Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq: Update

Nicholas Kristof reports in today's New York Times on a poll taken by Zogby of 944 soldiers currently serving in Iraq. Asked "How long should U.S. troops stay in Iraq?" 72% answered that U.S. troops should pull out within one year, only 23% said that they should stay "as long as necessary." 2/3 of those polled said that "to control the insurgency we need to double the level of ground troops and bombing missions." I take this poll to read that most of our soldiers serving in Iraq would agree with me- since the only militarily effective option (doubling force size) is a political impossibility withdrawal should happen now and should proceed quickly. Our soldiers have served valiantly, well, and at terrible and growing cost. Even if keeping current force levels in Iraq could indefinitely preserve a status quo that is better than what would follow a withdrawal, it is simply unfair of those of us who continue to live in comfort to force that sacrifice upon our men and women in uniform.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Reading Signs in the Rubble in Iraq

The destruction Wednesday of the Golden Mosque in Samarra gives the lie to myths from both "the left" and "the right" (of the US political field) concerning the war in Iraq. The complete devastation of not only a Shi'ite holy site but an architectural work of art presents an unequivocal message to anyone who is paying the slightest attention. Like the destruction of the ancient Buddhist collosi by the Taliban or the felling of the Twin Towers by Al Qaeda, this crime was the work of those who will accord no dignity or value to any human achievement that does not square precisely with their very narrow theological vision.

Claims from "the left" that "we (the US) are causing the insurgency" are shown false by the attack on the Golden Mosque. By calling this claim "a myth" I am not focusing on the more limited sense of the US having caused the insurgency by the very act of invasion, but on the broader notion that the insurgency continues only because of the US presence and would evaporate were the Coalition to withdraw. The Golden Mosque exists in a symbolic universe of which the US is virtually no part, its destruction has grievous consequences that will resonate far beyond any time threshold for a US withdrawal. Nothing about this atrocity can be interpreted as a response to foreign occupation, and it is preposterous to suppose that those who committed it would somehow lose the motivation to do so had the US already withdrawn.

Even before the Samarra bombing the ongoing distress of Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll gave the lie to "leftist" myths about the insurgency. Perplexed comments about how Ms. Carroll was "the wrong" person for insurgents to kidnap woefully misreads the nature of the insurgency and the rationale behind its strategy and tactics. The fact that Ms. Carroll wrote pieces sympathetic to the Iraqi people and exposing the suffering war and invasion has brought to them means very little to the insurgents. If anything, it makes Ms. Carroll a more appealing target, because her dilemma creates confusion and demoralization in a US public trying to make sense of the conflict. Whether or when the US withdraws matters much less to the insurgency than insuring that all aspects of the Coalition occupation are conducted in as disorganized and ineffective a manner as possible, and confounding any attempt by the US public to rationally comprehend what is going on in Iraq helps sow the seeds of chaos and discord.

The attack on the Golden Mosque sends a different kind of message serving complimentary ends. Where the Carroll kidnapping creates confusion and dissonance, the Samarra attack aims at brutal transparency- it precisely targets one of the deepest fissures in Iraqi society. Taken together both crimes demonstrate a truth that the US leadership and public seem slow to grasp: this conflict is no longer about "us," and in a certain fundamental sense it never was.
Here is where cherished myths of the "right" may be seen fallen amid the rubble of the Golden Mosque. First of these is the notion that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was ever a vital or effective response to 9/11. If one asked US security analysts in 2002 what precautions were being taken to guard against Al Qaeda attacks upon Shi'ite holy sites one would have been greeted with a look of total incomprehesion. By taking upon itself the custodianship of Iraqi society the US and its allies have effectively increased their scope of liabilities without any corresponding increase in assets. The invasion has unleashed forces within Iraq and the greater Middle East that the US does not fully understand and is ill-prepared to control.

Beyond this, where the "left" propounds the myth that the US is causing the insurgency, the "right" clings to the myth that it is within the power of the US to end it. President Bush routinely insists that he will not be held to an "artificial political timetable" in deciding when US troops will be withdrawn. This assertion, however, elides the fact that the Bush regime is itself already in thrall to a tactical and strategic posture artificially dictated by politics. As I have written in previous posts the only effective application of US military power at this juncture would be to guard against tragedies like the Golden Mosque bombing, but effectively executing that mission would require a massive increase of US troops in Iraq. The Bush administration remains wedded to a "search and destroy" strategy that relies on the superior firepower and mobility of US troops, despite the fact that such tactics have not retarded the insurgency's ability to commit atrocities like the Samarra attack. This decision is driven principally by politics, since an increase in US troop deployment would create a corresponding and deeply unpopular increase in US casualties, thus the Bush administration's decrial of "political timetables" is either hypocritical or deluded.

