, please do tell me your figure for how many innocent people we've killed in this war. Oh, you can't, because the military controls virtually all information about what's going on. So it's rather convenient for you to write off non-military reports with a simple flick of your hand.

Please educate yourself about out government's involvement in other nations before supposing to know what I think.

Yelling, I am not anti-American. I am pro-justice. How long can you operate with a one-sided view of the world? Even our "allies" in the "war on terror" are very few. We have allies by word, but very few of them really support what we're doing. They pledge verbal support because we have the bigger gun and bigger economy. What a wonderful way to go through life... believing we're right because we're more powerful.
posted by fleener at 10:16 AM on January 26, 2002

I believe PostRoad is on the money. To borrow observations from Samuel Huntington (Harvard poly-sci prof and author of A Clash of Civilizations):

Political loyalty among Arabs and Muslims is generally opposite of that of the modern West. The nation state is the apex of political loyalty for the West. For the U.S., these include the ideas of democracy, freedom, religious/non-religious pluralism and liberalism (the best sense of the word). For the Islamic world, political loyalty lies with clan, culture and religion (Islam) for the - the small group and the great faith (the tribe and the ummah).

I read a description by a European statesman that Arab and Muslim immigrants to Europe and America are "indigestable" by their new countries. The loyalty of the majority of these diasporas is to Islam and the ummah, not to the nation states or values of their new homelands.

Hopefully, after a generation or two the loyalties of these immigrant populations will shift. Though it is a challenge when the U.S. continues to allow radical Wahab and other extreme imams to freely come into the country and foment their brand of world revolution under Islam. (The double-edged sword of religous tolerance and freedom of speech.) Islamist fundamentalism rejects the nation state in favor of unity of Islam just as Marxism rejected it in favor of the unity of the international proletariat.
posted by scottfree at 11:03 AM on January 26, 2002

... just as Rastafarianism rejects the nation-state in favor of mellowing with Jah and the Babylonian system. Must rejection of the nation state pose an insurmountable problem in and of itself?
posted by sheauga at 11:14 AM on January 26, 2002

Your right sheauga, it is not a problem in and of itself. Only when it seeks to subvert or destroy other nation states and replace it with theocracy. Rastafarinism as far as I can tell is not calling for all to submit to (Jah, God, Allah) with mullahs ruling the political system.
posted by scottfree at 11:24 AM on January 26, 2002

I tend to agree with the original premise of the article that strong democratic institutions, secular education and politics are what gives the West its moral strength and conviction. But I also believe that the reality of current military-economic strength of West is more complex and multifaceted.

Mr. Hanson's article oversimplified that terrain and extrapolated the Western superiority of the last few hundred years into the entire past history of the West. He seemed to have gotten overenthusiastic and tried to develop his article into a treatise on the superiority of Western civilization over that of Muslim ones throughout history.

Fact is – when the Catholic conquistadors were burning women at the stakes, the Arab women had right to a pre-determined dowry in the event of a divorce and a respectable living. While the legacy of Rome is something democracies all around the world draws on, it was not embraced by the rest of the West and was forgotten completely during the middle ages when Europe was -if anything- more feudal than the Islamic nations. Also, it would be overly simplistic to dismiss Arab anger about Israel simply on envy. I think the Arab antagonism to Israel is more multi-hued.

Bernard Lewis has done a better job on the same subject.

But as I said, I agree with the article’s original premise that to a large extent the ills in the Arab/Muslim world can be blamed on - what I can only call - theocratic politics, lack of a secular education and the poverty of the Muslim masses. The current socio-political structure in the 'Muslim' world is essentially feudal. Except for Turkey, you have an authoritarian regime pretty much everywhere. Even in Turkey where the masses are fairly well educated, the military (which by the way is fairly corrupt) keeps a tight grip on its politics. The Arab world never quite managed to migrate to secular democracies.

I think the Arab problems can also be blamed on the illiteracy and poverty of the Arab masses. This makes them more malleable to what the equally illiterate Mullahs are preaching. It also makes the Arab streets easier victims to propaganda/conspiracy theories.

There is also a deep feeling injustice/persecution complex stemming partly from shortsighted US intervention in mid-east politics and the Muslims' consequent inability to do anything about it and partly from a thirst for the 'glory days' of Arab supremacy when they and not the West had the upper hand. To a much lesser extent Frenchmen in Europe and Chinese/ we Indians in Asia suffer from the same 'hankering for the old glory days' complex.
posted by justlooking at 12:34 PM on January 26, 2002

fleener: I don't know that figure. I just know that Herold's figures are full of crap: third-hand reports ("my uncle in the refugee camp heard that..."), conflation of numbers such that all "casualties" become "civilian", and even outright double-counting. Herold didn't care a whit for procedural niceties and data integrity; he just found the biggest numbers he could. His emotional reasoning and ranting right in the report should tip you off right there -- not that it stopped it from being reprinted everywhere as an unassailable, unquestioned "study". There is absolutely a place for a sober, realistic accounting of civilian deaths in the war, but Herold's report is not it. If you rely on that estimate, which is certainly your free choice to make, you open yourself up to criticism for choosing bogus figures.

