Ralph Peters presented his analysis of Obama’s speech. While there are reasonable grounds on which to take issue with what Obama said, Peters instead resorted to what might be charitably called a rhetorical response. I’ll go through Peters’ remarks and comment on them.
Peters claims that Obama is asserting that there is no terrorism. The basis for this is that ” Obama didn’t mention terrorism a single time in his star-turn speech in Cairo. Only a few “violent extremists” (our own troops?) remain at large.”
Obama has made it clear that he is well aware that there are people who want to kill Americans and that his primary job is to protect America. As such, even if Obama did not mention terrorism in his speech, it hardly follows that he is making the positive assertion that there is no terrorism.
Peters says, “I thought there was still a debate about that, but I guess not. And no regime in the Middle East tortures anybody, ever. Our bad.” He does raise reasonable concerns here, but this is not an effective refuation of Obama. As far as the reasonable concerns go, there is still a debate over the definition of “torture.” This debate, naturally enough, seems to split on ideological lines. Folks on the right still think that either a) it was not torture or b) if it was torture, it was justified to protect America. Those in the center and towards the left tend to suspect that we did torture. Folks on the left seem quite convinced that we did torture. So, there is still a debate possible here. Peters is right that many countries in the Middle East do practice torture-that is why, in fact, the US is reluctant to release some of the Gitmo prisoners to their home nations. However, the fact that these nations practice torture has seems to have no bearing on the morality of our actions. I am not sure what Peters is exactly trying to imply here-perhaps that since they torture, we should not think that what we did was wrong (that would, of course, be a fallacy). Or perhaps he is just taking Obama to task for not calling attention to their human rights violations. If so, I would agree with him-these countries often do far worse things than we have done and need to be called to task for the evil deeds. This does not, however, diminish any misdeeds that we may have commited.
“Behind closed doors with Saudi King Abdullah, our president must’ve mentioned the many hundreds of churches and synagogues that thrived on the Arabian Peninsula during the Prophet’s lifetime. Muslims zealots destroyed them.”
Obama is quite correct that Islam has a long tradition of religious tolerance. The “people of the book” (as Christians and Jews were called) were permitted to practice their faith in Muslim lands. However, Peters is correct to point out that this tolerance faded with time and was, in many cases, replaced with a zelaotry of religious intolerance that matched that practiced in Europe. Perhaps the Crusades had a small role to play in this change. However, Peters is right to be critical of religious intolerance. If we are to tolerate Islam in the West, then the same respect and tolerance must be offered in the Middle East. Fortunately, as Obama pointed out, there is a rich historical precedent to draw on here.
“Just my analysis, based on Obama’s insistence that Islam recognizes “the dignity of all human beings” and that Muslim women must be free to make their own decisions about what to wear. Surely, fashion choices extend to Mecca and Medina, not just Detroit and Paris?”
Peters makes a reasonable point here. Saudi Arabia is a repressive regime, ruled by a monarchy, and not given to extending full rights to women. If it were not for the oil and all that goes along with it (such as the close relation between the Bush family and the Saudi rulers) we would be harshly critical of this state. If we believe in human rights, we have to accept that they extend to all humans-including women in Muslim states.
Islam & America
In a bit of hyperbole, Perters says “Guess the Founding Fathers missed that one. But I’m assured that George Washington turned to his mullah in the dark days at Valley Forge, that Daniel Boone read the Koran around the campfire, and that al Qaeda stood by us at the Alamo.”
Obviously, none of that is true. However, Obama is right to point out the many contrubtions of Islamic thinkers to the world. As a professional philosopher, I owe a great debt to the Muslim (and Jewish) scholars who preserved and commented on the works of Greek philosophers-most especially Plato. We also owe these thinkers a debt for their development of mathmematics and advances in science.
Of course, this is the past of Islam. Sadly, the current state of Islamic scholarship seems to be lacking the greatness of the past. However, this tradition does still remain and it would be far preferable to see many more Islamic thinkers developing new theories of mathematics or optics rather than a new justification for terrorist attacks.
Violence and Civil Rights
Obama’s intent was, it seemed, to persuade people in the Middle East to work towards their goals peacefully. “
In reply, Peters says ” So much for the Civil War and my ancestor, who volunteered to wear Union blue and paid for it with his life. I thought a half-million Americans died fighting to end slavery.”
Peters raises a good point while also making a straw man of Obama’s view. As Peters points out, the peaceful civil rights movement was built upon a foundation laid in blood. Without the civil war, it could be argued, there would have been no civil rights movement-or it would have been decades later. Interestingly, Henry David Thoreau proposed and tried to practice the sort of civil disobedience that was later used by Dr. King. Thoreau believed that his methods could end slavery and the war with Mexico. His methods, obviously enough, did not work. Perhaps it was a personal failure on his part or perhaps it was the lack of mass media. Or perhaps the stage was not properly set for this method.
