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Spinning Jihadism and stopping the clash -- postscript


The article Spinning Islamist Extremism: When "justice" and "peace" aren't what you think by Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, generated a very literate and interesting debate in comments by Paul Hilder of Avaaz, by the author and by thoughtful others that you can (and should) read for yourself there. The article discusses, in particular, an attempt to whitewash or euphemize radical Jihadism.

I will not hide that fact that this is a sensitive subject, and we were hesitant to publish the article, because the editors felt that it might be misunderstood -- or deliberately distorted -- as an attack on Islam. However, we felt that the article raised important issues that required discussion.

Following the strenuous protests of Paul Hilder of Avaaz, I gave some thought to their presentation and to the issues that Hilder raised. "Stop the clash," the title and theme of their presentation, is a slogan that has embedded in it numerous unjustified and unjustifiable assumptions. The first is that there is a clash between Islam (as a whole) and the West. Anyone who has studied Bin Laden's rhetoric is struck by how much of it is directed at other Muslims (see here for example). This is first and foremost a war between moderate Islam as it has evolved over many centuries, and an attempt to impose a mythologized version of seventh century ethics on evolving Muslim societies. Very probably, the motives of Bin Laden and his henchman are the usual sort of thing: money and power. Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were clever enough to channel anger at outsiders -- America and Israel -- in order to delegitimize the so called infidel kufr regimes of the various Muslim states, but all over the Middle East, religious leaders and ordinary people are slowly beginning to understand the nature and aims of AL-Qaeda, issuing religious rulings against terror and distancing themselves from extremist ideology. Hilder and Avaaz are a bit behind the rest of the Middle East. It appears, quite strangely, that Hilder is rooting for the wrong team, an impression that is reinforced by his public comments.

The second assumpton is that both sides are equally culpable. One is led to believe that the hatred emanating from Bin Laden and his henchman is matched by equal fanaticism on the part of Western leaders. Western "Islamophobia" provoked the attacks in the Avaaz version of events. It is an untenable assumption. Al Qaeda and Bin Laden perpetrated several unprovoked attacks on the United States and Saudi Arabia, beginning well before the presidency of George Bush, during an American administration that prosecuted a thankless war in Kossovo to protect Muslims, and could not possibly be accused of "Islamophobia" or provoking a war of civilizations by any stretch of the imagination.

Hilder and Avaaz assume that "zealotry" is necessarily "bad," and that Westerners don't like Muslims because they think they are zealots. "Zealots" are not necessarily bad. There is no doubt that Mother Teresa was a "zealot" in every sense of the word. Zealots who help others are not bad. Zealots who blow people up and spread hate are bad.

A major underpinning assumption of Avaaz's argument is that if only westerners show understanding for Muslims, the problems will "go away." Their video implies, and Hilder seems to state, that while leaders are nasty, people are all "good." This faith in the underlying goodness of "ordinary people" is the central part of the catechism in this approach.

As an ethical and idealistic percept, it is a worthy way of viewing the world. Hilder tells us in his comments:

The central characters in the video itself are are two women - one with a headscarf, one without. The script runs like this:

"Is this how you see me? (Stereotyped images of a clash of civilizations.) Look again. (It's more complicated.) Are we that different? (Images of common humanity.) Why are we doing this to each other? We're afraid, and they're playing off our fears.

Do these guys speak for you? (Pictures of out-of-touch leaders.) Who speaks for you? You do. Global public opinion is the new superpower. If the people lead, the leaders will follow. (Case studies of people power.)

Together we can stop the clash of civilizations. Change the policy - change the perception - change the world. Demand Real Middle East Peace Talks Now."

Stop the Clash is fundamentally talking about, and to, ordinary people -- not ideologues; about Muslims, not radical violent Islamists.

Indeed, this sounds very convincing and "uplifting." It is a theme that runs through much discourse that pretends to be analysis of the problems of the Middle East.

