Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Shame and Pride

Dominique Moisi has a thought provoking piece in the latest Foreign Affairs that describes the emotional framework which acts as a filter when perceiving events for certain segments of the world's population:

Thirteen years ago, Samuel Huntington argued that a "clash of civilizations" was about to dominate world politics, with culture, along with national interests and political ideology, becoming a geopolitical fault line ("The Clash of Civilizations?" Summer 1993). Events since then have proved Huntington's vision more right than wrong. Yet what has not been recognized sufficiently is that today the world faces what might be called a "clash of emotions" as well. The Western world displays a culture of fear, the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation, and much of Asia displays a culture of hope. [emphasis mine]

As Moisi explains, the culture of humiliation in the Muslim world has been ascendant in rough proportion to the decline in prominence of Muslim cultural, economic and political power dating back to the European Renaissance. The era of colonial subjugation and imperialistic meddling at the hands of Western powers, followed by the boom of globalization that mostly passed the Muslim world by, has only served to further entrench feelings of inferiority.

Unfortunately, humiliation tends to morph into anger which is then accompanied by violent manifestations in the form of terrorism. This violence, in part, informs the Western culture of fear, which then leads to overreactions that exacerbate the degradations felt in the Muslim world in a vicious circle.

The prevalence of the sense of humiliation in the Muslim world is a theme that Blake Hounshell (aka praktike), returned to on more than one occasion at American Footprints.

In this piece, Blake responds to Nick Denton's claim that the invasion of Iraq (made possible by the domineering sense of fear in America at the time) was justifiable "because the West need[ed] to humiliate the Arab world." Denton was not alone in this view. Kissinger had this to say about why the invasion of Iraq was necessary, according to Bob Woodward:

"Because Afghanistan wasn't enough," Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them."

Blake answered (see, also, the follow up here):

The Arab World needed another humiliation like it needed a hole in its collective head. The general reaction to such humiliation here (or anywhere, really) is not, contrary to fantasies of folks like Nick Denton, to embark on a mass regional modernization and democratization movement. Rather, it is to do things like elect Hamas, cheer for the Iraqi insurgency, and so forth.

With this in mind, one can begin to comprehend how the world's Muslim population can simultaneously find Osama's brand of religious zealotry unattractive, yet applaud him for "standing up to America." For those feeling disempowered, he represents a certain potency. A misguided and flawed champion. (As an aside, this is yet another example of humanity's penchant to confuse the willingness to use violence with strength.)

Similarly, it becomes easier to understand how affronts to prominent religious figures like Mohammed, and derision of the religion in general terms (Pope Benedict), are met with such fervent and, to Western eyes, disproportionate responses. There is a subtext to these perceived insults that adds emphasis and continuity to rhetoric that may seem unrelated and relatively trivial to Western observers.

This in no way justifies the violent reactions of protesters (murderous in some cases) or undue appreciation for bin Laden among rank and file Muslims, but one does not need to justify something morally in order to describe how it comes to be. Further, doing so helps to refute claims that such outgrowths are the result of something inherently immoral or evil in the religion or people. On the contrary, the reaction is all too human - if disappointing and not worthy of toleration still.

By acknowledging the existence of this particular lens that colors events in the Muslim world, one can better discern how the invasion and occupation of Iraq (a Muslim nation) complete with inappropriately jubilant "shock and awe" pyrotechnics, mission accomplished pageantry, bring 'em on bravado, invasive home searches and disturbing images of the abject humiliation of Muslim men courtesy of Abu Ghraib's "pride and ego down" unit, might serve to worsen the sense of humiliation in the Muslim world. Similarly, events at Gitmo aren't doing us any favors on this front.

Brash displays of force that establish wildly uneven power relationships, and that result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of the target group, do not instill a sense of pride and self worth. Treating peoples, nations and entire regions as pawns and elaborate social science experiments will not serve to alleviate these problems.

As Marc Sageman made clear in his seminal work, Understanding Terror Networks, this is a uniquely counterproductive way to address concerns about the spread of terrorism committed in the name of Islam. Sageman dispels many of the myths about what motivates would-be Salafist terrorists (education level, mental health issues, poverty, pre-disposition to religious zealotry, etc.) and cuts to the chase. From a review of Sageman's book as excerpted by Brian Ulrich, here is one of the primary factors identified by Sageman:

Frequenting a radical mosque (and, we gather, consuming Internet propaganda) helps to instill a new group identity [in would-be terrorists] based on a vicarious 'common bond of victimhood based on Islam.'

It is against this backdrop that the crude and shameful execution of Saddam Hussein took place. Regardless of his malice and brutality, Saddam was still a national leader who commanded the respect of many of his constituents. Yet instead of treating Saddam with the dignity of Nazi war criminals similarly positioned, we oversaw what Riverbend correctly terms a glorified "lynching" that, due to its inappropriately truncated timeline, managed to convey a deep religious insult as well. The execution was only the culmination of this process gone awry, though, as the degrading treatment can be traced back to the pictures of an unshaven and disheveled Hussein receiving his medical examination post-capture.

While I personally do not agree with the death penalty, and can't seem to muster much enthusiasm for state sanctioned murder under any circumstances, I acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree. And if there is to be a death penalty in practice, war criminals like Saddam are the most deserving of its application.

Still, one must treat enemies with a certain level of dignity - even the most reprehensible ones. This is what separates us, ostensibly, from those we so judge. Saddam was brutal and depraved, but does someone want to make the case that the Nazis somehow deserved better than Saddam? Because that is what they got.

Further, a process as solemn and final as state sanctioned murder should meticulously observe all legal formalities in order to guarantee the correctness of the decision, and to dispel impressions of vigilantism. The opposite tack was taken in Iraq where a deeply flawed trial - which focused on Saddam's lesser crimes in order to shield the occupying power from any potential embarrassment - was followed up by the pursuit of dubious legal "workarounds" enlisted for the purpose of circumventing previously established legal rules.

Adding insult to injury, literally, Saddam's execution took place amid a circus atmosphere complete with militia members in street clothes and black masks who were free to hurl invective at Saddam and chant the name of their putative patron, militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, as the killing time approached.

As an exercise in demonstrating democracy's indispensable relationship with the rule of law, this was a mockery. Our claim to the mantle of such principles will be made more tenuous as a result. Worse still, because of the undeniably humiliating manor in which a former national leader was put to death with the complicity of (many will perceive, correctly or incorrectly, instruction of) a Western occupying power in a Muslim nation, the sense of mortification in the Muslim world will only be augmented.

We have given Saddam in death what he was mostly unable to achieve in life: a sympathetic appearance. In the process, we have made his death emblematic of the destructive and mutually reinforcing cultures of fear and humiliation that are clouding our better judgment.

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