Friday, September 9, 2011

Why Muslims Are Angry With America (Pt. I)

Steven Kull is director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes and author of the recently released book, Feeling Betrayed: The Roots of Muslim Anger at America.

He's written a very thoughtful piece for CNN on the reasons for Muslim resentments of America. He's no doubt correct that many of the world's Muslims think the way he says they do, and perhaps some of those attitudes have justification. Even so, some of the views Kull believes Muslims hold are, in my opinion, at least, simply unwarranted.

The article is very insightful, and I urge readers to peruse the original, but I'd like to share some reflections of my own on it today and tomorrow as we draw close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Kull writes:
Muslims have much they do not like about how America treats them. But there is one thing that is the most fundamental: their perception that America seeks to undermine Islam - a perception held by overwhelming majorities. The fact that many Americans blithely brush off this accusation without really understanding it is one reason this anger persists. To understand it one must go deeper into the Muslim worldview.

Western cultural products are seen as seductively undermining Islamic culture. More importantly, Western powers have gained extraordinary military might that is seen as threatening and coercively dominating the Muslim world and propping up secular autocrats ready to accommodate the West. U.S. support for Israel, sometimes described as ‘America’s aircraft carrier in the region’, is seen as integral to U.S. plans for domination. All this is seen as also serving Western economic interests, such as in securing oil, which dovetails with the agenda of keeping Islam under foot.

Muslims overwhelmingly believe that the 9/11 attacks, and any attacks on civilians, are contrary to Islam. However, many Muslims do believe that America must back away from the Muslim world.

Many Muslims, with their penchant for conspiracy theories, even wonder if the United States somehow engineered the 9/11 attacks to justify this advance [into Iraq and Afghanistan]. When George W. Bush, in what has to go down as one of the greatest public diplomacy missteps of all time, announced a “crusade” against terrorism, the assimilation of American actions into the long-standing narrative of Western hostility to Islam was all but complete.
Many Americans agree we should "back away" from the Muslim world, but, given current realities, it's hard to see how it could happen. First, to demand that the West back away from the Muslim world while Muslims continue flooding into the West, influencing Western culture, laws, and politics as they do so, makes their demand seem awfully one-sided.

Second, much of the Muslim world is absolutely dependent upon Western markets for their oil. If they're going to depend on the West to develop and purchase this crucial resource, there's necessarily going to be a level of interaction between the two worlds that makes backing away highly impractical.

Third, as long as the Muslim world harbors an existential threat to the West, like al Qaeda and its various epigones, Western military forces will of necessity be serving in Muslim lands. There may be some truth to the claim that the reason terrorist groups exist is because we're there and they resent us for it, but the assumption that if we left terrorism would dissipate is naive. Terrorism will not fade if we leave the Middle East. It'll just move closer to home.

Kull continues:
[F]or many Muslims [American pluralism and tolerance] masks a ... narrative that is actually quite oppressive. This narrative is one that some Muslims think they see even more clearly than Americans themselves.

According to this American narrative - which Muslims perceive as arrogant and dismissive - human society naturally and inevitably evolves through the stages that the West has gone through. As in the Renaissance, religion is largely banished from the public sphere, thus allowing pluralism and diversity of beliefs in the private sphere while maintaining a secular public sphere. This leads naturally to the elevation of individual freedoms and the emergence of democratic principles that make the will of the people the basis of the authority of law rather than revealed religious principles.

From this assumed American perspective, Muslim society is seen as simply behind the West in this evolutionary process. Retrogressive forces in Muslim society are seen as clinging to Islamic traditions that make Sharia the basis of law, not the will of the people, and inevitably keep women in their traditional oppressed roles and minority religions discriminated against.
I don't think any thoughtful American (except maybe some Marxist determinists) sees the stages the West has gone through as inevitable for any culture. Indeed, many Christian scholars would argue that these stages could only have happened in a society that was immersed in a Christian worldview. It's not that Westerners think Muslims will go through this evolution or reformation, it's that they think they should.

If that sounds chauvinistic, so be it. If one believes one's values are genuinely superior to the values of others then one should want others to adopt them. Muslims themselves certainly feel this way. They desire that the whole world convert to Islam and live according to the principles found in the Koran. If Muslims feel this way about Islamic culture they can hardly complain that Westerners feel the same way, mutatis mutandis, about Western culture.

Moreover, a society that lives according to "revealed religious principles" is actually living, not according to the law of God so much as according to the interpretation of that law by a relatively few clergy. A theocracy is really a form of oligarchy. That sort of thing might work where the masses of people are uneducated, but it won't work well in a society with a vast educated class, and having a vast educated class is certainly more to be desired than vast ignorance. Muslims, to the degree they yearn for strict theocratic rule must also, if they're consistent, repudiate most non-theological learning.
Muslims see this narrative as being used to justify America actually violating democratic principles in relation to the Muslim world. Even if it is contrary to the will of the people, the United States props up autocratic governments on the basis that they are relatively more progressive - according to the assumed Western narrative - than what the people would do if they had their way.

When the Algerian military in 1991 overturned the results of a democratic election when it appeared that an Islamist party would prevail, America and other Western governments turned a blind eye. When democratic forces arose in Tunisia and Egypt, Muslims perceive that the United States only joined the parade when the outcome was irreversible. Still, America supports autocratic forces in Bahrain in the face of pro-democratic forces calling for change.
There's truth to this, but the truth is not as simple as it sounds. The view that America supports autocrats because they're more progressive is not quite right. America supported and supports people like Mubarak, the Shah, and even the early Saddam not because they have (or had) a more liberal view of the status of women than do traditional Muslim societies, or even because they tended to be more secular than the masses of their people.

Rather, they enjoyed American support, rightly or wrongly, primarily for three reasons: Policy-makers believe that the autocrat will bring stability to the country and to the region; most autocrats tend to be more helpful to the U.S. in the war on terrorism; and, frankly, there is widespread distrust of the democratic bona fides, not of those who seek to depose the autocrats, but of those who will ultimately accede to power once the autocrat has been deposed.

We're seeing signs in Egypt and Libya that the people who'll eventually hold power in these countries may well turn out to be theocratic tyrants like those who seized control in Tehran after the fall of the Shah. The U.S., and probably every other country, holds to the doctrine that it's better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don't. That may not always prove to be the right course, but it's certainly understandable.

More on Kull's essay tomorrow.