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Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Earlier today, I had an opportunity to speak at the “Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminar” (SRLS), which is held on a weekly basis at the North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. The following is (more or less) what I said:

These days, a great deal of commotion is being raised in the US media about controversial issues that have a real or imagined connection with something called “Islam.” In 2010 alone, most of us heard about the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and the “Burn a Koran Day.” In each case, the controversy began, apparently, with a single person who decided to say or do something provocative; the specific individuals involved in these three instances were, respectively, Molly Norris, an artist; Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger; and Terry Jones, a pastor. In each case, the issue was almost immediately picked up for coverage by journalists, bloggers, commentators, professional pundits, and comedians.

It seems there was a receptiveness or readiness in the US media, and the US society more generally, that allowed these issues to acquire an aura of importance and urgency and gave them a momentum that they did not deserve.

This means that if we are to understand these specific issues, it will not be enough to focus upon their religious and cultural aspects alone; we also need an explanation for why the US society tends to pay so much attention to otherwise non-issues like these, as compared to many other news stories exposing real problems that are clamoring for our attention.

A great deal has already been said about these controversies relating to “Islam.” Even the commentaries themselves have been commented upon and the analyses themselves have been analyzed many times over. I am not sure if I want to add anything to this “discourse.” We may benefit, however, by trying to trace the social and historical context within which issues like these erupt and attract a disproportionate amount of people’s attention.

I suggest we look at these issues in relation to two concentric layers of context. There is an immediate context and, surrounding that, there is a larger context. I will first describe these two contexts, and then propose a hypothesis that, I think, may explain why we are witnessing a rise in negative attention to “Islam” both in the US media and the US society.

The immediate context is characterized by what is called “Islamophobia,” a fear of Islam. To be more accurate, this is not really a fear of Islam as much as it is a fear of Muslims.  The two terms—“Islam” and “Muslims”—are not synonymous, and therefore they should not be conflated. “Islam” has a variety of meanings, but in each case it represents a concept, an abstraction, that has no causal efficacy or agency in the empirical world.  “Muslims,” on the other hand, is a term denoting concrete, flesh-and-blood, human beings, who do have causal efficacy or agency. We are never afraid of abstract concepts, but we are, frequently, afraid of other people. Strictly speaking, therefore, “Islamophobia” is a fear of Muslims which is unconsciously projected upon an abstraction called “Islam.” This projection is common because it serves certain useful functions at both psychological and sociological levels. It creates an illusion of objectivity and detachment, allowing some people to claim that they have nothing against Muslims but that they only have a legitimate dislike for “Islam.”

At the same time, the “phobia” in Islamophobia also remains unrecognized and unacknowledged. Generally speaking, we human beings do not express our fears directly; instead, we express them indirectly through another, more “acceptable” emotion, such as anger or hatred. This is why the fear of Muslims is usually expressed through a hatred of Islam. Moreover, since hating a religious or cultural tradition is socially “unacceptable,” it too is expressed in a disguised form, i.e., as a “rational disagreement” with certain Islamic beliefs and practices. And yet, the way in which these “rational disagreements” are expressed leaves no doubt that they are anything but rational.

Looking at the media “discourse” about the current controversies, we cannot help noticing a much-hyped fear of something called the “Shari’ah,” which is roughly translated as the “Islamic Law.” If the media reports are to be believed, it seems that many otherwise rational Americans are genuinely afraid of the “Shari’ah.” This fear is expressed as a series of “disagreements” with the nature, structure, and tenants of the Shari’ah, which is said to be anti-women, anti-democratic, anti-human rights, anti-minorities, and so on.

The fear is irrational for a number of reasons, but most importantly because the critics have no idea what they are talking about. Apparently, individuals with little or no knowledge of the Islamic tradition have been busy feeding the American public tons of scary stories, and the strategy has obviously been working. In a recent Pew Survey, 40% admitted that they have unfavorable views of Islam but only 9% said that they knew a great deal about Islamic beliefs and practices. It seems that lack of knowledge does not prevent us from subscribing to strong opinions, for we can always rely on our favorite “experts.” Unsuspecting Americans are being told by these “experts” that the Shari’ah is some medieval code of law with nothing but harsh and inhuman punishments, that it is a code of law that is static and unchanging, and, furthermore, that the Taliban were the best representatives of what the Shari’ah looks like.

