Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Trouble With Triangulating Bin Laden

Mark's take on the D'Souza controversy strikes me as both exceedingly wrong-headed and reflective of a broader flaw in his general style of argumentation that I have noted before:
if it's this roundly hated by both sides in the Ideology Wars, there is probably something to it.

Now there are some cases when triangulation is good and some cases when it is bad, but adopting it as one's preferred default position as Mark often does in order to "prove" his point is recipe for disaster. The issue of the D'Souza book strikes me as being one of those situations where disaster seems quite likely to ensue. Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I have read D'Souza's previous works and enjoyed them but think that he is exceedingly wrong-headed in his understanding of this issue. That Mark is so eager to buy into the thesis that he elevates him to the level of a Biblical prophet indicates to me that he doesn't understand much about what either D'Souza is saying or about the role of the prophets:
Part of the way to do this, of course, is to examine our own house and see if we've got some repentin' to do. That's essentially the annoying approach the prophets tended to take with Israel. When the Assyrians came into town, the prophets didn't tells Israel that the Assyrians were misunderstood guys who meant well if your properly contextualized the mounds of human heads they liked to construct. But they also didn't blather jingoistic crap about Our Israelite Way of Life Must Be Preserved Against Terrorists Who Hate Our Freedom. They said, "Repent and the Lord will take care of the Rod he has brought against you."

Except that from what I understand of his book, if D'Souza were an Old Testament prophet he would basically be arguing that the Assyrians were fundamentally correct in their worldview about why Israel had to go. Now I have read all of the major and minor prophets on many occasions, but I have never seen that particular exegesis invoked. D'Souza, while correct in his view that there are a number of features about the post-Christian West that are worthy of derision and repudiation, more or less accepts the al-Qaeda propaganda line that this is why the United States and its allies are hated and even goes as far as to buy into the claim that there is an active conspiracy against Islam afoot in the West.

If only it were that simple.

For those of us who actually bother to read documents like bin Laden's 2002 letter to America that attempt to summarize his ideology, it's a little more complicated than that:
(viii) And because of all this, you have been described in history as a nation that spreads diseases that were unknown to man in the past. Go ahead and boast to the nations of man, that you brought them AIDS as a Satanic American Invention.

(xi) You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and*industries.

(x) Your law is the law of the rich and wealthy people, who hold sway in their political parties, and fund their election campaigns with their gifts. Behind them stand the Jews, who control your policies, media and economy.

I notice that no one ever seems to discuss these particular grievances when we talk about why al-Qaeda hates us. John J. Reilly noted the following concerning al-Qaeda's objectives in his review of Michael Scheuer's Imperial Hubris:
Readers will note that the list of al Qaeda's grievances seems a bit self-generating. The U.S. is in Afghanistan, for instance, because of the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11. (That's also true of Iraq: irrespective of the Baathist regime's role in 911, there was no way a comprehensive response could have been made without resolving the Iraq question, though Anonymous will have none of this line of argument.) We find the same damned-if-you do, damned-if-you don't quality in Anonymous's extended list of things that the U.S. does to annoy Muslims. For instance, we are told:

“America has declared that waging jihad against Islam's attackers is a criminal act and seized and incarcerated—often without trial—hundreds of suspected mujaheddin around the world. For a Muslim to refrain from joining a defensive jihad to protect Islam means disobeying God's law and earning damnation.”

This is a head-scratcher. Apparently, arresting an aspirant martyr as he tries to smuggle explosives over the Canadian border is not just a disappointment, but a grievance. In fact, it's a legitimate grievance, since Anonymous accepts the characterization of al Qaeda's project as a “defensive jihad.” When Osama bin Laden says that Muslim lands are under assault all over the world at the behest of the U.S., he is describing reality. That is why the United States was struck on 911.

