The Conspiratoriate

On September 16, 2001 I was flying back to Beirut to begin a new academic term at the American University, located in the city’s Muslim district of  Hamra.   Logan Airport, where the two planes (American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175) that plunged into the World Trade Center towers had originated, had reopened only the previous day, and the mood of all of us who were boarding international flights was, to say the least, apprehensive.  I glared at fellow passengers for any signs that they might have something to hide, and they glared at me with similar suspicion.  There were many good places to be in the days just following the attacks.  In the air was not one of them.

Back in Lebanon, out of the blue, my driver began by asking how I was, how America was (the answer: a little shaken) and then for no reason apologized to me for the actions of all Muslims, everywhere, with the caution, “This is not Islam.  These people are not Muslims.  They are madmen who defile Islam.”

It was an explanation I would get in one form or another for weeks thereafter, delivered with sincerity, often with unnecessary and misplaced contrition, from students and colleagues.

Similar platitudes about the “true nature of Islam” were emerging in a constant stream from Washington, which affected to make a clear distinction between Islam as a religion of peace and the image of people leaping from tall buildings to avoid being burned alive by the engulfing fire of a senseless and wholly evil act, done in the name of God, by partisans of a particular faith.

I discussed some of this in a 2006 book, Just War and Jihad: Positioning the Question of Religious Violence.  In doing research for my piece of the book  even I was surprised at how ritualistic the actions of Mohamed Attah, Abdulaziz al-Omari and Hani Hanjour were.  In 2012,  Attah’s name and that of his comrades in arms are all but forgotten by most Americans.  What remains are the recycled images, the date, and the sense that some sort of preternatural evil had touched Manhattan Island that day.

The very scale of the spectacle made theological explanations tempting: irresistible to Christian fundamentalists who believed the events vindicated their belief that Islam was a satanic parody of biblical faith, and also, ironically, atheists who felt that it corroborated their belief that Islam epitomized religion’s inherent destructive power over the mind.  Hollywood could leave it alone; sometimes art cannot imitate nature, and among other things September 11 was irreproducible spectacle.  Few of us in our lifetime will witness even one murder. On that day the world saw the internationally televised ritual murder of three thousand people.

But even the platitude makers in Washington were lying to themselves and then began lying to everyone else.  In the weeks and months ahead, America got used to a new vocabulary.  Homeland Security. The Patriot Act.Operation Enduring Freedom.  Rendition. Guantanamo. And a new cast of  very odd characters, talking endlessly about radical Islam and threats to the security of the American people.  Even the word “homeland” was contrived by Bush phrasemakers to evoke an image of nation and common good not evinced in words like “country” or “national security.”  Home is where you lived, what you loved, where you went to be secure; you would do anything to protect it.  What do you protect a home from? Intruders. Outsiders.  Foreigners.

Bush himself in eight years of incompetent bumbling on all fronts is famous for two magic moments:  one, when he impulsively grabbed a bullhorn at “Ground Zero” (another imbecilic phrase) and said to the crowd, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people —  who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

The second is his unilateral declaration of a win in Iraq in 2003, against the background of a festoon that read “Mission Accomplished.”  Besides Bush, who before this date was just a guy who’d stolen the Florida election won by Al Gore, there were others the American people got to know from briefings, news conferences, security alerts and news updates.  Rudy Giuliani, the “tough DA” who just happened to be mayor of New York on the fatal day; Ray Kelly, the NYC police chief and tough talker; Tom Ridge, the guy appointed by Bush to be the director of new Homeland Security agency, and under whose leadership the red-green-orange alert system  (reminiscent of how you learned to cross a street in first grade), evolved.  They all seemed like emanations of Bush’s plain spoken Wanted- dead- or- alive approach in his “war” on terrorism.

Alongside them, available on call for public ceremonies, were a modest retinue of Islamic spokesmen who were used by the Bush regime as mannequins for modeling what “good Islam” looked like: Wahlid Phares, Zuhdi Jasser, Tawfik Hamid.

