Seeing Islam Through a Lens of U.S. Hubris

Via e-mail from Christina Davidson, his editor at Brassey’s, I see that Anoymous, who is no longer actually anonymous but continues using the non-descriptive pseduonym on orders from the CIA, has an op-ed in today’s LA Times.

Seeing Islam Through a Lens of U.S.

To say the least, Americans are getting mixed and confusing messages from their leaders. Are we headed toward a victory parade, Cold War bomb shelters or simply straight to the graveyard? Do repeated warnings of an Al Qaeda-produced disaster mark a genuine threat, or have federal bureaucrats learned to cover their butts so they will not have another “failed-to-warn” à la 9/11? Are Bin Laden-related dangers downplayed to nurse the on-again, off-again economic recovery and the presidential prospects of both U.S. political parties? Are we to reach for champagne or a rosary?

I believe the answer lies in the way we see and interpret people and events outside North America, which is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centeredness amounting to what I called “imperial hubris.” This is not a genetic flaw in Americans that has been present since the Pilgrims splashed ashore at Plymouth Rock, but rather a way of thinking that America’s elites acquired after the end of World War II. It is a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us, a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components.

“When confronted by a culturally exotic enemy,” Lee Harris explained in the August/September 2002 issue of Policy Review, “our first instinct is to understand such conduct in terms that are familiar to us.” Thus, for example, Bin Laden is a criminal whose activities are fueled by money ? as opposed to a devout Muslim soldier fueled by faith ? because Americans know how to beat well-heeled gangsters. We assume, moreover, that Bin Laden and the Islamists hate us for our liberty, freedoms and democracy, not because they and many millions of Muslims believe U.S. foreign policy is an attack on Islam or because the U.S. military now has a more-than-10-year record of smashing people and things in the Islamic world.

I think this is right, as far as it goes. Certainly, it is a normal psychological instinct to analyze new things in ways that make them fit pre-existing ideas. Such schemas are the way we learn, although they occasionally lead us astray, as in the case of cognitive dissonance.

I disagree that it much matters whether the Wahhabi jihadists hate us because we’re free or because of the manifestations of our freedom. Certainly, it’s always good to understand one’s enemy. But we’re not going to stop interacting in the Middle East or stop trying to make the world better according to our worldview. The apparent straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Osama bin Laden was the presence of American troops in the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia. While I can understand why a Wahhabi fundamentalist would view it as an invasion, even though we were motivated primarily by liberating a conquered Muslim land, invited by a score of Muslim governments (including Saudi Arabia’s), and joined by all Arab states except Jordan (and Iraq, of course), it’s unclear what we’re to do about it now. Indeed, even in hindsight, it’s far from obvious that we shouldn’t have done Gulf War I. Instead, we should have toppled Saddam or, at a minimum, supported the Kurds and Shi’a in their rebellions.

And surely, if we can just drive and manage an Islamic Reformation that makes Muslims secular like us, all this unfortunate talk about religious war will end.

Thus, because of the pervasive imperial hubris that dominates the minds of our political, academic, social, media and military elites, America is able and content to believe that the Islamic world fails to understand the benign intent of U.S. foreign policy. This mind-set holds that America does not need to reevaluate its policies, let alone change them; it merely needs to better explain the wholesomeness of its views and the purity of its purposes to the uncomprehending Islamic world. What could be more American in the early 21st century, after all, then to re-identify a casus belli as a communication problem, and then call on Madison Avenue to package and hawk a remedy called “Democracy-Secularism-and-Capitalism-are-good-for-Muslims” to an Islamic world that has, to date, violently refused to purchase?

***

In order to make the decisions and allocate the resources needed to ensure U.S. security, Americans must understand the world as it is, not as we want ? or worse yet, hope ? it will be.

I have long experience analyzing and attacking Bin Laden and Islamists. I believe they are a growing threat to the United States ? there is no greater threat ? and that we are being defeated not because the evidence of the threat is unavailable but because we refuse to accept it at face value and without Americanizing the data. This must change, or our way of life will be unrecognizably altered.

It seems to me that Anonymous is expressing diametrically opposed thoughts. While it’s certainly true that attempts to democratize and secularize the Islamic world will only inflame the jihadists, it seems to me that, ultimately, that’s the only way to win. In war–and Anonymous and I agree that we’re in one–there are only two routes to victory: You can defeat the enemy’s hostile ability (by killing enough of his troops and/or destroying his resources) or overcome his hostile will (his desire to keep fighting). It seems to me that, given the asymmetric nature of the struggle, overcoming the enemy’s hostile ability is unachievable. Victory can come, therefore, only by overcoming his hostile will. And the only way that can happen is to wipe Wahhabism from the face of the earth.

Other OTB posts relating to Anonymous and his books:

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Terrorism,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    I don’t see how viewing things you don’t understand through one’s normal context translates into “imperial hubris.” Anonymous could reasonably make that case, but he doesn’t bother.

  2. vdibart says:

    I think you might have missed an important but easily overlooked route to victory – defeat the enemies hostile intent. You miss the point when you say it doesn’t matter if they “hate us because we’re free or because of the manifestations of our freedom”. Do Americans never wonder why they hate us at all? This isn’t a pacifist stance, it’s introspective. Why do the Iraqi people deserve freedom but the Palestinian people don’t? If your home was bulldozed wouldn’t that policy seem biased to you?

  3. Boyd says:

    Ummm…who said the Palestinians don’t have the right to be free?

  4. vdibart says:

    Ummm…..what have we done to help them attain freedom? Invade Iraq?

  5. Boyd says:

    Wow, thanks for the insight, Paul. Until you explained it, I never realized that trying to make sense of things that are totally foreign to you inevitably results in racism and genocide. Everything makes sense now.

  6. ducktape says:

    Until you explained it, I never realized that trying to make sense of things that are totally foreign to you inevitably results in racism and genocide.

    Are you being dense on purpose, or can you just not help it?

    When confronted with something totally foreign, you actually do have the choice of educating yourself first, before you try to make sense of it.

  7. bryan says:

    I have long experience analyzing and attacking Bin Laden and Islamists. I believe they are a growing threat to the United States — there is no greater threat — and that we are being defeated not because the evidence of the threat is unavailable but because we refuse to accept it at face value and without Americanizing the data. This must change, or our way of life will be unrecognizably altered.

    I wasn’t under the impression we were being defeated.