April 28, 2011

Militant Islam and U.S. Policy

The present relationship between militant Islam and the United States can be explained in terms of two basic human traits. The first is the belief in out-group homogeneity. The second is an irrational reliance on hope.

Out-group homogeneity can be neatly summarized by the classic bigot’s dictum – “Those people are all alike.” It is the belief that one’s perceived enemies are people with a uniform set of characteristics and motivations. In other words, our enemies are not individuals with unique personalities like ourselves; they are just a homogenous mass, each interchangeable with any other. They are people in some raw physical sense, but they are not persons like we are.

It is clear from their public statements that Al Qaeda’s leadership takes the stance that all Americans and other western peoples are a monolithic mass. They hold us collectively responsible for a variety of offenses against Islam. Their argument is that we elect our leaders, and are therefore collectively responsible for the actions of our governments. To kill any westerner, then, is to strike a blow in defense of Islam. If I were to assume that every Muslim shares this position, I would be indulging in a belief in out-group homogeneity myself. It is never quite that simple. In all likelihood, there are many more Muslims who vaguely sympathize with Al Qaeda than there are actual potential suicide bombers. It is also almost certainly true that the vast majority of Muslims care more about the immediate problems of their daily lives than they do about their grievances with distant foreigners. Only a very few fanatics live and breathe ideology; most people spend their energies on issues nearer to home.

Unfortunately, knowing that Muslims are individuals does not make the conflict between their culture and ours disappear. It is true that most Muslims, and particularly most Arabs, do not like us. Their reasons vary. Some focus on our unquestioning support of their enemy, Israel. Others resent the assortment of corrupt dictatorships we have nurtured within the Muslim world. The more devoutly religious hate us for desecrating their holy lands with our mere presence. There is, in fact, very little reason that many Muslims should like us. Their culture and ours are antithetical. Nevertheless, neither party is in a position to ignore the other. We are trapped in a mutually distasteful and unwanted embrace. We need the oil under their lands to fuel our way of life. They need the goods that they can ultimately exchange for that oil to support their growing population. They hold a power over our economy that we resent; we distort their societies in ways that they resent. It is only the pursuit of self-interest that has bound us together.

U.S. policy toward the oil producers of the Middle East has until now been fairly simple. From Franklin Roosevelt through the second Bush administration, our policy has been to support pliable authoritarian regimes in the region, and ignore the Arab populous whenever possible. Heartless as it may sound, it is pointless to be morally indignant about such policies. No nation I am aware of makes a habit of putting the interest of a foreign populous above its own national interests. Other great powers have propped up dictators and created puppet regimes. In our quest for oil, we have only pursued the most effective option left to us in a post-WW2 political climate that abjures brute conquest or other people’s sovereign lands and resources. A policy of supporting dictators has often proven successful, at least in the short term. It has only failed when an authoritarian partner overstepped his acceptable limits (as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq) or when he became excessively burdensome to his own people (as Mubarak did in Egypt or the Shah did in Iran).

Shows of international altruism and human fellowship offer an alternative approach. While such policies have a nice progressive feel about them, we should not be fooled. They are almost always motivated by some political gain, either international, domestic, or both. This strategy of friendly gestures appears to be the course the Obama administration is undertaking with Islam. Our president has made conciliatory speeches in Muslim capitols, has charged NASA’s chief administrator, Charles Bolden, with the incongruous task of Muslim outreach, and has taken a relatively cool stance toward Israel. The obvious inference is that he is trying to make friends among the Muslim public, particularly the Arabs, rather than continuing the age old policy of manipulating their resources through local authoritarian regimes. Here we have “the audacity of hope” expressed in actual doctrine. Nice though it may seem, it is difficult to have much confidence in this approach.1 People with long standing grudges are not easily swayed by words or gestures. They require real substance -- if they can be swayed at all. At this point in our history, an American president would probably need to sever our alliance with Israel entirely to make any popular headway in the Arab world. Whether one is a fan of Israel or not, one must agree that cutting them adrift would not be likely to improve stability in the Middle East. They, too, are a legacy America is stuck with.

The best that Obama’s sweet talking can hope to achieve internationally is to nudge some little fraction of non-committed Muslims a few inches toward our cause. Our cadre of crooked local rulers knows the game, and doesn’t need the public relations overtures. The fanatics of Al Qaeda and its affiliates are obviously well beyond the reach of anybody’s secular charm. The only words that interest them were written in the 7th century. A young Muslim with no future, fervent faith, and nothing better to do with his life than to end it in an explosion, is unlikely be halted in his tracks by Obama’s measured show of friendship. Bin Laden offers paradise; Obama offers nothing but his questionable charm.

The president’s gestures make a greater impression domestically, however. They serve to infuriate and terrify the American conservative base. Americans of most stripes believe in out-group homogeneity too. While friendly diplomatic overtures cheer liberals, who want to see Muslims as essentially just misunderstood (if perhaps uncomfortably misogynist), the same policies leave conservatives in an apoplectic fume. “These are the people who attacked us on 9-11!?” they shout -- as if every Muslim in the world, all 1.5 billion of them, were personally complicit in the attack. Having seen this attitude at first hand many times, I believe there is very little short of the exhaustion of war that would moderate such views.

The exhaustion of war, unfortunately, is very likely what we shall have. Whatever one may say about the hardened bigotry that exists on both sides, the fact remains that the Middle East still has the largest concentration of the world’s oil reserves, and America will not tolerate the consequences of losing that supply for the sake of either moral principle of international law. Like it or not, a widening general war between the west and Islam appears all but inevitable. The opening moves are now well behind us. Given the religious, cultural, and in most cases even racial differences, the conflict to come is bound to be a very ugly affair. With so much a stake, it is bound to also be long. A miraculous softening of popular sentiment would, of course, be welcome -- but I do not expect one.

1 Venezuela’s Hugo Chaves attempted something similar by offering poor Americans free heating oil. This, at least, was a substantial material offer, but nevertheless failed to create any pro-Venezuelan sentiment worth noting.


  1. A perceptive piece that recognizes an oft-overlooked truth: Western civilization and Islam are incompatible.

    This is not really a knock on Islam; after all, Western civilization and Christianity were incompatible, too. Just ask the Pope.

    The good news is that transforming the Middle East from a resource field to a market place can only improve the material lives of its inhabitants, and reduce violence. The cost of a Wal-Mart on every sand dune strikes me as small compared to the misery that currently exists.

  2. The idea of "a Wal-Mart on every sand dune" is even more delusional than Al Qaeda's faith in the restoration of the Caliphate. Al Qaeda's delusion requires only a highly improbable overturn of human events. The Wal-Mart delusion requires an overturn of the laws of physics as expressed in the world's actual carrying capacity.