How Should The West Engage With the Muslim World?
By David Swanson
Opening Remarks at a Dialogue With Islam.
I want to thank Shahinoor Ali and http://dialoguewithislam.org for inviting me and I'm honored to speak together with Dr. Azzam Tamami.
I don't know about the West, but I have some thoughts on the United States. I recently flew from California to Washington, D.C., and when the plane landed, the pilot came on the intercom to tell everyone to celebrate: our government had killed Osama bin Laden. This was better than winning the Super Bowl, he said.
Set aside for a moment the morality of cheering for the killing of a human being -- which despite the pilot's prompting nobody on the plane did. In purely Realpolitik terms, killing prominent individuals whom we've previously supported has never resolved anything.
Our killing of Saddam Hussein has been followed by years of war and hundreds of thousands of pointless deaths. Our attempts to kill Muammar Gadaffi have killed his children and grandchildren and will end no war if they eventually succeed. Our attempts to kill Osama bin Laden, including wars justified by that mission, have involved nearly a decade of senseless slaughter in Afghanistan and the rest of the ongoing global "generational" war that is consuming my country while destroying others.
A decade ago the automatic assumption would not have been that there could be no dissenters to celebrating a killing. A decade ago torture was considered irredeemably evil. A decade ago we believed people should have fair trials before they are declared guilty or killed. A decade ago, if a president had announced his new power to assassinate Americans, at least a few people would have asked where in the world he got the power to assassinate non-Americans. Dan Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers, evidence of Vietnam War lies, 40 years ago, recently remarked that everything President Nixon did to him has now been legalized: breaking and entering, warrentless searches, assassination attempts, etc. U.S. television tells us that people in the nations we bomb and occupy hate us for our freedoms, but our freedoms don't rank very high anymore in international comparisons, and meanwhile we see Arabs taking nonviolent risks for freedom that we haven't taken in decades. It's quite confusing.
Reports eventually made clear that bin Laden's killers had been ordered to kill, not capture. But some of us knew that before being told. Capturing bin Laden would have meant imprisoning him somewhere, but where? Bagram would have called attention to the other 1,700 people lawlessly locked up there. Guantanamo would have alerted deluded Americans that the place still exists. And U.S. soil would have resulted in numerous heart attacks brought on by fear. A mock trial would have been condemned around the world. A fair trial would have called into question why so many lesser alleged criminals aren't being given trials at all. It could also have given bin Laden a platform to air his grievances, dredged up the history of U.S. support for bin Laden in the 1980s, or even resulted in acquittal for one reason or another. I was on a radio show on which a former CIA officer explained to me that killing was cleaner than capturing. And of course, the United States kills people with drones rather than bullets all the time now, which seems to disturb Americans less than stories of torture.
But the torture of recent years served the purpose of dehumanizing Muslims and Arabs in the minds of Americans. Surely our government would not treat people like animals if it didn't have to. While the United States is ten times as violent a place to live as a nation like Egypt, Americans are told that Islam breeds violence. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they would tolerate a mosque in their neighborhood. Muslims are only about 1 percent of Americans. But 61 percent of Americans say there should not be a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Only 53 percent of Americans believe that American Muslims support the United States. Twenty-eight percent of Americans believe that all Muslims are sympathetic to al Qaeda. And 52 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea recently to hold hearings in Congress on the danger posed by the existence of Muslims.
The problem that Americans have with Muslims is not their religiosity. In contrast to Europe, the United States is an extremely religious place. Forty-six percent of Americans, including a number of Congress members, want our laws based at least in part on the Christian Bible. Three quarters of the people in the United States believe in heaven and angels, while less than half think life forms evolve. The leading tool for inspiring fear prior to Muslim terrorism was Soviet atheists. While 34 percent of Americans would not want their child to marry a Muslim and 45 percent would be less likely to vote for a Muslim for president, for atheists those numbers are 48 and 50. There are two Muslims in Congress and one atheist. Of course it is not clear everyone in the United States knows the difference between a Muslim and an atheist, and apparently some 20 percent of Americans believe the current U.S. president is a Muslim.
Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have garnered support in the United States because of their potential for killing Muslims AND because of the humanitarian good they supposedly do those poor Muslims whether they wanted it or not. Our war propaganda turns against a religion, just as it turns against a dictator, when the real motives make that desirable. President Eisenhower approved a half million dollars to study the revival of a railway to get more pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. For decades Islam was valuable for its anti-Soviet potential. Islam became the enemy when war fever was needed and the Soviet Union was gone. Americans have no idea why anyone would resent their nation. The war death counts in our newspapers leave out 95 percent of the dead. So blaming irrational inexplicable resentment on a religion comes in handy.
I would like to see the United States engage with the Muslim world through young people rather than bombs and bases. Student exchange programs would open more eyes than anything else we could do. Plus, the presence of U.S. students in a country would reduce the likelihood of drone strikes there.
The United States should stop funding and arming dictators, not when they've been toppled or when we've found a candidate to replace them, but across the board, all of them. We should invest in nonviolent activists. They cost a lot less than dictators or wars, are far more effective, and cause dramatically less collateral damage. We should cancel international debts, stop loaning more, and stop imposing terms. We should instead give money by giving money. We should give it to popular nonviolent democratic movements and governments. And if popular governments lacking loyalty to the United States' military ask for our bases and fleets to leave, we should beat them to it and already be gone.