Seeing Islam Through a Lens of U.S. Hubris

Our national mind-set may be leading us toward defeat, a CIA expert says.

By Anonymous

Los Angeles Times

July 2, 2004

On the one hand, Americans are told daily by the media, newsmakers and government officials that the West is winning the war that began on Sept. 11; that we've taken the fight to the terrorists and rolled back their networks, and that the majority of Al Qaeda's leadership has been captured or killed.

But if you listen closely, you can also hear sharp disconnects. The directors of the Central Intelligence Agency and the FBI warn periodically that Al Qaeda is as dangerous now as it was in 2001. And, if you dig even deeper into the newspaper, you'll find stories claiming these gentlemen are incorrect — Al Qaeda actually is more dangerous today than it was before what Osama bin Laden calls the "blessed attacks" of 11 September.

Periodically, the Department of Homeland Security has raised the threat-warning indicator from yellow to amber — or is it amber to yellow? — on a tacky traffic-light-looking device. Adjusting the streetlight-of-death is meant to portray the DHS jud gment that the threat to U.S. interests from someone, somewhere in the world has increased. The warnings are then complemented by advice urging citizens to quickly buy a "disaster supply kit," which includes duct tape and plastic sheeting to make their homes airtight, WMD-proof fortresses.

To say the least, Americans are getting mixed and confusing messages from their leaders. Are we headed toward a victory parade, Cold War bomb shelters or simply straight to the graveyard? Do repeated warnings of an Al Qaeda-produced disaster mark a genuine threat, or have federal bureaucrats learned to cover their butts so they will not have another "failed-to-warn" à la 9/11? Are Bin Laden-related dangers downplayed to nurse the on-again, off-again economic recovery and the presidential prospects of both U.S. political parties? Are we to reach for champagne or a rosary?

I believe the answer lies in the way we see and interpret people and events outside North America, which is heavily clouded by arroga nce and self-centeredness amounting to what I called "imperial hubris." This is not a genetic flaw in Americans that has been present since the Pilgrims splashed ashore at Plymouth Rock, but rather a way of thinking that America's elites acquired after the end of World War II. It is a process of interpreting the world so it makes sense to us, a process yielding a world in which few events seem alien because we Americanize their components.

"When confronted by a culturally exotic enemy," Lee Harris explained in the August/September 2002 issue of Policy Review, "our first instinct is to understand such conduct in terms that are familiar to us." Thus, for example, Bin Laden is a criminal whose activities are fueled by money — as opposed to a devout Muslim soldier fueled by faith — because Americans know how to beat well-heeled gangsters. We assume, moreover, that Bin Laden and the Islamists hate us for our liberty, freedoms and democracy, not because they and many millions of Muslims believe U.S. foreign policy is an attack on Islam or because the U.S. military now has a more-than-10-year record of smashing people and things in the Islamic world.

Our political leaders contend that America's astoundingly low approval ratings in polls taken in major Islamic countries do not reflect our unquestioning support of Israel and, as such, its "targeted killings" and other lethal high jinks. Nor, they say, are the ratings due to our relentless support for tyrannical and corrupt Islamic regimes that are systematically dissipating the Islamic world's energy resources for family fun and profit, while imprisoning, torturing and executing domestic dissenters. The low approval ratings, we are confident, have nothing to do with our refusal to apply nuclear nonproliferation rules with anything close to an even hand; a situation that makes Israeli and Indian nuclear weapons acceptable — each is a democracy, after all — while Pakistan's weapons are intolerable, perhaps because they are held by Mus lims. And surely, if we can just drive and manage an Islamic Reformation that makes Muslims secular like us, all this unfortunate talk about religious war will end.

Thus, because of the pervasive imperial hubris that dominates the minds of our political, academic, social, media and military elites, America is able and content to believe that the Islamic world fails to understand the benign intent of U.S. foreign policy. This mind-set holds that America does not need to reevaluate its policies, let alone change them; it merely needs to better explain the wholesomeness of its views and the purity of its purposes to the uncomprehending Islamic world. What could be more American in the early 21st century, after all, then to re-identify a casus belli as a communication problem, and then call on Madison Avenue to package and hawk a remedy called "Democracy-Secularism-and-Capitalism-are-good-for-Muslims" to an Islamic world that has, to date, violently refused to purchase?

This is meant neith er to ridicule my countrymen's intellectual abilities nor to be supportive of Bin Laden and his interpretation of Islam, but to say that most of the world outside North America is not, does not want to be and probably will never be just like us. And let me be clear, I am not talking about America's political freedoms, personal liberties or respect for education and human rights; the same polls showing that Muslims hate Americans for their actions find broad support for the ideas and beliefs that make us who we are. Pew Trust polls in 2003, for instance, found that although Muslims believed it "necessary to believe in God to be moral," they also favored what were termed "democratic values."

I'm saying that when Americans — the leaders and the led — process incoming information to make it intelligible in American terms, many not only fail to clearly understand what is going on abroad but, more ominous, fail to accurately gauge the severity of the danger that these foreign events, organizati ons, attitudes and personalities pose to U.S. national security and our society's welfare and lifestyle.

In order to make the decisions and allocate the resources needed to ensure U.S. security, Americans must understand the world as it is, not as we want — or worse yet, hope — it will be.

I have long experience analyzing and attacking Bin Laden and Islamists. I believe they are a growing threat to the United States — there is no greater threat — and that we are being defeated not because the evidence of the threat is unavailable but because we refuse to accept it at face value and without Americanizing the data. This must change, or our way of life will be unrecognizably altered.

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The author is a senior counterintelligence official at the CIA who served from 1996 to 1999 as head of a special unit tracking Osama bin Laden. The CIA allowed publication of his forthcoming book, "Imperial Hubris" (Brassey's, 2004), in which the author is identified as "Anonymous."