If we adopt the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.
~ Noam Chomsky, “Terror and Just Response”
The proper time and place
righplaceAfter the massacre that occurred in Paris on November 13, 2015, we were told that there is a ‘proper time and place’ to be critical of these things. We were told that immediately following the carnage was too soon to be critical. Emotions run high when such a terrible event occurs. We are supposed to believe that when emotions are running high that it is not the proper time or place to be critical. So when is the proper time and place to discuss these things? When emotions have settled and concerns have faded? When time has passed enough that people have gone on with their lives and maintain the status quo? I propose that’s the opposite of the proper time and place. It is that moment when an event is fresh that the cognitive dissonance has a break. That’s why emotions run so high. The perceived stability of contemporary society has been broken. It is true that the loss of life is tragic. But what would be more demeaning to those who have lost their lives than making them trivial? It is out of respect for the dead that we must discuss the situation. It is our last chance to give their deaths, and lives, a final meaning. It does not diminish the lives of those lost to discuss the serious implications of their deaths. It is the opposite.
I cannot emphasize enough that none of this is meant to claim justification for the actions of terrorist groups or the actions they have taken. None of it is meant to validate or legitimize their violence. It is unacceptable and it is also just bad strategy. Nothing good will come of these acts of terrorism. They just strengthen the resolve of the West, increase the response of repression and oppression, and obfuscate the true nature of Western imperialism. These acts of terrorism indirectly hurt the groups that are acting out as well as the people they harm directly. I do feel it is important to not simply these actions and merely manifestations of “bad religion.” (Yes. A discussion is to be had on the nature of religion and ways of which it can be destructive or helpful. There is also a discussion to be had on the positive and negative qualities of various societies.)
The immediate aftermath of the Paris massacre was deplorable. From all political persuasions we saw and heard relentless diatribes against Islam and Muslims. This does not sicken me because of some deep respect I have towards religion and it is also not because I have a problem with all religions. It is true that there is a touch of moral relativism in the condemnation of Muslims and scarcely a mention of Buddhist, Christian, or Hindu extremists that also murder people. This relativism seems to exist because the followers of other religions tend to not be killing Westerners.
Even the backlash to the anti-Muslim talk continues to conflate the issue to one of religion. We see Liberals in the US and even Muslims continue to argue that “If the Klu Klux Klan does not represent Christianity, then the Islamic State does not represent Islam.” Various other statements seek to validate Islam as though it’s not always a violent religion and that Muslim terrorists are not “true Muslims.” Overall, the backlash has been one that seeks to counter the anti-Muslim claims by stating that Islam is “not always bad.” It doesn’t change the narrative, but perpetuate it. The discussion always revolves around whether or not Islam is a “peaceful” religion or if it is the only peaceful religion. What we never hear about is the “Islamic Nations” or the cultures from which many of these “Muslim terrorists” derive.
The difference between Islam and Christianity
What is the real difference between Kim Davis supporters and Islamic extremists? Is it rooted in the fundamental differences of Christianity and Islam? I don’t believe that is correct. All religions have a propensity to radicalize followers. It’s the fundamental nature of religion. We must remember that religion claims to have an ‘absolute truth.’ It is part of religious dogma that creates adherence to the religion. The followers believe they are in possession of the ultimate reality and those who contradict it are not in possession of this true. This does have a tendency to create a moral imperative of superiority.
150922074822-kim-davis-marriage-kentucky-clerk-spencer-pkg-00003005-exlarge-169I would argue that the biggest difference between Kim Davis supporters and the Islamic State is that Kim Davis supporters are on the top of the global hierarchy. American Christians are not oppressed by anyone and they haven’t been in recent history. White Christians are the dominants in this society. Their opposition to LGBT equality is not predicated on any mistreatment by LGBT individuals. They claim to be victims of the “gay agenda,” but this is an absurd proclamation. The demands for equal treatment under the law is not the same as being forced to be subservient to a dominant. The Islamic State exists in nations that are former colonies and have had Western interference in their sovereignty for the past century (or more).
