Archive for June 26th, 2008

The Violent West

As noted, this week is summer experience for first year students at UMF, so I’m commenting each day on one of the readings students are discussing. Today I’ll react to “Violence: the Double Standard” by Howard Zinn (1922 – ).

Howard Zinn notes the violent way in which our society developed; that goes along with the talk we had Tuesday by artist/peace activist Rob Shetterly on the struggle it took to move from a constitution that guaranteed rights only to part of society, leaving out women, blacks (who were slaves) and the poor. Indeed, looked at through Zinn’s analysis, the US has undergone a constant low level civil war, in which over time the privileged elite have been forced against their will to grant rights to those lacking privilege and wealth. And, given the extreme polarity in the current distribution of wealth, the elites are obviously still in control.

It occurs to me, though, that this criticism of how Americans view their own history can be extended to how we in the West view our culture and society. We see progress and enlightenment and ignore, excuse or dismiss the violence that defines it, even today in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. If you read pundits on the right, for instance, you would think that Islam and the Islamic world is a uniquely violent culture. They point out, correctly, that Islam spread by force through northern Africa, into India, Asia, and parts of Europe. They note that non-Muslims, while tolerated, had to pay a special tax which denied them equal rights. They also point to texts from the Koran, taken out of context, which suggest that Muslims should fight the ‘polytheists and idolaters’ to the end – conveniently ignoring that these passages refer specifically to the Quarysh, who were in a bitter struggle against the Ummah, or community of believers, and not to all non-Muslims. They also ignore how the Koran admonishes Muslims not be aggressors, not to fight if the enemy does not wish to fight, and to protect the lives of innocents.

If you really want to see a culture that has a violent history, look in at the West. From the reformation to WWII, from development of modern weaponry to nuclear bombs, the West has been the most violent and destructive culture on the planet. The West has spawned ideologies like communism which has lead to genocides and severe repression. Colonialism from the West destroyed political cultures across Africa, Latin America, and Asia, leading to broken systems now torn apart by corruption and poverty. It was the Belgians who divided Tutsi and Hutu and gave the former special privileges, setting up the violent ethnic clashes that would lead to the Rwandan genocide. Spain was slaughtering native American tribes with a ‘convert or die’ message. It was Germany, the home of many great western ideas, which gave us the holocaust and Nazism. Even America, built on ideals of freedom and liberty, has engaged in imperialism, destroyed numerous indigenous peoples on the continent in what now would be labeled genocide, and now spends half the world’s military budget, using violence that kills more innocents than insurgents to try to shape the political systems of other parts of the globe.

Before you get defensive, I am not saying the West is evil, nor do I think we who inherit that tradition have to live in shame or try to undo all past wrongs. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is hypocritical to attack Islam for its past while turning a blind eye to the history of the West. This is precisely the kind of thing Zinn is talking about in his article, there is a real double standard at work here. We ignore how at the time of the crusades, for instance, the Christians demanded the Muslims ‘covert or die’ when Jerusalem was taken, while the Muslims refused to avenge those acts when they took Jerusalem back. It was the Muslims that showed far greater compassion and civilization at that time.

It is hypocritical to focus on the good the West has done while ignoring the good in Islam and the Koran. The fact of the matter is that Islam and the West both have violent pasts, and both have honorable ideals. And, while political correctness on the left is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Islamic history, political correctness on the right is wrong to say we shouldn’t talk about the dark side of Western history. Let’s start from an admission that neither culture can really claim virtue in its history, no matter how honorable and beautiful many of the core ideals behind each are. Right now the violence from the West I list above is cited by Muslim extremist as proof that we are a violent, evil people. Our extremists cite Muslim history as proof that Islam is a violent, even evil faith. Both sides are taken a warped a biased view on history, and this works against efforts at real reconciliation and co-existence.

For example, our leaders say that some Muslim extremists want to spread Islam and thus represent a violent aggressive political ideal which must be stopped. Then in the next sentence they say we want to spread democracy and implement regime change for the good of the people in other states. The obvious hypocrisy in those two statements cannot be overlooked – they are evil to spread what they believe to be the best way of life, we are honorable if we do the same thing.

So perhaps by refusing to embrace a double standard, we can think about the principles Zinn has at the end of his article. Official violence should have no special privileges over private violence, violence done by others should be weighed equally with violence done by ourselves (we’ve killed more innocents in Afghanistan than were killed by terrorists on 9-11, for instance), we should assume that all victims are created equal, a dead Communist or Muslim has no less value than a dead American or even UMF student. Violence with property should not be equated with violence to people. We should be wary of symbolic efforts to justify violence (nationalism, abstractions) and look at the long term implications (what kind of society will Iraqi children raised in violence create?) Just thinking in these terms can help overcome the double standard, and perhaps put us on a path towards a more peaceful world.

That doesn’t mean we can handle the challenges of globalization easily, and clearly there are extremists on each side that want to see the other as an enemy because they can’t accept anything but their own dogma. The strong will use military force, the weak will use terror, and each will point to the damage done by the other to try to inspire militarism and radicalism in their ranks. Those of us who recognize the importance of our common humanity and take the time to learn about the reality human worth, rather than self-serving myths, know that we can find a way to live peacefully and respect each others’ ideas.