Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Dialogue on Pakistan

" Pakistan has 173 million people and 100 nuclear weapons, an army which is bigger than the American army, and the headquarters of al Qaida sitting in two-thirds of the country which the government does not control,"

Half of the failed states on the list failed because the US tried to impose a regime on them.
In the case of Pakistan by far the largest , the US and its ally are not and have not been on the same wave length, either under Musharraf or Zardari. This results in constant finger pointing. The US says Pakistan is not doing enough, The Pakistanis say the US is using too much force. The difference of opinion with partners is not resolved through consensus but by the US bullying it's partner into submission. Both the US and Pakistan admit that their joint strategy is not working but neither party is coming up with any new thinking.
Contrast this with the other partnership where the partners are on the same wavelength. This is US/Israel. They are equally committed to the use of force and attrition while playing lip service to peace. Even this policy is in tatters, achieving nothing but disaster and an adverse domino effect on the surrounding world.
All US analysts are now saying that the US policy is helping the Taliban, yet the US imagination does not fit comfortably into a non violent policy, other wise Palestine could have been resolved many years ago. The US has now become even more than before the problem and not the solution.
The real issue of the haves and the have nots is not being attended to either inside the US or outside. The have nots are the people of failed states, all two billion of them. Pakistan is about to become the first state where the have nots will try to take matters in their own hands.

You are being logical again. You do realize that just because a course of action would be catastrophic is no guarantee that the US will refrain from following it.

I completely agree that the Pakistanis must resolve their own problems -- and also the Lebanese, as Mirene pointed out in another message. The issue I have is that the solutions that the people choose might not (in fact probably would not) further the US agenda, and this will be stymied.

Let's skip over the centuries of Western colonial divide-and-rule style interference for the moment and assume that left to their own devices humans are smart enough to overcome the history and work together to solve problems. I want to look at a more recent example instead.

George Bush demanded, against much advice, that Palestinians be allowed to hold elections. If it could be taken at face value this is a perfectly fine idea. But wouldn't you know it, those darn Palestinians up and elected the "wrong" people. And we all know what has happened since. And yet the Palestinians are blamed for the fact that they are factionalized and the leadership is ineffectual.

In other words, you may solve your own problems "democratically" if and only if the solution you choose is consistent with US interests. Otherwise there will be hell to pay.

Similarly, what if the Lebanese were to decide to give Hezbollah a ruling majority? I'm not saying whether this would be in their best interests domestically or not, it's just a "what if". Can we safely predict that the US would abide by the will of the people and call and congratulate Nasrullah on his victory?

Or would they demand that Hezbollah first denounce Iran, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and agree to become a responsible member of the international community -- i.e., abide by Washington's dictates? And failing that would they link up with some Dahlan type to undermine, disunify or outright overthrow the new government?

The Afghan occupation is in my view a perfect example of (delayed) "mission creep". The Bush cabal went in, got a toehold, and quickly turned their attention to Iraq, which was the real target, and forgot about Afghanistan. After a while, as cooler heads had predicted from the outset, the Taliban regrouped and reasserted themselves. This was allowed to fester for several years as the Iraq escapade wasn't exactly going as planned.

When someone finally decided to pay attention to it, they noticed that the FATA in Pakistan was a place where the British-drawn border was treated as non-existent by the resident Pashtuns. Here comes the "Cambodia-Laos" strategy -- just go over the border and kill people.

Well of course this is illegal, and it's no longer possible to conduct aerial bombardment in secret, so low-profile drones are employed instead. But guess what: the drones also kill innocent bystanders along with (or instead of) the intended targets, and this pisses people off. Meanwhile, you muck around in the internal politics of the country pretending to promote "democracy", causing more instability and resentment. Spoon in the pre-existing tensions with India (which has its own lunatic fringe and ethno-religious strife) and pretty soon you have a situation ready to boil over.

Now, what do you think are the chances that the US will step back and let the temperatures cool, or will they panic at the thought that those nukes could wind up in "Islamic fundamentalist" hands and overreact? This was reportedly only narrowly averted several times while Bush and Musharraf were in power; Zardari's government is not able to assure anyone that it has things under control.

This is what I meant by an invasion of Pakistan. Not that the US is looking for an excuse to do this, but may be considering it as a contingency, recognizes that it will be a mess and needs to prepare the public. Or perhaps instead they will get their proxy to do it (India), as they instigated Ethiopia to invade Somalia. That way, if the worst happens and nukes go off (oops), it will only kill the locals instead of US troops and can be blamed on them and not on us.

This sounds appalling, I know that, and Machiavellian in the extreme. But the truth is I can see no discernible difference in substance (as opposed to style) between Bush and Obama; the same militaristic idiots are still running things, and the imperial agenda remains intact. One's expectation ("hope") that Obama would proceed cautiously and non-violently in other parts of the world has not been fulfilled -- in his first week in office he had already authorized several drone attacks in Pakistan. Blood on his hands in his first week in office.

I believe that the people on the ground if left in peace to do this will step back from the brink, as they have done before, because they are simply not suicidal. But I do not expect the US to abandon its bogus "war on terror" or its underlying hegemonic agenda, which it must do if the rage that has been engendered around the world during the past eight years (let alone prior decades) is to truly dissipate. Obama has made clear that he sees "humanitarian intervention" as a legitimate role for the United States, and that he will not do anything to change the selfish, wasteful American way of life if such action would interfere with the priorities of the power interests.


I don't believe a full scale invasion is on the cards. If it were ever to happen, India would be involved and a lot of pre invasion rhetoric would come from India. Part of the reason why the Pak Army will not withdraw it's forces from the Eastern borders is because that is where it expects the attack to come from.
Ironically the enemies of Pakistan are neither to the East or West. Pakistanis are their own worst enemies.While I rail against the unproductive policies of the US which do make matters worse but the problems of Pakistan can only be solved by the Pakistanis.

"I believe that the people on the ground if left in peace to do this will step back from the brink, as they have done before, because they are simply not suicidal. But I do not expect the US to abandon its bogus "war on terror" or its underlying hegemonic agenda, which it must do if the rage that has been engendered around the world during the past eight years (let alone prior decades) is to truly dissipate." Mary Fox

The point you make about the local leadership being helpless in the face of powerful and persistent interference from the US, whether in Pakistan or Lebanon is a valid one. How does one get rid of an Imperial power which wants to control you? Gandhi is given as an example but Gandhi would never have succeeded without World War II weakening the British. The Ayatollah Khomeini is a better example of single handedly dislodging the Shah. Along come the Taliban, with the promise of dislodging the US and not much else. They are certainly not ideal but they may be an example of the wrong people at the right time. Non State actors come alive when the State actors are hijacked by Empire and non State actors do not have the luxury of being nice specially when confronted by a ruthless and all powerful enemy.

