Democracy, Backwardness and Tribalism

This week Bill Maher had Glenn Greenwald on his show to discuss amongst other things, U.S. foreign policy, Benghazi and how backward Muslims are. On this last point – what I consider the most interesting discussion from the segment shown above – Greenwald makes three very good points: First, that violence in the name of religion is not unique, second, even if they are acting violently, our responsibility as Americans is not to focus on their backwards but to assume our share of the blame.  I think that last point is crucial and is the one I try to live by, at least on this blog. My goal is to critique the societies and cultures to which I belong, not the ones for which I am either ignorant or simply have no ability to influence.

In this vein, I particularly agree with Greenwald’s when he writes in an older piece,

Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country. That’s particularly true of Americans, whose government has brought more violence, aggression, suffering, misery, and degradation to the world over the last decade than any other. Even if that weren’t true – and it is – spending one’s time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly:

“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.

“So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

I, too, have written before about the hordes of American commentators whose favorite past-time is to lounge around pointing fingers at other nations, other governments, other populations, other religions, while spending relatively little time on their own. The reason this is particularly suspect and shoddy behavior from American commentators is that there are enormous amounts of violence and extremism and suffering which their government has unleashed and continues to unleash on the world. Indeed, much of that US violence is grounded in if not expressly justified by religion, including the aggressive attack on Iraq and steadfast support for Israeli aggression (to say nothing of the role Judaism plays in the decades-long oppression by the Israelis of Palestinians and all sorts of attacks on neighboring Arab and Muslim countries). Given the legion human rights violations from their own government, I find that Americans and westerners who spend the bulk of their energy on the crimes of others are usually cynically exploiting human rights concerns in service of a much different agenda.

Now with regards to Maher’s convenient assertion that Islam and its followers are uniquely backwards and inherently violent and thus incapable of living under democracy, citing the Arab Spring as his example, I would like to add the following:

Democracy is Tough Business

When another guest, Joy Reid, made the very insightful statement that democracy even in the U.S. took a long time to solidify, citing the fact that within our first 100 years we had a civil war and that Blacks were enslaved, the English gentlemen made the silly and simplistic remark that those facts weren’t important because the American experiment in democracy was the greatest the world had ever seen.  But let’s forget the exceptionalist apologism for one second and let’s look at what we are really discussing here.

Maher is saying that these Muslims are backwards because in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt, after suffering decades of oppressive dictatorships – all of which, by the way were fully supported and financed by the America, inc. – they don’t now have a stable, liberal democracy. Rather in the case of Egypt, we get the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party arguably pushing for something terrible called Shari’a Law. I’ll touch on the Shari’a and also on America’s strong aversion to democracy in the Middle East in a moment, but let’s look at why Maher’s expectations are unreasonable, and even unfair given America and the rest of the world’s experience with democracy.

Transition to democracy is tough. Yes, in Spain or Chile, it seems to have happened or is happening rather quickly and smoothly. But, as Reid points out, it took a long time in the U.S. Forget about the English gentlemen’s claim that 200 years of oppression of Black Americans meant nothing because there was a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution. Black Americans were denied equal rights, not up until the Civil War when slavery was abolished, but at least all the way until 1970 when the last of the Jim Crow laws was overturned.

I can’t see how denying a whole population of human beings living in the U.S. of basic rights to be less severe than 12 months of rule by a right wing party in Egypt that probably has some of the same policies as the Republicans. Furthermore, let’s not forget that the peace-loving newly independent Americans believe in Manifest Destiny – very much a religiously motivated doctrine – causing the genocide of the native population of the North American continent, despite the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and that great experiment in democracy.

Even if you forget the human rights monstrosities committed by our Christian forbearers, there was also ongoing political turmoil at the nation’s inception. On the one hand, we had Alexander Hamilton who wanted to abolish slavery, build a strong federal government, a unified military, and a modern economy. On the hand, we had Thomas Jefferson who advocated for a decentralized government, state militias, and believed in an agrarian society sustained by slave labor. Guess which of the two ended up being the nation’s bigger hero?

Ironically, our heroic Minutemen today would be considered enemy combatants, insurgents and terrorists.

Then there was the French Revolution, one of the bloodiest ever, and a decade after the American revolution, the Latin Americans revolted against the Spanish crown, and even to this day, those nations have struggled to establish healthy and stable democracies, suffering from corruption, human rights abuses, military dictatorships, etc. And guess what? Those are all Christian nations.

Christian, Muslim, African, Asian, nation building is not pretty.

America’s Aversion to Democracy

It’s easy to point the finger at the Arab Spring and claim that the emergence of Islamist parties shows that Muslims are ill-suited for democracy. But let’s get one thing clear: you cannot divorce the fact that these democratic movements across the Arab Middle East did not happen because of U.S. support for democracy in those countries but despite decades of U.S. support for the oppression of democracy in those countries.

