Thursday, September 07, 2006


Late medieval Spanish Koran.

Yesterday I briefly watched CSPAN as I ate my lunch. There was a woman from a NGO (Third Way, I think) who was criticizing the Bush administration's approach to diplomacy, or to be more precise, its lack of the same. Someone called in and suggested she was wrong because our adversaries -- whether we're talking about North Korea or Iran -- are "evil" and "you can't talk to them." Before giving an intelligent reply about the importance of diplomacy, she had to profusely agree about how "evil" they were.

I understand that many people who have supported Bush have done so because they feel he demonstrates "moral clarity." To judge from the results of his policies and administration -- everything from Abu Garib to the response to Katrina to the problems of poverty in this country -- I find it hard to agree, but I can imagine that much of this feeling about "moral clarity" comes from his willingness to paint his foreign policy on one big canvass titled "The Battle of Good vs. Evil." This is a very dangerous starting point. One is reason is that it is so absolute it demands desperate measures -- such as wars to do away with evil. War, however, is evil in itself. If it is ever necessary, it must be a "lesser of two evils." There goes complete moral clarity. The propensity of this administration to rush to an armed response in any given situation without thinking of the possible outcomes shows great lack of responsibility. Glibly referring to the deaths of thousands and suffering of millions as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" (Condi Rice dixit) shows an insensitivity that I find hard to reconcile with any definition of the word "good."

Still, they will not change the storyline. If we back out of Iraq now, we are Neville Camberlain. Why? Evil is evil. "Islamofascism" (an extremely offensive word) is the same as Nazism, which is the same as Communism. This is not a complex world, where different political forces with different interests use the tools given to them with a greater or lesser concern for justice and human life, it is black and white.

One of the greatest casualties of this kind of a worldview is tolerance, especially since the president and his supporters have to classify all those who oppose us in the Middle East under a term that links a religion (Islam) with a western ideology that this country has successfully fought against in the past (fascism). The resulting term "Islamofascism" is about as helpful to understanding problems of the Middle East and terrorism as the adjective "evil." It's a gross simplification that slanders a religion and gives the false impression that we are fighting one enemy with one agenda. Al-Queada = Hezbollah = Iran = Hamas = Syria. North Korea, Bush's greatest WMD containment failure, is conveniently left out of the equation, so that the subtextual message "the Muslim is the enemy" is that much more clear. It's always hard to say whether Bush and the neo-cons use these ideas to strike fear and prejudice into voters' hearts, or whether they actually believe them, but reports that Bush did not know the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims immediately before the invasion of Iraq are disturbing.

Juan Cole gives a good analysis of those who Bush sees as our enemies, pointing out the complexities and differences between the groups. We owe to ourselves to understand the Muslim world better: the price of simplification is simply too high. Yes, the attacks on September 11 were evil. That much we know. The rest is not so simple.


crystal said...

Today I saw the news story of Bush defending the use of secret prisons ... I can find not a single shred of ethics, much les "good", in our current administration.

Brian Cubbage said...

Two things:

1) You might like Peter Singer's book _The President of Good and Evil_. In that book, Singer goes over Bush's moralistic rhetoric with a fine-toothed comb and concludes that it is both empty and bankrupt. It's from 2004, but Bush hasn't really changed all that much since 2004.

2) My problem with the concept of "Islamofascism" isn't exactly the one you state. If I understand you correctly, your problem with it is that it illicitly implies that all Muslims are fascists, or that fascism is an especially Muslim problem, or something like that. I see your point, but the bigger problem I see is that it's simply bad history. The sort of radical ideology the Bush administration claims to oppose in its "war on terror" and fascism have only the most superficial similarities. Otherwise, they're quite different. To me, the relatively new-minted "Islamofascist" concept insults those who fought (and in some cases, died) in the struggle against real fascism. I have a friend who fought in WWII who feels that way.

The only saving grace here is, I think, that the transparency of BushCo.'s rhetorical ploy is so incredibly apparent at a time when his approval ratings are so low. After all, this is about the fourth or fifth new description the Bushies have given us for "who we're fighting"? The new rhetorical strategy doesn't exactly inspire confidence, and it's also at odds with some of their previous rhetoric. Right after 9/11, they were fond of reminding us about how "everything had changed," that we were fighting a "long twilight struggle" against an "unprecedented enemy." Now, it seems, we're fighting the same old enemy-- fascism-- we thought we had defeated in 1945. I don't think the rhetorical ploy is going to work, at least not well enough to help the Republicans in November.

Liam said...


I certainly agree with you about the prisons. It's sad to think that military lawyers have to point out to the president of the United States that accused people should be allowed to know what the evidence is against them, and that confessions based on torture should not be admissible.


Thanks for the book recommendation -- I don't know if I'll have time to get to it (unless he also talks about Kind Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile).

Your point about fascism is one that I meant to make but I guess I was not clear about. It's funny that the right is appropriating the word "fascism" to describe "anything that is bad" after so many years of its misuse bymany on the left to describe "anything that is authoritarian." It also creates the idea that there is one specific ideology that unites all the people who threaten us or are perceived to be threatening us. I think Juan Cole explains this well in the post I linked to.

I also get the feeling that Bush & co. are wearing out their rhetoric. I hope so, but unfortunately I would be willing to bet that a large portion of the American public, even if they don't agree with Bush's policies, would believe that "Islamofascism" exists and that anyone they vote for should base their policies to counter that threat. Worrisome.

Sandalstraps said...


I love that book by Singer. I bought it a couple of years ago, and read it in a single day. Here's a hearty "Amen" to that recommendation.

