In the 10 years since Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington first argued that the 21st century would unfold as a “clash of civilizations,” the term has become shorthand for a certain kind of sloppy thinking about relations between pluralistic Western democracies and traditional Islamic communities.
Troubled as that relationship might be — and it’s plenty troubled — there’s very little going on that evokes the epochal grandeur of Huntington’s catchy phrase. What we’ve got on our hands is more like a global gang fight, one that gets nastier and deadlier by the day.
“The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” Huntington wrote a decade ago. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”
Parts of that statement are true, but others are — to borrow Talleyrand’s famous description — worse than wrong. They’re a mistake, and it’s time to ask some pointed questions about the role of George W. Bush’s administration and of this country’s media in perilously compounding the error.
Consider these three events of the last week:
A frenzy of bipartisan opposition fueled by unchecked anti-Muslim popular sentiment forced Dubai Ports World, a respectable international shipping company based in the United Arab Emirates, to abandon plans to operate six US ports. This occurred even though no responsible reporter who examined or analyzed the deal concluded that it posed even the slightest threat to US security. The rhetorical lynch mob that convened where the US Congress usually sits had one thing on its mind: The upcoming midterm elections. Democrats saw opportunity and Republicans saw danger that they would lose the “security” advantage they hold over their adversaries in the polls.
David Ignatius put the matter plainly in Friday’s Washington Post: “The collapse of the deal was a measure of Bush’s political weakness — but even more, of America’s traumatized post-Sept. 11 politics. The ironic fact is that the UAE is precisely the kind of Arab ally the United States needs most now. But that clearly didn’t matter to an election-year Congress, which responded to the Dubai deal with a frenzy of Muslim-bashing disguised as concern about terrorism. And we wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t like us.”
Earlier in the week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of Americans now say they hold an “unfavorable opinion of Islam.” More than one-third of the respondents said they believe “Mainstream Islam encourages violence” and that they recently had heard “other people say prejudiced things against Muslims.”
Meanwhile, the xenophobic quadrant of the blogosphere is all atwitter over the American publication of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci’s latest book. Its first chapter contains this: “I don’t like to say that Troy is burning. That Europe is by now a province of Islam or rather a colony of Islam and Italy an outpost of that province, a stronghold of that colony. ... From the Strait of Gibraltar to the fjords of Soroy, from the cliffs of Dover to the beaches of Lampedusa, from the steppes of Volgograd to the valleys of the Loire and the hills of Tuscany, the fire is spreading. In each one of our cities there is a second city. ... A Muslim city, a city ruled by the Qur’an.” Muslims, Fallaci writes, have “always excelled (in) the art of invading and conquering and subjugating. Their most coveted prey has always been Europe, the Christian world.”
Jihadism is a virulent religious ideology. It needs to be confronted always and everywhere, but that cannot be done by mobs fired by the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing.
The Bush administration’s ability to make this point is constrained by more than the president’s plummeting poll numbers. It’s true that the abrasive stream of unremittingly bad news out of Iraq and the inexcusable Katrina debacle have ground Bush’s second-term political capital to near-record lows. At this stage in their presidencies, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had approval ratings nearly 30 percentage points higher — and Clinton was impeached. According to an Associated Press poll Friday, Bush’s suddenly mutinous lackeys in the Republican-controlled Congress aren’t faring much better in the public’s estimation.
But being unpopular isn’t Bush’s real problem; it’s how he became popular in the first place. The so-called religious right was the cornerstone of both national campaigns Karl Rove devised for the president. Now, the adjective “religious” notwithstanding, the participation of this bloc in electoral politics has little or nothing to do with theology — very few votes are determined by whether a candidate believes in justification by faith or works or by whether they accept or reject predestination — and everything to do with social issues.
The only thing that’s really religious about the religious right is that its adherents happen to go to church regularly. What’s significant about its participation in national life is that Bush sought electoral advantage by opening our national politics to an entire complex of social attitudes and beliefs linked by something other than logic and reliant on no stronger argument than, “We believe this is so — and we demand that everyone else live accordingly.”
The problem with winning an argument by inviting obscurantist and unreasonable allies to the table is that pretty soon it becomes hard to have a rational conversation about anything. That’s why half the American people, encouraged by various senior members of the president’s party, now say they believe in biblical creationism instead of evolution. That’s why the president couldn’t persuade anybody to drop anti-Muslim panic and support a reasonable deal on the ports — a deal that never threatened US security but did advance American interests in the Arab world. What about the news media’s role in all this?
As the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, the campaign against Dubai Ports World’s operation of six US harbors — facilities previously run by a British enterprise — initially was stirred up by a pair of media demagogues, Lou Dobbs (CNN’s blowhard in chief) and noxious talk radio host Michael Savage. The formerly respectable and responsible CNN, desperate to compete for ratings with Fox News, has reinvented itself as “the security network.” Hence Dobbs’ license to rant daily over illegal immigrants and, in this instance, to utterly distort the nature and significance of the Dubai port deal.
The sad truth is that news media dominated by voices like these are a far greater threat to our national security than letting a few harbors be operated by a bunch of US-educated businesspeople whose corporate headquarters happens to be on the Gulf.
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