The straw man is, of course, that Obama was not talking about the civil war. He was talking about the civil rights movement. This movement did succeed and its great successes were based on non-violent means. We have had plenty of blood in the Middle East. Perhaps they have reached a state comparable to the one reached in the United States after the Civil War-a time when peaceful means can work better than killing. In any case, killing people seems to be an undesirable option-it would be better to achieve our goals without slaughter.
In regards to slavery, Peters says “Still, it was brave of our president to highlight slavery’s “lash of the whip” in his speech, since his own ancestors, as Muslims along Africa‘s Swahili Coast, would have been complicit – if not actively engaged – in enslaving their fellow black Africans for Arab masters. ”
Peters is correct-the slave industry in Africa was driven, in large part, by Muslim slavers. Peters’ rhetorical point seems to be that Obama should not criticize America for what the Muslim slavers also did. On one hand, this is fair: the misdeeds of all should be pointed out and not hidden. On the other hand, if Peters is trying to imply that what we did was not really that bad because others did it too, then that is clearly a fallacy. That period of slavery was a terrible part of human history and there was clearly plenty of evil to go around.
Peters says, ” Yes, denying the Holocaust is ‘hateful.’ But let’s get a grip. Palestinians ‘endure . . . daily humiliations.’ Their lot’s “intolerable.” Israel “devastates Palestinian families.”
Obama was critical of Israel, but he was also critical of Arab states. Israel’s actions are devastating to Palestinian families. But, as Obama himself noted, Israel has a right to exist. This situation is complex and often brutal; but Obama gets credit for trying to do what American presidents have been trying to do for decades: trying to do what is right by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yes, he was harsher than most Presidents, but what he said seems to be true. He was also truthful when he spoke out about the wickedness of killing children with rocket attacks and blowing up buses. Let us face the truth: both sides do awful things to each other. To acknowledge this is only to say what is true.
In an amazing bit of hyperbole, Peters writes: “No wonder our president shunned wicked Israel during his trip – sending a clear, if unspoken, message that Jews are now fair game.”
I’m not sure what speech he listened to, but none of that seemed to be in the version I heard. Obama has been clear that Israel is a key US ally. People close to him have very strong ties to Israel. As such, it would be odd indeed for Obama to send such a message. In fact, he condemned attacks on Israel-that bit about the rockets was directed towards Hamas.
Speaking of Hamas, they are the “legitimate, recognized voice of the Palestians.” That is, they won the elections. By our own democratic standards, that makes them legitimate. They might use means we deplore, but we also use violence to achieve our goals. As such, if our government is legitimate despite our use of violence, we seem to be committed to accepting their legitimacy. Obama did, in fact, take them to task for their rocket attacks-which is quite correct. While the use of violence does not seem to destroy legitimacy (if it did, we’d have how many legitimate governments left in the world?), it is better to minimize that violence.
Iran’s Nuclear Power
Peters said, “Our president’s acceptance of “peaceful nuclear power” for Tehran was coded language for “no pre-emptive military action.””
It is interesting how folks on the right can see all these hidden meaninings in things. Peters does have a legitimate concern: if we allow Iran to develop peaceful nuclear power, we make it easier for them to develop nuclear weapons. However, a sovereign nation does seem to have the legal and moral right to develop a peaceful nuclear program. If we accept that we and our allies have such a right, then we have to extend that right to Iran. Of course, we can just set aside talk of rights and simply state that we do not want them to have such capabilities.
There is also the practical matter of a strike against Iran. We are bogged down in two wars already. Starting a third war, especially with China and Russia testing their muscle, would not seem to be a very good idea. Speaking of China and Russia, we have shown that we can live with nuclear armed enemies. While people do try to present Iran as a crazy state, they seem to be no crazier than China, Russia or even the United States. They do back proxies in struggles against us-a trick they might have learned from our battles with the Soviet Union.
Naturally, I would prefer that Iran not have the bomb. However, it might be something we will have to live with. As noted above, we already live with many nuclear armed enemies-even North Korea.
Peters says “Our president’s breakthrough message to the Muslim world was that America overthrew democratic regimes, slavery was our history’s central feature, and we invaded people on a whim – but we’re sorry now.”
Well, that all strikes me as true. There is no shame in admitting our failings; but there would be shame in denying them. As the virtue theorists like Aristotle and Confucius note, the virtuous admit their errors and correct them. The unwise seek to hide their misdeeds behind lies. Of course, it is also wise to make your good deeds evident.