You and I and many others are convinced that the Imperial policy of the US is not just bad for Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the Middle East but disastrous for the US. The logic that you accuse me of is rampant in Washington. It does not take into account unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of US Foreign policy are having a bigger impact then the intended consequences. The only difference is that the unintended consequences are shaping a new world in which the US will be thrown out of each of the countries which they covet today. This will not happen before millions of innocent lives are lost or displaced. This will not happen before the US is humiliated as they were in Vietnam as they were by Osama as they were by Khomeni and as they are now being by the Taliban. The increasing rise of non sate actors like Hezbollah is a reaction to corrupt Governments supported by the US. How else do people take matters into their own hands.

Obama is our chosen person to get us out of an immoral, unjust and criminal policy. While the writing is on the wall that even he may not be up to it, we have to give him more time than a 100 days. At the same time we have to start getting more active to let him know where we stand.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009



"Most major insurance companies use outside firms to reinsure, but the vast majority of AIG's reinsurance contracts are negotiated internally among its affiliates, Gober says, and these internal balance sheets don't add up."

Editorial comment

Capitalism's excesses just keep piling up. It was well known the the American Economy was a pack of cards but one which some how kept standing based on it's size, its assumed productivity and it's record of growth. Once the music stopped, Capitalism is the one left standing without a chair. If Madoff was the biggest individual scandal, AIG is beginning to looks like the biggest corporate swindle.

Previously Bush had already indulged in the biggest Government swindle, taking the country into a trillion dollar war based on lies about WMDs and based on private instructions from God. Yet no one, no one, is being held accountable, not even Madoff. He will probably get off in time with a light sentence for good behavior.

Still to break, the big media swindle. Presenting America with two points of view and silencing the third point of view. These are the people kept away from TV interviews, their views not given space in the oped pages, letters to the Editor, they are even denied a place in Presidential debates even while they are standing for President. These are people denied tenure in colleges, they are fired from their jobs for having a third point of view, their identities revealed at the cost of their security and at the expense of national security and the list goes on and on.

Fortunately the Internet has provided the public an access to various points of view. People can make up their own mind about what they want to believe but they should know how unscrupulously they have been lied to, cheated and made fools of. Unless a concerted effort is made to change this culture of materialism, nothing can save us from falling off the cliff.


The Next AIG Scandal?
The firm's problems may extend to its 'healthy' insurance side. By Michael Hirsh | Newsweek Web ExclusiveMar 18, 2009

Outrageous. It's the preferred adjective used by Barack Obama and Ben Bernanke to describe AIG, the crippled giant that has turned into a national money pit. AIG has swallowed at least $170 billion in taxpayer money so far while funneling $165 million of it onward in bonuses to its incompetent executives, along with tens of billions more to equally privileged "counterparties" like Goldman Sachs.But I suspect that—with apologies to a famous American patriot—we have not yet begun to get outraged. At least if some of the insurance experts I've been talking to are correct.Thomas Gober, a former Mississippi state insurance examiner who has tracked fraud in the industry for 23 years and served previously as a consultant to the FBI and the Department of Justice, says he believes AIG's supposedly solvent insurance business may be at least as troubled as its reckless financial-products unit. Far from being "healthy," as state insurance regulators, ratings agencies and other experts have repeatedly described the insurance side, Gober calls it "a house of cards." Citing numerous documents he has obtained from state insurance regulators and obscure data buried in AIG's own 300-page annual reports, Gober argues that AIG's 71 interlocking domestic U.S. insurance subsidiaries are in hock to each other to an astonishing degree.Most of this as-yet-undiscovered problem, Gober says, lies in the area of reinsurance, whereby one insurance company insures the liabilities of another so that the latter doesn't have to carry all the risk on its books. Most major insurance companies use outside firms to reinsure, but the vast majority of AIG's reinsurance contracts are negotiated internally among its affiliates, Gober says, and these internal balance sheets don't add up. The annual report of one major AIG subsidiary, American Home Assurance, shows that it owes $25 billion to another AIG affiliate, National Union Fire, Gober maintains. But American has only $22 billion of total invested assets on its balance sheet, he says, and it has issued another $22 billion in guarantees to the other companies. "The American Home assets and liquidity raise serious questions about their ability to make good on their promise to National Union Fire," says Gober, who has a consulting business devoted to protecting policyholders. Gober says there are numerous other examples of "cooked books" between AIG subsidiaries. Based on the state insurance regulators' own reports detailing unanswered questions, the tally in losses could be hundreds of billions of dollars more than AIG is now acknowledging.One early sign of trouble came when Christian Milton, AIG's vice president of reinsurance from 1982 to 2005, was convicted last year in federal district court of conspiracy, securities fraud, mail fraud and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Milton was sentenced in January; his lawyers have indicated plans to appeal.)AIG spokesman Mark Herr took strong exception: "We strongly disagree with Mr. Gober's analysis, which lacks a fundamental understanding of our commercial insurance operations' inter-company risk sharing agreements or even the basics of statutory accounting. Our primary regulators, including New York and Pennsylvania, regularly review our statutory filings as well as our intra-company risk sharing pool, and have raised no objections to this structure. They have repeatedly stated that we have sufficient financial strength to meet our obligations. In fact, in today's hearing on AIG, Joel Ario, Pennsylvania State Insurance Commissioner, commented that the insurance companies of AIG remain strong and well capitalized. " But if Gober is right, the implications are almost too awful to contemplate. Despite its troubles on Wall Street, AIG is still the largest insurance company in the United States, controlling both the largest life and health insurer and the second-largest property and casualty insurer. It has 30 million U.S. customers. AIG is also a major provider of guaranteed investment contracts and products that protect people in 401(k) plans, as well as being the leading commercial insurer in the U.S. It is one of the largest insurance companies in the world, with insurance and financial operations in more than 130 countries. These insurance businesses were once thought to be so solid that AIG was able to use the triple-A rating it was routinely awarded to start up its vast credit-default- swap business.Public outrage has been building, along with the outcry about bonuses, over all the taxpayer money that has gone to keep AIG afloat by paying off the credit-default- swap counterparties. While some worries have surfaced about the various insurance companies' risky securities-lending practices, most have escaped scrutiny. But if millions of AIG policyholders are at risk too and no one's saying it yet, the populist backlash could get really ugly.Gober has brought his allegations to the attention of the House Financial Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Barney Frank. A committee spokesman did not immediately return a call asking for comment. But over at the Senate banking committee, ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby during hearings last week raised questions about whether AIG's insurance side was as sound as the company maintained it to be. In response, Eric Dinallo, New York state's superintendent of insurance, said he thought "the operating companies of AIG, particularly the property companies, are in excellent condition." But Dinallo admitted he had examined only 25 of the domestic AIG companies and added: "There are problems with state insurance regulation. I've been a proponent of us revisiting it."And therein lies the real problem. More than any other Wall Street rogue, AIG has been able to indulge in "regulatory arbitrage" on a global scale, creating totally unsupervised businesses that act beyond the purview of any government (AIG has repeatedly said that its problems were confined to the London-based financial-products unit). The company's ability to escape an umbrella regulator was one reason the financial-products group was able to sell, indiscriminately and without hedges, credit-default swaps around the world in the belief that they could never all come due at once. They did. Fed chairman Bernanke told lawmakers in early March that AIG "exploited a huge gap in the regulatory system" and was essentially a hedge fund attached to a "large and stable insurance company." But is that really an accurate description? Huge regulatory gaps also exist in insurance. "There is no federal insurance regulator," according to a senior government banking official, only individual state agencies. Are we missing something really big here? If so, there might be another terrible reckoning to come.© 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is the west thwarting Arab plans for reform?