Other observers may find bin Laden's list of “attacks” against Islam to be, at best, unevenly persuasive. It includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a topic on which differences of opinion sometimes occur, but at least Anonymous is clear that no solution that includes the existence of Israel would be acceptable to al Qaeda or other Islamist groups. It includes the independence of East Timor, which I had thought of as a Catholic country that Islamic Indonesia had tried and failed to assimilate, but I can see how other people might think differently. As far as I am concerned, however, there is only one sane opinion about this complaint from bin Laden:

“What documents incriminated the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina and warranted the Western Crusaders, with the United States at their head, to unleash the Serb ally to annihilate and displace the Muslim people of the region under U.N. cover?”

Perhaps an isolated villager in the Hindu Kush could be forgiven for believing that the United States tried to use Serbia to de-Islamize all or part of the Balkans. However, as Anonymous never ceases to remind us, Osama bin Laden is a well-informed man, with a sophisticated understanding of the world. In the case of this grievance, at least, we are not dealing with a culturally different perception. We are dealing with what Joseph Goebbels used to call “The Big Lie.”

Now one might argue that there is a rather large gulf of differences between the worldviews of Muslims and even Islamists and that of Osama bin Laden. I certainly agree with that, but the reason we even care about the worldview of the former to begin with is because those holding to the latter are currently attempting to kill us. The idea that this rather nutty understanding of geopolitics can be separated from al-Qaeda's views of Western depravity is a red herring, because as a practical matter one flows naturally from one into the other as far as they are concerned. Unfortunately, we Westerners do, which is why there are people like D'Souza who think that it is possible to discuss only their criticism of Western immorality or far too many others (see the combox examples to come) who only want to talk about al-Qaeda's geopolitical aims when giving credence to the group's stated objectives. In both cases, I think people are rather bizarrely using al-Qaeda as a stepping stone for their own pet ideological objectives.

Michael Scheuer discusses this on pages 211-212 of Imperial Hubris when explaining the reasons for bin Laden's popularity:
First [unlike Ayatollah Khomeini], bin Laden is from the Muslim world's Sunni majority - and a Salafi, its fastest growing, most conservative, and most martially inclined sect - and not a minority Shia like Khomeini. Second, he has spurned the Ayatollah's wholesale condemnation of Western society and focused on six specific, bread-and-butter issues on which there is widespread agreement among Muslims, whenever they lie on the liberal-to-militant spectrum. Most Muslims would like to see the Prophet's land vacated by non-Muslims, the infidels who, as Mohammed said on his deathbed, had no place on the Arab Peninsula. Likewise, many would relish the elimination of Israel and the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state. Large majorities also can be found in support of making a greater profit on the sale of Muslim-produced oil and natural gas to the rest of the world, and using the money to improve the quality of life for Muslims. Few Muslims, moreover, would oppose the destruction of a set of apostate governments that are among the planet's most brutal, repressive, corrupt, and hypocritical, family ruled regimes that have the profits from oil sales to fund their own debauchery and rent the loyalty of their bankers, businessmen, and academics. Finally, the oppression of Muslims outside the Arab heartland - in Kashmir, Chechnya, India, and Xinjiang - has become a gut issue for Muslims thanks to bin Laden's rhetoric and, even more, the pervasive presence of real-time, Muslim-owned satellite television. These six foreign policy goals are Mom-and-apple-pie for most Muslims, and bin Laden has tied them to the positive message that God promises Muslims victory if they take the path of jihad that He required and His messenger explained and preached.

Now I think that Scheuer's a nut when it comes to his policy recommendations, but I would be a fool to doubt the validity of his factual understanding of al-Qaeda and its objectives. But no doubt Mark and D'Souza know far more about al-Qaeda, what it wants, and why it appeals to Muslims than does the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit.

That said, I note that Josiah, who has been considerably more measured than yours truly, has been banned by Mark for criticizing him and pointing out the holes in his arguments. Now it's Mark's blog and he can ban whoever the heck he wants, but I continue to find it interesting that people like Josiah are banned while stuff like this are okay:
The Israelis still control Gaza, the points of entry, the airspace, the water, etc. The reason the Arabs opposed Zionism was not religious hatred, it was political. They knew Zionism meant expulsion and territorial dispossesion for them. It turned out they were right. It is also not true that non-Jews have the same rights in Israel as Jews. It would not be a Zionist state if that were true! Yes there are some real anti-semites out there...probably many Arabs who have had their land taken, homes bulldozed, and loved ones killed by the Israelis, but anti-semitism is an overused label thrown at those who are hated by the Israeli lobby. Sorry to see you are such a sucker for Israeli propaganda!

