sunnuntaina, tammikuuta 28, 2007

Exporting Fundamentalist Religion to the Middle East, (or How long have we been attacking Iran, anyway?)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Nice quote, T.J. Who’s going to argue with that? Though people across the Western world might have different interpretations of that line, everyone from Dick Cheney to Michael Moore would claim to believe it. In fact, criticism from both ends of the political spectrum is usually aimed at those who have somehow failed to preserve these "unalienable Rights".
Two proponents of Western Humanism

For example, one of Bush’s purported reasons for invading Iraq was to “liberate” the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein committed crimes against humanity and therefore needed to be ousted from power. Whether or not you believe that this was the actual reason for invading Iraq, the point is that an appeal was made to “human rights” and “liberty” as justification for, well, nearly anything.

Then you’ve got the other side. Bush is criticized, and rightly so, for violating basic the human rights of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Both sides—left and right—are throwing around “human rights,” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as justifications for their arguments for or against a particular policy or action. And in both cases, I believe, the use of these terms is genuine. What differs between left and right is often the means used to achieve these rather abstract goals. Thus, the interpretation of these ideals is often questioned, but rarely do any “Westerners” ask themselves why they believe so uncritically in these particular notions.

What do we believe? Arguably, we believe in what journalist William Pfaff calls “Western secular humanism.” Pfaff is referring to things that the Western world generally takes for granted: individualism (in both its positive and negative senses), an attachment to various kinds of freedom, a democratic form of government, etc. These notions are inextricably related to human rights; they rely on the same fundamental principles. There’s also a general belief in progress: we are improving and increasing the length and facility of human life.

Let’s go back to T.J. for a moment and take a look at the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. Originally, Jefferson wanted to use the phrase, “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” There’s a bit of a religious tinge there. Yet T.J. was no Bible-beater. His views on religion were not easily defined, neither atheist, nor aligned with a particular Christian denomination. (Late in life, he wrote in a letter to Ezra Stiles, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.")

So here’s a question (one that Pfaff has raised often during his impressive career): is our “western secular humanism” simply a form of religion, even fundamentalist religion? It has certainly been noted that “civic religion” has taken the place of traditional religion in many Western countries. But there’s a missionary component to our beliefs, too: we believe that all countries must convert to democracy and make a commitment to technological and material progress. How that happens is subject to turbulent debate. Do we invade Iraq and forcibly construct a democracy? Or do we hope that it will happen on its own through inclusion in the world community?

Yet, in a sense, the debates we have amongst ourselves do not address the real issue at hand, which is how the imposition of such beliefs has affected the large portions of the world that do not share this world-view. Pfaff’s writings include a plethora of examples, but given the Bush administration’s focus on Iran, let’s look at that particular example:

After World War II, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, tried forcibly and violently to impose the Western worldview on a peasant people whose understanding of the world and of themselves had derived for many centuries from a different religion, Islam. (Incidentally, the military coup that established a "democratic" government in 1953 was backed with the full support of the CIA). The psychological effect this had on many Third world nations is difficult to appreciate in an era of hyper-fast communication in which we feel connected to individuals, via the media and the Internet, on the other side of the globe.

In illustration, I’ll quote part of an email sent to me by a friend: “Imagine what sort of impact would it have on the typical American if creatures landed from outer space and told us that our way of life is backward and that we must change as quickly as possible. What if the invaders had a clearly superior technology and powerful weapons to threaten us with or to use in imposing their ways on us? Beyond imagining the terrible psychological and 'spiritual' consequences of such a scenario, we should try to imagine just how many of us would readily embrace the invaders' worldview and program, even if at some level we were able to view it as 'superior' (the technology, etc.)."

Aliens attacking us with superior technology. They think democracy is backwards.

According to Pfaff, “Modern Western civilization is the product of its own history. It is what it is because of its past. Nobody imposed foreign ideas on the West; it assimilated what it chose.” In other words, democracy and human rights seem to be the natural, even inevitable results of progress to those born into “modern,” Western societies, precisely because these ideas have evolved along with the rest of our culture, our art, our religions and our political organization.

I cannot claim to be immune to the beliefs of “Western secular humanism”; I am a child of my times and my environment. But I do wonder what effects thre will be for us, collectively, as human beings, as the result of these treasured values.


Blogger Carla said...