"..a majority of Muslims is convinced that the west – interested only in a stability based on regional strongmen, the security of Israel and cheap oil – is engaged in a war against Islam and is bent on denying them the freedoms it claims for itself."

Editorial comment
There is a revival of interest amongst Muslims to follow a model other than that presented by the West. The thinking of people like Jamal uddin Afghani ,Mohammed Abdou and Rashid Ridha are being re examined. All of them had no issues with modernity but felt that Modernity without Islamic values would degenerate as it seems to have done recently in the West. Syed Qutub is not mentioned in the article but he advocated a complete abstinence from the West if one is ever to focus on Islam. Without Islamic Social Justice and Islamic Ethics, Capitalism is nothing but exploitation of one human being by another. Disillusionment with the West is setting the scene for a revival of Islam. Muslims are flocking in droves toward a greater religiosity, notwithstanding the Taliban. What remains is for Islamic thinkers of the calibre of Qutub, Afghani and Abdou to emerge and explain Islam in today's context. Khusro

Is the west thwarting Arab plans for reform?
By David Gardner,
Uneasy Lies the Head was the perhaps inevitable title of the autobiography of the late King Hussein of Jordan, the West’s favourite benign Arab despot. He was the improbable survivor of innumerable plots, coups and uprisings, of three Arab-Israeli wars, two Gulf wars and a civil war with the Palestinians, as well as around a dozen assassination attempts in the 46 years he wore the heavy crown of his improbable desert kingdom. The Hashemite monarch, descended from the family of the Prophet Mohammed and the Sharifs of Mecca, exuded total confidence in his legitimacy. Yet, this most open of Arab autocrats, this elegant and charming authoritarian, relied on the military and the Mukhabarat, his ubiquitous secret police, to stay in power, no less than in any other Arab state. To underline this truth is not necessarily to disparage King Hussein’s often liberal instincts. What it reveals is that even a leader willing to experiment with change, a regal populist who could utter the word “democracy” with a more or less straight face, a monarch who was once prepared to share (a bit of his) power with Islamists, was in the end no different from his peers.But a Hussein experiment of 20 years ago is jostling its way back onto the political agendas of the Arab world and wider Middle East: the attempt to marry Islam and democracy. This is the single biggest challenge facing a region mired in despotism and failure, where US and western collusion with local strongmen has created an Arab Exception – leaving the Arabs marooned in tyranny as waves of democracy broke over eastern Europe and Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia. There is no other part of the world – not even China – where the west operates with such little regard for the human and political rights of local citizens. The west’s morbid fear of political Islam has served to deny Arabs democracy in case they support Islamists, just as during the cold war many Latin Americans, Asians and Africans had to endure western-endorsed dictators lest they supported communists. Unless the Arab countries and the broader Middle East can find a way out of this pit of autocracy, their people – more than half of them under 25 – will be condemned to bleak lives of despair, humiliation and rage. Western support for autocracy and indulgence of corruption in this region, far from securing stability, breeds extremism and, in extremis, failed states. It will, of course, be primarily up to the citizens of these countries to claw their way out of that pit. But the least they can expect from the west is not to keep stamping on their fingers.So what was it King Hussein did? In 1989, the king risked an experiment in “guided democracy”. The main beneficiaries were Islamists, grouped mostly in the Jordanian chapter of the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) . With 34 out of 80 assembly seats, the Islamists were the largest, and the only ideologically cohesive, bloc. In 1990-91, the king brought four Muslim Brothers into the cabinet. In private conversation four years later, he even foresaw the day when Jordan would have an Islamist prime minister, “and they and the people will see what government is about and who can do it”. But, first, he bound their leadership into a constitutional consensus. This set out the rules of managed democracy. Crucially, it also established Islam as but one fount of political legitimacy, alongside the parallel claims of Jordanian patriotism, Arab nationalism, and universal values. This Jordanian National Charter (al-Mithaq al-Watani al-Urduni) remains one of the most suggestive political documents to have emerged in the modern Arab world. It bucked the trend in the region. The minute the Brothers began to develop an agenda independently from the Palace, however, King Hussein changed the rules, enacting new electoral laws to guarantee majorities in parliament of Bedouin loyalists and tribal grandees. As the peace Jordan signed with Israel in 1994 grew ever more unpopular, moreover, so the king rolled back his democratic reforms, limiting change to largely meaningless changes of government (he ran through 56 prime ministers in 46 years).This episode nonetheless remains important, and transcends Jordan. King Hussein’s volte face meant an opportunity was lost to develop new forms of legitimacy – democratic legitimacy – by one of the few Arab leaders who had any reserves of this precious commodity left. Yet in the following two decades, there would be repeated attempts – from Khatami’s Iran to post-Saddam Iraq, from Erdogan’s Turkey to King Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia – either to synthesise Islam and democracy or tilt towards forms of modernity the region’s religious heritage could sustain.The Islam and modernity debate, which accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman empire after the first World War, has emerged again nearly a century later. But there is an important difference. Few Muslims now invest much hope in the democratic western powers (essentially the US, Britain and France) that back the rulers who oppress them, even if, against the odds, they still admire “western” values, science and culture. There is no endemic or intrinsic conflict between Christians and Muslims. Rather, the root of the problem is that a majority of Muslims is convinced that the west – interested only in a stability based on regional strongmen, the security of Israel and cheap oil – is engaged in a war against Islam and is bent on denying them the freedoms it claims for itself.That is why it is so self-defeating to collude in tyranny as ostensibly a lesser evil than political Islam. The challenge now is to ensure that these Muslims are not driven into the arms of the jihadis who are poised to enter the Muslim mainstream. As poll after depressing poll shows, the moral credit of the west could hardly be lower in the Muslim and Arab worlds. As western client-rulers and local despots suppress all political challenge, leaving their people only the mosque and the madrassa as space to rally and regroup, Islamists are the beneficiaries. They build on doctrine common to all Islam: the concern to build a just society and to preserve the unity of the Umma, the worldwide community of believers. That is already a seductive political combination even before any spark of religious belief is added. Add to it the familiar list of timeless and actual Muslim grievances, the sense of a religion under siege and the lament for lost glory, and what emerges is a potent liberation theology.Democracy, in this unpromising context, could open a long period of illiberal politics that may be inimical to stability. Yet the west’s only realistic choice is to foster, or at least not actively obstruct, the right of Arabs to decide their own future, in whatever form they wish. That form will be heavily influenced by Islamism. Yet the west should be able to see the similarities between Islamism (or Islamic revivalism) and 19th-century nationalism in Europe. Both started as a sort of forced march into the future and then they detoured in sinister and destructive ways: fascism then and the jihadi cult of death now. Any sane policy would be devoted to preventing the evolution of a lethal form of radical Islam, in no small part by finding space for a thoughtful Islamism to emerge.That is no longer easy. The freedom agenda proclaimed by George W. Bush has been discredited. Yet the insight brought to the west so violently by al-Qaeda on September 11 2001 and subsequently – that tyranny breeds terrorism and instability, infantilises politics and holds back development – is no less valid. Not the least of the challenges facing Barack Obama is to rescue that insight before it is too late.It was never the spontaneous choice of the Arabs and the Muslims to retreat into Islam, even after colliding with a confident and expansionist Europe in the late 18th century. The Islamic revival only acquired legs when balance-of-power politics and subsequent western support for tyrants thwarted nationalist and democratic attempts at modernisation.Obviously, once the European powers thrust into Arab and Muslim lands in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries – taking Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Lebanon, and shrinking the Ottoman hinterland before pointing a dagger at its heartland – the question of modernity, much less democracy, must in many Muslim minds have been displaced by the question of survival. There had been no shortage of “modernist” Islamic thinkers, trying to tease out the lessons of western success and clear the thickets of superstition from Muslim minds. But, while looking forward, they also looked backwards to the dawn of Islam.Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), probably, despite his name, a Persian who studied philosophy in the Shia holy city of Najaf in Iraq, came to represent a flowing together of Islamic reform and nationalist assertion that would trickle into almost every political current in the region. As the historian Albert Hourani has pointed out, he brought a radical new emphasis on Islam as a civilisation rather than Islam as a religion, yet “only by a return to Islam can the strength and civilisation of Muslims be restored”. Islam needed to reclaim its scientific roots, and harvest the new fruits that had flowered in Europe from stems originally planted by the Muslims. With the unity of the Umma, Islam could once more have a universal mission in the world, because, as anyone who studied it could see, it was tolerant, rational and in harmony with the principles uncovered by science through the ages, not least by the great Muslim scientists who had not only adorned their own civilisation but recovered the civilisation of the west. Under Afghani’s disciples, however, the emphasis on reform, and the nature of universalism, gradually changed. Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian scholar who in 1899 became the Mufti of Egypt, was above all concerned to show that the road to modernity could be discovered in the roots of Islam. Ostensibly modern concepts could be evolved out of traditional Islamic notions provided they were properly understood and adapted. Thus, Muslims could identify the principle of maslaha – whereby a judge could select from rival legal traditions to find the best outcome for public welfare – as the slightly more modern idea of the public good or interest. They would be able to recognise ijma – something between the consensus of the scholars and the acceptance of the community – as public opinion. Above all they could authentically claim their own tradition of democracy in the practice of shura or consultation.Abduh’s attempt to spring Islam into the vanguard of modernity was partly a job of reinterpreting and unifying Islamic law and adapting it to modern problems, partly a job of revealing the true meaning of old precepts and practices. It both cases it had to involve ijtihad – the exercise of independent but scholarly judgment – to confront the circumstances of modernity unforeseen at the dawn of Islam. Under Rashid Rida (1865-1935), a Syrian disciple of both Afghani and Abduh, many of the themes are the same, but he insistently argues that the technical skills of modernity arise out of the right moral habits and intellectual principles. If the teaching of Islam is properly understood, it will lead to success in this world and the next. In Rida’s al-Manar (The Lighthouse) periodical, which had an important influence on both Islamic revivalism and pan-Arab nationalism, “true Islam involves two things, acceptance of the unity of God and consultation [shura] in matters of state, and despotic rulers have tried to make Muslims forget the second by encouraging them to abandon the first”. But Rida increasingly looked back towards the Islam of the al-Salaf al-Salih – the pious forerunners of the first generations. That focus quickly led to the perception that decay had come about as a result of surrender to philosophy, speculation and mysticism – rather than surrender to God, the precise meaning of the word Islam. This meant all developments after the Salafi period and the subsequent establishment of the four orthodox schools of Sunni jurisprudence were deeply suspect. What started, therefore, as an injunction to learn the secrets of western culture as the prelude to relaunching Islam as a triumphantly universal civilisation subtly mutated into a highly defensive Islamic revivalism led initially by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, determined to rid Islam of the seeds of western decadence. These ideas would mutate further, once detached from the sort of world that gave birth to them: an inclusive and entire world dislocated by the upheaval of modernity and the penetration of imperial power. Such Janus-like modernism easily cleared a path for the Islamic revivalism of this century, especially after nationalism was thwarted and the Arab world proceeded up one blind alley after another, following what Osama bin Laden has derided as “earthly flags”.With the bin Ladenists, the notion of the Umma has been corrupted into fascistic and supremacist ideas analogous to the Volk or the Razza, with their primacy over individual human rights and the universal rights of humanity, a muscular Islamism that appeals to the young yet elicits a vicarious thrill among orderly conservatives. As the American scholar of fascism, Robert Paxton, puts it well, “war is indispensable for the maintenance of fascist muscle tone”. Substitute “jihad” for war and “Islamist” for fascist and you have an important element of the attraction of the modern holy warrior.There are grounds for hope. Islamism comes in many guises. Turkey, for example, has shown that political Islam can evolve. The ruling Justice and Development party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan was rebuilt from the wreckage of two failed Islamist parties and broadened into a sort of Muslim equivalent of Christian Democracy. It is widely admired in the Arab and Muslim worlds, not as a model but because it works. Success sells.In Iran, by contrast, reformist attempts under Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) to create a freer society with a government accountable to the people under the rule of law mesmerised the region but eventually hit the buffers of theocracy. The silky and smiling Iranian president was rebuffed in his search for détente by Bill Clinton and rejected when he offered a “grand bargain” to George W. Bush in 2003. The price of failure was the shrewdly extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.Top Shia clerics in Iraq, however, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, take their inspiration not from Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 but from its constitutional revolution of 1906, aimed at establishing elected, representative government and the rule of law. While jealous of their prerogatives, the Iraqi clergy sought a new contract between ruler and ruled, not to become the new rulers like Iran’s theocrats. The 2005 Iraqi constitution, like the 1989 Jordanian National Charter, establishes Islam as a “basic” source of legislation, but states that no law can infringe the “principles of democracy” or the “rights and basic freedoms” enumerated in the rest of the constitution. This was no blueprint for secular liberalism. But nor, in a country that elected Islamists to two thirds of parliamentary seats, was it a warrant for theocracy.In Saudi Arabia, the region’s original theocracy, the ruling House of Saud’s hesitant steps to lead the kingdom towards a modernity its Islamic heritage can absorb means curbing the corrosive power of the Wahhabi religious establishment. King Abdullah’s most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives, the richest source of ideas for renewal. That is a risk the al-Saud may not be willing or able to take. As one senior prince, a moderniser who fears opening the door to Islamist reformers, puts it with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of Scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to 10 years.”While both the clerical establishment and al-Qaeda revile such “whisky liberals”, they see as their real adversary the Islamist reformers who advocate far-reaching change, many of whom have rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists of a century ago. The ideas of, for example, Mohammed Abduh on maslaha (public interest), shura (consultation) and above all of ijtihad, or independent reasoning to marry Islamic belief with modern challenges, have resurfaced almost as a newly minted currency. The idea of civil society was reborn, with Muslim credentials the Wahhabi establishment justly fears. The turning point was the 2003 petition, called “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals – although the former were and are the real force. As this pluralism implies, the document is founded on the principles of confessional and political diversity in Saudi Arabia. But for the first time, reformers both liberal and Islamist broke the taboo about speaking out against Wahhabism, implying that its totalitarian ideology was the deathly hand holding back the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a successful modern state its citizens would easily support.In this respect, the 2003 Saudi “Vision” document is as suggestive of a path forward as the 1989 Jordanian National Charter or the still unrealised Iraqi constitution of 2005. They all draw on and revisit the sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic, and in important ways, Islamist. The Islamist reformers nonetheless want free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary and a fairer distribution of wealth – in short, a constitutional monarchy, if not a bicycling monarchy.The idiom, however strange to western or liberal ears, is a large part of the story, because it gives those who use it to articulate reform a recognisable immediacy, an authenticity and a legitimacy that shields them from the usual charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former (defenestrated) Saudi judge and reformer, is a particularly authoritative version of the genre. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways – putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he maintains. “The only way out of this is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism. The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself – through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy – it is the only way.” David Gardner is the FT’s chief leader writer. His book ‘Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance’ is published by I.B. Tauris next week
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Forgiveness and Irony


