Search This Blog

Friday, October 17, 2003

Clash of civilizations?

As regular readers of this blog know, I think words have consequences. The words leaders use to sell policies can contribute to the success of the policy -- or can incite opponents to rise up to assure its failure. In any case, I regularly report and analyze the words used by President Bush, members of his administration, or supporters in the media or think tanks.

Yesterday, the LA Times reported about a troubling series of comments by Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.

These are the key paragraphs (note: Mark A. R. Kleiman had the link, but the blogs I read haven't really said anything about this yet):
Yet the former commander and 13-year veteran of the Army's top-secret Delta Force is also an outspoken evangelical Christian who appeared in dress uniform and polished jump boots before a religious group in Oregon in June to declare that radical Islamists hated the United States "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan."

Discussing the battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia, Boykin told another audience, "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

"We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this," Boykin said last year.

On at least one occasion, in Sandy, Ore., in June, Boykin said of President Bush: "He's in the White House because God put him there."
George W. Bush, remember, took a lot of political heat for saying something similarly stupid in the week following the 9/11 attacks. He said (this from the BBC), "This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a long time." Osama bin Laden tells his potential recruits that they are fighting against crusaders and Jews.

The Christian Science Monitor reported at the timethat the President's remark "recalled the barbarous and unjust military operations against the Muslim world," by Christian knights. The Monitor was quoting Soheib Bensheikh, Grand Mufti of the mosque in Marseille, France, who added that the statement "was most unfortunate."

Paris daily newspaper Le Monde, according to the same article, editorialized that the comment had the "air of a clash of civilizations, there is a strong risk that it will contribute to Osama bin Laden's goal: a conflict between the Arab-Muslim world and the West."

Critics are making much the same point now about Boykin's rhetoric. Back to the LA Times story from yesterday:
"The first lesson is to recognize that whatever we say here is heard there, particularly anything perceived to be hostile to their basic religion, and they don't forget it," said Stephen P. Cohen, a member of the special panel named to study policy in the Arab and Muslim world for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

"The phrase 'Judeo-Christian' is a big mistake. It's basically the language of Bin Laden and his supporters," said Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in New York.
President Bush ended up retracting his statement and Boykin will probably be pressured to stop expressing his beliefs publicly -- at least while he's in a position of authority. Part of his job means cooperating with Muslem leaders to garner information useful in the war on terrorism. The US certainly doesn't want to tick off those states any more than it already has

I've seen a CNN broadcast about this story and the LA Times says NBC has it too. It's likely going to be all over the newspapers and in other media throughout the Muslem world. The administration can distance itself from the remarks, impose censorship in Iraqi media, but ultimately cannot prevent comments like these from inflaming greater anti-American feeling.

As the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday, the Muslem world is already quite paranoid about the Judeo-Christian axis. The prime minister of Malaysia, Mahatir Mohammad told the recent Islamic summit:
"They succeeded in gaining control in most of the [world's] powerful states, and they – a tiny community – became a world power. But 1.3 billion Muslims must not be defeated by a few million Jews. A way must be found."
It would be much easier to get upset about this sort of paranoid and divisive language coming from the Muslem world when American generals serving in top Pentagon posts aren't making quite similar remarks.

As my academic colleague Marc Lynch has written, the world really needs to pursue a "dialogue of civilisations" rather than a "clash of civilizations." His Millennium journal article isn't available on-line, but those interested can read his recent piece in Foreign Affairs, "Taking Arabs Seriously." Here's the abstract:
The Bush administration's tone-deaf approach to the Middle East reflects a dangerous misreading of the nature and sources of Arab public opinion . Independent, transnational media outlets have transformed the region, and the administration needs to engage the new Arab public sphere that has emerged.

No comments:

Post a Comment