Very interesting article and I will comment, however, I am just running out the door. I did respond to your comment on my post and am hoping that perhaps you will enlighten the rest of the world a little more with regards to French politics (which I openly admit to not knowing much other than what has transpired in the news over here).

3:57 ip.  
Blogger BurdockBoy said...

Another great post.

First I would like to comment on the question:
is our “western secular humanism” simply a form of religion, even fundamentalist religion?

While this appeares to be the case on the surface, I believe markets, globalisation, and political alliances play bigger roles. Chavez of Venezuela is the perfect example. Even though he has been democratically elected,he has been compared to Pinochet. Not because he's a ruthless dictator, but because he's a strong critic of globalisation-especally the US.

Then we have China. A country that's anything but a democracy with it's highest level officials hand picked by the communist party. They still control Tibet by force and they are responsible for countless human rights violations. However, since they have recently become more capitalistic and are open to free trade and neoliberal policies, they have become a great ally to the west.

Next there are the forgotten countries like Sudan and Myanmar both with dictator leaders that seem to get little attention. Why? They have no oil or excessive cheap human labour to make our corporations billions. We're not going to conduct a multi-billion dollar war to overthrow countries with little to offer.

The leaders of the west seem to be able to overlook many dictators as long as they are "doing business" with us. When they step out of that role, our leaders spout out their "all countries should be democracies" rhetoric. Just ask Saddam Hussein, oh wait we can't because they killed him for crimes he committed when the US supported him.

5:11 ap.  
Blogger The Fool said...

H'lo Lady Bonds. Another thought provoking post. Let me take this a thought at a time.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

"Nice quote, T.J. Who’s going to argue with that?"

Yes, indeed. Notice the banner of abstractions: truth, self-evident, men, equal, Creator, unalienable Rights, Life, Liberty, & Happiness. Can anyone define? Of course...very individually & differently. It's so easy to get the banner flying...and then make it mean whatever you want.

Consider today's abstractions.

Abstract nouns are wonderful things to discuss...see "Miracles & Other Abstract Nouns" (10/20/06).

I'll be back...of course. ;)

9:20 ap.  
Blogger Etzel Pangloss said...

We are Western because we hold the Germanic belief that people are born free,

We are Secular because we believe that nothing is absolute,

We are humanists because people are capable of great cruelty.

Expecting anyone to buy/give away truth is as stupid as I can imagine...

Those in power need not...

10:07 ip.  
Blogger Zen Wizard said...

This is an argument that will not leave us any time soon.

The question I ask is, "Which Islamic republic comes closest to being something similar to a democratic republic?"

The answer would be, "Turkey."

How is "democracy" achieved in Turkey?

Historically and even presently, by the barrel of a gun of a benevolent military class.

So, in other words, the only Islamic democracy is a democracy by saying, "We have loaded guns, and we are going to make you a democracy whether you like it or not."

I forget his name, but there is an Algerian terrorist who says, "I don't believe in democracy. If people vote that red wine is hallal, that does not make it hallal."

Fundamentalism--Christian or Islamic--can not favor "democracy."

Reasonable people can disagree, for instance, on "Pro-choice" versus "Pro-life."

But by and large the "Pro-lifers" are religious, and want to FORCE their religion on the "Pro-choicers."

We are naive to think that Islamic fundamentalism would be any more "enlightened."

11:19 ip.  
Blogger The Fool said...

I have to concur with much of Zen Wizard's astute observations.

Fundamentalism is a fascistic flow, and not in accord with the notion of democracy.

The term democracy is such a confusion. An elusive goal, or a state achieved? As Confucius said - you've got to first define your terms, or you'll end up speaking gibberish. Like T.J.

Lady Bonds, you have asked for suggestive alternatives to the present form of 'democracy - let me brave a venture for conversation and consideration.

It could be said that cockroaches practice a better form of democracy than we do (dig up "Cockroach Democracy" 11/10/06) I suggest we consider.

To follow D&G: an a-centered, rhyzomatic state, operating off localized operations which becomes coordinated into a final, global result synchronized w/o a central opposed to the hierarchy of the arborescent "tree ring model" - with it's concentric, hierarchical distributions of power. Envision loose, localized, overlapping circles with no real center.

Yeah, I'm a dreamer. But I'll let the thought stand. Perhaps there is a seed there.

