Religion & American politics:

Beating radical Islam

posted by Robert N. Bellah

“People of faith want a candidate who can beat radical Islam.” So claimed Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, in a statement endorsing John McCain for the Republican primary in South Carolina. Graham’s statement is deeply disheartening, but hardly unexpected, especially for one who watched the Republican candidates debate just before the New Hampshire Primary. Ron Paul, who is loony on just about every other issue, was the one sane voice when it came to foreign policy and the Middle East. To the raucous dismay of the other candidates, Paul reeled off the long series of provocations that the US has committed in the Middle East and our role in creating the blowback that was 9/11. The other candidates insisted we had nothing to do with causing the terrorist response that we have been experiencing since well before 9/11. Nor did Paul use the kinds of locutions—such as “radical Islam,” “Islamofascism,” even “Islamism”—that have become fashionable among rightist politicians, even as they protest that they have nothing against Islam as a religion.

Since Graham is a serious politician and not a charlatan, it is worth looking at his sentence closely and trying to determine his meaning. First of all, what does “people of faith” mean? Does it include all people of faith: Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims as well? Does it even include all Christians? Thinking of the Sermon on the Mount with its injunction to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil, can we ask if any Christians would be concerned with “beating” radical Islam or anything else? “Beating radical Islam” sounds more American than it does Christian, though, remembering the Crusades, it does have a Christian lineage.

On purely pragmatic grounds, “beating radical Islam” along with the ubiquitous phrase “war on terrorism” are profoundly mistaken ways of thinking about the present global problem of terrorism. It is worth remembering that terrorism is a world phenomenon, not an exclusively Islamic one. Certainly we have our own homegrown terrorism, as in the case of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the religious attacks on abortion clinics and murder of abortion doctors. But terrorism, Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, is not something one can “beat.” The reason “the war on terrorism” is the wrong metaphor is that it is not a war–so it cannot be won. We could beat Saddam’s army in a couple of weeks. In five years we have suffered victories and setbacks against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq, but the terrorists are still there and are likely to be there, even with diminished capacity, for a long time. The situation in Afghanistan is not much better. We and our Afghan allies easily won the war against the Taliban government, but the Taliban terrorists are still busily at work all these years later.

There are two things to keep straight about terrorism that are obliterated by the war metaphor: 1) you can contain terrorism by police action, but you can’t defeat it by military action; 2) social change in the direction of better living conditions, greater public participation in political life, and a decrease in regional conflicts such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, will gradually weaken the support for terrorist organizations and marginalize terrorist ideology. Spending billions (or trillions) on state-of-the-art military technology will not “win the war on terrorism.” On the contrary, to the degree we are tempted to use these weapons, we will increase the support for terrorism.

But to return to Senator Graham’s statement: if people of (conservative Evangelical Christian) faith really want to “beat radical Islam,” then we must ask why. Apparently they are afraid that radical Islam will beat us or at least do us grave harm. It is surely the case, with the laxity that the Bush administration has shown about securing nuclear weapons and the weak security at our ports, that a terrorist group might set off a small atom bomb in an American city. This is truly a chilling possibility. Yet preventing it is above all a matter of good intelligence, excellent security work, and global efforts to control nuclear and other “weapons of mass destruction.” To focus on “beating radical Islam”—with its sporting as well as military tone—is simply unhelpful in allaying the genuine fears that many Americans feel after 9/11.

Even more unhelpful is the phrase “radical Islam” itself. Do we speak of “radical Christianity” because there are Christian terrorists? Do we call them “Christianists”? Islam, like all the great religions, has its extremists, a small minority of whom have resorted to terrorism. But however qualified by assertions that they “really respect Islam as a religion,” when preachers or politicians use Islam in any part of a term to define the enemy, they are engaging in religious stereotyping and bigotry. Nationalist Americans—and the most patriotic in the sense of traditionally nationalistic Americans are conservative Christians—need a genuine Other to help them define their in-group solidarity.

