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Sympathy for the Devil: Understanding Radical Islam and the Failure of Neo-Con Foreign Policy

Differences in Eastern and Western Views of War

If anyone would like a helpful primer on the motivations Middle Eastern society,  I cannot recommend highly enough a book given to me by a friend who worked at the NSA.  The book is called Balkan Ghosts, by Robert Kaplan, and while it is a travelog, it gives an invaluable history of the clash of East and West over the centuries, including insight into the different perceptions of war.  In the West, due to its Christian heritage,  a theory of just war was developed.  Among those principles in just war theory was a respect for the protection of non-combatants (civilians) and the establishment of justifiable reasons for war, such as protecting the nation from aggression by foreign powers.  Since the late Middle Ages, the West has recognized slaughter of non-combatants as unjust, and nations which ignored those principles were identified as rogue nations (Nazi Germany, e.g.).

But the Eastern view of warfare has always been entirely different, in part because the respect for the individual is not native to their value system. While this summary does not do justice to the book, it may begin to expose the vast cultural differences that exist between us. In Islamic and pre-Islamic tribal societies in the Middle East (like the Bedouins for example), your value to the society is based upon your membership in the tribe, your family, and your religion. In other words, you receive your value, not based upon your value as an individual life to God, but through the community. The result of this view of human beings has several consequences.  War in these societies has historically been genocidal.  You win wars by wiping out the other tribe. If you belong to the other tribe, your life has no intrinsic value, and there is no crime in wiping out your enemies. Wars are tribal, ethnic, and often religious, as we can see from the historic animosity between Shia and Sunni Muslims.  It is also why Saddam Hussein had no qualms of conscience about gassing the Kurds or any of his enemies who were not part of the Tikriti clan!

Arabian tribes before the rise of islam

Arabian tribes before the rise of islam (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Islamic societies are inherently theocratic, not secular.  In the West, we base our governments on social contracts through democratic or parliamentary constitutions, which create a loyalty to an abstract concept called “the state,” but in the Middle East and Africa, it was the Western colonial powers that imposed geographic borders on the lands and peoples.  It tried to forge a corporate allegiance to a multi-cultural, secular state, but the people saw themselves primarily as tribal and religious.  The artificially created states are responsible in part for the ongoing conflicts in regions like Nigeria and the Sudan. Abstract nation-state loyalties are not part of the cultures upon which these western ideas were imposed.  And the people certainly are not secular in their understanding of the government or state.

If you look at Iran, the state is primarily theocratic, with religious leaders (Imams) having the final say over the role of the government. Theocracy fits perfectly in line with the Islamic world view. Western, secular democracy, by its very nature, is considered opposed to Islam.  While in the West, individual freedom and freedom of conscience are essential to a functioning democracy, in Islamic states, submission to Allah is required, liberty of conscience is not an option, and individual freedom of choice is not important. You can be put to death for converting from Islam to Christianity or any other religion, because conversion away from Islam is equivalent to treason against the theocratic state.

Enter the Neo-Cons

In the long tradition of western democracy, the people tired of religious wars and eventually set up articles of toleration for various faiths. The Inquisitions and the Reformation gave way to secular states. In order not to have religious wars, the right of conscience had to be preserved, and the state’s neutrality on matters of faith or doctrine became necessary.  In the Christian tradition, faith is a gift of God, and therefore, no person can be forced to believe in certain articles of faith. It has to be by consent, and it is therefore necessary to preserve freedom of conscience and freedom of choice. Since faith is inward and spiritual, all the state can insist upon is conformity to outward laws and rules that govern the welfare and regulation of the social whole.  When the cultures of the West were still cradled in a Judeo-Christian heritage of laws and values, there was an open acceptance of the expression of religion in the public square and a consensus on moral values established in law.   But since the 1960’s in the US, and for much longer in places like France, there has been an attempt to remove all religious influence from public policy. The idea is that a secular democracy is indeed secular at the core; turning religious values and faith into entirely private matters. The idea driving public policy is that in order to preserve this secular freedom, no reference to faith-based values may be considered or used when forming law. We can see the hostility towards religious values at work in the media and in politics, as traditional Christian values (considered mainstream as recently as the 1950’s) are attacked as right-wing extremism, hate speech, or tagged with epithets like “Tea Party-ism.”   While “God Bless America” is spoken by all politicians, it is an insincere and calculated phrase used to imply agreement with American Civil Religion, without requiring real allegiance to any specific content, morals or doctrines. It is a nostrum spoken to satisfy the unthinking masses for crass political ends.

Consider, then, how antithetical the concept of secular democracy is to the theocratic Middle East!  Sure, we can say our way is better, but the problem of the Neo-Conservative foreign policy “experts” is that they naively believed they could impose western style secular democracy upon the tribal societies of the East. In their secular world view, they assumed that “everyone wants freedom.”   Misunderstanding the nature of eastern culture, the Neo-Con’s secular idealism got the US into a terrible trap in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The “unbiased” US military was dropped into the middle of a cat fight and told to keep the peace, in a place where tribal and religious vendettas last for centuries. We imposed a modified democracy upon Iraq, that is now showing signs of coming apart (due, in part, to the proxy war going on in Syria between Sunni and Shia factions).  And Afghanistan is probably a lost cause.  Bribery to us is the norm to them. The way a tribal leader shares his blessings with his clan is to take his riches and distribute them; so when the leader gets a boatload of money from the US government, it goes first to his family, then to his clan, then to his tribe. It is expected. To not do so would be to violate cultural values. It isn’t just that the peoples of these regions don’t want secular democracy or freedom of conscience, the fact is that they just don’t “get it.” It is a foreign value system which they don’t understand and which is not part of their heritage. How can they adopt something they did not grow up with and for which their culture has no historical connection? Western democracy cannot function in a place like tribal Afghanistan; it is bound to fail.

