Reaching Out and Hypocrisy: Obama’s Message to Terrorists And What It’s Missing

Anyone who’s studied communications knows that, in any kind of conflict resolution setting, all parties being willing to admit faults and seeking out “win-win” solutions is pretty much the only way to proceed.

The only way that people can trust each other is if they’re willing to admit the bad as well as the good.

At February 19, President Obama and other world leaders spoke at a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism”.

President Obama said some remarkable things that do deserve some commentary. For example: He admitted that “we must address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances… when people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder”. This is a compassionate statement, and true enough. He’s right to point out that there are millions of people in poverty who have not turned to terrorism, and even right to indicate that there is no justification for terrorism.

The whole tenor of Obama’s speech had a compassion and an empathy that was missing throughout the Bush years.

But the problem in Obama’s speech is that this compassion is self-serving. The problem is what’s missing from the speech: Really admitting fault, really doing the hard work that could lead to reconciliation.

Obama stated, for example, that “Israelis have endured the tragedy of terrorism for decades”. That’s fair enough. Car bombings and rocket attacks are horrible indeed.

But the only thing Obama had to say about Palestinians, who have also endured terrorism for decades, is a reference to “the young Palestinian working to build understanding and trust with Israelis, but also trying to give voice to her people’s aspirations”.

The terrorists that Obama lists include the Taliban, ISIL, and Boko Haram. All bad dudes, to be sure. But what about the United States? What about Israel? What about extremist groups in the United States who are still plenty dangerous? What about US-backed dictators and terrorists? Remember how the United States backed (and is still backing) Islam Karimov, someone who practiced plenty of terror? The Wikipedia page for “Authoritarian regimes supported” by the United States includes four major world regions and it still reads, “This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it”. Maybe we should focus on shrinking it, or at least not letting it grow any bigger.

One trick that people can use to sound conciliatory when they’re really offering nothing of substance is the faux apology. It goes something like this: “I’m sorry that you feel that way”. It takes on no responsibility.

The reason why Obama’s speech ultimately has almost no merit is because it takes on no responsibility, the same way that someone saying “Mistakes were made” takes on no responsibility.

A real speech that might actually lay the groundwork to end violent extremism might go something like this:

“America has for decades backed dictators and overthrown democracies. It has all too often trained terrorists and directly invaded countries against all norms of international law and peace. We supported, and still support, many of the corrupt and autocratic regimes in the region. We’ve bombed innocent people, and in so doing laid the groundwork for their loved ones to want to bomb us. We did this for oil, we did it out of fear, we did it out of racism, we did it because of the legacy of colonialism. Many people in the world have forgiven us because we often try to do good and because our citizens are usually inherently decent. We ask for more of that forgiveness and patience as we try to live up to an American creed of real heroism and justice”.

The reason why the United States has no credibility to deal with ISOL/ISIL/ISIS is because it has acted in its own interests. Obama may not have been in charge when that happened. President Bush took us to war for a variety of reasons, all of them awful. President Bush destabilized the region and empowered psychopaths in the name of democracy (and I say “in the name of” because in fact democracy was the last thing on his mind).

A speech like the one I wrote is literally the only way peace can happen in anything like the timeframe we want and need it to. The only way to move forward is for everyone to be brutally honest. But if Obama were to be honest, he’d be pilloried here, and not just by his political opponents but by his own party. And he’s apparently not courageous enough to be willing to say something a man such as him, with his degree of knowledge and his background in really valuable work, must know.

But we can’t ever rely on the institutions of power to say those honest and true things. We have to say them ourselves. Our media apparently will parrot those statements without commentary on how absurd they are and how utterly self-serving they are. We can’t trust them to speak truth to power and give power to the powerless.

So, to the world, let me say:

I am an American citizen. I try every day to be decent and good, to be heroic in my community, to speak out against injustice.

I, and people like me, have failed to stop our country from behaving monstrously.

All we can do is ask for patience and forgiveness while we figure out how.

activism, culture, history

Tamerlane’s Whipping and State Brutality

The recent, terrible side of Islam we’ve been seeing has made me want to show some of the aspects of it that are truly laudable.

