2015-06-05

The Doctrine of Discovery: The Legal Framework of Colonialism, Slavery, and Holy War

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by Tim Widowfield

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John...

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced “Macintosh”). The case centered on a title dispute between two parties over land purchased in 1773 and 1775 from American Indian tribes north of the Ohio River. In the decision Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the Discovery Doctrine, explaining that the U.S. federal government had exclusive ownership of the lands previously held by the British. While the native inhabitants could claim the right to occupy the land, they did not hold the radical title to the land.

In plain English, the United States claimed ultimate sovereignty over the discovered territories, but permitted the native tribes residing there to continue to live in a kind of landlord-tenant relationship. Marshall explained that as a result, the natives could sell only their right to occupancy — their aboriginal title — and only to the federal government. With a stroke of the pen, American Indians had become tenants of the empty land.

Legal basis

The case has several peculiarities; for example, Marshall’s decision did not rely on the Constitution or previous decisions, but instead upon international agreements put in place during the Reconquista of Iberia, and solidified shortly after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. This framework essentially permitted Christian nations of Europe to invade, occupy, and colonize any non-Christian land anywhere in the world.

Marshall explained that the United States was the successor of radical title, which they had won by defeating the English. (The quoted paragraphs below come from the original text of the decision. The bold text is mine.)

No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.

In other words, as long as no other Christian nation had taken title of a non-Christian foreign territory, the English saw it as fair game. What Cabot had discovered, they reasoned, became the Crown’s sovereign holdings.

In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries “then unknown to all Christian people,” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.

The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh in nearly the same terms.

While Marshall focused on so-called heathen people (usually construed as polytheists, animists, etc.), we should recall that Portugal operated under the same doctrine to colonize and subjugate people in Africa, some of whom were Muslims.

Once the United States had gained title to former colonies (Treaty of Paris, 1783), it assumed full sovereignty. Similarly, the subsequent acquisition of Louisiana gave the federal government full control of this vast, new territory.

The United States, then, has unequivocally acceded to that great and broad rule by which its civilized inhabitants now hold this country. They hold and assert in themselves the title by which it was acquired. They maintain, as all others have maintained, that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy either by purchase or by conquest, and gave also a right to such a degree of sovereignty as the circumstances of the people would allow them to exercise.

The power now possessed by the government of the United States to grant lands, resided, while we were colonies, in the Crown, or its grantees. The validity of the titles given by either has never been questioned in our courts. It has been exercised uniformly over territory in possession of the Indians.

Marshall recognized the intrinsic rights of Native Americans as the first human inhabitants of the land, but insisted that the United States’ ultimate sovereignty over the land superseded those rights.

In the establishment of these relations, the rights of the original inhabitants were in no instance entirely disregarded, but were necessarily to a considerable extent impaired. They were admitted to be the rightful occupants of the soil, with a legal as well as just claim to retain possession of it, and to use it according to their own discretion; but their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations were necessarily diminished, and their power to dispose of the soil at their own will to whomsoever they pleased was denied by the original fundamental principle that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.

And so we come to the nexus of Marshall’s decision. He reasoned that any land deal between Native Americans and a private party or even a state could not occur legally. The dependent nations living in the territories claimed by the United States could only sell to the federal government, which holds radical title to it. Legally, the Indians would be selling their right of tenancy or occupancy, and once they had vacated the land, the national government could resell it, cede it to one or more of the several states, or parcel it out to citizens. But in no case could such a transaction occur directly.

The foundations of conquest

Today’s legal scholars will often cite Johnson v. M’Intosh as a bad decision, although it remains the law of the land. If you’re interested in its repercussions (the can of worms Marshall unwittingly opened), see the links at the end of this post. For now I would draw your attention to some unusual aspects of the decision. First, Marshall’s argument does not rely on the Constitution. Rather, the ruling draws upon international law and the rights of nation states as world actors. Second, it mentions the Pope.

While the different nations of Europe respected the right of the natives as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves, and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil while yet in possession of the natives. These grants have been understood by all to convey a title to the grantees, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy.

The history of America from its discovery to the present day proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.

Spain did not rest her title solely on the grant of the Pope. Her discussions respecting boundary, with France, with Great Britain, and with the United States all show that she placed in on the rights given by discovery. Portugal sustained her claim to the Brazils by the same title.

In a broader sense, if the government of Spain claimed title to the lands in Central and South America by right of discovery, then it was relying upon a legal framework set in place by the Pope with a series of decrees in the 15th century.

  • Dum Diversas (1452): A papal bull that authorized the king of Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands (both heathen and Muslim), and to enslave permanently their inhabitants.
  • Romanus Pontifex (1454): A papal bull that reiterated Portugal’s right of domination in Africa (south of Cape Bojador). It contains some fairly strong language concerning the treatment of conquered nations.

We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit . . . (See full text here.)