Many other nations have moved beyond that kind of nationalism but it is only one aspect of American exceptionalism that we, at least in large numbers, have not. The fall of Communism led to a deep sense of absence. Where could we turn to find the next Other who would unite our otherwise rather fractured polity? Even before 9/11 Islam seemed to be the leading candidate. After 9/11 the gloves were off. Bush more than once used the loaded term “crusade” for the war on terrorism. “Islamofascism” became a widely used derogatory term among right wing commentators. In spite of all declarations of support for “moderate” Muslims, the constant use of “Islam” in some combination of terms has led to the inevitable conclusion that Islam is our new Other. Once again, what is supposed to support our war on terrorism is self-destructive. To the degree that we identify Islam with the enemy, we support the beliefs of many Muslims–not all of them extremists and certainly not all of them terrorists–that we hate them and that we should be opposed.

My suggestion is that we drop the use of the word “Islam” in any phrase applying to our enemies. We can identify them with the specific groups they are, such as al-Qaeda, but we don’t need to identify them with the whole religion of Islam. In so doing, it is the responsibility of Christians and Jews to take the lead, not to participate in religious stereotyping. All three Abrahamic religions share some profound convictions about the essential dignity of human beings. It is these shared convictions that we must emphasize now, rather than pandering to a politics of fear that requires a massive and dangerous Other to be effective. Unfortunately, Ron Paul will not be the Republican nominee. All the others seem to rely on the politics of fear as their only hope of election. So far the Democratic candidates have not taken that line. Let’s hope they continue to reject it. And let’s hope that the leadership of all American religious communities commends them for their present course.

Tags: , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


10 Responses to “Beating radical Islam”

  1. avatar Emil Dzhuraev says:

    Professor Bellah’s comment is very important. Unfortunately, it is only a rare occasion of raising this issue, in the otherwise seemingly prolific midst of discussions of the presidential primaries. I wish there was a much more sustained and broadly encompassing discussion taking place of the general discourse being proffered in this race. The broader issue is the making of a ‘sound bite’, or emotive, democracy, which forecloses any genuine discussion and understanding. Danger, hope, change, Islam, and other slogans are becoming not just the headlines, but the entirety of this broken discourse. I might humbly suggest my own little thought on this.

  2. This is a really thought provoking post. It makes me think about the issue of how various groups are defined and how they define themselves and the implications. While I agree that terms like “Islamofascism” are problematic, they make a connection that is made by those who subscribe to the various interpretations of Islam that the phrase refers to, namely that Islam is essential to their worldview and motivates their actions. It seems to me that groups like Al-Qaeda do not view themselves as generic freedom fighters but as “Muslims”. Is using language that acknowledges that a form of bigotry? For example, various strains of black nationalism from political to cultural identify their race as essential to their worldview and approach to social change. When someone who is not black refers to “black nationalists” or “black separatists” are they putting down all black people? Why not talk about “Christian terrorists” or “Hindu extremists” if these groups identify their religion as the basis for what they do?

    While I agree that efforts toward peace and reconciliation require that we be mindful of the power of language, I’m not sure that using language that obscures the religious nature of religious motivated violence (whatever the religion) is the answer.

  3. avatar Frank Fromherz says:

    Robert Bellah has spelled out the essence of the problem: in-group solidarity—in this case, nationalistic Americanism—requiring “a genuine Other.” It may be the very same pattern at work in the nativistic Americanism that fosters xenophobic attitudes regarding Spanish-speaking immigrants. Something comparable may be at work with respect to China-bashing of late, we shall see. My hope is that all of the candidates would have the opportunity to read—and ponder—Bellah’s wise insights.

    Meanwhile, the challenge he offers can be food for thought and action among all of us who strive for a worldview of compassion, respect and analytical clarity. One extremely important point Bellah raises: the “war on terror” is rife with collective self-delusion. I have great hope that our next White House voice shall be a person of global understanding—one who can transcend divisions and help us appreciate the great role religion can play in society and the world today, as always: to remind us that there is that which always transcends our human definition of “the good society” and “good religion.” Such a person, in my view, may well have been schooled in the bridge between Kenya and Kansas. He certainly has charisma and wishes to listen and learn from citizens here and citizens in nations elsewhere. I hope that Barack Obama has occasion to meet Robert Bellah. They share poignant habits of the heart.

  4. avatar Bruce Ledewitz says:

    I used to agree with the sentiments posted by Professor Bellah. I am no longer certrain, for two reasons. First, the success of the surge in Iraq suggests that military pressure can be successful at short-run suppression of an insurgency. (Perhaps that is different from the terrorism Bellah has in mind.) That success is consistent with the experience of the British in counter-insurgency actions. Second, some of the terrorists who wish to do the United States harm self-identify as acting on behalf of Islam. To take them at their word is not necessarily to manifest hostility toward Islam. (Though there is plenty of such hostility around.)

