About three weeks ago, I had a political discussion with Mary Kate to distract us from the interminable drive across Wisconsin. An analogy occurred to me that MK and I agreed was surprisingly–and somewhat disturbingly–fitting.
Here is the context, as per my understanding and our conversation:
America claims to be leading a War On Terror, a war with vague intentions and shifting enemies. So far, this war has been focused on the Middle east, while also holding an Afghan front and an aggressive posture toward North Korea. Our American “leaders” tell us that this war is waged to make the world a safer place, a claim which I have always assumed to include the aside “except those places in the world we are bombing the shit out of.”
There are some obvious religious similarities between the countries towards which we have recently been rattling our sabers (or swinging them viciously), but there seems to be a divide in American opinion as to the nature and relevance of this trend.
One view seems to be that the cultural and religious similarities between the targets of American cruise missles is merely coincidental; that America is not specifically targeting Muslims or vise versa, but it just so happens that many Muslim countries are currently unstable and are subject to strong-arm leaders and terrorist cells as a result.
The other American viewpoint, still largely regulated to quiet conversations in backrooms and the occasional rantings of some in the extreme right, is that there is something inherent to Islam that makes it fundamentally incompatible with democracy and Freedom (however that last word is defined). This view, while perhaps never saying so outright, implies that nations with Islamic governments will always harbor terrorist groups (aka jihadists) and human-rights infractions because those elements are integral to the Islamic legal and moral system. Within this worldview, it is to be expected that the War on Terror will focus on Islamic countries, and that it will continue to do so until some type of Islamic frameshift occurs.
My understanding (which is very limited, I admit) is that most of the Muslim world has picked up on this latter American stance, but for them it is largely deduction. Given our track record, it is no surprise that so many Muslims feel that they are being targeted in a cultural war, not just bystanders in a scattered attack on Terror.
When Ayatollah Khomeini called America “the Great Satan” in 1979, we had not yet begun our bombardment of the Middle East. Though he probably did have some very plausible worries about it, an American military invasion was not the Ayatollah’ s prime concern. As he saw it, Iran was already under invasion, not just from Western colonialism, but also from McDonald’s, Disney, Coca Cola, and Levi-Strauss. The real enemy of a fundamentalist Islamic government isn’t democracy, it’s free-market capitalism and the American social/moral codes that have gone with it since WWII.
In this way, the paranoid American pinheads are right: Islamic governments, especially if fundamentalist, will never be compatible with American Freedom because many of the social standards inherent in our idea of freedom are banned by Muslim law. Our free market says that men can drink alcohol and woman can dress like dancers in a rap video. The Koran says that this things are immoral and are not to be allowed.
When America brings Freedom to some ‘backward, intolerant’ country like Afghanistan, it is often overlooked that our brand of capitalism goes along for the ride. But even if we do see it, we can easily dismiss any damages by saying that we are just giving the people what they want. People want Desperate Housewives, Harry Potter, stylish jeans, Cinemax, and Marlboro Lights. This in the 21st century, man! If people want to wear revealing clothes, get drunk, and sleep around, that is their right. We’re just trying to bring modernity and basic human rights to the world, and these fundamentalist religious governments are resisting us; trying to hold their citizens in thrall, prevent them from moving forward.
The funny thing is that I remember when this happened once before; when a large, modernizing, secular country invaded and liberated a smaller, less technically advanced, state religion-run country. It was when Mao Zedong led a communist invasion into Tibet, overthrew the theocracy, and redistributed land to the serfs and peasants.
Now, the People’s Army also killed thousands of monks and destroyed most of the Buddhist temples in Tibet, which is something that we haven’t quite managed yet in our liberations, but the Chinese sentiment then was not so different from ours now: here is a country ruled by religious zealots, with obvious class lines based on the state religion, where cultural and technological modernization are being thwarted by the ‘holy men’ at the top of the heap. Mao just wanted to give basic freedoms and equality to his Tibetan brothers and sisters. Sound familiar?
Before I’m attacked with undue viciousness: I know that the Chinese invasion and subjugation of Tibet was far more brutal than any recent American military action, and that all religious practices were barred in Tibet (China, as it was fully integrated), a goal that we are not shooting for. But while the military strategy of the two wars may vary, the moral intents are remarkably similar. And yet, the Taliban leaders have not yet announced any speaking tours, authored now books on tolerance, and I have yet to see a single “Free Afghanistan” bumper-sticker.