Recently on Real Time with Bill Maher, self-impressed television host and disco movie extra Maher got himself into quite an argument with Ben Affleck. Maher, along with torture apologist and New Atheist icon Sam Harris, insisted as he so often does that Islam is a religion of unique violence, and that despite what those PC liberals will tell you, Muslims writ large deserve condemnation for the behavior of extremists and terrorists. Affleck, with admirable honesty, called that attitude racist. Maher and Harris took a long soak in their own self-aggrandizing Hyper Rational Heroic Honesty.
There are ample criticisms to be made here. That all of a group’s members share blame for the behavior of some is the fundamental logic of bigotry. Beyond that moral fact, these two are very fond of their own self-conception as creatures of sublime rationality, but associating the bad behavior of, say, members of ISIS in Syria with Thai Muslims who have never been within 4,000 miles of Syria seems not particularly rational to me. Nor is there much rationality in talking about Islamic terrorism as an all-conquering boogieman. There is no chance — none — that ISIS will succeed in establishing a world-threatening caliphate. As Americans, Harris and I are more likely to drown in a bathtub than to be killed by Islamic terrorism, and yet Harris is fond of talking about Islamic terrorism as something worth laying awake at night over. Strange how these perfectly rational creatures are so unmoved by the objective lack of threat that terrorism represents in their own lives. Really, though, what I’m interested in is this conception of the moderate Muslim, that hypothetical Muslim that is always used as a rhetorical cudgel against the world’s actual existing Muslims.
I can think of a Muslim who would perfectly fit the typical portrayal of moderate Islam: Mohammad Mosaddegh, the former prime minister of Iran. Mosaddegh was, in many ways, the picture of a cultured, progressive leader. He was a lawyer and an author. He studied in Paris, which always signals cosmopolitanism to Americans, and earned a PhD from a Swiss university. He was a political dissident for long periods, as he opposed the recapturing of power by the Shahs as a violation of the Iranian constitution. He was democratically elected to Iran’s parliament in the tumultuous post-war period. In a time of considerable political unrest, he grew to great popularity as a figure of principle and moderation and became Iran’s prime minister in 1951. Though broadly popular, his primary support base came from Iran’s educated urban classes. He instituted meaningful progressive reforms, establishing social programs to ameliorate poverty and setting many landless peasants free from literal slavery. During a fierce power struggle with a monarchy attempting to regain control, Mossadegh’s record on issues of process and democracy was imperfect. It remains the case, however, that he was far more popular among the Iranian people than the House of Pahlavi. Given that long-declassified documentation from the American and British intelligence services leaves no doubt that foreign infiltrators were indeed working against his government, Mossadegh’s actions during that power struggle can be seen as demonstrating considerable restraint. He was also a deft politician, forging key alliances with the communist Tudeh party while carefully expressing anti-communist sentiment and with Islamists while working to preserve the secular Iranian state.
In many ways, then, Mossadegh was exactly what people like Maher say they want from the Muslim world. There was just one problem: like most Iranians at the time, he was convinced that the British were ripping off the Iranian people by taking Iran’s oil at a price far below market value. He likely believed this because the British were ripping off the Iranian people by taking Iran’s oil at a price far below market value. Mossadegh nationalized Iran’s major oil company, breaking a deal with the British that had more than 40 years left before expiration, and his fate was sealed. Within two years the CIA, at the behest of the British, had set into motion the coup that ended Mossadegh’s political career.
That the United States had directly and unambiguously initiated the coup that deposed Mossadegh– and led to the consolidation of power by the Shah, a brutal and corrupt dictator who tortured and murdered political dissidents– was for decades one of the worst kept secrets in American history. Politicians and leaders discussed it more or less openly. Documents that spoke plainly about the CIA’s role have floated around for years and years. But despite this, the CIA didn’t formally admit its culpability until last year, 60 years after it had strangled the baby of Iranian democracy in its crib. When I started to talk politics in earnest as a high school student around 1999, it was still common for me to argue with those who denied the centrality of the CIA’s role or even that the United States was involved at all. Even today, I sometimes encounter those who think that the coup was largely an internal matter, despite the fact that (for example) it’s believed that the CIA literally dictated the Shah’s declaration that the prime minister be removed from office. And the term “conspiracy theory” still floats around this history despite the overwhelming evidence that we’ve had on hand for years and years.