  • Inter Caetera (1493): One of the Bulls of Donation in which the Papacy divided colonial lands in the Americas, Africa, and Asia between the monarchs of Spain and Portugal.
  • Treaty of Tordesillas (1494): This treaty, written by Pope Alexander VI, solidified the Bulls of Donation. It clarified and codified the borders of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial empires.

The reconquest of the Iberian peninsula had left two rival powers in place, both of whom had designs on foreign conquest. And when they rubbed against each other — for example, when Columbus claimed lands that the King of Portugal believed were in his sphere of influence — they took their complaints to the Bishop of Rome. Catholic monarchs who submitted to the rulings of the Pope were bound to follow them under threat of excommunication.

Holy war

To put it more starkly, the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision embraced the Doctrine of Discovery, which itself was based on a religious ideology of just and holy war, combined with a belief in the superiority of Christians and their inherent right to seize all heathen and Muslim lands.

Marshall’s ruling represents the official position of the United States vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples of North America as well as its relationship to the rest of the world. The United States saw itself as a world power, on par with the European nation states. Its conquered territories lay in the vast, wild, unexplored West. Like any other Christian world power, the U.S. government understood its right of sovereignty as emanating from the existing international framework.

To put it more starkly, the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision embraced the Doctrine of Discovery, which itself was based on a religious ideology of just and holy war, combined with a belief in the superiority of Christians and their inherent right to seize all heathen and Muslim lands. These holy wars would result in the conquest, subjugation, and depopulation of non-Christian domains, with their original inhabitants sold into perpetual slavery or (more often the case in the U.S.) concentrated together in camps or reservations. We should not think of these results as unintentional. They were, after all, spelled out in the original papal decrees.

Indeed, the Papacy in the formulating and promulgating these decrees had fully expected a new, successful, worldwide crusade, in which Christendom’s enemies would be vanquished and millions of unbelievers would be brought to Christ. They viewed it as a positive good.

Jihad at sea?

Consider all of the above in contrast to the curious new repackaging of the conflict of the Barbary Pirates as having its roots in jihad — a kind of Muslim holy war at sea. Over two years ago, a guy who called himself “Peter” commented on one of Neil’s posts with the typical sort of anti-Islamic screed we’ve grown accustomed to. But his post included some new accusations that I hadn’t heard before, contained, for example, in the unintentionally hilarious YouTube video that asks, “Why did they hate us in 1783?

Barbary Pirates attack a Frenchman. France pai...

Barbary Pirates attack a Frenchman. France paid extortion, the U.S. could not. US lost ships and crews enslaved. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here we have a newly constructed collective memory among those who seek to equate all followers of Islam with Islamic terrorists, who conflate all violence perpetrated by Muslims (even the 18th-century thugs who used piracy and the threat of piracy as part of a protection racket) with terrorism, and who would dearly love to drag us all into a war of civilizations. In this mythic past, the Muslims attacked us first, which simultaneously puts the blame on Islam while absolving the U.S. of all guilt.

By coining the term “Jihadist Piracy,” they retroject today’s radical Islamic groups into the past. They attacked us in 1783 — where “they” refers to all followers of Islam. And by affixing blame elsewhere and pointing to a casus belli in the distant past, the creators of this distorted memory provide an easy out. If anyone mentions the Iranian coup we engineered in 1953, they reply, “What about 1783?” If we point out that the CIA’s meddling in Afghanistan has had far-reaching negative effects that we’re still dealing with today, they reply, “What about the jihad on the Mediterranean Sea?”

Their argument, of course, is not simply “They started it!” The underlying assumption is “That’s how they are.” In other words, Islam is radically different from Christianity. Never mind the highly organized and systematic subjugation of the planet by European Christians. Never mind the crusades. Those events just “happened.” Never mind the international framework behind the discovery doctrine and the roots of modern racism and inequality. These things must be ignored, because Christianity is fundamentally a peaceful religion, whereas Islam is warlike and violent at its very core.

Jefferson’s letter

Proponents of the Jihadist Piracy theory point to a letter written by Thomas Jefferson after visiting with the ambassador of Tripoli. They claim this “smoking gun” provides proof of their motives.

We took the liberty to make some enquiries concerning the ground of their pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation.

The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the laws of their Prophet; that it was written in their Koran; that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners; that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Mussulman [sic] who was slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. (Jefferson, Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, p. 605).

This would appear to be pretty damning evidence, except for the fact that the petty rulers of the nations of Northern Africa were quite satisfied with payments in lieu of raiding non-Muslim ships. If their primary goal was to advance Islam, then we would have expected them to pursue all-out war to enlarge their territories and bring other nations under the yoke of Islam. The ambassador was, admittedly, using scriptural justification for piracy, but since his government was more than willing receive protection money to allow safe passage, we know that their ultimate aim was to fill their coffers.