  5. avatar Azhar Aslam says:

    It was like a breath of fresh air to read Prof Bellah’s views. Public discourse in the west about Islam and what it stands for, has been grossly mutilated by all shades of intellectuals from extreme right to the liberal atheists. The most annoying fact is that the overwhelming majority of such people have had very little direct interactions with the Muslims and the Muslim world and show breathtaking ignorance and naivete. Examples of such ignorants range from Sam Harris to Joerg Haider of Austria.

    After arriving in the west some decades ago, it took me years to finally realise that I had come with huge misconceptions about the western people; and that at the end of the day they were ordinary human beings with the same frailties and strengths as where I had come from. People in the west need to develop the same understanding and empathy about the Muslims.

    The fact is that Al-Qaeda and its real and spiritual offshoots are not interested in destroying the ‘way of life’ in the west. This image has been created by deep seated vested interests, who continue to dominate and manipulate the public discourse.

    The ultimate reality is this. There is only one planet that is home to all of us: white or black, Christian or Muslim and rich or poor. In here lie all our hopes and all our future. We have to learn to share it for all of us. The real battle is not between the west and Islam or between civilizations or even between rich and poor. The real battle is for the survival of the planet and humanity and lines are drawn between those who want to share it all and those who want it all for themselves.

  6. avatar Robert Bellah says:

    I appreciate the responses to my comment on Senator Graham’s remark. I have only a couple of thoughts about the comments of Copeland and Ledewitz. As to the appropriateness of the term “radical Islam” on the analogy of “black nationalists,” I would say that the term “radical Islam” is problematically vague, but might be usable in a dispassionate academic discussion. When it comes to using it as defining the enemy in a war (“beating radical Islam”) I find it completely unacceptable, as I would a war against “black nationalists.” In the latter case as well as the former I would want to specify exactly what group we are at war with and not imply that we are at war with all blacks who ever had a nationalist thought. As to the effectiveness of the surge, my point would be that the surge is not a war but a very large police action. The “Iraq War,” after the first few weeks, ceased to be a war even in the sense that the Vietnam War was a war. In Vietnam there were pitched battles, the Tet offensive, and extensive territory controlled by the Vietcong that we could not enter. None of that is the case in Iraq. To the extent that we use military means in the large scale police operation that the surge in fact is, such as bombing with inevitable serious “collateral damage,” it is counter productive as it only increases hate for us. The US was prepared to fight a conventional war in Iraq but didn’t realize the scale of the police action that had to follow. It is not at all clear that the surge is doing more than making the terrorists lie low until it blows over. In any case it may well be too little and too late. Even if it works, Iraq is still a basket case, with much of its educated middle class gone from the country and the political divisions such that civil war could still break out at any time.

  7. Thanks for the response to my response. So often it is in the give and take that we have a better understanding of each other’s viewpoints. I believe now that I understand you as arguing for clarity of the terms that we use to describe what we are doing in the world as nation and why. If this is the case, I completely agree with it.

  8. avatar Ruth Braunstein says:

    The editorial team at The Issue has declared today’s Issue of the Day “Islamophobia,” providing the following brief genealogy of the now-pervasive term:

    The term, which first appeared in the 1980’s but didn’t enter discourse until after September 11th, describes an irrational fear of Islam. Islamophobia has become a controversial term that, for the left, symbolizes a dangerous overreaction to a minority of Muslims. But for the right, the word Islamophobia undermines a justified skepticism of religious motivations and marginalizes a cultural clash that may define our time.

    As is their custom, they probed the blogosphere for the most lively and engaging discussions of the issue and selected Robert Bellah’s post to represent the “Liberal” perspective, writing that “Bellah examines the ways in which terms like “Isalmophobia” and “war on terror” oversimplify the foreign policy challenges facing the United States.”

    Bellah’s post is contrasted with a “Conservative” analysis that argues that the use of the term “Islamophobia” is justified and the sentiment is just as rational as “harboring a phobia for rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, or poisonous centipedes.” The author, Edward Cline, criticizes the overly submissive and politically correct Western press, whose “cowardice is artfully disguised by most publications under the cloak of multicultural ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect’ for a great religion” even while “Islam-friendly” journalists and so-called “experts” seem to ignore “Islam’s persecution and murder of Christians, Jews, and other religious faithful around the world.”