The brutality, corruption, and illiberalism of the Shah’s regime created the political conditions that made the Iranian revolution possible. Dictatorship leads to radicalism. Western-supported dictatorship leads to hatred of the West. Whatever your take on the theological convictions of Iran’s revolutionaries, their complaints that the Shah was an illegitimate despot propped up by a conspiracy of Western nations intent on exploiting Iran’s resources are understandable, given that those complaints were indisputably true. Mossadegh was not around to see the revolution, which would likely have horrified him; he died under house arrest a few years after being deposed. That’s what America does to Muslim moderates who have the gall to pursue what is best for their own people, rather than what’s best for British Petroleum.
Perhaps you are inclined to say that, hey, that was 60 years ago. It’s time to move on. But of course we could then point out that, decades later, the United States armed, supported, and funded Saddam Hussein, another brutal dictator, for a decade. Our support prolonged his horrifically bloody war against Iran and enabled his cruel oppression of his own people, including those Muslims who might have had the opportunity to be moderate, had they not been hanging by their thumbs in Saddam’s cells. Or we could go in the other direction and recognize that imperial powers are responsible for the very existence of the state of Iraq, an unhealthy collection of disparate peoples and conflicting groups, a condition that lends itself to extremism rather than moderation. We could note the similar condition in Syria, where the imperial powers established Alawite control over the Sunni majority, helping to ensure precisely the kind of political violence that has engulfed that country now, which is not entirely conducive to political moderation. Or we might mention the war we started in 2003 that led to, by conservative estimate, a half million dead Iraqi civilians, with many millions more fleeing as refugees, leading to the collapse of Iraqi civil society and the possibility of moderation. Or we perhaps could note that the United States is the single greatest supporter of an Israeli apartheid state that has kept the people of Palestine under a state of illegal and brutal occupation for almost 50 years, subjecting them to constant harassment and violence in a way that renders moderation a kind of complicity in the eyes of many Palestinians. We might think long enough to recognize that the United States is acting, right this second, as the great patron of the corrupt monarchy that rules Saudi Arabia, which brooks no dissent from its political opposition, moderate or otherwise. We might think about the Iranian resistance that hates the theocrats but also righteously condemns the American government that, in its constant saber-rattling against Iran, merely strengthens the Islamic government’s hold on power. Or about how difficult it must be to embrace moderation as a Yemeni citizen whose children live under threat of death from American drones. Or if your Pakistani cousin has wasted away in Guantanamo for over a decade without due process.
In each of these, I merely concede the Maher and Harris definition of moderation as a rhetorical act. That definition is of course loaded with assumptions and petty prejudice, and bends always in the direction of American interests. But I accept their definition here merely to demonstrate: even according to their own definition, American actions have undermined “moderation” at every turn.
None of these various crimes are controversial as matters of historical fact; they all happened, and no serious person disputes them. I could name a dozen more American crimes that have substantial evidentiary basis, but I will restrict myself to these widely-acknowledged events. These are not conspiracy theories; this is history. But neither Maher nor Harris will spend much time considering this history at all. They have plenty of time for history when it comes to their narrative of a bloodthirsty and expansionist Islam, but none for America’s century-long history of exploitation and violence against the broad Muslim world. You get no credit for iconoclasm for pointing out that the United States and other Western powers have destabilized Muslim countries as a matter of habit for longer than any individual Muslim has been alive. Pointing out that American Muslims have faced constant hate crimes since 9/11 does not get you shout outs from the conservative cesspool media for “telling it like it is.” No one will call you a free-thinker for mentioning that a prominent rabbi can call for war on Islam in an Atlanta synagogue without drawing critical attention from the media. Asking Americans to grapple with the indisputable history of their government’s conduct in the Muslim world does not give you the opportunity to celebrate your tough guy, anti-“political correctness” bona fides. But it is what actual rationality requires.
I don’t mistake Mohammad Mossadegh for some sort of perfect politician., nor can I say what would have happened had he retained power. What I do recognize, in this history, is that the United States has no principle that it adheres to as blindly as it does its jealous control of the Muslim world’s resources, and that no matter how “moderate” you are, if you stand in the way of the United States getting what it wants, we will invade your country, kill your children, destroy your government, and steal your resources. Were Bill Maher and Sam Harris actually dedicated to building a less violent world, rather than their own cult of personality, they might ask themselves how, in those conditions, moderation could ever survive.