An Open Letter to Anjem Choudary

Anjem,

I feel like I can call you that, because any alternative would be far worse.

So Muslims don’t care about free expression? I suppose no one bothered to tell Hafez, Rumi, Averroes, Rhazes, Bibi Khatun Astarabadi, Naguib Mahfouz, Muhammad Iqbal, Forough Farrokhzad, or Asghar Farhadi. Read a fucking book, Anjem. Oh right, there’s apparently only one book worth reading, and that’s apparently not worth interpreting properly. You have a choice to make- either read and understand the history of Islam, which will cure you of your radicalism, or be content with being a radical and thus not representing the Muslim community at large. Your choice.

Besides, where the fuck would you and your little gangs be without free expression. Do you think you’d be able to spread your hate and your anger if you didn’t live in a country which guaranteed your right to say all the violent, inaccurate shit you want? Somehow I doubt it.

You’re a sad, dumb hypocrite, Anjem. Enjoy the rest of your pointless existence.

Go fuck yourself,
The Staff of Them’s the Breaks, Kid

On Charlie Hebdo

It is with a heavy heart that I write, as this week doubtless stands as one of the most difficult in recent memory. The tragic attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo are indefensible, and the threat that such an attack poses on the values of Western Europe is truly frightening.

Make no mistake- the point of this post is not to spread some sort of obscene, hate-filled garbage under the guise of freedom of expression. Quite the contrary. Indeed, as pointed out in articles by Gawker and David Brooks, the history of Charlie Hebdo seems to shield some interesting closet-skeletons. Again, the point of this post is not to criticize the victims of an attack for saying something they should not have said. Many of the articles written during the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo attack make a decent point- quite a lot of their material (albeit decontextualized, poorly translated and ignoring the juvenile streak present in much French comedy) seems deliberately inflammatory. But as soon as we start trying to separate the world into spheres of ‘what should be said’ and ‘what shouldn’t be said,’ we approach a situation in which this sort of psychological censorship can be applied to silencing critique of our own nations and governments. This censorship, especially in the context of a militarized police force, surveillance and torture does not fill me with confidence, and represents the erosion of vital cultural values on which the West was built.

In the past few decades since Islamic fundamentalism has become a force to be reckoned with, we have been fed the narrative that these radical terrorist attacks will serve to cripple and destabilize the West. Not only does this fear serve as a further defense of the authoritarian creep, it is also fundamentally wrong. Terrorist attacks in the West are tragic and indefensible, but radical Islamist violence poses a far more immediate physical threat to other Muslims– residents of Muslim countries- than it does in the West. The threat to the West is far more pressing in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack than it is in the moment the bomb goes off.

When we mistake individual, peaceful Muslims for terrorists- when we seek to generalize and categorize without subtlety or realism- we commit several sins. The first and most visible is, obviously, the sin of racism, which is ironic, as Muslims are not a race. While stemming racism should be the most pressing reason to stop these generalizations, we all know that racism is wrong, and to debate that fact further implies that there is anything left to debate. There isn’t. Racism is wrong and we shouldn’t do it.

The subtler sin in engaging in senseless generalization is the narrative it creates. When we assume all Muslims to be terrorists, we create a narrative in which a monolithic West stands in opposition to a monolithic Islam- a dated and frankly idiotic us vs. them mentality. The irony here lies in the fact that radical Muslim clerics want nothing more than to be accepted as the unquestioned representatives of Islam, to the exception of more sensible, moderate interpretations. Even more ironic is that the exact same binary narrative is pushed by the radical right in Western countries, with only the protagonists of the story and their goals switched. Ultra-conservatism on both sides serve the same purpose- to wear away at the already precarious pool of Western values on which we have to draw. It is thus incumbent on us- the value-driven, peaceful people who make up the overwhelming majority of people in our world- to resist the crypto-fascist creep that imperils our world.

It would be marginally acceptable if this were the first time we failed so tremendously to do the mature thing when faced with the prospect of Islamist terrorism. But we- and by we, I mean the most powerful Western governments- have been consistent in our failure to deal adequately with Islamist terrorism throughout our attempts to do so. Icing on the cake: it probably wouldn’t have ever become a political force in the first place if it weren’t for us.

The first groups to espoused an Islamic fundamentalist ideology- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Fedayan-e-Islam (lest we forget, there is nothing ancient about Islamic fundamentalism, it is purely a 20th century development) arose as a result of hostility toward Western colonialism and Mohammad Reza Shah’s pro-Western regime. Throughout the mid-20th century, the West consistently turned a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalism, under the assumption that it was preferable to Marxism-Leninism. Famously, for the same reason, the US and the UK largely downplayed the hostility of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalists until they entered power and their true colors were shown. President Reagan then proceeded to fund the Iranian fundamentalists against Iraq, and the Afghan fundamentalists- the forebears of the Taliban- against the Soviets. And, finally, when the various alliances of convenience ended, and they ‘turned against us,’ we responded by buying their divisive propaganda and adding our own propaganda to it, gutting civil liberties of our own people (Muslim or otherwise) and beginning a campaign of persistent, unceasing warfare.

Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is, at its heart, a death cult with little respect for anyone, Muslim or otherwise. But when we witness an act as horrific as what we saw on Wednesday, we cannot ignore that we did precious little to hold the responsible actors and figures within our own countries to task. We cannot ever forgive those with blood on their hands- whether they wear breads and robes or impeccably tailored suits.