  9. avatar Robert Bellah says:

    I’m interested to see that The Issue put my piece alongside a vitriolic screed on Islamophobia, a term which describes it well. And the same goes for Orianna Fallaci, the “long avowed atheist” who forged a friendship with the Bishop. I am always bemused when atheists defend Christian Civilization, which they seem to think is so weak it needs their propping up in the face of the Islamic menace. I am charmed that the Islamophobic screed appears on the weblog of the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism. Apparently Islam is a threat to capitalism as well as to Christianity.

    For another side of Islam, look at the web site of A Common Word. Here you’ll find a statement about the relations between Islam and Christianity that expresses love and unity, and is signed by distinguished Muslim leaders all over the world. I found it in an article in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine. There is a Christian response, signed by a large number of distinguished people. The Yale Center for Faith and Culture took the initiative in this response.

    There is another article in my latest issue of Commonweal on the degree to which the church and leading clerical and intellectual Catholic leaders embraced anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s. Their rhetoric about the “Jewish threat” and their apparent conviction of its reality is reflected exactly in Edward Cline’s rhetoric, reinforcing my feeling that Islamophobia is today’s anti-Semitism, with the same conviction of certainty of the crimes of the hated ones, and the same great fear of the “threat” posed by them. I know that anti-Semitism is not dead and that it is virulent in Europe today, stoked in part by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, but not excused by that. And anti-Semitism, not just opposition to Israel’s policy, can also be found in the Muslim world, which is equally inexcusable. (And if you want to see evidence that these problems are worldwide, consider the violence against Christians in parts of India, with churches burned and Christians murdered. Alas. But it is not Muslims—but some Hindus—who are doing it.)

    I would sum up the analogy between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia this way: Criticism of some oppressive acts of the state of Israel toward the Palestinians must never be generalized into anti-Semitism; similarly, criticism of some violent acts of some Muslims must never be generalized into hostility toward Islam as a religion.

  10. avatar Chris Eberle says:

    Professor Bellah says that “you can contain terrorism by police action, but you can’t defeat it by military action.” Later, he claims that ‘the surge’ is not a military action, but a police action—though one he doubts will be very effective, it’s the sort that he takes to be most effective against terrorism. This dichotomy between police and military action is one that the US military has long since rejected. For example, about 15 years ago, the Marines developed the ‘doctrine’ of the 3 block war: in order to win the military conflicts in which the US is most likely to engage after the demise of the Soviet Union, American Marines must be prepared to engage in traditional military actions (firefights, targeted bombs from helicopters, etc.) on one block, perform traditional police-type duties (deterring and arresting criminals, etc.) on a second block, and engaging in humanitarian work on a third. All by the same unit, all on the same day, all in the interests of winning some particular war. As I understand them, the Marines think of all of these kinds of actions as what’s required of them if they are to impose their will on their enemy and so win the military conflict in which they happen to be engaged. Professor Bellah’s conception of what the military is, what it does, what it has trained for any number of years now (long before 9/11) does not fit the reality.

    The requirements of contemporary (counter-insurgency) warfare also render suspect Professor Bellah’s admonition that we refrain from using language like radical Islam – which is supposed to tar all Muslims with the terrorist brush no matter how often it’s stated that not all Muslims are terrorists. In order to wage war against the very particular people who are now intentionally attacking innocents on a regular basis in Iraq, you need to know who they are and what they believe. Knowing what they believe will help to determine when they will attack, how they will and will not do so. In order to acquire that knowledge, you have to be trained and informed about their motivating ideology. If, as is in fact the case, suicide terrorists in Iraq are motivated by their understanding of Islam, then you have to know something about Islam in general and about the particular intepretations of Islam affirmed by those suicide terrorists. Given that, as a matter of fact, most of those who blow up bombs in crowded markets in Iraq are motivated by their understanding of Islam, then what are we to call them? What’s better than ‘radical Islamists’ – identifying the normative commitments that the suicide terrorists themselves affirm (Islam) but distinguishing them from most Muslims (by calling them radicals).

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.