The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Category: Islam

The Barbarism of ISIL, the Taliban and Wahhabism and collapse of hegemonic ideology

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.

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Bin Laden’s insights and the Egyptian Coup

This is the sort of post that makes people mad, but in light of what’s happening in Egypt it’s necessary to talk about bin Laden.

Most people who hate bin Laden have never read read his writings.  They’re quite extensive, and they’ll reward your time in reading them. (Obligatory bin Laden is a bad man, just like George Bush Jr. disclaimer.)  Bin Laden was very smart, and and he understood America very well, and had a good take on the world system.  He was not stupid, he was not a coward (he lead troops from the front line against the Soviets), and he was very effective at accomplishing many of his goals.  Along with George Bush Jr, who was his greatest ally and enemy, he was was one of the first great men of the 21st century.  Great men, of course, do not need to be good men.  Hitler and Churchill and Gandhi were all great men, they weren’t all good men.

Let’s start in relation to Egypt.  A lot of people in Egypt and elsewhere see the Egyptian coup (it was a coup, don’t tell me otherwise) as being US backed.  Add to this the fact that they see the defeat of the Muslim brotherhood in the past as being aided by the US, they believe that Egypt is ruled by its current oligarchy (an extension of the Mubarak era oligarchy, and again, don’t even try and lie and say otherwise), because of the US.

What bin Laden said was that despotic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere are backed by America in specific, and the West in general.  That backing is powerful.  In Islam there is an idea that you should deal with your local tyrant, your local problems, first, and not worry about the far enemy.  Bin Laden believed that, in the current circumstance, you could not do that.  Revolution at home was close to impossible because of the far enemy, because of the United States.  Even if you did, by some miracle succeed, as long as the US was the global hegemon, your success would be undermined and destroyed by the US by crippling your economy, escalating, if necessary, to economic sanctions backed by force.  If you don’t believe this, see what was done to Iraq in the 90s and what is being done to Iran today.  A lot of children and adults are dying and suffering because of these sanctions.

Bin Laden’s argument, then, was that the US had to be defeated.  That the evils being done by local regimes (such as the extensive use of torture and routine rape in Egypt under Mubarak) could not be ended by simply fighting the local regime, but that the far regime, the US, must be defeated.

This is a pragmatic argument, and it is an ethical argument.  When Madeline Albright said that half a million dead Iraqi children from US sanctions was “worth it”, bin Laden’s response was to ask if the lives of Muslim children were not equal to those of Christian children.  Rhetorically, he asked, “is our blood not red too?”

Whatever you think of bin Laden, this is a powerful ethical statement.

What this leads to is that the US is responsible both for the suffering it causes directly, and the suffering it causes indirectly, by keeping monstrous regimes in power, or, in many cases, helping create them.

This critique is not just a critique from an Islamic perspective, it strikes to the heart of the West’s ostensible ethics, to the equality of all humans, to the right of self-determination, and even to the western theoretical preference for democracy.  Democracy is a powerful idea, but bin Laden (and others) have observed that the West only believes in elections when the right people win.  This was best on display when Hamas, in Palestine, won elections the US had insisted occur (over Israeli objections) and the US then backed a Fatah coup to make sure that Hamas did not take power.  (Hamas later kicked Fatah out of Gaza, leading to the current divided rule of Palestine.)  It doesn’t take a genius to see that this applies to the current Egyptian situation. Whatever one thinks of Morsi’s government, it was elected in what seem to have been fair elections.

So, if you play the West’s rules, if you win fair and square in elections, and the West doesn’t like who came to power, they will help undo the results of the elections.  If you try and get rid of a regime you don’t like through violence, the West will support the regime, making it unlikely you will win, and if you do win despite all that, they will undermine or destroy your regime through economic sanctions.  All that failing, as in Iraq, they may well invade.

The problem with this critique is that it is, substantially, accurate.  Hate bin Laden or not, this is a model of the world which has predictive and analytical utility. It explains the past, it predicts the future, and it does both well.  The fact that bin Laden’s critique is fairly similar to various left-wing critiques is not accidental.  It is not because bin Laden and the left are fellow travellers (Islamists are strongly opposed to genuine leftists), it is because any set of model that track reality fairly well will tend to look alike.  Of course, that they look the same is used to discredit people by association.  “You agree with bin Laden” they say, and shut down discussion of how the world actually works.

The power of bin Laden’s critique is its accuracy, the elements of it which are true.  What bin Laden added (though I’m sure others have as well), was one main thing: the directive to attack the US.

Bin Laden was, in certain respects, born of the Afghan war against the USSR.  Those of you who are young tend to view what happened to the USSR as inevitable.  Creaky, economically broken, it was going down.  Nothing is so inevitable as what has already happened.  You’re not wrong, the USSR had real internal problems it couldn’t fix, but you’re not quite right, either.  Absent Afghanistan, the USSR might have toddled on for a lot longer.  Decades, perhaps.

Looked at from the outside, even in the 90s (heck, even in the 80s, with some prescience), the US does not look healthy.  It looks economically sick, with stagnation of wages even in the 90s, a gutting of real productivity, soaring inequality, and political sclerosis leading to the creation of an elite detached from the actual economy, but instead playing financial games which do not track real economic power.    It looks, like the USSR did, like a society which, with a push, could collapse.

Bin Laden set out to give the US that push.

Let’s go back to the USSR.  The Soviet military was not a joke.  It was large, powerful, had good equipment (especially compared to Afghan tribesmen).  Even the post Soviet Russian military is no joke (take a look at what they did to Georgia, recently.)  The USSR was POWER.