"But the God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. He is manifestly not amused by human folly and weakness—"- Scruton

Editorial comment

I read the article with a lot of interest. It is extremely well written and on the face of it well argued but to me it comes across as written by a man who neither understands Islam or Secularism or the West. Let me explain :

Forgiveness The essence of the message of God as given in the Quran rests on two words,
Rahman and Rahim. See below for a very brief explanation. this could go on for pages.

The True Meaning of ‘Ar-Rahman’ and ‘Ar-Rahim’:

"Now, no attribute is perfect, unless it possesses within itself both Hossun (beauty/goodness) and Ihsan (beneficence) . That is, on the one hand the attribute does not possess any fault, flaw or dependency and is thus perfect in its Hossun; and, on the other hand, its Ihsan i.e., the benefits of the attribute, should also be reaching creation. For instance, generosity is a hossun, but irrespective to the extent to which it is present in any being, until its Ihsan, that is, its beneficence, reaches some other being, it is of no importance and it is immaterial whether that attribute exists or not. That is why God’s attributes are not only perfect in their Hossun (goodness/beauty) , but are also perfect in their Ihsan (beneficence) and it is the blessing of these attributes which is responsible for the emergence and sustenance of the entire creation.
‘Ar-Rahman’ (the Beneficent) is He whose generosity is so great that before the birth of man and without any effort or labour on man’s part, the entire resources required for his sustenance were provided. While ‘Ar-Rahim’ refers to the mercy which is granted repeatedly and these attributes manifest themselves time and again and have an excellent and improving effect on each person’s actions.
It is stated in the Hadith, that God, Most High, is the ‘Rahman’ (Beneficent) of this world and the ‘Rahim’ (Merciful) of the hereafter. This is because Rahman, before the birth of man, merely out of his beneficence provided the entire resources for the sustenance and progress of man. So this entire world is a manifestation of the attribute Rahman. The attribute Rahim rewards man for good works and this is fully manifested in the hereafter."

It is not God, who is not forgiving or "reluctant" in His forgiveness, it is man who is weak in seeking forgiveness. If a man seeks forgiveness and then commits the sin again then was he sincere in seeking forgiveness? If a man seeks forgiveness but in his heart does not believe that he has sinned, then what is he seeking forgiveness of? The "reluctance" on God's part is if there is forgiveness and no repentance. God will forgive, if man repents. God will forgive if man repents on his death bed.

What is the standard of forgiveness in Secular Society that Scruton refers to? He talks as if mercy and forgiveness is an invention of the West or Judeo Christian ethics. How does forgiveness of Secularism fit into the revenge of 9/11? Instead of forgiving the Saudis and Egyptians who were responsible for this attack, the West decided to teach a lesson to the Iraqis and Afghanis. Is this the Judeo Christian tradition of forgiveness that we are supposed to emulate? This is not even Justice let alone forgiveness.

Irony This is another word for not being judgmental. I will quote to you four verses from the Quran:

“There should be no compulsion in religion” (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256)

“Your (Prophet’s)duty is only to convey the Message” (Surah Ash-Shura 42:48).

” And let the People of the Gospel judge according to what Allah has revealed therein.” (Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:47)

“Do not abuse the gods of other religions or their prophets and religious men, lest they should abuse your God or Prophet or your religious men.”

There are very clear instructions to Muslims not to be judgemental. Islam's Prophet had clear instructions to just deliver the message. Judgement is the sole domain of God.

Scruton talks about Secularism as follows:
"Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere. To have created this form of renewable loneliness is the great achievement of Western civilization"
Although he writes about this as a great achievement, I am not sure if a collective loneliness is something to aspire to. He admits to the lack of meaning in Secularism and agrees that it is forgiveness and irony which truly brings meaning but he appears to have a lower standard for both forgiveness and irony than there is in Islam. A collective apartness is bought together by self interest and this is a fleeting and self centered partnership. There is a loss of humanity in this relationship because at it's most basic self interest is about material self interest. Enlightened self interest is a step above this but again has serious limitations. In Islam, man's relationship to one another and to this world is a fiduciary relationship. Every thing belongs to God to whome we will return. Our relationships to one another and to the land is one of trust and caring.

