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Prof. Michael Welton: A Culture of Fear and Hostility to the Muslim Other Prevails in Our World.

TEHRAN (FNA)- The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon buildings started a new chapter in the history of the US relations with the Muslim world, and hostility replaced dialog and cooperation between the two sides.

The US government immediately accused "Islamic fundamentalists" of masterminding the terrorist attacks, and the then US President George W. Bush famously warned in a speech on September 20, 2001 that the world nations had to make a choice: "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

He branded two Shiite nations, Iran and Iraq, along with North Korea, as part of a so-called "Axis of Evil" and then declared a massive war on Afghanistan and Iraq. His project of the War on Terror, which emerged to be a violent and bloody one, literally turned into a war on the Muslim world, and even the Muslim citizens of the United States. Drone attacks against Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia were set in motion shortly, and plans were announced for attacking Libya - a plan which was realized by the next President Barack Obama.

Since then, American human rights organizations have been complaining of the growing restriction of the civil liberties and religious freedoms of the large Muslim community in the United States and increased surveillance and monitoring of their movement and daily activities.

An accomplished Canadian author, educator and public speaker believes that "a culture of fear and hostility to the Muslim other" has begun to prevail the contemporary world following the 9/11 events.

"... the victimizers in the US and its allies who have destroyed Iraq, demonized Iran and smashed up Syria and Libya - one might add Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, too - have become the victims," said Prof. Michael Welton in an interview with Fars News Agency. "Thus, a culture of fear and hostility to the Muslim other prevails in our world. This means that an open, learning relationship to the other is inhibited; bombing replaces dialogue."

Prof. Welton, who is currently a faculty member in educational studies at Athabasca University, Alberta, believes that the US government, through its different intelligence and military programs, has spent a great deal of capital on its wars in the Middle East, while there are social problems at home that haven't been addressed yet.

"The vast sums of money spent on the WOT glaringly contrast with the massive social and economic problems of US society itself; consider only the lack of public health care, homelessness, vast disparities in wealth distribution, intensified racism and police brutality against Blacks, decaying cities like Detroit and Baltimore, and prisons teeming and seething with far too many Blacks," he said.

"Many of us shake our heads at the way global leaders spend billions on weaponry while billions of people suffer, starve and live pretty awful lives," he added.

Prof. Welton is a recipient of the prestigious AAACE award for best research, granted to him for his biographical study of Moses Coady, and has successfully established and maintained graduate adult education programs in both Canada and Jamaica, receiving an award for "Outstanding contribution to the development of postgraduate programme in Adult Education in Jamaica."

He has written several books and many articles available online and in print, including the 1995 book "In Defense of the Lifeworld: Critical Perspectives on Adult Learning". Michael Welton took part in an interview with FNA and responded to our questions about the war on terror and the US relations with the Muslim world.

Q: There's been a significant change in the US foreign policy following the 9/11 attacks. Increased surveillance over the Muslims citizens, stricter regulations for the Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Malaysians and people from other Islamic nations intending to travel to the United States, indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and even the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in November 22 all indicate that the White House has become more suspicious towards the Muslims. Is this policy going to change? Is it that they're Muslims who are responsible for all the violence and terror that break out across Europe and the United States?

A: I have no doubt that following the collapse of the grand symbols of the US Empire on September 11, 2001 global history took a perverse turn. Like millions of others, I watched the World Trade Center collapse again and again, relentlessly. It was a horrific and audacious act of great foreboding. Like a lightning flash, the Al-Qaeda network struck at the twin symbols of American pride, icons of capitalist and military might. In the luminescent glow of the flames, the jihad imagined that evil westerners would see the truth of their corrupt regimes. On Sunday afternoon, on the 16th of September, 2001, on the south lawn of the White House, President Bush spoke to the Press and the world. "We need to be alert to the fact that these evildoers still exist. We haven't seen this kind of barbarism in a long period of time. No one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft-fly US aircraft into buildings full of innocent people-and show no remorse. This is a new kind of-a new kind of evil. And we understand. And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while."

