Does Evil Have A History?
By Jim Curtis

The term "The Axis of Evil," which figured so prominently in President Bush’s State of the Union Address, deserves more thoughtful examination than it has received. "Axis of Evil" resembles Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase "Evil Empire," of course, but puts a very different spin on the potent word "evil." Whereas Reagan could plausibly justify "Evil Empire" on the grounds that Communism was evil–those crazy Russians should never have read Marx–Bush neither offered nor implied any such rationale for "Axis of Evil." Neither ideology nor religion plays a role here. No one seriously believes that the nightmarish world of North Korea, for example, has anything to do with Marxism.

What the President offered us was an amalgam of the two key interests in his life–religion and business. To describe rogue states as an "Axis of Evil" is to give a metaphysical performance evaluation–which is just what we would expect from a born-again Christian with a Harvard MBA.

Most business people have filled out performance evaluations at one time or another. They often include checklists, with ratings such as "exceeds expectations"; "meets expectations"; and "fails to meet expectations." People who fail to meet expectations get demoted or even fired. However, Osama bin Laden and his crew never agreed to work for us, so a performance evaluation–a familiar and therefore comforting response to other people’s activities–has little meaning. It was the (probably unconscious) recognition of this fact that forced the President to have recourse to the only other choice he knows, metaphysics. For him, anyone who so egregiously fails to meet the expectations of civilized behavior as Osama bin Laden goes off the chart for performance evaluations, so he must be evil.

For the President–and for many Americans–the appeal of performance evaluations is that they lead to action items. Once various states and individuals have been identified as evil, no more thought is required, and the only thing that’s left is to take action. This is where we are now, and why the world is waiting for the other shoe to fall in the form of an attack on Saddam Hussein.

Trouble is, slogans such as "the axis of evil" leave many hard questions unanswered. Here are a few of them: If Osama bin Laden is evil, why is he a folk hero in the Arab world? If Osama bin Laden is evil, and is a folk hero in the Arab world, does this mean that Arabs are evil? If it doesn’t, then what does it mean?

If the President can’t–or won’t–think about history as a way of understanding our dangerous, unstable world, it’s up to the rest of us to do so. The question at issue is this: How might we both acknowledge that Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and their ilk are evil, and understand the historical dynamics that produced them?

The captured videotape of Osama bin Laden gives us a useful place to start. It doesn’t show anything very dramatic–just a group of men sitting on the floor. These men make languid gestures and talk… slowly. Very slowly. No one is in a hurry, and no one has anything to do, or anywhere to go. This way of spending an evening epitomizes the self-contained, homogeneous village culture in which these men grew up. It is the response of this village culture to modernity that has produced terrorism–not Osama bin Laden, and certainly not Islam.

As recently as fifty years ago, each village in the Middle East was a world unto itself, a world made familiar by the presence of relatives and unified by religion. It is therefore difficult to exaggerate the trauma inflicted on village culture by radio and television.

The very presence of the media–CNN above all–serves as a ubiquitous, abrasive reminder that there are other societies outside these dusty villages. Yet the homogeneity of village life cannot accommodate social pluralism–never mind religious pluralism; television therefore rips apart the very fabric of life in village culture, and everyone in the village feels besieged. There’s a poignant quotation in a book called The Homeless Mind that illustrates the point; in the seventies, a Tunisian villager commented that, "The radio has destroyed everything." Never was the truth of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase "The medium is the message" more vividly demonstrated.

There are of course no women in the bin Laden tape, because village culture is intensely patriarchal, and women are second-class citizens in it. To say this, and leave it at that, is to emulate Bush, and issue performance evaluations for world leaders and the societies that they represent. The rest of us may wish to ask more thoughtful questions about Islamic village culture, such as: What makes this culture so patriarchal? And: What is it about this patriarchal culture that makes it a threat to world peace?

As we watch the videotape, we can’t help but notice how often the men repeat phrases such as, "Allah be praised," and "Thanks be to Allah." These verbal formulas give us a sense for the way religion defines their lives, and provide a key insight into their perception of the West.

Since September 11th, many commentators have wondered why Muslims think of America as a secular state, when in fact over 90% of all Americans say that they believe in God. The problem is that American piety is all but invisible to Islamic village culture. No matter what their faith, Americans do not usually do any of the things that indicate piety in the Islamic world. They do not say "God be praised" in every other breath; they do not undertake pilgrimages, and their worship requires no special equipment such as prayer rugs. The news, sports, and entertainment programs that the rest of the world sees on American television are relentlessly secular.

Whereas Americans hardly ever display their faith, devout men in Islamic village culture do so constantly. So they draw what seems to them a reasonable conclusion: since Americans display no evidence of their faith, they must not have any. Islamic men therefore anticipated Bush’s metaphysics with a metaphysics of their own. They declared that their cause pits Good (i.e., visibly displayed piety in the Arab world) versus Evil (i.e., the absence of visibly displayed piety in America). Jihad was the only possible choice.

It is also not helpful to condemn Islam because boys are allowed to go to school, and girls are not. If we think for a moment, we realize that this practice is perfectly reasonable in a society dominated by a monastic religion. In a society defined by religion, schools naturally offer religious training that will prepare boys for a religious life.

Once we understand the situation in this way, we may reasonably ask: Are there any general features of monasticism that have made it dysfunctional in modern times? Clearly, the answer to this question is "yes."

While monasteries around the world house men of faith who devote their lives to religious service, monasticism is also a key to the turmoil of modern times. (Let us recall that the greatest mass murderer of all time, Joseph Stalin, served his novitiate in an Orthodox monastery in Georgia.) Because monks do not marry, they care little for families and the responsibilities that go with them. Because monastic religions withdraw from the world, they have no need for worldly institutions such as hospitals and supermarkets. American interest in creating and maintaining such institutions is therefore perceived as still more evidence of atheistic tendencies.

Then, too, there’s a simple principle of human nature: Groups of horny men left to their own devices tend to turn violent. Men without women, and without the carefully regulated life of cloistered communities, need outlets for their unsatisfied libidos. While pathological narcissists like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are not ascetics themselves, they are masters at channeling the raging hormones of their young followers into aggressive acts.

This, then, was the volatile mix that produced September 11th: The intense resentment produced by modern communications, which presented America as both ubiquitous and indifferent to the Arab world; and an otherworldly orientation that produced sex-starved young men eager to volunteer for what bin Laden describes on the tape as a "martyrdom operation." To borrow the language of pop psychology, the encounter with the modern world made Islamic men feel not OK, and therefore they greeted September 11th as a brief, shining moment in which they felt OK. It’s no wonder that a man on the tape says that when people heard the news they stood up and cheered as though they were at a soccer match and somebody had scored a goal.

If we want to understand our world, rather than just condemn those people who have harmed us, we will do well to stop defining good and evil as static terms. Both good and evil come from the dynamics of social evolution in a particular time and place. The particular evil that al Qaeda visited upon us, and which now persists in the form of an "Axis of Evil" comes from the destabilizing force of modern communications on village and the monastic culture that it venerates.