Do Americans hate Islam because the Iraq War is ending?

Having lived outside of the United States since just before 9/11, I have always felt myself to be slightly out of tune with the country when it comes to matters touching terrorism, national security, and Islam.

Take Iraq.  I have never understood the role played by the question of the existence or not of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  As a libertarian—at the time, an extreme anti-statist libertarian—I could not say I was in favor of any kind of state action at all in any realm.  But, in terms of realpolitik, I thought the war had merit.

I had certainly heard the claims about weapons of mass destruction.  I was in a hotel room on the Oman-UAE border when I watched Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN Security Council.  I didn’t find the information relayed convincing, but the fact that Powell was making the presentation I felt gave the claims credence.  On the other hand, I also checked up on Scott Ritter, who had been very tough as an inspector and yet who argued that there were no significant WMD in Iraq.

But, from my perspective living abroad, I had always understood the logic of the Iraq War to run something like this:

a)  Bin Laden’s main beef is that infidel troops (e.g. Americans, Brits, etc) were stationed on sacred ground (i.e. within the domain of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites).

b)  Allied troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia, somewhat ironically, to protect the kingdom from Iraq.

c)  The allies have been there for going on a decade with no end in sight, starving out the Iraqis, protecting Kurds, trying to maintain sanctions and the inspection regime.  Meanwhile, the French, Russians, and Chinese are cutting deals with the Iraqis and helping them smuggle oil out and money and goods in.

d)  The rest of the world stopped caring about the situation a long time ago and left the US and UK holding the bag.

e)  Now, with 9/11 and a series of other terrorist attacks, we were receiving blowback from our rather solitary roles as enforcers of supposedly solemn UN resolutions.

f)  Therefore, why not kill about three birds with one stone.  Invade Iraq, so that we no longer have to continue holding this tiger by the ears.  We can then move our troops out of Saudi Arabia to remove Bin Laden’s casus belli.  Iraq has a fairly secular population and a number of oppressed minorities.  By establishing a democratic beacon in the heart of the Middle East, the disgruntlement of Muslim and Arabic populations can be directed towards progressive, democratic politics instead of radical Islam, terrorism, and obsessing over Zionism.

Of course, we all know in hindsight how naïve some of the assumptions were.  It certainly should have struck anybody with experience and/or expertise in the region as a long-shot, but it had a certain theoretical elegance.

But, I had never understood the purpose of the war to be WMD.  Saddam’s refusal to accept inspectors itself provided sufficient legal and moral justification for terminating the cease-fire agreement that followed the liberation of Kuwait.  The possibility that he actually possessed such weapons and might be willing to use them made it all the more urgent.  If Saddam had not been colluding with al-Qaeda, and I do not believe he had been, they certainly shared a common interest.  Both Saddam and Bin Laden wanted nothing more than for Americans to be off of the Arabian Peninsula.

At the time, too, I think that the assumption was that we could not afford to be too cautious.  The shock of 9/11, the anthrax, the general confusion suggested that it was now time not only to react by invading Afghanistan but to reshape the battlefield of the Middle East by being proactive.  By kick-starting democracy, we would transform the Middle East (for the better) for generations.

But, with everything that happened and the disputes about the war and motives behind it, and the military mission finally winding down in Iraq, I am completely baffled by the controversies over Koran-burning and mosque-building that have erupted this summer.  Although it was already clear months ago that some of the families of the victims were opposed to the mosque, it seemed to be confined to New York as a matter of local controversy.

What is the genesis of all this strife and contention?  Has it been generated by right-wing hacks looking for an additional edge in the upcoming elections?  Even if it were, why is the country so susceptible to this kind of manipulation?

Prior to this becoming a national issue, it seemed as if the talk had all been about an almost equally divisive matter:  illegal immigration.  And, there seems to have been rumblings, in the media at least, about the popular perception of Obama’s faith.  At the time, I heard that something like ten percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim.  I didn’t think much of it.  I suspect that similar numbers would show up if you asked people on the street if they thought he was an alien or an incarnation of a Hindu divinity.

It seems as if these two stories—immigration and Obama’s faith—somehow morphed into one, prompted by economic distress, a local dispute over a mosque, frustration over Afghanistan, the approaching 9/11 anniversary, and the approach of mid-term elections.  Certainly the media hasn’t helped.  It continually forces the debate into, ‘Are you for or against the mosque?’  But, the media cannot bear all the blame.

We have already seen the Tea Party rise up, primarily in matters of economics and government power, but also immigration.  I had always associated the Tea Party primarily with the Ron Paul wing of the Republican Party, but it seems to be increasingly under the sway of people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.  Ron Paul has admirably come out very strongly against the protests against the mosque.

I do not know if it is right to link the Tea Party with the anti-mosque brigades, but what a pity if that turns out to be the case.  I have had the greatest admiration for Ron Paul’s crusade for republican government and the eloquence with which he has made the case for sound money and liberty.  What a pity if the Tea Party movement should be swallowed up in American chauvinism.

But, now that the 9/11 anniversary has passed and the pastor in Florida has said that he will “never” burn the Koran, what is next?  Is this controversy really about Islam, or is it about American frustrations, primarily on the right but also within the rattled middle of the country?

I wonder, too, if Bush’s war in Iraq had not provided a kind of positive outlet for the anger that Americans were bound to direct at Islam at some point.  I certainly remember my initial reactions following 9/11, even though I knew at the time that those feelings were irrational and would pass.  Now that the Iraq War is winding down, but Afghanistan grinds on, might there be a growing sense of American impotence that tends towards people taking matters into their own hands?

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