Unfortunately, it doesn't have anything much to do with reality. One of the unsolved riddles of political science, mostly unaddressed in fact, is how masses of ordinary people, nice people, good people who work hard and love their families, who are quiet and orderly and virtuous in their private lives, can be moved to support the most hateful and evil things. When a sweet-looking little girl says "I want to grow up to be a suicide bomber just like mommy," we begin to understand what ordinary people can do. The Russian soldiers who suppressed the Hungarian revolution were ordinary people. The millions of Austrians who lined the streets when the Nazis entered Vienna were ordinary people. The Polish troops that suppressed the Polish rebellion were ordinary people, and the guards in the gulags and the death camps of the twentieth century were ordinary people. The inhabitants of Salem who killed "witches" were also ordinary people, good people.

The ability of masses of ordinary, nice people, to be the agents of the worst barbarities ever perpetrated by mankind is probably the most horrifying fact that emerged in the twentieth century, though it is not a product of that century necessarily. Nobody really understands how it is possible, but it is a fact that cannot be ignored.

Picture poor Ermintrude in bombed-out Frankfort, lovingly knitting socks for the Winterhilfe and worrying about her dear husband Fritz, away out there in the east, in the bitter cold, guarding that place in Poland where they sent all those evil Jews. Ermintrude and Fritz were loyal citizens, good citizens. Someone had to do the work, right?

We must never give up on the humanity of others, but we cannot base political analysis on this lovely ideal. In those societies, which Hilder doesn't seem to understand, people power, which he advocates, often cannot do very much. The ordinary Russian could not change Russia in 1956. The ordinary German could not change Germany in 1940 even if they wanted to, and an entire generation had been brought up to believe that what they were doing was quite correct. Many ordinary Britons and ordinary Germans had a lot of dialogue before World War II, but it did not avert the war. Some Germans indeed tried to change Germany, but they were powerless and failed. "Grass roots activism" is not likely to bring about rapid change in a closed or authoritarian society, where dissent is punished by death or ostracism. That doesn't mean dialog is not a worthwhile investment. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Moreover, anyone who has engaged in dialogue in the Middle East knows that people who follow the extremists make themselves inaccessible to dialogue.

Only foolish people would believe that a Niqab or a Hijab necessarily hide a fanatic, while a person in Western dress is "OK." If that was the point of the video, then it is trivial. There are many fanatics in Western dress (Said Qutb was one), and, on the other hand, I have personally met many women in Hijabs who advocate democracy and peace. But if one of the ladies in the video were to say that she is proud that her son is a suicide bomber, then I would have to conclude that there is a fundamental and unbridgeable difference between that person's way of thought and mine.

What about the ordinary people pictured below?

They are not leaders. They are followers. Are we all quite sure that those demonstrators are peaceful and reasonable and just like us folks? They are not "zealots?" What sort of dialog can we have with them, and on what basis? Isn't it naive to expect to have a reasonable dialogue with such people?

Now picture a nice little girl and her mother, Jewish settlers in Hebron. They are both nice ordinary people. What could be bad about a sweet little girl? But the little girl's mother believes that all the Arabs must be thrown out of Hebron, and the little girl kicks Arab little girls and curses them. Don't we have to show understanding to them? Don't they have legitimate grievances? While it is quite obvious to everyone that what these ordinary people are doing must be condemned, for some reason it is not so obvious that their Islamist counterparts must be condemned unequivocally.

But Hilder's comments show something beyond naivete. He writes:

The basic problem with Jason's article is that it presents Stop the Clash as an apology for radical Islamism and an attack on the West...

We could give him the benefit of the doubt, but in his comments he goes on to make explicit the apology for radical Islam and the attack on the West:

It's also profoundly wrong and insulting to take al-Qaeda's analysis of the principal grievances of the Muslim world as either accurate or representative of the Muslim world. I prefer to look at polling, expert opinion and conversations with Muslims themselves, which yields clear answers - Palestine above all, now Iraq rising to join it, then Chechyna and so on, and a general sense of disrespect, inequality and humiliation...

What is Hilder saying here? Is his representation of the grievances of ordinary Muslims any more reasonable than that of Osama Bin Laden? Is it reasonable for Muslims to be angry at America because of Russian intervention in Chechnya and Jihadist bombings in Iraq?

