Sunday, September 16, 2012

Interesting Times

Once again, it’s become en vogue to talk about how the violence in the Middle East is a result of the fact that Islam is a violent religion, its scriptures calling for a level of violence and hatred that is unique in modern religious belief.


What’s unique is the situation of the Middle East in the modern world, and media attention being paid to it.

In a hallmark essay in 1990 called “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Bernard Lewis, an Anglo-American commentator on Islam, blamed a mentality twisted by history. He cited the obligation of holy war, dating from the faith’s turbulent birth and shaped by centuries of setbacks ranging from the retreat from Europe to Western imperialism, and even the challenge to Muslim male authority from rebellious children and emancipated women. The result was an inferiority complex, in which humiliation was compounded by Western ignorance.
Muslim Rage: Why they won’t calm down.” The Economist.
The inferiority complex that Lewis speaks of is something that is unknown, for the most part, in the industrialized West, especially in the United States, which, despite a few setbacks, has a 200+ year history of taking down nearly every nation that raised arms against it. We don’t commonly require allies to help us fight our wars - the primary reason for forming “coalitions of the willing” when it came to the Middle East was to help set aside the idea that our intention going in was to conquer the area, and set up exclusive resource extraction operations there. While, technically, Korea is unfinished business, and Vietnam still touches a raw nerve for many, most of our international conflicts have ended up in the “Win” column - so long as we bring them to a close in a timely fashion.

And while American men have their own “rebellious children and emancipated women” to contend with, the general attitude is “deal with it.” Being humiliated that one’s wife and children don’t behave as mandated by scripture is to be marked as hopelessly out-of-touch with modern society, despite the occasional religious revivals and movements that seek to turn back the clock by a few decades (or perhaps a century or two). The idea that foreigners are seeking to undermine society with evil ideas simply lacks the social currency that it has in many Islamic nations.

But the Economist also goes on to point to another reason for the current violence. “Most outbursts of Muslim rage bring political dividends to someone.” The same is not true in the United States, where outbursts of violence against recognizable others are considered an embarrassment to the local populace, and a political liability for their representatives - especially when that violence turns out to be misplaced. This is a factor that transcends religion. In the United States, outrage is often stoked by partisans looking for political advantage. For the reason stated just a moment ago, there is no incentive to stoke that outrage into acts of violence, but dealing in anger is still a common tactic. And there are no institutions that gain political capital from monitoring the Islamic world for anti-Western sentiment and publicizing it - most people in the West, and especially the United States, simply don’t care enough about what others think of them, or what’s going on in other parts of the world.

Coupled with this is the idea that, as is often the case in their own nations, that the media establishment in the West is, in effect, a wholly-owned subsidiary of government, and nothing makes its way into the public sphere but it has been vetted and given explicit approval by some censor somewhere. The idea of “American state television,” generally considered utterly ridiculous within the United States itself, makes perfect sense to many in the Middle-East (and elsewhere), where the idea of even a nominally independent media is less widespread. While there are often whisperings that the news media, in particular, answers to secret (or not-so-secret) masters who hatch hateful plots in smoke-filled rooms or that media establishment has some degree of bias that they work to impart to their audiences, the typical American is secure in the idea that any doofus with an operational video camera and a serviceable Internet connection may post nearly anything they chose (so long as it stays within the somewhat Puritanical limits expected by the FCC and society at large) to a video sharing service with little effort and less oversight.

One of the things that Representative Ron Paul pointed out, in one of his campaign videos, is that the United States has had a tendency to impose things on other nations that Americans themselves would not tolerate. Try as you might, you will not find a single military installation of a foreign power on United States soil. And any nation caught hunting American citizens at home with missile-armed drones would quickly find itself embroiled in a diplomatic nightmare. While there are many nations that could get away with it without sparking a war, pretty much none of these are in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. Setbacks in dealing with Europeans aside, American foreign policy is another continuing sore point that most other nations don’t have to deal with. While many nations in Central and South America have their gripes with the Monroe Doctrine, most notably the “Roosevelt Corollary” and the Doctrine’s Cold War application, few residents of Latin America have large numbers of United States military personnel or bases on their doorsteps.

While it’s undeniably true that religion does play a part in what’s happening right now, it’s fairly clear (to me, anyway) that these other factors are all very important. Enough so that I suspect that if they all applied to us that we’d be the ones protesting that the minority of our fellows who had chosen a violent path were outliers, and not representative of our society at large.

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