Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Allergic to Velvet

Frederick Turner says that the suicide bomber's true targets are the Velvet revolutionaries of today's emergent democracies:

Part of our difficulty in dealing with global terror directed against civilian populations is that we have not, I believe, understood what it was designed to attack. Some see it as a war between cultural blocs, others as a religious war against infidels, others as a traditionalist reaction to the social, economic, and cultural disruptions caused by globalism, others as a continuation of the liberation of oppressed peoples from colonial imperialism. There may be a grain of truth in some of these explanations, but the counter-examples to each of them are glaring.

For instance, the majority of deaths by terrorism in the last several years -- even including 9/11 and the second Intifada -- have been the result of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, perhaps even Arab-on-Arab violence, depending on what is counted. Thus we can rule out cultural and religious war as the prime motivation. Though one can at a stretch describe the Taliban as traditionalists opposing the corruptions of global market capitalism, al Qaeda is a quintessentially cosmopolitan, big-business financed, historicist, international intellectual movement, as globalist in its own way as Microsoft. As for the anti-colonialist explanation, it is hard to see how animist Sudanese farmers, Kashmiri Hindus, Sunni Kurds, Iraqi Shiites, Philippine Christians or Egyptian or Lebanese democrats, all of them targets of terrorism, could be considered colonial oppressors.

The history of warfare shows us that each new military power arises as the result of a new strategy or weapon, with a major socio-economic dimension, that effectively refutes the previous one. The disciplined citizen-hoplite infantryman of the Greek city-states answers and reverses the huge peasant armies of the Persian emperors. The plebeian Roman phalanx defeats the elite Spartan line. The Parthian cavalry archer wears out and turns back the Roman phalanx. The longbow brings down the armored knight. The swift low British man-o'-war defeats the galleon. The machine-gun stops the massed infantry attack invented by Marlborough and Bonaparte.

When the suicide bomber first emerged as the paradigm and core symbol of terrorism, it could be argued that it was exactly the weapon to counter the nuclear-armed modern democratic nation state (Israel in particular). The suicide bomb could not, by definition, be avenged or deterred; though it could not target the government, which could always democratically renew itself, it could target the population's trust in its government. Its target was, appropriately, the whole population, because in a democracy the whole population is the sovereign. The bomber could always be disavowed by his state bosses and protectors.

But as I have pointed out, the numbers of Israeli and Western dead as victims of terror are only a fraction of the total number. War is politics by other means. Why did suicide terror metastasize from Israel to the world? What is the basic political enemy of the global terrorist movement? What is it designed to attack? Though it would be tempting to say that the target is the democratic state, the evidence does not quite support it. Many existing democratic states were left alone, and coexisted with, for years before suicide terror emerged, and are so still.

I believe that the evidence points clearly to one target. Thirty years ago it looked as if the totalitarian state was solidly established, successful and immortal. Democratic capitalism had been stopped in its tracks. The nuclear-armed socialist dictatorship could not be attacked or defeated; it could at best be contained, and none of its incremental marginal conquests could be rolled back. Marvelously, however, a new strategy emerged, invented by the world's middle-class populations, that could bring down the totalitarian state: the velvet revolution. Totalitarian governments rely on elites to govern and control the people and defend themselves against outside ideas. Those elites must reproduce themselves, creating a property-owning educated class with great power but without the revolutionary ideology of their parents; and to remain economically viable the state must produce a skilled artisan class, like the shipbuilders of Gdansk, with the capacity to unionize. Out of these materials, generated by totalitarianism itself, comes the velvet revolution.

The velvet revolution (also named the orange revolution, the purple finger, the rose revolution, the cedar revolution) has swept the world. In different ways, nonviolent, non-ideological middle-class and skilled-worker mass movements have unseated tyrants and established democracies in an amazing range of countries: Spain, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Bangladesh, South Korea, Indonesia, the Baltic states, Mexico, Serbia, Albania, Georgia, the Ukraine, the Philippines, Lebanon, even Palestine, all fell to the regimes of popular sovereignty. China nearly fell in 1989, with the Tiananmen protest, and will become a democracy some time in the next twenty years. If there is one defining event that characterizes the end of twentieth century political modernism, it is this one.

The suicide bomb, with the mass terrorism it epitomizes, is the weapon of choice against the velvet revolution. The target is not, as well-meaning critics of terrorism say, indiscriminate: it is exact and precise. The target is any population that might organize a velvet revolution, the potential sovereigns of a democratic state. It is people who are not ideological, who are willing to let others believe what they want, who want to make a living and be independent, and who want a say in their government. Even in Israel, where it was the citizens of an already-established democratic state that were being attacked, the true target, as we are now coming to understand after the death of Arafat, was the nascent democracy of Palestine. By killing Jews, Arafat could continue to oppress and defraud Palestinians.