Thus, there is one very important fact that must be taken into account, especially in light of those accusations made by people like Maher and the English gentlemen that (i) Islam is uniquely violent and (ii) American democracy is historically superior.

First, unlike almost every revolution we have seen in history, in Egypt, the world’s largest and most influential Arab country, the Mubarak government — armed and financed by the world leading military prowess the U.S. — was toppled without a shot being fired on the part of the revolutionaries. The same occurred in Tunisia whose despot was also a client of the Europeans and Americans.

America’s so called attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East by way of invading Iraq was a total and utter failure, not to say human catastrophe. Yet, the Egyptians and Tunisians have peacefully removed their oppressive governments without any help from the American beacon of light.

That chaos has erupted from the Mubarak’s fall should not be considered either surprising or something that would only occur in an Arab or Muslim country. First of all, I would argue that Egypt is much less in chaos than we are led to believe. It is amazing that a 30 year dictatorship receiving billions in military and intelligence support from the U.S. could be toppled and followed so quickly with democratic elections.

Yes, let’s not forget that Egypt is experiencing its first real democratic elections and it is doing so with almost no Western support either politically or in the media. The U.S. government has yet to show any real support for democracy in Egypt, let alone anywhere else in the region. Our first reaction to the Arab Spring was to say that Mubarak was not a dictator. Then it was Hillary saying that the Mubaraks were close family friends. And when Mubarak’ demise seemed inevitable, the U.S. threw its weight behind Egypt’s head of intelligence, who happened to be our torturer-in-residence.

So if Egypt is politically backwards, I guess then we are too.

Recognize that since World War II, the U.S. has been staunchly against democracy in the Middle East. First it was the fear that a democratic people may vote in Marxists. Then it was (and continues to be) that a democratically elected government may not follow the company line on Israel and oil, and finally post 911 it was the whole war on terror thing. So, for example, if you have read any of the leaked Diplomatic Cables, you’ll see how the Mubarak regime would constantly play into America’s fears of terrorism to garner its continuous military, political and financial support.

And you wonder why there isn’t a single democracy in the Middle East? Try to name a country where we have actually supported democracy in the region? How about a democratic movement that we haven’t suppressed? We don’t even support liberal democracy in Israel. Quite the contrary. We support an extremist religious government. We support a “Jewish State” which is in the end no different than say supporting a Muslim State, where all non-Muslims would be second class citizens. We support undemocratic land grabs; what in America would be considered a violation of the right to property.

The result of decades of America’s support for dictatorships has been that countries like Egypt simply do not have established political parties. Because it was impossible to oppress political speech in Mosques, the only real politically organized groups that were formed were the Islamists. Thus, all grass root liberal or secular political parties would have been suppressed or imprisoned. In a sense then, we killed liberal democracy in the Middle East. So when you look at the first democratic elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood wins, not because they are popular, but because they are the only viable and established political party. Everyone else is fractioned and disorganized.

So once again, it should come to no surprise that (i) Islamist parties win elections and (ii) the newly ruling parties, having zero experience in living under a non-repressive government, rule oppressively.

A Word on Shari’a Law

I recently read Heaven On Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World by British jurist, Sadakat Kadri, and if I learned anything from his review of the history of Islamic jurisprudence it is that this thing called “Shari’a Law” doesn’t really exist. There simply does not exist a body of law that one can point to and say this is definitively the “Shar’ia”. It is not like Vatican canon law or American jurisprudence. Islamic fundamentalists may say they are going to enforce, impose or return to Shari’a Law but because there really is no such thing, then they pretty much have to make it up. Maybe Saudi Arabia alone is the only country that actually follows some version of Shari’a Law, but still that only applies to a handful of areas of law.

Rather Shari’a refers more to “living the good life” than it does to any fixed set of rules, and over the past few centuries and throughout different countries, different religious jurists have argued that certain laws and practices should be aligned to achieving this concept of Shari’a. But there is nothing close to a written body of jurisprudence that defines exactly what those norms should be.

Nevertheless, some American pundits and legislators will tell us that Muslims are coming to impose the Shari’a on us. Of course, no one tells us what that really means or how absurd that very notion is – once again, few if any Muslim countries even come close to living under Shari’a Law. As a matter of fact, not until the past 20 or so years has the very concept of legislating the Shari’a into law been discussed in Muslim countries.

Ironically, you must wonder how the Islamic fundamentalists’ view of what the law should be differs from what our Republican brethren think, say on marriage equality, reproductive rights, and what should be taught in schools. It is interesting to consider just how Republican ideologues have joined forces with the Christian Right to come up with a whole doctrine that claims that small government, low taxes, gun rights, prayer in school, capital punishment and host of other social issues are all mandated by the Bible and are all part and parcel of Good Christian Living.