Commentators of the day observed that Bush's remark about crusade had come in an off-the-cuff comment to a journalist. Actually, he struggled to find the right word. This was the word that came from his gut and meant a lot to him. It signified the struggle between good and evil. On January 29, 2002, Bush announced that: "States like these [Iran, Iraq, N. Korea], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." Unwittingly, Bush was dragged back to the centuries-old world of maledicta - cursing one's enemies. The language of crusade and axes of evil reminded us that the Western Christian tradition - from the mid-7th century onward - had imagined "Islam" as enemy, competitor, and arch-adversary. This archetypal image of Islam as anti-Christ is deep-wired in the western collective psyche. And so is the mirror image.

All it took was this horrific event - only three thousand died compared, say, to the hundreds of thousands in the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki In 1945, but this violent act certainly seems methodologically unprecedented, to enliven this image of holy war and clash of civilizations. Since 9/11 - the Americans have sacralized this specific historical event and set it in the stars for all to see forever, Islamophobia has grown increasingly more rabid since the days immediately after Al-Qaeda's audacious pedagogical action. Two things strike me as an adult educator: first, the deep myths undergirding America's sense of itself as God's chosen ones - an exceptional people with the exceptional task to be Pedagogue to the world's peoples - are easily mobilized because people in the West know very little about Islam and are historically illiterate. The prevalent narrative at the moment in neo-conservative, right-wing circles states that the problems in the Middle East are caused by a "crisis of Islam." If Islam could get its act together, we might build a peaceful world. This is utter nonsense. Once again, the victimizers in the US and its allies who have destroyed Iraq, demonized Iran and smashed up Syria and Libya - one might add Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, too - have become the victims. Thus, a culture of fear and hostility to the Muslim other prevails in our world. This means that an open, learning relationship to the other is inhibited; bombing replaces dialogue. Second, critical humanist intellectuals, whether of secular or religious persuasion, must oppose magical thinking and quick bloody solutions. Critical intellectuals need to assert the importance of interaction and debate. This must not be refused; we are suspicious of, and come to hate in stressful situations, those we know nothing about. The only education program - in every country, Muslim or other - worth being committed to promotes co-existence, an ethics of citizenship and the worth of human life.

Q: It's said that the Department of Homeland Security is the third largest cabinet department within the US government system. It has more than 200,000 employees, and receives an annual budget of about $55 billion. While we have CIA, NSA and the Department of Defense, which are tasked with protecting the US interests at home and abroad and thwarting threats against its security, then is it really necessary that there should be such a large and extensive organization with similar responsibilities and a very huge budget?

A: The Department of Homeland Security in the US - with its massive budget and 200,000 employees - clearly reflects the cultural milieu of paranoia and fear pervading the present ethos of America. We live in the Age of Surveillance. The US spies on its citizens, its allies, its enemies; everyone is under the panoptical eye of Big Brother. Canada pushes through the egregious Bill C-51 which grants the state permission (CSIS) to keep an eye on anyone deemed to threaten the smooth operation of corporate profit-making. The UK monitors Muslim speeches. It is totally over-the-top and is not necessary to provide citizens security. How to account for this paranoid insanity? One reason for this fearfulness has to do with the so-called "war on terror." The enemy cannot be identified with a nation-state; he is potentially everywhere - at bus stops, on beaches, in tourist resorts, on commuter trains, in classrooms, everywhere one turns. So surveillance increases exponentially - searching for a tip or two that might stop the bomb from exploding. But the most serious consequence of this paranoid surveillance of everyone is that the rule of law and conventional criminal codes, in place in constitutional democracies, can easily be breached or simply set aside. This means that the surveillance apparatus only need detect someone suspicious who might engage in a violent act and then move to arrest him or her. Then this person can be locked up, indefinitely if need be. These days Muslims are always more suspicious than anyone else in our present dangerous, fractured world. The US drone attacks on Obama's list of the suspicious are a striking example of surveillance leading to breaking the law in order to assassinate a suspect, [i.e.] murder without trial.

