Greenwald and Maher are both wrong
by David Atkins
It has been interesting to me to watch the various reactions to the dispute between Bill Maher and Glenn Greenwald. People tend to see the winner of the debate as the one who confirmed their own prior views. Maher's argument is that Islam is a uniquely violent religion; Greenwald's is that there's no difference between Islam and any other religion, but that U.S. imperialism is to blame for any differential blowback.
But the evidence would dictate that they're both wrong. Both of their arguments are too simplistic to be taken seriously, and both are easily assailable. We'll start with Greenwald's.
Falsehood #1: "Imperialism is to blame for everything." Yes, we all know: imperialism is bad. Imperialism begets blowback. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. All of this is true. But on the question Maher puts, those answers are sleight of hand. The debater in Greenwald's position would have to argue that predominantly Muslim nations have suffered imperialistic horrors so disproportionate to the experiences of other nations and cultures that their reactions must be equivalently disproportionate. On that front, Greenwald's argument totally falls apart.
It would be hard to argue that the average citizen of Iran or Saudi Arabia has suffered more greatly from racism and violence than have the victims of U.S. backed military juntas and death squads in Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina or El Salvador. Yes, the U.S. coup against Mossadegh in Iran and interposition of the corrupt Shah surely led to the rise of the Ayatollahs. But it's also true that the U.S. did far worse in Chile when we deposed Allende in favor of the brutally awful war criminal and genocidal maniac Augusto Pinochet. Few honest people would argue that Iran suffered more mightily under the Shah than Chile did under Pinochet. It's not as if the U.S. didn't covet Chile's copper just as surely it did Iran's oil. And yet, Chileans didn't take hostages at a U.S. embassy, nor are they threatening to use nuclear weapons against the rest of the world. Did the U.S. arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets, and then abandon them to their fate? Yes, and it led directly to the rise of Bin Laden. But we also did the same thing in Vietnam with far worse carnage. Somehow our far less atrocious involvement in Afghanistan led to the current predicament, while not even the horrors of My Lai set in motion a Vietnamese assault on the World Trade Center.
It would be difficult to argue that Estonians or Latvians somehow suffered less imperial oppression at the hands of the Soviet Union than did the Chechens. And yet the result is dramatically different. It would be difficult to say that the Muslim Uighur people in Western China have suffered more greatly under Chinese rule than have the Tibetans. And yet, the reaction has been markedly different. Palestine is not the only place in the world to be occupied at length by an unfriendly power, but it does seem to be uniquely intractable in ways that, say, the oppression of African-Americans in the South or of black Africans under Apartheid was not. Despite having experienced arguably more horrific slaughter and oppression than any other group, Native peoples in the new world aren't constructing secret terror cells in retaliation. It would be difficult to argue that Indians were somehow less oppressed by the British in 1920 than Pakistanis are by Americans today. The Holocausted Jews and Armenians might also have something to say about reacting malevolent oppression in ways that don't involve the intentional, indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians (and no, Greenwald's argument that targeted bombings that accidentally kill civilians are in the same moral space as terroristic acts that target civilians isn't even worth addressing). One could go on and on here without even bringing up death threats against cartoonists or bombing schools that dare to educate girls, both of which are also unique to certain cultures. The evidence that something unique is going on in the Muslim world beyond simple reaction to imperial oppression is so plainly obvious that to deny it is to be embarrassingly and willfully defiant of logic, reason and perspective. Maher's mockery of Greenwald for failing to see the self-evident was wholly justified.
Not that Maher wasn't deserving of ridicule himself. Which leads us to:
Falsehood #2: "Islam is uniquely violent." Maher and every other person who believes this is true should probably take a history class and write a series of mea culpae on the blackboard. There is nothing more problematic about Islam as a religion more than any other when viewed in historical context. Even ignoring ancient times, the history of the Christian era alone should be enough to disabuse anyone of the notion that Islam is somehow more inherently violent than other religions.
Islam has a long and proud history going back well over a millennium. Islamic scholars have been responsible for countless advances in the sciences and in philosophy, including at a time when most of Christian Europe was busy burning as much of its intellectual heritage as it could. That the same Christian world that perpetrated the Crusades and the Wars of Reformation would dare imply that Islam is somehow intrinsically belligerent is ludicrous. It was Christians who fought the American Civil War, Christians who perpetrated many of the awful evils of World Wars I and II. It was a born-again Christian President who lied an entire country into an illegal and immoral war against a majority Muslim country that had done nothing to us.
Nor do non-Christians get off easy. The worst crimes against humanity in history were perpetrated by Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung, neither of them Christian or Muslim. Pol Pot deserves an honorable mention, as does Ataturk.