Global terrorism is not a revolution, but an attempt to suppress a revolution. What is being defended by suicide terror is not Islam, not traditional moral culture, not the ethnic nation yearning to be free of the colonial oppressor, but the principle of totalitarian rule -- the sovereignty of the dictator or the ayatollah, promoted as national self-identity and independence, or as the will of God. It is the last gasp, historically, of the ancient system by which the huge majority of human beings were ruled since the Neolithic agricultural revolution.

Somehow this explanation just doesn't satisfy. For one, Osama Bin Laden was himself a member of the Saudi elite, and one who by nature should have identified with the totalitarian Saudi royal family, yet he struck out against them. Those founding members of the Muslim Brotherhood who masterminded the assassination of Anwar Sadat were likewise fighting against an authoritaritarian regime which in no way was in danger of devolving into a democratic government.

Turner's reasoning contains several contradictions. Muslim on Muslim violence does not preclude a cultural or religious origin to the conflicts, as it is the influence of Western cultural ideas on Muslims that has enraged the Islamicists and made those Muslims who may be suspected of having sympathy for or neutrality toward the West targets of their ideology. His statement is equivalent to saying that there was no religious or cultural component to the Northern Ireland strife or to the 100 Year War, as both these conflicts were Christian on Christian.

Secondly, he identifies the globalist nature of the Islamist terror network as a reason that the goals of their efforts cannot be explained by reactionary traditionalism, but in the last paragraph claims that it is a movement to defend that ancient tradition of totalitarian government which has ruled humanity since the outset of the Neolithic Age.

I would say that the simplest and the most obvious reason for the Islamicist terror movement is the correct reason. It is motivated by a warped interpretation of cultural and religious traditionalism in the Islamic mold. Turner would have us believe that the terrorists are fighting to defend an abstraction, namely Totalitarianism as a governing ethos. No doubt their vision is a totalitarian one, but in a specifically Islamic and Arabic form. They would not deploy their resources to defend post-Soviet crony communism in Ukraine or Cuba. As I have pointed out in a past critique of Turner, he is in the habit of making facile generalizations without much reflection.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Generalizing without reflection? How about pontificating without analysis?

September 22, 2005 4:18 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Generalizing without reflection? How about pontification without coherence?

In the first para, he asserts that since "...the majority of deaths by terrorism in the last several years -- even including 9/11 and the second Intifada -- have been the result of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, perhaps even Arab-on-Arab violence," we can rule out religious war as a motivation.

Oh, really?

Has he never heard of Shiites and Sunnis and Sufis?

In the same paragraph, he presents as good an example of non-sequitor as one is likely to find, arriving at some conclusion about al Qaeda's goals based on its org chart.

He uses similar convoluted reasoning to avoid the readily apparent: the basic political enemy of "the global terrorist movement" (to me, a singularly annoying phrase) is anyone opposed to re-establishing the Caliphate.

It isn't that tough to figure out -- just join the 21st century and visit a few of their Websites.

His whole notion of global terrorism as a war to suppress Velvet Revolution therefore simply doesn't follow.

Nearly all acts of terrorism come from one source over the last twenty years have precisely one source: Islamic fundamentalism. The exceptions are so few you could probably count them on one hand.

Islamic terrorists are people who are defined by two characteristics: detailed knowledge of the Quran, and uncriticial acceptance of everything therein.

Which is where I disagree with you, Robert. Their interpretation is not warped, it is completely consistent with their "revealed" text.

It is the non-terrorists whose interpretation is warped, because they have chosen to use reason to decide which things Allah directs are really best ignored.

Same thing with Christianity -- only Christians have several hundre years more practice.

September 22, 2005 4:39 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

You may be right Skipper. As far as interpreting religious texts is concerned, though, I have determined that it is impossible to decide what it properly means. Such exegesis is truly an exercise in seeing what you want to see, in my opinion. So when I say it is a warped interpretation, I mean that the interpreter has a warped worldview which he brings to the task.

September 22, 2005 7:33 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


I agree with your entire comment.

Garnering the "true" meaning of religious texts is always about the interpreter, not the subject matter.

However, that's not to say that it's solely up to the individual; organized religions have their own cultures of interpretation, and worshippers typically "buy into" one or another of those consensus views.

People who can't do so typically leave the religion, or found a splinter group.

September 22, 2005 12:34 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The exegisis of which you speak is more a matter of deciding what to ignore.

Just to refresh, here are a few quotes from Islam's hadith (the literature recording the sayings and actions of the prophet):

"A single endeavor of fighting in Allah's cause is better than the world and whatever is in it."

"He who dies without having taken part in a campaign dies in a kind of unbelief."

"Paradise is in the shadow of swords."

"Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah would wish to come back to this world ... except the martyr, who, seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again in Allah's cause."

It all seems pretty clear to me.

