The Humiliation Myth
Humiliation doesn’t explain terrorism; the spread of Political Islam does. A response to Peter Bergen and Michael Lind.
A fourth flaw in their analysis is that it treats terrorism as a foundational problem and policy issue, when in fact it is but one very serious manifestation of the most basic problem: Political Islamic movements that threaten to extend the sway of a totalitarian understanding of Islam and politics, and that use a variety of political and violent means, including terrorism, to achieve their ends. To be sure, there is nothing analytically wrong with focusing on terrorism as a problem. But no treatment of the contemporary terrorism that emanates from Islamic countries and groups can be deemed adequate without an account of its relationship to the Political Islamic movements and countries–and to their understandings of Islam–that provide its followers and general sustenance.
Put simply, Political Islam, whatever its various manifestations, collapses the distinction between religion and politics, holding that politics must be subordinated to a fundamentalist understanding of Islam. And it is animated by a death cult–an explicit glorification of mass murder and of dying for Allah–exceeding that of any major, modern political movement or regime save Nazism and perhaps Imperial Japan. Both genocidal slaughter (as practiced or merely called for) and totalitarian tendencies define the Political Islamic Sudanese regime (which Bergen and Lind treat, despite its several genocidal onslaughts, as having “not given birth ” to a radical ideology”), the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Iranian leadership, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various lesser-known Political Islamic movements. Terrorism is but one important and powerful tool in the Political Islamists’ arsenal.
Related to this is a fifth problem, namely that Bergen and Lind treat Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as stand-ins for terrorists in general. This is misleading, as other terrorists and other Political Islamic regimes have differing aspects and qualities. Bergen and Lind make no mention, for example, of Iran, with its financing of and support for the terrorists of Hezbollah and Hamas; its insistent drive to acquire nuclear weapons; its expressed desire to annihilate Israel; and its repeated threats to terrorize the Europeans should they not kow-tow to its demands. The Iranian regime, in power for 27 years and governing a wealthy, oil-rich country of almost 70 million people, hardly suffers from humiliation. And so while their goals and ideologies may be similar (despite their Sunni-Shia antipathies), Iran cannot be understood by subsuming it into an analysis of a loosely coordinated, deadly network of a few thousand terrorists.
As one deepens and broadens the understanding of these themes, the picture of the conflicts becomes more complex and more intractable, the policy prescriptions change, and the time horizons for dealing with the problems lengthen. If indeed we are in conflict against Political Islam, as I and many others believe, then we must look beyond humiliation as a source of real solutions.
Of course, many actions of the West–the war in Iraq, the Israelis’ ongoing conflict with the Palestinians–fuel the Political Islamic movements because they, their followers, and those Muslims vulnerable to their appeals perceive any slight, let alone subjective setback for Islam at the hands of the West, as humiliation. But this is not humiliation as Bergen and Lind describe it. The relatively tame Danish political cartoons that ran in 2005 unleashed a torrent of protests among Political Islamists on three continents, threats of mass murder, and actual violence and killings. What does this reaction have to do with any reasonable sense of humiliation? Pope Benedict XVI’s strange attempt at comparative religious enlightenment last September (in which he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor’s deprecating statement about Islam) was greeted by some leading Political Islamists in different countries with calls to “hunt down,” kill, or imprison the pontiff. What does such an outlandish response to a few words have to do with any reasonable sense of humiliation? When else in modern history have significant religious and political leaders called for the Pope to be killed? And all because of a few objectionable words?
To be sure, we could adopt measures, along the lines that Bergen and Lind propose, to reduce conflict points and thereby undercut some of the Political Islamists’ appeal. But would such steps really be effective in the long-term? Closing our bases and ending our “perceived occupation of the sacred territory of Saudi Arabia,” which supposedly inflamed the Political Islamists against us, did little to end Political Islamic terrorism and their imperial and totalitarian desires, plans, and existing policies. Moreover, much Political Islamic violence and terrorism (as Bergen and Lind note in passing) is directed at other Muslims who have more pluralistic, nontotalitarian, or merely different Political Islamist understandings of Islam. Humiliation is not the issue. An all-consuming, divinely ordained desire to impose theocratic totalitarian control is.
Moreover, it is not clear that we can put the humiliation “genie” back in the bottle. Whatever role it played in the emergence of Political Islam, that ideology now powerfully exists and has a vibrant life of its own, controlling countries and threatening to take over others. To return to the example of Nazi Germany, whatever the multiple causes of Nazism’s rise, by 1938 it was not within the Allies’ power to pacify the Nazis and the majority of Germans who supported them merely by reducing further “humiliation”; by that time, the humiliating terms of Versailles had been reversed and Germany had already regained its status as a great power. To be sure, Bergen and Lind acknowledge that by 1938 “no concessions ” short of acquiescence” would have sufficed. But they do not draw the policy conclusion that follows for today. We must recognize that likewise “no concessions ” short of acquiescence” will satisfy the Political Islamists. We must therefore fashion policies with a clear-eyed view of the underlying political-religious ideology that structures their enmity and aspirations, the varied and widespread political manifestations their movements and governments assume, and the broad and determined threat they pose to governments and peoples that goes well beyond al Qaeda’s by-now-classical terrorist means.
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