Q: The Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, commonly known as the Senate torture report, revealed that following the 9/11 attacks, severe and unconventional methods were used for torturing the terrorism suspects held in the overseas detention facilities of the US government, including in the Guantanamo bay prison. Why did the CIA resort to such stringent techniques for getting confession from the inmates? Isn't the torturing of prisoners a human rights violation?

A: The CIA's senate torture report revealed the US state committed acts of torture in overseas detention facilities and, most notably, at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Who can forget the ugly images of American soldiers abusing their hooded and naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad? The torturing of prisoners is morally reprehensible and universally condemned. The UN Charter of Human Rights of 1948 states in article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 7) and article 3 of the Geneva Conventions condemns torture. So why can ex-US Vice-President Dick Cheney blatantly defend the practices of torture in public after the publication of the report on torture? That's the point: Cheney believes that immoral and degrading means can be used to justify the glorious end of getting a scrap of information that might lead to some source of malevolent intent. Since 9/11, the US has lost its moral compass - some might counter by saying it never had it in its foreign affairs, and appears to be deranged in its defiance of international law. Profound hubris characterizes their geo-political actions in the Middle East as well as the present exceptionally dangerous demonization of Putin and Russia. The US would not stand for one minute the pressing of hostile troops to its borders, say, in Canada or Mexico. The US can do anything it so desires to get what it wants. If this means, torture, so be it. They are above the law and above morality as well. The massive danger facing the world is that the corporate and financial interests of the global ruling class have broken free from any form of state regulation and ethical constraints. The hostility to Russia from the US-EU-NATO forces could trip the wire that leads to the use of nuclear weapons. As Yale Russian scholar Stephen Cohen reminds us, there are almost no restraints on the use of nuclear weapons as there were in the old Cold War days.

Neo-liberalism as imagined by the US military-industrial complex requires the subjugation of all nation-states of the world into vassal states. The current hatred of Russia has to do with its unwillingness to accept vassal status and commitment to charting its own development path in the world.

Q: According to the Watson Institute for International Studies, in the period between 2001 and 2011, the War on Terror has cost the US government and its NATO allies $3,057 billion. It's an incredible amount of money, which includes interest paid on Pentagon war appropriations, as well as social costs to veterans and military families. With this extensive expenditure on military campaigns in the Middle East, has the War on Terror been a successful project?

A: Has the "War on terror" been a successful project? This depends on the goal of the US military interventions since 9/11. The vast sums of money spent on the WOT glaringly contrast with the massive social and economic problems of US society itself; consider only the lack of public health care, homelessness, vast disparities in wealth distribution, intensified racism and police brutality against Blacks, decaying cities like Detroit and Baltimore, and prisons teeming and seething with far too many Blacks. Many of us shake our heads at the way global leaders spend billions on weaponry while billions of people suffer, starve and live pretty awful lives. But the US military is spending trillions to maintain its dominance, economically and geo-strategically. This is, however, not working as a multi-polar world is emerging, which does not portend well for the US Empire of chaos. I think that if the US desires that every Middle Eastern country, except the state of Israel, is smashed to pieces and plagued by endless sectarian warfare -as part of their geo-political strategy, then they might believe they are successful. However, as lots of commentators have observed, the virulent and vicious ISIS was essentially created by the US's incredibly stupid military actions in Iraq.

ISIS is now a serious problem for the US and the rest of the world. However, because the US has driven a wedge between itself and Russia and bungling up European relationships with Russia, they have a tough time building a global coalition - sanctioned by the UN Security Council. So the US essentially created ISIS and now they can't deal with it because they are preoccupied insanely with trying to contain China and break-up and humiliate Russia, which began in the devious Clinton era. If we want a secure, peaceful cosmopolitan world of sharing the solution of global problems, then the WOT is a dreadful failure.