I'm not sure, however, that I agree with wither you or Liam about the word "Islamofascism." I think that it was coined not to paint all Muslims as bad, but to separate the good, "true" Muslims, from the radical Muslims who are trying to kill us. I think that it is a highly offensive word which fails to have an obvious definition - designed to paint an emotional picture rather than clear up anything intellectually - but I think that it is also designed to make a distinction between kinds of Muslims. It may fail to do so, because at least two very reasonable people think that far from doing that, the word is actually a slam against all Muslims. But in context it is generally surrounded by lines about Islam being a great world religion, lines which also serve to try to make distinctions between "good" and "bad" Muslims.


I loved the post.

Liam said...

Chris, thanks a lot.

I think of the people who use the term "Islamofascism," there are some -- usually politicians as opposed to bloggers or pundits -- who make a half-hearted attempt to talk about how Islam is a great world religion, etc., mainly to make the racism involved in their general attitude towards the Middle East a bit less transparent. Still, treating all of our enemies (or perceived enemies) as if they could be placed under one umbrella and named by a religion is dangerously misleading and inviting prejudice.

Al-Queda and Saddam, for example had a limited number of things in common: they come from the Mideast, they are adversaries of the US, and they are, at least in some nominal way, Muslim. Anyone who knew anything about the Middle East would know that their ideologies and goals were absolutely opposed, and that it was inconceivable that Saddam would have something to do with 9-11. But for Bush & the neocons, it's all the same. I'm sure that most Americans believe that the violence in Iraq right now is all the work of al-Queda, when in reality there are a number of groups (Islamicists, Shiite militia, nationalists, former Ba'athists, etc.) killing each other in struggles that have as much to do with nationalism and ethnic hatreds as it does with any attitude towards Islam.

I am sure there are some well-meaning people who do see this term as a way to differentiate between hate groups and real Islam, but I still think it's a mistake. It will be more complictaed and less given to sound bites to examine groups and movements one by one, but simplifying things is too dangerous.

One thing: Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and asked if I was using the term "racist" correctly, since I was referring to a religion. "Race" is not a reality, it is a cultural construct, so I see any bigotry which puts a number of people into a group that determines their behaviour and recognizes them as an object of hatred as racism, whether we're talking about "races" or other constructs of the type.

Sandalstraps said...

I think that, in this case, you are definitely using racism correctly, because when Americans speak of Middle Eastern Muslims they really mean Arabs.

What is so tragic about our inabilty to differentiate between groups that we don't understand but consider to be in some way our enemies is when the racism which is so often applied to Arabs in this country is directed to, say, Persians, who far from being Arabs actually lost their empire to them.

So we lump everyone into the same category, forgetting at least two important things:

1. Not everyone in the homogenously cvonstructed category is really our enemy, and

2. Even among the various groups who are, while inappropriately lumped together, actually have in common that they violently oppose us; many of them oppose each other at least as violently as they oppose us.

This leads us not only to misidentify who the enemy is (and what the struggle - which is far from a black and white fight between good and evil - is about), but it also leads us to pursue unwise strategies. Rather than exploiting the fragmented nature of the various different organization which have in common only their hatred toward us by playing them against each other, we unite them under a common banner.

Stupidity, all of it. This war on terror makes as much sense as the war on drugs - and we all know how that one's turning out.

Anonymous said...

You were my TA.

I am ashamed.

Liam said...


I completely agree with you about how this kind of simplification is not only unfair, but also unwise.


I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're saying, but I believe you disagree with what I wrote and that makes you ashamed. I'm not sure why that would make you feel ashamed.

If you do disagree with me, I'd invite you to explain why. I encourage respectful disagreement on this blog, so if you feel comfortable doing so, please expand.

Jeff said...


Great post. You've really got me thinking about that "fascism" tag, because I really do think you make a good point about how it is often used as a catch-all term for people who are odious for one reason or another. There's a bit of irony here, because historically it has been the left that has tended to throw the term around rather loosely (I'd often heard Ronald Reagan and Ollie North referred to as fascists.. At the Democratic Convention of 1968, they were chanting that Hubert Humphrey, of all people, was a "fascist pig"). Take Franco in Spain as an example. I've often heard him described as a fascist, but in truth I think it would have been more accurate to describe him simply as a plain old reactionary. He was an ultra-conservative Catholic nationalist. Fascist "ideology" was nonsense to him, and he completely co-opted and de-fanged the Falange Espanola and used them for his own purposes.

I've tried to be a bit careful the way I've used the word... I've tended to avoid the term Islamofascism, although I have said that Jihadism (as manifested in the cult of the suicide bomber) is a form of fascism. Maybe it isn't really the right word to use. About the only thing they have in common with the fascist movement of the 1930's may be intense Jew-hatred and a propensity towards violence.

All of the world's great religions are going through a surge of fundamentalism right now. Post-modernism and the pace of globalization are making traditionalists of every kind very nervous, which makes them crouch into a fundamentalist posture. Islam is going through this with the most intensity at the moment. I think it is more than just a fringe element. I think it is a strong undercurrent and a huge problem for Islam as a whole, partly fueled by the fact that the fringe of Wahabism has become more "mainstream" if for no other reason than the huge amount of funding for its spread by the Saudi government and charities.

I'm disturbed by Bush's binary, manichean way of looking at the world, but even more by his stubborness, lack of curiosity, and unwillingness to admit a mistake or change his mind when he's clearly been proven wrong.

You touch on another pet peeve of mine... The tendency of polarizers to confuse tolerance with indifference.