If you have missed these faces (I have not) they are reunited for the first time since the passing of the Bush era in a video (released in 2009, but not widely distributed), designed to warm the cockles of your heart’s worst paranoid fears.  If you do not have the stomach for the full 72 minute version (Netflix has it) of The Third Jihad, there is an equally disturbing 32 minute free version that cuts right to the most graphic images and the bottom line delusion:

There is a well developed underground jihadist movement in America.  It is in a perpetual state of struggle against American culture and American values. It wants no prisoners, only victory. Your children are not safe.  “We the people” (i.e. “real Americans”) are not safe.  Wake up and tell a neighbour.  They use our laws against us.  They will not stop before the Constitution of the United States is replaced by Sharia.  Their first real victory? The presidential election of 2008.

For those of us (barely) old enough to remember the None Dare Call It Treason scare tactics of the 1960’s that kept the Domino Theory and rumours of atheist dominion flowing like sewage through the psyche of the American right, this is the Islamaphobe X-rated version of the same lunacy.

The film  is the brainchild of  former Navy physician and “concerned” Muslim Zuhdi Jasser who is most celebrated for his testimony before Congress in connection with the June 24, 2011 hearings on HR 963–known as the “See Something, Say Something Act.” Jasser is also heavily in with the American Islamic Forum for Democracy which recently has been shouting down the New York Times’ campaign against the film, especially its use in training New York City policemen.

If anyone has any doubts about the second-rate nature of the AIFD, then the quality of its website, its projects, and literature should out all doubt to rest.  It has the smell of a hate group whose odour has been unsatisfactorily sprayed over by the use of academics like Bernard Lewis and (important) dissidents like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  The majority of the interviewees in the film are self-styled experts with a book and a private theory to sell: Rachel Eherenfeld, Mark Steyn, and Melanie Philips fit that description; other like Giulinai and Tom Ridge are there because they bring back the fragrance of Bush era fear management.  It is not that independently these writers don’t have a piece of a thesis to argue; it is that they have been made in the film into a chorus of frogs.  Their incoherent views aren’t intended by filmmaker Raphael Shore and Wayne Kopping to lay out their worries in a coherent way but simply to bludgeon the viewer with  the director’s master-theory of radical Islam.

Confronted by the New York Times blast against The Third Jihad, Mayor Bloomberg ordered its use in training sessions discontinued immediately.  It was soon revealed that Commissioner Ray Kelly (listed in the film’s credits), after initially denying he had had any knowledge of the NYPD’s using the film, had actually cooperated in its development.  The AIFD explained the reversals this way:

The NYPD’s initial denial of having widely used the film for training purposes-and subsequent public apologies issued by Commissioner Kelly (“It shouldn’t have been shown”) and Mayor Bloomberg (“Somebody exercised some terrible judgment. I don’t know who. We’ll find out.”)–are in and of themselves deeply troubling, and say far more about the current state of American society than about The Third Jihad itself. In fact, these public denials and apologies demonstrate the remarkable success achieved by the Islamist lobby in North America, which seeks to prevent any and all public discussion of the supremacist political ideology that non-violent Islamist organizations share in common with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. In other words, the behavior of the NYPD, in this matter, tends to confirm the film’s thesis.

Well, why not?  The best proof of anything is to say that suppressing it proves it was (dangerously) correct.  In rare cases, as with Galileo and Yu Jie, this turns out to be be right assessment.  But in most cases, there is no real suppression–just a correction of hideous error, and this film is designed to be hideous, with its visual manipulation, dark corners and spliced commentaries.  New York cops were being taught that homegrown Islamic terror cells are growing like cancer in the United States. (Remember Fort Hood? The film was begun in the year of the shootings, 2008). Now the public is meant to believe that vital information is being withheld by a government gone soft on terror because the Islamist lobby is hugely influential in media and politics.  Make you blood boil?  Oh George, Tom, Dick: where are you when the country needs your help?

The thesis is so absurd at every level that it beggars serious discussion. All the more reason that we should be indignant that officers pf the law were told to believe every word and image in it was true.