May we wonder if the United States government would ever have taken protection money from Native Americans in exchange for leaving them in peace? Perhaps for a time, but we know from history that none of the treaties with the aboriginal tribes ever held for very long. We can tell by its unrelenting behavior that the U.S. ultimately wanted and got total sovereignty over the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Similarly, I would argue that we can tell from the Barbary potentates’ consistent behavior that they ultimately wanted riches; consequently, they were just as content taking it in the form of bribes rather than extracting it by force.

“Peter’s” recommended YouTube video quotes Andrew Bostom, a medical doctor at Brown University, who has written a few books advancing the notion that every violent act in the Muslim world stems from jihad and that Islam is fundamentally flawed. In the eyes of his fans, any degree of skepticism is viewed as being in denial. On the far-right site, FrontPage.com, you can read his thoughts on the subject. In it, he quotes Joshua E. London, another darling of the right. You will find his book, Victory in Tripoli How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, frequently cited by Islamophobes and opportunistic neocons who desperately want a permanent, global war against Islam.

Benign influence

Whether you find their arguments compelling or not, please try to remember that the spread of Europeans and their religion did not just magically happen. The conquest of the Western Hemisphere, the colonization of Africa, and the economic imperialism imposed on most of the planet after the Second World War had their antecedents in an international framework based on the doctrine of our superiority over non-Christian, non-European, non-White people.

This worldview continues to reveal itself in statements among Western elites such as, “They aren’t ‘ready’ for democracy.” I invite you to Google “not ready for democracy” and marvel at how long our smug, condescending leaders have been saying this one. You’ll find that Africa isn’t ready, Egypt isn’t ready, Arabs aren’t ready, Muslims aren’t ready. Of course Palestinians weren’t ready for democracy; they keep voting for the wrong people.

Please don’t take my remarks as a defense or condemnation of either religion. They both have the capacity to do good and to do great harm. Christianity is more benign today than it has been in the past, although I must remind you that when people talk about American exceptionalism, they are operating under the delusion that God chose the United States to carry the torch of Western civilization. They’re forgetting our past as conquerors of the continent, as exterminators of natives, as masters of human chattel, as merciless rulers of overseas possessions (see, e.g., the Philippine–American War), as destroyers of nascent democracies (in Iran, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc.), as defenders of colonialism (e.g., in Southeast Asia) — all fine examples, no doubt, of what George Washington meant by the benign influence of Christian Religion.”

Conclusion

People today are doing terrible, horrific things in the name of Islam, while at the same time vocal, nationalist, right-wing movements here in the West would like us to see all Muslims as the same, and to blame Islam itself as the problem — to view it as an intractable plague that must eradicated. These noble Christian warriors frequently try to entice atheists to join their cause, with some success. But I think we need to be extremely careful about whom we associate with.

I’m all for a reformation movement within Islam that would seek to modernize the religion; for example, giving more rights to women, embracing humanism, reducing violence, tolerating other religions, etc. But we can’t force it from the outside; it will have to come from within Islam, just as Christendom’s reforms came from within.

We cannot excuse Islamic extremism, but at the same time we cannot ignore the contributing factors that have led people to embrace it, nor should we excuse ourselves from helping to create a world in which desperate, disaffected people choose the path of violence, war, and suicide. To ignore the causes of extremism is intellectually dishonest and potentially dangerous. For if we resort to a permanent, violent struggle against Islam itself, we will be turning our backs on reform, choosing instead to start an apocalyptic holy war — the final crusade that will end in sorrow and desolation.


For more background information on the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, here’s a fascinating lecture by Professor Lindsay Robertson:

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRcr2HGkcls]

(Notice that Marshall’s decision forms the basis for Australian Aboriginal land rights, Mayan land rights, etc. Yet another successful American export.)

For more info on the Barbary pirates, see: In Barbary wars, did U.S. declare ‘war on Islam’? at PolitiFact.com.

19 Comments

  • 2015-06-05 19:37:46 UTC - 19:37 | Permalink

    “They’re forgetting our past as conquerors of the continent, as exterminators of natives, as masters of human chattel, as merciless rulers of overseas possessions (see, e.g., the Philippine–American War)”
    -As America becomes more and more a nation of immigrants, Americans will have a larger and larger license to not view that past as theirs. 🙂
    “These noble Christian warriors”
    -Also, Jewish warriors. Sometimes, literal (in both cases).
    “This worldview continues to reveal itself in statements among Western elites such as, “They aren’t ‘ready’ for democracy.” I invite you to Google “not ready for democracy” and marvel at how long our smug, condescending leaders have been saying this one.”
    -Stating that the supporters of an argument are smug and condescending is not refuting it in any way. I accept the idea that some countries are, indeed, unready for democracy, and won’t be any time soon.
    “Iran, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc.”
    -Chile was sliding away from democracy when the coup hit.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20120312092019/http://www.josepinera.com/articles/articles_neveragain.htm
    And the Sandinistas got their way, anyway, and remain in power even unto this day. Nicaragua remains the poorest country in Spanish America, despite having a decent amount of access to the American market. What happened in Honduras?
    “We cannot excuse Islamic extremism, but at the same time we cannot ignore the contributing factors that have led people to embrace it, nor should we excuse ourselves from helping to create a world in which desperate, disaffected people choose the path of violence, war, and suicide.”
    -For once, I fully agree with a statement saying something about “we”. I supported Obama over Romney in 2012, and we got ISIS.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-06-05 20:39:33 UTC - 20:39 | Permalink

      E. wrote: “-Stating that the supporters of an argument are smug and condescending is not refuting it in any way. I accept the idea that some countries are, indeed, unready for democracy, and won’t be any time soon.”