The Klu Klux Klan has never been on the receiving end of social dominance. The members of this organization have never been persecuted. In fact, they only existed because they had to cede their dominance of others. The Klan exists only because non-Whites, non-Christians, and women made gains towards a greater level of equality.
When we look at the actions that occurred in France this year, it is just too convenient to blame Islam. Why did Charlie Hebdo get attacked? Sure, some people probably were inspired by religious dogma against the “sin” of misrepresenting the prophet Muhammad. But even more important is the perceived continued ethnocentrism and degradation by the French towards Arabs. We would condemn Black Americans for acting out with violence against a publication or organization that depicted them as Minstrelsy black-face characters… but we wouldn’t claim they had no reason to be offended. There’s a history associated with this misrepresentation. A history that is sordid to the highest degree. Most of us have seen images of Black bodies swinging from trees. We have seen historical reenactments of the brutality endured by Black people in America because of this perceived misrepresentation. We can really look all over the world and see examples of these offensive representations of ethnic groups – from China and Japan to South Africa to Chile and all over Western society. Why don’t we see Christians acting out against acts of blaspheme in the way we see Muslims from Islamic cultures acting out? Is it merely religion? Or is it it partly religion and partly a history of indignities?
Part of the issue seems to be a semantic problem. Westerners frame the conflict with the Muslim world as a problem with Islam and the Muslim World says the same thing – because they see Islam as a fundamental part of their society. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are religiously motivated. Taoism and Confucianism are fundamental parts of Chinese society. Protestantism is a fundamental part of US and UK society. Catholicism is a fundamental part of Italian society. Even if we have become secular, we still maintain these holdovers of religious concepts. (Nowhere is this more evident than in the moral policing through capitalism in the West as an extension of Protestant values.) The big issue here seems to be more that the Muslim World doesn’t deny it. They aren’t fighting for the “secular” label.
Avoiding an ahistorical approach
The history of Western imperialism in the Muslim World has been extensive. We do see this sort of ahistorical approach to the critique of Islamic terrorists. The New Atheists like to decry Islam as a “violent religion” – suggesting it’s more heinous than all other religions. They act as if these Muslims exist in a vacuum and that Islam is the only moderating variable that attributes to their behavior. This is not really how anything works in the world. There are always multiple variables to examine when looking at geopolitical situations. There is a tendency to conflate all of these variables to simply an issue of religious extremism. This is really the primary concern of this piece. Are we merely viewing a conflict of religious ideals? Are these religions culturally incompatible? Or is there more to the story?
The fact of the matter is that the present is not a random moment in time. (Avoiding here discussions of how time itself works and other quantum theory.) The present moment is a result of past events. What has happened in the past directly informs the present and the future. If the two people who created you had never met, you would not exist. It’s just a fact of science that two individuals are necessary to create another individual (for humans). [I mean “met” in a literary sense. Yes, it is possible that you were created through science, but there was still necessary elements from two individuals – unless you are a clone, I guess.] There are direct and indirect consequences of events and actions, but they are consequences nonetheless. It is impossible to understand a contemporary geopolitical situation without analyzing the historical reality.
WRLH029-HThe flip-side of this is the people that go back to the Crusades and talk about the history of conflict between Islam and Christianity since before the Middle Ages in Europe. They talk about the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century. What we never hear about is what some refer to as The Great Divergence and the period of European advancements (attributed to the Age of Discovery and other factors) in the 19th Century. It is often proposed that Islamic Law is the reason for this great divergence – that Islamic Law in the Muslim World held the Muslim societies back, whilst secularism helped spread advancement in the West. This is a contentious claim, but a possibility. But even in these discussions, what is seldom discussed is the impact of imperialism. Europe spread it’s reach between the 15th and 20th centuries across the globe, encompassing majority of the rest of the world. While France did capture many Muslim societies, the Ottoman Empire retained many of them. What caused the decline of the Ottoman Empire and was the greatest threat to the Muslim World was European control of global capital. This is largely why Europe was able to expand and conquest most of the Middle East and Africa. In a nutshell, capitalism benefitted Europe and oppressed the rest of the world. (If we want to discuss this point, it’s a separate point and can be discussed farther. I’m fairly confident in this claim enough to not introduce an entire essay on the topic here.)