If that's what you call "educating yourself", well, you're welcome to it -- I, on the other hand, choose critical thought.

And if you'd actually read Hanson, you'd understand that his point is not that might makes right -- but that (to sloganize) right makes might. We are more powerful -- economically and militarily -- because we have the better legal and political system, because we have the more diverse and experimental society, and because we have a goal-oriented, problem-solving approach to obstacles. The Muslim world -- especially in the Arab regions -- has, alas, relied too much in the last century (even though they had tremendous success in the past) on suspicion, blame, and paranoia. Now that we're in a global economy, their backward political systems and inward-looking cultures can't develop competitive economies. More important, in this conflict, they have failed to grasp the importance of this distinction, and it has led again and again to failure and yes, sometimes, humiliation.

Maybe you don't like Hanson's hard-right approach; try the more centrist Fareed Zakaria's How to Save the Arab World (a Muslim from India, fmr editor of Foreign Affairs, now editor of Newsweek); Fouad Ajami's Dream Palace of the Arabs, the analysis by a Lebanese Shi'a Muslim who moved to America of how Arab and Muslim disunity and self-blame have consistently dashed their hopes of a new Caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean; or even Salman Rushdie, who in Yes, this is about Islam urges nothing less than a Lockeian Muslim Reformation, permitting the secularization of his society to free it from the shackles of the past. Of course, many Muslims -- especially those who remain in the Middle East -- criticize these men for speaking painful truths. But they have to make themselves anew into a 21st century civilization, if they are to survive, thrive, and compete -- especially when all that lovely oil money runs out. Yes, it's a measure of just how dramatically and tragically mismanaged is the Saudi economy when they have 25% of the world's supply of a highly-prized commodity, and they still let their peoples' standard of living depreciate by fully one half over a decade, despite money coming in hand over fist from all corners of the globe. Imagine if they didn't have that income, how many lovely new airports and highways they could build. Would they stop paying their princes half a million American dollars for the accomplishment of being born? And today Saudi Arabia has 20 times as many people as the region supported before modern technology. It's a desert. I don't see the math working.

So sheauga's points are well taken, although I do not necessarily believe that their poverty is entirely our responsibility to solve. Indeed, I suspect that our efforts might be wasted, for as long as much of the region has the teat of oil to feast off of, they may fail to develop mature economies. And without mature economies, as well as mature political systems involving the middle class as well as the plebes, they're doomed to autocracies which will fall back on survival instincts and direct their peoples' rage outward.

Kaushik: excellent comments that just slipped in before I posted! I think Hanson does oversimplify, but if you look at the whole of his work his point is that the embrace of Greco-Roman concepts of democracy and republican government in a post-Locke secularized Christendom is the true creation of the modern West. Or at least he doesn't argue against that point. And this is the point at which the Western economies began to succeed and spread throughout the world, turning the tide of Islamic expansion which had reached France on one side and Austria on the other.
posted by dhartung at 1:17 PM on January 26, 2002

Perhaps what we are witnessing is the final assault on the mindlessly politically correct mantra of diversity where every odd manner of organizing society is morally equivalent to another. Western culture is obviously superior to Islamic culture and we shouldn't be too shy about stating that if we have any intention of defending it.
posted by Real9 at 3:20 PM on January 26, 2002

What frightens me is the immediate (dare I say) knee-jerk assumption by quite a few here that Western society is superior to Islamic flavors of the same. Folks, a large number of people in most Islamic societies would instantly announce their cultural superiority over us. The same politicians who rant about the Taliban's oppresive fundamentalist regime quote scripture during nearly every public address, particularly in those concerning wartime activities. Fleener is making the point that there are many incosistencies in American dogma concerning our superiority. Simply put, biases develop from our own comfort with our cultural ways as well as propaganda that is fed by political/religious leaders in both societies. Dhartung, at least Fleener is suggesting the idea that a mindset critical of American 'might makes right' (don't try to shoehorn in the inappropriate idea that American "moral superiority" saves us from this hogwash) is healthy. Religious doctrine running ANY state is dangerous, at best, and America is not nearly free of THIS oppressor (think of creationist legislators demanding that evolution be banned from public curricula).
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 2:41 AM on January 27, 2002

I think the idea is that no matter how stupid or scary those who would like to hurl religion into the political arena may or may not be, we have a society that recognizes their right to speak their minds. And also allow voices on the opposite side of the spectrum call them out as twits? (misinterpreted as late by some on the far-left as "censorship" when in reality its "twit-calling")

a large number of people in most Islamic societies would instantly announce their cultural superiority over us

Is there really a question whether the Taliban's regime was culturally superior or not to most of the civlized (and even some of the uncivilized) world?
posted by owillis at 3:13 AM on January 27, 2002

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