Why the Peaceful Majority of Muslims Are Not
by Sheldon Richman, Posted September 5, 2008
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
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
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
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
Extremist movements have been growing bigger and wilder for
more than three decades [now. During] that period, America
has tried pretty much everything from 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
has tried everything? Is Berman kidding? When was minding its own business —
nonintervention — tried? Clearly, by "everything," Berman means every
style 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.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom
Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and
editor of The Freeman magazine. Visit his blog "Free Association" or
send him email.
This article originally appeared in the June 2008 edition of
Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.