Now maybe it's just me, but I find that a lot more objectionable than anything Josiah ever wrote.


Anonymous said...


Torq, people forget that during the 1940s, the United States was one of the most racist, segregated societies on earth. That, however, didn't stop American armed forces from playing the pivotal role in destroying two racist regimes, Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan.

In fact, black Americans during that time promoted a "double-V" sign: victory over fascism overseas, victory over racism at home.

The fact that this nation currently has moral problems does not disqualify it from fighting another totalitarian, enslaving system (as Shea apparently believes). Did our problems disqualify us from fighting Communism for 40-plus years?

Torq, nobody wants to admit that Islam -- not Islamo-fascism, Islamic terror but Islam -- is religious Nazism. Its primary goal is to re-establish a world-wide Caliphate in which non-Muslims are either treated as second-class citizens, enslaved or killed.

We will win the "war on terror" once we admit this fact.

After all, if secular ideologies like Communism and Nazism can be evil, why can't religions be evil?

Anonymous said...


As far as Shea allowing a correspondent who criticizes "Zionist propaganda" is concerned, well, remember that Shea quotes Pat Buchanan's views of the Middle East as near-Gospel...and Buchanan said the following in his Feb. 2005 for The American Conservative:

The 9/11 killers were over here because we are over there. We were not attacked because of who we are but because of what we do. It is not our principles they hate. It is our policies....

This is nothing but jihadist propaganda. Either Buchanan actually believes this garbage or he's so cynical that he will make an ideological alliance with people who share his anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) bias.

In either case, neither he nor anybody who quotes him as a Middle Eastern "expert" should be taken seriously.

Anonymous said...


Of course, Shea gives D'Souza's book his mighty imprimatur without having read the bloody thing!!

Only a self-deluded charlatan would attempt to demonstrate knowledge of a subject without bothering to do even the most fundamental research...

torquemada05 said...

Accusing Mark of being anti-Jewish is out of line, Joe, given how often he has rightly criticized some of the nuttier rad-trads for just that. I do think, however, that he tends to ignore some of these same trends among his erstwhile paleocon allies in his eagerness to triangulate and/or bash the neocons.

My point in highlighting the comment was to contrast what was being said there with that which had previously been said by Josiah. It's Mark's blog and he can ban whoever he wants, but I think it's important to confront him with some of his more bizarre reasonings.

Anonymous said...

Josiah says:

Reaction against western decadence is only one factor in what's fueling radical Muslim groups, but it is an important factor. I've only read part of D'Souza's book, but the most effective bit is where he notes that most of the Jihadist leaders, from bin Laden to Atta to KSM, where not only western educated but were to some extent radicalized during their stay in the west. No one could accuse this guy of buying into the Islamic worldview:

but he seems to think that social liberalism is playing into the Jihadist hands, and this is certainly seems more reasonable than the left's idea that it's poverty that causes terrorism (or even global warming):

So I don't think D'Souza's argument can simply be dismissed, any more than you can dismiss Scheuerr's argument that it's the foreign policy, stupid. But at the end of the day (as Mark might say), I'm not sure what practical usefulness such conclusions really have. We as a society aren't going to stop slutting around any time soon, any more than we are going to abandon the Middle East and retreat into a Swiss-style isolationist paradise. If this is why they hate us, then we'd better get used to it.

Anonymous said...

Josiah says:

Annoying blogger keeps cutting off my links.

Here they are:

Anonymous said...

What aggravates me is the people who talk as though the sinful tendencies of our culture/nation (I realize that's a weak way of phrasing it, but I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of collectivizing actual sin, not being an OT prophet or anything) somehow invalidates said nation/culture's right of self-defense. What about all those Christians who served in the Roman Imperial Army...BEFORE Constantine?

