The War on Bad Metaphors

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.

29 thoughts on “The War on Bad Metaphors

  1. Heck, I’d stay up all night in order to hear that panel!

    If I remember correctly, Queen Rania is herself Palestinian. She was mentioned quite a bit in a New Yorker piece a couple weeks back, about how the king, her husband, is trying to recreate his New England boarding school in Jordan.

    Is it me, or are the only interesting world leaders these days coming from outside the G8?

  2. I agree that it would have been a real treat to attend this panel session. The idea that we can or should make war on “terrorism” is part of a Straw Man Fallacy:

    If extremism is allowed to exist, there will be terrorism.
    We hate terrorism, therefore we must make war on terrorism.

    The Straw Man Fallacy is an especially devious tactic that politicians of all stripes use to sway us, but the Republicans have become especially adept at its use.

    In the above argument, while extremists might be guilty of using terrorism as a tactic, not all extremists are terrorists and not all terrorists are necessarily extremists. The argument subtly changes the subject from the ideology of extremism to the tactic of terrorism.

  3. Tutu is such an amazing man.Thinking of him makes me feel good and peaceful…his smile reminds me of sunshine, so warm and real, and when he enters a room he spreads the sunshine to everyone in the room(He made my top 5 list of people I would kill to have dinner with). He is wise, and after seeing him once on the Daily show I was delighted to see such a wise man with such a grand sense of humor….I am just in awe of the man and I can’t imagine what it is like to REALLY be in the same room with him and so many other great minds….Tutu has beyond rock star status with me..being in the same room with him would take my breath away…and I would probably pass out and make a total fool of myself(I’d risk it anyday)…Today Ms.Maha I am beyond green with are just too cool!I am so impressed!!WOW, Tutu!!!sigh!!!
    Thanks for the great coverage of this event… the people you have seen and heard speak are remarkable(except laura).You have painted a great picture for those of us who only wish we were there..Thanks!…TUTU…OMG ..sigh

  4. Personally, I prefer the term “War on Fundamentalists.” But I doubt Bush will use that one either.

  5. The problem is with a war on extremism or on fundamentalists , from the bush point of view,is those are words that are dangerous to them because they themselves are extremists and fundamentalists…if they bring up those words too many times people may start to realize we(our government) are no different then those we claim to be fighting.

  6. This post was a sweet thing to wake up to – glad you were there at 8 am so the rest of us didn’t have to, although given the ideas and persons presenting them, I think many of us would’ve been glad to be there with you.

    Billmon has been doing a recent series on Orwell, and noted that the words “democracy” and “fascism” have lost almost all their meaning – the former coming to mean government that is good and the latter, government that is bad, depending greatly on who wields these words.

    The problem is that the powers that be have a strong interest in controlling the language to their benefit, as they realize its power to either effect their agenda or hinder it. It’s easy to get the populace riled over terrorism, which is an effect of extremism. Were we to actually use the word extremism, it would be easy to apply it to the current regime at home. And yet that is what needs to be done to begin to discredit it.

    But I’m glad to hear important people taking the first real steps toward changing this dynamic by gaining control of language. What’s needed is the follow-on, how to inject this virus into the culture, to correct the deliberate distortions of the powerful.

  7. I disgree even on the word “extremism”; it is just another word which is not for very different from “terrorism”. The problem is that these words focus on “what they are doing” rather than “why they are doing it”. Military action and aerial bombing inside a populace can also be taken be a form of extremism.
    It is important to understand root causes which cause people to be extremists or terrorists. Kooks like the Oklahama bomber will always exist in society. But when mass movements start taking place, it is for the elite to realise that there has to be fundamental issues.
    The Bin-Laden movement, I would like to term as Arab Nationalism and really started when he was turned out of Saudi Arabia because of his disagreements with the regime there. You will remember that he was from an elite family very close to the Saud dynasty.
    How you carry out a crusade is matter of debate, Mahatma Gandhi used “peaceful non-cooperation” as is it historically part of Hindu religion and culture over the ages.
    The “Islamo-Christian” struggle has had violence as a historical base on one hand and Bin-Laden had been indoctrinated in Afghanistan against the Soviets by none other than our on CIA. Thus his pursuit of violence in rooted both in historical conflicts and his own hands-on indoctrination. Thus using deadly methods came naturally to him as “non-violence” came to Gandhi.
    A final poiint on “Islamic Fundamentalism”. Again it is not a natural thought process for Bin-Laden. He was as opposed to the Wahabi form in Saudi Arabia as the ruling class. Becoming religious does not mean you become a fundamentalist. It is his allaince with the Taliban that had blurred the line into the west pushing him as a fundamentalist. The talibans objectives are very different to his, which I think Musharraf has explained recently, if you understand to read between the lines …

  8. Bin Laden merely an Arab nationalist? Excuse me?

    Why then the repeated communiques from him and his lieutenants that the only way the West can avoid more attacks is to convert to Islam? That is not Arab nationalism; it’s the 12th Century Crusades in reverse.

