Here's how we defeat the vulgarians: Bill Maher, wrong-headed neocons, and the real answer to "radical Islam"

We need an honest response to Charlie Hebdo. Start by remembering how 9/11 felt before Bush hijacked it for war

Published January 15, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Janet Van Ham/Photo montage by Salon)

A lot of garbage has spewed from people unworthy of our attention since the attacks in Paris last week, and who can be surprised? One grows heartily tired of ignorant vulgarians such as Bill Maher pretending to careful deliberation, only to gush the primitive prejudices that pass for knowingness in the cultural mainstream.  The worst are full of passionate intensity is all one can say.

But crude reaction has not proven the main event this time. The exceptional aspect of the week since Charlie Hebdo and a Parisian market were invaded by radical Islamists is how intelligently so many of us have responded. This presents us with a chance to alter perceptions, ditch the prevalent Islamophobia, and redefine what now amounts to a global predicament.

Risking charges of institutional bias, few commentators match Salon’s Elias Isquith for making distinctions we must count as essential now. Read the piece he posted last Saturday here. Press freedom is non-negotiable. Bitter it is to defend it in the name of the hate-mongering juveniles filling the pages of Charlie Hebdo with provocations that have no point other than to offend what we already know is a wounded civilization. One stands with Isquith without qualification.

This column is not about Charlie Hebdo and all that happened in Paris last week. We are post-Paris now. And as more than 3 million Parisians just told us, it is a new place with new things to think about and do. As long as we are fooling with our failing French, here is my try: Je suis la place de la République, where that vast throng gathered as one.

As I read it, the date is Sept. 12, 2001. No, the 17 casualties in Paris do not align with the 9/11 numbers by a long way, but Western numbers never do. Three days after Christmas, to take a piece of news the Pentagon dodges as we speak, President Obama sent a drone into a Pakistani village and killed triple the number of civilians who died in Paris. Unreported, but for a single piece from a McClatchy correspondent; no sign of anyone giving a damn.

No, numbers will not mean much until we start counting very differently than we do. And this leads us to the projects—I identify two—at hand.

I  trust I am not alone in recalling the months between Sept. 12, 2001, and President Bush’s egregious “Axis of Evil” speech, his first State of the Union address, the following January. This was an extremely important passage in America’s post-Cold War travels. (I picked it apart in detail in the book noted at the foot of these columns.)

Something like a finest hour was upon this country. An effective number of us responded to the attacks on New York and Washington by posing the very most useful and fundamental questions. How have things come to this? Why has a radical strain of Islam arisen? What have we done to prompt such enmity? Origins and causes were at issue, and a critical mass among us did not flinch.

What, then, is to be done? This was the follow-on question. All manner of ideas arose. The one that stands out—and the one most useful to us now, as I will argue in a minute—was for a Marshall Plan in the Middle East.

Remember any of this? I do, vividly. I found it moving, because the prospect of a revaluation—a reimagined idea of ourselves, our place in the world and what we can do with power—seemed within grasp. Not too common anywhere, moments such as this. Americans had a chance to live up to the ideals they professed but had betrayed for at least a century and very arguably more, depending on how one counted.

This interlude of hopeful exploration came to nothing. Rattled by a shift in national sentiment in a direction the right wing had spent two decades smothering, Bush’s point in his Axis of Evil presentation, with all its Manichaean ornamentation, was precisely to smash any attempt to renovate the American consciousness of itself in the world.

We are back, returned to the scene of the obliteration, and everyone else is there with us. The questions before us all now are the questions posed in the autumn of 2001. The resistance to change encountered then is the resistance abroad as we speak.

Americans incurred a debt in 2001, as I read it then. We owed the 3,000 killed in lower Manhattan the honor of turning their deaths to positive purpose. We never built the monument they deserved—and forget about that museum at the site of the World Trade Towers, a travesty—but now we have a second chance to build it.

And now the “we” is a vast, planetary “we.” Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo, O.K., mais nous sommes tous Parisiens, we are all Parisians. In this I single out Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim flic killed at Charlie Hebdo’s offices last week. To him we owe a special debt.

Of what would this monument of ours consist? How can we begin to build it?

Let’s stay with 2001 a little longer. The Bush administration’s intellectual (wrong word, but never mind) ballast came from Richard Perle, one of those scholar-warriors who mange to drift down to Washington from Cambridge with disturbing regularity. As a career-long pseud, Perle makes David Brooks read like Erasmus.

