Thursday, January 15, 2015

The disaster of staying the course...

One of the saddest mistakes made by President Obama - and I generally admire and support most of his initiatives - was the decision to follow President Bush's tragic miscalculations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The rationale for "staying the course" was sensible. The artificial stability born of "the surge" made anything but continuity unlikely. After all, President Obama is a Christian realist born of the ironic wisdom of Niebuhr. I am, too. We do not live in a perfect world nor one where evil can be placated by wishful thinking and prayer. 

Nevertheless, as the cruelty of the Charlie Hebdo massacre makes clear, the American and European foreign policy of the past 15 years has not made the world a safer place. If we had advanced a two-tiered strategy that honored the best of military wisdom while also practicing what I have come to call a "three cups of tea" engagement, threats to our security could have been contained while justice, socio-economic development and trust was strengthened. To paraphrase Malcolm X, what has happened since September 11th, however, is that the "chickens have come home to roost." 

Journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote that when hope is systematically extinguished and bigotry and discrimination institutionalized - as has been the reality for Arab immigrants to Europe as well as young idealists in oppressive Middle Eastern nations - young people find solace in self-medication or radical jihadism.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures. This is why France’s far right, organized around Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant Front National, has so much in common with the jihadists whom Le Pen says she wants to annihilate.

When you sink to despair, when you live trapped in Gaza, Israel’s vast open-air prison, sleeping 10 to a floor in a concrete hovel, walking every morning through the muddy streets of your refugee camp to get a bottle of water because the water that flows from your tap is toxic, lining up at a U.N. office to get a little food because there is no work and your family is hungry, suffering the periodic aerial bombardments by Israel that leaves hundreds of dead, your religion is all you have left. Muslim prayer, held five times a day, gives you your only sense of structure and meaning, and, most importantly, self-worth. And when the privileged of the world ridicule the one thing that provides you with dignity, you react with inchoate fury. This fury is exacerbated when you and nearly everyone around you feel powerless to respond.

This analysis neither excuses the violence of the Kouachi brothers nor celebrates it; rather it speaks a clarifying truth within our current chaos. Ours is a culture where a vacuum of integrity has become normative. All of our public actions are suspect and all of our social analysis is compromised. Some claim that we are encountering the inevitable clash of civilizations - our noble 21st century Western values versus their outdated, medieval Muslim sensibilities: but beware for this agenda is born of fear and manipulation. Others seek to minimize the damage by telling us that the brothers Kouachai were simply rogue agents, more criminals than jihadis, but this too misses the mark. Some ask for moderate Muslims to speak out - which they have - others insist that what is really taking place is a battle over freedom of speech; and still others are certain that what is needed is even stronger military action against Al Qaeda, ISIL and all the rest. But all of this "analysis" rings hollow. Dispossessed young Arabs now own both the weaponry and technology to redress their grievances in the only way that our realm seems to understand or acknowledge.

The cartoons of the Prophet in the Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo are offensive and juvenile. None of them are funny. And they expose a grotesque double standard when it comes to Muslims. In France a Holocaust denier, or someone who denies the Armenian genocide, can be imprisoned for a year and forced to pay a $60,000 fine. It is a criminal act in France to mock the Holocaust the way Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam. French high school students must be taught about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but these same students read almost nothing in their textbooks about the widespread French atrocities, including a death toll among Algerians that some sources set at more than 1 million, in the Algerian war for independence against colonial France. French law bans the public wearing of the burqa, a body covering for women that includes a mesh over the face, as well as the niqab, a full veil that has a small slit for the eyes. Women who wear these in public can be arrested, fined the equivalent of about $200 and forced to carry out community service. France banned rallies in support of the Palestinians last summer when Israel was carrying out daily airstrikes in Gaza that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. The message to Muslims is clear: Your traditions, history and suffering do not matter. Your story will not be heard. Joe Sacco had the courage to make this point in panels he drew for the Guardian newspaper. And as Sacco pointed out, if we cannot hear these stories we will endlessly trade state terror for terror.

“It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts,” the Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, an American who lives in California, told me in an email. “In some Latin countries people are acquitted for murders where the defendant’s mother was slandered by the one he murdered. I saw this in Spain many years ago. It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West. Ireland is a western country that still retains some of that, and it was the Irish dueling laws that were used in Kentucky, the last State in the Union to make dueling outlawed. Dueling was once very prominent in the West when honor meant something deep in the soul of men. Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion. Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one. I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

All of which leads me back to Three Cups of Tea. Yesterday I received our annual update of the Central Asia Institute. In 2011 there were allegations of corruption, deceit and mismanagement. These were widely shared throughout the media and Greg Mortenson and his work was sullied and disgraced. When the allegations were refuted, however, and the legal actions against CAI dismissed, no one seemed to pay attention. So they continue to quietly bring education and integrity to a part of the world most of us hate, fear and misunderstand. (For a comprehensive list of their achievements, please see:  masterprojectlist. pdf)  I give thanks to God that my faith community continues to support this work with resources and prayer.

Nothing will get better by "staying the course." There is a necessary and vital military role to be sure. But there is an equally necessary and even more vital humanitarian role to be nourished. And it won't happen from the top down. It will require people of good will acting to strengthen the efforts of three cups of tea work throughout the region. Without this, Hedge's chilling conclusion will stand:

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris. 

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