What the Chapel Hill police in North Carolina initially pitched to the world as ‘a parking dispute’ was the deliberate killing of three young and devout Muslim American students by an ideologically driven ‘new atheist’ killer named Craig Stephen Hicks. What the The Economist unhesitatingly calls ‘terrorism in Copenhagen’ involved the attempted shooting of a Danish cartoonist who repeatedly mocks the Prophet and Islamic beliefs as well as the lethal shooting of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue. A friend understandably poses a serious question on Twitter that might have been dismissed as rhetorical overkill just a few years ago: “Are only Muslims capable of terrorism?”
I find it deeply disturbing that while the Chapel Hill tragedy is given marginal media attention except among groups previously worried about Islamophobia and racism, The Economist considers that important principles of Western liberal democracy are at stake apparently only in the European context. In the words of Zanny Minton Beddoes, the new editor of the magazine: “Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and founder of a human-rights think-tank called Justitia, told me it would be a disaster if his country were to grow faint-hearted in its defense of free speech. ‘There can be no truce in the struggle between secular democracy and extremism,’ he says. Above all, politicians should avoid the trap of saying or implying that violence was really the fault of provocateurs, or that religious insult was to be equated with physical injury. Giving in to that sort of relativism would be letting down those followers of Islam who were brave enough to stand up for free speech, and indulging in a sort of “bigotry of low expectations”, said Mr Mchangama, whose paternal forebears were Muslims from the Comoros Islands. A good point.”
I am quite sure that this is not a good point, at least as phrased by Mr. Mchangama. Of course, governments should take action to protect all who are violently threatened, but to refuse to regard Islamophobic messaging as a species of hate speech while so regarding anti-Semitiic slurs or Holocaust denial is to combine two things that are both unacceptable: ignoring the root causes of political extremism and pathological violence; and prohibiting and punishing anti-Semitic utterances as hate speech while treating anti-Islamic or Islamophobic speech as requiring protection from the perspective of ‘freedom of expression.’ Admittedly, these outer bondaries are difficult to draw. Should the views of professional historians that cast doubt on the magnitude of the Holocaust be forbidden? Should critical literary and satiric treatments of Mohammed and the Koran be suppressed for the sake of public order? In the former case we have the experience of the French historian, Robert Faurisson, while in the latter case, that of Salman Rushdie. In my view, the writings of both should be regarded as forms of protected speech, and if a government is unable or unwilling to do this, it compromises its own claims to legitimacy. And what it certainly should not do, is defend Rushdie on freedom of expression grounds while punishing Faurisson on the basis of defamation or collective hate laws.
Another trope along a similar trajectory is the push toward acknowledging ‘war’ between the West and Islam, an embrace of the infamous Huntington thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations.’ Roger Cohen, an ethically oriented regular contributor to the opinion page of the New York Times, in a column headlined as “Islam and the West at War” [Feb. 17, 2015] criticizes the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well as Barack Obama, for describing the adversary as a ‘dark ideology’ and as ‘violent extremists.’ Cohen insists that such terms are euphemisms that evade the central reality of our time, namely, that the West is confronting Islamic movements and governments throughout the world, and even argues that Islam is ‘fair game’ because it “has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power.”
The article also observes that young Muslims feel alienated and are drawn toward ISIS and other radical Islamic movements. Cohen asks the central question “Who or what is to blame?” and then suggests that there are two opposing sets of responses. His descriptions are worth quoting in full: “For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality (Gunatanamo, Abu Ghraib); its killings of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a Jihadi-funding Saudi ally).”
And then comes the second type of response: “… it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic state its appeal.”
I find several serious flaws in this way of presenting the issue. It should be obvious to any objective commentator that both sets of issues are interwoven, and cannot be separated except for polemical purposes. Furthermore, the failures of the Arab world are presented as detached realities, implying that the Western colonial legacies endured by the Arab world are irrelevant. We need to recall that following World War I, almost one hundred years ago, the European colonial powers effectively insinuated their national ambitions into the diplomatic process that produced the Middle East as we know it today. Such moves undermined Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for the peoples comprising the collapsed Ottoman Empire as well as the promises of a unified country made to enlist Arab support for the war against Germany and the Ottomans.
