The Clash of Western and Islamic Values – Part 1

Throwing Snowballs at the Arab Spring

In 2002 the Turkish people elected an Islamist party to power, Justice and Development Party. In 2006 Palestinians held elections and Hamas won. In 2008 Pakistani Islamists drove Pervez Musharraf out of power. The Arab Spring of 2011 has seen Tunisia conduct its first free and fair election in decades, and the winner is the Islamist party. Just this month Islamists have stormed a university for enacting a veil ban on campus and planned an attack on a TV station after attacking a theater in July for screening a film about secularism. The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to win Egypt’s November 2011’s elections, the first since deposing Hosni Mubarak. And just over the weekend of October 22, 2011, Iraq kicked out all US troops from the country, Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised Pakistan that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in any armed conflict between that nation and the United States, and Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council and de fact president of the new Libya, declared Sharia is the basis of law in Libya and immediately lifted the ban on polygamy to prove it.

Neocons supporting the liberation of Iraq believed that people would always choose freedom when given the choice between freedom and dictatorship. All year people on both sides of the political divide have spoken hopefully about the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East, expecting the Egyptians and Libyans to embrace liberty after dropping their shackles of tyranny. This belief is rooted in the Enlightenment which assumed Man was rational, and that when presented with the choice would always choose freedom over tyranny. The Founding Fathers of the American republic wrote at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Are these inalienable rights always self-evident? How do we explain the statement “I am the enemy of democracy,” by Egyptian Salafist leader and tailor Hesham al Ashry? Al Ashry knows how to make a man look his best yet is blind to the value of liberty?

We live with the conceit that everyone in the world is like us, they just have different colored skin, wear different dress, pray differently, and speak different languages. It is a fanciful notion based on our superficial knowledge of the world. Some people may be like us, if by “us” you mean Americans who value liberty. Canadians are like us, as are Australians, Brits, Germans, and anyone who traces their intellectual foundation to the Enlightenment philosophers, particularly the ideas of Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Everyone else, however is different. Their values aren’t the same as ours, and some even prefer it that way. Think everybody loves their children like you do? Ask a Palestinian in Gaza how they feel about their son or daughter strapping on a suicide bomb vest. Osama Bin Laden expressed a common belief among Islamists that they would eventually defeat the West because the West embraced life while they chose death. It wasn’t for lack of education that he and elites of the Jihadist groups believe this. Many have been educated in the West and understand our values; they just don’t accept them. It doesn’t matter whether liberty and freedom are self-evident to men who believe that God’s will requires submission. In fact in their view these values are heresy since they were accepted by the Koran nor by the Ideal Man, Mohammed.

After being defeated in World War 2 the Japanese people had no tradition that included Enlightenment ideals like freedom and liberty, but instead of recognizing Japanese culture as superior to Western culture in some ways equal in all the rest, the leaders of the occupation forced freedom and liberty onto the population. The Japanese took the opportunity and immediately ran with it, forming trade unions and political parties that were immediately infiltrated by Communist groups supported by the KGB. By 1948 trade unionists were striking and rioting against the occupation authorities as Europeans were doing in central Europe. The Truman administration could have said “We have to listen to the will of the Japanese people,” and allowed the protests to undermine the occupation. Instead the Americans colluded with the Japanese government to ban the trade unions, jail the unionists and enact parliamentary rules that prevented the communist party from winning seats in the Diet. Within three years the Japanese people had gone from tyranny, to liberty, and were on the verge of returning to tyranny albeit of a new type, forcing authorities to use undemocratic means to protect the nascent democracy. The Japanese were given liberty, just within limits. Eventually even the communists were allowed back into the Diet but only after the Liberal Democratic Party had established itself as most powerful party in the country.

So if liberty wasn’t self-evident to the Japanese after the War, why do we expect it to be to the Palestinians in Gaza, the Iraqis in Iraq or the Libyans in Libya? We can’t expect people to be liberated by our actions or through our support and expect them to suddenly begin to respect the rights of women when their culture lacks such a tradition. Neocons seem to think that such a right is self-evident, while liberals blinded by political correctness might not even believe that any culture could lack such a basic, fundamental human right. They will claim Islamic law does grant rights to women, yet women are not equal with men according to the Koran nor under Sharia law. And religious freedom or equal rights for minorities? Ask an Egyptian Copt.

The US State Department has followed a program of cultural non-interference and has gone from promoting universal human values to exposing others to “American values” and hoping that the values will speak for themselves and that other will adopt them on their own merit. This cultural equivalence has spread to the US military which has been tasked with nation-building but without the replacement of core values that undermine its mission. How successful has the anti-corruption effort been in Afghanistan, where corruption is as endemic to Pashtun culture as the chain-of-command is in US military culture? How can you expect to develop a professional military, police or civil service when everyone believes that power gives one a license to steal? The only way to stop corruption is to teach that it is wrong, but that requires a moral judgement that could be interpreted as cultural imperialism, so nothing is done. We just teach and hope that the locals will see the benefits of clean government – that these benefits are self-evident.

