12 September, 2011
Reading Aslan’s book felt, to me, like taking two steps forward and one step back. I had a limited understand of conflicts in the Middle East, and though reading the book cleared up some of the confusion, it increased my uncertainties to the motives behind many of the issues that consume the third world. My understanding of the chronological events leading up to the war in the Middle East is marked by the severely simplified versions given to young people, which still linger in my head. For example, the American invasion of Afghanistan. First of all, it seems as though one true explanation of our warranted invasion was impossible to nail down. There was the initial need to enter and provide for the common defense, but when that proved itself to be false how could anyone not wonder “Why aren’t we leaving, then?” Finding myself almost fully untouched by the poised danger there was little urgency in finding an answer and I let it go for years. It was not until high school when Operation Desert storm was in our textbooks that the more information I gathered concerning our presence in the Middle East, the more I suddenly had opinions, and strong ones. I got into heated arguments with some of my more conservative peers who insisted we were there to spread democracy. What I could not get past though, was if that was truly our whole-hearted purpose why were we starting in Afghanistan? Why not North Korea who clearly suffered under despotic rule and had made it known that they possessed nuclear weapons? It seemed awfully coincidental that we chose to begin our benevolent mission in a country with an incredibly rich oil supply.
Politics has always seemed, to me, like an incredibly frustrating profession. One of my favorite quotes on politics comes from Nikita Krushchev, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even when there is no river.” Cynical as it sounds, it proves true time and time again. In the case of the United States, it seems we persist with the conceit of ‘my way or the highway.’ Because of this I believe the most important point that Aslan makes in Beyond Fundamentalism is a subtle one. “It will require vigorous and sustained pressure on U.S. allies in the region (that is, those nations receive billions of American dollars in economics and military aid every year) to concede to the growing demands of arbitrary imprisonments and the silencing of political participation, especially by religious nationalist groups that are willing to commit to responsible governance.” (171) The solution I would propose is to stop identifying the enemy in the style of government.
When you look at American law, it overlaps heavily with the 10 commandments given to Moses in the Old Testament. Yes, the Western world’s government style is a secular one, but how many politicians are religious? How many end their speeches with ‘God bless America?” To say that church and state remain separate at all times is to grossly ignore the influence of religion on government. Anti-abortionists parade signs proclaiming “Abortion: God calls it murder.” This is where Aslan’s ‘Us vs. Them’ theory comes in. We are so willing to justify the things we do and criticize the actions of other nations, no matter how similar the actions are. We allow the different states in America to decide if they will support the death penalty, yet when a woman is killed for adultery in a third world country we gasp in horror. Sure, our methods are more ‘humane’ but when it comes down to it, the death penalty is the death penalty. Countries, cities, or even tribes decide which punishments will match certain crimes, just as the U.S. justice system determines which offenses warrant the death penalty here. It is okay for ‘us.’ But what about the ‘them?’ It reminds me of a conversation between two characters in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
As always occurred when he quarreled over principles in which he believed passionately, he would end up gasping furiously for air and blinking back bitter tears of conviction. There were many principles in which Clevinger believed passionately. He was crazy.
“Who’s they?” he wanted to know. “Who, specifically, do you think is trying to murder you?”
“Every one of them,” Yossarian told him.
“Every one of whom?”
“Every one of whom do you think?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“Then how do you know they aren’t?”
“Because …” Clevinger sputtered, and turned speechless with frustration.
After September 11th, 2001 America was on the offense. We wanted an enemy and someone to pay. It is not a hard connection to make; a country whose government is heavily, if not completely, based off of a religion, and a member of the country commits a heinous act, then it must be because the religion is teaches such. This is wrong in so many ways. It is a well-known theory that human nature will continue to repeat itself throughout time. Keeping that in mind, the wisdom that we as Americans have must also grow in other countries and in other minds. Instead we choose to stick with the conceit that the way we have been raised is the only correct way. This way of thinking is so human; it will never go away unless we can open our eyes to see that although we may take different approaches, which do not cancel out a government. A people can still be effective and good who worship a different God. This is such a critical point in Aslan’s book because if we had an understanding, almost an ‘agree to disagree’ pact between countries. If we could all decide on a set of rules that everyone can agree is ‘right’ we could make some progress as a race of people rather than Muslims, Christians, Iranians or Americans. Unfortunately, this is a grotesquely optimistic ideal. We must accept religion as a major factor in government before we can come to an understanding with other nations.