The “Shari’ah,” whatever it may be, is merely a concept or an abstraction that has no causal efficacy or agency. There is, then, no reason to be afraid of the Shari’ah. The fear actually comes from a related piece of Islamophobic propaganda, according to which American Muslims are conspiring to enforce the Shari’ah on the helpless citizens of the United States. There is no evidence of such a conspiracy, and even if there were, I would have serious difficulty believing that a small minority could radically alter the entire legal structure of a modern state.

Muslims are less than 2% of the US population. It would be “rational” for Muslims to be afraid in this situation, simply because they are such a small minority that their rights can be easily taken away. This, indeed, has been happening in this country at least since the Clinton administration, though the infamous PATRIOT ACT has broken all records of violating their civil rights and the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to stop or reverse the abuses. On the other hand, it is hardly “rational” for the 98% of non-Muslim Americans to be afraid of a small, relatively disorganized, and extremely diverse population of American Muslims, particularly when a significant proportion of that minority is already well assimilated into the US society.

Islamophobia has a thinly disguised core of racism and xenophobia that needs to be exposed. The vast majority of American Muslims are not Caucasians; at least a quarter of them are African-Americans, and the rest are immigrants from Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. Since White Muslims constitute an extremely small minority in this country, any hatred directed at Muslims has to be seen for it really is—a hatred for non-White “outsiders.” While the US society has made great progress in recognizing, naming, and eradicating anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, it has a long way to go before it achieves the same results with respect to anti-Muslim bigotry.  To do so we need to acknowledge that Islamophobia is a form of racism.

The immediate context, which is characterized by Islamophobia, is surrounded by a larger context that supports and maintains the fear and hatred of Muslims. This larger context is characterized by a particular mindset that is known as “Orientalism.”  Both Islamophobia and Orientalism are based on very similar kinds of reasoning, so much so that Islamophobia can be seen as only a vulgar form of Orientalism.

The most important critique of Orientalism was offered by Columbia University professor Edward Said (1935-2003).  His critique is based on a postmodern understanding of the construction of academic knowledge, which may be outlined as follows:

  1. Any “knowledge” about a given religious or cultural tradition, or about a given group of people, always contains a great deal more than empirical facts.
  2. The selection and arrangement of facts so as to give them a narrative form and significance involves a process called interpretation.
  3. Interpretation depends on such factors as the identity and subjectivity of the interpreter, the intended audience, the immediate and long-term purpose, the historical context, and all previous interpretations.
  4. Every interpretation serves a particular set of interests, regardless of whether the interpreter recognizes those interests or not.

Edward Said’s main contribution is that he applied the above framework to Western understandings of Islam, Muslims, and Arabs, as well as non-Western societies and cultures more generally.

Let’s look at the specific case of Islam and Muslims. At least since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and perhaps going all the way back to the Crusades, most of the Western construction of knowledge about “Islam” and “Muslims” has taken place in a situation of real or perceived hostility, competitiveness, and fear. As a result, the larger social and historical context within which the vast majority of Europeans and Americans have approached “Islam” and “Muslims” during the last two centuries or so has been such that it has encouraged and facilitated a particular approach to interpretation, an approach that may be called “Orientalism.”

Orientalism is a dichotomous way of looking at the world, an unrealistically simplistic way of imagining “us” and “them.” The hallmark of this thinking is an uncompromising, though often unconscious, insistence on treating these two categories in terms of Aristotle’s “Law of the Excluded Middle,” which says that “everything must either be or not be.” The West/East division is projected on a whole range of dichotomies that take the classical form of A/not-A. These include good/evil, rational/irrational, peaceful/violent, freedom/tyranny, etc.

Orientalist thinking has been correctly identified as the ideological force behind colonialism and imperialism. It is also the unrecognized intellectual source behind much of contemporary Islamophobia.

In recent decades, increasing self-consciousness in academic circles has considerably reduced the influence of Orientalist thinking, or has at least brought such influence out into the open. This, however, is not true of much of the popular imagination in the West; that imagination remains very much under the spell of Orientalism. In European and North American societies, Orientalism is still the main filter through which the man or woman in the street is likely to approach anything related to “Islam” and “Muslims.”