Terrorism While Scruton, admits that Islam did not invent Terrorism, he insists on the use of words like Islamic terrorism. Missing from this whole discussion is State Terrorism.
When the worlds most powerful country invades one of the worlds weakest and poorest countries, it is not an act of war. It is an example of State Terrorism. The US carpet bombing of Afghanistan, the shock and awe of Iraq in which thousands of innocent people were killed is a bigger act of terrorism than any individual act of terrorism. The moral indignation in the West over suicide bombings completely by passes the immoral acts of the West in the abuse of their power and the rampant exploitation of less fortunate human beings. The theory that the end justifies the means has completely taken over Western thinking and in a fit of superiority makes them blind to their own double standards.
Let me quote again from Scruton:
"it is very difficult to kill the innocent Mrs. Smith and her children as they go about their family shopping. Hence this strategy for ego-building cannot begin simply from the desire to kill. Mrs. Smith must become something else—a symbol of some abstract condition, a kind of incarnation of a universal enemy. Terrorists of the modern kind therefore tend to lean on doctrines that remove the humanity from the people they target."

To me Mrs Smith could easily have been the mothers of Palestinian mothers going to pick up their children in Gaza. who were cut down by Israei forces. This was not collateral damage, this was an act of terror which surpasses all acts of terror. A cold blooded killing of innocent women and children in order to spread terror. Yet for some reason it is difficult for Scruton to see this as terrorism.

Threat to the West. Scruton talks about "..the experience of a déraciné Muslim confronting the modern world, and without the benefit of the two gifts of forgiveness and irony. Such a person is an unpredictable by-product of unforeseen and uncomprehended circumstances, and our best efforts to understand his motives have so far suggested no policy that would deter attacks."

Ben Laden and the Taliban have no interest in the West. Their only interest is not to be occupied by the West. Ben Laden wanted the Americans to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia. The Taliban wants the West to withdraw from Afghanistan. I may nor agree with or condone the tactics of Ben Laden but time and again he has stated his prime motive was to resist occupation.
If some of these people want to revive an Islamic caliphate, let the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world decide if this makes sense. The Ku klux clan may have their own ambitions about white supremacy, no one is thinking of attacking America to get rid of these people. The Americans are quite capable of dealing with them. So where does any one get the idea that these people want to destroy the West? Neither do they have the power. The West as we are seeing has the power to destroy itself.

There is a solution for stopping the attacks. Leave Afghanistan, leave Iraq, leave Palestine and we can all live happily. It has become politically correct for the perpetrator to act as the victim. This article is to me more evidence of this disease. Let the perpetrator admit to their violence, their bullying, their self righteous behaviour ( judging others and forcibly pushing their own ideas on them) and then see what happens. Let there be a truth and reconciliation on a global basis and then let us see as we did in South Africa how people in power abused their power and committed acts of terrible inhumanity. For the West it is the seeking of forgiveness that is important. It is much easier to forgive then to seek forgiveness. It is much easier to seek forgiveness than to repent.

Let me take this opportunity to point to two challenges for Muslims today;

1. Intolerance of others. This is not intolerance of non Muslims but intolerance of fellow Muslims. If Scruton was just talking about Islam as he sees Muslims practice it, then I understand where he is coming from. Despite the Quran strictly saying that it is God who leads astray whome He wills, and men must not sit on judgement of one another, many Muslims take upon themselves the role of deciding who is a good Muslim and who is a bad one. They go so far as to say who is a Muslim and who is not even amongst people of their own belief. This is a hurdle that unless Muslims cross, they will and are giving Islam a bad name.
2. The way many Muslims are treating women is also a blot on the advances that were made by Islam in the emancipation of women. Any Muslim nation that discourages the education of women is taking many backward steps. The West may encourage the education of women but their exploitation of women as sex symbols is contrary to the teachings of Islam. Muslims have to look to the Quran for guidance on man/woman relationship and no where do I read in the Quran that women should not be educated.

It is interesting that Scruton sees a rivalry or competition between Secularism and Islam, not between Secularism and Religion. It is true that Affluent countries as a whole have with drawn from Religion and are alarmed at the presence of practicing Muslims amongst them. Like Scruton these societies struggle to demonise Islam rather than understand them. As Secularism and Capitalism show signs of not being the perfect systems that they though they were, Islam gets a rare chance of contributing to many of the solutions. In fact Islam can contribute significantly in the present crisis in three major areas;

1. Economic Justice.
2, Role of women ( This may be a non starter because of the behaviour of the Taliban and others but the Islamic concepts could be life savers for society)
3. Ethics.

Unfortunately if the Muslims continue to be focused on the form and ignore the spirit of Islam, they are in no position to guide any one. They need to first get their own house in order.
Please feel free to share with others.


Forgiveness and Irony

What makes the West strong

Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher. His article is adapted from his McNish Lecture for the Advancement of Western Civilization at the University of Calgary

Wherever the Western vision of political order has gained a foothold, we find freedom of expression: not merely the freedom to disagree with others publicly about matters of faith and morality but also the freedom to satirize solemnity and to ridicule nonsense, including solemnity and nonsense of the sacred kind. This freedom of conscience requires secular government. But what makes secular government legitimate?

That question is the starting point of Western political philosophy, the consensus among modern thinkers being that sovereignty and law are made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey them. They show this consent in two ways: by a real or implied “social contract,” whereby each person agrees with every other to the principles of government; and by a political process through which each person participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean, or ought to mean, by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up in the view that political communities are composed of citizens and religious communities of subjects—of those who have “submitted.” If we want a simple definition of the West as it is today, the concept of citizenship is a good starting point. That is what millions of migrants are roaming the world in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.

That is what people want; it does not, however, make them happy. Something is missing from a life based purely on consent and polite accommodation with your neighbors—something of which Muslims retain a powerful image through the words of the Koran. This missing thing goes by many names: sense, meaning, purpose, faith, brotherhood, submission. People need freedom; but they also need the goal for which they can renounce it. That is the thought contained in the word “Islam”: the willing submission, from which there is no return.

It goes without saying that the word’s connotations are different for Arabic speakers and for speakers of Turkish, Malay, or Bengali. Turks, who live under a secular law derived from the legal systems of post-Napoleonic Europe, are seldom disposed to think that, as Muslims, they must live in a state of continual submission to a divine law that governs all of social and political life. The 20 percent of Muslims who are Arabs, however, feel the mesmerizing rhythms of the Koran as an unbrookable current of compulsion and are apt to take “Islam” literally. For them, this particular act of submission may mean renouncing not only freedom but also the very idea of citizenship. It may involve retreating from the open dialogue on which the secular order depends into the “shade of the Koran,” as Sayyid Qutb put it, in a disturbing book that has inspired the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere. To have created this form of renewable loneliness is the great achievement of Western civilization, and my way of describing it raises the question of whether it is worth defending and, if so, how.