Does he really believe that the number one problem of Ahmed the fallah, who is illiterate, has six kids and earns $300 a year and suffers from schistosomiasis, is the liberation of Palestine? Perhaps that really is what concerns Ahmed most. If you asked Ermintrude about her number one problem in 1943, she might say it was the Jews and the Bolsheviks. That is what she was taught in the Bund Deutscher Madchen, simple soul, so that is what she believed. She might also find it wise not to express concern about the lack of food for baby Adolf. Ahmed was taught in his mosque to believe that his number one problem is "liberating" "Palestine." He learned in his textbooks that Jews are the root of all evil He reads in the newpaper that Hitler didn't finish his work, and he hears on Radio Cairo that the Zionists are the cause of his poverty, while in al Ahram he can read that it is the fault of the Americans as well as the Zionists. All the wise and honored people in his society say so, so that is what he believes. Isn't Hilder adopting this narrative? Isn't he attacking the West? Isn't he straining credibility when he tries to justify the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers as caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq?

The crisis of Al Qaeda and radical Islam burst upon the world unexpectedly. As most of the "experts" were of the same persuasion as Paul Hilder, they did not predict it. It created a buyer's market for Middle East analysis, and almost anything goes. People want to hear things that agree with their pet ideas about the world, so there are "religious" schools that cater to these ideas. If you are so inclined, you can get an analysis like that of Hilder, or if you prefer, you can go to a different "church" and get an analysis like that of Steve Emerson, depending on whom you want to hate.

People are the "same" but people and cultures are also different in different parts of the world. Political culture, for example, was not the same in Britain of 1938 as it was in Germany of 1938, as Mr. Chamberlain found out, nor was it the same in the United States of 1944 as it was in the USSR of 1944, as Messrs Roosevelt and Churchill found out. It is very hard to look at what is happening, and try to untangle it, without falling into the trap of demonizing the other side and following the line of the Jihadwatch types (or Al-Qaeda if you are a Muslim) or else making the mistake of trying to project your values on to another society and assume that "those people are just like me, there there must be a rational reason for what they do."

Mr. Hilder is convinced that the Egyptians, given democracy, will vote for a peaceful and reasonable solution, but most Egyptians seem to be convinced that elections would put the Muslim Brotherhood in power. They may consider this a reasonable solution. Here are some more pictures. Are we quite sure that people like this will choose a "wise" solution and opt for democracy? Remember, they are ordinary people, just like the ones in the Avaaz film, just like Egyptian voters:

Are they zealots? These demonstrators are ordinary people, not leaders, but they believe terrible ideas, and they do terrible things. That is what Paul Hilder fails to understand. That is also what the Islamophobes trivialize and demonize and oversimplify in their own way. The Jihadists and their followers do not represent all Muslims, but rather a perversion of Muslim thinking, just as Hitler and Nazism didn't represent all of the West, but rather a perversion of Western and German thinking. Those who pointed out the excesses of Stalin or Hitler were not all Germanophobes and Russophobes, and those who apologized for Nazism or Communism weren't doing anything to help the Russian or German people.

Paul Hilder notes, "I don't blame Jason for his mistake. I wish him well in his studies. I encourage him to read a little more broadly, and to think a little more inquiringly. It takes a long time to understand this conflict properly, and I'm not convinced even I do fully."

To paraphrase Hilder, "I don't blame Paul for his mistake. I wish him well if he truly means well. I encourage him to read a little more broadly, and to think a little more inquiringly before reaching conclusions and disseminating them so widely. It takes a long time to understand this conflict properly." I know darn well that I don't "fully" understand the conflict. It is pretty certain that nobody does. Therefore it is a good idea to keep an open mind. Nobody has earned a license to tell others that they don't understand it "properly." Dialogue is not just for other people. It begins at home.

