Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Terrorism and Tribalism

The recent near-terrorist incident involving the bungled attempt by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to cause an explosion on the Christmas flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, following the horrific shooting spree by the American soldier Nidal Malik Hassan at Fort Hood, Texas in November, have brought forth responses in the media, the public and our politicians that again illustrate a general American inability to respond to these difficult situations with anything more thoughtful and probing than a knee-jerk reaction of seeking to punish the perpetrators of these actions and to blame those who did not stop these situations from progressing to where they nearly caused, or in the case of Nidal Hassan, actually did cause harm and tragedy. There is also the infantile desire for government to provide a guarantee of 100% security to all Americans at all times. This writer will concede that more could perhaps have been done to prevent these incidents from unfolding as they did--or nearly did--but what he finds sadly lacking from the discussion is any serious consideration of WHY these Muslim individuals are so willing to take up the cause of violence against the USA and/or the West, even at the cost of their own lives. The general discussion seems to assume that these "bad guys," as labeled by former President Bush, are beyond understanding. They are simply "bad." Or maybe crazy. Or maybe misled by bad, crazy ideology. Or all of the above.

Rarely will you hear any discussion of how the Islamic world in general has been suffering a long-burning sense of humiliation, frustration and anger since being unsettled, disabled, carved up into pieces and then rearranged this way and that by Western colonial powers from the British to the French to the Russians to us for the last several hundred years. The post-WW II creation of the state of Israel by non-Islamic powers from outside the Middle East is one particularly grating example of events that have often taken place against the will of Islamic countries and without their consultation or any serious consideration of their interests or sensitivities. To put it bluntly, the Muslims are tired of being pushed around. Americans may recall we had a similar feeling toward the British in our colonial days, a feeling which prompted us to undertake a certain war of independence. To our British rulers in that period, Americans seeking to break away from the British Empire must have seemed like crazy, evil terrorists, "the worst of the worst."

So, when Islamic radicals take up arms against American forces occupying their lands, their actions, however regrettable or horrific, are not really all that crazy or irrational, nor are they so impossible to understand. What is needed is to seriously and thoughtfully consider their own point of view--which is not the same thing as agreeing with it--and not simply condemn it as evil or insane. These radicals are responding to what they see as unfair American domination of their world, an "American empire," if you will, and this is their attempt to make it end, or die trying.

I would argue that we will never succeed in stopping these repeated attempts at destabilizing our world through terrorist violence until we seriously consider how past and present actions of America and other Western countries have destabilized others' worlds, particularly those of Islamic peoples who once lived in proud, powerful Islamic states that boasted an advanced sophisticated civilization. We tend to assume that the rest of the world should accept American dominance, including allowing our military forces to freely operate in or near their territories--though we would never allow others to bring their military forces onto American soil--and merrily join in with our economic system and form of government.

Consider how we would feel in the reverse situation. If Saudi Arabia used its oil wealth to construct a huge military and then, after some perceived humiliation of some Saudi citizens in the United States, demanded that we allow Saudi soldiers to set up military bases in say, upstate New York and the Florida coast, and to be allowed to occupy these bases for an indefinite period, we would think it crazy and never accept it. Yet we expect other countries around the world to acquiesce to exactly this kind of humiliating and infuriating arrangement. Our military presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia needs to be considered in this light.

But the kind of discussion I am calling for will probably not happen, certainly not in the mainstream USA media nor the halls of government. The media and the government prefer to hew to the party line of "American exceptionalism," believing that we are a particularly blessed and virtuous nation, beyond all criticism or objections, and that other countries should "naturally" accept our leadership--or else.

In a strange way, this is actually a very tribal point of view. Our tribe of the USA is incapable of seeing any other point of view other than that which glorifies and justifies our own greatness and entitlement. Any disruption of our tribal interests will be met with maximum harshness, without excuses or compassion. A one-day attack in 2001 that kills a small number of our total population but involves no disruption of our government nor any occupation of our territory becomes the justification for eight plus years of war in which we invade two other countries, overthrow their governments, kill tens of thousands, take prisoners that we ship to overseas prisons for indefinite detention, and ignite or re-kindle interminable civil wars. Our armies march through foreign lands with no apparent understanding of how frightening, disturbing and humiliating our presence may be, establishing fortress-like bases wherever we like, like crusader castles of old, giving orders and issuing demands to local rulers that make a mockery of our supposed belief in democracy, and killing those who dare stand up against our occupation of land that is not our own.