My answer is yes, it is worth defending, but only if we recognize the truth that the present conflict with Islamism makes vivid to us: citizenship is not enough, and it will endure only if associated with meanings to which the rising generation can attach its hopes and its search for identity. There is no doubt that the secular order and the search for meaning coexisted quite happily when Christianity provided its benign support to both. But (especially in Europe) Christianity has retreated from public life and is now being driven from private life as well. For people of my generation, it seemed, for a while, as though we could rediscover meaning through culture. The artistic, musical, literary, and philosophical traditions of our civilization bore so many traces of a world-transforming significance that it would be enough—we thought—to pass those things on. Each new generation could then inherit by means of them the spiritual resources that it needed. But we reckoned without two all-important facts: first, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays; and second, the rise of what I call the “culture of repudiation,” as those appointed to inject that energy have become increasingly fatigued with the task and have eventually jettisoned the cultural baggage under whose weight they staggered.

This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed, even if it is a civilization that has granted them something that they may be unable to find where their own religion triumphs, which is a free, tolerant, and secular rule of law. For they were brought up in a world of certainties; around them, they encounter only doubts.

If repudiation of its past and its identity is all that Western civilization can offer, it cannot survive: it will give way to whatever future civilization can offer hope and consolation to the young and fulfill their deep-rooted human need for social membership. Citizenship, as I have described it, does not fulfill that need: and that is why so many Muslims reject it, seeking instead that consoling “brotherhood” (ikhwan) that has so often been the goal of Islamic revivals. But citizenship is an achievement that we cannot forgo if the modern world is to survive: we have built our prosperity on it, our peace and our stability, and—even if it does not provide happiness—it defines us. We cannot renounce it without ceasing to be.

What is needed is not to reject citizenship as the foundation of social order but to provide it with a heart. And in seeking that heart, we should turn away from the apologetic multiculturalism that has had such a ruinous effect on Western self-confidence and return to the gifts that we have received from our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The first of these gifts is forgiveness. By living in a spirit of forgiveness, we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.

The Koran invokes at every point the mercy, compassion, and justice of God. But the God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. He is manifestly not amused by human folly and weakness—nor, indeed, is He amused by anything. The Koran, unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, is a joke-free zone.

This brings us to another of our civilization’s gifts to us: irony. There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that the Talmud amplifies. But a new kind of irony dominates Christ’s judgments and parables, which look on the spectacle of human folly and wryly show us how to live with it. A telling example is Christ’s verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In other words: “Come off it; haven’t you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?” Some have suggested that this story is a later insertion—one of many that the early Christians culled from the store of inherited wisdom attributed to the Redeemer after his death. Even if that is true, however, it merely confirms the view that the Christian religion has made irony central to its message. It was a troubled, post-Enlightenment Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who pointed to irony as the virtue that united Socrates and Christ.

The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview—a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue—a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

The West’s democratic inheritance stems, I would argue, from the habit of forgiveness. To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the individual as sovereign over his life and free to do both right and wrong. A society that makes permanent room for forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him. Irony—the recognition and acceptance of otherness—amplifies this democratic tendency and also helps thwart the mediocrity and conformity that are the downsides of a democratic culture.

Forgiveness and irony lie at the heart of our civilization. They are what we have to be most proud of, and our principal means to disarm our enemies. They underlie our conception of citizenship as founded in consent. And they are expressed in our conception of law as a means to resolve conflicts by discovering the just solution to them. It is not often realized that this conception of law has little in common with Muslim sharia, which is regarded as a system of commands issued by God and not capable of, or in need of, further justification.

God’s commandments are important to Christians and Jews, too; but they are not seen as sufficient for the good government of human societies. They must be supplemented by another kind of law, responsive to the changing forms of human conflict. The parable of the tribute money makes this transparently clear (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), as does the papal doctrine of the two swords—the two forms of law, human and divine, on which good government depends. The law enforced by our courts requires the parties to “submit” only to the secular jurisdiction. It treats each party as a responsible individual, acting freely for himself. This feature of law is particularly vivid in the minds of the English-speaking peoples, whose system of common law consists of freedoms—won by the citizen from the state—that the state must uphold. Sharia consists of obligations imposed by God that the courts must enforce. It is a means to ensure “submission” to the will of God, as revealed in the Koran and the Sunna.

How do these thoughts bear on our current situation? In particular, how does this invocation of deep aspects of our Judeo-Christian heritage help us respond to the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, and how can we achieve the much-needed reconciliation with Islam without which our political inheritance will remain in jeopardy?

Terrorism and Islam have become associated in the popular mind, and in response, well-intentioned commentators urge that there is nothing new in terrorism and nothing about Islam that predisposes its adherents toward the use of it. Wasn’t it the Jacobins of the French Revolution who unleashed the beast? Didn’t terrorism find its political home with the Russian nihilists of the nineteenth century, thereafter to be adopted by radical movements throughout the twentieth?

The response is reasonable, but it prompts us to explore the deeper question of motive. What draws people to the use of terror? Is it chosen, as its apologists suggest, as a tactical device? Or is it chosen as an end in itself? From a certain perspective, it seems plausible to trace modern terrorism to the Enlightenment, to the idea of human equality, and to the attitude of ressentiment that Nietzsche rightly discerned in the heart of modern communities—the desire to destroy what one longs for when seeing it in others’ hands. But such a diagnosis ignores the fact that terrorism, as typified by the Russian nihilists and recorded in their name, is radically disconnected from any goal. Sometimes, it is true, terrorists—the Bolsheviks, the IRA, ETA—have furnished themselves with a cause, making believe that with the achievement of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a united Ireland, or a Basque national state, their purposes will be achieved and they can lay down their arms. But the cause is usually vague and utopian to the point of unreality, and its nonachievement seems part of its point—a way to justify the constant renewal of violence.

Terrorists might equally be entirely causeless, or dedicated to a cause so vaguely and metaphysically characterized that nobody (least of all themselves) could believe it to be achievable. Such were the Russian nihilists, as Dostoyevsky and Turgenev described them. Such, too, were the Italian Brigate Rosse and the German Baader-Meinhof gang of my youth. As Michael Burleigh shows in his magisterial Blood and Rage, modern terrorism has been far more interested in violence than in anything that might be achieved by it. It is typified by Joseph Conrad’s Professor, in The Secret Agent, who raises his glass “to the destruction of all that is.”

The vague or utopian character of the cause is therefore an important part of terrorism’s appeal, for it means that the cause does not define or limit the action. It is waiting to be filled with meaning by the terrorist, who is searching to change not the world but himself. To kill someone who has neither offended you nor given just cause for punishment, you have to believe yourself wrapped in some kind of angelic cloak of justification. You then come to see the killing as showing that you are indeed an angel. Your existence receives its final ontological proof.

Terrorists pursue a moral exultation, a sense of being beyond the reach of ordinary human judgment, radiated by a self-assumed permission of the kind enjoyed by God. Terrorism of this kind, in other words, is a search for meaning—the very meaning that citizenship, conceived in abstract terms, cannot provide. Even in its most secularized form, terrorism involves a kind of religious hunger.

