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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

A Failure To Communicate

(Reprinted from the issue of December 25, 2003)

Capitol BldgThe capture of Saddam Hussein immediately struck me as funny, even before I’d seen the pictures, which made it seem even funnier.

Obviously the Bush administration would play up the arrest as a huge triumph, though Saddam’s capture, just as obviously, would have near-zero impact on the struggle to subdue Iraq, and even less on quelling terrorism. But the spirit of P.T. Barnum still hovers over America, and the opportunity for ballyhoo would be irresistible.

Then ah, those pictures! The man looked pitiful. Not that he merits any pity, all things considered; no doubt there were moments when Stalin, photographed off his guard, would have looked like a sad old man, if you could look at him without Gulag-tinted preconceptions.

What struck me as funny was the idea that we were supposed to be terrified of this sad sack. And to be correspondingly grateful to our own president for ousting him from power. Saddam had never threatened us, had never had anything to threaten us with. Now, out of power, alone, haggard, bearded, living in a hole, down to his last few pistols and as much money as he could stuff into one suitcase (American money at that!), he just didn’t begin to live up to the role of monster in which the years of war propaganda had cast him.

President Bush called him a “murderer” and “torturer,” but not a “wielder of weapons of mass destruction.” The war, it seems, was all about what Saddam had done to “his own people,” not what he might do to people outside his own borders.

Interviewed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Bush kept deflecting questions about those WMDs. He wouldn’t even use the phrase he had repeated obsessively for many months as the reason war on Iraq was the only course available.

We can expect Saddam’s long rap sheet to lengthen further, as new discoveries are made. It appears that even in hiding, Saddam, ever the public servant, managed to fund a few cells of resistance fighters; surely that will be adduced as another vindication of the war, which needs all the ex post facto vindication it can get.

Millions of Arabs are said to be furiously indignant at the humiliating videotapes showing American doctors checking his hair for lice and his teeth for cavities. Even if they had no use for him, the Arabs seem to see his treatment as more evidence of American contempt for general human decencies. Never mind that the Americans thought they were just being humane, certainly more humane than Saddam had been to his own prisoners.

What we have here, as the old catch-phrase goes, is a failure to communicate — and a sign of the cultural gulf American “democratization” must face. Every gesture, however innocent or benign, is apt to be darkly construed by those who see ordinary Americans in their midst as sinister aliens, while Saddam Hussein, for all his crimes, is at least, in their eyes, “one of our own.”

Bush thinks that American good intentions are self-evident; don’t we all agree that Democracy and Freedom are Good Things? That Arabs and Muslims crave and deserve these things too? That Islam, after all, is a “religion of peace,” not so different from Christianity? Can’t we all just get along?
No Natural Law

Unfortunately, the answers to these rhetorical questions are not so obviously affirmative as Bush assumes. He might (we all might) profitably read a little book called Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics, by Daniel Ali and Robert Spencer. Despite its subtitle, it’s not just for Catholics, but for any Westerner who wants to peer into a strange world.

Ali, whom I know well as a neighbor and friend, is an Iraqi Kurd who spent several terms in Saddam’s prisons and, after coming to America, converted from Islam to Catholicism in 1998; his learning is formidable. He is fluent in Kurdish, English, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Turkish, and several other languages, and, by the way, his Arabic includes both modern and classical Arabic.

I mention his linguistic achievements because he understands that learning a language means more than acquiring sounds, alphabets, and translatable synonyms; it can mean entering a way of thinking that may be so remote from your native one that you seem to be in a wholly different universe which defies translation.

Let’s start with Allah. We’re tempted to assume (and are often assured) that Allah is just a foreign word for God. But the Islamic conception of Allah is radically different from, say, St. Thomas Aquinas’s conception of God. For St. Thomas, God can do no evil; can’t contradict Himself; is “bound,” so to speak, by logic and natural law, because these things reflect His own being, as all created things must.

To the Islamic mind, these would be limitations on Allah’s omnipotence. The word can’t can’t apply to him; any sentence that begins with the words Allah can’t ... is nonsense. He is utterly free (men have no free will) and can do literally anything. Everything that happens (including your latest ax murder) is the result of his will, nobody else’s. He can, and does, contradict himself when he chooses. He is superior to all logic; there is no natural law, only his arbitrary command. He can change or even reverse it tomorrow.

Hence the self-contradictions of the Koran itself don’t trouble Muslims. Islam rejects the Trinity (while revering Jesus as a sinless prophet) because it insists that Allah is One. But couldn’t Allah create another Allah, even more powerful than himself? If we say no, aren’t we limiting his power?

Never mind. Once you grasp the concept of Allah, you immediately intuit that Westerners, Christian or not, are apt to encounter failures to communicate. How do you reason with people — even highly intelligent people — who regard logic itself as contingent? (Maybe Calvinists, with their Allah-like concept of God, could get through to Muslims. But I wouldn’t bet on it.)

Before we start pouring democracy and freedom into the Muslim world, we may do well to give it a heavy infusion of good old Western metaphysics. Whether we have enough practicing metaphysicians for the job is a good question, but you see my point: “Dialogue” presupposes that the participants have, for openers, a shared sense of reality. If one man’s reality is another man’s absurd fantasy, the conversation is likely to get four flat tires long before it gets around to democracy and freedom.

Yet Bush talks as if democracy and freedom were elemental things, like “dog” and “cat,” for which you only have to find equivalents in an Arabic dictionary. (Allah, by the way, speaks only in Arabic. Which is not to say, I hasten to add, that he “can’t” speak English, only that he chooses not to.)

Put otherwise, Bush is looking for the “same” things in what amounts to a different universe. And he thinks military force can achieve the desired result. He’s probably in for frustration. Sunny, arid Iraq may look something like Texas, but a Texan is likely to find himself at sea there.

George, meet Allah.

Merry Christmas! Did you forget to give someone a present? For the rock-bottom price of just $19.83, you can send a trial subscription to SOBRANS, my little monthly, to a friend or colleague. We’ll even throw in a copy of my booklet Anything Called a “Program” Is Unconstitutional: Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian. Just call 800-513-5053, or go to the Subscription page.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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