Once you take off the self-justifying, other-distorting glasses of American exceptionalism, this is not so hard to see. It also helps to travel and talk to non-Americans once in a while.

In my writings in this blog on Paganism, I have struggled a great deal with the relationship of tribalism to ethnically-based forms of Pagan revivalism, particularly Asatru/Heathenry. Now I see a new and disturbing connection with the world situation. It is my impression that the same American Heathens or Asatru followers who are most enthusiastic about the retro-ideal of a closed tribal community are the ones most likely to unquestioningly support the US military in carrying out its imperialistic duties in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It seems that they view the American military as the most wonderful tribe of all; a tribe beyond criticism, whose legitimacy or purpose cannot be questioned.

A few months ago, on a Yahoo Heathen group that I often peruse, I read many messages of congratulations to a young man going off to war in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Not one voice was raised to question the wisdom of the war; there was just the simplistic, sentimental "support the troops" point of view. I didn't want to spoil the party, so I said nothing.

Does Norse Pagan tradition have anything to say about the current situation beyond the easy glorification of war that one may derive from the battle-scenes in the Eddas ans Sagas? This is obviously a matter of interpretation, but I believe there are several strands in Norse mythology and history that show something more complex and nuanced than a simplistic glorification of the tribe and exultation in war.

(1). In the account of the "first war in the world" between the Aesir and Vanir tribes of gods described in the poem Voluspa, the resolution of the conflict comes not from one side completely subduing the other, but through truce and compromise that results in a blending of the two tribes. Could this be applied to America's conflict with Muslim militants? It might save some money and lives if we tried to figure out what these "bad guys" wanted, instead of assuming that they are insane and should all be killed, and see if we could work out some kind of compromise. I have a feeling that they would first of all like to see our troops leaving. Guess what? So would many Americans, including this one.

(2) In the satirical poem Lokasenna, the suspicion is voiced that Odin, in his function as arbiter of war, often gave victory to the less deserving side on the battlefield. Other texts show Odin as being fickle in terms of his support of one side or the other. Does this apply to anything today? Well, it might give us a little humility in viewing the odds for American victory in Afghanistan and elsewhere (Yemen? Somalia? Iran? Sudan? Pakistan?), when we reflect on how the god of war does not guarantee victory to anyone.

(3) When the Norse explorers attempted to settle in North America, probably on the coast of Newfoundland at the site of L'Anse aux Meadows, they were eventually driven off by the hostility of the Native Americans. Victory is not assured when occupying foreign lands.

(4) Both the Norse gods, in mythology, and the Norse peoples, in history, often blended with and assimilated with other beings/peoples/cultures. The Norse gods fight giants, but also mate with them. The Vikings fought the English, Irish and French, but also settled among them and in time became completely mixed with them. This suggests something that the American military is realizing about Afghanistan: it helps to get to know people and form relationships with them, not just order them around and bomb them when they become disagreeable. This is quite different from assuming that we Americans all have the answers and that the other side should become our obedient subjects.

(5) We also find, when we examine the course of Scandinavian history, that the Scandinavian countries became much more pleasant and prosperous places when they gave up their dreams of empire and conquest. That's the good news. The bad news is that no one gives up empire willingly. I imagine that American imperialism is in its final stages, because we are rapidly reaching the point where we simply cannot afford to keep all these troops trained, equipped, and deployed all around the world. Not if we want to preserve any kind of public services within the home base of the empire. I think the sun is starting to set on America as the dominant world power, but it will take a while. I look forward to the quiet day when we become a modest, medium-sized power, like Britain after World War II, when it gave up its African and Asian colonies. I also believe that when we stop trying to dominate the world, Islamic extremism will lose its raison d'etre and the Muslim world will calm down too. However, it is going to take a while.

This is all quite painful to ponder. I take none of this lightly. I seek solace in the spirits of nature, the quiet patience of trees and water and stones.


Travis said...