September 22, 2005 7:39 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Hey Skipper:

Christians have the same paradigm.
We're not on Earth to pile up terrestrial treasures and pleasures, but to learn how to control our desires and tempers, so that when we have the powers of God, we'll use them sparingly and wisely.

The primary philosophical difference that I see between Islam and Christianity is that Islam prefers the sword, while Christians are more willing to use the pen to further the teaching and conversion process.

That difference in zeitgeist has led to overwhelming practical differences between predominantly Christain and predominantly Islamic societies, to the extent that the latter may not survive as a major religion.

September 22, 2005 9:57 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Christianity (by and large) has perfected a talent that has yet eluded Islam: selectively ignoring significant portions of revealed text while not allowing that to affect the authority of the remaining portions.

For example, Deuteronomy and Leviticus make for some particularly nauseating reading, but you would be hard pressed to find any Christian who would interpret

September 23, 2005 9:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Christianity (by and large) has perfected a talent that has yet eluded Islam: selectively ignoring significant portions of revealed text while not allowing that to affect the authority of the remaining portions.

For example, Deuteronomy and Leviticus make for some particularly nauseating reading, but you would be hard pressed to find any Christian who would interpret their contents anything like literally (and you would be nearly as hard pressed to find Christians any more than glancingly familiar with D & L.)

The Quran, in contrast, seems very brittle; almost an all or nothing thing in terms of disregarding certain portions as "no longer operative."

I suspect the greatest reason for that is the difference between Christ and Mohammed.

Christ was "merely" a prophet.

Mohammed was simultaneously prophet, king, and general. As a result, the Quran delineates conduct in the here and now in ways beyond the Bible's reach.

As you note, good for us; bad for them.

But this substantiates my original point: the justification Islamic fundamentalists use is religious, and their political goal is obvious.

September 23, 2005 9:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Aaaargh to the second power.

Apologies for yet another double post. I keep forgetting to log in until partway through a post, then I forget that logging in will publish what I have already written.

And I'm allegedly a computer professional.


September 23, 2005 9:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

But aren't you guys making the same mistake as Turner? He offers a useful insight into a very complex situation and then blows it by making it the "one true explanation". Your response is to critique it fairly and then likewise blow it by offering your own "one true explanation".

Despite all the "How many gears has an Arab tank?" jokes, if dreams of fulfilling Islam's mission of historical conquest beat in the breast of each and every one of one billion Muslims (Yeah, Skipper, they are all just about to disappear. Sure.), they have raised incompetence and buffoonery to a level the Three Stooges could only dream of. Turner is right that it is primarily a civil war, but wrong to suggest that it is a two-pronged one or that one side is composed of united Patrick Henrys all using the same playbook.

One of Theodore Dalrymple's great insights is how Islam's history of conquest and majority status right from the beginning and the consequent failure to develop a theology of church and state makes it conceptually difficuly (not to mention dangerous)for a moderate Muslim to find the language to counter the Islamists. So he shuts up, gets on with his life and practices a kind of private, but still solemn and heartfelt, reverence instead. We do the same, but we have lots of theology and philosophy to allow us to defend it to ourselves and others. It isn't that Christinaity prefers the pen to the sword (even I would say that is giving Christianity quite the historical pass), it's that it has almost never known a world where religious and secular thought and authority weren't in constant tension, both theologically and practically. Despite all the nonsense about the Middle Ages being an Age of Faith, theocratic experiments have been few and shortlived, and some of them were actually fought by the Church as heretical (Albigensians). It is therefore quite easy for us to have a more or less respectful, rollicking debate about the role of religion in society, but that debate is very hard to conceive of within Islam.

Well, they will have to solve that one themselves, but the Western propensity to think they are all closet Islamists because we don't hear that debate leads us to conclude falsely there are hardly any moderates. There are plenty, but they tend to be tongue-tied.

C'mon, what would one billion fevered religious fanatics hellbent on conquering the world world look like? Or are you suggesting they are biding their time because they want to do it without casualties?

BTW, duck, it's about time you got this place going again. What were you doing--perfecting your tan?

September 24, 2005 4:17 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It isn't that Christianity prefers the pen to the sword (even I would say that is giving Christianity quite the historical pass)...

I would say that the pen has been preferred since the 19th century, and even before then, the pen was seen as a valid and somewhat effective option.

The same cannot be said of Islam, where even now, in some Arab societies, it's ILLEGAL to proselytize about anything but Islam.

C'mon, what would one billion fevered religious fanatics hellbent on conquering the world look like?

Since at least 1945, and one might be tempted to say since 1867, they'd look like one billion corpses.

BTW, why don't you offer this kind of analysis and defense of Islam over at BrosJudd ?

I've asked you several times, there, for something like this, but you've never responded...

September 24, 2005 2:31 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home