      When I wrote that, I suspected I wasn’t making necessary distinctions. There are, indeed, many societies that don’t have the necessary structures in place in order to have a successful democracy. Similarly, there are some countries lacking the infrastructure to move directly from an extraction-based colonial economy into a booming industrial or information-based economy.

      But it’s one thing to point out structural and social problems — lack of education, lack of infrastructure, etc. — as impediments to modernity and quite another to say that a given race or ethnicity is predisposed to authoritarianism, or just not smart enough to be trusted to govern themselves.

      E. wrote: -Chile was sliding away from democracy when the coup hit.

      Yes, Chile was in deep turmoil; the U.S. policy “to make the economy scream” worked pretty well.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2Ki6nWSeVQ

      E. wrote: -For once, I fully agree with a statement saying something about “we”. I supported Obama over Romney in 2012, and we got ISIS.

      The main contributing factor in ISIS, of course, would be the ill-conceived invasion and the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, and the support of a Shi’ite prime minister. The total mess in Mesopotamia right now will likely only get worse. We now face a menu of very bad options, in which perhaps the least bad would be the U.S. providing air superiority with command and control while Iranian ground troops attack ISIS face to face — but after that, then what?

      • David Ashton
        2015-06-05 21:08:35 UTC - 21:08 | Permalink

        Without commenting on any foreign policy or governance issues, I wish to point out that it is unreasonable to suppose that there are no biological factors whatever in the development of various cultures. These might include diversity in physical height, average brain performance, adaptation to climate, susceptibility to diseases, temperament and stamina.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2015-06-05 21:41:07 UTC - 21:41 | Permalink

          David, “. . . it is unreasonable to suppose that there are no biological factors whatever in the development of various cultures.

          Sure — we can’t exclude the possibility of biological factors affecting the development of cultures. But I know of no convincing study that would indicate what those factors are. We do know of many external factors that explain cultural development. These are varied and well understood. For some examples, I would direct your attention to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

          As far as adaptation to climate and susceptibility to disease, I’m reminded of the discussion of the slave trade in the book 1493, by Charles C. Mann. Africans were able survive malaria infested areas of the Caribbean and (what is today) the Southeast U.S., because they had been exposed to it as children and had built up immunity. White Europeans, on the other hand, were hit hard, and many didn’t survive the first year.

          But the Africans’ ability to tolerate heat, malaria, and yellow fever merely made them more valuable as slaves. The people who remained in power had guns and steel.

          • 2015-06-06 01:56:21 UTC - 01:56 | Permalink

            “But I know of no convincing study that would indicate what those factors are.”
            -There are basically two good methodologies I know of for finding out: adoption studies and studying the fates of immigrant groups over generations. Chinese and Vietnamese in the U.S. are highly upwardly mobile. Bangladeshis in the U.K., not so much. Jason Malloy and his Human Varieties blog is probably the most dedicated resource on such data.

            • David Ashton
              2015-06-06 11:29:16 UTC - 11:29 | Permalink

              I have only three books by Jared Diamond to hand and my copy of “Guns, Germs and Steel” is the 1998 paperback. This states his general ideological anti-“racist” mission between pp.18-27, but excepts the New Guineans as probably “genetically superior” to Westerners in “mental ability” (p.21).

              To rephrase Orwell, all human brains are identical, but some are more identical than others.

              Genetic and environmental factors interact at the individual and population levels, and in complex ways. The comment on slavery completely accords with my position and I endorse the recommendation of Jason Malloy’s website.

      • 2015-06-06 00:05:53 UTC - 00:05 | Permalink

        The Iraqi army is (still, amazingly enough) pretty poorly trained, motivated, and prepared for combating such an easily manageable threat as the Islamic State. But the Islamic State’s latest incarnation as a territorial entity is inherently connected with the Syrian Civil War, and would have been impossible without it. And the Syrian Civil War is blatantly maintained with support, largely covert, from Jordan, Israel, and Turkey -all U.S. allies. Obama could easily have stopped the rise of the Islamic State with a few well-placed words, and, as a territorial entity, it would take days, if not hours, to destroy. As a terrorist organization, it would require a much longer-term process, political, police, and military, to fully stamp out, but the existence of the Islamic State as a territorial entity is not just coincident with, but utterly dependent on its bordering a NATO member for over 100 kilometers. If the U.S. does not lead NATO, and the President is not the man most responsible for the U.S.’s foreign policy, who does and is? Also, the fact Iran isn’t providing a lot of ground troops now shows it doesn’t have much intention to do so later. The Iraqi army has proved itself incompetent on numerous occasions. The Syrian and Kurdish armies would probably make better partners.