An important element of Orientalist thinking is the tendency to imagine “the West” as a powerful and superior entity, while also cultivating a fear of harm or injury coming from the dark and unknown depths of “the Orient.” We can see here how the much more sophisticated tradition of Orientalism has trickled down into the popular imagination, from where it is expressed in the form of Islamophobia.

Despite the fact that American Muslims constitute a small minority, they are routinely presented in the Islamophobic discourse as representing a huge, powerful, and dangerous threat—as if they are about to take over the country, destroy our “Judeo-Christian” civilization, and impose medieval barbarism on innocent Westerners.

There is obviously a contradiction in being constantly afraid that “they” are about to attack and harm us, alongside the firm conviction that “we” are incomparably better and stronger than them. The contradiction goes unnoticed because it serves a very convenient function, i.e., it justifies “our” violence against them, including our pre-emptive strikes, while de-legitimizing “their” violence against us.

Orientalist and Islamophobic thinking allows “us” to see the speck of sawdust in “their” eye, while simultaneously saving us the inconvenience of having to see the log in our own eye.

To summarize the discussion thus far, the specific media-generated controversies that have “Islam” as their common denominator are best understood within their immediate and larger contexts, characterized respectively by Islamophobia and Orientalism. The following question, however, still remains: Why is there a recent surge in anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, as indicated by the amount of attention that Americans are willing to invest in Islam-related controversies. The atrocities of 9/11 and the subsequent US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely part of the causal mechanism; yet, I am not convinced that these events can provide a full explanation for the rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and activity in the last few years. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer a hypothesis to account for this surge. I propose that we avoid looking at these issues as if they were taking place in a political and economic vacuum, in isolation from everything else that has been happening in our society. Instead, we ought to look at the recent surge in Islamophobia as part of a larger pattern.

Let me take a minor detour at this point.

Millions of years of biological evolution has firmly established in our bodies the well-known “fight or flight response.” When we face an imminent danger, specific physiological changes are triggered in our bodies, including rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, diversion of blood to large muscle groups, dilation of the pupils, etc., the apparent result of which is a temporary increase in our ability to deal with the danger at hand.  In this state, there is often a loss of peripheral vision, sometimes leading to an effect called “tunnel vision.” This narrowing of the field of vision probably helps us focus on the object needing our most immediate attention, and therefore contributes to our chances of survival, but it also reduces our ability to notice what is going on in the wider environment.

Along the lines of this physiological effect of “tunnel vision,” perhaps there is also a sociological effect that is characterized by a collective attitude of defensiveness, including a narrowing of our attention to what is nearest to us in both time and space; such an effect may take place during periods of crisis that threaten an entire society. This means that whenever there is a perceived threat to the well-being or survival of a group of people, there may occur a narrowing of spiritual vision leading to a tendency of focusing on one’s immediate and short-term interests. This may explain why xenophobia and racism, and the accompanying desire to find scapegoats, are unusually common during periods of war, epidemics, and scarcity. This phenomenon may be a manifestation of what psychologists call “parochial altruism,” a heightened concern with the welfare and safety of the members of our own group and lowered empathy and altruism, along with increased aggression, toward potentially competing outsiders. Consequently, there will be a hardening of boundaries and borders, an accentuation of racial, cultural, and religious differences, and an overall sense of panic that can easily become directed at one minority group or another.

There are many reasons to suspect that the US society, as a whole, is going through a period characterized by “tunnel vision” and “parochial altruism,” along with a heightened attitude of collective panic and defensiveness. There is a widespread sense of betrayal, resulting from the realization that the American dream is just that—a dream. There is a sense of cultural anomie or disorientation, resulting from extremely rapid social changes. Here’s one example: Whether or not one agrees with the idea of same-sex marriage, it is obvious that it will soon become a norm.  This change in social standards and expectations is radical enough to generate the sense, particularly among older individuals, that the very ground on which they stand is being taken away from under their feet. At the same time, there is a growing backlash against many of the gains that were made in the 1960s, for instance through the civil rights movement. The racism of half-a-century ago now takes the form of tax cuts for the rich.  There is also an apparent rise in anti-immigrant sentiments; the crackdown on “illegal” immigrants and the construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border are indications of a general hardening of symbolic boundaries. Of course, the economic downturn, or recession, has played a critical role in many of these developments.  Interestingly enough, some of these same attitudes are appearing in certain European countries as well, as indicated by the rise of right-wing parties.

