The attempted assassination of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Arizona on January 8 (six people were killed in the attack and 14, including Giffords, injured) inevitably provoked a storm in the country. The main focus of the debate has of the debate has been the role of right-wing politicians and commentators, particularly the Republican former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
The attempted assassination of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson Arizona on January 8 (six people were killed in the attack and 14, including Giffords, injured) inevitably provoked a storm in the country. The main focus of the debate has been the role of right-wing politicians and commentators, particularly the Republican former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in creating the polarized political atmosphere which has been blamed for the attack. Other issues raised include gun control and the security arrangements of domestic politicians. Beyond such debates, however, the shooting also provided an opportunity for the sort of ostentatious national soul-searching and moral grandstanding that have become characteristic of the domestic politics of a country whose self-serving global aggression has long been based on a carefully cultivated self-image of moral superiority and consequent entitlement.
Personifying such posturing is a key element of the American sense of what it means for a president to appear “presidential”. For Barrack Obama, this was an opportunity not to be missed. Speaking in Tucson on January 12, he put on a performance described as being characteristically inspiring and appropriately transcendental in its appeal to Americans of all shades of opinion. Already widely dismissed as a one-term president by most Americans — including his dwindling support base — he turned back to his strengths, the vehicles that had carried him to the White House barely two years ago: powerful rhetoric and carefully chosen clichés. All the staples were there, from appeals to unity that few actually believe in — “Together we thrive…” — to self-serving protestations of the supposed fundamental qualities of America: “For all our imperfection, we are full of decency and goodness.” Meaningless words all, which must grate those with a better sense of the true nature of America’s role in the world.
For many Muslims, the inevitable sense of shock at such a tragedy was accompanied as usual by an awareness of how different the response might have been if there had been any Muslim involvement; what if, most obviously, the gunman had been a Muslim? Or for that matter, instead of Sarah Palin and the right-wing shockjocks, the source of the supposed incitement, or at least the opinions that inspired the perpetrator, had been some Muslim preacher or commentator? Anwar Awlaki, for one, is now subject to an American extrajudicial kill order. Sarah Palin, for all her indignant protestations of innocence, should count herself lucky.
But beyond such easy parallels, there are other lessons to be learnt from the Tucson shooting and the broader state of American politics. Obama himself alluded to the problem in his speech, when he spoke of the instinct to “demand explanations, to try to impose some order on the chaos”. That is precisely the issue; the moral and ideological chaos that characterizes American politics, indeed, American society, creates the psychological vacuum and desire for meaning and understanding that demand the temporary and short-term satisfaction provided by the empty words of skilled orators and their mercenary speechwriters. The fact is that behind the fine words and ideals of “freedom” and “democracy”, America has become a society characterized by hedonism, consumerism and the sort of collective fears and insecurities that make people desperate to find meaningful answers, however irrational, to justify their selfishness in a dog-eat-dog society. The simple human goodness and fundamental decency of many individual Americans — which extends to many families and community groups, and echoes the qualities of people everywhere — does not negate this judgement on American society as a whole; indeed, it is perhaps evidence of the depth of the problem that these basic human virtues are claimed as somehow uniquely American.
There is, in fact, a causal link between these proclaimed ideals of freedom and democracy, and the harsh realities of American society. The moral chaos seen in so many facets of American life is a direct consequence of the lack of order and discipline that results from the cult of freedom detached from moral principles and social regulation. The ideal is supposed to be that if people are left to police themselves, their fundamental decency will ensure the decency of society as a whole. Others are a little more pragmatic: their argument — a version perhaps of the idea of the “wisdom of crowds” — goes that if everyone pursues their own best interests, the net result is what is best for society as a whole.
Unfortunately America provides us with a graphic example of what really happens when morality and regulation are removed from society: the untrammeled exploitation of the weak by the strong, in the form of the capitalist corporate elites interested only in their own profits — a situation made possible by their monopolization of the instruments of political power in the form of the state, and their manipulation of the tools of social and cultural control, notably the media.
So powerful are the effects of this unholy alliance that we have recently seen, in the popular American protests against Obama’s effort’s to reform healthcare, the remarkable sight of ordinary Americans taking to the streets to protect the rights of the corporate sector to exploit them.
Muslims often protest against America’s support for despotic governments in the Muslim world whose main purpose is to promote US interests regardless of the needs and interests of ordinary people in those countries. The reality is that the average American suffers in exactly the same way; they also live in a country whose government thinks only of the interests of a small elite, while happy to leave ordinary people floundering in social chaos. The only difference is that most
American people are so brainwashed with the ideals of freedom and democracy that they cannot help but support the system that oppresses them, despite their practical experience of the realities of American politics and widespread cynicism about state institutions and politicians. In reality, even the temporary highs of patriotic fervour and self-congratulation provided by the reaction to incidents such as the Tucson shooting only lasts a short while before the society settles back into its normal state of self-centered, apolitical torpor.
The dog-eat-dog individualism of American society is not presented as such, of course. Instead it is dressed up as a meritocracy in which any American can achieve his or her dreams if they truly earn and deserve it, despite the ample sociological evidence that in reality the strong and rich get stronger and richer while the poor and weak get poorer and weaker. This deception succeeds because it is in the nature of an individualistic society that people care only about themselves, rather than about others like them. They do not care if only the fortunate few can genuinely better themselves, as long as they believe that they might be one of those fortunate few. And collective action for the common good obviously does not appeal if the net result is to increase competition for those few genuine opportunities. Hence the paradox that even poor people do not want to improve the healthcare provided to poor people in case it benefits others apart from themselves; particularly those even poorer people who are the only ones behind them in the rat race. Episodes such as the Tucson shooting should help Muslims to see past the seductive facades of freedom, democracy and material progress that America presents to the world, and recognize the social disintegration and chaos that are the real characteristics of American society.
For Muslims, on the other hand, social and collective morality, discipline and order are central to our faith of Islam and the path of the Sharī‘ah. Sooner or later, even the most westoxicated of Muslims must recognize that these offer a better way forward than the self-serving cults of freedom, individualism and democracy. The challenge for us all is to realize these elements of Islam in our own societies so we can genuinely provide an alternative to the poor and exploited of the rest of the world, not least those suffering from the effects of the myths of modern Western society in the heart of the West itself.
Iqbal Siddiqui is a former editor of Crescent International (1998–2008). He now publishes a personal blog, ‘A Sceptical Islamist’: http://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.