Perle’s frame for the new “war on terror” was “decontextualization,” which went this way: “Any attempt to understand terrorism is an attempt to justify it.” This was Perle’s celebrated dictum. Follow-on thought: “Just wage total war.”

Perle's big idea, decontextualization, has proven the single most destructive aspect of our post-Sept. 11 response—14 years of intellectual napalm, the scorched earth now extending to Paris.

We begin, then, by discarding Perle’s concept and—but precisely—putting radical Islam in a context that renders it comprehensible. Only then can it be effectively countered. Origins, causality—a history altogether: These we have to know of. The admissions of guilt and responsibility will be too plentiful to count, but too bad: These cannot be avoided any longer unless we want Charlie Hebdo scenes splashed on page one with a dreadful regularity.

Project One: Alter the consciousness. Post-Paris, this is an obvious step. It means recognizing our era as one during which the line between East and West, etched in the earth since Herodotus, is disappearing. The Middle East and all its people as the great Other of the West—the essence of Orientalism—is an egregious hangover at this point.

We do not merely accept this change in our most basic thinking: We embrace it, knowing the human community will be vastly richer for it. The big word in Paris last week was “unity.” This is what it must come to in its fullest meaning.

The problem of Islamophobia is obvious, at least to some of us. It fills the air we breathe post-9.11 such that many of those afflicted cannot even detect the foul odor. Hence does Bill Maher pass as an intelligent commentator.

Charlie Hebdo is a more germane case in point. By law it has a right to publish what it wants and so it should. But Project One cannot be reduced to a question of law. Islamophobia is a matter of Sartre’s “bad faith,” false consciousness, and Charlie Hebdo’s editors and cartoonists are part of the problem, in no wise any part of the solution. The question for them is, O.K., you have a legal right to publish as you do and the law will stand. Now tell us why you choose to publish graphics captioned, “Le Coran, c’est de la merde.” (Here it is.)

France and Britain have very different approaches to their Muslim communities. We should consider them briefly.

  • In France, assimilation must be total by law. One must speak French to be French, and French names are on offer for those wishing to adopt them. No outward signs of anything other than traditional French identity are permitted. The ban on veils in schools and the civil service is the best-known example.
  • In Britain, arrivals from elsewhere are welcome to keep their languages, traditions, names (of course), dress, religious practices, and all the rest. Your neighborhood will accommodate with street signs in Urdu or Arabic or what have you.

What happens in each case? One would think the British strategy more humane, but look again. Pakistani, Arabic and other communities tend to be isolated in radically underserved ghettos. In France, you find the phenomenon Asians call “doubling”—one is oneself at home, someone else in public—but any tour of French suburbs will tell you all about the failure of French assimilation policy.

Two different strategies, one outcome: Islamophobia, the identity of Muslims as Other, is sustained because it is embedded in national policy. Communities are alienated in what is supposed to be their home.

Anti-immigration movements are nothing more than logical outcomes. As many commentators have remarked, post-Paris we have to draw the lines differently: It is not Islam vs. the West, as Bush II so recklessly encouraged people to think; it is everyone vs. a perverted strain of Islam as offensive to most Muslims as to anyone else.

The display of leadership in Paris last week—40-odd presidents and prime ministers with linked arms—was not encouraging in this connection. As Jeremy Scahill termed it Tuesday on Amy Goodman’s "Democracy Now!," this was “a circus of hypocrisy” in that virtually every leader there had blots in the copybook as to press censorship, suppression or worse.

The most preposterous cases were two. David Cameron, the British prime minister who traps Julian Assange in a foreign embassy, detained Glenn Greenwald’s partner as he passed through Heathrow last year and ordered the destruction of the Guardian’s hard drives after the Snowden revelations—what nerve had he to be there? Afterward, Cameron took the occasion to assert that surveillance must now be extended to all communications.

What can one say about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s place in the lineup? Francois Hollande told the Middle East’s most dangerous man not to come, and this was to his credit: Not only does Netanyahu have a long record of arresting journalists; he is the “self-and-Other” narrative made flesh.

At least he was properly humiliated, as France 24 reported. In this satisfying YouTube segment from French television, he is kept off the bus taking dignitaries to the place de la République. Those French and their savoir faire.

“Let’s not act as if any of these leaders’ hands are clean,” Scahill told Amy Goodman. No, and let’s not act as if any of them promises to address this question of consciousness. All we have had since the Paris attacks are accounts of enhanced intelligence sharing, more resources dedicated to detection and so on. This is decontextualization in practice, as we had better recognize.

