Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen on "The Humiliation Myth

from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

As Peter Bergen and Michael Lind ably demonstrate in their recent article ["A Matter of Pride," Issue #3], the notion that poverty causes terrorism–and that, absent poverty, terrorism would diminish radically–is a fallacy. Indeed, the "myth of deprivation" is so manifestly inadequate that it is worth asking whether its supporters actually believe it or whether, instead of confronting the complexities of terrorism’s causes and the difficulty of combating it, they prefer to mouth a platitudinous perspective that poverty causes all ills and that alleviating poverty (which will not happen soon) cures them. Bergen and Lind are also certainly correct that a sense of humiliation fuels terrorism. After all, the terrorist movements they discuss, as well as others, so often speak its wounded idiom and the associated, though analytically distinct, idioms of vengeance and justice for perceived wrongs.

Yet whatever the substantial virtues of Bergen and Lind’s analysis, they seek to replace one misguided and reductionist master explanation with another. The threat we face is not merely a humiliated Muslim populace that can be assuaged by putting an end to the putative humiliation. Rather, we are in a struggle with a powerful, highly aggressive, and dangerous political movement, Political Islam. This is distinct from the religion of Islam and its many non-Political Islamic adherents. Because of this, focusing on the "humiliation" that we are said to cause Muslims obscures the central issues regarding the real nature and magnitude of the current threat.

The problems with the humiliation perspective of Bergen and Lind partly mirror those of the poverty position. The authors take humiliation mainly as a given and thus fail to investigate why terrorists and their supporters feel so humiliated in the first place, especially while other peoples and groups subject to similar or greater indignities do not. For instance, while they note that many non—Middle Eastern countries have not given birth to terrorist movements, they fail to note that many of those countries have also suffered substantial exploitation, domination, and all manner of indignities by Western powers, which often exceeds anything experienced by Middle Eastern countries. But, even assuming that Bergen and Lind are correct, they still fail to explain what exactly humiliation is–because, far from being an objective characteristic, as they seem to propose, it is a subjective quality that manifests itself in different quantities and intensities in different places, even in response to similar stimuli. And unless we delve deeper to understand what makes some people more prone to humiliation, we avoid the central issue and set ourselves up for misguided policy decisions.

Nor do Bergen and Lind explain why humiliation in and of itself leads to such disproportional will to violence and slaughter. For example, they claim that humiliation is the master explanation for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the politics he, with the willing aid of so many Germans, pursued. Its historical absurdity aside, this argument actually highlights the reductionism and untenability of their claim. There is simply no way to explain how the "humiliation" of a lost war (World War I) and a perceived unjust peace (Versailles) led Germans to attempt the annihilation of an entire people (the Jews) who had nothing to do with either; exterminate the mentally ill of Germany and elsewhere; conquer the Eurasian continent; slaughter additional millions of so-called subhumans (Poles, Russians, and others); turn entire peoples into slave populations; create a vast concentration camp system with more than 10,000 installations; and seek to destroy Christianity–and that’s only a partial list of the Nazi regime’s assault on humanity and Western civilization. Such an apocalyptic and cataclysmic politics can come only from a mix of many other ideological and other factors, including eliminationist anti-Semitism, a profound racism that held the world to be composed of warring races in a struggle for dominance and survival, and a strategic vision and the opportunity to finally fulfill certain long-standing imperial aspirations. Much the same can be said of today’s Political Islamic terrorists who seek to destroy the West; of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seeks a world "without the United States and without Zionism"; and of Hamas, whose leader, Khaled Meshal, would desire to "sit on the throne of the world." In each case, a grandiose, uncompromising, and apocalyptic vision of Islam is the motivating force. Humiliation has played, at most, a tertiary part in producing such hopes and plans.

This points to a third problem with Bergen and Lind’s singular emphasis on humiliation: It ignores the other critical factors that govern terrorist aspirations, especially the political-religious ideologies that shape their political goals and through which they understand the actions of Western powers. This is not to say that Bergen and Lind make no mention of ideology. They do several times, and they do see it as a critical factor. But they treat it only in passing, and wrong-headedly. In their analysis, ideologies are principally an outgrowth of humiliation and not the framework that governs people’s understanding of their own situation in the world. Such a cursory theory of ideology cannot explain why, for example, Arabs–and now with the Islamification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so many Muslims worldwide–conceptualize the very existence of Israel as an intense humiliation. Such a phenomenon can only be explained by plumbing the worldviews of those who feel humiliated by a political fact that has, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the vast majority of them.

Bergen and Lind also categorize the relevant ideologies as "radical" and "revolutionary," spread by "madmen and isolated sects" and "revolutionary extremists"; in doing so, the authors render them as extreme, unusual, artificial, or perhaps artifactual of something else (namely humiliation). But the ideologies at issue are not in fact obscure ideas but rather foundational political-religious worldviews, grounded not in the minds of "madmen" but in extremely widespread (though by no means universal) interpretations of Islam. They precede and then evolve in conjunction with political developments and acts, including (but hardly restricted to) those acts that are interpreted as humiliating.

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