Peters goes on to say, “Yet, the historical facts are that Islam’s remorseless assault on the West lasted for more than one thousand years, its cruel occupation of Christian lands lasted into the 20th century, and the dream of an all-conquering caliphate remains very much with us.”
Yes, Islamic people have done some awful things. So has the West. We could spend hours, days, and weeks listing out all the wrongs we have done each other over the centuries. While that is of great historical interest, focusing only on the wrongs of the past does little to help us now. We need to acknowledge the blood, but if we are to have a better future, we need to escape the tyranny of the past. Hate, blood and death make up much of our mutual past. But, it need not be what defines our future.
Peters final remark is that “Al Qaeda isn’t an aberration. It’s a manifestation.” While Al Qaeda did arise out of this context, I would say that it is no more a manifestation of Islam than the KKK is a manifestation of America (or Christianity). The majority of the average people in the Islamic world are just that-average people. Bringing death to America is not their driving goal. They want to have the same basic things we want: family, stability and a good life. We have seen how groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda strike at Muslims as well as the West. These groups are also enemies of main stream Islam and have shown this by their willingness to murder their fellow Muslims.
If we simply see Al Qaeda as a manifestation of Islam, then the tendency would seem to be to see all of Islam and all Muslims as enemies (or potential enemies). This failure to make distinctions is both a mark of ignorance and dangerous. We need to recognize our enemies, true, but we also need to recognize those who are not our enemy. All Muslims are not our enemies.
That Hamas was democratically elected gives them government legitimacy and shows the Palestinians lost their moral legitimacy.
Michael LaBossiere says
But, you have advocated the principle that in war one must use whatever means are needed to win-that is what matters. Hamas seems to share that view. They justify their actions by asserting that they need to use these tactics to win. On what moral grounds do you criticize them?
Although I’m no expert on Palestinian psychology, perhaps they turn to groups like Hamas because they believe that what they see as desperate times requires extreme measures. They no doubt see themselves locked in a war of survival against a seemingly implacable foe. As such, they no doubt think that certain things are acceptable that would seem morally wrong. That is to say, they seem to have been doing just what we did in the aftermath of 9/11.
The Israelis no doubt also feel the same way-surrounded by enemies who call for their destruction, subject to random attacks against civilians and so on. Everyone seems to be afraid and perhaps justly so. But, fear tends to breed violence-as we have seen.
For america, winning is what matters most. Because without us, the world is a much, much worse place.
I’ve never advocated needlessly killing. I’ve never advocated using children as hostages, sawing off their heads, putting bombs in toys and dead cattle. Beating women, or stoning them to death for kissing boys is bad too….
Sorry, Mike. You just can’t fight evil. You want to make friends with it, and hope it sees things your way. If something is truly evil, it’ll take what good you have and twist it against you. They use children as shields because they know we won’t knowingly attack in that situation. Since when have I said that those children should be sacrificed so we win?
Do you want America to lose against the global Jihad? Are you ready for what that means?
You’re still arguing from the position of comfort. If someone broke into your house right now and tried to kill you, instinct would rule. Moral matrixes would be forgotten as your reptile-brain took over and did what it had to do to keep you alive. Then you’d go back to analyzing the morality of what you’d done. And it’s most likely that you’d make your morality fit your situation; that you had to defend yourself. Maybe you shot the guy, but one of your bullets passed through a wall and killed an innocent. You didn’t want to kill an innocent, but in the act of killing an aggressor–you did. But the aggressor was the First Cause. Without his actions, he and the innocent would be alive.
Alas– an imperfect world in which trying to be perfectly good makes it easier for true evil and suffering to reign.
Michael LaBossiere says
It is not winning that matters most. After all, by your own principle we are justified in our actions because we make the world better (or less worse). If we “win” and in doing so create a worse world, then we would no longer be justified by your own standards. So, we do have to accept some limits and something more than just winning. We have to define a win in a way that also includes making the world better. That means accepting limits and so on.
I have no interest in being friends with evil. I do have an interest in converting evil people. It is better to win someone over to your side than to simply kill them. If someone persists in being evil and presents a clear and present danger, then killing him might be the only viable option. I have never argued otherwise.
I’ve never said anything that indicates that I want any of the various terrorist groups to succeed. My position has always been that terrorist tactics are evil and that these various groups have immoral goals. The world would be a far better place without them.
Sure, if someone tried to kill me, I’d try to kill him right back. Since I know my neighbors are home right now, I’d do my best to avoid firing towards them-even putting myself at risk to do so. I would not need to make my morality fit the situation-I already accept that self defense is morally acceptable.