And in Afghanistan, the USSR was worn down.  All that power died in the grave of Empires.  And soon thereafter, the USSR ceased to be.

Bin Laden was there.  He saw it. He participated in it as a fighter.

He looked at the West, and the US in specific and believed that the US was ripe for something similar.  As with the USSR the US in the 90s had a very scary reputation.  Remember how decisively Saddam was defeated in the first Gulf War.  The US looked undefeatable.  And, in certain respects it was, and still is.

But bin Laden saw, accurately, the US weakness.  He believed that while the US was good at open field warfare, American troops were nothing special at the sort of guerrilla warfare that had occurred in Afghanistan.  He believed that if they could be brought into Afghanistan, and kept there, instead of coming in and leaving quickly, they could be defeated. He believed that the legend of American invincibility, as with that of the Red Army, could be shattered.

9/11 was about getting the US to overreact.  About getting it into Afghanistan.  It succeeded in doing that, but bin Laden must have known some despair, because at first, Afghanistan wasn’t proving to be much of a graveyard at all.  The majority of Afghans hadn’t liked the Taliban, didn’t mind them being blown over, and were willing to give the US and the West, a chance.

Then Bush stepped in, used 9/11 as the de-facto pretext, and invaded Iraq.  And in Iraq, much of what bin Laden wanted to have happen in Afghanistan happened, with the bonus that Hussein (whom, as a secular Arabist, bin Laden was an enemy of) was gotten rid of too.  Win/win.  And meanwhile, in Afghanistan, coalition forces managed to alienate the Afghan population and ensure the return of the Taliban, while destabilizing Pakistan in addition.  Bonus!

(Bush was able to rewrite the unwritten US constitution, however, and his victory in changing the nature of America has been confirmed by the fact that Obama has institutionalized almost all essential Bush policies and extended many of them.)

Now one can say that bin Laden lost (not because he was killed, that’s irrelevant and people who think it matters much are fools), because the US is still around, still powerful, and hasn’t collapsed.

But it isn’t over yet.  The cost of the Iraq war, of 9/11, was huge, both in financial terms and in the changes wrought to the American psyche, unwritten constitution and society.   Those lost years, and they were lost, should have been used to transition the US economy. Instead the money that should have done that was used to fund the Iraq war, and to  keep money flowing a housing bubble was not just allowed, but encouraged, both by the Fed and by actively turning a blind eye to illegal activity.

The US economy has never recovered.  Five to six years out, the absolute number of jobs hasn’t recovered, the actual standard of living for most people is dropping, income and wealth inequality is worse, and unsustainable spending is occurring without any plan to create an economy which can pay for it.  Political sclerosis is worse, not better, the economic plan is to frack, frack, frack (which won’t work in the long run) and the US and the West are doubling down on a surveillance state and continuing to erode freedoms, which not only has much larger economic effects than most people realize, but weakens Western ideological power.

So bin Laden hasn’t lost yet.  The reaction to 9/11 may yet be seen to be the precipitating event that made it essentially impossible for the US to reverse its decline, and made that decline far faster and far worse.

We started with Egypt, so let’s bring it back there. If you’re an Egyptian who believes (accurately) that there was a coup which overthrew a democratically elected government, and that the US was complicit at best, and actively involved at worst (John Kerry constantly insisting there was no coup is not in America’s interests here), then the basic critique still resonates. Even if you don’t want bin Laden’s end goal of a new Islamic caliphate, if you want independence, if you want to be able to defeat your local tyrants, well, the US is your enemy, the far enemy whose existence makes defeating the near enemies impossible. It is not a country you feel you can make peace with, a devil you can ignore because it is far away, but a country whose ability to intervene in your country must be somehow destroyed.

This basic analysis of the situation remains extremely powerful and convincing.

Bin Laden was the first great man of the 21st century.  George Bush Jr. was the second (Obama is important, but is a secondary figure to Bush.)

And as long as bin Laden’s insights seem to explain the world, someone is likely to act on them.

May God, should he or she exist, aid us.  We’re going to need it.

(Oh, and part of the opportunity cost of the Iraq war may well be hundreds of millions of deaths from climate change. You’re welcome.)

Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return—and so the wheel turns.


On Islam, Religion and Love

As with many things, I’m no expert on Islam.  Nonetheless, within the limitations of my language skills, I’ve done the reading.

One of the things which seems clear from the life of the Prophet, is that he made things better for women and slaves. Zakat is meant to be used, among other things to free slaves.

Mohammed’s first followers were mostly women and poorer men.

Mohammed made things better for them.

But the strength of scripture is also its weakness: what was written is always there.  Absent interpretation from the spirit of what was written, absent living script, it can be used to ossify change.  God’s law in any good teaching, is love.  When we  use scripture, and this is true of secular scripture like the US constitution, against love, against kindness, we do a disservice to the scripture and to the intentions of those who originally preached it.

Interpretation can be used for good or evil.  It can be used to make religious social beliefs not intrinsic to the religion, like female genital mutilation or the divine right of kings.  But it can also be used in the spirit of God’s law of love, to nurture kinder people, and kinder societies.

While intention doesn’t always work out, it is best to start from good intentions and in dealing with religious and spiritual traditions it is best to interpret in line with intention.  For America, this might be a further movement towards freedom and the pursuit of happiness.  For Islam, submission to God, and good works aiding those who need it most.

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