        “But it’s one thing to point out structural and social problems — lack of education, lack of infrastructure, etc. — as impediments to modernity and quite another to say that a given race or ethnicity is predisposed to authoritarianism, or just not smart enough to be trusted to govern themselves.”
        -This claim can, fortunately, be dissected with empirical evidence. Namibia and the Caribbean states are successful examples of democracy working in Black-majority countries (or at least, not leading them to disaster), despite the fact that Black median IQs, in all cases I’m aware of except instances of selective immigration, are quite low. For the Chinese, there’s Taiwan. For Arabs, there’s Tunisia (although this one will have to wait a while for its success to be confirmed). Latin America, almost every part of which had a period of dictatorial rule and almost every part of which is now democratic, is the most ambiguous case, but Costa Rica is a (fairly weak) example of a democratic success story there.
        Sadly, for ethnicities without a large number of examples of comparative governance without much ambiguity, such as for Albanians, Filipinos, South Asians, Burmans, and Ukrainians, there really isn’t enough data to go on to make any definitive conclusion.

        Also, Nixon did not succeed at getting Chile’s economy to scream -copper was not immune from the Great Inflation, which strongly boosted commodity prices from December 1972 throughout 1973-
        http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/WPU102301
        , -Allende did. The Chilean coup was not some U.S.-backed plot, like the Islamic State is- it was an own goal by Chilean leftist socialists in general, and Allende in particular.

        • Tim Widowfield
          2015-06-06 16:23:40 UTC - 16:23 | Permalink

          E.: “Obama could easily have stopped the rise of the Islamic State with a few well-placed words, and, as a territorial entity, it would take days, if not hours, to destroy.

          I agree with you that ISIS as it exists now has its origins in the collapse of Syria, but this idea that “a few well-placed words” would have prevented it; and that perhaps just the right number of bombs dropped in the right place, or maybe arming just the right insurgent group at the right time will destroy it is pure fantasy.

          The deep, underlying issue in the Islamic world is the struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims — currently made worse by corrupt and incompetent regimes.

          This assessment from Ali Khedery in The Guardian from August of last year is spot on.

          How Isis Came to Be

          From the article:

          As world leaders now consider a military campaign to confront Isis, they should remember the lessons of America’s costly and largely fruitless engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. They should understand that no amount of foreign military power can ever make up for the misrule of corrupt, failed governments like those in Damascus, Baghdad, Kabul or Saigon. Unless they want a regional holy war, leaders should especially discount the advice of some who are now calling for an alliance with Assad’s genocidal regime – perhaps the single greatest root cause of Isis’s rise.

          Instead, they should embrace the lessons of Iraq’s Sunni tribal awakening, that only Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis can defeat radical militant Sunni entities like Isis. Likewise, they should understand that only the mullahs in Tehran can help quell radical militant Shia entities like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Assad’s intelligence operatives or Iraq’s militias.

          • 2015-06-06 22:33:04 UTC - 22:33 | Permalink

            I agree with you that ISIS as it exists now has its origins in the collapse of Syria, but this idea that “a few well-placed words” would have prevented it; and that perhaps just the right number of bombs dropped in the right place, or maybe arming just the right insurgent group at the right time will destroy it is pure fantasy.

            -I certainly don’t think so. Imagine the Syrian War if Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, did not exist-were wiped off the map-were sunk into the sea-whatever phrasing you want to use. Daraa would have been captured sometime in 2013, there would have been a much smaller inflow of fighters of every stripe into Syria from 2011 onwards, and an Assad victory, if not complete, would be well in sight by now, with most of the action, if any, being concentrated in the North.
            “The deep, underlying issue in the Islamic world is the struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims — currently made worse by corrupt and incompetent regimes.”
            -In some areas (Iraq and Yemen, for example), yes. In others (Libya especially), there are no Sunni-Shia conflicts, just conflicts between varying breeds of authoritarianism.

            Foreign military power did make up for the now-clear failures of the Iraqi government to build up its military into a capable fighting force between December 2008 and April 2013. That’s almost five years, one of them without foreign military power actually being used at all. Kabul looks unfixable-it’s too beset by clannishness for any kind of country-wide majority rule to work. Damascus’s problems are mostly just a simple military issue, with some amount of agricultural modernization and various other reforms needed after that’s over. Saigon’s government was killed by one of the most militarily mobilized, motivated, and zerg-rushy countries in known history.