It is too early to predict what the disfigured dome of the Golden Mosque portends for the future of Iraq. Even Saddam Hussein did not so gratuitously profane Shi'ite holy sites, it remains to be seen whether the fabric of Iraqi society can withstand the stress of this kind of barbarity. The US is certain to emerge as a loser in this instance, though. Already Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide are blaming the US for allowing this atrocity to occur. Whether that judgment is fair or not it is entirely predictable, and it forces the question of how much good the US presence can effect and how much longer it should continue. In strategic terms the choice is clear- either the US must commit the number of troops to the Iraq occupation sufficient to provide security to all vulnerable sites of significance like the Golden Mosque or it must draw down quickly and transfer all apparent and real responsibility for security to the emergent Iraqi government. It was never likely that the US public could be persuaded to support the former option, and early Bush regime rhetoric about "mission accomplished" makes it now a political impossibility.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A "Deep Historical" and Pangeographic View of the Cartoon Fracas

The uproar over the Jyllands Posten "Muhammed cartoons" is the latest chapter in the tragic-comic deterioration of relations between "the Islamic world" and "the West." At this point questions about the right of Jyllands Posten to publish the cartoons and the nature of the response in the Islamic community have been discussed ad absurdum in the blogosphere and beyond. Having come to this party too late and having too little of profit (or Prophet) to say, I must restrict my comments to the "Western" reaction to this fracas. Violence and death threats are obviously a vile response to a series of cartoons, but little progress will be made by fighting intolerance with more intolerance. Though I sympathize with the civil-libertarian impulses behind a website like The Face of Muhammed,it does little to foster mutual understanding. Pronouncements like-

For 1400 years, Islam has waged war on all surrounding non-Muslim civilizations. During the course of history, Christianity was reformed, Europe colonized the world and set it free again, dictators lived, reigned and died, and totalitarian regimes emerged and vanished.

But Islam stayed, unreformed. And today, it imprisons more than 1 billion people, moderate and radical souls alike, in a huge gap of difference to the rest of us. Across political divides, across national boundaries, across various degrees of freedom, across race, people or religion, black or white, rich or poor; it stands out as our opposite. Only Muslim reformists seek to lessen the gap. And their voices are quickly silenced.

In modern times, waves of immigrants from Muslim countries have entered Europe. All European countries have been subject to islamization; the process of slowly incorporating Islamic values and Muslim customs into our way of life. Far East countries like India, Thailand, Indonesia and China are experiencing the Muslim Jihad. Israel lives with it. America feels it. Africa suffers from it, and is too weak from disease and poverty to resist.

It is suddenly coming to our attention that Islam is not, cannot, and will not be integrated or assimilated to the values of freedom and democracy. Islam is not only a religion; it is a totalitarian and expansionistic political ideology.

-harken back to hysterical 19th century rhetoric against the "Yellow Peril" or the "Elders of Zion." The idea that Europe and Christendom have evolved and changed while Islam has remained static is fundamentally ridiculous, as is the notion that while Islam "has waged war on all surrounding non-Muslim societies" Europe has only been so benign as to "coloniz[e] the world and set it free again." One would imagine that the Crusades had never happened and the British Raj was a giant tea party.

Only marginally better are more academic flights of ethnocentrism like this one by Theodore Dalrymple:

Anyone who lives in a city like mine and interests himself in the fate of the world cannot help wondering whether, deeper than this immediate cultural desperation, there is anything intrinsic to Islam—beyond the devout Muslim’s instinctive understanding that secularization, once it starts, is like an unstoppable chain reaction—that renders it unable to adapt itself comfortably to the modern world. Is there an essential element that condemns the Dar al-Islam to permanent backwardness with regard to the Dar al-Harb, a backwardness that is felt as a deep humiliation, and is exemplified, though not proved, by the fact that the whole of the Arab world, minus its oil, matters less to the rest of the world economically than the Nokia telephone company of Finland?