But here is a reality harder than any new intelligence or surveillance campaign: Prevention alone will never prove a source of security. Developing this requires us to work beyond the dehumanization and paranoia that Perle’s decontextualization is intended to promote and change the way we see and think. Post-Paris, it is time.

Project Two. Our minds are one thing, matters on the ground another. What are we to do there?

I have never let go of the idea of a Middle East Marshall Plan. One comes across few mentions of the thought—none from the policy cliques. The topic came up as the Arab Spring opened, but again it went nowhere. Here is a brief review of the subject’s fortunes from Open Democracy.

As things now stand, the West would rather bomb the Middle East than help it. Nonetheless, consider the image abroad in the autumn of 2001: Deprivation, poor schools or none, political repression and miserable provisions for public goods are as fetid ponds wherein radical Islam breeds like mosquitoes. The thought holds. Several wars later, conditions in the Middle East’s arc of crisis are worse than in 2001.

Even without an advanced degree in urban planning, sociology or the like, certain things seem obvious components of such as plan. This is the big one: The region’s energy sector has to be turned to the benefit of the region’s people. How scandalous is it that nations with most of the world’s oil reserves have huge populations with little or no electricity?

The geopolitical dimension of this thought is plain, but so is the need to make the transformation. Sixty-three years ago, Mossadegh nationalized Anglo-Iranian Oil for a reason. The CIA deposed Mossadegh a year later for the same reason. ISIS likes oilfields for the same reason.

Education: If the mosque is very often the only reliable institution in many Middle Eastern communities, can we be surprised to see the use to which radical Islamists put religion? Islam educates most Middle Eastern people to the extent they are educated. They deserve alternatives to the extent they want them, which I would think would increase in the course of development.

Infrastructure: Water systems, sewage, roads, hospitals, urban developments—there is not enough room left in this column to complete the list. Then come banking sectors, industries, and all else that makes an economy capable of getting millions of people in good work.

There is much more, of course. Included in the much more is a subtraction that must come first: The bombing and violence must be recognized now as self-perpetuating and the single best thing we can do if we like pictures of bloodied offices in European capitals.

Who is going to finance what, having been left so long undone, would have to be a multi-trillion dollar undertaking? This is easy, believe it or not. The multilaterals (reengineered, of course) and the oil-producing monarchies sitting atop the impoverished populations wherein radical Islam arises could manage it. For them, not a bad legacy to leave with the last few decades of the petrodollars.

A couple of years ago, as the Arab Spring had all of us astonished, Kissinger weighed in on this topic. “Humanitarian concerns do not abolish the need to relate national interest to a concept of world order,” he wrote (for my old paper, indeed. The piece is here.) “For the U.S., a doctrine of general humanitarian intervention in the Middle East revolutions will prove unsustainable unless linked to a concept of U.S. national security.”

Surprising. I had Henry down as smarter than this. One, the heading here is not humanitarian do-goodery. The heading, indeed, is world order and security, as in everybody’s. Two, Kissinger’s thinking self-cancels instantly: Any large-scale endeavor to remake the Middle East would have to be strictly in the Middle East’s interests alone to succeed. In this success would the interests of the rest of us be served.

You can see where Henry comes from. The original Marshall Plan in Europe did much good but was all about American self-interest. The PCF and the PCI, the French and Italian Communist parties, came out of the war very strong. Subverting Italy’s elections in 1948, the first year of the Marshall Plan, was among the CIA’s first operations in Europe after the Greek episode a year earlier. With the gifts a little bitterness, as so often when Washington’s policy cliques are the givers.

What is the point of this discussion, I imagine readers wondering. It is all a case of angélisme, as the French call hopelessly idealist thinking.

I am not unfamiliar with the charge, but I reject it. First, we have a decaying political culture that does not produce leaders capable of vision. This cannot mean we ought not bother developing any. At the very least, we should be mindful of just how sequestered leadership cliques fail us.

Second and more to the point, Paris altered the equation. Post-Paris, I do not see we have an alternative to thinking new and thinking big. The task is big. The debt mentioned earlier is big.

Kissinger’s thought that American primacy can be extended indefinitely into the new century—now there is idealism for you. Radical Islam is now identified as a unitary crisis, its many dimensions notwithstanding. Combating it with ever-larger fly swatters with the idea this will make it go away and we can continue to pretend the West has no part in its creation—this is simply a stupid form of idealism.

This column is about where we are now, in a new space we must get used to living in. It is about realism.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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