February 21, 2006

Enemies of Our Own Creation

[Much more on these themes in a discussion of the UAE port deal controversy: Getting Our Hate On: Now We Are (Almost) All Michelle Malkin.]

Before concluding my series on Iran, when I will assess the actual danger that a potentially nuclear Iran might represent and how to deal with it most effectively, in a manner well short of what would almost certainly be a catastrophic conflict, there is a crucial underlying element that requires some discussion. (The most recent installment of the Iran essays is here, and the preceding essay has links to the earlier entries.)

In Part III, I noted the preexisting mental framework that leads many people, including many of those who opposed the Iraq invasion, to believe all too easily that the prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons represents a mortal enemy -- and not just any enemy, but "the largest threat" facing the world, an enemy that is "unacceptable" and "intolerable." In other parts of the Iran series, I've analyzed various parts of this underlying framework: the national myth about the United States and its special role in world affairs, and the search for "national greatness" by means of messianic military conflict and vast devastation -- a theme that first took on immense significance in our foreign policy with the U.S. entrance into World War I.

There is a still deeper issue involved. It involves very complex matters of history, philosophy, theology, politics, sexuality, and much more. I'll be addressing many of these themes in more detail and with many additional examples in future essays; here, I can only indicate the broad outlines of what concerns me. I've mentioned James Carroll's invaluable work before -- most particularly, in this article about the apocalyptic crusader. As Carroll explains (and Robert Jay Lifton, too), the most fervent advocates of our current foreign policy -- those who believe that, confronted by the threat of terrorism, we must seek to transform the entire world into our own image, country by country and continent by continent -- as well as certain of our enemies in fact have an identical stance toward the world. Certain key elements are to be found in both camps that we are told are so profoundly opposed to each other: they both see a world where Good and Evil are in fierce battle, a world in which violence serves to achieve purification and a new beginning for a planet reborn through devastating conflict.

In terms of the narrower concerns of foreign policy, let me make clear that in my view, there is and ought to be a very simple, "bright line" test: if another nation or a terrorist group attacks us or threatens to attack us in a way that is indisputably and provably serious and capable of being actualized in the near future, we must confront it and eliminate the threat, to whatever extent we can. Such a test validates our invasion of Afghanistan, but it most certainly does not support the invasion of Iraq. Iraq was not a threat to us, three years ago or in the foreseeable future, and our leaders knew it. Of that, there can no longer be any reasonable dispute for people focused on the overwhelming evidence. (As I will discuss later today or tomorrow, this test does not in any way support an attack on Iran either.)

The notion of "world transformation" -- altering the entire planet so that virtually everyone and every country subscribes to what we view as "acceptable" and "tolerable" to a significant degree -- founders on all the evidence provided by history, culture and political theory. Moreover, it does not require a genius to see that it simply cannot be done. Oh, we can try to do it, if we are prepared to see the full militarization of the United States and of every aspect of our lives here at home. Even then, we would fail. Even if our government were to spy on each and every one of us, even if we forbade entrance into the United States to almost all foreigners, and even if our government "protected" us with cameras on every corner and in every building and with countless other "anti-terrorist" measures, people determined to do us great harm would still get through. And of course, this does not even take into account those few Americans who themselves might be bent on wreaking havoc here at home.

We would only achieve the complete destruction of personal liberty in a manner that gives our individual lives meaning and genuine fulfillment -- and we would still not be entirely safe. Absolute safety in that sense is not achievable, no matter what we do. Life by its nature entails risk; the continuation of life is never guaranteed. In their attempts to protect our lives to an extent that is impossible of achievement, the believers in world transformation succeed only in destroying the purpose and the glory of our lives now, in the present when it matters.

But when you pull back and consider the broader forces that inform the policies supported by the administration and its defenders, and when you realize the ultimate roots of those forces, you are struck by the similarity between the Western zealots who preach world transformation and certain of our enemies. This is an absolutely crucial point, and one that I think escapes many people, even many of those who are among the severest of the current administration's critics.

