March 30, 2010 3:01PM

Bret Stephens’ Sophistry

Does Bret Stephens really want us to believe that our support for Israeli expansionism has nothing to do with Muslims' perception of the United States?

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The Roots of Muslim Rage?[/caption]

According to his column in today's Wall Street Journal, he does. The basic gist is as follows:

  1. Sayyid Qutb was a crucial theorist of Islamic resistance more than half a century ago;
  2. Qutb was revolted at what he saw (then!) as sexual licentiousness and general cultural looseness among Americans;
  3. Therefore, sexy American women including "Lady Gaga--or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe [and] Josephine Baker" have more to do with our terrorism problem than does our unswerving support for Israeli expansionism.

You can take this sort of argument in lots of different directions. Try this one: Teddy Roosevelt, perhaps the first neoconservative, was a big racist. Lots of his support for American imperialism derived from the fact that he was a big racist. Therefore, the reason American neoconservatives like Bret Stephens support American imperialism is because they are big racists.

To be sure, there probably are neoconservatives who want to beat up on the Arabs because of racism. But it's not fair to tar Stephens with that brush simply because he hews to an ideology that was influenced in crucial ways by big racists like TR.

Getting back to the substance of the piece, Stephens takes his argument all the way, writing that "to imagine that [Israeli] settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which there lies a universe of hatred."  This armchair psychiatry formulation helpfully gets Stephens far away from the realm of falsifiability.

Dangerously, though, Stephens veers back toward falsifiability by writing that "the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West" is that we're too sexed-up.  This is, of course, not accurate.  Bin Laden's 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled "Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts."  Instead, it was called "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places."  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.

There's a lot you can do with this information, up to and including supposing that bin Laden would not be satisfied even if these three conditions were somehow removed.  You can also read the actual fatwas and conclude that the Israel stuff was far from the centerpiece of the argument and seemed sort of tacked on at the end for good measure.  I actually think both these arguments are good ones.  But actually thinking about what's in those texts should cause you to ask why, of all the grievances he could have lodged, including our reverence for Josephine Baker, did he pick those three issues? The answer that presents itself is that he is not an idiot and he thinks the three points he made will be most effective in recruiting people to the cause.

Once again, there's a lot you can do with this, up to and including saying you don't care what effect our policies may have on al Qaeda recruiting, continuing them is worth a lot to us so we're going to do so.  And that's fine.  But Stephens' cute argumentation and burial of basic facts about these yahoos isn't doing a service to the debate over what to do about them.

Similarly, Stephens could have looked for actual research on the topic.  For example, public opinion scholars Andrew Kohut and Richard Wike drew on six years of survey data in the Islamic world and concluded in 2008 that while “America’s image in much of the Muslim world remains abysmal,” “most of the story is opposition to American foreign policy rather than value divides or religious-based enmity.” Or look at the U.S. Defense Department's reporting on the issue: "American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies." [.pdf]  Basically everybody who's studied this question in any detail agrees with this general argument.

Stephens has a great pulpit on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page.  He should have more respect for his readers and more deference to the truth.

Update: Andrew Exum has more.