I am not sure why it seems surprising that Senator Barack Obama’s church has embraced Palestinian rejectionists. First the church newsletter reprinted an editorial by Hamas’s deputy political bureau chief, and then there was the “Open Letter to Oprah from Ali Baghdadi on her visit to Palestine,” where Baghdadi recommends the talk show hostess make a visit to the birthplace of Mary’s “beautiful Palestinian baby” (aka, Jesus), and describes an “ethnic bomb” Israel was developing in tandem with South Africa that would kill only “blacks and Arabs.”
The essential contours of the Islamist worldview are hardly alien to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s flock. There’s the knee-jerk anti-Americanism (the Islamists’s “Death to America” and Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America”), and Wright’s use of the Arab world’s chestnut that America brought 9/11 on itself with its support of Israel. And the historical revisionism holding that the Jewish child of Jewish parents (and a Jewish God) is actually a “Palestinian” is consistent with the identity politics of Black Liberation theology.
But what’s really telling are the flights of paranoid fancy—like how Wright said that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor, that Bush was going to plant WMD in Iraq just like the Los Angeles Police Department frames suspects, and, most notoriously, that the U.S. government created HIV to kill “colored people.” The idea that the Jews were working on an “ethnic bomb” partakes of a genre that combines historical fiction with sci-fi fantasy. “But Daddy,” an alert sixth-grade biology student might query her well-educated father, “my teacher says you can’t build a weapon that only targets one kind of person.” Never mind the science, honey, we’re here for the sermon.
Conspiracy theories, along with anti-Semitism, are the defining characteristic of contemporary Islamist discourse. Consider this passage from the Hamas Covenant holding Zionists responsible for all of modernity’s evils:
[The Zionists] were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions, and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.
For Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party, the conspiracy theory is not a “paranoid style,” but is rather its principal narrative; it is how the tribal leaders explain the potency of the enemies’ idols. Because of their magic, our tribe will suffer until our gods act on our behalf, for our lives are dependent on them. Since our lives are not free, all we can do is placate our gods in such a way—e.g., drive those not of our tribe from land our gods consecrated for us—that will make them favor us once again. In a pre-political society, where man believes himself incapable of changing his own condition through his own actions, grievance is how man describes his relations to other men. All of his hope is invested in his attitude towards his gods.
In a secular society like ours, on the other hand, the conspiracy theory is evidence of the efficiency of secularism and the fundamental health of the society. After all, the separation between religion and the state reflects the larger distinction we make between the eternal and temporal realms, which, in according respect to both faith and reason, makes it possible for men to worship freely in one and act rationally in the other. However, the conspiracy theory transgresses these boundaries as it proposes magical narratives about the public sphere, where competing interests, as well as venality and incompetence—i.e., the messy stuff of human intercourse—suffice to explain why things often go wrong. The conspiracy theorist, in seeing mysterious forces at work everywhere, floods the political realm with the magic that receded from it with the death of kings. So long as the conspiracy theorist is kept on the margins of a secular society, the political sphere is essentially sound.
Reverend Wright’s sermons are signs of a bewitched mind, and Senator Obama’s apologia treated them as though they should initiate a discussion among the citizens of the nation that his deeply troubled preacher assailed. Senator Obama thinks that Wright’s ravings merit a national discussion on race, but there are other concerns that will not only take up much of the American president’s time, but will also constitute the issues that the executive branch actually has control over—like foreign policy. What sort of insight does the Wright affair give us into an Obama foreign policy?
Obama says that he will talk to parties hostile to the U.S. because he does not think it is a reward to talk to your enemies. It’s worth noting that a man who claims that his biological identity and upbringing give him unique insight into the rest of humanity has here adopted the default position of the U.S. policy-making establishment, or that segment of it tacking against the Bush administration.
What’s unique about Obama, we now recognize, is that the notion of “talking to your enemies” is not just a diplomatic cliché. He will indeed hear out the obscurantist regimes that plot against U.S. citizens, allies, and interests, just as he sat still while his obscurantist preacher fulminated against “white America.” Will he manage to persuade his interlocutors in Tehran and Damascus to modify their behavior in Iraq, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf, Israel, and the Palestinian territories? Of course not. He was incapable of convincing a man he has known for two decades, who married him and baptized his two daughters, that his employer, the government of the United States, did not create HIV to kill African Americans.
Senator Obama’s campaign has recently explained the principles of the candidate’s foreign policy in terms of dignity promotion. Critics say it is nothing more than another fuzzy slogan from a campaign that still doesn’t know what it stands for. But that’s not quite right, for the Obama campaign is vague only to those who refuse to take seriously what the senator and those closest to him—his wife, his preacher, and his foreign policy advisers—openly profess. The candidate appeals to many Americans who agree that the United States deserves to be taken down a peg or two, not just because of Iraq, or Guantanamo, or for failing to sign the Kyoto protocols, but because of historical grievances, like slavery—what Senator Obama called this secular republic’s “original sin.” America is too powerful, too arrogant, and needs to be humbled, and Obama is the man to do it, for the sake of the rest of the world.
People around the world do not have dignity because they are suffering from humiliation. And they are humiliated because they have grievances, and their grievances, as we know very well, are with U.S. policies. The author of this Washington Post editorial, Shadi Hamid, finds Obama’s message of addressing grievances hopeful:
Beyond the small hardcore of terrorists who slaughter innocents are tens of millions of Arabs and Muslims who sympathize with the terrorists’ anger but disagree with their means of expressing it. This is not some nebulous group. It’s people like my relatives in Egypt, who repeatedly tell me that we deserved Sept. 11. People like my friends in Egypt and Jordan, who feel that in my Americanness I have betrayed my brethren, the oppressed, and the humiliated. We can articulate a new strategy, one which, without condoning violence, acknowledges their grievances and their very real sense of being wronged by history.
Instead of condemning violence, we need to contextualize murder and those who celebrate it, just like we have to understand Reverend Wright’s racist paranoia within the framework of “original sin.” By addressing the wrongs of history we can restore dignity and minimalize grievance.
“I don’t think anyone in the foreign policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, who is apparently still of the Obama campaign if no longer in it. And as Obama made clear in his Wright speech, no one running for president understands the depths of grievance like he does. An Obama presidency is not going to give us a national discussion on race, but a foreign policy that is a four-year-long international conference on grievance, for the world has many grievances with America.