    As for Bush’s “war on extremism” crapola, it blatantly begged the question, “So why are you such tight buds with Pat Robertson, asshole?” Which, of course, Katie Couric and her fluff-headed ilk are never going to ask.

  9. joanr15 – you have to separate the real facts out of all the “noise” you hear then you can get to the truth. BTW the MSM only exposes you to what they want you to hear. Again you will realise that this movement is not controlled, hence you will hear a lot of stuff from a lot of different people, after all Al-Qaeda mean “the-base” only not the controller.
    This conversion to Islam has been uttered by our home grown guy from California, Adam Gadahn, he is perhaps trying to prove to other muslims that he is really a “true muslim” …

  10. If I can move from a metaphor to a simile.. Trying to fight Islamic Fundamentalists with torture, is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene.

    I wish someone with the time and literary skill (and I am limited in both areas) would expand the theme in a full-blown article. Fire NEEDS certain elements. I am no chemist, but I would mention fuel, oxygen and some spark or flame. Certain actions and elements can extinguish or inhibit the fire. What works depends on the kind of fire it is. Try to put out a grease fire with water and you will spread it; the burning oil floats on the water and spreads. An electrical fire does not act like a wood fire. My point (I do have one) is that to put out a fire you first have to UNDERSTAND the fire; and not just fire, but the specific fire you are combating!

    Radical Islam is an unusual phenomenon. It’s not a normal characteristic of the religion. I a long time ago when I read the Autobiography of Malcom X. Contact with true Islam in a pilgrimage changes his whole perspective, and got him killed by radical elements of Islam, which he expected. Talk about conviction!

    Fighting this war SMART means looking at moderate Islam as the fire we want to stoke, and radical Islam as the fire to inhibit. I deliberately did not use the word ‘extinguish’. If you have a monster forest fire, you don’t ‘put it out’. You let it burn where it will do the least harm; you stop it from burning homes. You gradually contain it from the flanks with firebreaks and retardant. Finally you cut off the access of the fire to new fuel and let it burn out by starvation.

    The tactics of detaining suspect in secret, advocating torture, trying to rewrite the Geneva Conventions, combined with rape, murder and torture by American soldiers in Iraq (even though those acts did not represent approved administration policy) have fueled the fire of Radical Islam far beyond what OBL could have prayed for.

    There are tactics, including non-violent ones, that would make normal, moderate, Islam, as the people of that region have practiced for centuries, dominant there again.

    There’s room for an article on what tactics MIGHT work. The best source of ideas is probably clickinig on your blog, Maha, and I would invite ideas from the readers on all the top liberal blogs, distill them to a policy document and fwd to the Democratic leadership. Because too many media sources are saying that there are no ALTERNATIVE ideas from the Dems. And there needs to be long before the 2008 election. Or God help us.

  11. With regards to the wording of things, ormer counsel to the President, John W. Dean, has a good article: Why Are We Suddenly At War With “Islamic Fascists”?

    I liked his quote from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War:

    “The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man.”

  12. It is important to understand root causes which cause people to be extremists or terrorists.

    1) There is REAL debate about what those “root causes” actually are.

    2) The term “root causes” is itself a bad metaphor. The term “root” is a metaphor for the roots of a plant (obviously), and a plant needs its roots to live. The necessary implication is that destroying these root causes will kill the movement. Problem is – its WRONG: Social movement often do not work like that.

    Social movements are always “caused” by something, but often continue even after the issue that caused them went away.
    A better metaphor than “root causes” could be “parent causes” because even though your parents were absolutely vital to your existence we all know that at a certain point you became your own person and that we cannot make you go away by killing your parents.

    Social movements are usually like this, unless you get them very early – and we missed our chance with this one – reach maturity and become capable of sustaining themselves even after the conditions that bore them are gone.

  13. As for Bush’s “war on extremism” crapola, it blatantly begged the question, “So why are you such tight buds with Pat Robertson, asshole?” Which, of course, Katie Couric and her fluff-headed ilk are never going to ask.

    They dont have to ask it -we know the answer : “Those guys are not extremists. They are just good Christians”.

    I remember seeing M.Malkin on TV and the conversation went something like this:

    Malkin: The Left has no good argument so they have to resort to ad hominem attacks like calling me an “asshole”.

