The term "The Axis of
Evil," which figured so prominently in President Bushs
State of the Union Address, deserves more thoughtful examination
than it has received. "Axis of Evil" resembles Ronald
Reagans 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 evilthose crazy Russians
should never have read MarxBush 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 lifereligion
and business. To describe rogue states as an "Axis of
Evil" is to give a metaphysical performance evaluationwhich
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 evaluationa
familiar and therefore comforting response to other peoples
activitieshas 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 Presidentand
for many Americansthe 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 thats 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 doesnt, then what
does it mean?
If the President cantor
wontthink about history as a way of understanding
our dangerous, unstable world, its 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
doesnt show anything very dramaticjust a group
of men sitting on the floor. These men make languid gestures
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 terrorismnot 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
mediaCNN above allserves as a ubiquitous,
abrasive reminder that there are other societies outside
these dusty villages. Yet the homogeneity of village life
cannot accommodate social pluralismnever mind religious
pluralism; television therefore rips apart the very fabric
of life in village culture, and everyone in the village
feels besieged. Theres 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 McLuhans 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 cant 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 Bushs 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, theres
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. Its 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.