I found this awesome article on the topic from Frontline. It is only four paragraphs and a simple read. It elaborates my points well and it was hard not to cite the entire article here. But for brevity, I’m just going to add an excerpt:
The European powers colonized one Islamic country after another. France occupied Algeria in 1830, and Britain Aden nine years later. Tunisia was occupied in 1881, Egypt in 1882, the Sudan in 1889 and Libya and Morocco in 1912. In 1915 the Sykes-Picot agreement divided the territories of the moribund Ottoman Empire (which had sided with Germany during the First World War) between Britain and France in anticipation of victory. After the war, Britain and France duly set up protectorates and mandates in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan. This was experienced as an outrage, since the European powers had promised the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire independence.
The brief Frontline article also explains how European ethnocentrism and attitudes of decadent orientalism led to a lot of hostility towards and from the Muslim world. The effects of this colonialization is felt to this day. It is not only felt in the Islamic world. It’s also existent in Africa, Latin America, South and East Asia.
Fundamentally, the point here is that it’s less relevant to discuss the events of the 7th century and more relevant to discuss the events of the 19th and 20th centuries. It wasn’t all that long ago. Sure, some people may hold resentments from 20 or 50 generations in the past. But what is more common is for people to hold resentments from 5 or 6 (or maybe 8 to 10) generations in the past, where they can still see the results of these actions. This could be developed farther, but the main point here is simply that actions result in reactions. Events of the past can reverberate into the future. It is rare that events happen of abiogenesis or spontaneous creation. And yet, it’s really just too easy to pick a different religion and lambast that as the fundamental problem.
The cause of “Islamic extremism” – a geopolitical and historical approach
operation-ajaxWhat is the cause of this violence? The historical and economic conditions that foster it. I have had this discussion repeatedly in the past week (and off and on before this week). Everyone seems to want to deny the hand that the West has played in these conditions. But we have evidence of this. The evidence is quite reliable. In the United States we have seen declassified information that supports it. Operation Ajax is not a conspiracy theory. We know that the CIA orchestrated a coup in Iran when the people of Iran elected a prime minister that was going to nationalize the oil reserves. The people elected a prime minister that was not beneficial to the US and UK, and in response the US and UK put the Shah in power. The Shah led a brutal and bloody regime that the people of Iran resented so much that they supported the Ayatollah Khomeini. Did they support the Ayatollah because he was a holy man? Or did they support him because he promised to overthrow the Shah (and did)? We see similar things have happened over the past few centuries all over the rest of the world. The West has become involved in any attempt of autonomy of any other culture. There are countless examples: The people of Chile elected Salvador Allende as the first Marxist president in 1970. On September 11, 1973 the United States CIA helped stage a military coup to oust President Allende and install the dictator Pinochet in his place. The people of Chile did not want the bloody dictator, Pinochet, in power. They elected Allende. The human cost of the Pinochet regime was quite high.
In 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo was granted independence from Belgium (after a bloody reign of Belgian terror). Just before independence, Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister. The Belgians helped foment instability in the DRC and eventually the President dismissed PM Lumumba from government. In response, PM Lumumba won a vote of no confidence from the Senate, but not parliament. This split the country, until on the 14th of September, a coup was led by Colonel Mobutu. Mobutu led a reign of corruption and terror for the next 30 years. We also know now that Lumumba was targeted by the United States and Belgium, who were unable to assassinate him but did funnel money into his opposition (including Mobutu). [The claims vary, from their opposition to his Pan-African anti-colonial politics to the fact that he turned to the Soviet Union for assistance, because it was the only nation that supported his anti-colonial politics.] The people of the Democratic Republic of Congo know that the half a million deaths per year that followed the death of Lumumba and the rise of Mobutu to power. [There are multiple sources that point to US, Belgian, and British involvement in the assassination of Lumumba. It’s available. Here’s one… if anyone wishes to research it farther, the information is available.]
