Sunday, January 14, 2007

With language, what you say is what you get

After watching Joe Leibermann and Stephen Hadley bloviate on today's Meet the Press, I started thinking about easily American leaders can mischaracterize Near East politics. I was particularly dumb-struck by how Leibermann so casually conflated the intentions and objectives of al-Qaeda with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah under the rubric of "radical Islam." (transcript will be avilable here) Group the four together seriously dilutes the discursive meaning of the term and in my opinion, renders it about as useful as the ill-gotten label 'Islamofascism.'

Maybe its the anthropologist in me, but this reflection on the notion of what constitutes 'radical Islam' got me thinking about how communism was characterized during the Cold War. Both communism and radical Islam are described as universalist-revisionist doctrines. In a sense, both ideologies threaten the core of Western European civilization - humanism, Judeo-Christian values and nationalism.

Whereas communism is modern to the point of cold, deterministic atheism, radical Islam is just the opposite. It is frequently characterized as ultra-traditional and anti-modern to the point of being uncivilized.

The only major difference is that the scope of each movement is different. The idealized version of communism vilified in the West was feared because it advocated global revisionism - i.e. pushing the revolution to every corner of the globe.

Contemporary views of radical Islam typically circumscribe its range to a band of territory stretching from northern Africa through the Near East and south Asia to the southeast Asian archipelago. It is interesting to note that the scope of radical Islam preceived in the West is only on the margin of it's territory. I would hazard a guess that radical Islam has become such a threat because it sits on most of the world's energy resources.

It may seem pedantic to talk about the meanings that are loaded on political language, but I'm willing to believe the notion that those meanings hold huge sway over the political choices we make.

I'm afraid that popular misperceptions about the political objectives and sociological dynamics of radical revisionists in the Near East have lead us into another Cold War that will consume American politics for a generation or more (i.e. Generation X and my generation, the MTV generation).

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