In searching through my archives for earlier posts related to these issues, I came across one that excerpted another column by James Carroll. The column was first published in June 2005. It explains these issues so concisely and so powerfully that I think it well-worth revisiting. In setting forth the historic roots of the so-called "inherent antagonism" between the West and Islam, Carroll writes:
To make sense of this dangerous condition, it can help to recall some of the forgotten or misremembered history that prepared for it, from the remote origins of the conflict to its manifestations in the not so distant past. As the story is usually told in Europe and America, the problem began when a jihad-driven army of "infidel" Saracens, having brutalized Christians in the "Holy Land," threatened "Christendom" itself with conquests right into the heart of present-day France. Charles Martel is the hero of primal European romances because he defeated the Muslim army near Tours in 733. But for Martel, Edward Gibbon wrote, "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford."

Across subsequent centuries, in the European memory, Islam posed the great threat to the emerging Christian order. But was that so? Lombards, Normans, Vikings, forces from the Slavic east, and violent contests among Christians themselves all wreaked havoc in Europe, even in Martel's time. As I learned from the historian Tomaz Mastnak, the threat from the Saracens was one among many. It was defined as transcendent only with the later Crusades, when Latin Christian armies set out to rescue that "Holy Land" and roll back Islamic conquests. The crusading impulse presumed a demonizing of Saracens that was justified neither by the threat they actually posed nor by their treatment of Christians in Palestine. Indeed, chronicles of the earlier period take little or no notice of the religion of Saracens. Religious co-existence, famous in Iberia, was a mark of other lands conquered by Arabs. Europe's initiating "holy war" with Islam, that is, was based on flawed intelligence, propaganda, and threat exaggeration.

The poison flower of the Crusades, with their denigrations of distant cultures, was colonialism. The dark result of European imperial adventuring in the Muslim world was twofold: first, the usual exploitation of native peoples and resources, with attendant destruction of culture, and, second, the powerful reaction among Muslims and Arab populations against colonialism, a reaction that included an internal corrupting of Islamic traditions.
The accidental wealth of oil in the Middle East made both external exploitation and internal corruption absolutely ruinous. The political fanaticism that has lately seized the Arab Islamic religious imagination (exemplified in Osama bin Laden) is rooted more in a defensive fending off of assault from "the West" than in anything intrinsic to Islam. The American war on terror, striking the worst notes of the old imperial insult, only exacerbates this reactionary fanaticism (generating, for example, legions of suicide bombers).

Having forgotten the deeper history, nervous Europeans seem also to have forgotten how large numbers of Muslims settled in the continent's cities in the first place. In the 1960s and 1970s, Turks, Arabs, and North Africans were welcomed as "guest workers," taking up menial labor with the implicit understanding that they could never hope to be received as citizens of the nations that exploited them. The rank injustice of a system depending on a permanent underclass was bound to issue in political resistance, and now it has, but with a religious edge.

The point is that this conflict has its origins more in "the West" than in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes, a habit of politicized paranoia that is masterfully continued by freaked-out leaders of post-9/11 America. They, too, like prelates, crusaders, conquistadors, and colonizers, have turned fear of Islam into a source of power. This history teaches that such self-serving projection can indeed result in the creation of an enemy ready and willing to make the nightmare real.
In a recent essay where I discussed Andrew Sullivan's propagandistic rantings about the Mohammed cartoon controversy, I explained how Sullivan himself and many others like him are profoundly uncomfortable with pluralism, despite the fact that this is one of the primary criticisms they repeatedly make about those they consider to be our enemies. The point is the one made by Carroll: many of the attitudes toward "the West" to be found in the Islamic world have been formed in reaction to what we ourselves have done. This is particularly so with regard to the most extremist elements of the Islamic world. For more than a thousand years, the West has not left Islam alone at all. The spirit of "pluralism" has not been extended to this part of the world: we demonized it, condemned it, invaded it, colonized it, exploited it, and ruled over it.

For untold centuries, we haven't left them alone in any sense that matters -- and yet many of those in the West now wonder why they will not leave us alone, even as we continue to invade their countries and threaten to attack still more. In this deeper sense, one which takes into account the realities of history, war and conquest -- which much of the rest of the world remembers, even if we do not -- the current struggle is not between opposites, except in the way that two sides of the same coin are opposites.