The worst part of The Third Jihad-philosophy, however, is that it is not the face of American Islam.  It is the face of fear-mongers left over from the (pardon the expression) Bush intelligentsia who are driven by their own political agendas.  Fear, after all, was good for them; it got them legally elected once and kept the country in the pocket of mean-spirited men for almost a decade–an unforeseen stroke of luck for an ignorant man and his lunatic far-right supporters.  These are the same voices who would have goaded Bush into bombing Iran if the mood had struck him, the same cohort who succeeded in pushing him to invade Iraq and stir the hornets’ nest in Pakistan.  These are people who want the Peacock throne and their villas back, but who are not so stupid as to think they can say this out loud.  It is not about Islam; it is about the private agendas of a distraught expatriate community and oil guzzling supporters who think American-style democracy would be good for the Middle East, good for the Islamic wold in general.

They’re banking on a tried and true constant in American politics:  American ignorance of the inner workings of the world beyond these shores. To do this they have to convince Americans that they are complacent while really under siege.  The message of the film is that smart (and patriotic) Americans will not be led astray by peace and tranquility.  Smart and patriotic Americans know that there is a war going on between their values and the values of foreigners.  The film argues, if that is the right word–rather impresses–that while violent jihad against the United States may be in suspension right now, cultural jihad is being waged by Islamic groups who are using the laws and rights they are given to work against society and overthrow it.  The tissue of silliness on which this master theory is based is something called the Explanatory Memorandum On the General Strategic Goal for the Group In North America.  Written by a member the Muslim brotherhood, Mohamed Akram,  in 1991,  it reeks of the overblown jihadist sentiment of that era, sentiment more eloquently purveyed in bin Laden’s fatwahs against America.

But it is all mularkey. The kind conservatives in Washington seem to get off on. –Factory-produced xenophobia repackaged as patriotism. There is no “Third Jihad.”  There is no “stealth jihad.”  And the third Jihad conspiracy-sellers can only persuade two kinds of people: people who feel more secure when they are fighting a war against some spectral enemy they are largely ignorant of, and people who stand to profit from convincing the public that they must be eternally vigilant, eternally suspicious, and as a consequence, eternally irrational.

We have a lot of people who fit that description, and a lot more who might buy  the sinister vision of an Islamic apocalypse that the film promotes.  It seems to me we have a lot more to worry about from those kinds of people.

Riddling the Sphinx: Egypt 2011

The invocation of “freedom from oppression” by sullen powers trying to secure the oppression of freedom-fighters is nothing new in the history of civilization. It’s a particularly tantalizing mantra when the cameras are rolling and reporters sniff blood on the streets. It helps if the protesters are young, confused and loud, as they are in Cairo, and as they were in Tehran in 1978.

It’s true, of course, that loud and bloody rebellions have sometimes resulted in the oppressed masses getting what they wanted, even if they were never particularly clear about what they wanted. Americans (some anyway) wanted fewer taxes and fewer ostensible reminders that they were third-rate toadies of “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King”, in Shelley’s verdict on royalty. The French wanted less of it too, royal attitude and opulence that is, the repeal of the salt tax (gabelle), and (like Zimbabwean peasants later) more bread. There are other examples of popular uprisings that led to reform, social improvement, and greater freedom for the activists. But not many. The French revolution, glorious as it was, got France a funny kind of Republic and a deliverer who crowned himself emperor. Zanu-PF, a “freedom struggle” even the British got behind, got Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, a racist dictator who knew how to punish his enemies and finesse the guilt-ridden colonial masters.

Russia was an industrial and economic mess in 1912. By 1917 things had become ripe for agitation. The October Revolution (Великая октябрьская социалистическая революция), was an armed, popular insurrection following on the February Revolution of the same year. By 1922, following a full scale civil war, Russians awoke to find their earlier unhappiness contained by the Soviet state. Somewhere between closing the banks, repudiating its national debt, firing prelates, and seizing the factories, the idea of freedom got lost–especially among vulnerable populations like Jews, intellectuals, poets and critics.