Hungary’s Immovable Object

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on her re-election. And to the cynics, all I have to offer are facts. Ten years under the Workers’ Party have rendered Brazil’s per-capita output and its middle class is larger than ever, and, while inflation may not be at the level of developed nations (about that…), it is now far more stable. The nation’s macroeconomic fundamentals are not perfect, sure. But they’re a far cry from the constant currency revaluations of the 80s and 90s. Best of luck, Dilma, and stay the course.

Now, to the point. Over 100,000 Hungarians have risen up in the past few days to protest Pres Viktor Orbán’s institution of an internet tax (which he apparently didn’t tell his MPs about). While an internet tax is itself a very poor policy idea, amounting to little more than a tax on the freedom of information, the tax itself is not the whole issue. Orbán and his party, Fidesz, have recently come under increasing international scrutiny due to their increasingly undemocratic practices. Orbán freely admitted in a speech earlier this year that the era of Western-style liberal democracy is ending, and that he aims to look eastward (i.e., to Russia and Turkey) to find a model for leadership. More so than a domestic protest on a bad policy idea, these protests seem to be a statement of dissatisfaction on the part of Hungarians (who, famously, aren’t known for taking things sitting down) directed at Orbán and the Fidesz government in general. In light of Orbán’s recent turn, the internet tax seems a lot more sinister.

Referring to Fidesz as “Orbán’s party” is reasonable and accurate. Budapest is increasingly dominated with pictures of Orbán’s face and his party’s unsettling slogan “Only Fidesz!” Orbán was a founding member of Fidesz, which originated shortly after the fall of Communism as a small, youth-oriented party with strong capitalist/pro-democracy leanings. Fidesz (with Orbán as its media-savvy representative) initially sought to ingrain democracy and further the spread of capitalism in Hungary, a nation that had always had a greater tolerance for free markets than the rest of the Soviet bloc as a result of its official policy of so-called Goulash Communism. Fidesz’s meteoric rise didn’t begin, however, until the mid-90s, when the party (now under Orbán’s full control) began incorporating elements of Hungarian nationalism and more populist economic policies. The party continued to grow throughout the 2000’s, but did not reach the stratospheric, supermajoritarian heights it now commands until after the Great Recession hit.

“Good story,” you might say. “But why does any of it matter?” Well, economist (and Hungarian) Karl Polanyi, who I seem to be plugging quite a lot on this blog, explains in his seminal work The Great Transformation that when people feel abandoned by the dominant socioeconomic systems, they seek alternatives. Nazism, for example, was born during Germany’s bout of hyperinflation, nearly died afterward, and was reborn after the Great Depression. In the early years of democracy, Hungarians embraced their new freedom wholeheartedly. But Hungary, despite being fundamentally in a much better position than many former Soviet bloc states, still suffered from the same destroyed expectations. They were faced with a global liberal democratic hegemony that had become increasingly dominated by financial markets, a development consensus that imposed upon them shock therapy, structural adjustment and flat taxes. In essence, they were more or less in the same, largely powerless position- largely ignored by the larger powers while they played war games in the Middle East. Presumably, it is this alienation that has made so many Hungarians vote for Fidesz, a party which espouses doctrines little removed from the Goulash Communism of old.

Hungary matters for the same reason Ukraine matters. It may not be as visible, but it is exactly Orbán sly, underhanded tactics that make him so dangerous. Many of us didn’t even hear about him until he’d already largely finished the job. Orbán and the rest of his ilk (i.e. Erdogan) are shameless opportunists and useful idiots: Frankenstein’s monsters whose strong-arm, dictatorial tactics should force us in the US and European core to think about how our international policies affect people in other countries. Rather than sitting here and thinking about how some people “just don’t want to be democratic,” we should be thinking about what we did to alienate them, and how we can fix that.

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Noah Smith put up an excellent post the other day about the long-standing myth (possibly started by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) that so-called Asian values, at times, clash with democracy. We’ll ignore, for the moment, that Mr Lee’s comment led to the first major swing toward the opposition Workers’ Party in Singaporean history. We’ll also ignore that Taiwan, South Korea and Mongolia have all successfully transitioned to democracy, and that Indonesia and the Philippines have made strides toward democracy as well. Never mind that India has had democratic institutions for as long as the West has. Counter-examples are rife, and not just in Asia. The values vs democracy story is not a new one, yet it persists despite being repeatedly and definitively disproved.

Long before Mr Lee’s comment, the survival of la leyenda negra, Gen. Franco, and a revolving door system of dictatorships throughout Latin America allowed some to make a convincing case for the inherent reactionary and non-democratic nature of Latins (whoever they are.) The amazing aspect of this story was that it was used not only to denigrate the democratic capabilities of Latin Europeans and Americans, but was also espoused by reactionaries such as the Brazilian Integralists to justify maintaining their own non-democratic power. Years after democracy has established itself in Spain and continues to grow throughout Latin America, conservative thinkers and strategists still cite “yes, but” arguments as an attempt to denigrate the strides made toward democracy in these countries. It’s not difficult to imagine Rudyard Kipling espousing such arguments, nor Karl Rove. Colonialism is colonialism, not matter who you slice it, and it never works.

Sure, the narrative of history is often uncertain, unpredictable and non-monotonic. Nations and peoples often get stuck in vicious political or economic cycles as a result of poor decisions, corrupt power structures or desperation. But, growing up in a multicultural household, having lived in four countries on three different continents and visited over thirty others, I have only come across maybe ten people in the whole world who do not seek growth and expansion of their own freedoms and, more importantly, their capabilities toward autonomy and self-actualization. To suggest that such values simply do not exist in some parts of the world is nothing short of a cynical, deleterious racism couched in academic terms.