This underlying similarity goes still deeper. I mentioned recently that, despite what the war propagandists would have us believe, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all spring from the same cultural and historic roots. Those roots gave rise to a series of dualities -- and more than that, to a series of warring dualities. The current world conflict (if that is the way we choose to view it) is only the latest manifestation of this ancient set of conflicts. In his fascinating book, Myth and Sexuality (and my great thanks to the reader who first told me of this endlessly provocative work), Jamake Highwater explains the ultimate source of this world view:
It is apparent that this Persian tale of genesis is thoroughly pessimistic. It takes for granted the corruption of matter, nature, the world, and the body. Even with its promise of redemption and the eventual defeat of evil, it is, nonetheless, so grim a vision of existence that we may find it difficult to imagine how it could have become the basis of a religious philosophy called Zoroastrianism, which ruled the lives of millions of people for thousands of years. It therefore comes as a shock to realize that our own viewpoint was greatly influenced by the moral cosmology implicit in this Persian myth of Creation, Fall, and World Renovation. In fact, as we shall see, Persian Zoroastrianism greatly influenced the Messianic ideas of Judaism and Christianity as well as the world view of Islam. This dismal, polemical cosmogony of absolute good and evil is very familiar in our own religious mythologies. ... [And recall Chris Hedges' discussion of "mythic war" on this same point.]

Like our own genesis, the key to Persian mythology is cosmic dualism, with a persistent battle taking place between the forces of good (or light) and the forces of evil (or darkness). That conflict is reflected in every aspect of our lives, profoundly and superficially.
We take for granted the notion that darkness equates with evil and that light is a reference to good. We are completely comfortable with the depiction of dark villains threatening fair heroes in melodramas and science fiction, of cowboys wearing white hats and riding white horses in their battles against the bad guys who wear black hats and ride dark horses. We fear the dark. For us, the forces of darkness are evil. The night has a bad reputation. It is filled with demons, vampires, werewolves, and all the other creatures associated with the feminine moon that cannot tolerate the light of day. Even Mozart's beguiling Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute is envisioned as the consummately evil and devouring mother.

We find great comfort in such polemic attitudes. They provide the superstructure upon which we build our value systems of innocence and guilt, good and evil, pain and pleasure, normalcy and abnormalcy. So it taunts us to be told that this comfortable dualism is not an ultimate truth held by all peoples of all times, and that other cultures have drastically different visions of the cosmos. From what we know of the earliest cultures, it seems that myths, rites, and philosophies were comparatively affirmative in their vision of existence. Pleasure was valued over pain. It was assumed that life would bring fulfillment and pleasure, rather than denial and pain. Evil was not a given--an inescapable aspect of cosmic corruption. This affirmative attitude of antiquity would not persist in Western mentality. About 600 B.C., there occurred what [Joseph] Campbell has called "the Great Reversal," when the prevailing world view shifted from an affirmation of life to a negation of life, from the expectation of reward, comfort, and innocence to the acceptance of punishment, discomfort, and guilt. The Great Reversal was an epic moment in history, when a negative conception of destiny arose that would eventually be symbolized by that Original Sin which makes pain and punishment an implacable aspect of Western life.
As I say, I will be returning to these ideas in much more detail. But you can see the roots of many of our attitudes today, and much of our culture and art, in this ancient shift, in this "epic moment in history." You can also see the origins of the West's exceptionally negative views of sexuality in general, and of women in particular, in this change from an affirmative view of the cosmos to our deeply pessimistic one, a negative perspective that influences our culture and our politics in countless ways.

And with regard to the foreign policy questions that concern us so deeply, we can also see that, considering the long reach of history and the myriad ways in which the West and Islam have interacted for so long, it is not an exaggeration to note that, in a very significant sense, the external enemies we confront today are not external at all, in fact.

As is so often and very tragically the case, the enemies we battle against so fiercely are all too familiar to us -- for in many ways, we fight ourselves.