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.