6:02 ap.  
Blogger Lady Bonds said...

Everyone; Wow, what a terrific bunch of comments. I was swamped yesterday and couldn't really participate in conversation...

Carla; give me another day or two to work on that post. I had a good conversation with a French friend who has studied at the prestigious Science Politique school in Paris, and he's been helping clarify things for me.

Burdockboy, Fool, Etzel, Zen; Thanks. I think you are quite right in that markets and globalisation play a huge role in the choices made by Western governments, one that cannot be overlooked.

But Pfaff's argument (which I did a poor job of conveying), is that the "Modern World" comprises all of these things: capitalism, democracy, belief in various sorts of freedom. "Western secular humanism" you might call the religious component of it. So while material interests like oil and cheap labour might determine specifically where Western countries go in a particular decade, I was referring to the overall trend going back to the exploration of the New World.

(For example, though now we couldn't give a rat's rear end about Africa, not too long ago there was the "Scramble for Africa" for its diamonds and just for land. It was exploitation. But *also* the sense that it is morally justified by the superiority of Western modernity.

And yes, there is a contradiction between fundamentalism and what we often conceive to be democracy. However, we use the ideal of "democracy" as a moral justification for nearly anything, in part because we believe unfailingly in it. In the same way that Christian or Islamic fundamentalist believe that Their Way is the Right Way, nearly all Westerners would believe that freedom, individuality, democracy, and various forms of material goods are GOOD, no questions asked. Those are the ideals that we should work for.

But unquestioned belief is, basically, a form of fundamentalism. When we "export" these beliefs, we do it via unbridled capitalism (as you astutely point out), military intervention, political power, and just through technology, like the internet.

When I referred to the "religious" component, I was referring not only to the *way* we export these things (i.e., democracy has a missionary component--its supporters believe that it should be universal), but also in the fact that we JUSTIFY our actions MORALLY with the unquestioned belief that whatever is modern is good. That includes material progress, democracy, individualism, as well as capitalism.

I would like to point out that I don't think any of these things are inherently "good" or inherently "bad." It's the way each is used that determines its relative moral goodness.

And one other point regarding Pfaff: he is neither "liberal" nor "conservative," and his goal is not to point fingers or start a revolution, but to understand a phenomenon that profoundly affects human collective life. I do think he is genuinely interested in what he sees as the devastating impact that the Western secular 'religion' (what some call our 'civic religion'), which has a strong 'missionary' component (e.g., all countries must convert to democracy and make a commitment to technological and material progress), has had on various Third World cultures during the past hundred years or so.

Fool; I quite liked your abstract noun post--like the "Kids and Lies" post recently, it's always good to check in with the unintiated to see things from their point-of-view.

Etzel; Yup.

Zen; You're right. Democracy in Turkey, like in Iran, was forcibly imposed and is a joke. And Turkey has been, historically, in far more contact with the Western world than, say, Iraq has. Democracy in Iraq? Like hell. And even if it *could* happen, would it be a good idea?

However, In regards to the incompatibility of democracy and fundamentalism, I'd say that that is one of the huge contradictions that we, as Westerners, live. And I think that is one reason why the Western world is in such conflict with the part of the world that has not yet "modernized."

Fool; You've put forth a lot to think about with that last comment...give some time to let that sink in and stew a while...

I'll try to do a post that goes further in depth into some of the points you all have raised.


4:34 ip.  
Blogger Carla said...

Wow! Great article and discussion. "An appeal was made to human rights and liberty as justification for, well, nearly anything" it seems to me that we as society are continuing to be ensnared by the argument "the end justifies the means." What if somehow we don't achieve the "end" we were aiming for? Is the means then still justified? I think you make a good point questioning if western secular humanism is a form of religion. You certainly present good arguments in favour of this being the case. I'll have to ruminate on the other points brought up a bit more.

11:44 ip.  
Blogger BurdockBoy said...

I have checked back a couple times, but failed to add another response. Hopefully my thoughts will come together now.

When I spoke of globalisation being of so much importance, I was mostly referring to our leaders, mostly the recent ones, ability to overlook their democratic humanistic beliefs for the almighty dollar. So actually CAPITALISTIC tendencies is what has really infected the mindset of our leaders as well as leaders of nations claiming to be opposed to western ways.

5:30 ap.  

Lähetä kommentti

<< Home