To the extent that we're playing cowboy in this conflict, we're not the Roy Rogers Dubya seems to've hoped for; we're not even John Wayne. More like the Man with No Name: an entity that apprehends the good, has a somewhat spotty track record of upholding it, but is still an improvement on the alternatives.

In plainer English, D'Souza has a point about our own decadence, but it's not all that relevant to the question of what we should do on the larger geopolitical scale. Any self-respecting Christian should pray and work for our country's reform...but they'd better also pray and work that there *be* a country to reform.


Christopher Fotos said...

I'm busy this morning and have yet to read all the way through this post, so two brief comments for now:

Now there are some cases when triangulation is good and some cases when it is bad, but adopting it as one's preferred default position as Mark often does in order to "prove" his point is recipe for disaster.

Yes, let's call this the hermeneutics of triangulation.

Based on the Q&A at The Corner (which has been embarassingly silent about the book since, save for a couple of first-day objections from the libertarian faction) and based on other interviews, one of the intellectually fatal problems with D'Souza's book is simple ignorance. Shockingly ignorant for a writer of his stature. As I said in an email to NRO:


"And both the Right and the Left have been operating under illusions. The
radical Muslims are against modernity and science and democracy. The radical
Muslims are upset because of colonialism and the Crusades. It’s all nonsense.
That’s not what the leading thinkers of radical Islam say. "

Huh? Islamic radicalism (since that's his preferred term) has all kinds of
bitter critiques against democracy as an offense to the ideal Islamic state. So
do less radical forms--this is basic to Islamic ideals. Radical Islamists have
spewed volumes about colonialism and the Crusdades. Western "depravity" is part
of the mix, but radical definitions of the word are rather more broad than our
own; witness the account of modern radical leader Sayyid Qut'b about depraved
sex-crazed America--in 1949-50.


"I’m not urging that any line of inquiry be “shut down.” I’m saying it’s foolish
to blame Islam when Islam has been around for 1,300 years and Islamic terrorism
has been a problem for the past 25 years. "

You have to be sincerely ignorant to say something like that. A good starting
point would have been Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and Robert Spencer's
The Truth About Muhammad. (D'Souza: "So is it even reasonable to blame Mohammad or the Koran?" Me: Oh brother!)"

[end of email]

Now, I am not saying Islam per se is incapable of peacefully coexisting with other cultures. But jihadist violence can be justified based on many holy texts, from the Koran and elsewhere. These justifications are woven into the fabric of Islam in a way that simply isn't evident in Christianity, for example, starting with the obvious contrast that Jesus never led armies, slaughtered prisoners, or beheaded anyone. Therefore when D'Souza tells Kathryn Lopez in that Q and A "is it even reasonable to blame Mohammad or the Koran?" I can only marvel at the question.

David Forsmark quotes D'Souza in a review yesterday at Front Page Mag:

Conservatives should stop writing books critical of Islam, or holding “silly seminars” on whether Islam is consistent with democracy; stop discouraging the imposition of sharia law; and “level with traditional Muslims and talk sense to them.” This, he says, will keep radical Islam from being able to recruit from within traditional Islam.

This is just one example, but so far it appears D'Souza has taken a bizarre turn, farewell.

Other commenters have spoken where NRO has not; here's a good early take by Dean Barnett:

In D’Souza’s view, beleaguered, socially conservative Islamacists feel besieged by the American culture. Especially offensive to the Islamic world is our “blue state” culture that has brought things like homosexuality, abortion, cruddy reality shows and insipid pop artists to the doorstep of a Muslim world that treasures nothing more than traditional values. D’Souza further theorizes that if right thinking Americans can somehow control the pathologies of the American left or at the very least let the Muslim world know that the rest of us consider them pathologies also, the Muslim world will no longer hate America.

This view of things is dangerously misguided, and dangerously ignorant. The Radical Islamic world doesn’t hate us because our TV shows are too racy or our women too provocative. The Radical Islamic world hates us not for what we are but for what we aren’t. Specifically, the haters at issue loathe us because we’re not Muslims.

