The West or Islam: a False Choice

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions [between the West and Islam] in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

– Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4th, 2009

I’m a big fan of the maxim “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Often, as a political scientist and, especially, as a contributor to a politics blog (and ardent Tweeter), this is easier said than done. This week, however, has been a bit of an exception. As Americans mourned the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, protests over an anti-Islamic extremist film grew into violent riots in Egypts, an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi killed the US Ambassador to Libya and three others, and, in a still-developing story, protesters attempted to storm the embassy in Sana, Yemen.

Although I have some thoughts on the ongoing politicization of these effects and the American reaction to them at home, it has been difficult–personally and professionally–to cultivate a cogent response to the events themselves. Overreaction to events such as these has become the mode and, as such, our response should be measured. But how measured? How should we as Americans interpret national security crises in the post-9/11 era that seem removed from traditional great power politics?

I’m not sure. I do know, however, how we shouldn’t respond. These attacks, by small groups, seek to divide two parts of the world that have more similarities than differences. If the lesson of the Cold War was that ideological differences do not make conflict among humans and the states that represent their interests inevitable, the lesson of the post-9/11 era should be that religious or cultural differences similarly lack such teleological effects. In 2012, after the Arab Spring, the Western and Islamic worlds are more similar than 2009 when President Obama spoke in Cairo and more similar arguably than at any other point in history. The structural forces pushing and pulling toward conflict that drove the behavior of states in eras past do not apply.

In the blogosphere, perhaps the aforementioned maxim could be changed to “if you don’t have something good to say, blog about somebody who does.” Thankfully, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva does a great job of highlighting the dynamics underlying the false choice between the two worlds presented before us:

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other…

…there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved.

In brief, as we react to and process these attacks, Americans should be wary of the voices of polarization and conflict at home and abroad. The choice between the West and Islam is a false one and the clashes that arise are avoidable, not inevitable.

For more of his thoughts on the attacks, follow William on Twitter.


2 thoughts on “The West or Islam: a False Choice

  1. It’s true that we shouldn’t support people who are using this film as a pretext to inflame sentiments against Muslims, or the US. But in your post, why haven’t you considered the reasons WHY so many ordinary people could be easily mobilized by such messages? (I’m going to leave out the US side of things, because deploring extremists on both sides without considering the massive imbalance of power is a little silly). We shouldn’t ignore the sordid history of US intervention, war, and destructive policies in the region which very clearly contribute to resentment against the US.

    This is not an anti-US policy screed, but rather the reasonable idea that we should take seriously the reasons large masses of people feel massive anger and resentment toward the US, and not write them off as the misguided masses exploited by political opportunists. As far as I can tell, this post was about how Bad Extremists Are and how we’re all the same – ok fine, but don’t you think you could consider the context a little bit more? Otherwise those are just empty platitudes.

  2. Pingback: Essentialism Goes Both Ways: More on Islam and the West | The Smoke-Filled Room

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