Now consider how arrogant the US looks to Islamic peoples. Not only does the US want to impose its political system upon their family, tribal system of loyalties; it also has the audacity to think it can impose western secularism and religious neutrality upon an entirely religious culture.  The problem is that the West can only impose this neutrality upon the Islamic peoples by denying that any religion or religious value is more true or right than any other. For a culture that is steeped in submission to Allah, to imply that Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism, or other factions of Islam are just as true as their version of Islam, is to make secular neutrality more important and a higher ideal than devotion to God. In fact, as they look at the West, and its promotion of abortion, lust, divorce, homosexuality, fornication, and atheism, they see that our secularism leads to a rejection of Allah’s ways, and that is  purely satanic in their eyes.   Thus, we are seen as the “Great Satan.”

I wish President Bush had read Balkan Ghosts and studied the Bay of Pigs debacle before committing our troops to an idealistic and unrealistic enterprise. Balkan Ghosts may have led him to restrain the Neo-Con vision, and the Bay of Pigs may have led him to have less trust in the “Intelligence community” when it said that WMD’s in Iraq were a “slam dunk.”  But that is water under the bridge now.

Sympathy for the Devil?

While in no way can a Christian be in favor of the Eastern view of war, the mistreatment of women (honor killings, etc.), terrorism, suicide bombings and killing of innocents, there is at least an understanding of their resentment against western style secularism, stripped of any moral or religious values beyond the hailed “freedom of the individual.”  As Christians are increasingly ostracized from mainstream society, attacked for holding on to traditional moral values, and accused of bigotry and hate speech simply for believing in Jesus and the Scriptures as the Word of God, we may come to see the Islamist point about unchecked secularism resulting in an opposition to God and God’s ways. The sacred public square has become the secular public square, where people of faith of any stripe, are hardly permitted to speak, much less advocate for their values to be respected by law, without being attacked as being beyond the pale of  what is “socially acceptable.” Witness the recent attempt by the administration to impose abortion and contraceptive mandates upon churches, businesses, and religious institutions morally opposed to those values. The First Amendment rights of the people are being ignored or even slowly withdrawn by the secular state as the state advances its social agenda. The East may be wrong in its methods and wrong it many of its values, but it is right in its analysis of many of the consequences of unchecked secularism.

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2 comments on “Sympathy for the Devil: Understanding Radical Islam and the Failure of Neo-Con Foreign Policy

  1. There is a great deal of truth here, but broad characterizations are also inherently flawed, as they do not apply everywhere. There is a schism within Islam on the role of the state, and the role of democracy. To some, democracy is appropriate as the people, being Islamic, will naturally support leaders who respect Islam. They quote the Holy Koran sections where Islam is to be kept separate from politics. To others, a secular government is fine as long as it leaves religion to the Imams. The concept of Sharia, or religious law, also means different things to different Muslims. Look at the wide gap between Arab versions of Islam and Indonesian versions. That said, the loyalty to tribe is indeed important, and to many comes above Islam. We always struggle when we attempt to make the rest of the world conform to our worldviews rather than recognize cultural differences. Indeed, within Islam the greatest challenge today comes from extremists who confuse their tribe’s cultural traditions with requirements of Islam.
    I agree with much of what you said, but disagree with the perspective that we have a conflict brewing in the West between the secular state and freedom of religion. We recognize religious freedom as a core value, esp. in the US, as we came to these shores to find religious freedom. We recognize freely that our rights as individuals are given to us by God, and as such we do not allow either governments or established religions to violate them. All this is enshrined in our Constitution.
    Yet you lose me when you refer to “recent attempts by the administration to impose abortion and contraceptive mandates upon churches, businesses, and religious institutions”. First, I am not aware of any attempt to impose abortion mandates on anyone who so objects. Second, as to contraception, even contraception was exempted in the new health care regs as applied to truly religious institutions, and the recent revisions went even further. The risk here is that in allowing “businesses” to impose their CEO’s version of right/wrong on others, you violate the rights of individuals who work in that enterprise but do not share those beliefs. That violates the religious rights and individual rights of those workers. It is a slippery slope. Fortunately, we live in a society that tries to find a balance. We should remember that the right to follow your religious beliefs is considered a part of, but not paramount to, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

  2. As I said, the summary doesn’t do the book justice, just provides a window into differences in culture and worldview. That same “democratic” Islamic state does not often provide the same liberties for non-Muslims or Jews, e.g.
    The abortion pill is indeed part of the mandate. Whether it is a pill or surgery, it is not a contraceptive. The point is that for those of us who believe that all life is sacred, and that taking unborn life is indeed murder, the forced participation in such a moral evil is equivalent to forcing someone to support slavery or own slaves. There is a limit on what government should even force corporations to do on a matter of such moral conflict in society as this issue. Even if a “majority” believe slavery is okay, and that doesn’t make it right or an issue where compromise is possible.

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