It appears there is sufficient stress in the American society, most of which is hidden under the surface like the proverbial iceberg, that is causing a constant but low-level anxiety. Every now and then, whenever conditions are ripe, that anxiety erupts into outright fear and scapegoating of this or that minority. The recent surge in Islamophobia should be seen within this larger situation of society-wide stress and anxiety and a general rise in irrational fears of the “other.” Even though the fear of terrorism is justifiable, I believe it has been blown out of all proportion and projected onto the entire Muslim community in a way that cannot be explained only on the basis of the actual threat.

One manifestation of the state of stress and anxiety in the United States is that Americans are willing to believe some pretty incredible things. A new survey has found that nearly one-in-five Americans say that President Obama is a Muslim, and this figure is actually up from 11 percent in March 2009.  That’s an obviously irrational and unfounded belief, but it continues to persist, and even grow, for reasons that have nothing to do with evidence. A study published in the August issue of the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” that reveals some very interesting findings.  For instance, participants in the study (conducted before the 2008 elections) who supported John McCain showed a 56% likelihood of believing that Obama was a Muslim. But when these White participants were asked to fill out a demographic card asking for their race, the likelihood jumped to 77%. This indicates that simply being reminded of a social category that differentiated the participants from Obama was sufficient to make them believe he was a Muslim, i.e., that he was not one of them, that he was an “outsider” (and therefore a potential enemy).

The “accusation” that Obama is a Muslim is itself highly revealing. It shows that “Muslim” is often seen as a negative, undesirable category. This is mainly because, for the majority of Americans, a “Muslim” has come to represent the archetypal “outsider,” the religious and cultural “other,” the diametric opposite and antithesis of everything they hold dear. The prevalence of this kind of attitude is a sign of a hardening of boundaries and borders that often occurs under conditions of fear and scarcity. In relation to Islam and Muslims, this attitude is linked with the pre-existing but usually dormant sentiment of Islamophobia as well as the much-longer tradition of Orientalism. Taken together, these factors provide a plausible explanation for the recent surge of media-generated interest in “Islamic” controversies.

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After accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, President Barak Obama delivered a speech in which he attempted to justify his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Then, on a more positive note, he presented his vision for achieving just and lasting peace in the world. He argued that we must work on three different fronts if we are to reach that Promised Land: (1) Use nonviolent means to discipline rogue nations; (2) Ensure respect for fundamental human rights; (3) Provide economic security and opportunity.

Basically, the President explained that if we can get these three ingredients and mix them together, the result will be wonderful, delicious peace. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with each of these ingredients, problems that President Obama did not discuss in his speech. But despair not! It turns out that the problems can be resolved.  In fact, if we look closely at each ingredient, it is possible to find the solutions to their problematic aspects with the help of some of the implications of Obama’s own words. Even though Obama himself did not explicitly mention these implications, all we have to do is to carry his line of thinking a little further! Let’s examine his three points one by one.

Explaining the point about rogue nations, Obama said:

First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior — for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure — and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.

Yes!  Who could disagree with such an obvious prerequisite for building a just and peaceful world? No society can tolerate deviant or criminal behavior from one of its members without endangering its very integrity; the same holds true for the world as a whole. In the contemporary context, the voice of the international community can be heard loud and clear in the chambers of the United Nations and its affiliated organizations. Regimes that violate the consensus of the international community are obviously endangering world’s peace; there has to be a mechanism for holding them accountable for breaking the rules, and, in the interest of peace, that mechanism must not involve bombing and destruction.

