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Why the Peaceful Majority of Muslims Are Not Irrelevant

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A few years ago, FrontPageMag.com columnist Paul Marek wrote an article titled “Why the Peaceful Majority Is Irrelevant.” His thesis was that even if the majority of Muslims abhor violence, it doesn’t matter because “the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history…. The hard quantifiable fact is, that the ‘peaceful majority’ is the ‘silent majority’ and it is cowed and extraneous.”

For Marek, the upshot is this: “We must pay attention to the only group that counts: the fanatics who threaten our way of life.”

He’s wrong. No, he’s worse than wrong, because his position could be used to justify mass murder.

Marek and those who have applauded his column point out that most Germans and Japanese during World War II were not warmongers, but warmongers controlled policymaking. The implication is that the United States was right to regard the peaceful majority as nonexistent. That’s exactly what the Allies did. Under Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill hundreds of thousands of German and Japanese civilians were targeted and killed in bombings that had no direct relationship to military objectives. Most people consider this morally defensible. It’s regarded as a normal part of war, although it violates traditional just-war doctrine. But why isn’t it understood to be mass murder? Marek’s answer would be that, since the peaceful majority did nothing to stop the warmongering minority, the majority — men, women, and children — were fair game.

This dubious principle has been applied to the Middle East: If the majority are peaceful, why don’t its members speak out — and act — against the radical minority? Since they don’t, “we” have the right to ignore them when “we” devise strategy and tactics to defend “ourselves.” If they die or otherwise suffer in the attacks, they have only themselves or the radical minority to blame. This principle goes beyond chalking up the deaths of innocents to “collateral damage,” because it suggests that no one is truly innocent.

This is not a new policy for the United States. Since the early 1960s the U.S. government has maintained an embargo on Cuba that has caused great suffering among average people there without noticeably harming Cuban dictator Fidel Castro or his ruling clique.

For more than ten years after the Gulf War of 1991, the U.S. government kept economic sanctions on the Iraqi people. Since the U.S. Air Force had destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure in the war, the embargo meant that Iraqis had to live without clean water, effective sewage disposal, or electricity. As a result, hundreds of thousand people, mostly children, perished. Like Castro, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Ba’athist elite did not suffer noticeably.

Other examples could be recounted in which U.S. policy killed or harmed civilians who had nothing to do with government policy. It’s clear from the U.S. foreign-policy record that civilians have long been regarded as fair game. The rationale apparently was that those measures would induce them to replace their governments. If they didn’t do so, the civilians presumably deserved their fate.

The attitude behind this policy seems to be, “Kill ’em all: let God sort ’em out,” a monstrous slogan mouthed by more than one supporter of George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This pernicious doctrine is gravely mistaken on many levels. First, it doesn’t work. In World War II, the bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and other cities did not cause the Germans or Japanese to overthrow their governments. If anything, they rallied about their rulers.

Embargoes and sanctions did not drive Saddam Hussein or Castro from power. It took an invasion to topple Saddam, and Castro recently retired in his 80s when his health went bad.

Even if the policy worked, that would be no recommendation for it. The peaceful majority of Muslims cannot be irrelevant as long as ideas rule the world. That last phrase may startle some readers, but it’s true. Contrary to what many people think, force does not rule the world. Ideas do, says historian and defense theorist Jeffrey Rogers Hummel of San Jose State University, because ideas determine the direction in which people point their guns. If we want peaceful Muslims to prevail over those who use violence against innocents, it would be helpful if their nonviolence were reinforced.
A half-century of intervention

But more than 50 years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East have done the opposite of reinforcing nonviolent methods. U.S. presidents have consistently supported despotisms (among them, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran up until 1979, and even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) and “democratic” oppression (Israeli rule over the Palestinians). Peaceful efforts to change U.S. intervention in the region have gotten exactly nowhere. Moderate opponents of U.S. policy were consistently ignored — or worse — by American policy-makers. (A moderate Iranian prime minister was overthrown in 1953 with help from the CIA.) That is why the militants could ignore them too. As long as the U.S. government pursues its neo-imperialist policy in the Middle East, the advocates of violence will hold sway and will become increasingly popular. Most Iraqis think it is good to attack U.S. forces. No surprise there. The United States is an occupying power.

Mainstream commentators, being little more than mouthpieces for the establishment “consensus,” have a stake in consigning this fact to the memory hole. In the March 23 New York Times, for example, Paul Berman of New York University wrote,

Extremist movements have been growing bigger and wilder for more than three decades [now. During] that period, America has tried pretty much everythingfrom a policy point of view. Our presidents have been satanic (Richard Nixon), angelic (Jimmy Carter), a sleepy idiot savant (Ronald Reagan), a cagey realist (George H.W. Bush), wonderfully charming (Bill Clinton), and famously otherwise (George W. Bush). And each president’s Middle Eastern policy has conformed to his character. [Emphasis added.]

America has tried everything? Is Berman kidding? When was minding its own business — nonintervention — tried? Clearly, by “everything,” Berman means everystyle of imperialism. But why should we imagine that any form of imperialism will discredit violent radicals? Such patent nonsense as Berman’s is typical of the U.S.-centric propaganda routinely voiced by obsequious pundits and politicians, who count on the people to be too complacent or ignorant to disagree. It goes to show that a government doesn’t need direct control to shape public opinion. It will do just fine to have an incentive system that rewards intellectuals for saying the right thing.

Finally, the principle that the United States may murder Muslim innocents because they have failed to stop the violent elements among them is precisely the argument Osama bin Laden used in justifying the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks. In a 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden catalogued U.S.-government offenses against Muslims, but anticipated an objection: “You may then dispute that all the above does not justify aggression against civilians, for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not partake.”

Here’s how bin Laden responded to that claim:

This argument contradicts your continuous repetition that America is the land of freedom…. Therefore, the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will; a choice which stems from their agreement to its policies…. The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it if they want.

The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq…. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us, and they are the ones who oversee the expenditure of these monies in the way they wish, through their elected candidates….

The American people are the ones who employ both their men and their women in the American Forces which attack us.

If bin Laden is wrong, then so are Marek and anyone who agrees with him. But bin Laden has one point going for him that his U.S. counterparts don’t have: the American people, at least in theory, could vote the bad policy-makers out of office.

Beware double-edged policies.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of Freedom DailySubscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.