The Sufi tradition in Islam, the mystical tradition, has historically had immensely impressive wisdom within it. The Sufis were to me rather like the Taoists: Funny, irreverent, deeply motivated and loving. The Sufis wrote erotic poems.

The Nasruddin Hodja tradition of stories is a shining example of religious wisdom. Like with many other great teachers, Nasruddin Hodja (whose exact identity we are still not entirely sure of) used humor to teach moral and spiritual ideas. Over time, the format of these stories was used to add new concepts and teach new philosophies.

The Hodja was a trickster. Himself often foolish or dull, he (much like Socrates) exposed the ignorance and hypocrisy of others. I imagine the real man was probably a true genius who struggled with his humility and so told stories that made fun of himself, the same way Abraham Lincoln disguised a cunning intellect under self-deprecation. The famous joke about the drunk under the streetlight searching for his keys is actually a Hodja story (though I suspect that that joke has a much older pedigree).

Islam today is associated with brutal punishment. In that vein, let me offer a story I modified slightly at the end to match another version I saw elsewhere:

One day, the wise fool Mullah Nasruddin happened to be present in the court of Tamerlane, the shah, when a drunken soldier was brought before the imperial presence. The soldiers who brought the drunkard asked what they should do with him.
The shah, who was occupied with thoughts of his treasury, waved them away and said carelessly, “Oh, just give him 300 lashes.”
Nasruddin started laughing uproariously.
The shah was incensed by Nasruddin’s hilarious outbreak, and yelled at him: “What are you laughing at? Are you laughing at me? You should be ashamed!”
Nasruddin managed to stifle himself and respond, “I am laughing because either you don’t know how to count, or you have never been whipped”.

This is a funny joke. But it’s also a brutal satire.

And its relevance goes beyond today’s Islam, which seems to have forgotten that even one lash is so horrifying that it should never be dispensed casually, let alone thousands.

Tamerlane was one of the most powerful people in the world at the time. He was estimated to have killed about five million of the world’s populations. But he wrapped it up in righteousness.

Yet here, whether in actual fact or in our tales, was a true man of God to tell him to his face with a laugh
that he was a small and foolish soul.

It’s not just Tamerlane who dispenses brutality ensconced in the cloak of justice.
How many of our Senators and legislators spend any time in the jails that they authorize funding for and create the laws to send people to?

How many of the people in both civilian and military command structures authorize the use of force against people they’ve never met and lands they’ve never visited?

What the Hodja was reminding us is that our leaders (assuming we should have them at all, which I as an anarchist do not agree with) should understand the magnitude of what they do. They should themselves have tasted the bite of the lash.

A cop friend of mine was required as part of his training to be hit with pepper spray. He talked about how it didn’t just burn for a few seconds, or even a few minutes, but that his skin was inflamed and in pain for days. He was also tased.

Soon, I’m going to comment on the way that Americans have justly lost the credibility to intervene against ISIS/ISOL because of our past failure to restrain our government and our usage of force. But for now, think about how many people, from politicians to pundits, are going to be counseling violence whose consequences they cannot possibly comprehend.

See, Tamerlane could have chosen to have himself whipped.

But we can’t meaningfully have our politicians have their houses bombed, their children killed, their veins filled with poison.

If we as human beings remembered that, maybe we’d think more before we shot up offices of satirists and killed police officers. Maybe we’d stop grabbing guns and bombs and start talking.

Because as much as it sucks to talk to the other guy who makes you angry, it’s preferable to being whipped.


Charlie Hebdo and Half of History: How We Must Proceed

The Charlie Hebdo attack today was obviously a brutal assault on freedom of expression. It was an evil and cowardly act. The reason why I call it cowardly is that those people transparently found it easier to shoot people than to open a dialogue with people they disagreed with. No creative person should take this as anything but an attack on art in general.

Seeing people die senselessly and seeing others pervert their faith… It depresses me deeply.

But I must admit, I have been having a lot of ambiguity as to how I feel about this attack.

As I reviewed many of the Charlie Hebdo covers, I saw a pattern emerging: While the magazine certainly was willing to satirize everyone, there was an overwhelming trend toward criticizing Islam qua Islam.
In the West, people can say things about Muslims that would be publicly denounced if they were about Sikhs or Christians or Buddhists. People can utter comments about Arab or Turkish or Iranian culture that are ignorant and based on almost no familiarity with the region without being worried about being criticized.
I’ve found this trend to be especially worrisome amongst the militant atheists. Those people do of course criticize Christianity, but when Hitchens turned against Islam, it was right at the moment when it was politically convenient to do so.

