One of the particulars of my writing and thinking which confuses many people is that I am able to respect the worthy qualities of individuals and groups whom I otherwise despise. So I can say that George Bush was a great man (he changed the nature of his country and made it stick), while also despising him. By the same token, Hitler and Osama Bin Laden were great men. They also had great gifts: it is jejeune to not admit, for example, that Hitler was a great orator, one of the greatest in the 20th century. Without his great gifts, he would have been far less dangerous.
In the same regard, I can admire the pre-9/11 Taliban for their apparent genuine belief: their actions were in accord with their theology. I can admire them for all but eradicating the opium crops and for bringing peace to most of the country.
I can admire, likewise, the fighting ability of ISIL and, to a lesser extent, their belief. I can admire the breadth of the dream of creating a new caliphate. I can admit that these are dangerous people and that their belief makes them more dangerous.
For that matter, I can admire Putin’s abilities while noting he’s committed many many war crimes: I haven’t forgotten what happened in Chechnya, and the sheer brutality Putin used to put down the Chechens.
People think that because I can admire something about individuals or groups they hate, that I like those groups or people.
In many cases they’re simply straight up wrong. The Taliban and ISIL are, to me, barbarians. When the Taliban dynamited the giant Buddhas, I lost all sympathy for them. Only barbarians do such things, and any faith that requires such actions is my enemy, straight up. In a world ruled by the Taliban, I would have no place.
Likewise ISIL’s destruction of the Syriac Archdiocese is just barbarous. I suspect this is a perversion of the Islamic faith, which always mandated respect for other religions of the book, but it occurs nonetheless. Their treatment of non-Sunni Muslims is likewise atrocious in the true sense of the word: it’s an atrocity. They are backwards, uncivilized and barbarous, savages who can only destroy the finer products of civilization, not appreciate or conserve them. They are provincial bigots.
I also have no time for any movement which treats women as second class in the way the Taliban and ISIL do. Some will say that this is my own provincialism, but I am heir to a universal ideology, in its own way as powerful or more powerful than Islam; one which says all humans are equal before the law. Like all ideological statements of justice, this cannot be proved. I can’t say “I am right and they are wrong” because of arguments based on logic back to first principles. Those first principles, whatever they are, are always axioms, and unprovable.
Such ethics, morals and values need arguments, they need logic; they need revelation too, often enough.
But at core those ethics and the ideologies they are fostered by, are choices, and choices that say who we are, embedding our treatment of others—and ultimately it is how we treat others that speaks to who we are.
It is for this reason that while I don’t agree with, say Hezbollah, about everything, that I have respect for them overall: they have non Shia members. After the war they rebuilt non-members houses. They restrict themselves to military targets much more so than any of their enemies (the attack on the marine barracks was an attack on a military target, in response to US shelling of Shia villages, non-military targets.) To the extent they are Islamic, they embody much of what is, to me, admirable in Islam.
Hezbollah’s ethics, as they are played out in the real world, are not antithetical to mine. They can exist in a geographic space, I can exist, we could be friends (we’re not, for the dull). Their values do not demand my destruction. If ISIL took over a city I was in, I’d be beheaded. They would treat large classes of people in ways I find deeply unethical, even evil. And they are barbarians.
Because a group is barbaric does not mean eterna-war. Sometimes the best response is no response, containment or simply slowly destroying them ideologically. The inability to understand which barbaric groups are a threat to spread, and which aren’t a threat to spread is constant, as is the understanding that ideological war must be fought materially and ideologically, but only rarely with guns.
Taking out unpleasant regimes and creating power vacuums which real barbaric threats could arise is another constant mistake.
I have no mandate for Qaddafi, for example, but the Libyan war was a mistake. Qaddafi was better for his population and for the West, than what has come since. Syria’s Assad is a monster who tortures, and who seems to enjoy torturing (similar to George Bush in this respect). His regime is deeply distasteful.
Syria under Assad was far better than Syria in civil war, with ISIL controlling a large chunk of it and using it as a base to invade Iraq.
The inability to recognize real enemies is ongoing and pernicious. The ultimate source of the barbarism of movements such as ISIL is Saudi Arabia. Containment of Saudi Arabia’s influence should be a cornerstone policy of the West, because their noxious form of Islam spreads barbarism. Making deals with Saudi Arabia and using them as instruments of US policy has lead to endless problems far larger than they were meant to cure.
This is true as far back as the original Afghan war against the USSR. This was not a war the West needed to interfere in. Arming the Mujahideen there is the grandfather blowback decision which has led to virtually all of the problems discussed above (much of the rest is Israel/Palestine based). The war in Afghanistan did not just destabilize Afghanistan it corrupted, destabilized and radicalized Pakistan, which had been on a secularizing path before all that dirty money started flowing into the country through networks infected by a noxious variant of Saudi Islam. As with pictures of Afghan girls in Kabul wearing skirts, Pakistan was a far more liberal nation in the 70s, socially, than it is today.
Don’t use barbarians as your proxies. Saudi Wahhabism and its offshoots is fundamentally in opposition to secular Western enlightenment society. Doing business with such people undermines the core ethics of our own system of ideology.
This does not mean neo-con style perma war. It means showing that our ideology produces better outcomes for them than their own ideology does. Through the fifties and even into the seventies, secularism rose in the world because it was seen as providing better outcomes. It was constantly undermined by the actions of the United States in overthrowing democratic governments they didn’t like. Noticing that the West didn’t believe in its own ideology (at least not for Muslims, and today not even for its own citizens), and that they could not share in the prosperity of secular democracy and socialistic capitalism, is it any wonder that many turned to another strong ideology?
This disease is the disease of unaccountable elites. Elite families, even in democracies, would rather deal with other elite families than with messy democracy. A Shah seems more amenable than a democratic Iran. It’s easy to do business with Saudi Princes, you know who to talk to. Deals can be cut, and if they don’t work out for most of the population, who cares?
Playing the game as a chess-board; using whatever proxies or allies come to hand, and violating your own ideology undermines the true basis of your power. Western hemegony was based on blood and iron, to be sure; but it was also based on the very real promise of emancipation, freedom and prosperity.
Deny the fruits of western ideology to those who reach for them, and of course they will turn against you. Pervert them even within your own countries by undermining your own democratic principles and by concentrating wealth and income in the hands of a few, while impoverishing the many; make it clear that modern neo-liberal capitalism doesn’t spread prosperity to even the core nations, and you have set up one of the preconditions of not just hegemonic collapse, but of internal collapse of a civilization. People who do not believe in the genuine goodness of what they are fighting for, hardly fight for it at all.
If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.