Written by Barry Rubin
The current conventional wisdom about terrorism, Islamism, and the Middle East is being bent, but not broken, by two events. On one hand, there is the Boston bombing; on the other hand, developments in Syria and to a lesser extent Egypt. What’s happening?
In the Middle East, the misbehavior of Islamist movements is becoming more apparent. In Egypt, there is the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, which may actually intend to create a non-democratic Sharia state! Parallel behavior in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey is under-reported but occasionally surfaces.
The most important single story at the moment, though, is Syria. Basically, the Obama Administration has woken up and recognized what was easily apparent two years ago: They are helping to put radical, anti-American Islamists into power! They are helping to provide them with advanced weapons which might be used for activities other than what is intended!
When the government wakes up it nudges the media to get up also. What is quite startling is the extent to which the mass media is responsive to government policy, at least this government’s policy. I want to explain this carefully in order to be fair.
Take this article in the New York Times, which can be summarized as saying that Islamist rebels’ gains in Syria create a dilemma for the United States. Now this is an article about U.S. policy so naturally it describes how that policy is changing.
Yet at the same time, one wants to ask: Why haven’t the policy consequences of this situation been described continuously in the past? If a big truck is headed straight at you on the highway, might not the media sitting in the front passenger seat shout out a warning? Does it have to wait for the driver to notice and then it can say something?
And even so the diffidence is astonishing. It is good that the newspaper notices that the rebels are largely comprised of, “Political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code.” But why even now one can say “Islamic-influenced?”
For many years they have made it clear that they seek a total Islamic (in their interpretation) state. It is the precise equivalent of describing Chinese Communists more than sixty years ago, as they approached victory in their country’s civil war, as “agrarian reformers.”
This story also parallels the much larger-scale debate about the Boston bombings. There’s a long piece in the New York Times about the Boston bombers. The lead gives the flavor of its argument:
“It was a blow the immigrant boxer could not withstand: after capturing his second consecutive title as the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion of New England in 2010, Tamerlan Anzorovich Tsarnaev, 23, was barred from the national Tournament of Champions because he was not a United States citizen.”
The title of the piece is, “A Battered Dream, Then a Violent Path.” In other words, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was not allowed to win a boxing championship because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Blocked by bad treatment from America, he became more Islamic and turned to terrorism.
The balance is delicate here. On the one hand, it is vital to develop an accurate picture of the terrorists’ background and explain the factors providing a personal motivation. On the other hand, suggesting that if the United States was nicer to Muslims and perhaps gave people citizenship more easily, there would not have been terrorism in Boston.
Why is this fundamentally dishonest in the way it is being presented here? Because the authors of the piece focus in on the political theme they want to have, excluding other factors in the context of their topic.
Where to begin? The article includes a photo of the future terrorist as a baby in Dagestan with his parents and his uncle. His uncle is wearing a Russian army uniform. Now again in the photo he is a baby but the point might be raised: Isn’t Tamerlan Tsarnaev more a product of Russian than of U.S. conditions? After all, his family was involved in a conflict against the Russian state; he and his brother were largely shaped by that environment. He went back and forth to Russia and took instruction from terrorist groups which had arrived at al-Qaida from that basis.
But the authors cannot focus on this issue. Why not? Well, obviously they want to blame America first but also there is a big land mine there. Pointing out that immigrants—legal or otherwise—may bring with them hatred, grievances, and cultural formations inimical to America that makes a point in the immigration debate which would be the exact opposite of what they want.
Of course, different people bring different attitudes. It is the job of the immigration system to profile the immigrants to decide who is going to be a good citizen or even who should be let in. Was it a mistake that Tamerlan’s brother did become a U.S. citizen pretty easily? No, it was neither a mistake nor a conspiracy. It was the way profiling was defined that made it possible. To have a serious discussion about why some immigrants become loyal, productive citizens and others become terrorists would be an important discussion. But it cannot happen at present because it would have to include factoring in such things as personal responsibility, gratitude to one’s adopted country, and even–totally unthinkable–the need to keep in mind the immigrant’s original home. The latter point is not to make it a focus to block people from the Middle East.
On the contrary, those who wanted to flee or had to do so were often motivated because they wanted to live in a democratic, free country and not under revolutionary Islamism. If you are in the United States, you will be meeting a lot more such people, especially from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria very soon.