Obama says that all nations should follow certain rules and laws, but every now and then some nation refuses to do so. That nation must be punished. So far so good. But what happens when the regime that is violating the consensus of the international community is so powerful that the latter dares not hold it accountable? Or the regime is able to use both carrot and stick to persuade enough members of the international community to keep their mouths shut? Or, if everything else fails, the regime simply ignores the cries and screams of the world and goes on flagrantly defying the rules of acceptable behavior? Alternatively, what if the regime that is accused of violating the consensus of the international community is so week that it is unable to get everyone to listen to its own side of the story?  What if some members of the international community gang up against that regime and make so much noise that the accused can no longer expect a fair hearing? What if some of the rules were made in such a way as to favor only a few nations and that, in order to get justice, a particularly disadvantaged nation has no recourse other than breaking those rules?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say? Of course, he would not say that powerful nations ought to enjoy an exemption from the rules and laws that everyone else is required to follow; nor would he say that it is fair to make rules that favor some against the other. Americans have a long history of resisting such brazen violations of fairplay in their own legislative and judicial systems; one would expect that they would never allow such violations to become acceptable norms in the international system either. Consequently, Obama would agree that the world needs fool-proof mechanisms to prevent such injustices, similar to the checks and balances that have been placed in the American systems of government and law. Obama is, after all, a trained lawyer himself; he not only understands the importance of justice but he is also well aware of the many ways in which justice can be bypassed or corrupted by the rich and the powerful.

The solution, then, is obvious: the United Nations must be reorganized so that mutually agreed-upon principles, rules of conduct, and moral standards are always upheld, even — and especially — when they go against the wishes of the powerful. This, in turn, requires that all nations accept equality before the law and agree to follow the international consensus. Violators will face nonviolent punishment commensurate with their crimes, and they will be strictly prohibited from using their economic, military, or diplomatic power to avoid their just penalties.

On the relationship between peace and human rights, Obama said:

This brings me to a second point — the nature of the peace that we seek.  For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.  . . . .  I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence.

Again, the President is absolutely correct. Violence erupts when people’s basic needs are not met for a long time. When we work to ensure that everyone is able to meet their basic needs and secure their fundamental human rights, we are, in effect, working for peace. The absence of overt conflict is merely “negative peace.” On the other hand, “positive peace” is characterized by a state of justice and fairness.  We can establish “negative peace” through violence or threats of violence, but such a peace is precarious and unstable; it has no foundation to stand upon and so it does not last very long. The peace that lasts is always the result of social and political justice; people are unlikely to resort to violence if no one denies their rights and no one stops them from fulfilling their needs.

Again, there are a few problems. What happens when the interests of a particular nation are in conflict with the needs and rights of another nation or group of people? What if one nation believes that it has a right to self-determination, but another, more powerful, nation refuses to cooperate on the grounds that this would violate its own interests? What if a particular regime is known to violate the human rights of its own population, but the continuation of this regime’s rule happens to be in the interest of another, more powerful nation? What if the interests of a particular nation are such that they require the uprooting of indigenous communities all over the world or the exploitation of children half way across the globe or the irreversible destruction of the natural environment?

If we were to raise these problems in front of President Obama, what would he say?  Obviously, he would not say that the interests of a particular regime can trump the basic needs and rights of a people; nor would he say that the stock value of a corporation can have more worth than the life-style of an indigenous community, nor that the Dow Jones has a greater right to protection than the need of a far away people to enjoy clean air and drinkable water. Obama would also reject the notion that it is fair to destroy the world’s climate for the sake of some abstraction called “economic growth.” Instead, Obama is most likely to agree that all the nations of the world must submit to the principle that human rights take precedence over the interests of any state or corporation. If a nation violates this principle, it ought to be held accountable at the international level and forced to pay reparations or suffer appropriate penalties.

Finally, Obama made his point about economic security:

Third, a just peace includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.

How true!  It is impossible to have a just and lasting peace in the world if the economic needs of large number of people are not being met, or if large number of people are living under constant anxiety about their financial future, or, worse, if they don’t even know whether they would have anything to eat tomorrow. In the absence of economic security, people are likely to feel that they have nothing to lose, they have nothing to hope for, and they have no personal stake in the society and its structures. Such a mindset can easily breed violence. Similarly, if people do not experience at least some fairness in term of economic opportunities, they are also likely to turn towards violence. A society that does not provide more or less equal economic opportunities to all its members would inevitably create classes of extremely rich and extremely poor, a situation that would lead to resentment, anger, and frustrations . . . and therefore violence. A fair and equitable distribution of wealth is an essential prerequisite for world peace.