While the person breaking in would be a cause, his misdeed does not give me a blanket justification to do anything. I am still obligated to stay within moral limits. For example, it would be wrong for me to grab a high powered rifle and start blazing away at him without a clear and certain shot-I could easily kill one or more of my neighbors. Now, if I killed an innocent by accident in a way that relieved me of responsibility, then I would not be in the wrong. For example, suppose I moved so I could fire at the attacker with a missed shot going out into the woods behind my house (rather than into my neighbors’ houses) and I took the time to aim rather than just blazing away. If I missed a shot and hit someone who happened to be wandering off the trail and into the woods right behind my house, then I would feel very bad about that. However, I would have done nothing wrong-I took reasonable precautions to avoid hurting innocents.
Well, while I would like to be perfectly good, I know that I cannot. Trying to be perfectly good does not make it easier for evil-it makes is even harder. After all, evil thrives best when good men do nothing.
And why wouldn’t Obama mention terrorism? isn’t that the primary schism between the West and Muslim countries?
Michael LaBossiere says
Well, he did mention and condemn the rocket attacks on Israel and so on. To say that he did not mention terrorism is somewhat disingenuous.
I agree, without the terrorism everyone would be much happier. Just try to imagine taking that out and what is left? Oh yeah, peace.
Michael LaBossiere says
Well, some peace. We also have to deal with war and crime.
I was talking about Palestinians and Israelis.
“Our president’s breakthrough message to the Muslim world was that America overthrew democratic regimes, slavery was our history’s central feature, and we invaded people on a whim – but we’re sorry now.”
Should that REALLY be the driving message sent by our president. Do these things define our country? Even if the statements are true, do they define us, as a country?
Michael LaBossiere says
They do help define us a country. It is part of what we were and hence shapes what we are now. These facts are, of course, just a small part of the story. We paid dearly for the sin of slavery, but in doing so formed a better nation. Hopefully we have also learned some wisdom in our dealings with other nations.
One ironic reason that criticisms of the United States often seem some harsh is that the world seems to expect better from us. So, we do wrong it seems somehow worse.
Nothing will satisfy the Left. They always look for the bad, especially of they think it comes form white men of a Judeo-Christian ethic.
You also too often focus on what we do wrong. To me it’s like being critical of lance armstrong after every Tour victory. Your time would be better spent analyzing why everyone else lost.
Michael LaBossiere says
You are making a straw man of the whole left. Yes, there are some lefties who belong to the hate white Christians club, but that is a tiny minority. They do get a lot of focus because they make a convenient demon for the right. Just as the extreme folks on the right get to be demons for the lefties. For example, some extreme lefties cast the guy who shot the doctor to be a representative of the entire pro-life movement. The reality is that most pro-life people regard gunning a man down in church to be a horrific thing.
T. J. Babson says
Al Qaeda and Islamist movements in general say they represent “true Islam,” and, in fact, they have Islamic theology on their side. This is the source of their power. Islamic theology is truly frightening. It is good that most muslims (as most catholics, for that matter) fall short of the ideal, but you as a philosopher must recognize the power of ideas.
Mike, do you feel that religious ideas should be subject to criticism, or should religious ideas be given special protection and be immune from criticism?
Michael LaBossiere says
True-these groups claim to represent true Islam. Of course, all such groups make such claims. In the US, the KKK claimed (and still claims) to represent true America. The question is, of course, is whether such groups really do represent the true whatever. Of course, another key question is what is it to be the true whatever? Who defines true Islam? Who defines true American values? Tough questions.
Religious ideas should be subject to the same criticism as other ideas. While some people take the view that tolerance requires us to not be critical of others, that is a mistake. Oddly enough, one way to show real respect for a view is to consider it worthy of being assessed in a critical manner. After all, to assess a view is to say, in effect, that it might be true and hence should be given due consideration. To say that religious views are not to be criticized would be, it seems, to imply that they are too weak and fragile to stand up to assessment and hence must be kept safely in a playpen away from real ideas. That would, I think, be rather insulting.
What I think is not a mistake is to approach religious views with respect-that is, to approach them seriously and assess them fairly. It is easy to just straw man or mock other views, but that is both a moral and intellectual failure.
There is also, as I tell my students, the matter of being polite and kind. When I was a know-it-all kid, I’d tear into beliefs thinking I was being an intellectual. In actuality, I was being an ass. Since people often regard their religious beliefs as very important, we should take that into account when deciding what to talk about with them. This is not to say that the content of their beliefs are not subject to assessment. But, it is to say that it is not nice to be needless ass just to score some debating points. So, for example, if I am invited to a friend’s church, I do not provoke theological and philosophical battles with the people I meet. I am a guest and it would be rude of me to start a fight. But, if someone decides to start up with me, then that is another story. After all, politeness goes both ways.