-1843394009_41676703This may seem like a digression. It is not. As I mentioned earlier, Operation Ajax and Operation Boot have been declassified. This refers to the 1953 coup of Iran, orchestrated by the United States and United Kingdom. In 1951, through the formal procedure of the government in Iran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected and appointed. Mosaddegh was constantly attacked by Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kashani for not implementing religious rule/theocracy. Mosaddegh believed in a separation of church and state. Mosaddegh also believed that the Shah should be a ceremonial monarch and that the oil of Iran should be a national resource. The Shah removed him from office but, due to popular support he was reinstated. In that same year, the government voted on and passed legislation to nationalize the oil reserves. The Shah signs the law on May 1, revoking Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) access to the oil in Iran. The response to this was that Britain imposed economic sanctions on Iran. When Iran tried to sell oil to other countries, Britain’s navy intercepted them and claimed they had stolen property (oil). The details become pretty complex here, but Britain increased pressure on Mosaddegh and escalated tensions within Iran. Political factions split with Mosaddegh wanting a secular democracy and Kashani siding with the Shah. Eventually, failed coup attempts forced the Shah to flee Iran. Eventually, Mosaddegh was deposed himself and the Shah returned.
Over time, the Shah was not well respected. Aside from the claims of oppression, brutality, and corruption, it was believed that the Shah was too highly influenced by the West. This gave rise to the support for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini gained support on the very premise that he was a counter to the Shah’s oppression and exploitation by the West. Khomeini fled Iran in exile but continued to write about his opposition to the Shah and plans to implement a Muslim government that would counter the pro-Western policies of the Shah. In 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran with the Shah “going on vacation.” Khomeini instituted his Islamic government with Islamic law and appointed himself Supreme Leader.
The point here is that these events did not merely occur in a vacuum. They did not simply happen because people are “brainwashed by their religion.” They are responses to historical narratives. In October of 1979, the Shah was admitted into the United States for cancer treatment. Many people of Iran were outraged by this, citing the events of Operation Ajax as the cause for their concern. The outraged escalated to the Iranian Hostage Crisis that became well known in the United States. A group of students who claimed to be Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line captured the US embassy in Tehran because of this. The point here is that they did not take hostages in the US embassy simply because of their religion, but because of the events that transpired between 1951 and 1979. They were angry at the consistent Western interference in their society. It was much less about religion and much more about self-determination, freedom from oppression and exploitation, and the inequality inherent in these situations.
The neoliberal dilemma
Did the people in Paris or even in the World Trade Centers die because of Islam? Not exactly. It would be more appropriate to say that religion played a part in it, but that the history of Western exploitation of these countries caused these deaths just as much, if not more, than religion. The problem here isn’t merely religion. It’s a system of exploitation, oppression, and manipulation. To put it plainly, the problem is capitalism. More precisely, it’s a problem of neoliberalism. There is a conflation of the issue into a statement of religion on both sides. But is religion the true motivator? Or is it just the rhetoric? Was Pol Pot really a communist? Or did he use communism as a convenient narrative to put himself in power and cause the death of over a million people?
marcoshorseIn September 1997, Subcomandante Marcos released WHY WE ARE FIGHTING – The fourth world war has begun. In this piece, Marcos elaborates on the idea that neoliberalism is the “fourth world war. In the past 18 years, since this was released, we have seen many of the claims here come farther into fruition.
We have to, again, go back to the colonial period to truly understand the gravity of the situation. We saw the rise of Neo-imperialism at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This coincides directly with the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Though the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, it was not until the 19th century that it spread outside of Britain. As it expanded, so did new forms of economic systems – namely, the rise of capitalism. When we discuss “capitalism,” we are talking about the economic system that was created out of the rise of the Industrial Revolution, or more specifically, “Industrial capitalism.”
