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How to Deal with Supporters of Bin Laden

July 23, 2008

In an insightful essay in the Washington Monthly, Kenneth Bailen discusses a number of conversations with purported supporters of Al Qaeda in Islamic countries, and polls on the same topic. His basic conclusion is that much of this support is “soft” and reflects anger at the perceived anti-Muslim bias of the United States rather than any support for the agenda of Al Qaeda. In fact, these people tend to oppose terrorism in their own countries, and support policies such as an iindependent judiciary, a free press, free elections and advancing economic prospects. In a poll in Pakistan, despite purported support for Bin Laden, a mere 1 percent would support an Al Qaeda-style party in the polls. What is going on? Bailen answers:

“Our polls show that the anger Muslims around the world feel towards the United States is not primarily directed at our people or values—even those who say they support bin Laden don’t, for the most part, “hate us for our freedoms,” as President Bush has claimed. Rather, what drives Islamic public opinion is a pervasive perception that the United States and the West are hostile towards Islam. This perception, right or wrong, is fed by a variety of American actions, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the overarching global war on terror. These actions are seen as profoundly disrespectful and humiliating because they amount to America forcing its will on the Muslim world.”

The actions that tend to make America popular are remarkably straightforward: humanitarian relief (US popularity in Indonesia jumped remarkably after the tsunami), more visas to study and work in the US, and better trade links. What irks people in Muslim countries is not only the actions of the US (the occupation of Iraq, the tilt toward Israel, the torture), but the rhetoric– the increasing anti-Islamic bombast, the restrictions on visas and the domestic xenophobia, and even the democracy-promoting agenda. On the latter point, while most Saudis desire basic freedoms, they do not want the US to dictate to them. What matters is to overcome the perception of a lack of respect.

The US has clearly been on the wrong path over the last eight years. Even setting aside the monumental foreign policy disasters, a whole industry has developed on the right attacking “jihadism”, “islamofascism” and scaremongering about how these groups want to destroy the west and restore the caliphate. Not only is this nonsense, but it also plays right into Bin Laden’s hands. Some Catholics and other so-called conservatives need to pay heed to this too: let me single out George Weigel and What’s Wrong WIth the World for stupid “jihadism” rhetoric (obviously, I’m ignoring the lunatic fringe like Hagee and Parsley– the men in McCain’s camp).

And finally, what will play better in the Muslim world? Obama’s reassuring message, or McCain’s more-of-the-same codpiece diplomacy?

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13 Comments
  1. Christopher permalink
    July 23, 2008 6:44 pm

    Even setting aside the monumental foreign policy disasters, a whole industry has developed on the right attacking “jihadism”, “islamofascism” and scaremongering about how these groups want to destroy the west and restore the caliphate. Not only is this nonsense, but it also plays right into Bin Laden’s hands.

    Weigel defines jihadism as “”the religiously inspired ideology [which teaches] that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.” (Actually borrowing the definition from Fr. Neuhaus).

    Muslims as a whole rightly cannot be identified with terrorism. But that is not to say there is a subset of those that identify with the militant theology and hermeneutics that has been fueling terrorist attacks on the U.S. for several decades; that lay claim to Muslim teachers like Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Hasan al Banna and Syed Qutbe, etc.

    I think you’re pegging Weigel wrongly as the ‘Muslims are the enemy type'; in fact, it’s a good indication that you haven’t read his book. Unlike other critics he identifies Benedict’s Regensberg Address as a critique of a specifically jihadist ideology and not Islam itself. Like Neuhaus, Weigel believes that traditional Muslims may have the resources within itself to repudiate Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorist ideology.

    A proper target of the kind of rhetoric you’re (agreeably) concerned about would be, in my opinion, Robert Spencer and jihadwatch.org, who aren’t as nuanced in their fulminations against Islam.

    Obama’s reassuring message, or McCain’s more-of-the-same codpiece diplomacy?

    I wonder which word you love better: “Calvinist” or “codpiece”. ;-)

  2. July 23, 2008 6:50 pm

    What irks people in Muslim countries is not only the actions of the US (the occupation of Iraq, the tilt toward Israel, the torture), but the rhetoric– the increasing anti-Islamic bombast, the restrictions on visas and the domestic xenophobia, and even the democracy-promoting agenda.