You wrote:

"t is my impression that the same American Heathens or Asatru followers who are most enthusiastic about the retro-ideal of a closed tribal community are the ones most likely to unquestioningly support the US military in carrying out its imperialistic duties in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It seems that they view the American military as the most wonderful tribe of all; a tribe beyond criticism, whose legitimacy or purpose cannot be questioned. "

You couldn't be more wrong. The heathens who are most enthusiastic about about tribal heathenry are precisely the heathens that are among least enthusiastic about the US government's imperial adventures. The US government is not a tribe. It is the antithesis of "tribe." It is everything that a tribe is not. Those of us who have some understanding of history generally understand that "tribe" means small community and large governments hate small community. Large imperial governments want to dictate to small communities what, how, when and why. This is not how a tribe operates. This is not what tribal heathens think about such things. Once again, you equate the attitudes of what some of us call Asatru Classic, mainstream heathenry as its been for 30 plus years, with tribalist heathens. Instead of getting the thoughts of people who actually are tribalists you just go along making stuff up. Feh.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

I have mixed feelings about your post. I agree with it mostly. However there are factions in the Muslim world, who wish to see a global Caliphate, and Shariat courts separate from or overiding courts in Western Countries who already have established systems of government and judicial systems. I do not blame Europeans on bit, for resisting such ridiculous notions. Just as I would personally, violently resist a Caliphate and a Shariat here in the US, as I am now resisting implementation of a Christian Theocracy.

Not all of these terrorists are simply fighting because of wrongs in their own lands. Some seek to create an empire of their own and couch that desire within the other.

So perhaps, we should untangle national desires of various Near Eastern and African peoples for self government, from terrorists hellbent on starting a Jihad that might mirror the New Testament Armageddon.

Because knowing how brutally America responds to terrorists attacks, you cannot tell me that they truly believe that the US would simply roll over after all these years after one more exploding air plane. You don't have to be a psychic to know that would be like thwacking a hornet's nest. The kind that wait for you to run out of air in that pond.

Did Colonial English-Americans go to England and Commit acts of terrorism? Or to other colonies outside this geographical area and do the same? I don't recall seeing any big master plans for colonists to create their own world-wide empire. Only for self government. The only place I see that happening is in Iran and the world seems content to ignore it until it dies.

As for the Hassan case--I can be sympathetic up to a point. However many American Soldiers have simply deserted over the years when faced with untennable situations. Why couldn't he have done that, instead of going on a shooting spree? After all, he is an American citizen. So his betrayal is so much more than some pathetic kid with exploding underwear. The only thing he has going for his case is that he hit an exclusively military target--unlike others.

Anyhow, Hassan's Desertion would have still ended in jail time, but done right, it could have brought his concerns into the media and opened up real dialogue {remember Susan Smith?}. Hassan's actions thusfar have only confirmmed the suspicions of anti-Muslim Americans all over--which is to say, they will trust none of them now, regardless of their record, work history, or personal comportment.

American International Politics might be hamhanded and lacking subtlty, but I cannot for the life of me understand why these terrorists seem intent on playing right into it. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Maelstrom said...

Thank you, Travis. That is good constructive criticism. I realize I need to gather more information and rethink the way I am discussing "tribalism." If you could tell me of any web or blog sites where I could find these viewpoints of tribalist Heathens or Pagans who are critical of American military interventions abroad, I would appreciate that. On my side, I would note that I only stated my impression of tribalists being pro-military; I did not state I knew this for a fact. I would be curious to know how others perceive this. Also, you should realize I was using tribe in a somewhat metaphorical way when I speak of the US military as a "tribe." I would agree that my use of the concept needs to be better defined and delimited. Anyway, thanks for thoughtful input.

Travis said...

There are no websites, that I'm aware of, other than yours and maybe a few message boards/ email lists where heathens of any stripe are writing about whether they support or disapprove of American policy abroad. Specifically, I am Theodish. There are other tribalist groups and they have their own ideas about these things. Tribalist heathenry is not monolithic. The range of political views varies sometimes widely. Theodism has the concept of "roof tree issues." This means that anything that does not affect the theod as a whole, as a religious community, is a matter of private conscious and concern. So you won't see any Theodsmen going about writing or talking about the politics of their theod. A theodsman's politics are their own business. In order to get a broad view of what "tribalist" heathens think about American politics you'd have to go group to group, perhaps even person to person to see where and if there is a middle ground. In my circle of friends and acquaintances, we are generally in agreement that American politics is a degenerate race to the bottom of a manure pit on a factory style pig farm. We don't have much to say that is positive about any policy area be it either foreign policy or domestic policy.

Kensei said...

Having spent a few years working with Iraqis and others in the mid east I can say that only an extremely small set of wealthy, bored, and fanatical muslims what to commit violence against anyone. However we do see an increasing trend of western muslims being easily recruited. This has nothing to do with tribalism. It does have a lot to do with a failure to integrate themselves into modern western society and occurs in all western nations. There can be no negotiation when your enemy has no desire to negotiate, and is assured by his one true god of victory.

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