We seen history that in 1870, only about 10% of Africa was under colonial control by Europe. By 1914, Europe had captured over 90% of the continent. Why did this occur? Well, it’s another extremely complicated subject that we need to condense here and we’ll just say it was “an expansion to capture resources for the new capitalist economy.” I use Africa has an example here because it’s the most obvious and the most well known. The fact is that Africa was not the only colonial expansion of Europe. We saw incursions into Asia – via The Opium Wars in China, the colonization of India, and majority of North and South America. Europe carved up the rest of the world amongst themselves.
This could get really pedantic here. We could go into how Lenin basically prognosticated the rise of neoliberalism in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin claimed, in a nutshell, that the rise of European empire would give way to capitalist nations capturing the entire globe in the race to acquire resources and secure markets/profits. This wasn’t exactly a work of prophesy, but simply observing the current situations of his time. Seeing the way Europe had colonized a large part of the globe to secure resources already, it seems pretty obvious in hindsight.
Where does that leave us today? It leaves us in a situation where a vast majority of the planet is left in relative poverty in order to support the wealth of the West. As Subcomandante Marcos stated in 1997:
In the history of humanity, a variety of models have fought it out over the erection of absurdities as the distinguishing features of world order. Neoliberalism will have pride of place when it comes to the prize-giving, because in its “distribution” of wealth all it achieves is a two-fold absurdity of accumulation: an accumulation of wealth for the few, and an accumulation of poverty for millions of others. Injustice and inequality are the distinguishing traits of today’s world. The earth has five billion human inhabitants: of these, only 500 million live comfortably; the remaining 4.5 billion endure lives of poverty. The rich make up for their numerical minority by their ownership of billions of dollars. The total wealth owned by the 358 richest people in the world, the dollar billionaires, is greater than the annual income of almost half the world’s poorest inhabitants, in other words about 2.6 billion people.
The progress of the major transnational companies does not necessarily involve the advance of the countries of the developed world. On the contrary, the richer these giant companies become, the more poverty there is in the so-called “wealthy” countries. The gap between rich and poor is enormous: far from decreasing, social inequalities are growing.
What Marcos claimed in 1997 has definitely expanded. The inequality between rich and poor has grown. The gap in wealth has expanded. Just as we have seen this gap grow in developed/neoliberal societies, it has also left behind nations that are left outside of this neoliberal growth. In majority of the formerly colonized nations and societies today, we see a disparate lack of wealth accumulation. This brings us back to the 1953 coup and subsequent actions in Iran. What I neglected to mention in my quick and dirty history of Iran leading to contemporary situations was Operation Countenance. This was a brief period in which Soviet, British, and other forces invaded Iran to secure “Persian oil supplies.”
This is really where the convenience of blaming Islam comes in again. It’s why it’s convenient. Westerners find it much easier to simply blame a religion for these outbursts than to recognize that the problem is actually their other conveniences. The blame of Islam, or even “Islamic extremists” allows Westerners to ignore all other variables that foster and fester these contemptuous emotions from the rest of the planet.
So who is to blame?
So, who is to blame for the massacre in Paris? As well as the massacres that are occurring all over the world by “Islamic terrorists”? Is it Islam itself? No. That’s not just too convenient but is ahistorical and outright offensive. People in the Muslim world are not superstitious savages. They are not animals prone to simply reacting to stimuli. These are human beings with feelings and thoughts. At the end of the day, what do most people want? Most people really just want to live their lives and be happy. Many just want to have healthy and happy families. Do they really care what system is in place or the merits of their respective societies? Not really. Not until it’s perceived as unfair. When people feel they are being the victims of an injustice, they begin to rage.