Here’s how the Ayatollah Khomeini put it: “Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those who say this are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! Kill them, put them to the sword and scatter their armies.”

One of the things that makes “The Enemy at Home” so strange is that D’Souza never grapples with this side of Islam. Especially odd is the fact that even though D’Souza quotes Khomeini at several points, he never cites this particular speech. This is almost inexplicable; the above quote comes from a 1942 Khomeini work that is more or less the equivalent of the madman’s Gettysburg Address. It’s his signature piece. It defies belief that D’Souza delved even superficially into the Khomeini collection and these comments didn’t catch his eye....

There's more in that review and I won't add to the length of this post by excerpting more here.

Christopher Fotos said...

One more quote, from Hugh Fitzgerald at Spencer's site:

D'Souza begins his book thus:

"In this book I make a claim that will seem startling at the outset. The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11. … In faulting the cultural left, I am not making the absurd accusation that this group blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I am saying that the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world."

Also from this idiotic book by D'Souza:

"Muslims who carried out the 9/11 attacks were the product of this visceral rage—some of it based on legitimate concerns, some of it based on wrongful prejudice, but all of it fueled and encouraged by the cultural left. Thus without the cultural left, 9/11 would not have happened.

"I realize that this is a strong charge, one that no one has made before.* But it is a neglected aspect of the 9/11 debate, and it is critical to understanding the current controversy over the ‘war against terrorism.’ … I intend to show that the left has actively fostered the intense hatred of America that has led to numerous attacks such as 9/11. If I am right, then no war against terrorism can be effectively fought using the left-wing premises that are now accepted doctrine among mainstream liberals and Democrats."

And the Jihad -- Col. Ojukwu's own word -- against the Nigerian Christians, that led to the 1967-1969 Biafran War -- was caused by what "cultural left" among the Ibo? Doesn't Dinesh D'Souza know that the most straitlaced and conservative Anglicans in the world are the black African Anglicans?

And what "cultural left" is on display among the Buddhist monks and schoolteachers of southern Thailand, being killed by the thousands? Have they been handing out Gramsci and Susan Sontag, and showing videos of Harvey Fierstein in those Thai one-room schoolhouses and temples? Is that what gets the Muslims into such a murderous mood?

And those Hindus murdered or driven out of Bangladesh, of Pakistan, of Kashmir -- what is that "cultural left" they must, in the vision of D'Souza, have been part of? How many subscriptions to the New Left Review go to Hindu homes in Dacca or Rawalpindi? How many secret sympathizers with that "cultural left" that is such an enemy of Islam -- you know, people like Arundhati Roy, or Ken Livingstone, well-known to send Muslims into a fury?...

Fitzgerald then attacks D'Souza and the Hoover Institution, and I can't say whether that's warranted at this point. But the book...good grief.

*This is one example of the historical rigor on display. As noted by many, including Warren Bass in this neglected early review, Jerry Falwell ran that one up the flagpole:

On Sept. 13, 2001, the television evangelist Jerry Falwell offered a stunned, grieving nation a startling diagnosis of al-Qaeda's motivations. "I really believe," he said on Pat Robertson's show, "The 700 Club," "that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "

At the time, Falwell's analysis was roundly denounced as hysterical and elicited a pointed disavowal from President Bush. But Dinesh D'Souza, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, has decided, essentially, that Falwell was on to something....The Enemy at Home calls America's culture war synonymous with its war on terrorism and flatly blames the country's left for 9/11. But unlike Falwell and Robertson's outburst at a moment of crisis, D'Souza's is offered in a spirit of cool reflection. The result is the worst nonfiction book about terrorism published by a major house since 9/11...

Anonymous said...

Accusing Mark of being anti-Jewish is out of line, Joe, given how often he has rightly criticized some of the nuttier rad-trads for just that. I do think, however, that he tends to ignore some of these same trends among his erstwhile paleocon allies in his eagerness to triangulate and/or bash the neocons.

Torq, where have I specifically criticized Shea for being anti-Jewish? I'm criticizing Shea for his mindless support for Buchanan, without realizing what that support means or entails.