Interestingly enough, Kadri compares the Salafists – that body of Islamic fundamentalists who believe that the Koran and the Shari’a should be interpreted based on how people lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed – to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Originalists, like Scalia, who believe that the Constitution as applied to contemporary life should be interpreted based on the thoughts of America’s 18th Century founders.

Religion and Violence

In no way am I trying to condone or justify violence by Muslim extremists here, but simply attempting to put things into a little perspective:  on our grandparents’ watch, some 70 to 90 million people were killed during World War II. Leaving aside the Asian part of the War, here we are talking about the planet’s worst ever explosion of violence led not by Muslims, but by Europeans and Christians. The Germans – call them the Nazis if it makes you feel better – were Christians, and they alone killed six million Jews and some 10 million more civilians and prisoners of war. France and the U.S. each lost close to a half a million people, while the Soviets lost close to 30,000 million lives, and the Germans themselves lost up to 9 million people.

And what were these European Christians fighting over? For the Germans, it was European domination based on their notion of racial superiority. While the Russians, British and French were fighting defensive battles, the Russians and Brits also had their own geopolitical objectives, be it the spread of communism or the maintenance of a colonial empire. All of these nations were fighting because they felt their respective religions, histories, and ways of life were superior not only to each other but also to the rest of world.

Now you may say, for example, that the Nazis weren’t true Christians and we shouldn’t blame Christianity for atrocities committed by them.  Fine, but then wouldn’t the same go for Islam and Muslims? First, we have not seen this type of offensive, aggressive violence from any of the Muslim countries in the modern era. Not a single Muslim country or major Muslim cleric has yet to condone or justify a terrorist attacks or violence in the name of Islam. To contrary, they have repeatedly spoken out against such actions.

There was no such thing as a Muslim suicide bomber prior to the 1980s. As a matter of fact, the founders of Arab terrorism was Christian. Violent Islamic fundamentalism in large part has been a result of the failure of other political ideologies –anti-imperialism, Marxism, nationalism and pan-Arabism — to rally and unify the Middle East against foreign occupation.

But without feeling the need or obligation to defend Islam, my point here again is that we have the worst violence the world has known coming from Europeans and alleged Christians, and not 500 years ago, but during the lives of our parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, as Greenwald stresses in the above video, America has been the world’s foremost perpetrator of violence over the past six decades. Our previous president claimed that God told him to invade Iraq, our air force inscribed Bible verses on their rifle sites, and Pentagon briefings starting with Bible quotes. In World War II, we knowingly and purposefully targeted civilian and non-military targets causing up to 500,000 civilian deaths. By today’s standards such acts of bombing heavily populated cities would without a doubt be considered acts of terrorism and crimes against humanity.

And as I have mentioned on numerous occasions (ie, here and here), America is a uniquely violent society.

The Shoe on the Other Foot

We often look at the utter chaos that has erupted in Iraq to rationalize our illegal invasion. Instead of saying look at what we unleashed, we say, you see how backwards they are? We gave them democracy and now look at what the Barbarians have done with our gift.

But I ask you in all sincerity. We have established a precedent with preemptive war, extrajudicial killings, and drone strikes. Now what would happen if one of those countries we regularly attack were able to properly fight back? What would happen if in the middle of the night a foreign special forces team were to fly into the White House, capture and kill our president? What if they were able to topple our government, dismantle our police and armed forces and destroy our water and electrical supplies? What would America’s political landscape look like? How would we unify as a nation? Yes, we unified at 911, but I would argue that our political culture and society are much less stable than we believe. I think that if there were the right opportunity, the division between Republicans and Democrats and between Red and Blue states is big enough that the U.S. could itself fall into chaos. Heck, we had Tea Partiers take semiautomatic weapons to political rallies.

I don’t think it takes much in any nation to set neighbor against neighbor when law and order has been destroyed; and there is no reason to believe that America, with its long history of self-destructive riots, would be any different.

Finally, don’t be mistaken. The last thing I want is to live under Shari’a Law whether it be imposed by Islamic fundamentalists or conservative Republicans. I believe staunchly in the rights set forth in the American Constitution, and I believe they should be generously interpreted to take into account for the world we are living in today, not that of a slave-owning 18th Century Virginian who believed in an agrarian America.

But what I really don’t like is when someone, say in Spain, tells me what’s wrong with my country. To that I say, worry about what’s wrong with Spain, mi hermano. So by the same token, while other parts of the world may seem pretty backwards to me, all I can and should do is focus on what’s wrong with the society I live. And from where I sit, caught between Europe and the United States, we don’t always look so rosy.


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