A second point would be to stress the benefits that the Tsarnaev brothers and their family was given. Among them was welfare payments, a scholarship, acceptance without bias into American society, permissiveness even when they violated its tenets and laws (wife-beating), not doing anything to them despite suspicion of being potential terrorists (unlike what would have happened in Russia), and so on. Against that long list of things, the article had to focus on the one setback as they key to everything.
Here, too, however, the articles of the New York Times article cannot go. For to step into this territory would require considering the failure of a historic policy to assimilate immigrants that has been replaced by Multiculturalism; the abandonment of patriotism and the distaste for America and its society daily expressed by the citizens of Boston met by the Tsarnaev; and the idea of entitlement and the welfare state that pervaded their concept of America.
Yes, there is ample material for biographical and psychological writing. But what about, for example, this potential lead for the article:
Tamerlan Tsarnaev found in America a society that did not require for him to become loyal to the country, to understand how well it treated his family, and how he could spend his time reading terrorist sites on the Internet while his beaten wife worked 80 hours a week and his family collected welfare. Spoiled by good treatment from America he became more Islamic and turned to terrorism.
Why is such a theme inconceivable? Because of the reporters’ politics and ideology. Deborah Sontag has won lots of awards. But in my neighborhood she’s best known as the reporter who covered Israel at a time when it was beset by the worst Palestinian terrorism. And then, after the Palestinian leaders had rejected peace and a two state solution, when they were fostering the deliberate murder of civilians she concluded that they, “blocked by bad treatment from [Israel]…turned to terrorism.”
The journalist Joan Walsh explained this ruling ideology from a different angle. All this stuff about Islam and Chechens “In the end, it’s not important.” She added:
“I really do think that this whole discussion…proves once again that race is entirely a political and social construct….We really don’t want to acknowledge these boys have as much in common with Timothy McVeigh and – actually, more to the point, with school shooters. The Columbine killers, James Holmes then really they do with hardened jihadis….They are a product of America as well as a product of alienation.”
One wonders why Walsh didn’t say: They are a product of America as well as a product of alienation, Islam, and a radical revolutionary Islamist movement.”
She couldn’t say that as that would transcend her ideology and make her unpopular in her milieu. Her internal cultural-intellectual censor wouldn’t let her do that.
Reducing the motives for terrorism into psychobabble is to disarm one’s society from being able to combat terrorism. It is amazing to see a democratic society’s intellectual assets turn to the task of systematic obfuscation as even the most ridiculous arguments flourish.
For example, people who go on suicide terrorist missions don’t get to be hardened jihadis because they don’t live long enough. And the whole point is that they can behave that way because they don’t need to be “hardened.” They can already:
(1) Settle into an identity that fits with revolutionary activity and terrorism;
(2) Get huge encouragement from an existing movement that even rules entire countries;
(3) Receive direct training from terrorist forces that operate in safe havens;
(4) Don’t believe that their identities and grievances are mere constructs. One doesn’t fight and die for a construct.
I am strongly reminded of a discussion many years ago with a brilliant CIA psychiatrist who laid the foundation for understanding the thinking of modern terrorists. One of the things he did was to divide them into two categories. There were those whose parents would, at least generally, approve of their violent acts and those that wouldn’t.
He didn’t mean here that the individual parents would cheer them—though that was possible—but that they were approved of by their social-intellectual milieu. That’s why Islamist terrorists are numbered in the tens of thousands and people like Holmes and McVeigh can be counted on the fingers of your two hands.
A few days ago I asked a first-rate, veteran journalist with much experience in this area whether she had ever interviewed parents who denounced their children’s actions. She replied, “No. And if they did they’d know enough to keep their mouths shut.” Of course, that would be because in Palestinian society they would be themselves isolated and renounced for opposing jihad or at least armed struggle.
In the Boston case, the Tsarnaev brother’s mother cheered them and blamed America. What is in play here is not alienation from America but hatred of it based on a pre-existing template, combined with a willingness to take its benefits as if they were owed to oneself.
If you are interested in reading more about Syria, you’re welcome to read my book The Truth About Syria online or download it for free.
About Barry Rubin
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)
Note: The title of this article is drawn from Oscar Wilde, “The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name.” That’s a phrase from his poem about homosexuality in Victorian England. Every society has such things forbidden to discuss. The problem for American society is that its official quarters act as if the country is still in its Victorian Age and that race, gender, religious bias, and homosexuality fall into that category. In fact, there are quite a different set of unspeakable truths, taboo concepts for American society, defined by a new version of intellectual repression called Political Correctness.
Posted originally on PJMADIA