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Descartes, Pashtuns and President Bush
Published on Thursday, August 29, 2002 in the Bangor Daily News
Descartes, Pashtuns and President Bush
by Dr. Whitney Azoy

What’s a 17th-century French philosopher doing in our 21st-century War on Terror?

Think about it.

Thinking was what Rene Descartes did most and best. So much so that he enshrined Think as the key word in Modernity’s main adage: “Cogito ergo sum — I think; therefore I am.”

“I think” in this case means “I engage in rational mental behavior.” (We moderns have congratulated ourselves ever since on how rational we are.) “Therefore I am” speaks to the deepest urge of all: the need to know that one exists. For Descartes, thinking meant existing.

Now enter anthropology — in particular, an anthropologist colleague and expert on the Pashtun people of southern Afghanistan. Not one for armchairs, he used to leave Kabul (in a memorably yellow Land Rover) and study rural culture for weeks at a time. Field research is arduous, especially so among hyper-contentious Pashtuns, but my friend survived — thanks in part to a flair for humorous incongruity. One of his wry observations serves as text for today’s column. “Pashtuns are sort of like Descartes,” he said, “except that they’ve changed the words. A Pashtun says, ‘I have enemies; therefore I am.’”

Pashtuns have stayed on script — with notable exceptions — in Operation Enduring Freedom. They formed the bulk of our Taliban enemies. Remote Pashtun valleys continue to harbor our al-Qaida enemies. Pashtun enemies take potshots, more each week, at U.S. troops. Most of all, Pashtuns remain enemies of each other, sniping at kinsmen allied (temporarily) with the United States and menacing their fellow Pashtun, the excellent Hamid Karzai.

Where would Pashtuns be without enemies? Would they be real in each other’s minds? Would they, in their own minds, continue to exist?

What about us? Anthropology is a mirror; knowledge of other peoples provides vantage points from which to consider ourselves. Let’s use the Pashtun version of Descartes to ask ourselves this question: Do Americans need enemies — bad guys — in order to give our lives meaning?

Not individually, and not on the surface. Other peoples reckon us, as individuals, the friendliest folk in the world. Once back home in Spain or Singapore or Sao Paolo, travelers who’ve been to America regale their friends with tales of our openness and hospitality. As a nation of strangers from somewhere else, we’re not afraid of strangers and don’t assume them to be enemies. Some America-watchers, many of them British, say that our friendliness is superficial … and therefore artificial. Maybe so, but visitors to both countries enjoy Uncle Sam’s glad-handing more than John Bull’s subtle disdain.

Collectively, it’s been different. Here America, like all nations, has had a long list of enemies. And, yes, our adversarial experience has helped form national identity. Beginning with Nature (which our forefathers “conquered” and which our president boycotts by not attending this week’s Earth Summit), the roll call features Native Americans, various hot war opponents, and Cold War Communists. Opposition to each of these enemies gave us unifying slogans and heroes. Winning wars against them reinforced basic values in happy history books. Now that past enemies have been routed, here’s militant Islam.

If militant Islam didn’t exist — which it does, as a real and proven menace — would we have to invent it? As well as fearing and opposing militant Islam, to what extent do we need it? Put differently, how has our country and our culture (consciously or unconsciously) already furthered militant Islam’s inimical existence?

Not all individual Americans need enemies. Most of us, I believe, are more temperamentally akin to Hamid Karzai: eager to avoid acrimony when we can and, when it can’t be avoided, determined to resolve it as constructively as possible. So, rather than generalize, let’s investigate this urge-toward-enemies by groups. Let’s start with our top group.

Where would the Bush administration be without enemies? Think about it.

To help the thinking process, consider the political landscape on Sept. 10, 2001. The attacks that led to America’s War on Terror had begun the day before, in Afghanistan, with the assassination by al-Qaida of northern alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood. Not everybody noticed.

We were concerned, instead, with an economic recession and a Bush II administration. Dubiously put in power, Bush had thus far distinguished himself by saying No to the rest of the world on a wide array of issues. And by a needless tax cut which soon turned budget surplus into deficit. And by appointments like that of Attorney General Ashcroft, who had lost to a dead man in Missouri’s senatorial election and was then made chief cop as a sop to Christian fundamentalists.

Some applauded. Those drawn to Lone Star imagery (political hard right), Reaganesque voodoo economics (economic hard right), and rattlesnake worship (religious hard right) encouraged W’s medieval unilateralism. The rest of us, on 9/10/01, were increasingly concerned.

What a difference a day makes! President Bush wouldn’t — couldn’t — have wished it this way, but 9-11 presented him with a Pashtun’s greatest gift. It satisfied a Pashtun’s deepest urge. It gave Bush an enemy whom the rest of us could not help but acknowledge. You can’t argue with the reality of airplanes being crashed into buildings.

Suddenly — understandably — there were enemies everywhere. Pashtuns would have felt especially at home with W’s State of the Union address. With (authentic) hero Hamid Karzai seated next to Laura Bush, her husband first announced the (phony) Axis of Evil.

This speechwriter’s fantasy evokes World War II (against the Fascist Axis) and the Cold War (against Reagan’s Evil Communist Empire). Now famous, the phrase is equally fatuous. First, because there’s no significant, ongoing cooperation among North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Second, because one of the three — Iran — has a far from entirely evil government. True, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameni, is a hard-right Muslim fundamentalist who remains virulently anti-American. (Likewise hard-right American Christian groups and hard- right American Jewish groups now unite in virulent opposition to Palestinian aspirations.) But Iranian politics has another side. Its president, Mohammed Khatemi, was democratically elected in the name of open- minded, anti-xenophobic reform.

Think of Iran as a glass whose liquid level stands at 50 percent. Our manner of regarding it — as a glass half full or half empty — says as much about us as about the Iranians. And the Bush administration, time and again, has cast Iran in negative terms, as another of its (much

needed) enemies.

Thinking makes it so. Each time a Bush official abuses Iran, its anti-U.S. segment is reinforced. Reformers are undermined. Mohsen Mirdamadi, a leading liberal MP and head of Iran’s parliamentary commission on foreign policy, recently observed, “I believe that the axis of evil classification of Iran was the harshest insult ever made against the Iranian nation and what the U.S. should do in the first place is skip these kind of insults.”

What do such U.S. insults accomplish? The eventual, inevitable reconciliation between our two countries — both, incidentally, real countries which will outlast transient concoctions like Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and not a few U.S. Third World allies — is deferred. The Bush administration can display another enemy to the American electorate … and to their own psyches.

President Khatami visited President Karzai in Kabul earlier this month. They both speak Persian and regard each other as — gasp! — allies. Khatami has consistently supported Karzai. He took this occasion to label 9-11 “horrific.” But, despite Karzai’s being flanked by U.S. military bodyguards, the Iranian president continued: “American leaders have a misunderstanding and an incorrect perception both about their own power and their own interests. ... By misusing the bitter incident of 11 September, they have created a warlike and rough atmosphere in the world.”

Words like “perception” and “atmosphere” help frame this question: Whether to support a president — our current president — who, along with like-minded appointees, needs enemies to make himself feel whole, not to mention re-electable? In the spirit of Descartes, let’s think about it.

Dr. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in Kabul, has worked for 30 years with Afghanistan and the Muslim world. He was last in Afghanistan in May on a U.S. government contract.

©2002 Bangor Daily News


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