The last of the Korean captives have been released by the Taliban. They had their five minutes of fame and soon will surface only in an occasional Google search. I think the story deserves more attention, not for itself but as a metaphor for the situation in which we find ourselves. That the Taliban can still make news six years (this October) after we upended their rule is in itself some kind of metaphor, but that’s only of secondary, albeit disturbing, importance. It bespeaks the limits of military power. Much more important is that it demonstrates our continuing failure to win hearts and minds, and perhaps if that is even an appropriate goal.
The twenty-three Koreans taken some weeks ago were not part of their country’s military contingent in Afghanistan (though reaffirmation of its promised departure played some role in their release), nor are they contractors or the usual NGO do-gooders. They are Christian missionaries who came looking for converts to Christ. What irked the Islamist Taliban was not that these Christians believe in proselytization (in which they themselves engage), but that they were attempting to bring their infidel religion into a Moslem country. While one can hold absolutely no brief for these brutal fundamentalists who excuse their ongoing atrocities, as carrying out Allah’s will, there is a larger and more generalized message here of which we would do well to take note.
Osama bin Laden’s cause gained traction among Islamists and the rapt attention of the larger Muslim street when he opposed our permanent base in Saudi Arabia following the first Gulf War. Whether opportunistically or not (his primary target may still be the House of Saud), he saw this as a violation of sacred ground, the land on which Mecca and Medina sit. That hundreds of Western oil service executives and workers (his family’s clients) have occupied that same ground for many decades seems not to have bothered him, but let’s not quibble about consistency. The real point here, and the metaphor, is found in a reaction to the West’s age old (long pre-dating George W. Bush) preoccupation with and policy of trying to impose itself and its ways on other cultures, whether in the Near East, Asia or Africa. The British Empire was built on the notion of bringing civilization, and not inconsequentially Christ, to the unwashed masses. The Korean missionaries themselves are a product of that kind of ideological “outreach”. Seen in that context, what we are witnessing (and suffering through) today, is simply part of a continuum of cultural and political pushback. The specifics of these conflicts notwithstanding, what’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t that different from when the residents of the Indian subcontinent drove out the English in 1947.
So, the occupation of these countries is nothing new and the arrogance that accompanies it hardly unique. Empires want to own or control everything and feel that imposing their language, culture, and religion will bring about some kind of symmetrical harmony and “rightness” to the world. If only all those people would talk, think and worship like us, everything would be just dandy. It isn’t a new idea and often has been expressed more as a utopian, even if naïve, wish than necessarily any attempt at actual subjugation. Every Jewish worship service includes a prayer hoping for the day when “all people will recognize one God called by a single name”. But in geopolitical (and perhaps equally religious) terms, it represents flawed thinking at best and perhaps mostly a narrow-minded “mine is the only truth” kind of conceit.
What the Taliban, by their actions, “told” the Koreans (and all of us) is “don’t bring us your ways and beliefs, we don’t want them”. Again, this is not to defend a group whose specific ways happen to be monstrous, perhaps mostly so to their fellow Moslems. You may even think using the Taliban who, unlike the Iraqi’s, assumably did have a hand in 9/11 as an example inappropriate. Perhaps so, but the most powerful examples can often be seen precisely in those places where we may find ourselves for justifiable reasons and yet are essentially executing against the wrong long term historic model. We can read the abduction of Korean missionaries as just another example of Taliban brutality (which is also the case) or we can try the learn something from it (which of course we probably will not). The Taliban and their fellow Islamists see nothing but Allah and their way; in that (if we are honest) they are exactly like us. We’re so sure of our enlightened self evident rightness that that don’t even send in (many, if any) Arabic speakers when we invade their space with the expectation of instant conversion.
Success for us is defined by whether the formerly “misinformed” will readily adopt our idea of democracy. Taking on our precious “institutions” and mode of life is only icing on the cake. In that context, The Kabul City Center, a Western style three-story retail mall says it all most especially when it is held out as a measure of our great success. Without begrudging affluent Afghanis (not to mention the many Westerners still in occupation) their shopping experience, one has to wonder how that constitutes progress when so many Afghans continue to languish in poverty and hunger? Of course, that is very much our way. Perhaps it’s not the same kind of metaphor as the capture of Korean missionaries, but it sure says something about homogenizing the world in our image. Welcome to another market. And if traditional Islamism returns to Kabul, what building do you think will be the first to come down?
What is most enlightening here, and probably most unnerving, is that people like the Taliban can be so terribly wrong and so terribly right at the same time. We may never again engage peacefully with the former Afghan rulers (though history suggests the contrary), but in our disdain for them, we should not ignore the message implicit in their struggle to return. Much of the havoc that engulfs us today is of our own making. This doesn’t excuse suicide bombers and the like, but perhaps it’s time to take a longer view. Obsessing about staying or not staying the course in Iraq is reminiscent of Nero playing when Rome burns. We should be thinking about changing the larger course and trying, to paraphrase that great sage Donald Rumsfeld, dealing with the world we have not the world we mistakenly and arrogantly may want.