Some day mankind may have a much better understanding of social processes as well as of the phyical universe and more inscrutable problems. Meanwhile, however, analyses and positions have to also be evaluated for their political impact. An analysis that legitimizes the narrative of extremists and Jihadism is not only very probably incorrect, it is dangerous, because it undermines the attempts of reformists in Islam to get a hearing in their societies. It plays into the hands of those who insist that Muslim moderates and advocates of democracy are tools of American imperialism and "Zionism."

Ami Isseroff

PS - Paul Hilder has posted an extensive comment below (at the Web site). Eventually, I will get around to replying to that as well. Others are invited to join. A.I.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000630.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 3 comments


This conflict touches very closely on your own life as an Israeli, as it touches on my life as a Londoner. This is a more considered argument, so I’ll make one last public response, again solely in my own name. I even agree with elements of the above. I agree that that not all the “people” are good, and that extremists like the British al-Mujahiroun supporters you show in your photos and the people who bombed the London transport network are bad. I agree that elections are not an unwavering absolute or the sum total of democracy, if the people elected act in a genocidal or totalitarian way.

However, your critique of apologies for salafi-jihadist Islamism still has nothing to do with Avaaz’s Stop the Clash campaign, which doesn’t make such an apology: it’s taken again as a straw man. You criticise the “clash between Islam and the West” as false: so does the campaign.

You claim that the video argues “if only Westerners show understanding for Muslims, the problems will ‘go away’”. Not so: the video argues that the understanding required is reciprocal, demanding that Muslims come to a better understanding of others too. Still, that’s not its central theory of change either. The main priority is placed on common effort to change policies – e.g. to bring about real Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. I understand that you may have lost hope in such a thing. But many people haven’t; and surely it is worth one last serious effort before perpetual conflict becomes inevitable.

The sequence of the argument in the video is clear: changing policies on both sides can help change the false perceptions and heal the false divides. Fully realising our common humanity and interests is likely to continue to be difficult until bad policies are changed (and that includes not just Iraq and the 1967 occupation, but also policies of suicide bombing, on which we are beginning to see a sea-change in Muslim opinion today). But meanwhile, we’ve been encouraged by Globescan and other polling which shows substantial majorities across most countries rejecting this false clash, and key elements of it.

What concerns me most is your ascription to Stop the Clash of “an analysis that legitimizes the narratives of extremists and Jihadism”, when the video is intended precisely to debunk al-Qaedist narratives and analyses. What’s going on here? The decisive moment for you is not in the video, but in my own words:

“It's also profoundly wrong and insulting to take al-Qaeda's analysis of the principal grievances of the Muslim world as either accurate or representative of the Muslim world. I prefer to look at polling, expert opinion and conversations with Muslims themselves, which yields clear answers - Palestine above all, now Iraq rising to join it, then Chechyna and so on, and a general sense of disrespect, inequality and humiliation...”

Does this quote really “make explicit the apology for radical Islam and the attack on the West”, as you say? “What is Hilder saying here? Is his representation of the grievances of ordinary Muslims any more reasonable than that of Osama Bin Laden?”

I think we’ve come to the vital strategic point where you and I currently disagree. I believe that to win the struggle for hearts and minds within the Muslim world, we must break the intersection between al-Qaedism and those deeply felt Muslim grievances which are at least partly founded in legitimate complaints. Recognising and addressing those grievances through sensible, carefully-developed measures which are desirable in their own terms is the best way to marginalise al-Qaeda and its false claim of leadership. For you, recognising and acting on those independent and legitimate grievances is tantamount to endorsing the al-Qaedist story – when in fact it is dismantling it from the ground up.

Bin Laden, and Zawahiri in particular, have political nous. Of course they have sought to tap into rich and authentic veins of grievance. On Israel-Palestine, on Iraq, on US hegemony, on policies toward democracy and dictatorship in the region, and yes, on poverty and inequality, those grievances can be tackled sensibly by Middle Easterners and the world in a way which draws the sting of the salafi-jihadists’ glamour. (As you should know, al-Qaeda has also repeatedly denounced electoral democracy as un-Islamic.)

Any decision – whether you go for democracy or dictatorship, peace or war – has risk attached. When containment systems break open violently, the pressure that has built up can be lethal. But there is a case that there are many such containment systems in the Middle East, and that a better approach might be to gradually decommission them in favour of a generally healthier system.

