By Michael Storper, Director of Global Public Affairs and Professor of Urban Planning
The terrible murders of journalists and Jewish shoppers in organized commando attacks in one of my hometowns, Paris, opened up an old debate: who is responsible? Not in the simple sense of who committed these acts; that is clear. But a loud chorus of voices around the world has held that the journalists themselves were responsible, because they blasphemed the Prophet Mahomet, while at the same time France outlaws anti-Semitic statements, thus arguing that the West protects itself from blasphemy about itself but not about others. It was noted in the French press that in certain public schools with heavy immigrant populations, students tended to side with the authors of the attacks. Still others observed that the authors of these attacks, French citizens who had been alienated from mainstream French society and attracted by the promised glories of jihad, were the first generation to grow up on images of American soldiers’ boots on the heads and genitals of Iraqi prisoners, flashed around the world in the Abu Graib prison scandal. Zaid-al-Ali, in The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: how Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy (Yale University Press, 2014) argues that the Americans in Iraq indulged a select group of exiles based not on their competence or popularity in Iraq, but those “most willing to engage in moral compromise with unrepentant and ideologically driven US officials,” or those who happened to have the backing of other foreign powers, including Iran. The process of parceling out responsibilities on the basis of ethnic quotas, with little attention to honesty and competence, led to the disastrous breakdown of Iraqi state authority and the rise of the Islamic State.
We know the familiar refrain that this current wave of violence from 9-11 to Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan today is essentially a result of a crisis within the Sunni Arab and Pakistani worlds. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Max Rodenbeck (9/25/14) reviews the Islamic State’s gruesome snuff film, The Clanking of the Swords IV, and sees their extreme cruelty as an extension of ancient Assyrian traditions of cruelty to and extermination of enemies. In the West, it is commonly said that the particular crisis of these societies has been been papered over and marketed as global jihad; turning the tables on things, they say that secular law and secular, multi-confessional modern liberal States represent decadent Western powers attempting to dominate these regions and their peoples. They say that the West just rolls over everyone else, using its “liberal democratic , human rights” mantra as a cover for its power plays and favoritism toward its own or its puppets. And in a more moderate way, Chinese leaders regularly call attention to the failures of Western democracies to live up to their own promises about human rights (think Ferguson or the American justice system) and even democracy (think decision-making and crony capitalism driven by lobbying money). Vladimir Putin frames his adventures with the same type of anti-Western discourse, mobilizing historical and nationalist humiliations and resentments.
The blame game is very complicated, and neither the West nor the developed countries have any monopoly on it. My purpose here is not to absolve anyone for the wrongs they have committed, but rather to observe that we live in a world where blaming and shaming are not a one-way top-down game that is dominated by the rich and powerful of the West. The age of instant communications and the Internet have globalized the blame game and the contest for hearts and minds. The less powerful can now access information and use it and create it in ways that were not true even a couple of decades ago. They are more sophisticated in generating their negative narratives of blame and their positive assertions of justice and virtue. They are better at competing for market share in the global marketplace of ideas.
This means that it is more important than ever to get back to the project of winning global hearts and minds. Since I am a liberal, democratic Westerner, for me this means thinking about why so much of the world doesn’t like us anymore. I was raised on a diet of Western “soft power,” and the narrative that so much of the world wanted to be like us or come here, because we were so rich, free, and dynamic. But for billions of people around the world, and not just jihadi radicals, this narrative is no longer convincing.
This is a two-fold problem for global order and global peace. On one hand, narratives that are wrong and purely hateful, under certain circumstances, can be used in an entrepreneurial way to mobilize and channel resentments from injustice into immoral action. To take the case of the murder of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, we have done a poor job of explaining (both to ourselves and to the rest of the world) the difference between the freedom to mock and parody, and the call to kill or hate others who are different from you. Mocking Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Mahomet is not, in our view of things, the same thing as a call to hate or commit violence against any people. Producing scholarship on the origins of the Christian Bible is not blasphemy.
This difference is not a natural one to grasp in all parts of the world. In the West, a diversity of opinions can co-exist with a diversity of religions, because neither of them is backed up by a monopoly on State power, which is a liberal defender of the space for such diversity. When State power is linked to a monopolistic non-liberal regime, such as religious law, then parody becomes blasphemy, and the State can legitimate hate and discrimination. There are more people to gain from a Western-style separation of the religion and other private values from State power, than to lose (e.g. Saudi Arabia), but right now they don’t see it that way. We have failed in our soft power mission, and we need to get back to it.
On the other hand, narratives of the less powerful tap into our own failings and contradictions. This is why clubbing others over the head with our narrative about our own superiority is likely to be met by their mockery, and the repetition of images of Ferguson, the tyrannical abuse of prisoners at Rikers’ Island, the ghettos of New York or Paris, Abu Graib, Guantanamo, and our tragic histories of slavery and genocide of Native Americans. We don’t control these narratives anymore. So we need to clean up our act, domestically and abroad, and be able to show the world that we do not preach hypocrisy. This is not just about upping our propaganda game, but becoming more consistent in practice with the values that we preach. Our societies need to become more just, less cruel, and less corrupt. To change the narrative then, we need to do some real work the reality that the narrative refers to. At the current time, fifteen times more people have gone into American movie theaters to see American Sniper which, for all its claims to subtlety, basically glorifies American military prowess in Iraq, against any sensible reading of that failure; than Selma, which reminds us of the violent recent racist regime right in our own South. This is not lost on people around the world.
However terrible the acts that are being committed around the world right now by violent extremists, we live in a world where the contest for hearts and minds is a more global and more sophisticated one than ever before. Every process and every image and every narrative counts. Losing control of the narrative is a great danger to global order and global justice.