T. J. Babson says
Putting truth above PC-speak…
Obama Flunks History at Cairo U
Posted By Frank J. Tipler On June 7, 2009 @ 2:07 am In . Column1 07, . Positioning | 173 Comments
In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, President Barack Obama  claimed: “As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing.”
Obama is not much of a “student of history” if he believes this. Almost every advance he attributes to the Muslims was due to someone else.
The non-Muslim Chinese invented the magnetic compass and printing (Gutenberg invented not printing, but movable type). The non-Muslim Hindu Indians invented algebra and the decimal numbering system. The non-Muslim European Christians invented the university.
I can’t address advances in medicine, but I have studied the history of astronomy and physics. The Muslims contributed nothing.
All modern physics descends from Galileo (1564 -1642); all modern astronomy from Copernicus (1473-1543). If you study Galileo’s works carefully, as I have, you see that he started with the achievements of the Greek mathematical physicist Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC). If you study Copernicus’ works carefully, as I have, you will see that Copernicus’ great book On the Revolutions is essentially a heliocentric re-working of the geocentric astronomy textbook by the Greek Ptolemy (c. 90 AD – 168 AD). Copernicus mostly used even Ptolemy’s data for the positions of the planets.
Note the dates for Archimedes/Galileo and Ptolemy/Copernicus. It is as if the Muslim world never existed. As far as their fundamental contributions to physics and astronomy, it did not.
If one reads history of science textbooks prior to about 1980, one will find very little mention of Muslim “contributions” to physics and astronomy. This is reasonable, because there weren’t any. In the past generation, however, political correctness has dictated that Muslims be given credit for discoveries they did not make.
Certainly, the Muslims were a conduit for the discoveries of others. The word “algebra” is indeed derived from an Arabic word. The books of Archimedes and Ptolemy used by Galileo and Copernicus were indeed translations into Latin from the Arabic. But let us never forget that Archimedes and Ptolemy wrote their books in Greek, not Arabic. They were Greeks, not Muslims.
Most of the names for the brightest stars are of Arabic origin, because the names of these stars given in Ptolemy’s textbook were never translated from the Arabic. But do you think that the Arabs were the first humans to observe Rigel and Betelguese, the first and second brightest stars in Orion?
The reason Muslims never developed fundamental physics is because the leading Muslim theologians declared the idea of fixed physical laws to be heretical. The Qur’an (verse 6:64) states: “The Jews have said, ‘God’s hand is fettered.’ Fettered are their hands, and they are cursed for what they have said. Nay, but His hands are outspread; He expends how He will.” The standard Muslim interpretation of this passage has been that there cannot be unchanging physical laws because Allah may change the laws at any moment. In 1982, the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad, Pakistan, criticized a chemistry textbook by saying: “There is latent poison present in the subheading Energy Causes Changes because it gives the impression that energy is the true cause rather than Allah. Similarly it is unIslamic to teach that mixing hydrogen and oxygen automatically produces water. The Islamic way is this: when atoms of hydrogen approach atoms of oxygen, then by the Will of Allah water is produced.” The implication is clear: next week, Allah may change his mind about water being a compound of hydrogen and oxygen. With this sort of worldview, how could one possibly be a scientist?
The cosmology of the Qur’an is obviously geocentric, and as a consequence, Al-Azhar University, which Obama singles out for praise in his speech, still teaches Ptolemaic astronomy.
There was one truly great “Muslim” physicist, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistani, Mohammed Abdus Salam. I put “Muslim” in quotes, because Salam belonged to the Ahmadi sect of Islam, a sect that accepts modern science. But in 1974, the Pakistani parliament declared the Ahmadi sect heretical, and its members are currently being persecuted in Pakistan. Contemporary Muslim historians generally do not list Salam as an important Muslim scientist. Had he remained in Pakistan, he quite possibly would have been killed.
During the Cold War, it was commonplace for leftist academics to attribute many discoveries to scientists in Communist countries, discoveries that had actually been made in the West. So now leftist academics attribute to Muslims discoveries that had actually been made by others.
I never expected to hear a president of the United States do so.
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True Mike but all of those groups put together do not represent the threat to society that fundamental Islam does. The sheer numbers are tremendous and we wouldn’t even be have this discussion if it wasn’t.
No Jaime, it’s all America’s fault. Go to college and find out…