    So what was it that irked “people in Muslim countries” prior to the “past eight years”? That is, prior to the 1993 WTC attacks, the Cole bombing, the Khobar Towers attack, the Kenyan embassy attack, and 9/11 itself? Might have to come up with a non-Bush-blaming theory for that one.

  3. jonathanjones02 permalink
    July 23, 2008 7:10 pm

    This is a Ron Paulian / “paleo-con” type post, whose foreign policy views I am sympathetic with. That said, however, we must be careful not to excuse the actions and rhetoric of far too many Muslims. It is idiotic to suggest that all Muslims are terrorists, but it should be recognized that a large majority of the world’s terrorists are Muslims, that these actions can be reasonably justified within Islamic readings and traditions (combine the lack of a central religious authority, and the example of its founder, with the fascinating Atlantic article below about the Koran) and that a troublingly large percentage of the world’s Muslims are sympathetic to bin Laden types. Remember also that the 9.11 hijackers were wealthy and pretty well “Westernized.” (Meaning that socioeconomic “reasons” make significantly less sense than religious / ideological ones.) Islamic and Western cultures are very, very different, and even as there is much to be admired in Islamic culture (importance of family, hospitality) there is much that is abhorrent. The two don’t mix well, and it is reasonable to say: “best wishes to you in your country, feel free to visit ours, but our laws won’t allow large-scale immigration, sorry. And all that are here must conform to our laws and norms, especially when it comes to the treatment of girls and women. We like our culture and institutions and wish to preserve and reform them as we see fit. Bye.” (This would also mean, of course, staying out of their countries.)

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199901/koran

    I think Christopher Hitchens wrote something wise shortly after the attacks:

    There are those Muslims who want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they can abandon cherished religion, or they can remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing; and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs. It’s very difficult to understand the machinery of hatred, because you wind up resorting to logic, but trying to understand this with logic is like measuring distance in kilograms. Many in Islamic nations are envious. To them, life is an unbearable burden. Modernism is the only way out but that is frightening. It means they have to compete. It means they can’t explain everything away with conspiracy theories. Talent and the free inquiry necessary to cultivate it support jealousy among the constrained. As Muslims believe they are in possession of the final revealed truth, and that they have a testament and a tradition of sayings of the prophet that in essence answer all human questions, by that light all questions ought not only to be answered but are answerable. While no doubt there are Christians and Jews who feel similar about their favored scriptures, Islam must now live in a world of competing ideas. Yet they have created societies in which it is possible, perhaps, to dispute what the Koran and Hadith mean, but not their underlying authority to answer all questions. It is still not safe in a Muslim country to say ‘There is no God and Mohammed was therefore not his prophet.’ In summary, we have: metaphysical superiority, technical and intellectual retardation, self-hatred caused by the impurity of their own desires, no practical means of escape from genuine quotidian humiliations, and the promise of rewards for their families on earth and for themselves in the outer world.

  4. TeutonicTim permalink
    July 23, 2008 8:14 pm

    Here’s some more good old fashioned “it’s our fault, I feel so guilty” condescending attitude. Why can you not recognize that there’s been no love lost between the Islamic world and the West since they started taking over Christian and Jewish lands for Allah.

    At least give them credit that they can not like us on their own grounds and not that it’s something that we did wrong to “make” them hate us. It’s condescending and elitist.

  5. Morning's Minion permalink*
    July 23, 2008 9:41 pm

    Christopher: Weigel is wrong to wrap himself in the aura of the pope. Benedict was making a very precise theological point about the influence of voluntarism in Islam, and he showed that it too had influenced Christianity (Duns Scotus). This is a good basis for earnest and respectful dialogue. Weigel, on the other hand, betrays his intentions with the use of the word “jihadism” and his treatises on “understanding the enemy” and “the dangers of Western appeasement of terrorists”. Here’s a key test: does he or does he not support Bush’s foreign policy. I believe he does, and that exposes him.

    And, no, I have not read the book. I find him a tedious writer. I think Michael Sean Winters had it right when he claimed that Weigel has written the same book ten times!

  6. July 23, 2008 10:54 pm

    Weigel is wrong to wrap himself in the aura of the pope. Benedict was making a very precise theological point about the influence of voluntarism in Islam, and he showed that it too had influenced Christianity (Duns Scotus). This is a good basis for earnest and respectful dialogue.

    Of course it is a good basis for earnest and respectful dialogue — but I seem to recall the point Benedict was making was that such voluntarism was to be opposed:

    Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy … God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.