If we look at various cultures and we look at various tax rates, do we see people who make the most and have the lowest taxes to be the happiest? Actually, no. We see the opposite. We see countries were people pay high taxes but have relatively low worries are where people are the happiest. The point here is that people don’t really care how much of their wealth is spent on others as long as they don’t feel slighted. It is when people start feeling they are being taken advantage of, or used, that they begin to resent taxation.
Conflating all of the rage of non-Western societies into religious motivations is not just wrong but bigoted. It has this underlying theme that only Westerners are capable of analyzing their situations rationally. Only through Western eyes can we really have a true understanding of the world. It’s no different than religious fundamentalism. Claiming that non-Europeans are just blinded by their primitive superstitions is just an extension of Manifest Destiny. The White Man’s Burden is a religious ideology in itself. It’s based on Protestantism and European ethnocentrism.
And humans aren’t always rational creatures. Not in the West, or the Muslim world, or post-Colonial Africa, or East Asia, or Honduras… humans react to circumstances and situations in a variety of ways and are often illogical. When people feel they are the victims of injustice, they want revenge. And we see this now in the response to the Paris attacks of November 13. Westerners want blood. And the reality is that each side feels as though it is justified in taking these actions. Now we are going to see France and it’s allies attack the Islamic State. The Islamic State will want to respond to these attacks with more attacks. And in the process, we will see more “collateral damage” on both sides.
Why don’t Muslims do something about the terrorists? Well, why don’t Westerners do something about the oppressive nature of neoliberalism? In many ways they cannot. The victims of the attacks in Paris, just like the victims in September 11, the victims of Boko Haram, al Qaeda, et al… the victims in all of these attacks from Islamic terrorist organizations are collateral damage just like the civilians killed in strikes against the Islamic State and al Qaeda. They are people that live in a society and are not directly complicit in the devastation of others.
Who is to blame? In a nutshell, it is neoliberalism. The variables that fostered these conditions have arisen from the rise of capitalist exploitation and continued manipulation of human society by those who seek to maintain the dominance of neoliberal economic theory. Capitalism cannot survive if resources are not available. It needs to constantly consume resources to continue to grow. In this way, we could claim that all of us are responsible for the deaths in Paris.
Yes, the men that detonated bombs and fired guns in Paris are directly responsible for these deaths. They are mass murderers. And this is really why this piece is so long. I do not want to imply that there lies no responsibility that lies in the humans that directly killed other people. I’m not trying to absolve them of culpability. I’m trying to lay the foundation of a perspective that there are indirect causes of these things. There are factors that contributed to these men doing these things. In legal terms, this is often referred to as ex post facto law. (Many nations today do not deploy ex post facto law in all cases, but in examining situations, I feel it is valuable.) If not for the fact that . . . then this would would not have happened.
But it is more than ex post facto. It’s not just that the West has fostered these conditions to create this environment, but that the West continues to do so. Westerners use the same rationalization for their treatment of the rest of the world – they claim a value of moral superiority. The reality is that it is nothing more than moral relativism. If we want to claim that the actions of the terrorists in Paris, Nigeria, or anywhere else are morally wrong, then we need to hold ourselves accountable in the same manner. Because we have turned a blind eye to the suffering of other societies, it comes across as hypocrisy to condemn these actions in such a uniform manner.
If we want to condemn the actions of Muslim terrorists, we also must condemn the actions of Western hegemony that seeks to demonize all other cultures. We must stop conflating all Muslim culture into some ignorant and backwards religious society. It is a separate culture and should be treated as such. Only when we give the respect we desire are we worthy of getting it. That’s really what I want to end with:
If we criticize other cultures, we have to do so objectively. We need to have a normative argument on why we disagree with something another culture does and not base it on our own cultural superiority. If it is wrong to kill another human being, then it is wrong to kill another human being. We have to create a rational basis for claiming this is wrong. Using our own cultural or religious standards to condemn this just gives legitimacy to the counter view. When we justify “collateral damage” in Syria or Pakistan as the cost of maintaining our “freedom,” then we just give a moral framework for those in the Muslim world to justify collateral damage to defend their own culture.