            Assad might have sown some (not all) of the Islamic State’s seeds, but those seeds couldn’t have sprouted without fertile Turkish soil. I’m not aware of any systemic genocide the Syrian government has committed in the manner of the Islamic State’s genocide of the Yazidis.

            Hezbollah, as shown in the 2006 war, can be quelled by a sufficient show of military strength. Iraq’s militias probably can’t be controlled at all, much like the militias in Libya. Assad, however, can be and often is influenced by his allies.

            And I still have no idea what happened in Honduras.

  • anon
    2015-06-06 07:15:54 UTC - 07:15 | Permalink

    Biological difference—Equating biological difference to superiority/inferiority of cultures can become a dangerous idea—such ideas should be handled with extreme caution and skepticism…..as well as ideas related to race and IQ and “race” itself (which is an artificial Western concept–starting around the 17th century….)

    “People today are doing terrible, horrific things in the name of Islam”
    …and in the name of Hinduism, Buddhism, Democracy, American Exceptionalism, National Security…and whatever other creative justifications human beings can come up with…..We need a more critical look at the “justifications”—why some justifications for evil are more “acceptable” than others?….for example…why is the justification of “making America safe” by killing innocent civilians , using torture, terrorizing (drone warfare) entire nations, “acceptable” for some Americans ? It is because these Americans think they have “more” right to safety than others…that their rights can be got at the expense of the rights of others therefore their justifications have merit while those of the “others” for their safety do not….

    In order to change the world—we need to accept 2 fundamental ideas—-1) All humanity is of equal worth/value—none superior or inferior to the other—thus all humanity has an equal right to justice and fairness as well as an equal responsibility to prevent their abuse. 2) The earth must be shared in equality and in justice by all humanity. This must be done by valuing the principle of Reciprocity. for ex—If I have a right to safety on this earth—then you too have an equal right to safety on this earth…..

    Bad ideas—be they secular or religious…have to be fought by better ideas….. bad justifications—be they secular or religious…need to be replaced with a better framework for our ethico-moral principles. Any framework founded on the concept of “Unity” will yield better results for peace than one founded on divisions….

    However, “Unity” does not imply that only Western ideas are the default and therefore universal—that all other “systems” must be judged against it……or that embracing “Humanism”, “Feminism”, “Modernism” etc…is the only way forward—that is, while these ideas as expressed and formulated in the West, may contain a universal “value”(principle)at its core, its expression and application can be widely varied—thus, Islam has within its framework, all of these values/principles but their expression and application may be different……

    ISIS–When the “other” group’s life is less valuable than your own group—it is easy to say—lets give “them” weapons so they can clean up the mess we created—or bomb “them” all, good and bad—at least there will be less bad…. Such thinking relies on the same old paradigm of one group being superior/privileged to another…..to combat violence with violence devalues life—to combat it with Justice values life….

    Democracy—A problem we face today is the definition of terms—what is Democracy?—the rule of the privileged for the benefit of the privileged?—for ex, in Afghanistan–“Democracy” was installed but it was a corrupt system. A democracy—or any other system of government—can be good or bad not because a particular “label” sounds more appealing than the other—but because of the values and principles upon which the system is founded. If “democracy” is founded on corruption and injustice because certain “Powers” feel a corrupt government is easier to control for their benefit at the expense of others….then such a democracy is based on the old paradigm/principle that one group is more privileged/superior to the other….

    Likewise—any system of laws that are made by the privileged for the benefit of the privileged will lead to injustice and oppression…
    the same also applies to any system of economics…..

  • Bob de Jong
    2015-06-06 12:42:13 UTC - 12:42 | Permalink

    Thanks Tim, learnt a lot of history from your post.

    But I’m not convinced that all your conclusions follow from the info in your post. In particular “nor should we excuse ourselves from helping to create a world in which desperate, disaffected people choose the path of violence, war, and suicide”. In fact, we find time and again that those drawn into Islamic extremism from western countries come from middle to upper class families, have good educations, good career prospects etc. Really no reason to be ‘desperate, disaffected”. Neither does this hold for the leaders from Muslim countries: Osama bin Laden belonged to a wealthy Saudi family. Yasser Arafat died a billionaire.

    Looking at Muslim extremism from a different angle, we see that Muslim terrorism is mostly aimed at other Muslims: Muslim IS chops the heads of Muslims in Iraq and Syria, Muslim factions blow each other up in Iraq, Somalia etc. on a daily basis.

    There must be something else to Muslim extremism, western imperialism doesn’t explain today’s events.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2015-06-06 18:34:48 UTC - 18:34 | Permalink

      Bob wrote: In fact, we find time and again that those drawn into Islamic extremism from western countries come from middle to upper class families, have good educations, good career prospects etc. Really no reason to be ‘desperate, disaffected”.

      As it happens, I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the First World War, and yesterday while on my daily constitutional we came to the story of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov. Lenin came from an upper-middle-class family; he was well educated, and his family had accumulated some wealth. So what radicalized him?

