Humility And Humiliation

I know of few writers more interesting, knowledgeable or as engaged on the subject of the war with Islamist terror as Lawrence Wright, whose one-man play will debut on HBO tonight. And here's an insight culled by Scott Horton from an interview with him that seems to me less examined than it should be:

Humility is a highly valued character trait in Islamic culture. When bin Laden’s followers praise him, they often invoke this quality. The fact that bin Laden is from a wealthy family makes this aspect of his personality all the more appealing. Humiliation, on the other hand, is imposed from the outside. It is one of the most common words in bin Laden’s vocabulary. For many Muslims who resonate with the term, their humiliation may be cultural or religious in naturethe sense of Islamic societies being overpowered by Western values, mores, and political dictates. But it is also true that a number of Muslims have been physically humiliated. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for instance, the number-two man in Al Qaeda, the doctor always at bin Laden’s elbow, was imprisoned for three years in Egypt following the Sadat assassination. Like many of his companions, he was brutally tortured. I think the particular appetite for carnage that sets Al Qaeda apart from other terrorist organizations was born in the humiliation such men suffered in those prisons.

I do believe that Islamism, like Christianism, is a response in part to cultural humiliation. The humiliation comes from modernity's triumph. How do you look at modern Europe and America, for example, with their immense wealth, scientific achievement, cultural vivacity, extraordinary diversity ... and square it with the notion that our lives would be better off under Sharia or the brittle constraints of pre-Darwinian Biblical literalism or the contrived theoconservatism of the American far right? Yes, yes: I'll repeat once again that there is no comparison in action or intent between the radicals of Islamism and the radicals of Christianism; Christianists have not a smidgen of the record of violence that Islamists have. But the psychological under-pinnings of both are about, it seems to me, the unbearable knowledge of the success of modern liberalism in its battle with primordial theocratic security. And so the pre-moderns are infused with Nietzschean ressentiment - from Wasilla to Quetta. (Yes, that's a core argument in The Conservative Soul.)

Genuine Christianity needs no such ressentiment; you see it almost nowhere in Jesus' words or in the lives of most saints. His kingdom is not of this world. Islam is more complex, in my amateur reading of it, more related to political and territorial and collective unity. But it too has a history of piety and learning as much as politics and violence and the challenge is to support the former while not pushing its moderates toward the latter in an era of WMDs. That's why the neoconservative and Christianist campaign against the Cordoba complex seems to me such a self-fulfilling act of self-defeat. And why, of course, the wicked genius of 9/11 was to provoke the very reaction that would drag even more Muslims into the ressentiment camp. And yes, a central needless rampart of this ressentiment was America's adoption of torture of Muslim prisoners - everywhere in the war, in every branch of the military, as a disgusting illegal act of deliberate policy and betrayal of core values. Its awful consequences - and the refusal of Obama and the Congress thus far to hold the torturers accountable before the world - will reap yet more terror in the years ahead. There are few things more humiliating than being stretched and contorted into agony for hours on end on the order of an American president.

How then to encourage Muslim humility and alleviate the toxic effects of Muslim humiliation? We can do nothing about the former. That is the vital task for Muslim reformers who are, to put it mildly, scarce on the ground in the Arab world. But we can do something - or not do some things - about the sense of Muslim humiliation - and Obama's outreach to the Muslim world, his open respect for Islam, and his dogged determination to forge a settlement in Israel/Palestine are critical parts of this long strategy for winning the war of ideas. That's why I believe the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine is more important than some argue. It will not defang the Islamists; in fact, it may enrage them. But an actual deal, especially forged by Barack Hussein Obama, would alleviate a deep source of humiliation, rubbed raw every time a new settlement is built.

That is the task of this president in this war, as David Petraeus understands: to defend religious freedom at home, to pursue relentless and precise war against the terrorists abroad, and to remove as many obstacles to the transformation of Muslim humiliation toward Muslim humility as we can. It is an immensely difficult and thankless and tough task. It will stretch beyond one generation. But I can see this president trying and I am sick of those who want him to fail for petty or partisan reasons. This is far too grave a struggle for that.

And that also means more Western humility and less neurotic faux-pride. We can and should be proud of our inheritance of freedom and the wealth of all forms that freedom creates; but we need not and should not make the rest of the world resent it more than absolutely necessary. That, one recalls, was George W. Bush's promise as a presidential candidate: a humble America. He subsequently forgot, in a forgivable way after 9/11, what we must always remember.

America's genius is not power. It is example.