American Foreign Policy and Islam
I just got back from a lecture by Graham E. Fuller (former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, senior analyst at RAND Corporation) on his new book, “A World Without Islam.” His premise is that if the religion of Islam never existed, many of the areas of conflict that exist today would still be problems, comparable in scope to what currently exists. Basically, he builds a case that religion is not really the source of these conflicts, but the typical sorts of resource-driven conflicts where more powerful nations take resources from the less powerful, and the resentment that is generated in a region where foreign troops occupy one’s turf for whatever reason.
It is a powerful thesis that I have observed in other areas, particularly Northern Ireland. Their conflict was less about theology (Catholic versus Protestant) and more about British occupation of Irish land and abuses that ensued. Since both groups ethnically looked alike, the primary way to determine who was enemy and friend was which door they darkened on Sunday.
We all know people who are so dynamic that they disrupt everything going on in the room, regardless of their motivations. Perhaps we’ve done this as a nation more than we realize. I think Fuller has a valid point in the sense that being the elephant in the room, America has tended to get its way without needing to take others’ perspectives too much into account, we got used to it and sometimes barely even pay lip service to others’ viewpoints and needs, and that engendered resentment by the them being forced to accommodate us. Even if mostly benevolent, even if it helps raise others’ standard of living, it is still on the selfish side and hard on others’.
There is another key issue: both journalists and politicians prefer sound bites and black and white issues to the shades of gray and nuance that actually comprise most issues. This really complicates things because people like bold, decisive leadership, and often this is done in lieu of wise leadership, on both sides of the aisle.
However, while Fuller makes a good point, I think he is somewhat guilty of oversimplification himself. He put most of the onus on America (and the West), and while he acknowledged problems on both sides, he didn’t elaborate at all on the issues created by those in the Middle East themselves. Part of this was likely because he was a guest of a Muslim student group, but I suspect it was also due to a personal sense that we really are mostly to blame and therefore the other issues are less important.
Furthermore, I think Fuller oversimplified and “overminimized” the role that religion does play in these conflicts, and I think addressing in some way the role that Islam and religion in general have made a difference and are real causes in conflict would have been very appropriate.
My view on persuasive speech is that if you want to convince a skeptic of your position, you must thoroughly describe the skeptic’s perspective, demonstrate you understand it, and show the limits to the validity of their arguments, before they really have a chance to raise them. Show what is good about their perspective and what and why the weaknesses are weaknesses. Then, you can address the strengths of your own perspective. This builds credibility and more importantly shows respect to the skeptic. In my opinion, Fuller’s talk failed to do this to my satisfaction, and I left with a nagging feeling that he was too entrenched in his political perspective to fully give credence to the arguments of those with whom he disagreed, and thus risks recommending policies that are not fully formed.
I do believe that in terms of world powers, we have done or at least tried to do much more good than any other power in history. (less oppression, encouraging more freedom, donating blood and treasure for others’ benefit, etc.) We have also stepped in it pretty deep and done things we should not have and hurt many innocent people as a result. These do not negate each other as sin is sin and good deeds do not make up for our sin. However, we mustn’t be too myopic about either our national/governmental sin or our generosity, championing the weak, and so on.
As academics, we should be trained to appreciate the complexities of real systems, and we should appreciate the difference between theory and practice. As educators, we have a responsibility to help our students learn to be appreciative as well. However, college faculty have somewhat of a reputation of pushing ideology rather than training in critical thinking. As Christians who follow the Incarnate Truth, we must be willing to recognize the truth of complex situations and deal with those realities, regardless of political persuasion, and help others to work through those realities as well. Looking at naked truth is uncomfortable, even painful. But full healing only comes when the whole wound is exposed and treated, not just the parts that don’t hurt when we probe them.