I don’t even know where Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is, exactly (somewhere in Central Asia), but if you put a journalism Professor from Alaska there the results can be interesting– and depressing indeed to those that think a foreign policy change will improve America’s image globally.
UPDATE: Military intellectual Ralph Peters wrote a long essay (Warning! PDF) where he addresses this issue, among others…
One of the most frustrating things for Westerners since September 11th, 2001, has been the demands throughout the Islamic world for “proof” that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. At the same time, “friendly” Arab governments condone or even quietly support suggestions that “Zionists” directed the attacks, and that American Jews were warned before the strikes on the World Trade Center towers and that 4,000 of them did not show up for work on the fateful day. We cannot believe that anyone could believe such folly and we want to extend proof of the truth. But empirical reality is almost irrelevant within the Islamic world—comforting myths are much more powerful—and the mental processes at work are so fundamentally different from our own that we literally cannot comprehend them.
Were we to provide a video-taped confession by Osama bin Laden, Muslims would insist that Hollywood had staged it. Were we to provide multi-media records of Arabs committing the deeds of September 11th, the response would be the same. Statistics, facts, evidence, proof—none of this has much weight in the Muslim consciousness. I have personally never quite gotten used to the stunning ability of even educated people between the Nile and the Himalayas to believe with deep conviction and passion that which is patently, provably false.
Another aspect of the Islamic mind is its ability to disaggregate and compartmentalize. One moment, a Pakistani or an Egyptian might tell you that Israel staged the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, then, a moment later, tell you what a great hero Osama bin Laden is and that the Muslims who piloted the planes were great heroes. We see an obvious lapse in logic, but our Muslim counterpart sees nothing of the kind. He can comfortably “believe” both “truths.”
Part of the problem is that empirical truth comforts us, since we’re a success story. The Joe-Friday facts support our satisfying view of ourselves. But few facts support a positive self-image within the Islamic world. The flight into fantasy has been going on for a very long time—at least since the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492—but the impact of globalization, modernity and now post-modernity have driven hundreds of millions of Muslims into a fabulous refuge of their own collective construction. Powerful myths may be the only thing the Islamic world is good at building.
What it means for us is that we should not waste too much effort trying to prove that which will never be believed, no matter how much supporting data we offer. We can convince through our deeds alone—and even then only partially. When we kill Osama bin Laden, millions will refuse to believe in his death (even if we put the corpse on a Middle East tour, complete with on-the-spot DNA sampling). And the talent for overlaying conspiracies on even the most benign Western actions will always over-ride the reality of any good we seek to do or accomplish (of course, America has its own conspiracy fanatics, but in our society they exist on the margins, while the belief in complex, malevolent Western and “Zionist” conspiracies is integral to middle-of-the-road
discourse in the Muslim world).
We are dealing with a delusional civilization—and this is a new problem in history. Certainly, the degree of delusion varies from individual to individual, to some extent between social classes, and somewhat between peoples and states. But it means that the American and Western tradition of reasoning with opponents, of convincing doubters, and of marshalling evidence has far less potency—and often none—in dealing with the Islamic world.
We may believe with great satisfaction that we have the truth on our side—but myth is on their side, and myth can be more powerful than truth. Some noble or hapless souls may sacrifice their lives in service to the truth. But millions will rush to die for a cherished myth of themselves.
Only physical reality, brought home with stunning force, can make much of an
impression. Even that will be rationalized away in time. But where the truth cannot make headway, punitive or preventive violence must protect us.
We, too, have our comforting myths, among them that all the people of the world are really just “like us,” that all men are finally subject to reason, and, most perniciously, that violence is a desperate measure that solves nothing. In fact, billions of people are not “like us,” surprisingly few men are subject to reason when reason threatens their most precious beliefs, and violence is often the only meaningful solution.