It is very difficult to kill the innocent Mrs. Smith and her children as they go about their family shopping. Hence this strategy for ego-building cannot begin simply from the desire to kill. Mrs. Smith must become something else—a symbol of some abstract condition, a kind of incarnation of a universal enemy. Terrorists of the modern kind therefore tend to lean on doctrines that remove the humanity from the people they target. Marx’s theories served this purpose well, since they created the idea of the bourgeoisie, the “class enemy,” who had the same function in Bolshevik ideology as the Jews did in the ideology of the Nazis. Mrs. Smith and her children stand behind the target, which is the abstract bourgeois family. It just so happens that, when the bomb hits this target made of fictions, the shrapnel passes easily through it into the real body of Mrs. Smith. Sad for the Smiths, and often you will find terrorists making a kind of abstract apology, saying that it wasn’t their fault that Mrs. Smith got blown up and that really people ought not to stand behind targets in quite that way.

Islamist terrorists are animated, at some level, by the same troubled search for meaning and the same need to stand above their victims in a posture of transcendental exculpation. Ideas of liberty, equality, or historical right have no influence on their thinking, and they are not interested in possessing the powers and privileges that their targets enjoy. The things of this world have no real value for them, and if they sometimes seem to aim at power, it is only because power would enable them to establish the kingdom of God—an aim that they, like the rest of us, know to be impossible and therefore endlessly renewable in the wake of failure. Their carelessness about others’ lives is matched by their carelessness about their own. Life has no particular value for them; death beckons constantly from the near horizon of their vision. And in death, they perceive the only meaning that matters: the final transcendence of this world and of the accountability to others that this world demands of us.

People inoculated by the culture of repudiation, reluctant to acknowledge the search for meaning as a human universal, tend to think that all conflicts are really political, concerning who has power over whom. They are apt to believe that the causes of Islamist terrorism lie in the “social injustice” against which the terrorists protest and that the failure of all other attempts to rectify things renders their regrettable methods necessary. This seems to me to misinterpret radically the motives of terrorism in general and of Islamism in particular. The Islamist terrorist, like the European nihilist, is primarily interested in himself and his spiritual condition, and he has no real desire to change things here below, where he does not belong. He wants to belong to God, not to the world, and this means witnessing to God’s law and kingdom by destroying all that stands in their way, his own body included. Death is his ultimate act of submission: through death, he dissolves into a new and immortal brotherhood. The terror that his death inflicts both exalts the world of brotherhood and casts a devastating blow against the rival world of strangers, in which citizenship, not brotherhood, is the binding principle.

This is why we should recognize that we face a new kind of threat, one that does not have limited or negotiable objectives, that we cannot easily meet with a military confrontation, and that the usual means cannot deter. There is nothing we can offer the Islamists that will enable them to say that they have achieved their goal. If they succeeded in destroying a Western city with a nuclear bomb, or a whole population with a deadly virus, they would regard it as a triumph, even though it conferred no material, political, or religious benefit whatsoever.

Of course, the mass of ordinary Muslims would be appalled at such an event and would regard mass murder of the kind contemplated by al-Qaida as an outrage absolutely forbidden by the law of God. And there are encouraging signs that thinking Muslims are attempting to find a way to declare a public commitment to coexistence with the other two Abrahamic religions and to uphold the love of neighbor, even when the neighbor is of another faith. Witness the 2007 letter to religious leaders in the West, signed by 140 distinguished Muslim scholars, calling for dialogue among the faiths and for mutual respect as the foundation of coexistence. However, we should note two important facts. The first is that Islam has never succeeded in establishing any decisive source of religious authority. Each spiritual leader is self-appointed, like the Ayatollah Khomeini, and has no credibility outside his own circle of followers. People often say what a pity it is that Islam has had no Protestant Reformation. In fact, it is one unending series of Protestant Reformations, each of which claims to be the sole truth in the matter of man’s obedience to God.

The second important fact—and it is, I believe, connected—is that Muslims show a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of their faith and to rally against anyone who disparages it. The notorious Danish cartoons caused outrage, uniting Muslims everywhere in acts of destruction and calls for revenge. A few days later, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the Shiite community’s holiest places, was blown up by Islamists. But where were the protests, outside Iraq? Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Islamic terrorists. But when do those who claim to speak for Muslims mention this statistic? For that matter, the whole point of the infamous cartoons was to make us look at the atrocious things done in the Prophet’s name. Does he approve or doesn’t he?

Muslims must face up to this question. But a rooted double standard often prevents their turning on fellow Muslims the self-righteous anger that they turn on enemies of the faith. Such double standards are the direct result of the loss of irony. They stem from an inability to accept the otherness of everything, to stand outside one’s own opinions, and even one’s own faith, so as to see it as the faith of someone else. Not that Islam has always lacked irony in this respect: the works of the Sufi masters are full of it. But the Sufi masters (I think of Rumi and Hafiz especially) belong to that great and self-knowing Islamic culture on which the Islamists have turned their backs, embracing instead the narrow-minded bigotry of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab or the self-deceived nostalgia of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb.

The confrontation that we are involved in is thus not political or economic; it is not the first step toward a negotiation or a calling to account. It is an existential confrontation. The question put to us is: “What right do you have to exist?” By answering, “None whatsoever,” we invite the reply, “That’s what I thought.” An answer can avert the threat only by facing it down; and that means being absolutely convinced that we do have a right to exist and that we are prepared to concede an equal right to our opponents, though only on condition that the concession is mutual. No other strategy has a remote chance of succeeding.

Al-Qaida may be weak; the whole conspiracy to destroy the West may be little more than a fiction in the brains of the neoconservatives, who themselves may be a fiction in the brains of liberals. But the threat does not come from a conspiracy or from an organization. It comes from individuals undergoing a traumatic experience that we do not fully understand—the experience of a déraciné Muslim confronting the modern world, and without the benefit of the two gifts of forgiveness and irony. Such a person is an unpredictable by-product of unforeseen and uncomprehended circumstances, and our best efforts to understand his motives have so far suggested no policy that would deter attacks.

What, then, should our stance be in this existential confrontation? I think we should emphasize the very great virtues and achievements that we have built on our legacy of tolerance and show a willingness to criticize and amend all the vices to which it has also given undue space. We should resurrect Locke’s distinction between liberty and license and make it absolutely clear to our children that liberty is a form of order, not a license for anarchy and self-indulgence. We should cease to mock the things that mattered to our parents and grandparents, and we should be proud of what they achieved. This is not arrogance but a just recognition of our privileges.

We should also drop all the multicultural waffling that has so confused public life in the West and reaffirm the core idea of social membership in the Western tradition, which is the idea of citizenship. By sending out the message that we believe in what we have, are prepared to share it, but are not prepared to see it destroyed, we do the only thing that we can do to defuse the current conflict. Because forgiveness is at the heart of our culture, this message ought surely to be enough, even if we proclaim it in a spirit of irony.

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