That wasn’t the first example of populism gone crazy: Martin Luther’s rock star status, his mulish defiance of papal power, gave hope to religious dissidents and sympathizers that the Italian “whore” would finally be off the streets of Germany. That in turn, due to the preaching of Luther’s favorite lieutenant Thomas Muentzer, gave hope to the peasants that their day had finally come. There had been similar upsrisings across Europe–stretching back to Wat Tyler’s rebellion in England in 1381. The English cause was all about the poll tax, greedy land lords, labour shortages (the plague, remember?).

The German situation, inspired by Luther’s ambiguous, and as it turned out totally hypocritical concern for the common man, was a nastier affair, one that left as many as 100,000 dead, with his blessing, out of a peasant militia that reached over 300,000. The causes of the revolt sometimes intersect with modern popular complaints: the Emperor was petitioned to abolish the “cattle tithes,” and the death tax; and to preserve all “common fields, forests and waters” for use by the peasants, rather than “allowing these lands to fall into private hands,” and “allow the peasants to hunt on the common lands and fish in the common waters.” As the intensity of the movement grew, Luther became squeamish and finally not only withdrew support for their (expanding) list of grievances against the princes, the nobility and the wealthy, but defended the right of a lawful king to mow them down where they stood in opposition to God-given authority. He got the idea, of all places, from St Paul (Romans 13.1-7).

That brings us to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the US-cradled Shah of Iran–a well-known autocrat who nonetheless developed virtues in dealing with his neighbors, in a chessman kind of way that left him few friends when the going got tough. Pahlavi wasn’t Louis XVI. He was a reformer who developed an enviable record of improving the quality of life for millions of Iranians.

The Shah, on the Peacock Throne

The Shah, despite a pretty listless playboy life to which he felt entitled by the rules of the game, alienated the traditional elites by redistributing the largest estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. As a modernizer (the “White Revolution”) he extended the vote to women, which he declared was in accordance with Islamic law. In industry, he enabled the participation of workers in factories through share-holding, based on sweat equity, and other measures. He created an American style elementary school system, ran literacy courses in remote villages using members of the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces as teachers. He promoted health care and health education in rural areas and cities (“Sepāh e Behdāsht”), and offered free lunches to poor children. And perhaps topmost, he introduced a series of rigorous exams for Islamic theologians which were required for them to qualify as clerics. In many ways, he was Mubarak’s mirror image opposite: Much do and little talk.

The young protesters in blue jeans who took to the streets in 1977, 1978, and finally 1979 (he left the country in January of that year) began to chant the phrase “Unislamic” in the direction of the palace, partly reflecting the simple European-style anti-Americanism that was rife in the Middle East, in its import-form, at the time. It was an old story replayed, in which the encounter with “western values,” especially among the children of the elites, engendered identity-crisis soul-searching and remorse among young Muslims; that in turn evoked a Freudian regression to their most cherished adolescent illusions. The reaction is sometimes fearsome: My Islam is not Islamic enough. I must try to walk the narrow path. Our leaders are corrupt. There is only atonement in purification–which of course means, often enough, insurrection and violence–cutting away the cancer. But it is not simply “curious” that the encounter with liberal ideas and values by educated young Muslims is almost always beneath the surface of Islamic rage. The west (and I do not especially equate the west with American values) is inherently provocative. Islam is inherently vulnerable to its allure.

In December, 1979, between six and ten million Iranians marched in the streets of Tehran and elsewhere. By February, the monarchy had been dissolved, Iran was proclaimed an Islamic state, Qom had been declared a Vatican-like religious city-state, the epicenter of both religion and political power, and the Ayatollah Khomeini came home. The Revoution against Reform was complete.

Tehran march, 1979

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, was born in 1928. He is a well-preserved 82, but a man of another time. He succeeded the very popular and affable Anwar Sadat. He has ruled for thirty years, walking a razor wire between Al-Ikhwān (the Muslim Brotherhood), the Copts, the Muslim factions, the reformers, the West, and the military. In general, despite heavy-handed tactics and inertia, he has not proved to be a totally bad deal.

