Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Thursday, September 21st, 2006.


The War on Bad Metaphors

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Bush Administration, Middle East, War on Terror

I’m blogging at you from the second day of the Clinton Global Initiative conference. The 8 a.m. (8 a.m.? In New York City? This may be the city that never sleeps, but at 8 a.m. it’s damn groggy) session featured Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, moderated by Fareed Zakaria.

A point made by speakers yesterday, and repeated this morning, is that the metaphorical war we are fighting is the wrong metaphorical war. Instead of the War on Terrorism, speakers say, we should be fighting the War on Extremism.

I agree. And, one would think, President Bush ought to agree as well. Yesterday at the UN he said,

At the start of the 21st century, it is clear that the world is engaged in a great ideological struggle between extremists who use terror as a weapon to create fear and moderate people who work for peace.

Note: The enemy is not “terrorism.” The enemy are ideological extremists who use terrorism as one of their tactics. But it is extremism, and the spread of extremism, that we should be fighting. Talking about a war on terrorism makes as much sense as calling World War II the War on Great Big Stuff That Blows Up.

The name is critical, I think, because by misdirecting our attention from the enemy to violence perpetrated by the enemy, it might seem that the struggle is primarily a violent one. But if the conflict is primarily ideological, we need to put more emphasis on countering ideology than perpetrating more violence. Although some military action probably is required, military action must be subservient to and supportive of political and diplomatic efforts. Instead, we put our military strategy first, and misdirect politics to support the military strategy.

Queen Rania, poised and articulate, spoke to the problem of extremism directly. Extremist ideologies that once existed only on the fringes of the Muslim world now resonate with more and more Middle Easterners, she said, and it’s important to understand why.

Our lack of knowledge of one another helps extremism spread. Westerners tend to lump all Muslims into one group. Even those who appreciate that there is a difference between Shi’ia and Sunni may not understand that there are further divisions within Shi’ia and Sunni. A nuanced approach to the people of the Middle East is critical.

It is a huge mistake, she said, to rule out a political approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of a military approach. (This line brought robust applause from the audience.) Before the recent war in Lebanon, she continued, most Lebanese were moderate, peace loving people. But over the course of two months, once moderate people were radicalized. The war pushed the entire Arabic public toward extremism; it caused the voices of peace and moderation to lose currency and become marginalized. The way to win the war on extremism is to support and strengthen the voices of moderation in the Middle East, not discredit them.

President Karzai said that he had tried to warn the West to pay attention to the spread of extremism since the Taliban came into power in 1966. Long before September 11, the Taliban was killing Muslims. They were destroying families; they ruined livelihoods by, for example, burning vineyards full of grapes. And most of all, the Taliban preached hatred. Karzai said he tried to tell the West the hate would reach them eventually. But no attention was paid, he said, because you in the West did not hurt. We didn’t pay attention until we did hurt.

Karzai also said that we in the West mistake the voices of terrorists, of the most brutal elements of the Middle East, as the voice of the people of the Middle East. This has to stop, he said.

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu radiates more sweet, selfless joy than his little body could possibly contain. No religion in the world promotes death and murder, he said. Instead, all of the world’s religions promote compassion, justice, love, caring. It is unfortunate that people misuse religion for bad purposes, like a knife intended to cut bread might be used to hurt someone.

It’s a mistake to associate the terrorism of the Middle East with Islam, the Archbishop said. If a Muslim commits an act of terrorism, it’s called Muslims terrorism; but when a Christian man blew up a building in Oklahoma, no one called it Christian terrorism. Likewise, terrorism in Northern Ireland, or the Holocaust, was not called Christian terrorism.

We humans can survive only if we survive together, the Archbishop said. We need one another. No one is totally self-sufficient without being subhuman.

To be continued.

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