Q: The critics of the War on Terror maintain that it turned into a crusade against the Muslims, as the two countries which the United States invaded following the September 11 attacks, namely Afghanistan and Iraq, literally had nothing to do with WMDs and the 9/11 tragedy, so those horrendous events served as a pretext for the beginning of a large-scale political and military confrontation with the Islamic world. Do you agree with this premise?

A: It is horrendous that the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on utterly false pretexts. It seems to me as if the neo-cons associated with Dick Cheney's The Project for a New American Century, founded in 1997, were just waiting for the opportunity to anchor their global dominance on a solid foundation. Perhaps they thought they had the golden opportunity to act quickly to outwit China and continue the assault on Russia.

Radical theorist Elizabeth Anderson comments, "the attacks [on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon] were used to rationalize a massive expansion of the national security state, an unwarranted war in Iraq, a quagmire in Afghanistan, torture and abuse of prisoners, extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the use of cluster bombs and drone attacks that has resulted in massive civil casualties." The democratic spirit has been seriously corroded and the institutions that are supposed to check abuses, [including] a sceptical press, independent judiciary, etc. have all failed miserably. The rule of law has been eroded and the President of the US has become a perpetual war president. As Paul Craig Roberts has observed bitterly, "If America cannot be The Uni-Power dictating to the world, better that we are all dead."

The object of US military malevolence has been the Islamic countries of the Middle East. Some think that the US wants two things in the Middle East: access and control of vast oil reserves and the preservation of Israel as the US Empire's watchdog. If this is the case, then one has to qualify what appears on the surface to be a war of the "Christian West" against the "Islamic Orient." However, the US and its allies are killing Muslims of various stripes and they are supporting the Jewish state of Israel that is killing Palestinian Muslims, though a small percentage of Palestinians are, in fact, Christians. Framing what is going on this way is too simplistic, but we can detect in the discourse of several US allies [such as] Blair and Cameron in the UK and Harper in Canada a belief that they are fighting wars to defend western civilization against the "barbarism of Islam", at least in its extreme form. The old, white colonial settler states appear to be still clinging to their outmoded orientalist and racist ideas.

Q: The Occupy Wall Street movement was originally an uprising by those Americans who were fed up with economic inequality and uneven distribution of capital in the country. However, OWS gradually acquired a political aspect, and political demands began to be raised, including an end to the US military expeditions in the Middle East and a shift in the government's foreign policy. How do you analyze the emergence of this movement, and its near disappearance? Could it draw attention to the public discontent with the wars waged by the US government and its unpopular economic policies?

A: The Occupy Movement can be understood, I think, as one reaction to the way neo-liberalism as the dominant political and economic system has sought in many different ways to undermine the possibility for citizen action and participation in public spaces. People everywhere feel increasingly left out of the decision-making - the 1% is constantly at work to steal wealth from ordinary people and find ways to render the very idea of the citizens irrelevant. Scan the world: observe the pouring of millions of people into the streets and public squares like Tahrir in Cairo. People have to occupy the streets in order to gain attention from ruling elites. At the moment, our attention is on Greece where the citizenry "participated by storm" - rather than conventional deliberative forms. The Greeks have been the objects of the European troika, particularly the ECB, which has pressed its face into the dirt to coerce it to accept lower wages, cut pensions and sell off public resources without taxing the rich. But there clearly are some serious difficulties in occupy movements.

The Egyptian case illustrates some hard truths about making a revolution. Revolutions are not made on Facebook or in cyberspace but through hard and long organizing on the ground, face to face. Perhaps some of the youth and others who made the revolution, gathering repeatedly in Tahrir Square, were naive to think that the old regime, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would just fade away. It didn't; the revolutionaries could not agree on a new constitution. They thought they could remove Mubarak without changing the regime, they did not provide a "united front" to the old regime. They fragmented and splintered into Islamists, nationalists, liberals and leftists, and the Muslim Brotherhood under President Morsi's leadership, got greedy and tried to dominate the legislature. This provided SCAF the opportunity to recover its force and occupy centre-stage once again. Today the military rules - Morsi has now been sentenced to death, and the cries of freedom but faint echoes. Thus, if occupy-styled movements flare into public space without requisite political organization and carefully imagined strategies for building a new society, they will flame out without much trace left behind.

