The basic problem is less a matter of irreconcilable differences than a matter of how the two sides are defined.
In the West, politicians and media typically paint a picture of a zero-sum confrontation between Western society and a religion, a race, or a group of countries. The meaning of the confrontation and the path to resolving it would be instantaneously transformed if it were instead perceived as a confrontation between power-hungry, violence-prone elites on one side and common people on the other.
Many groups benefit from this confrontation:
- Politicians (in Western electoral systems; Christian, Jewish, and Moslem fundamentalist movements; and Moslem dictatorships) use fear and nationalism to marshal support;
- Arms manufacturers gain endless profit from endless war;
- Armies in the countries fighting insurgencies gain resources and power from the very rebellions they are charged with suppressing;
- Big Oil (both Western oil companies that buy the petroleum and corrupt elites in Moslem societies who sell the petroleum) just keeps getting richer as the price rises.
It is in the interest of all these groups—call them The Elite--to convince everyone else that a clash of civilizations is occurring in which neutrality, compromise, and consideration of potential positive-sum outcomes are immoral and treacherous. Indeed, the fact that these extremists so often fall back on the emotional charges of immorality and treachery to prevent thoughtful dialogue is the key clue to the situation: what they fear more than anything else is that people will simply start talking, analyzing the situation, and searching for mutually beneficial solutions. The extremists understand with crystal clarity that their hold on power depends on the myth that “our society” faces an existential threat from “your society.”
Political elites in general are manipulators of people’s
tragedies and dreams
It is not the societies that face existential threats, however; it is the power structures. Western control over global oil and the concomitant continuation of the West’s orgy of consumption probably are essential to the maintenance of the current power structure, but this behavior is not essential to the average person. Indeed, it is extremely dangerous. The longer the world continues to consume oil as though it had no limits, the sooner the collapse will occur and the harder it will hit. What would be in the real interest of our societies would be slowing the consumption of oil as much as possible to ensure that the supply lasts until a viable alternative can be made available.
An international political system organized to maximize egalitarianism and local control—a democratic, global confederacy of units composed of people who choose to be members—would be in the interest of society. The democratic nature of the system would enable all units to participate; the confederate structure would minimize central control but overcome the tendency of our current system based on state sovereignty to spawn “rogue states.” Such a system would certainly undermine current power structures – both of the states that compose the current system and of movements such as al Qua’ida who are challenging that system: superpowers, dictatorial client states, and extremist anti-system movements would all be extraneous in an all-inclusive, participatory system based on the rule of law but designed to maximize local initiative.
What is good for The Elite is bad for society. Ahmadinejad, bin Laden, and Bush all have built careers out of the clash of civilization myth. Moslem oil exporting elites and the Western military-industrial complex both benefit from the artificially high oil prices resulting from global conflict, and they both benefit from the conflict itself – the wars inflate their importance, provide profit, marginalize opposition, and create opportunities.
Just for one example, a more efficient economy and strengthened civil liberties are clearly in the interest of the Iranian people and almost certainly recognized by most Iranians as among their top goals, but Ahmadinejad is maintaining an impressive level of political support despite failing to deliver on either score simply by waving the bloody flags of fear and nationalism. Every one of the endless threats and insults flowing out of Washington and Tel Aviv is pure gold in Ahmadinejad’s pocket, on which he skillfully obtains compound interest.
Similarly, those threats and insults panic ignorant Western voters, convincing them to grant “near dictatorial powers” to elites with a private exploitative agenda. Constraints on civil liberties that undermine democracy to solidify elite control are sold to voters as necessary for security. Environmental destruction for the short-term profit of the rich is sold as necessary for energy independence. A war of civilizations designed to empower extremists is sold as the only way to survive.
So, what is good for The Elite is frequently bad for society; fear and anger are the tools the power-hungry use to manipulate society. That is not necessarily completely true or always true, of course. But where one starts matters. Starting with the assumption that people everywhere have a common interest that differs from the interests of those with power is a fundamentally different perspective than starting with the assumption that a zero-sum conflict exists among societies or cultures. It opens doors to a host of new ways to overcome problems.
To assert that the enemy is not someone else’s culture is not at all to belittle the real dangers that exist. All major global cultures include individuals and, today at least, movements that are absolutely dangerous to humanity. The danger comes, first, from those individuals and movements; second, from the ignorant who are tricked into supporting them or the desperate, angry, and frustrated who understandably seek any port in the storm. But the solution is not the destruction of a culture, a religion, or a country.
This essay just touches the surface of a very complicated issue that strikes at the heart of the organization of the world into sovereign states. To get a little deeper into the issue, see this discussion of international security as a trap and this discussion of the concept of a national security commons.
The key to resolving the confrontation between the West and Islam lies in redefining the definition between “them” and “us.” When The Elite vs The People becomes recognized as the real confrontation, then the door will open to addressing the needs of the desperate, the angry, and the frustrated of all societies, at which point the power of The Elite to manipulate us will wither away.