Let’s look at the problems associated with this statement. What happens if certain societies are prevented by external forces to provide economic security to their members? What if the economic prosperity of some societies result directly from the economic exploitation of other societies? What if the level of economic opportunity enjoyed by a certain proportion of humankind requires that the same level of opportunities be denied to the rest of the world? What if the style of consumption in some societies is such that it necessitates stealing the life chances of a significant part of humanity? What if the resulting anguish and violence does not remain confined at the local level but spills over into the global arena? What if all the people of the world start demanding the same quality of economic security and the same opportunities for economic development as enjoyed by the richest of the rich? What if the planet cannot provide sufficient natural resources to meet such a demand?

How would Obama respond if we were to raise problems like these? Having already admitted that peace results at least partly from economic security and opportunity, he cannot say that large proportions of the world’s population can be kept in abject poverty or even in relative deprivation without such a situation causing serious threats to world peace. He would also understand that the rate of consumption characteristic of the industrialized West, particularly the United States, is so high that it is simply incapable of being universalized. Currently, the oil consumption in the United States is about 24.8 barrels per day per person; it is about 1.9 barrels in China and 0.8 barrels in India. If the Chinese and the Indians start demanding the same level of economic security and opportunity as that of the United States, it is doubtful if the earth would be able to spit out enough black gold to quench their thirst. Obama would understand that since the standard of consumption cannot be elevated to the same level for the entire human population, the only way to ensure a more or less equitable distribution of economic goods would be for the richest of the rich to accept a considerably lower level of consumption. As Gandhi is reported to have said, live simply so that others may simply live.

There you have it.  Obama’s three-point agenda for achieving a just and lasting peace! The plan demands that the United States take a leadership role in order to: (1) Make the United Nations truly effective by establishing de facto equality for all the member states; (2) Establish the principle of zero tolerance for human rights violations; (3) Reduce the standard of living in rich countries and raise it in poor countries until they meet at a sustainable middle.

Of course, it would be foolish to expect such things from the US President. Despite the rumors, Obama is no Messiah. But it does go to his credit that he has, at least, given us the recipe for world peace. Better yet, he has given us his own standards on which his administration’s conduct will be judged.

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In his Oslo speech delivered after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the US President Barak Obama emphasized the need for warring nations–especially the United States of America–to follow the rules of war. These rules, sometimes collectively referred to as jus in bello, deal with the limits of morally acceptable conduct between belligerent parties during periods of armed hostility.  In the contemporary context, nations are bound by specific rules governing the humanitarian treatment of war victims; these rules are found in the four Geneva Conventions (1864; 1906:1929; 1949) and the three additional protocols (1977; 1977; 2005), as well as the two Hague Conventions (1899; 1907) and other internationally recognized documents.  President Obama was referring to these very rules in his Oslo speech.  In emphasizing this point, however, the President also managed to make three additional claims that deserve closer scrutiny.  Here is what he said:

Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.  And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war.  That is what makes us different from those whom we fight.  That is a source of our strength.

At this point in the speech, Obama had already established to his own satisfaction that the use of violent force is sometimes acceptable, even morally imperative.  Leaving aside that discussion for another day, let us focus here on the question of the rules that govern wartime conduct.

Obama acknowledges that there are, indeed, “certain rules of conduct” that govern the behavior of warring nations; he then goes on to contend that the United States has “a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves” to those rules.  This wording says a great deal about Obama’s ethical reasoning . . . perhaps more than he wants to reveal.  Notice the word “interest.”  Obama is saying that the United States should follow the rules of war because it is in our “interest” to do so.  This may have been an appropriate argument in front of the US Congress, but it was out of place at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.  Given the international nature of that forum, Obama’s assertion of “our interest” appears both rude and imperialistic.  But perhaps that was exactly what he wanted to convey, and he did so in a manner that was considerably more pleasant, sophisticated, and palatable to his audience in Oslo than the clumsy threats characteristic of the previous occupant of the White House.

In addition to the word “interest,” Obama’s use of the phrase “binding ourselves” is also significant.  It implies that any constraint on our (i.e., United States’) wartime behavior can only be the result of our own voluntary decision, rather than the result of international pressure, criticism, or judgment.  Read this statement in the context of the US refusal to join the International Criminal Court.  We are, effectively, our own judge . . . and we shall always find ourselves “not guilty.”