It’s a hell of a way to run foreign policy, and it wouldn’t make sense to our fathers and grandfathers who fought in Japan or Germany. We made it clear with our victory over those nations that their values were abhorrent, and we had the confidence in our own values to occupy these countries and force our values upon them. Today we show none of that confidence; instead we ring our hands and hope for the best but the best that happens is that the governments are no longer threats to us or their neighbors even as their people are worse off than before.

The American Left, drowning in a morass of moral equivalence, would bristle at these suggestions, but there are some absolutes in its philosophies; it just hasn’t figured out how to respond to them. Back to the Japanese. Whaling is has been embedded in its culture for at least a thousand years. Immediately after the War, the occupation authorities struggled with feeding the Japanese people and specifically, with providing them with enough protein. So the authorities turned to whaling, and whale meat was a common dish served to school children until the early 1960s. Since then whale meat consumption has been in decline, although the Japanese government has been continually pushed by the domestic whaling industry to expand the practice. The cultural tradition of Whaling in Japan hasn’t stopped the Left from forcing its own value that whaling is bad on the Japanese. Is the protection of whales a universal value? If not then what is the Sea Shepherd doing in the ocean around Antarctica? Are the Left cultural imperialists? And if so, is it such a bad thing if imperialism means spreading freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, religious tolerance and respect for minorities around the planet?

The West needs to shake off the moral relativism that leads to the tolerance of human rights abuses around the planet. Freedom, liberty, equality – all these values of the Enlightenment shouldn’t be limited to those of us in the West; they are universals that apply to everyone. If we are willing to spend our money and risk our lives to help others, we should be just as willing to impose our values on them. Yes, impose; they shouldn’t have a choice when it comes to female circumcision, the separation of religion from politics, killing homosexuals, allowing slavery or persecuting Christians and Jews no matter what holy book says it’s okay.

We in the West must decide whether these values are indeed universal. If we decide that they are, then we must act when people in other societies disrespect them. Either women are equal, or they are not. Either religious freedom applies in Riyadh Saudi Arabia as it does in Cairo, Illinois, or it’s not a universal and the Enlightenment philosophers were wrong.

Simply stated the choice is between personal liberty versus submission to God. This choice reverberates throughout our society and the West’s relations with Islam, presenting it with an unsolvable dilemma laying at the core of its relations with Islam, whether the Islamic nations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia or the integration of Muslims within Western society.

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  3. Rob Miller:

    Great post Scott.

    One caveat – Pervez Musharraf was not forced out by Islamists, IMO. Actually, I think we had more to do with it than the Islamists did.

    What actually forced him out was:

    1) the controversy over his imprisoning of Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and other Supreme Court members when they refused to sign on to another term for him as president because he also insisted on retaining his spot as army Chief of Staff an also insisted on investigations of corruption, etc.

    2) Unrest over Pakistan’s war on people like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the tribes in Waziristan, which Musharraf undertook at US insistence.That led to numerous suicide bombings and attacks in Pakistan’s cities, for which Musharraf was blamed.He broke a de facto truce Pakistan had with these groups to do it.

    While hard core Islamists in the MQM opposition party did join with Cahudry’s supporters in the resulting riots,it was definitely a mixed crowd rather than Islamist, and the unrest became far more widespread after violent riots in Karachi and other cities that saw the army opening fire on the crowds, killing a number of protesters.

    Musharraf might very well have ridden out the storm because he still had control of the army, but then we intervened again.

    Aside from his going to war against our enemies (who were and are pretty popular in Pakistan)the next major error came when Condi Rice,probably one of the worst Secretaries of State we ever had got President Bush to pressure Musharraf to allow his deadly political enemy,ex Prime Minister Benezir Bhutto back into the country as PM. The idea was that she was supposed to be a ‘co-leader’ to ‘promote democracy’ in Pakistan.In reality, Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, her husband and now Pakistan’s president were notorious kleptocrats and no friends of the US…plus,Bhutto was even more hated by the Islamists than Musharraf was,which is why they assassinated her,something I predicted would happen over at my place.

    The final blow came when candidate Barack Obama mouthed off in a speech designed to show off his foreign policy chops about how he was going to invade Pakistan with two brigades. His stupidity was just another news story here,but a presidential candidate speaking in this manner and actually getting good press on it from the usual suspects became a firestorm in Pakistan directed at Musharraf, who was seen as a US ally. Zardari, who already had momentum going in because of sympathy over Bhutto murder had no trouble removing him from office after that.

    So that’s how we ended up with an anti-American, corrupt regime in Pakistan (Zardari’s nickname among Pakistanis is ‘Mr. Ten Per Cent’). Musharraf was no prize, but he didn’t hate America and he at least stayed bought.

    Sorry about the long comment!

    All Good Things,

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