    The extent of Weigel’s application of the Regensburg dialogue to the jihadist threat is as follows:

    As Pope Benedict pointed out in [the Regensburg Address], the key theological move that underwrites today’s jihadist ideology (and practice) is the identification by jihadists of God as Absolute Will. If that is what jihadists believe God to be (irrespective of the degree of warrant that concept can find in classical Islam, which is disputed), then jihadists are, within their own frame of reference, justified in belieivng that God can command anything — even the irrational. And so, in extension of the thought of Sayyid Qutb, contemporary jihadists believe that murder of innocents is not only morally acceptable, but morally required, if such murders advance the cause of Islam. Thus the origins of one of today’s most lethal weapons: the so-called “suicide bomber” . . . [p. 48]

    Obviously, the key focus of Benedict’s Regensburg address wasn’t on Islam or any variant thereof (it was moreover a critique of a deficient understanding of reason in the West and the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity — something the majority of Muslims and media alike missed in the heady days of “Regensburg Rage”). That said, I think the infamous fourth paragraph and B16’s assertion that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul” has some relevance to the present situation. Fr. James V. Schall made the same point, although I guess this brands him as a dreadful neocon as well.

    But Weigel goes on to suggest that Benedict’s thought — not only his criticism of voluntarism but Christianity’s understanding of analogy between God and man and the intimacy of faith and reason — may be an impetus for a renewed Muslim-Christian dialogue. Especially in finding a basis for an Islamic appreciation of religious pluralism (such as was accomplished in the West):

    [Weigel]: . . . Christianity’s convictions about the rationality built into the world by the world’s creator were one important source of “modernity,” if by that term we mean the scientific method, historical-critical study, [and] goverment by the arts of persuasion, . . . are there in Islam’s theological self-understanding, themes analogous to Christianity’s theologically driven convictions about the rationality of the world, themes that could, over time, make Islam’s encounter with modernity more fruitful for both Islam and the modern world?

    So, just out of curiousity, have you actually read Weigel’s book?

  7. July 23, 2008 11:04 pm

    Here’s a key test: does he or does he not support Bush’s foreign policy. I believe he does, and that exposes him.

    Despite some disagreement over foreign policy, there are affinities between Weigel and Benedict on Islam — particularly on the imperative of Islam finding within itself grounds to accommodate religious pluralism.

    And, no, I have not read the book.

    Figured as much.

  8. July 23, 2008 11:08 pm

    scaremongering about how these groups want to destroy the west and restore the caliphate

    I agree with you that there is an element of scaremongering and generalizing going on about the “Islamic menace” — after all, we have thousands of Muslim soldiers fighting in the U.S. armed forces
    against Al Qaeda. Nonetheless, it follows that if there is an faction of Muslims who are seeking to do precisely that — destroy the west and restore the caliphate — the concern expressed by Weigel and others is not entirely unfounded.

  9. Morning's Minion permalink*
    July 24, 2008 9:37 am

    …and there are a fraction of supposed Christians who want to wipe out the Palestinians to herald the return of Christ. So what?

  10. Morning's Minion permalink*
    July 24, 2008 9:38 am

    And you didn’t answer my question, Christopher: does Weigel support Bush’s middle eastern policies?

  11. July 24, 2008 12:28 pm

    Some Catholics and other so-called conservatives need to pay heed to this too: let me single out George Weigel and What’s Wrong WIth the World for stupid “jihadism” rhetoric

    If you admittedly haven’t read the book to which you link, then any criticism of its rhetoric can’t be taken seriously. How about criticizing books that you’ve taken the time to read?

  12. digbydolben permalink
    July 25, 2008 2:01 pm

    MM, I know I’ve recently made some of the so-called “conservatives” on this blog furious by some of the things I’ve been saying about US policies, but here are two examples of how I find it almost impossible to dialogue with Americans about politics. It’s because of the taboos against what actually can be discussed:

    http://edouardalxandre.livejournal.com/535846.html

    About SB’s query as to what “irked” Muslims prior to Iraq: I know that he, like most Americans won’t listen, but EVERYWHERE I went in the Muslim world during the decade of the 90s (when I lived mostly in Asia), I was CONSTANTLY being asked, “Why are you Americans (they presumed I was an American, because of whom I was working for) so opposed to the rights of the Palestinians?” We complete underestimate the religious solidarity of the Muslim world.

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