Obama’s message to the international community was sweet and clear: Don’t think that we are agreeing to follow the rules of war because we owe you anything, or that you have any influence on our policies and decisions, or that we are recognizing any standard on which you can hold us accountable that is higher than our own self-defined “interest.”

There is, of course, a place for “interest” in any ethical reasoning, but it would be a highly volatile, not to mention dangerous, foundation for the moral commitments of world’s most powerful nation.  After all, anything can be justified in the name of “our interest.”  What happens to the Geneva or the Hague Conventions when someone determines that it is no longer in our “interest” to follow them?  The answer seems obvious.  These conventions would meet the same fate as that of the countless treaties that the White settlers had signed with Native Americans.  As a nation with a Manifest Destiny, we lost interest in those pieces of paper.

Obama’s use of the word “interest” is deliberate.  To be fair, it would be wrong to target the President as if he were a monster, an aberration in a nation of saints.  The mindset behind the sacred idea of “our interest” represents the general sense of entitlement that many Americans hold as one of the basic tenets of our civil religion.  Obviously, all nations are expected to keep their own “interest” at the forefront of decision-making; what makes the United States stands out in the international community is that we, literally, stand far above the laws that lesser countries must abide by.  We can hold them responsible for not following the rules and even punish them at will, but they are in no position to hold us accountable in the same way.  Even the vast majority of the nations of the world, acting together, cannot make us agree to what they belive is the right thing to do, so long as we determine that it is not in “our interest.”  The history of our use of the veto in the United Nations Security Council is a case in point.  We are supremely able to defend “our interest” in a manner that no one else can, which is a good definition of a “superpower.”

The trouble with this state of affairs is that we routinely defend and promote “our interest” in ways that destroy the chances of other nations to do the same with their “interests.”  More recently, we have been safeguarding “our interests” even at the expense of the planet.  We would rather hold on to “our interests” than ensure that the earth survives as a habitable place for humans and other living beings.  It’s like we are standing with loaded guns in our hands and preventing anyone from trespassing our luxury suite . . . when that luxury suite happens to be located on a sinking Titanic.

It is strange that Obama linked the idea of “interest” with the adjective “moral.”  What, exactly, is the “moral interest” of a nation?  Who is the moral voice of a nation?  More importantly, what makes the state the sole interpreter and custodian of a nation’s “moral interest”?  The idea of our “strategic interest,” on the other hand, makes somewhat better sense, being an abstraction that usually goes by the name “national interest” and seems to be almost worshipped as the highest form of good.  We are willing to sacrifice any moral standard, any ethical value, any commitment, any promise, and any treaty if we decide that holding on to it would hurt our “national interest.”  On the other hand, virtually any policy measure, however unpopular inside or outside the country, can be adopted if we decide that it will promote our “national interest.”  We are still refusing to sign or ratify such international agreements as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Criminal Court, the Convention against Enforced Disappearance, the Mines Ban Treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty . . .  for one reason or another, all these seem to threaten our “national interest.”  Compared to these, however, our behavior at the recent UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen broke all records of imperial hubris.  Apparently, we follow the rules on two conditions: first, we should be making the rules, and, second, the rules must serve “our interest.”  Too bad Obama did not say this in Oslo . . . but then again he didn’t need to.

Moving on to Obama’s second claim, that “we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules.”  By the phrase “vicious adversary” the President is presumably referring to the so-called “terrorists” against whom the United States has been waging war at least since 9/11.  There are, obviously, individuals and groups that are determined to harm American lives, and perhaps it is even fair to call them “vicious.”  It is also obvious that such individuals and groups must be prevented from carrying out their murderous intentions.  The problem, however, is located in Obama’s claim that this “vicious adversary” does not abide by any rules.  In fact, Obama argues that this is precisely what makes us different from our enemies.  What distinguishes us from them is simply that we abide by the rules of war and they do not.

What, exactly, are these “rules” that we obey but they do not?  Obama did not elaborate on this subject, but one would guess from the rest of his speech that he was referring to the internationally accepted rules of wartime conduct as found in the major agreements and treaties, such as the Geneva Conventions.  The “terrorists” that Obama is talking about, however, are entities that function either below or above the level of nation-states.  These entities have never signed the Geneva Conventions nor have they requested to join the United Nations as sovereign states.  On what grounds do we expect them to abide by our rules?

