“Why don’t we hang ourselves?” “With what?” –Waiting for Godot
“The demonstrators filling the streets in Cairo, Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Manama, Sana and Tehran give every indication of dreaming dreams not entirely dissimilar from our own. Rather than rejecting modernity, as radical Islamists such as Osama bin Laden have urged, these protesters want a bigger slice of what modernity has to offer. Though not guaranteeing harmonious coexistence, this convergence of aspirations does suggest that a cosmic clash of civilizations is avoidable.” – Andrew Bacevich
Bacevich, a conservative turned critic of American imperial folly, offers instructive insight into the limits of the West’s empathetic imagination. What we have here is failure to communicate, due to the West’s grotesque inability to at least entertain the perspective of the Other.
Consider his new op-ed entitled They’re doing it without us: Rendering a decade of U.S. policy irrelevant, the people of the Middle East are transforming the region themselves. The title, which aptly expresses his thesis, has some merit. Unfortunately, Bacevich is unable to imagine even the possibility that people in the Middle East may have different values and aspirations for transformation than he does.
Remember George W. Bush’s hilariously absurd statement, “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” ? That statement, as I have explained to Composition students, is a classic example of the fallacy known as the false dilemma or false dichotomy. (Obviously there must be more potential choices available than either being with Bush’s crowd, or being with “the terrorists” – especially since the two categories are identical!)
Bacevich serves up a warmed-over version of the same false dichotomy. According to him, the people of the Middle East face a stark choice between “rejecting modernity, as radical Islamists such as Osama bin Laden have urged,” or pursuing “a bigger slice of what modernity has to offer.” In other words, they must be the same as us – or we will have to wipe them out in an allegedly unavoidable “cosmic clash of civilizations.”
Bacevich approves of “the Muslim masses demanding political freedom and economic opportunity” but is hostile toward “radical Islamists.” This false dichotomy has nothing whatsoever to do with the reality of the Muslim-majority lands, where the vast majority of people want political freedom AND shariah-based law, economic opportunity AND an Islamic caliphate, technological advancement AND the rebirth of a genuinely Islamic civilization. The Muslim majority insists that all US military bases be removed from Islamic lands, and roughly half of Muslims polled – including more than eight in ten Egyptians – approve of attacks on US troops and military facilities as a means toward that end, just as Americans would support the resistance if their own lands were occupied. (Undoubtedly even more approve of military resistance against the Zionist genoicide of the Palestinians.) Yet Muslims oppose attacks on civilians even more strongly than Western non-Muslims do, and agree that it is a good thing that “the world is becoming more connected through greater economic trade and faster communication.” Clearly, the Muslim majority wants their restored Islamic caliphate, presiding over a Zionist-free Middle East, to coexist on an equal basis with, rather than war against, the peoples of other civilizations. (See poll data here.)
The whole notion that “radical Islamists” are “at war with modernity” and “hate our freedoms” has it backwards. In the Islamic world, the people who have no use for modernity and democracy are the Sufis – the real ones, not the Psufis like the pself-appointed pshaykh Imam Rauf. The Sufis love freedom – real, inner freedom – not its political simulacrum. (Check out this manifesto.) The so-called Islamists (including the late, falsely-accused Bin Laden) like the majority of Muslims, generally view modernity and democracy positively – and any reservations they have could be characterized as ambivalence, not loathing. They want to keep a large part of democracy – the part that is compatible with Islam – and leave the rest.
Why won’t even the anti-imperialist Bacevich let Muslims be Muslims? Why can so few Americans imagine allowing Islamic civilization to put itself back together, Humpty-Dumpty like, after being shattered by genocidal wars of European imperial-colonial aggression? As we Muslims ask, every time we hear about sex-torture gulags and drone attacks on wedding parties and millions murdered in wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan and the other ten million facets of Islamophobic hysteria: Why do they hate us?
The short answer: They hate our meaning.
Western civilization is dying, as Samuel Beckett well knew, because there is no longer any shared system of meaning holding it together. Bacevich smiles on “the Muslim masses demanding political freedom and economic opportunity” because it sounds so much like America’s closest thing to a shared system of meaning: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of (material) happiness.”
But life and liberty to what end? And what exactly is “happiness”? These clichés were adequate two hundred years ago, when vast material riches of new continents awaited plunder, and a measureless wealth of fossil fuel energy awaited exploitation. For termites confronting a rotting tree, or maggots gifted with an elephant’s corpse, the meaning of life is simple: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – which is another way of saying, “Let’s eat!”
Today, as Richard Heinberg puts it, the party’s over. The “let’s eat” philosophy of life will no longer even fill stomachs, much less satisfy people hungry for meaning. Most Westerners are at the end of the road: having surpassed and discarded modernity, post-modernity, and even post-post-modernity, we have lost faith in nihlism – while only a few of us (thus far) have taken the next logical step and embraced Islam, the most coherent, robust, and promising meaning-system on earth.
Religions, after all, are THE time-tested meaning systems. That is why the Constitution of the United States of America, written by Deists who were not themselves traditionally religious, privileges freedom of religion; and it is why federal, state and local governments offer churches tax breaks. A shared system of meaning, not energy or farmland or even human labor, is the ultimate national resource.
The West’s elite jettisoned Christianity more than a century ago (see A.N. Wilson, God’s Funeral). Can this particular Humpty-Dumpty be put back together? Probably not; it is hard to imagine the West recanting its current post-Christian phase and reviving itself as a specifically Christian civilization.
Islamophobia, then, is the malaise of a dying Western civilization venting its self-hatred by spewing the projections of its own inadequacies in the general direction of the Other. Bacevich knows the American experiment is in a terminal phase of decline; he sees Islam ascending as a time-tested system of meaning uniting 1.5 billion people (who happen to live over 80% of the world’s best remaining energy resources); and he reacts with fear and aggression, both based in jealousy. Bereft of any viable shared system of meaning of his own, the Islamophobe tries to fill the void with hatred of those whose lives are so much richer than his.
If Bacevich, and other American pundits, were free from such ressentiment, they would be happy at the prospect of a renewal of Islamic civilization, and encourage its political expression: the rise of an Islamic caliphate capable of defending its own people and resources.