These historical antecedents certainly contributed to the authoritarianism of the region as the only basis for sustaining a coherent order in the artificial political communities with which the region experienced the transition to political independence. And the sectarianism that Cohen laments was clearly inflamed by American occupation policy in Iraq, as well as providing the most palatable way for Saudi Arabia to justify its hostility to Iran, deflecting attention from corruption and gender cruelty of its dynastic rule.
Overlooking this legacy of colonialism also ignores the effects of the Balfour Declaration, which gave the imperial blessings of British Foreign Office to the Zionist project for Jewish homeland in historic Palestine that were later endorsed by the League of Nation and the UN. It is debatable as to how much of the turmoil and violence in the region is attributable to the open wounds caused by the dispossession and occupation of the Palesinian people, but it is certainly part of the sad regional story that has unfolded in the last several decades.
Not surprisingly, Cohen finds the second series of explanations “more persuasive” and especially so in light of “the failure of the Arab Spring,” which he believe is partly a consequence of Obama’s refusal to do more to promote and sustain democratic outcomes in the Middle East by way of intervention. Somewhat mysteriously he blames the Syrian tragedy on American ‘nonintervention’ without bothering to consider the prolonged national disasters that have followed from such interventions as the sustained ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the more limited one under NATO auspices in Libya. In each instance the aftermath of intervention was not democracy, or even stability, but chaos, strife, and a worsening of human security.
Cohen never ventures to suggest that in light of the colonial legacies in the region, abetted by the oil lust of the West, the least bad arrangement at this point that can be fashioned is a less corrupt and more responsible authoritarianism. As deficient as Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qaddafi were from the perspective of human rights and democracy, they did maintain order within their borders and their countries were rated rather highly by the Human Development Indicators (HDI) of the UNDP. If the United States is to be blamed for its diplomacy during the recent past, it would seem much more convincing to hold the Bush Administration responsible for the downward spiral of politics in the region than to point a critical finger at Obama. It was after all during the Bush presidency that an American interventionary resolve was linked to and justified as ‘democracy promotion.’ If we focus on the alienation of Arab youth, it would seem to be much more the result of these military and political interventions than a consequence of the Obama reluctance to engage the United States in yet another war with a Muslim country. Indeed, Obama can be faulted for being too quick to authorize drone and other air strikes, while pursuing an unimaginative diplomacy that remains the best hope for achieving sustainable peace in the region.
Cohen’s diagnosis and allocation of responsibility is a telling expression of the liberal mind-set as it addresses the interlinked agendas of anti-terrorism and Middle East politics. Liberals both minimize Western and American responsibility for what has gone wrong in the spirit of Bernard Lewis and make the partisan United States relationship to Israel seem almost irrelevant to the troubles of the region, thereby overlooking the high costs of the policy. For instance, many knowledgeable observers agree that regional stability would be dramatically enhanced by the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Yet such a policy option was never even considered in diplomatic settings, apparently because it would exert too much pressure on Israel to give up its arsenal of nuclear weaponry, which has given Israel a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region that insists on preserving at all costs, including risking a disastrous war with Iran.
At this stage there are no easy answers as to allocating responsibility or producing causal explanations for terrible realities being endured by the peoples of the region. Quite clearly there are no good military answers to the various unresolved disasters in the region, although that is where the sort of ‘war thinking’ that Cohen affirms continues to place its bets.
In contrast, I would contend that a more imaginative diplomacy responsive to international law remains the only way forward. Such an orientation would look with favor on Iran’s active participation, especially in relation to Syria and to the possible negotiation of a regional security framework. It would also presuppose the relevance of a just and sustainable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which it turn depends upon the adoption of a normal approach by the U.S. Government to its relationship to Israel. Until such a reorientation on the part of Washington policymakers occurs, the path of least resistance is to engage in one air war after another, and mindlessly lend aid and comfort to Sisi’s harsh oppression in Egypt and the dismaying blend of autocracy and theocracy in Saudi Arabia.