Welcome to the Ministry of Information.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

apples and eggs

Last month I wondered aloud whether George W. Bush knew the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. (See entry of December 17, 2006.) We may now have an answer. He made explicit distinctions between them in his State of the Union address on January 23:
'In the mind of the terrorist, this war began well before September the 11th, and will not end until their radical vision is fulfilled. And these past five years have given us a much clearer view of the nature of this enemy. Al Qaeda and its followers are Sunni extremists, possessed by hatred and commanded by a harsh and narrow ideology.'

Moments later, he added:
'These men are not given to idle words, and they are just one camp in the Islamist radical movement. In recent times, it has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America, and are also determined to dominate the Middle East. Many are known to take direction from the regime in Iran, which is funding and arming terrorists like Hezbollah -- a group second only to al Qaeda in the American lives it has taken.'

So far, so good? I'm not so sure about that. Keep reading:
'The Shia and Sunni extremists are different faces of the same totalitarian threat. Whatever slogans they chant, when they slaughter the innocent they have the same wicked purposes. They want to kill Americans, kill democracy in the Middle East, and gain the weapons to kill on an even more horrific scale. '

(All quotations are taken from the transcript at www.whitehouse.gov.)

Matching al-Qa'ida wth Sunni Islam and Hizballah with Shia is correct, and better than Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), the new head of the House Intelligence Committee, did when recently asked. But do they belong to a 'same totalitarian threat'? Does Bush know whom he is fighting?

In war, it generally helps to know some basic facts like, say, who the enemy is. It is not just the chief executive who should know these things but every citizen whose nation's military forces wage the war. I never forgot the international survey of geographical knowledge that National Geographic did in the late 1980's. Among many scandalous results, the one that stayed with me was that only 32 percent of Americans in 1988 could find Vietnam on a map. (New York Times, November 9, 1989, section A, page 20, via Lexis-Nexis.) Didn't Americans want to know where their sons had been sent? (Some people didn't even know where they themselves were. 14 percent of Americans could not find their own country on a map.)

It is one thing to wage a war, for good or ill, that kills millions of people. But not knowing the first thing about them, like where in the world they are? That's not just callous toward the people of the invaded country; it's dangerous for the people of the invading country as well. Knowledge makes citizens harder to mislead than ignorance.

Let me say loud and clear: al-Qa'ida and Hizballah are both violent organizations motivated by religion, but they are utterly incompatible with each other, and only one is at war with the United States. Here are the basic differences.

1. Duh
The Salafist form of Islam that underpins al-Qa'ida's beliefs and practices identifies Shiites as heretics to be killed. This is an unalterable element of their doctrine. (I could stop right there, I suppose.)

2. Ambitions and targets
Hizballah does not wage attacks against anyone outside Israel and Lebanon. It is a Lebanese Shiite movement with foreign backers in Iran and Syria. Its aims do not extend beyond Israel and Lebanon. They have never been known to recruit Shiites from abroad. Certainly, they have no desire to revive the caliphate: the old caliphates were Sunni. (In October 2006, Hizballah was charged in Argentina with the monstrous and unforgiveable 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina in Buenos Aires. If they were the culprits, this was the last action of theirs that I can recall outside their usual theatre of operations.) And when was the last time they attacked American forces? The 1980's?

Al-Qa'ida, on the other hand, continues to target the United States but has never attacked Israel. (Sometimes I feel like the only person to notice this.) They certainly abuse the name of Israel in their global propaganda, but Israel has never been their target: Shiites and other Muslim 'apostates' are their real enemy. The U.S. is culpable, by al-Qa'ida logic, for supporting apostate regimes.

3. Politics versus anti-politics
Besides their militant activities, Hizballah is also a political party in Lebanon. Their candidates stand for election and they hold seats in the Lebanese Parliament. That's not to say that they don't ultimately want to replace parliamentary government with theocracy. Their 1985 manifesto claimed they did, and despite subsequent disavowals, their leaders perhaps still do. But they participate in elections, which is a significant fact compared to al-Qa'ida. And, not that this excuses their other actions or their homophobia, women hold significant positions in the party and run for office.

Al-Qa'ida could never stand in an election. They oppose elections, parliaments, presidents, constitutions, and laws written by men. Women? No.

These don't sound like the same totalitarian movement to me.

None of what I have said should be construed as a defense of Hizballah. I oppose all parties and movements that want to demolish the separation of church/masjid and state, and that includes the most radical fringes of the Republican party here in the States.

My point is that the people calling the shots—and the people who let them, i.e. us—need to appreciate that not every enemy is the same. North Korea, Iran, and Baathist Iraq were not an axis of evil simply because they were not an axis. Iran and Iraq were longtime enemies who fought an eight-year war in the 1980's. And North Korea? What, were they behind September 11, too?

All of us who participate in public discourse on these matters need to appreciate these differences and interpret them for ourselves. The more widely we disseminate knowledge, the better chance we stand of avoiding future disasters.

Mixing apples and oranges is actually not so bad. They at least have the advantage of both being fruits. What Bush and Cheney have done is more akin to mixing apples and eggs. Picture it for yourselves: a crate of apples and eggs shipped together from the farm and opened up at the market. Eww. That, dear Reader, is the intellectual operation George W. Bush has performed.


Blogger Martin Asser said...

Hard to disagree with any of the above, except about caliphates being Sunni. There was a Shia caliphate - the Fatimids, who founded al-Qahira/Cairo in the 10th Century and ruled in North Africa and the Levant until the 12th.

5:58 AM, November 27, 2007


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home