    Host: ” But, Michelle, in your last book your wrote “Lefties are assholes”, so whats the difference?

    Malkin: Thats not an ad hominem attack. Thats a fact. They really are assholes.

    No matter how many words you use, you cannot describe sight to a blind man.

  14. Whatever the West calls this war it certainly has been a beneficial tonic to the military industrial complex. There are lots of zeros and $$ in the combined annual expenditure of the Iraqi campaign and the US military budget. I think it was the president of Brazil yesterday who pointed out how the World could have benefited if all that money had been put to a better use. This war has made a lot of white republican men rich beyond their dreams. Whatever we choose to call it, it is essentially a convenient excuse for the West to engage in indiscriminate killing of Muslims and make a lots of quick bucks while we’re at it. In 6 years the bush administration has essentially made no effort to address Israeli Palestinian impasse which is the root cause of this extremism. In fact one can make the argument, and I’m sure historians will agree that many of their actions over the past 6 years have been deliberately designed to to enhance and foster the very thing that they say they are working against. I don’t mean to sound cynical but this whole war on terror business reeks of hypocrisy and evil intent. Chavez maybe a bit nutty but his sulfur metaphor yesterday seems apt.

  15. it’s even worse than you write, maha, because they aren’t even fighting a war on “terrorism,” they are fighting a war on “terror!”

    that’s right, a full-out balls to the wall war on an emotion.

    i imagine they’ve already arrested jamie lee curtis and are holding her incommunicado in some gulag somewhere in europe for all her particiaption in the ‘halloween’ movies.

    and don’t get me started on ‘snakes on a plane.’

  16. they are fighting a war on “terror!”

    They’re not even fighting a war on terror..They are indiscriminately killing innocent Muslims and labeling them terrorist to justify the slaughter.

  17. And the media is used to perpetuate fear and build antagonism towards their defined “enemies”. CSI kicked of the seasons NCIS with assassination of a Syrian by Iranian agents in Washington, but gripping the tale by a false framing of the Israeli Mossad in the process. The next day we have Jericho which is drama of what happens after a Nuclear attack on the US heartland. What more they have to mould public opinion is for us to wait and see …

  18. No wonder I come to this blog for the blessings of intelligence and sanity.

    What kind of a situation is it when all the ‘regular news’ by the MSM is all about the ‘independent’ Republicans caving to Bush on allowing him to continue torturing [caving for political reasons] while the truly independent thinking of someone like Desmond Tutu is not even covered in the MSM?
    Tutu’s words are so needed in the USA because we as a nation are being starved of sound moral leadership, and being manipulated by spin instead. Thank God for Maha who is attending this conference and can report to us about Tutu and Queen Rania.

    Doug Hughes [#13 comment], your analogies about fighting fire are brilliant. Thanks also to r4d20 for ‘root vs parent’ causes, and to Steve from Canuckistan for reminding us that ‘war = $’ for white Republican friends of the corporateer-minded war-decider-cabal of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld entity.

    And, yes, Swami……they are indiscriminately killing innocents and trying to justify that by labeling all as terrorists….. I fully believe that this destroying of the innocent is also a classic sickly subconscious defense mechanism for those who hate innocence, having lost their own claim to innocence on their path to power.

    The power mongerers are trying to beat the joy out of Americans, too…..and replace that joy with fear to make us all amenable to their Orwellian spin.

  19. September of 2006…..we are losing between 2 and 3 soldiers PER DAY in Iraq. Does anyone read about this in the MSM, as we are in the heat of mid-term electioneering? Nope, it is too important for the corporate media to do all they can to pretend ‘good news’ for Bush and his followers.

  20. Pingback: News onPhilanthropy

  21. Pingback: Saturday open thread… « Marisacat

  22. Pingback: The Mahablog » Covering Their Behinds

  23. Pingback: The Mahablog » NIEs, Nays, Neighs

  24. Pingback: The Mahablog » Hate Speech and Its Consequences

  25. I am shocked when I hear about rania talking about extremism and woman righs …and I feel sorry for king abdullah marrying her ….she is hereself the most extremist woman in the history of Jordan she once introduce herself as a jordanian and once as a palatinian …Palastinian exremism causing big problems in jordan and being a queen must she should respect the national identity of the country that she is illegally interfiering in is issues cause in our country the king is the head of the state ….in my country original Jordaians are suffering from the palastinian racism since her husband came to the authority ! we are used just to accomblish the aims of the regime thats all!

  26. she is hereself the most extremist woman in the history of Jordan

    If she’s extremist, then I would say the whole Middle East needs more extremist women.

Comments are closed.