There is, on the other hand, a sense in which the “terrorists” do, in fact, abide by the same rules as we do.  At the core of the International Humanitarian Law is the requirement to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to refrain from attacking or harming civilians.  Conventional wisdom says that violation of this core principle is what constitutes “terrorism.”  The problem, of course, is that even the most powerful and sophisticated militaries in the world have serious difficulty following this principle.

The last sentence was an understatement.

In referring to the “rules,” Obama may have in mind some fundamental difference between how terrorists operate and how the military of a modern nation-state operates.  As I tried to show in a previous series of postings (Religion and Organized Violence), no such difference actually exists.  There are some trivial contrasts, of course, such as the soldier wears a uniform while the terrorist wears civilian clothing, or that a soldier drops or throws a bomb while a terrorist plants a bomb.  On the other hand, we can identify a number of crucial points on which these two sides are very much in agreement.  The terrorist and the soldier are identical in their adherence to the following — usually unacknowledged — assumptions:

  • The only power worth having is the power to destroy.
  • The side that kills more people is usually the side that wins.
  • An essential discontinuity exists between us and them.
  • We are morally superior, which makes them unworthy of life.
  • Sometimes you must sacrifice your own life for the sake of your people.
  • The more scared they are, the better they will listen to reason.
  • There is no such thing as too much violence.
  • The only language they understand is the language of force.
  • An abstraction can be more real than flesh-and-blood human beings.
  • There are no innocent people on the other side.
  • If my cause is just, I can do nothing wrong in serving it.
  • Destruction is sometimes necessary for renewing the world.
  • Killing can be the highest expression of altruistic love for one’s people.
  • My duty is to listen and obey, and I do not question my superiors.

The only significant difference that I can think of at this moment is the difference in scale.  The soldiers of a nation-state are capable of causing harm and destruction on a colossal scale, one that the “terrorists” can only watch with awe and envy but can never hope to achieve themselves.  Indeed, if “terrorism” is defined as the deliberate cultivation of overwhelming fear in a given population in order to obtain its obedience, then the nation-state must be acknowledged as one of the topmost perpetrators.  Restricting the word “terrorist” to non-state entities obfuscates the fact that the overwhelmingly majority of terrorizing acts are traceable to the modern state.  Edward S. Herman uses an alternative vocabulary to expose what he calls “the absurdity of this definitional system.”  He argues that terrorism comes in two forms, “retail” and “wholesale.”  According to Herman, “Dissident individuals and groups kill on a retail basis (that is, on a small scale, with limited technological resources to kill and with small numbers of victims); states kill wholesale.”

Finally, let’s consider Obama’s third claim.  He argues that our commitment to follow the rules makes us strong vis-a-vis those who refuse to do so.  We abide by the rules, the President asserts, and this fact is a “source of our strength,” and, he seems to imply, a source of weakness for the adversary.  Given that our abiding by the rules does not give us any overt military advantage, one would think that the President is referring not to material strength but to moral and/or spiritual strength.  He is telling us that we are not only different from our enemies, but also, and more to the point, we are better.  We are, in other words, morally and spiritually superior to the “terrorists” because we are committed to following the rules whereas they have no such commitment.  It’s not only that our cause is just; we ourselves are just too.  By contrast, their cause (if they have any) is clearly unjust, and since they obviously don’t follow the rules, this makes them unjust as well . . .  in effect, “vicious.”

This claim is supposed to make us feel better; it is meant to show an improvement over the previous President’s policies, who is said to have broken many rules.  And yet, the dichotomous good vs. evil scenario of George W. Bush is alive and well in the much more educated vocabulary of the new President.  We are fighting evil, which makes us good by definition.  They are vicious, which makes us gentle by contrast.  We abide by the rules, which clearly makes them the worst kind of rule-breakers.  We are everything they are not.  It’s Cowboys and Indians all over again.

Strangely enough, the words that we use to condemn them are the same words that they use to condemn us.  However, if the above list of basic assumptions shared by the terrorist and the soldier is any indication of the reality of violent conflict, then claims of moral superiority should be seen as the very fuel that helps keep the flames of violence going.  The belief that “we are better than them” is not a legitimate justification for the use of violence; it is, on the contrary, part of the causal chain that generates and maintains the violent conflict.

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