Fairly Symmetrical


11:59 PM by Eric: Complicated Culture | Personal | Philosophy | Politics

The world is a complicated place. It was a complicated place on 9/10/2001, and it's an equally complicated place today. I have no doubt that it will still be a complicated place on 9/11/2003 as well. 9/11 didn't simplify things, nor complicate them; on a macro scale, I don't even think it actually changed much.

This post was actually written on 9/12, but I have backdated it to the night before so that it will show up if anyone goes looking for that date on my blog.

The Western world and the Arab world have been headed for conflict since the Middle Ages. Initially, of course, the conflicts were typically religious; the Christianity-dominated Europeans attacking the heathen Moors, trying to conquer "their" Holy Land and drive Islam from Spain. Eventually, of course, they succeeded. That was the last time, as far as I know, that any Arab nation was relevant in any grand sense. The changes began during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church; the entire Enlightenment constituted an en masse separation of theology from politics in Western civilization. No such reformation of the Islamic faith ever happened; in Islam, the separation of church and state is still heresy. God legitimizes their governments; Allah shelters their policies in the palm of his hand, and proclaims their laws with the Prophet's voice.

No civilization can be tolerant of other religions when it is dominated by a single, evangelistic, monotheistic one. Polythestic state religions (such as the Roman religion) can be cosmopolitan, as can Buddhism (which is polytheistic, monotheistic, and atheistic all at once). Non-evangelistic religions (are there any?) can be tolerant because they don't care if their neighbors are heathens. And a nation which has no state-mandated or state-approved religion, and whose citizens comprise literally dozens of faiths (and lacks-of-faith) will eventually be forced to tolerance by the voices of its own people.

Evangelistic religions -- any religion which believes in eternal punishment for sins, and for which heathenism is a sin especially -- will always strain tolerance. As much as their believers may be cosmopolitan, friendly people, their religious duty to spread the word and "save" their neighbors will always be a presence in their lives. This presence can be controlled when the state has sufficient independence from the religion: the state can impose peace on the various religions, allowing spirited discussion but forbidding conversion by sword. When the state is the religion, no such imposition is possible; the state itself has a duty to evangelize, and conversion by the sword often becomes a favored method. Thus the Crusades, thus the wars between the Shi'ites and Sunnis, thus the Inquisition.

Finally, a religious state has severe problems adapting itself to changes in the world. The Word of God is eternal and unchanging; it must be. God cannot be wrong, and God handed down the scripture hundreds of years ago, thus the canon must still be absolutely correct. Obviously a fair amount of interpretation can be done by religious scholars to "show" that what God said and what God meant are not identical. Unfortunately, there is only so much interpretation that can be done: at core, the religious laws don't really change. Thus it becomes impossible, in states rules by Sharia law, for women to not be second-class citizens, for real secular education to take place, and for true freedom to exist. In a secular nation, laws are adaptable; being made by men, they may be changed -- or unmade -- by men. Mistakes can be recognized and corrected. A religion's power rests on being infallible, on God's great power and knowledge. Thus no mistakes can be acknowledged, and adaptation requires the slow, faltering process of "reinterpretation". This is why, for instance, the Catholic Church still bans contraceptives and same-sex unions. This is why orthodox Jews cannot eat pork.

There is a reason the explosion of political thought and all other forms of creativity and learning took place at the end of the Middle Ages, when the Church was separated from the government, and a congruent reason no such explosion ever occurred in the Arabic/Islamic world. That reason is that the unyielding requirement of infallibility, of "special knowledge" requires that the religious apparatus suppress any contradiction of its laws and beliefs. Thus the Church excommunicated Galileo for daring to understand the heavens, for showing that the Church had no special knowledge about the heavens, for debunking even some part of their claim to access to God's knowledge.

It is no accident that there are no Arabic democracies; democracy and theocracy are not merely incompatible, they are polar opposites. In the former, all power and legitimacy -- and all decisions -- flow up from the bottom (even if they are mediated and guided by intermediaries). In the latter, power, legitimacy, and decisions all trickle down from God.

What this means is that our Western societies and the Arabic/Islamic world are fundamentally incompatible. We value freedom and change, tolerance and variety; they value religious custom and tradition, evangelism and sameness. Their culture -- via their religion -- requires and prophecies that they will conquer the world; ours makes us unwilling to be conquered.

Our societies are unavoidably in conflict. Whether we had sent troops to Saudi Arabia to defend Kuwait or not, whether we supported Israel or not, whether we had supported the muhajideen or not, our societies would be in conflict as long as they were and are in contact. Our core values are too different, our lives too unacceptable to each other. If our societies could somehow wall ourselves off from each other, perhaps we could achieve a sort of peace. This is, however, impossible. The Arab world, as much as they hate our ideals, desires the products we make. They want our tanks, our televisions, and our doctors. They want the skills we have. They cannot get these things without coming into contact with our civilization.

