|Montreal, January 17, 2004 / No 136|
by Chris Leithner
Cardinal Newman, in a series of lectures delivered in 1852, stated that a true gentlemen “carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast ... his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home.” A good friend, on the other hand, is a person who knows you but likes you all the same. Aware of his own failings, and sometimes at the cost of temporary ructions, he also draws your shortcomings to your attention. Friendship, in other words, occasionally necessitates ungentlemanly behaviour.
With that point in mind, it is perhaps worth mentioning that during the
past couple of years Americans (and Australians and Britons) have been
at war – not with another country or some wicked external force, but with
themselves and the phantoms they have created in their own minds. Since
11 September 2001 their print and broadcast media have disseminated more
than the usual amount of equivocations, nonsense and outright lies; and
with very few exceptions they have utterly misconceived what lies beyond
their shores. As a result, not only are the Anglo-American governments
destroying military and civilian lives: they are squandering staggering
amounts of taxpayers’ money and depleting further their already-meagre
pools of funding(1).
This is a contemporary variant of an ancient habit. In America, “the whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholic, the slave power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, ... Pancho Villa, German spies, the Kaiser, Bolshevism. The list might be lengthened indefinitely: a complete chronicle of the Republic could be written in terms of it, without omitting a single important episode.”(2) An Independent Institute Policy Forum concurred: “the recent behaviour of the U.S. government is consistent with that of past administrations. Politicians have long fostered pork, corporate welfare, government surveillance and global interventionism that have created a more dangerous world.”(3)
This ancient habit has several contemporary manifestations. Perhaps most notably, prominent “neo-conservatives” have portrayed the events and aftermath of 11 September as a confrontation between Islam and the West. Muslims, it has been alleged, are an inherently fanatical people because Islam is an intrinsically intolerant religion. Muslims, it is said, abhor liberty and therefore seek to extinguish others’ liberty. A thousand years ago, the Arab and Islamic world was far richer than Christendom. Not only was it militarily stronger: it was also far more advanced in science, mathematics and scholarship more generally. This innate hostility, plus the envy and resentment generated by the dramatic reversal of economic, military and technological fortunes during the last thousand years, say the neo-cons, underlie the dreadful events of 11 September 2001.
Tolerance and trade
There are at least two grounds to reject these conjectures. The first, as Charley Reese puts it, is that Muslims Are Good Folks. Reese notes that the longest-established Christian populations in the world, as well as some of the oldest Jewish groups, reside in Muslim countries. Christians and Jews inhabit practically all Muslim lands and for centuries (i.e., until the twentieth century, when the Israel-Palestine conflict muddied the waters) did so without particular hindrance or oppression. Similarly, Jews who centuries ago were expelled from Europe and dispossessed by Christians found refuge in Islamic territories from Bosnia to Baghdad. Accordingly, there is no theological reason to believe that Muslims are less tolerant than Christians and Jews of neighbours who adhere to other faiths.
Indeed, there are theological reasons to believe that Muslims will be at least as tolerant as most – and more tolerant than many – Christians. This is because, as Reese emphasises, Islam is not a monolith. Like Christians, some Muslims observe their faith strictly and others more pragmatically. Further, Islam is a religion but not a Church; unlike the Roman Catholic Church, in other words, there is no Islamic hierarchy. “In that respect, Muslims are much like Southern Baptists, only more so.” Any group of Muslims can build a mosque and hire a religious teacher; and because each group is independent of others, there is no Muslim pope or College of Cardinals. Accordingly, “when an imam (religious teacher) issues a fatwa, a kind of formal opinion on a subject, it is not binding. Like Protestant Christians, Muslims interpret their holy writings and consider themselves answerable directly to God – or, to use the Arabic word, Allah.”
The second reason to doubt the neo-con interpretation of 11 September is that, as Imad Ahmad shows, there is a strong association, little appreciated – or even known – in the West, between Islam and Markets (4). Ahmad notes that the Qur’an, the Islamic scripture, “is filled with parables using the language of trade. It was merchants, not soldiers, who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam throughout the world.” Further, the rise of Islamic civilisation contributed decisively to economic development and economic science. Indeed, “in his history of economics, Murray Rothbard noted the more advanced understanding of markets found among the Scholastics and in the 16th century school of Salamanca, compared to that of the ancient Greeks.”(5)
Ahmad advances a startling and disturbing (for American neo-cons and their clones in other countries) and thought-provoking and exhilarating (for classical liberals) hypothesis: “the rising tide of Islam today is in part a reaction against the Arab socialism that has destroyed the markets of the Muslim world. That the rejection of secularism and of socialism should come hand-in-hand should not be surprising. One cannot be a Muslim and [also be] opposed to freedom of enterprise.”
Tom Bethell provides evidence that corroborates Ahmad’s conjecture. “Property is [presently] held insecurely all over the Arab world ... The problem is that there is no security against the depredations of the state ... Ruthless autocrats, guarded by their own military, have been able to prevail for decades against impoverished masses.” The embrace of “Arab Socialism” in the 1950s, aided and abetted by Western governments, entailed widespread expropriation of property and the imposition of centralised state control. Bethell notes “economic decline has been just one consequence” and adds very presciently that “this situation is potentially serious for the rest of the world. Young men growing up in large numbers with no material prospects have in the past posed a serious threat to civilisation.”(6)
Markets and peace
What, then, is the solution to the distemper that presently pits the U.S. and some other Western governments against Muslims? A strictly non-interventionist foreign policy is one necessary condition – which, as an added bonus, would do much to return America to the traditions of its Founders. And secure property and laissez-faire capitalism is the other. More capitalism and less democracy, in other words, is the surest way to establish civilised relations among the many and varied peoples of the world(7). Put most bluntly, it is far cheaper in lives and treasure to buy oil than it is to conquer oil-bearing lands and subjugate their inhabitants.
According to Thomas Jefferson, “war is not the best engine for us to resort to, [but] nature has given us one in commerce, which, if properly managed, will be a better instrument for obliging [others] to treat us with justice.” John Quincy Adams added that the United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy … She will commend the general cause [of liberty] by the countenance of her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colours and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force [and] she might become the dictatress of the world.” And Lew Rockwell concludes “so long as free trade is alive and working well, Christendom can get along just fine with the Muslim world ... Free enterprise makes it possible for people of radically different worldviews to get along just fine. [Conversely], the breakdown of commercial relations is often followed by bloodshed.”(8)
Westerners can draw upon a tradition, beginning in antiquity and proceeding through the Scots Enlightenment to the present, which affirms the moral and material benefits of commerce and trade. Similarly, “like their cousins, the Jews, the early Arabs had a strong commitment to trade and bargaining. The rise of Islam did not change, nor did it seek to change, the centrality of trade and commerce to the Arab way of life. On the contrary, the establishment of commercial law, the expansion of property rights for women, the prohibition of fraud, the call for the establishment of clear standards of weights and measures, and the uncompromising defence of property rights (even while calling for a greater responsibility for alleviating the plight of the poor and needy) pushed the Islamic civilisation to the front of the world’s economic stage and made the Muslim world the defining force in international trade for over 800 years.” Ahmed concludes that “Islamic activists throughout the Muslim world can help to usher in a new Renaissance if they avoid the temptation to yield to political pragmatism and hold fast to the pro-market principles of Islam.”
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