Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On muslims, extremism and politics

I was engaged in a bit of a debate this evening about American foreign policy, triggered by my Ron Paul '12 t-shirt.  I say, a bit of a debate, because the discussion was frequently interrupted by questions, comments, other conversation, jokes and my involvement in a poker game.  I felt a lot like Ron Paul must feel in the presidential debates--how in the hell do you state and defend a complex opinion in 30 seconds?  That isn't why I'm writing this blog, though.  I'm addressing some of the other issues related to foreign policy, particularly in America.

First, I want to say that I don't really know what a muslim is.  I'm no expert on the religion, I haven't read the Koran and it's been several years since the height of the Iraq war when I last made any effort to really understand differences between different sects of the religion for the purposes of understanding the problems in Iraq better.  But the point I really want to make is that I don't want to lump all muslims together, and I don't think anybody ought to.  The typical distinction is "muslims" vs "muslim extremists" and that will have to do for now.

Second, I want to state that my reading up on the issues of terrorism and muslim extremism are fairly limited.  I don't claim to be an expert, but I would claim to be more informed than the average person.  Again, around the height of the Iraq war I took the effort to read about bin Laden and al qaeda, to try to understand their goals and motives.  That seems like a reasonable issue to try to get a handle on shortly after 9/11 and during the height of two wars in the middle east.  If we're going to prevent future attacks, we must address their motives.  My understanding of these people is quite different from the George W. Bush narrative, "they hate us for our freedoms".

I believe they have historically been interested in preserving theocratic dominion over their holy lands in the middle east and in pursuing this by any means necessary, i.e. terrorism.  They began by killing muslims in muslim lands, which for obvious reasons did not endear them to said muslims.  This is when the focus of the attacks turned against western interests, particularly American.  I have also come to understand that these people's motivations to join these radical groups and carry out these extreme measures is explained generally by the theory of blowback.  Blowback is the notion that foreign influence and militarism in their holy lands inspires hatred and resentment against the West.  In other words, if the US military drops bombs on a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, destroying a vital medical facility and many innocent lives, people over there might get a little pissed off at America.  If sanctions against Iraq during the 90s caused hundreds of thousands of children to starve and die for lack of medical treatment, people over there might foster hatred against the West.  Maybe foreign governments that prop up oppressive tyrannical regimes would be a target of resentment for those living under that oppression.

I have heard another theory and looked into it some in the past, as it was suggested to me this evening: muslims are engaged in a holy war that they are prepared to carry on for centuries.  They will deceive us, lull us into complacency and strike when we are least prepared.  I certainly accept that it is true at least in some instances, just as there are people who read too much into the lyrics of Helter Skelter or take an unusually warped view from The Catcher in the Rye.  I also admit that I think it is possible this theory explains extremism on the whole.  I have agreed in principle to study the issue further, and intend to follow through on that.

Here are my issues with that theory and questions I hope will be addressed.   I'm sure I am overlooking a few others, but four come easily to mind.

First of all, we need to distinguish as before a difference between regular people who are muslim vs muslim extremists.  I hope that the sources I am directed to will do this for me and provide some sort of scope of this issue.  What percentage of muslims are we talking about?  How do we distinguish the extremists from the sincerely good people if the extremists are not being open?  Afterall, there are always going to be groups of crazies plotting to do crazy stuff in their basements, we need to put it into a proper perspective with some sort of reliable estimate.

Second, we have to address the issue of blowback.  Is blowback a factor at all?  I mean, let's say that muslim kids in Iraq are brought up learning about holy war doctrines and hating infidels and all that.  At what point do they take an active belief?   I'm thinking of Jules in "Pulp Fiction" here.  We don't really know from his character background, but I imagine Jules always kind of believed in a god and had a spiritual side, then one day a round of ammo fires off around his head and he's gone from passive indoctrination to active belief, having experienced a miracle[*].   In other words, if a drone strike results in collateral damage, how many people are joining the cause of the holy war who were previously on the sidelines?

Third is the issue of what it means for how to change the world.  In most cases, people advocating this view of muslim extremism seem to advocate for militarism.  Is the way to solve the problem with more meddling in middle eastern affairs?  Is killing people the moral, or even the most effective strategy?  Is it possible to pursue a more passive policy of spreading our goodness by our example instead of at the point of a gun?  One interesting thing that I conjured up in recent days relating to Ron Paul and Iran came to me from one of Jim Rogers' books on traveling around the world. (He wrote two books, Adventure Capitalism and Investment Biker--both are excellent--and I cannot remember which one I am referring to here.)

He talked about Iran having one of the world's youngest populations and how out of touch with those youth the leaders of the country are.  Of course, Reason did a piece recently talking about how young Soviets' desire for American lifestyles was integral in the breakdown of the Soviet empire as the Kremlin lost the war of ideas.  I found a subtle juxtaposition that it is Ron Paul, iconoclastic and "outside the mainstream" of  American politics, whom the young voters flock to and in Iran, a young population is ripe for change and reform.  Interfering in Iran and beating the war drums with sanctions and intimidating rhetoric gives cover to the Iranian government to unite the people to a common cause of self-preservation.  Nobody wants to be attacked.  Iranians will rally behind their leaders if drones start dropping bombs or if the sanctions become too burdensome.  I'm not arguing a point of value, that they would be wise or correct to rally behind their government, I am just making a statement of historical fact.  But absent that threat, might the youthful population be capable of achieving some reforms and earning more freedom?  Does the Arab Spring have any lessons about the struggle for freedom in places where they are not accustomed to any?

So again I ask, is there a passive approach?  Does acceptance of this "holy war" theory of muslim extremism necessitate militarism?

Finally, I'm always troubled by cynicism and deceit, particularly in politics.  I mentioned before the George W. Bush narrative of extremism:  "they hate us for our freedoms".  Fine, but this ties into the issue of blowback that I brought up in my second concern about the "holy war" theory.  Recently, footage of US Marines urinating on three Afghani corpses emerged and hit the newswire.  This immediately caused me to think back to the Abu Graib photo scandal from years ago.

A leading peace negotiator for the Afghan government stated in the last week about "Urinegate", "Looking at such action, the Taliban can easily recruit young people and tell them that their country has been attacked by Christians and Jews and they must defend it," he said.

At the time of the Abu Graib scandal, I recall members of the Bush administration and the network of right-wing media arguing that the media should not release any photos of the disgusting scenes.  Their argument, which made perfect sense to me, was that it would similarly create an effective marketing pitch for the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to recruit new members.  It would endanger the troops!

I am a bit skeptical of the Bush administration on this one.  While their argument made complete sense to me, one can't help but wonder if maybe they didn't want those photos to be leaked because they were desperate to cover their own asses.  Nevertheless, the argument was made and it begs the question I asked before about what role blowback plays in inspiring hatred and active extremism.  It troubles me when Rudy Giuliani, in a presidential debate in 2007, can respond to Ron Paul's explanation of blowback saying, "I don't think I've ever heard that before".  What?  Then maybe you aren't qualified to be president!  (Republican primary voters ultimately agreed.)  It troubles me when these ideas are embraced for political gain and then abandoned when an opportunity to demagogue arises. 

I hope the sources I am guided to will answer these questions.  I don't think I'm being unfair or biased toward my current opinion; I am creating a reasonable standard which this holy war theory of extremism must meet and, better yet, exceed.

* Was it really a miracle?  Perhaps Vincent was correct to argue, "Chill Jules, this shit happens."

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