      You can point to the power of ideas — perhaps reading Marx “flipped the switch” in his mind. Maybe it was just a matter of looking around, paying attention to what was happening around him, and realizing that the majority of his countrymen were powerless peasants, living in dire poverty. A big factor was surely the execution of his brother, Alexandr for terrorism against the state.

      Quite often in history we find groups of disaffected people — poor, powerless, marginalized, exploited, etc. — led by members of the elite (or at least the moderately well-off). You can argue that these leaders are crass opportunists, exploiting the exploited with a different flavor of Kool-aid, or that they’re merely sociopaths who sought to gain power, prestige, and money. But maybe some of them were true believers in the cause. (Which might make them all the more dangerous.)

      In any case, your assertion that those drawn to extremism had “no reason” to be desperate and disaffected doesn’t hold up.

      Bob wrote: There must be something else to Muslim extremism, western imperialism doesn’t explain today’s events.

      It’s difficult to see how Islamic extremism is categorically different from any other forms of extremism, if that’s what you’re getting at. People have committed gruesome acts of terror for many “just” causes. The allied air forces in WWII justified creating firestorms in German and Japanese cities, incinerating hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. All you have to do is convince yourself that “everybody is a combatant” and there’s practically no behavior you cannot justify.

      And I never said Western imperialism “explains today’s events.” I said it’s a contributing factor. We helped make this world, and we’re living with the consequences.

      Bob wrote: . . . Muslim terrorism is mostly aimed at other Muslims . . .

      Very true. The struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims is another huge contributing factor.

  • anon
    2015-06-07 09:51:35 UTC - 09:51 | Permalink

    “The deep, underlying issue in the Islamic world is the struggle between Shia and Sunni Muslims” —Is it?—or is it a rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia dressed up in religious terms?

    If you look at the history—-the Shia/Sunni difference arose because of the question of legitimacy of leadership.

    One perspective can be that—Wahabism is used to prop up or legitimize some Monarchies/Sheikdoms. Wahabism is a recent innovation springing from counter-colonialism sentiments. If perceived as an inauthentic reformation of (Traditional) Islam it may be a problem—for now, there is Western support for it—the thing to do then—is to deflect that Shia-ism and Sufi-ism and other forms of Islam, are inauthentic Islam. …which then legitimizes Wahabism by default….

    IMO, ….The geo-political struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is conveniently placed under this context—instead of as a rivalry between 2 nations….(Iran/Persia was initially Sunni but changed to Shia during the Safavids to counter the Ottomans—the Safavids themselves were actually Sufi)

    Another aspect to think about—-
    legitimacy of leadership—One of the functions of “religion” in premodern times was to legitimize power—usually the power of the monarch.
    —which is why the “son of God”(“Son of Heaven” in the East) concept was attached to some Kings—and priests served as witnesses or authorities for that legitimization.
    (This function can also be seen somewhat in Christian history(divine right of kings)–as the post also indicates…to legitimize power then legitimizes the laws….)

    Islam denies such a concept (as well as the power of “priests”)—So when Prophet Muhammed(pbuh) came to Yathrib/Medina—he asked the people (both men and women were asked) to accept his authority—and this practice was somewhat carried on with the first 4 “rightfully guided” Caliphs—after which dynastic rule set in…Today, “democracy”(vote by the people) would be the form closest to the one the Prophet used as a means for legitimate government….

    Western Imperialism—was itself a consequence of the Wests appetite for the (unfair) acquisition of wealth—the whole “imperial” venture was for this purpose—-and a contributing factor in the disparity of wealth between nations….The acquisition of wealth through “raiding” (stealing) was a tribal practice pretty much all over the world where there was tribalism…

    Injustice and exploitation—actual or perceived plays an important part in the “narrative” and should not be underestimated….it is a powerful motivating factor ….

  • Bob de Jong
    2015-06-07 12:09:05 UTC - 12:09 | Permalink

    Tim, I think we agree on the (high) social status of the leaders of revolutions and extremist movements (Muslim or otherwise). I was particularly referring to the ‘soldiers’ of the modern extremist movements: the folks travelling from Europe to Iraq to fight for IS, or blow themselves up in London’s subways, or kill French cartoonists: they can’t be simply classified as “poor, powerless, marginalized, exploited”; or we would need to include most of the western population in that category…….

    Of course, ‘the West’ contributes to the situation, how could it be different? But it seems to me that religious fervor contributes much more strongly to motivate people to join extremist organizations.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-06-07 12:21:06 UTC - 12:21 | Permalink

    Hector Avalos in Fighting Words argues that religious violence is ultimately caused by the same factors that lead to most other forms of violence — shortage of supply of a desired thing. Add to this Durkheim’s concept of religion as a social construct Understanding the Nature of Religion and the Religious and it’s not hard to understand the causes of religious violence. Economic deprivation is not the only kind of deprivation. There are more fundamental very real needs for individuals and communities than the material.

