Facebook Exchange about the Threat from Our Supposed "Enemy"

August 18, 2010

In The Wall Street Journal, Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote in an opinion piece that the key advantage of Samuel Huntington's "famous model" is that it describes the world as it is—not as we wish it to be. Joe Phillips linked the piece on his Facebook page and I joined the dialogue. (Links not in original.)

The trouble with essays like Ali's is that they invite the reader to abandon any interest in the facts by flattering their loyalties—a classic technique right out of propaganda 101. If, Joe, we are to see the world "as it is," then we should juxtapose the claims of this writer against the answers to some simple questions.

For instance, throughout the world there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people proselytizing fundamentalist versions of their religion by traveling to "other civilizations", establishing schools, institutes, and other organizations, and encouraging the natives to abandon their own religious traditions. Question: are these proselytizers Muslims traveling to western countries, or Christians traveling to east and south-west Asian countries?

Another instance: there is a country that is not majority Jewish, but has a large Jewish minority that it has sheltered in complete safety since Biblical times, that specifies in its constitution that Jews are co-equal with people of the country's dominant religion, and that permits free travel for its Jewish citizens and their family members between this country and Israel. What country am I writing about? (Hint: it's not a western country. There was no Christian country in the west before 1500 A.D. that did not persecute, forcibly expel, or—often—simply slaughter their Jewish populations at one time or another.)

Having trouble with that one? Here's an easier one: What large country is currently surrounded by enormous military bases from a "different civilization", one that has repeatedly and very publicly threatened to attack it, including with nuclear weapons?

Or this one: what large country has not initiated warfare against any other country in nearly 150 years?

Still too hard? Ok, what country is currently painted in western media as the single greatest threat to Israel and the west generally? Final hint: it is the same country described in the three previous paragraphs.

Experience has taught me that when a writer represents that I have to see the world their way in order to "distinguish friends from enemies," I know I am being conned.

Joe replied:

Becker, after reading your post, I had to reread the essay. I did not recall Ali asking us to "see the world as it is" or to see the world her way." Rather she was positing two conflicting views of the world--Huntington and Fukuama. I am also confused as to the series of questions. You never provide an answer. Ali discusses Turkey, Saudi Arabia, (which I believe is who you are referring to), Malaysia, Indonesia, and several others. So if these are facts, is it your opinion that the Saudi's are in fact the friend of Israel? That they are the friend of the United States? That we need not be concerned with recent events in Turkey?

A little later he added,

@ Becker...I had to reread my post to you about rereading your post. I think I was unclear. Essentially my question to you is: is your overriding point that cultures interact with each other and that we have influenced other cultures just as they have influenced or are influencing ours?

I replied:

Certainly cultures influence one another, but that is not one of the points I am explicitly making here. My point is that to carve the world up into friends and enemies, those who are with us and those who are against us (as W put it), in short, into "us" and "them", is to impose on oneself a kind of mental filter that prevents one from examining the plain facts of a matter without fear or prejudice. It also tends to unhinge us from the most basic principle of morality, the principle of universality (applying the same standards of "right" and "wrong" to myself that I apply to others).


The subtitle of Ali's essay asserts that the "model" she promotes shows us the world "as it is." So, yeah, that is just what she is asking of her reader—explicitly, in fact. ("Model," by the way, is a term of art in the sciences. When used in the social sciences, it is an obfuscatory euphemism for "point of view." When used by pundits, it is ... well, an ingredient in fertilizer.)

So, I don't think of Saudi Arabia as a friend, although it is officially a U.S. ally, and I don't think of it as an enemy, although it is a repressive, fundamentalist dictatorship that fathered most of the 9-11 terrorists. Neither category helps me to understand it, or to make informed decisions with respect to it in my role as a citizen in a representative democracy. Friends, and enemies if I ever really feel I need to use that term, are concepts I apply to individuals who can make individual moral decisions. Countries are abstractions, political entities, not people. Were it otherwise how could Germans and Japanese walk our streets as guests? (Or Brits, for that matter.)

And no, it isn't the answer to the quiz. The correct answer is (drumroll please) ...

The country currently facing overwhelming force from a country that has threatened repeatedly to attack it, including with nuclear weapons, and that maintains large ground, air, and naval presences just over its borders in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and the Gulf Arab states; the country that, though repeatedly attacked (with such attacks in the last 55 years sponsored by the threatening country afore mentioned) has not attacked any other country since before our own civil war; the country that has sheltered it's own minority Jews with greater tolerance than any other since the diaspora; the country currently vilified in the western press on the basis of repeated half-truths and outright lies...the country in question is of course Iran.

And just to put a little polish on the looking-glass world Ali lives in, consider this. The United States was directly involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Iran in 1956, and installed a puppet monarchical dictatorship that ran a brutal regime of political repression for over 20 years. It sponsored the attack on Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1980 in revenge for the overthrow of the Shah by the Islamic Republic, initiating a war that slaughtered hundreds of thousand of Iranians. It still provides direct monetary and logistical support to organizations operating within Iran to overthrow the present government of Iran, including to the MEK, an organization that was until 2009 on the State Dept.'s list of international terrorist organizations.

So how is it exactly that we (the west) are the ones under threat?

Here's a mental exercise: Suppose it was this country that was surrounded by hostile military forces, under threat of nuclear attack from a country that had repeatedly attacked us by both covert and overt means, that it was the U.S. contending with foreign supported terrorists operating openly in the countryside, funded by this same foreign attacker. What would you think of that country's citizens pointing their finger at you and calling you the threatening enemy?

The principle of universality demands this mental exercise of us if we are to take ourselves seriously as moral beings. That should be obvious, but it won't be if the world is only populated by "us" and "them".

I want to add that I think very highly of you for permitting someone like me, who is obviously possessed of a very different political sentiment, to engage in a discussion like this on your Facebook page. It says a lot about your generosity and character, I think. It's also very American, if a fellow American may say so.

Cheers. Sid