Americans are a funny lot. It is in their constitutional, gun-loving change-worshiping blood to think that anyone who rules a country for so long can’t be any good. The country probably isn’t worth a damn either. That is the depth of American political wisdom, a nation where citizens become quickly bored two years after a “transformative election” and throw the majority party out and chew gum until they can change drivers yet again.

Thus, when American and (some) European media see thousands of violent protestors in the streets, in Cairo or anywhere in the world, they do not stop to think how few such demonstrations in the history of the planet have resulted in good, or change, or benefit for the “oppressed.”

They think this because (they think) change is good, and a little anarchy, backed up by weapons, never hurt anybody. Isn’t that what our Revolution was all about?

The other visual coordinate is Tienanmen Square, where as many as 800 Chinese protesters, or perhaps many fewer depending on whose frames you believe, were killed in April, 1976, following a show of mourning for the respected Premier Zhou Enlai. The gathering was, ironically, labeled “counter-revolutionary” by China’s surviving, ancient leaders. Both in its inception and in its results, the Chinese affair was completely anomalous. China’s patient evolutionary processes triumphed over the moment. The analogy, despite its visual power, is irrelevant.

Yet the American infatuation with violent protest and massive unrest abides, along with the idea that public demonstrations always convey promise, a fetish they equate with “the will of the people.” This largely mythological view about how change happens persists as all block-headed notions do. At its most banal, it represents a cult of emotion, of mob rule, or the belief (which history can’t corroborate) that chaos always sorts itself out in justice and peace. A few recent NPR interviews with “serious” political scientists” (I mention no names) who claim to know something about the politics of Egypt have been even more heart- and mind-breaking, fraught with ideas that the only live topic is the post-Mubarak era, which of course will be better than the Mubarak era because new things are better than old things.

Hassan al Banna, founder of the Brotherhood

The movers and shakers of this outburst and the final beneficiaries of the game are the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Ikhwān. They are the ones who are fanning the flames, puppeteering the young, skewering the discourse with predictable references to human rights and (naturally) freedom.

Their English language website (Ikhwanweb) called for January 25th to be a “Day of Rage” because, among other things the dictator Mubarak has “insulted” al Qaeda.. Like all incendiary movements, the MB are using statistics like monopoly money, big numbers with no factual value. “At least 100 protesters killed since yesterday.” –And the number continues to climb. It is another case of a dangerous Islamist wing-command using “human rights violations” as a framing device for arrests and detention, and where the attempt to restore civil order becomes “aggression” on the part of the security forces. The MB pours gasoline on grievances, calls it water, then stands back in feigned surprise, like a batch of medieval Dominicans, when the flames leap higher. The strength of the protest, its sheer volume and bloodiness, will be seen as proof of the rectitude of the cause by millions. While American viewers with their limited understanding of such outbreaks begin to conclude, Time for Mubarak to go, millions of Muslims will be thinking something else: Time to join.

And what is our response? What does the United States have to say? The United States government talks about “restoring internet access” in the name of free speech. The President insists that the right to protest peacefully is a “human right.” Fair enough. Mr. President: this is not about Facebook. For the engineers of these protests, it is about God. It is about confusion, and how unconfused men with wicked principles that they hold to be right–purpose-driven men–can turn images that the American media can’t exegete into a government America can not do business with.

That’s what it was about in 1979, too, when the marching stopped, the Shah safely evacuated (to Egypt, by the way) and the shouting died down, and Americans watched their embassy ravaged. Five hundred ardent, shouting student supporters of the Ayatollah, the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” seized fifty two American citizens and held them captive for 444 days as the United States and a fumbling American president stood by helplessly. There is nothing like reform.

It is undoubtedly true that history doesn’t alter the present. But this present and these scenes are so much like the recent past that whatever the United States gets–a new fundamentalist terrorist state in one of the most important countries in the Muslim world?–it deserves.