    Recall this sentence from anthropologist Scott Atran’s Talking with the Enemy:

    People who are humiliated generally don’t take the path of violence (as studies I present later show). But those who do may seek to avenge the humiliation of others for whom they care. (p. 55)

    One more from Jason Burke (whose book on Al Qaeda I once discussed on Vridar):

    This explains in part the attraction of such groups to some people in the west. It is the prospect of combat, adventure, camaraderie, a perception of injustice, even the fanatical certainty itself, that draws in the recruits, as guerrilla movements once did.

    I look forward to his new book on the various Islamic insurgencies due out this year.

  • anon
    2015-06-09 11:43:59 UTC - 11:43 | Permalink

    Many feel ISIS is a western, modern movement —based on modern western thought….
    Here is a talk about “Eurocentric Fundamentalism”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-06-09 14:21:31 UTC - 14:21 | Permalink

      I’m waiting for this book to come out later this year: The New Threat, by Jason Burke:

      ISIS is not “medieval,” as many U.S. national security pundits claim, but, Burke explains, a group whose spectacular acts of terror are a contemporary expression of our highly digitized societies, designed to generate global publicity. In his account, radical Islamic terrorism is not an aberration or “cancer,” as some politicians assert; it is an organic part of the modern world. This book will challenge the preconceptions of many American readers and will be hotly debated in national security circles.

  • anon
    2015-06-10 05:32:09 UTC - 05:32 | Permalink

    I look forward to your thoughts on the book.

    Some people are claiming that ISIS is a mirror of some of the toxic philosophies/thoughts embedded in “Modernity”…The Modern world hides their toxicity in “cleaned/whitwashed” words and ISIS puts it up on video….

    For example, Glenn Greenwald in “The Intercept” commented that the U.S has used incendiary weapons such as Napalm and white phosphorus…and other such in its wars—the purpose of these weapons is to burn humans…..ISIS puts up a video of a burning person…
    https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/02/04/burning-victims-death-still-common-practice/

    Both ISIS and the Modern military kill innocent people—the military calls it “collateral damage” and hides it—ISIS is happy to display their destructiveness…
    This is based in Modern/Western thought—by Modern philosophers and thinkers such as Micheal Wagner who wrote in his book “Just and Unjust wars….”
    “Can soldiers and statesmen override the rights of innocent people for the sake of their own political community?”—and he goes on to answer Yes to the question and explains why….
    Sentiments echoed by Sam Harris who says “…We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” as well as Madeline Albright who said it was “worth it” when half a million Iraqi children died because of sanctions…etc…(John Rawls also favors interventions for ideology)
    Thus—going to war to “spread democracy” becomes “justified”….Similarly the idea of “spreading a Khalifate—whatever that might mean—by ISIS is a mirror of modern/western thought…

    Sam Harris also says “Given what many believe are the exigencies of our war on terrorism the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem not only permissible but necessary”. The modern/west conducts its evil where no one can see it—ISIS puts it up on the internet….

    The U.S. glorifies its wars through Hollywood—which collaborates with the U.S. military to make big budget movies (American Sniper…and such.)—ISIS does the same on a smaller scale….

    The U.S. military privatizes (mercenaries) its operatives so as to have deniability (anything goes) —ISIS straightforwardly practices an “anything goes” policy….(The (Modern) mercenary organizations—who are paid highly to torture and kill—are grouped as Private Military Security Companies)http://www.businessinsider.com/bi-mercenary-armies-2012-2?op=1

    The stealing, corruption and profiteering that goes on in modern military warfare is also mirrored by ISIS robbing, kidnapping, extortion…etc…

    The manufacture of hate and prejudice is another aspect that both ISIS and modernity have in common—the “other” is made different and dehumanized to justify actions that are otherwise unjustifiable….

    Such claims (as above) are as shallow and simplistic as those that claim that ISIS is uniquely “Islamic”— but even so, it is for our own good to critically re-examine our global “modernity” and its values—or lack of—for ourselves and our future….
    Humanity is capable of much good….but we will go nowhere unless we are aware of this potential and make use of it for the betterment of our earth and all that share it….

    ….ISIS also brings into question the quick use of conventional military as solutions—if modern militaries cannot win against such groups then war, which seemed an easy solution to any problem that vexed the modern world—is not such an easy answer anymore….?….(at least I hope so….)

  • David Ashton
    2015-06-10 12:05:18 UTC - 12:05 | Permalink

    This is one of many modern issues that typify complex questions of factual verification, ideological propaganda and ethical stance. Detailed open-minded and continual research are especially required as a basis for practical recommendations for improvement, all of which can evolve with new circumstances and fresh information. This is not advice to leave alone and do nothing, but to avoid “taking sides” too closely and simply like enthusiastic football team supporters rather than unprejudiced rational spectators.

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