Now, to be clear, most of these covers were making arguments that are utterly reasonable. One showed a reincarnated Mohammed being killed by a fanatic for being an infidel. Given that the prophet commanded his followers (rather in line with current ideas of just war) that they should “in avenging injuries inflicted on us, do not harm non-belligerents in their houses, spare the weakness of women, do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of life”, it seems fair to say that those who kill in the name of Islam are not Muslims. Similarly, another cover shows Mohammed decrying being worshiped by idiots and jerks. While both these depictions were of the Prophet which is against the Muslim faith, the depictions are rather like many depictions of Jesus: A wise person having followers who lack their wisdom.

But one cover had a Muslim person saying that someone should receive a hundred lashes if they didn’t laugh themselves to death. That’s just randomly picking on Islam to make a joke. Yes, it criticizes brutal corporal punishment practices in the Muslim world in a tongue-in-cheek way, but was it really necessary?

And of course modern Islam has serious problems. Violence, misogyny, repressive regimes… Everyone knows the litany of issues.

But a millennium ago, it was the same Islam, the same text in the same region, that was the bastion of civilization while Europe was mired in darkness and poverty.

Christianity is no more inherently violent because of the Crusaders than Islam is because of these terrorists.
Buddhism is no more inherently repressive even given its association with regimes in Asia that were often repressive than Islam is because of its current repressive governments.

The sexist prescriptions and proscriptions in Judaism and Christianity no more tarnish those faiths than Islam’s present highly sexist interpretation does.

See, the fact that we know the litany of problems is exactly my point. The crimes of Islam are publicized in the West. The crimes of other faiths are generally not.

I was offended by Charlie Hebdo’s covers that satirized Islam. I felt that it was a cumulative attack on a group that is easy to attack. I could see why others would get so angry.

And that context can’t be removed from the context of today’s attacks. Of course no one ever deserves to be gunned down just for speaking their mind. Of course satirists have to piss people off, and we as a society have to allow them to do so. And I am sure Charlie Hebdo was doing some great work, both making people laugh and making them think. And I hope that the magazine continues, even with many of its creative people killed by assholes.

There’s a reason why it’s easy to criticize Islam. Right now, we have a relationship with the Middle East of violence and imperialism. Those people sit on the oil, so we have to find a reason to justify overthrowing their governments and tampering with their economies. The fact that they have a different faith and a different ethno-racial background is a good rationalization. The fact that they treat women awfully is a really great one.
As Tim Wise has pointed out repeatedly: When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, no one was racially profiling white dudes with shaved heads. Ted Kaczynski’s crimes didn’t lead us to begin suspecting white academics of violence. But the actions of three people will now be offered by many, even those who are not on the far right in Europe or America and are otherwise more centrist and sober, as an example of what the faith of hundreds of millions of people is like.

So we criticize Islam for violence even as America spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, Germany, Japan and India combined. We criticize Islam for misogyny when we still have a pay gap and when our bombs kill plenty of widows.

Again, the Middle East and the Muslim world have huge social problems. That tends to happen when whole regions have been colonially assaulted. Of course there’s a lot more behind Wahhabist radical Islam than the influence of the West, but again, there’s a history here, and we only ever see half of it.

But put yourself in the mind of a French Muslim. There’s massive anti-Islamic, anti-Arabic, anti-immigrant hysteria in France already. When even the seemingly progressive satire newspaper keeps on depicting your whole faith as being comprised of turbaned terroristic fanatics, can’t we see why that would be a daily assault on their humanity?

I would ask anyone today to read the Nasruddin Hodja stories to see the wisdom that is possible from within the bounds of Muslim faith. I would ask them to think if ISIS and al Qaeda are any more representatives of Islam than Christian Identity white supremacists are representatives of millions of Christians who go to work and get along fine with their neighbors.

And I would certainly ask everyone to open up dialog with people different from themselves rather than condemning others. It’s up to us to make that the legacy of these attacks.