By Marwan Bishara
09 Feb 2015
ISIL, Arab, Islam, violence, cruelty, and disorder on the one side; the United States, the West, Christianity, power, benevolence, order, on the other side. That's the inescapable impression one gets when watching the media coverage of the Middle East, or when listening to conservative pundits in the US.
For all practical purpose, western focus on ISIL's barbarity, bigotry and bombast has helped justify the wholesale crimes of a tyrant like Assad, and obfuscated the role of the Bush administration in the breakup of Iraq and the killings of hundreds of thousands, all of which ultimately led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Today, the same warmongers who instigated the US invasion of Iraq, insist that the Obama administration underline the "Islamic" nature of the threat facing "the world", and demand the US escalate and expand the war against the "Islamic militants".
This dangerous posturing prompted Obama to use last week's annual "National Prayer Breakfast" meeting to remind his detractors that religiously motivated violence is common to all faiths. He also urged the American people to summon the needed humility when speaking about other peoples' experiences:
"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ... So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."
Lo and behold, Obama equates Christians and Muslims in virtue and in vice, when Evangelicals and other Islamophobes squirm at the citation of Christianity and Islam in the same sentence.
The conservative Republicans were dumbstruck by the president's tone and timing. They accuse him of choosing to "insult Christianity and excuse militant Islam", and of claiming "Christians were just as bad as ISIL."
But this is not the first time the president has made such a claim. In his 2009 Cairo speech, Obama argued: "For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes - and, yes, religions - subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests."
Religious or Political Schism?
In a critical article, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat traced Obama's worldview to Reinhold Niebuhr, the mid-20th-century Protestant theologian, who reckons that "no society is innocent, and that Americans in particular need to put aside illusions about our own alleged perfection".
Arguably, Obama's approach is also consistent with that of the country's "Founding Fathers", notably the third US president, Thomas Jefferson, who valued self-critique without being soft on others. Paradoxically, he was the first to wage war in the Muslim world, known as the First Barbary Wars (1801 to 1805), but his Quran has been used to swear in new Muslim Congressmen. Jefferson wrote in 1785, albeit in a completely different context:
Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.
"Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."
The US' relationship with God (as well as guns and government) is different from all other western democracies. It's both a secular state and a deeply religious nation.
Its relationship with God is built into its national symbols, such as the imprint of "In God We Trust" on its dollar bills, or to its national anthem: "And this be our motto - 'In God is our trust'".
The Conservative Calculus
When asked if they believe in God, nine out 10 Americans have consistently said yes over the past century. Nearly 80 percent believe in miracles.
This constitutes a fertile ground for the conservatives to emphasise America's righteous war against "Islamic extremism".
These emphasis are driven by cynical political calculation, with davastating long-term cultural and geopolitical ramifications.
It is one thing to try and undermine a Democratic president (with Hussein for a second name), but it's a whole different thing to instigate a religious war. With theology seeping into the political discourse, it's easy to see how enemies are demonised and the world is divided between good and intolerable evil.
The conservatives have expressed similar impatience with the president's new "Strategic Patience" doctrine that emphasises diplomacy over military power and warns against US over-reach in world affairs. Obama's strategy has been characterised as feckless, weak and ineffective.
But these conservative Republicans are becoming better organised and more vocal, especially when the anti-war and anti imperialist voice of the Occupy Movement has been either silenced or sidelined.
Despite the recent racial tensions at home and strategic blunders abroad, it's unlikely to hear someone of stature say, blacks should not sing "God Bless America" but "God damn America", as Obama's former pastor for 20 years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, insisted. Or, as he put it, the US brought on the 9/11 attacks with its own "terrorism".
A Liberal Leadership
Unfortunately, the president's commendable attempt at logic, nuance and context has invoked more scepticism than it garnered support. A president is neither a theologian nor a historian, warn the pundits; first and foremost, the US president must lead in order for the US to lead.
These conservatives might be wrong on a whole lot of things, especially on religion, but they're not wrong about the president's indifference about the Middle East. It's perhaps his apathy that led him to underestimate the danger of ISIL.
The president's deliberate policy is leading to neither engagement that raises the stakes and helps stop the bleeding, nor disengagement that forces the region to find its own path. Instead, his "patience" is leading to paralysis, which in light of the present chaos, could only lead to more instability and violence.
It's also becoming abundantly clear that Obama is more interested in managing than resolving the burning issues of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, etc. All of which means, uncertainty and suffering is certain to endure for much longer.
The Middle East's bitter reality shows that as long as the US is the region's self-declared policeman, loatheness could lead to belligerence, just as self-righteousness paves the way for blasphemy.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.