I think the answer is yes, and that the problem begins with Islam’s failure to make a distinction between church and state. Unlike Christianity, which had to spend its first centuries developing institutions clandestinely and so from the outset clearly had to separate church from state, Islam was from its inception both church and state, one and indivisible, with no possible distinction between temporal and religious authority. Muhammad’s power was seamlessly spiritual and secular (although the latter grew ultimately out of the former), and he bequeathed this model to his followers. Since he was, by Islamic definition, the last prophet of God upon earth, his was a political model whose perfection could not be challenged or questioned without the total abandonment of the pretensions of the entire religion.

This kind of pseudo-historical analysis falls flat on many fronts, foremost of which is the latent assumption that a comparison between Christianity and Islam can account for the sum total of the human experience. Many, many societies and cultural traditions did not develop a "distinction between church and state." China did very well without it until 1911, Judaism was no different than Islam in this regard (Moses provided the model of a prophet-king Dalrymple perceives in Muhammed).

Moreover, Dalrymple vastly overstates the positive light in which Christianity and "Western" society may rest after a genuine historical comparison to Islamic civilization. Dalrymple complains of a lack of seperation between church and state in Islam, but temporal and religious authority were much more distinct in the Islamic caliphate of medieval Spain than in the Christian kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella which succeeded it. The caliphate saw a golden age of interfaith tolerance and flourishing humanistic culture, the Christian era brought forced conversion, expulsion, and the Inquisition.

Indeed, for most of the past millenium Islamic societies were far more open and tolerant of religious and intellectual diversity than those in the "West." Conversion under threat of death made sense within a Christian theology, as the flames of Hell awaited infidels sooner or later. By contrast Muslims were specifically forbidden to use such methods upon "People of the Book," a designation originally meant for Jews and Christians but ultimately extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus.

"Westerners" are prone to adopt an air of superiority because the forces that condition global modernity- industrialization, nationalism, market capitalism- first took root in Europe and the Americas. But a complacent feeling of superiority conveniently overlooks the facts that a)none of these "Western" achievements would have been possible absent much that was learned or acquired from Asian, African, Native American and Islamic civilizations; b)these forces have transformed the world at a terrible cost. The same societies that cultivated the "freedom of the press" so vaunted (and so abused) by Jyllands Posten also gave rise to the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Holocaust, two World Wars, the Soviet Gulag, the massacre at Srebenica, etc., etc., etc. It is difficult to find a crime committed by an Islamic society to match the worst offenses of "the West." The economic and technological conditions of Islamic societies may have changed more slowly than those of "the West," but at the same time their histories have been marked by less violence. Where is the Islamic Antietam or Verdun? "The Face of Muhammed" would label Islam a lumbering, changeless monolith, but can its author have forgotten that some of the worst totalitarianisms produced by "Western civilization" only fell 17 years ago?

Finally, all of the lamentations about poor, changeless Islam ignore the intense diversity of Islamic communities around the world today. The most egregious violence engendered by "Cartoongate" has transpired in the Arab world, but that community houses less than 1/4 of the world's Muslims. The largest Muslim communities in the world are in South and Southeast Asia (in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia...), and in those societies the response to the Jyllands Posten flap has been far less extreme. Do these responses manifest Islam's incompatibility with modernity? Of course not. The Jyllands Posten cartoons, all considerations of "religious taboos" aside, were genuinely offensive. The kind of anger on display in much of the Islamic world is not far from what a series of cartoons featuring hook-nosed, money-counting rabbis would occasion in the world Jewish community.

Reductionist analyses like those of "The Face of Muhammed" or Theodore Dalrymple recapitulate the same error of the original Jyllands Posten cartoons. To caricaturize Islam as regressive or incompatible with modernity is to play into the hands of those who would truly like to make it so. If Europeans and Americans keep sermonizing Muslims about their chronic inferiority, more and more of them, out of sheer exasperation, will turn to those like Osama bin Laden who will feed them equally ridiculous pabulum about Islamic superiority. To deny that some aspects or segments of the current Islamic community should change would obviously be wrong, but insisting that Islam itself precludes any community from ever changing is patently ridiculous. No one living in Ferdinad and Isabella's Spain could ever predict that that society would embrace the liberal ideals championed by Jyllands Posten. Declaring any culture or society absolutely incapable of change is to deny the humanity of its inhabitants, and dehumanizing others is the surest route to strife and sorrow.