Wednesday, March 2, 2011

OK, David Horowitz, I'll Bite: The Religious Left and Libya

Mainstreaming Misinformation

A piece from David Horowitz's odious FrontPage Magazine is making the rounds in the conservative blogosphere this week in which Mark Tooley accuses the Religious Left of ignoring the plight of the millions of Libyans caught up in the revolution against despotic leader Muammar Qaddafi, which has already left an estimated 1,000 dead. While Tooley's article basically functions as a timely vehicle for rehashing tired stereotypes about religious progressives (our support of communism and our anti-Israeli, anti-American views, for example), it does raise some interesting questions about the ability of the Religious Left, such as it is, to respond to urgent international crises.

Before addressing Tooley's claims and some of the questions they raise, I want to be very clear about the individuals and organizations with whom we are treating. Tooley's article was published on FrontPage Magazine, the mouthpiece for the David Horowtiz Freedom Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Popular Culture), which a 2003 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled as one of 17 "right-wing foundations and think tanks support[ing] efforts to make bigoted and discredited ideas respectable." The SPLC report accused Horowtiz's organization of using "prejudice, fear, disdain, misinformation, trivialization, patronizing stereotypes, demonization and...scare-mongering conspiracy theories" in its efforts to "spread bigoted ideas into American life." Horowitz himself has been repeatedly denounced for promoting racist, sexist, and xenophobic views, particularly toward African-Americans and people of Arab descent.

Mark D. Tooley, the article's author, heads up an organization called The Institute on Religion & Democracy, a think-tank of neoconservative ideologues that has spent thousands of dollars over the last couple of decades in a vain attempt to link the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches to global left-wing political conspiracies. The IRD is unabashed about its reactionary political goals, labeling feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism as "left-wing crusades," and prompting activist and author John Swomley to label the IRD as "the chief defender of American imperialism and military power around the world."

So, to be clear, we are dealing with some very thoughtful, well-informed people here.

It's Tooley Time

Tooley's argument about the "silence" of the Religious Left regarding human rights abuses in Libya relies on a seldom-used rhetorical strategy - known by some classical rhetoricians as 'blatant self-contradiction' - in that his article is actually comprised in no small part of statements from progressive denominations about human rights abuses in Libya. The problem, it seems, is not so much that the Religious Left has ignored the human rights situation in Libya and the Middle East (although Tooley repeatedly contradicts his own evidence by suggesting as much throughout the article), but that it has not managed to strike what Tooley considers to be the proper tone on events in the region: namely, one that refrains from any condemnation whatsoever of the decades of US imperialism and political brinkmanship that have left the Middle East a hot, volatile mess.

As already indicated, Tooley and his IRD have a real axe to grind with the NCC and WCC, and much of the body of the article is given over to criticizing past statements from both organizations which Tooley feels did not condemn Libyan aggression strongly enough, or which unjustly (to his mind) criticized the United States for military action against Libya. For good measure, Tooley also targets past statements from leaders of the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Episcopal Church which he considers overly critical of US militarism and its potential effects in the region. All of the statements Tooley criticizes directly mention Libya and the human rights concerns there, so how Tooley then reaches the conclusion that "the Religious Left has faithfully remained silent across 40 years" of autocratic rule by Qaddafi is really anyone's guess.

Let's be blunt: Tooley's charge of progressive indifference to human rights violations in the Middle East (except, of course, when they can be blamed on the US or Israel) is laughable. Speaking just on behalf of my own tradition, Quakers have had a permanent presence working for human rights and justice in the Middle East since the American Friends Service Committee was asked by the UN to coordinate relief efforts for Palestinian Arab refugees in 1949, and we are certainly not alone.

Tooley and the IRD claim to promote democracy and human rights, but jump to condemn the support and expression of legitimate aspirations toward these goals that in any way reflect negatively on the long-standing military and economic hegemony of the United States and its attempts to impose this hegemony in the region. To this end, it is interesting to note Tooley's revisionism in lumping the revolution against Qaddafi in with the democratic uprising in Egypt, an uprising arguably necessitated by decades of direct US financial and military support for Hosni Mubarak.

As we discussed some weeks ago during the uprising in Egypt, Mubarak was one of a number of autocratic figures propped up by US support under the erroneous neoconservative logic that the only two alternatives for governance in the region were despots, who would forgo direct violence against Israel in exchange for massive economic or military support and a blind eye turned toward their own internal human rights records, or theocratic states like Iran. As the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and now in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain are demonstrating, this was an absolutely false dichotomy, and Tooley and other apologists for US imperialism are working quickly to try and sweep our shameful contributions to the maintenance of such regimes under the rug.

Important Questions

In the final estimation, Tooley's article itself adds nothing new or particularly interesting to the discussion about the Religious Left and its relationship with US foreign policy. But as much as I hate to admit it, Tooley's article did get me thinking about the ability of the Religious Left as an organizational presence to respond in any sort of unified way to crises like the one currently gripping Libya. Such a capacity for response is obviously hindered by the lack of centralized institutional organization among religious progressives, for as much as Tooley and his ilk would love to portray the WCC and the NCC as covens of secret and not-so-secret liberal sympathies, both organizations remain fairly centrist in their orientation. But is Tooley perhaps giving progressives some pointers in terms of our organizational capacity?

In lieu of an overarching organizational body among progressive religionists, the work of responding to such urgent crises often falls to religiously-affiliated nonprofits and NGOS, which may be associated with particular denominations (like the AFSC) or which may have an explicit interdenominational/inter-religious affiliation. Despite the admirable capacity of such organizations to respond to international crises, in the absence of a centralized, coordinating authority the Religious Left's overall response to such events is rendered in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. This observation is not meant so much as a value judgment as a frank reflection on the ability of religious progressives to respond to crises like those in Libya with anything approximating a unified front.

In fact, this diversity of responses might actually be a positive attribute of the Religious Left, as it allows for greater specialization in terms of differing religious and denominational presences and capacities across different regions, and in response to different situations. Given the nature of some international crises, like the situation in Libya for example, an attempt to reach consensus on appropriate methods of support would likely bog down almost immediately over questions, like that of the use of force among anti-Qaddafi protesters, for which the internal diversity of the Religious Left cannot provide a singular response.

The continuing pro-democracy movements in the Middle East carry with them reasons for hope and concern that will necessarily look and feel different among progressive Muslims, Jews, Christians, and progressives of other non-Abrahamic faiths that make up our loose coalition. But in this difference lies the potential for real strength.

As we have said time and again, the incredible internal diversity of the Religious Left can be either our greatest strength or our greatest weakness, with the answer left up to us. Despite the efforts of the Tooleys and Horowitzs of the world to portray the Religious Left as some sort of shadowy, monolithic organization, the Religious Left that spans religious traditions exists only because of the cultivation of progressive values within specific religious traditions. It is only by engaging authentically with the moral, spiritual, and organizational resources of our own traditions that the commonalities we find between traditions - such as our shared concern for peace, for justice, and for the respect of basic human rights and dignities - assume their true power.

To accuse the Religious Left of being indifferent to the suffering in Libya and across the Middle East is ludicrous. That the manner of our expression of compassion for those who suffer displeases Mark Tooley and those groups and individuals like him who cling to a misguided notion of American infallibility as a means of justifying the moral bankruptcy of their own views, well, that seems much more plausible. Thanks for getting me thinking, Mr. Tooley, but you and Mr. Horowitz could really use some new material.

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