Q: There are about 1.5 billion Muslims living around the globe. They sometimes feel that they're being punished and demonized because of the crimes of groups like ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda, which simply carry an Islamic banner, but have never represented a genuine Islamic ideology, and have always been criticized by the Muslim scholars and leaders. Is the US government tightening the grip around the Muslims because the major terrorist groups in our region claim to be Islamic?

A: I believe that the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world have been demonized and punished because people are religiously and historically illiterate and simply identify Islam as an inherently violent religion. Just look at ISIS, Boko Haram or Al-Qaeda. For those of us who live in western liberal democracies where religion has mainly shuffled off centre stage to a private cocoon somewhere, religion came in from the cold in the terrifying flames of the mangled symbols of the US Empire. The suicidal murderers who transformed aircraft into bombs claimed to be motivated by Islamic religious beliefs. This shocking fact alone reminded secular humanists and religious moderates of the entanglement of the monotheisms in violent wars of religion over the last two thousand years of history. But it also confronted Muslims world-wide with some prickly questions about the nature of their faith in the modern world. The result has been an avalanche of materials from diverse perspectives within the Islamic field of discourse and without in a variety of western countries. It is a confusing and intricate scene, extremely difficult to find points of orientation. When can one say what is authentic Islamic belief and practice and what is extremist, outside the bounds of the faith-community? Can we speak, as Khaled Abou El Fadl does, of the "great theft" of Islam and the consequent challenge to wrestle Islam from the extremists?

I am not an expert on Islam, but my scholarly interest does lie with trying to gain a deeper understanding of the role of religion in public life in our post-secular and post-metaphysical world. I have explored these themes in several recent Counterpunch articles. Working within the intellectual framework of Jurgen Habermas, my central concern has been to explore how secular and religious citizens can speak to one another in public spaces without some form of bullying occurring on both sides. In the various Muslim worlds, this commitment to complementary learning processes is not on the agenda whatsoever. In Saudi Arabia, home of puritanical Sunni Wahhabism - which gets exported round the world, one cannot be a Christian by law. No churches are permitted. In many Muslim-dominated countries, minority religions, such as the Copts of Egypt have experienced repression, imprisonment and death from their states. In western liberal multicultural and religiously pluralist societies often characterized as post-Christian, Muslims who reside within these countries face the question posed by Tariq Ramadan: can one be a Muslim in Europe? And if so, how do Muslims living outside Islamic states need to understand their faith as it plays itself out in a secular society that has separated church from state - eschewing any form of "political theology" that would impose one way of believing and being on all citizens.

But as Habermas has pointed out in Philosophy In A Time Of Terror (2003), Europe has had to go through the fires of "confessional schism and the secularization of society" in order to compel "religious belief to reflect on its nonexclusive place within a universal discourse shared with other religions and limited by scientifically generated secular knowledge." This has been a treacherous journey for many Muslims. They may achieve a secular state, but find that the US Empire prefers something else. Moreover, neither Muslims nor Christians readily agree to reside hospitably with others - let alone even tolerate a dissenting minority.

Those moments when the monotheisms live well together in history are worth recovering.

The conversable world has been shredded and the dominant paradigm in global politics is monologic. The world is one fire and fundamentalist forms of religious expression are rampant. The Enlightenment Project of the renunciation of using state violence to enforce religious claims is in danger of disintegrating. If Habermas is right, Muslim countries and many Muslims elsewhere have not yet travelled through the fires of confessional schism and made their peace with the secularization of society and the plurality of world-orientations.

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Date:Aug 7, 2016
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