If there is anything uniquely problematic about Islam versus other cultures and religions, it somehow didn't seem to manifest until the last century when the Middle East suddenly became hot property for imperialistic, oil-centered conquests. Which in turn means that the problem isn't Islam. It's something else. Imperialism is, of course, the easy target. But we've already covered why that explanation is wholly inadequate.
So what is going on?
Well, it turns out that it's not that complicated. Maher and Greenwald are both right, and they're both wrong. Yes, the problem has much to do with oil, imperialism and oppression. But it's not quite as simple moral relativist academics might like it to be. And yes, the problem is religion--but not in the way that Maher thinks it is.
The problem, as it is everywhere, is fundamentalism. The problem that causes anti-choice terrorists to bomb abortion clinics, Timothy McVeigh to blow up a federal building or Eric Rudolph to bomb innocents at the Olympics, is the same problem that causes so many Muslims to become entrapped in terrorism and anti-progressive movements. It's a struggle against modernity and against progressivism that occurs :
1) whenever religion of any kind is allowed to be the sole driving force of organizational activity in resistance to oppression, and
2) when people are free enough to congregate and resist without being enslaved or mass murdered, but not free enough to hope for true social advancement.
This is true in many parts of conservative America, just as it is true in Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers emerged. It is also true in much of the oil-producing world, where vast oil wealth mingles with massive inequality and exploitation. The ease of financing a government with oil money tempts elites into creating an economy without a substantial middle-class tax base, and without a voice of the people in government. The people are free enough to be angry and act on that anger, but not free enough to succeed or create real change. This is when fundamentalist religion is most dangerous.
This is true everywhere, regardless of whether the people in question are Christian or Muslim.
And indeed, one of the more depressing dynamics in American politics is the immediate hope on both sides after any terrorist act that a member of the other tribe be implicated. Conservatives hope to see a Muslim terrorist implicated, while liberals hope it's a right-wing terrorist extremist. This is pointless and foolish. In fact, progressives should simply note that there's barely a breath of difference between the two. As I said back in 2010:
there isn't much separation between the fundamentalist extremists on the far right in America, and the fundamentalist extremists in the Islamist movement worldwide. Both want to subjugate women under patriarchal authority, keep gays in the closet, elevate scriptural authority over secular law, and resolve problems foreign and domestic with harsh violence including the torture and killing of civilians. They are peas in a pod.Both Greenwald and Maher are wrong. This isn't about imperialism or about Islam. This is about fundamentalism, and the need to uproot it in favor of a more ecumenical, open-minded progressivism wherever it exists.
Fundamentalism of any nature causes extraordinary harm. Fundamentalists believe that the ends justify the means, and that their ideology cannot fail--only people can fail their ideology. Christian and Islamist fundamentalists alike attribute any ills befalling the world as a sign of inadequate obeisance to their God, and do whatever it takes to remake the world more in keeping with their scriptural dogma. Market fundamentalists elevate the "free market" as a divinely infallible authority, attributing even the most obvious market and corporate failures to intrusions of "big government", and offer up only more deregulation, tax cuts and the occasional military coup as a solution. Even Marxist fundamentalists exist, looking at the failures of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot not as refutations of their dogma, but as inadequate implementations of their ideology. The end result of all of these fundamentalist beliefs is mindless tragedy, violence and death.
The implication of a fundamentalist extremist in an act of violence should never be a cause for cheering by our political opponents. Rather, any such event should be a teaching moment for us to implicate extremists of all kinds, and to reinforce the universality of violence based on religious dogma.
Any attempt to provide context or justification for these acts of terror is also misguided. Certainly, the U.S. and the West in general have a spotty record in the Middle East. Anyone familiar with the names Mohammed Mossadegh or Charlie Wilson would admit to that upfront. But no act of American foreign policy in that region or any other begins to provide even significant context, much less justification, for premeditated acts of violence designed expressly to kill and terrorize a civilian population. As well might we cite Thomas Frank and the slow implosion of the American middle class as context or justification for the terrorist acts of killers like Scott Roeder or Timothy McVeigh. No one should make any excuse for these abominable creatures; similarly, no excuses should be made for the likes of Richard Reid or (allegedly) Faisal Shahzad.
Simply put, there is evil in this world that harbors no excuses for its actions: its name is fundamentalism. It's time for progressives to end the cycle of left-right tribalism over which fundamentalists are more dangerous or need more context. It's time to simply paint them with a single brush, and offer our alternative for a better, safer, more rational, more peaceful and more humane world.