Certainly, if every grievance that bin Laden trumpeted was immediately poisoned by the association, we’d have to give up on stopping climate change. I think Stop the Clash is about as far from justifying al-Qaeda’s narrative as it could be.

As for dates… the world did not begin in 2001, nor yet in 1948 or 1917. It is true that people in the Middle East could pay more attention to the divides between Russia, Europe and America, and to what was (eventually) done for Muslims in the former Yugoslavia. I don’t think European and American colonialism and geopolitical hegemony in the Middle East excuses Middle Easterners of responsibility for their own fates and actions, nor is the story of Balfour/Sykes-Picot and 1948 as simple as some think. But I do know that these events helped seed a pervasive narrative of interference and humiliation, based partly in truth, which al-Qaeda was able to exploit in the run-up to 2001. (Even the word crusaders still resonates.)

Returning to the present day, I’m not convinced that the photos above of al-Mujahiroun, a tiny and extreme British salafist faction, are “just like Egyptian voters”. As for the cartoonish figure of “Ahmad the Fellah”, who doesn’t know his own poverty and is taught to ignore it in the mosque… words fail me. None of us fully understand the Middle East – me included. I’m still learning, and listening, and testing my views. I’m ready to be wrong. But let’s agree on one thing at any rate: stereotypes like this are dangerous. They obscure the world.

Posted by Paul Hilder @ 10/09/2007 11:33 AM CST

It has seemed to me for a very long time that "being in hate" is much like "being in love". It's a warm place place to be where reality doesn't have to intrude. The "being in" state allows the person to avoid the awfulness of reality. As much as the person who is "in love" can glibly ignore the fact that the object of their affections has appallingly bad habits and awards that person with exemplary qualities. The person who is "in hate" does much the same thing except the other way around.

The people identified with their outrageous banners and their holy anger enjoy the emotion of this hatred. It is a legitimate avenue for their frustrations, few of which will have anything to do with the matter they are protesting about. And afterwards they can enjoy a pseudo-postcoital discussion amongst themselves savouring every gesture and scream.

So long as they remain "in love / hate" they remain immune to reason, and every challenge to their perception results in them rushing to the defence of their beloved. Every fact that counters their perception is readily explained away through malice on the part of the author of that fact. "You're only saying that because you're jealous!", "you're only saying that because you are a racist and hate Muslims!"

The hard bit is liking someone for themselves and recognising them as a normal and flawed individual. But once you do it the enemy stops being an enemy and just becomes another person caught up in a cycle of events and circumstances over which they have little control.

Posted by Rod Davies @ 10/09/2007 09:39 PM CST

I know exactly why Ami and Jason Guberman-Pfeffer think that Avaaz's video is legitimizing radical Jihadism. We've all seen too many people who belong to the left/peace-camp/progressives/liberals/radicals who have slid down the slippery slope from trying to understand to making excuses for to legitimizing to justifying and then finally applauding totalitarian ideologies like radical jihadism. However I don't think this is the case with Mr. Hilder and Avaaz. I don't think he or Avaaz had any intention to legitimize radical jihadism. In fact I still believe that these are people who are full of good intentions. It's a shame that I cannot believe the same about others who were supposed to belong to the same political camp, but this is all the more reason why we shouldn't accuse somebody who does not deserve it of crossing this line between trying to understand a phenomena and justifying it. I don't think Mr. Hilder deserves this accusation. Moreover, I wouldn't want to see Mr. Hilder slide down the slope to the 'blame Israel' point, as has happened to others like him. But, at the same time I must say that although I appreciate Mr. Hilder's good intentions, I do not trust his analysis of the situation, I do not have faith in the way he looks at our reality, and as a result I cannot have much faith in the remedies he's offering. Good intentions and wishful thinking are not enough anymore in dealing with our complex reality, and I've become wary of people who approach the problems we're facing with that state of mind almost as much as I'm wary of the right-wing. Sorry.

Posted by Micha @ 10/12/2007 10:19 PM CST

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