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Issue #1660      October 15, 2014

Culture & Life

Stirring the racist pot

Two years ago last month, US blogger Joseph Palermo made some very pertinent observations about people using non-profit organisations and other fronts to channel funds into political campaigns in the US and by extrapolation here too.

Palermo was particularly concerned about people stirring up religious controversy for their own devious ends. He reminded his readers of the damage that was caused by the pseudonymous “Sam Bacile” when his vicious little propaganda film The Innocence of Muslims was uploaded to YouTube.

“We’ve been told that “Sam Bacile” (identified as a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) and his co-producers were merely exercising their right to free speech, which they surely did. But they also chose to remain anonymous not only for self-protection but because they fabricated a non-existent Jewish conspiracy (a practice we should never take lightly) just to stir up the pot.

“This lurid little film caused a lot of mayhem in the Middle East and beyond. The Americans killed in Benghazi might still be alive today had it not been for the provocative smear of the Islamic religion intentionally designed to cause maximum consternation.”

After noting that there were plenty of Muslim leaders who had used the “Sam Bacile” incident to stir up their flock for very non-religious purposes, Palermo then pointed out that “analysts subscribing to these views criticising Muslim politicians rarely turn their finely honed lasers back onto American society.” He noted that at the time of writing [the last US Presidential election], “Bush-era Republican Ralph Reed oversees a vast US$12 million get-out-the-vote project for conservative evangelical Christians.

“He’s using deceptive surveys and religious conviction to get his base out for Romney-Ryan in the swing states. For decades right-wing Christian operators like Reed, Pat Robertson, and others have enraged their flocks for political gain. Their use of gays and abortion, ‘blasphemous’ movies and entertainers, and other hot-button cultural issues to enhance their political clout is blandly accepted as ‘business as usual’.” This is clearly a posture that Palermo himself does not accept.

Palermo has no problem with “Bill Maher and Sam Harris and other atheists [who] argue that religion is a particularly vile form of magical thinking that leads people to do all sorts of stupid things”. But he takes issue with their claim that “the Koranic scriptures themselves and not the history and social conditions of those parts of the world are responsible for the rise of the ‘irrational’ impulse to hate ‘the West’.”

Sensibly, he comments: “We must engage the world that exists, not the one we’d like to imagine. And in the Islamic world, like anywhere else, there are opportunistic politicians eager to exploit slights to their religion to enhance their power. … Fatwas are indeed the craziest religious decrees ever devised, but”, he shrewdly asks, “might not the targeted assassinations of ‘militants’ by drones be seen as a kind of secular ‘fatwa’?” They are certainly just as morally indefensible.

While maintaining that “the Muslim religion is not any more inherently ‘violent’ than any other”, Palermo accepts that it is “correct to ridicule fanaticism, but [not to] ignore the more thorny questions relating to the tortured history the Islamic world has had with ‘the West’. It’s not surprising that anti-imperialist critiques would take on an Islamic inflection in these deeply religious societies. It doesn’t mean they’re ‘backward’ or ‘inherently violent’.”

Noting that “large swathes of the world are tinderboxes awaiting the next spark to erupt into flames” and that “Sam Bacile” and his soul mates “knew exactly what they were doing”, Palermo reminds his fellow Americans that “we should try to show a little compassion and understanding with people in that part of the world where the United States has an overwhelming military and economic presence and realise that they may have legitimate grievances and good reason to be a tad bit upset with ‘the West’.”

Palermo then takes up his underlying theme: the insidious influence of big financial donors on the US political scene, where money is all-important. “Having a cash-and-carry political system where foreign and domestic investors with nefarious aims like that of ‘Sam Bacile’ can wreak havoc from behind the shield of anonymity is the worst gift the Republican Supreme Court ever gave the country. … Having shadowy billionaires, unidentified corporations, and mysterious sovereign wealth and hedge funds financing our politics can’t be a good thing. If unnamed filmmakers can cause so much damage with one little provocation, think of the potential harm anonymous donors to … American political campaigns can cause.

“How many other ‘Sam Baciles’ are out there running their own anonymous [non-profit organisations] seeking to influence American politics in new and detrimental ways? Or creating fake conspiracies? Or aiming to rile up groups whose animus could serve their political ends?”

All good, sensible stuff, except for one glaring weakness: Mr Palermo assumes these other “Sam Baciles” will all be foreign. But when it comes to creating fake conspiracies or riling up groups whose animus would serve someone’s political ends, the US itself leads the way. The various US intelligence services, with their vast budgets and sense of moral superiority (no matter what contemptible or evil thing they do), are into schemes and plots that make “Sam Bacile” look like a rank amateur.

Wherever there is a religious minority that can be stirred up to disrupt the even tenor of a previously peaceful country or to demand independence from some larger state, there you will find the meddling hand of the State Department and the CIA. If civil war and urban destruction result from their meddling, US diplomacy steps in to “broker a peace deal” while the US arms industry cleans up.

What you might call a “win-win” situation. Not for the people of the country concerned, of course, but they’re not usually uppermost in the thinking of the White House or the Pentagon (or Wall Street).

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