They cannot avoid contact with us, and so they cannot avoid what is, in their view, being corrupted by that contact. Most of their people find our culture attractive, especially their oppressed and their young. Oppressed people always find freedom attractive, and we are the freest people on earth. The young have a natural attraction to change, a natural curiousity about the world, and we satisfy that attraction to a much larger extent than the Arabic world can (or can ever hope to, as long as they marry religion and politics). The Arabic world cannot hope to compete with our productivity when they shackle half their workforce, when half their thinkers cannot think for fear of being stoned to death or worse, when their society encourages fear, distrust, contempt, and hatred between the sexes. Men and women largely cooperate in our society; who knows how many scientific advances, how many brilliant pieces of art, how many great ideas the West would forfeit if we destroyed the ones which came from women. You sacrifice not only the ideas from women, but the ideas from men which would build on those ideas, and all the ideas which would borrow those ideas, as if one of the root branches of evolution itself were simply destroyed at its root -- as if an entire animal kingdom were deleted. Quite simply, a culture which makes that sacrifice cannot hope to compete -- intellectually, economically, militarily -- with one that uses all the ideas available to it.

Our ideology prevades our products as well. No theocracy could ever have invented the Internet. A network with no set purpose, which could be coopted towards the goals of anyone who connected to it, which cannot effectively be censored or controlled -- such a thing could never be conceived in that kind of society, let alone built.

Our societies are inevitably in conflict, and our society is inevitably going to win. One can only imagine the despair, fear, and anger -- and more, the shame this produces in the hearts of the losers. They have been promised by their Prophet that they shall rule the world, that they are the blessed, and we roll right over them without even noticing. Our culture invades and defeats theirs, without it even being an intentional action on our part. We obliterate them not merely without effort, but without even thought! There are three avenues for the losing society in that situation. The first, and least likely, is a peaceful integration into the superior society. Obviously this one hasn't happened (on a macro scale; for many individuals it has indeed). The second avenue is for the society to take it as a peaceful wake-up call, to reform their society and attempt to make their own changes to make their society more relevant, more competetive. The third avenue, and the easiest, is to try to hurt your attackers however you can, to hate them blindly, to sublimate the shame in anger and accusation. This is the one that the Arab states, on a macro scale, have chosen.

This is not to legitimize that chosen path. Understanding does not equate to acceptance, nor even to moral wavering. I understand why we are in conflict, and why they have chosen to strike out at their oppressors; but that does not mean that I consider their choice moral. In much the same fashion as our own Western society underwent severe and often violent changes during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, during the Renaissance and the Inquisition, Arab society will convulse violently. Innocent people will be the ones ground underfoot in this clash of societies. I condemn terrorism in precisely the same way I condemn the Inquisition, and yet I understand both even as I condemn them.

What next? I've seen this question asked multiple times in nearly every article and post about 9/11. The world is as it is, and the only thing we can do is deal with it as it is, not as we think it should be or as it was. In an ideal world, we could go back and find some way to provide the Jews a homeland which would not end up dispossessing the Palestinians, and causing a 60-year struggle between Jew and Arab. In this world, we have to deal with the results of that decision; we have to find some way to convince the Palestinians to give up their terrorist tactics, and failing that, to protect the Israelis (who are no more at fault for the location of their country than the Palestinians are) as much as possible from the terrorists. If we end up helping all the sane Palestinians emigrate to the West (or some other place) and killing the ones who won't give up their dreams of pushing Israel into the sea, then so be it. There's no point in demanding idealistic solutions which would make everything right; there's no point in hoping "dialogue" will make the Israelis and Palestinians into firm friends. Just as there is no point in hoping "dialogue" with the Arab world will solve the problems which make our conflicts inevitable. In both cases, and in many more -- such as Kashmir, or the Chinese-Taiwan conflict -- the only solution is going to be long, and dirty, and costly. It is a recognition of these costs, and an honest appraisal of whether the end result will be worth the costs, that makes us civilized people.

By the same token, it is eventually inevitable that we will come into conflict with Iraq. Saddam Hussein's stated and obvious goals are to dominate the Gulf region, and towards that end to acquire weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. It is imperative that we not allow this. Iraqi domination of the region would further retard the cultural growth of the Arab world -- growth which is our only hope of ending the current struggle between our civilizations. If Iraq conquers the region, the fledgling Iranian hope of democracy and freedom will be crushed. Israel's population will be put at unacceptable risk of destruction. And the costs for the U.S. will be huge. At that point, my opinion is that removing the threat will essentially cost us one U.S. city for each nuke Saddam has acquired. The cost now is much less, and has the potential for huge benefits. It is a given that our cultures are in conflict; while we need not be self-righteous about it, we must (and, largely, I think, do) realize that our culture, carrying as it does the vast thrust of globalization and freedom, necessarily carries the cost that we are in direct opposition to the Arab culture as it exists today. We have to pay that cost, and recognize it for what it is -- not a Holy War, but a terrible price for our freedom.

I love my country. I am proud to be a citizen, proud to be heir to the ideals and the actions which have predominantly governed this nation. I'm not blinded by jingoism; I am a patriot, yet I admit that our actions have not always been things of which I can be proud. We've had our struggles with equality, with propping up corrupt dictatorships, with all sorts of unpleasant realities. Overall, however, I count this the best nation on earth to be a citizen of. If I had not been born here, I believe I'd have become a naturalized citizen at some point. As much as I understand the position of the Arabists, I stand determined, like so many others, that my culture and my nation will prevail in the end. I don't feel self-righteous, or uncritically supportive of my nation: what I feel is that we have a lot of work to do, and it's time to get to it.

These are the lessons I have taken from 9/11.

Much of this post was inspired by a conversation my wife and I had on the anniversary. Some of it also is indebted to this post by Steven Den Beste on Arab nationalism and Islamic Fundamentalism.

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This page was last updated Sun 23 September 2007 at 09:00 AM CDT