The phrase, "make an ideological alliance with people who share his anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) bias" refers to Buchanan, not Shea.

Anonymous said...


btw, that last post was mine.

Anonymous said...


Then again, Torq, Shea writes this drivel just today while linking to Larison:

Daniel Larison comments on the curious fact that if you say "We should pre-emptively launch a war against Iran because it's in Israel's best interests" you are a political visionary and another Churchill. If you say "We should not pre-emptively launch a war against Iran because it's in Israel's best interests" you are an anti-semitic conspiracy theorist.

I'm not terribly sanguine about expanding the war to Iran. We got stampeded once. I'm less inclined to be stampeded again by hysteria about imminent mushroom clouds.

Do such comments necessarily make Shea anti-Jewish? No. However, they show that Shea is swallowing paleocon propaganda hook, line and sinker without any understanding of the consequences of that thought.

Shea, like Buchanan and Larison, doesn't take the war on (Islamic) terror seriously. He dismisses Iran as a threat not only to Israel but to the world, and has dismissed Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Let's say that Iran is successful in obliterating Israel. Does anybody seriously think that Iran will be satisfied. Does anybody seriously believe that a quarter century of "Death to America!" chants are mere play acting? Does anybody seriously believe that Iran might not go after Saudi Arabia, its competitor for regional influence and the leading exporter of Sunni "infidelism," to coin a term?

The fact that Israel is the United States' main ally in the Middle East appears to escape the Illustrious Mr. Shea and his paleocon cohorts.

Donald R. McClarey said...

The D'Souza's book is incredibly disappointing. I have read and enjoyed all of his prior books, and I am dismayed that his present tome is so wrong-headed. The jihadists dislike the West of course, but not because of our decadence but rather because we are not followers of whatever sect of Islam they subscribe to. Their hatred of all other cultures is truly catholic, certainly not Catholic, in its scope. Hindu, Communist Chinese, animist, Buddhist, etc., all other cultures are less than nothing to the jihadists. What sparks their true fury is not the West, or anything outside of Islam. They attack us in order to achieve their goal of taking the leadership of Islam around the globe. We are merely convenient targets, like the Jews for the Nazis, scapegoats to help the jihadists build political power in the House of Islam. The idea that Bin Laden and his adherents would not be about their depredations if so much of the West were not so decadent is laughable, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the present conflict.

torquemada05 said...

Joe, I thought you were referring to Mark rather to Buchanan, hence my reproach. If you didn't mean it that way, then consider it retracted.

Josiah, I agree that D'Souza has a good point about how social liberalism serves as an effective recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and plays a role in shaping their philosophy. My problem, however, is that he takes that point entirely too far and gives the enemy entirely too much credit. KSM wasn't exactly a poster child for a crusader against Western decadence, nor for that matter was AMZ. If D'Souza's argument was that we had better be able to present something more appealing to Muslims than Sex in the City, that would be one thing, but he seems to have focused in on one specific element of al-Qaeda propaganda and then accepted it completely uncritically for the purposes. I really don't see much of a difference between this and the anti-Israel types who argue that all terrorism will magically vanish once a Palestinian state is created - in both cases facts are twisted and broader realities ignored to suit a very narrow agenda.

Anonymous said...


No problem, Torq. Glad we got that straighted out.

Anonymous said...

Three things:

1. First, I've been unbanned. I'd like to thank everyone, though, for their words of encouragement and defense.

2. Mark has posted a follow up on the D'Souza book, in which he argues that radical Islam can't pose a dire threat to the West because it is the West, rather than Islam, that will produce the anti-Christ. It would he putting it mildly to say that this argument overlooks one or two possibilities, but at least it's original.

3. The more I learn about D'Souza's argument, the less persuasive it becomes.


doubting thomas said...


I have been unbanned twice. I don't know if there is a time limit in Haloscan or if Mark periodically cleans out the ban file.

But watch out, your rebanning is only one perceived slight away.

Anonymous said...


Shea's ability to ban and un-ban as he sees fit without any apology reflects his fundamentally hypocritical, if not infantile, nature.