The Talibanization of America

Viewed from Pakistan, the rise of U.S. Islamophobia looks depressingly familiar.

One of the lessons from the Quran-burning circus in Florida, whether it ever actually takes place or not, is that the labels we use to make sense of the world are becoming more and more complex. This is bad news. Labels are supposed to simplify life, not make it more complicated. Nine years to the day since al Qaeda attacked New York City, murdered nearly 3,000 people, and changed the world we live in, our labels seem to be leading us down some strange paths.

In Pakistan, "Talibanization" is a label used to describe regressive and parochial conservatism, not just the political ascendancy of Mullah Omar and his extremist disciples. When we use the label "mullah," it is not the same thing as honoring someone by calling him "Father" or "Reverend."  Instead, we're most likely referring to a person's narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and possible racism. So when we try to explain to fellow Pakistanis how the United States is much grander than the pettiness of Quran-burning circuses or mosque-defying extremists, we don't use the same labels that Americans would. Describing the ideological kith and kin of opponents of the Park51 project -- including the fringe element of folks like Terry Jones and his flock at the Dove World Outreach Center -- with terms like the moral majority, far-right evangelicals, or even neocons is useless.

Instead, when we try to explain what is happening in America, we simply say that a great country is going through a kind of Talibanization -- led by mullahs like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, and the occasional Terry Jones.

On the ninth anniversary of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, applying these labels to right-of-center America may seem provocative and harsh. After all, even the most grotesque Islamophobia in the United States is not guilty of the horrors enacted by the Taliban, in Afghanistan and beyond. More than any other sin, the Taliban tolerated Osama bin Laden, defended his right to stay among them, and refused to hand him over after he boastfully acknowledged his role as the chairman and CEO of al Qaeda's war on America.

But consider the alternative: What if we didn't present the Quran-burners and mosque-attackers as part of a fringe movement of ideologically driven extremists? Then of course, the only other possibility is for us to accept that International Quran Burning Day and the controversy over the Park51 community center both in different ways signify mainstream America's growing discomfort with Islam. Simply put, if the Islamophobia of an American fringe is in fact not on the fringes, but in the mainstream, then the United States has an Islamophobia problem.

And an Islamophobia problem in America is a problem everywhere else. Of all the things that can destroy the fragile and momentous little steps of progress across the Muslim world, this might be the most potent and lethal. In some of the most world's important Muslim majority countries, already, America is deeply unpopular. A Pew Global Attitudes survey this year revealed that the four countries with the deepest anti-American sentiment are Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Three of these receive busloads of U.S. taxpayer cash, as aid. The fourth, Turkey, is the only modern nation-state from among almost 60 Muslim-majority countries in the world.

State Department do-gooders in Washington and around the world may wonder whether the United States can afford any further ill will in these countries. But the real problem is that the already fraught balance between Islam and the rest of the world can't afford the kind of bitterness and hatred that an Islamophobic America -- real or imagined -- would unleash. Muslims with feet in both worlds often try to bridge the distance between these worlds by invoking the freedom and vitality of Islam in America. The specter of an irrational Islamophobia in America would gut that argument.

Until recently, growing up Muslim in America was arguably one of the most uniquely Islamic experiences in the world. Muslims in the United States enjoy the ironclad protections of the First Amendment, the overwhelming, if often grudging support of the liberal establishment, and at the microlevel (between individuals and families) common cause with their Christian and Jewish cousins of the Abrahamic faith tradition. For the most part, unless you happened to be a Muslim African-American, Muslims had it good in America.

That explains, at least partially, why the most progressive and robust religious voices in global Islam aren't coming from Pakistan, or India, or Indonesia, or the Arab world. Instead, they are coming from places like California's Zaytuna Institute, and from a certain New York community leader named Feisal Abdul Rauf.

In the places where the 9/11 attacks were planned, financed, and conceived, meanwhile, the warm and fuzzy Islam of America's suburbs is a nonexistent fantasy. On the Muslim Main Street, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, and in flood-ravaged Pakistan, Muslims can't see past the Talibanized narrative of the U.S. mid-term election. Just as the mainstream news media in America cannot be held responsible for transforming Terry Jones from a walking punch line into an international celebrity, mainstream media in a country like Pakistan can hardly be blamed for reporting Jones's shenanigans to 180 million -- mostly Muslim -- Pakistanis.

On Sept. 10, as Afghans celebrated Eid, many decided to protest against the Islamophobic events planned in Florida. During the protests, NATO troops, surrounded by angry protesters, opened fire, killing at least one person in Badakshan province. It is easy to become partisan in assigning blame for this death. Many will blame Terry Jones. Others will blame the media. Many others will blame the mullahs who stoked Afghan anger. No doubt, some pundit at Fox News will blame the protester himself, and most people in Afghanistan will blame NATO.

It barely matters anymore who pulled the trigger in Badakhshan. The point is that progressive thought is being lost in the places where it would matter the most. In the nine years since 9/11, there has not been a single domestic Muslim reawakening in any of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's almost 60 Muslim-majority countries. In countries like Pakistan, mosque leaders still make the same anti-American references. They still exhibit the same resistance to change. They still get treated with kid gloves by governments that are run by culturally dislocated Muslims.

Stuck between the growing contempt for traditional Muslim values in the American mainstream, and the regressive inertia of traditional Muslim societies around the world, are the real victims of bin Laden's perverted violence, as well as the disproportionate and self-defeating military responses thatnow have the seal of approval of two successive U.S. presidents.

The most dubious aspect of the industrious coverage of burning Qurans and protests against the building of a Muslim community center of course, is that on this ninth anniversary, justice and closure seem as far away for the victims of 9/11 as they did nine years ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans have brought little, if any comfort to the 9/11 families.

Drone attacks in Pakistan may offer some, but only as long as the faces and names of the innocent victims of those drones remain shrouded in mystery. Conversely, all the rage and anti-Americanism can't seem to liberate countries like Pakistan and Egypt from their corrupt, self-serving, and vicious elite. Instead, vitriolic protests and U.S. flag burning ceremonies help keep those elite firmly ensconced in power -- as they milk the emotions of their people with one hand, and the ever-ready teet of U.S. military and civilian assistance with the other.

In the United States, decent people are unleashing unkind and hateful words upon Muslims around the world because they can. Their rage has nothing to do with Islam. It has everything to do with living in a country that is up to its eyeballs in debt and cannot seem to generate new jobs or new ideas, even under a president who was supposed to lift their country out of this morass.

Still, all hope is not lost, in America, or around the Muslim world. Mikey Weinstein's Military Religious Freedom Foundation promises to donate one Quran to the Afghan National Army for every Quran burned by Terry Jones' congregation.

The American Jewish tradition of defending civil liberties has been reawakened, with numerous Jewish groups rallying to the defense of Islam in America. Among them are the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, and a host of others. They are all acting in concert with various Christian denominations to support the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques -- which has pledged to act as a watchdog on Islamophobia when it comes to mosque building in the United States.

Terry Jones's own home state of Florida has offered a poignant reminder of America's multifaith tradition. Larry Reimer, a minister at the United Church of Gainesville, has decided, "If they can burn it, then we can read it." On Sept. 12, his congregation will include, as part of its Sunday worship, a reading from the Quran.

Perhaps the most brilliant ray of light in this darkness comes from a Facebook group to which I was invited this week. A number of young Pakistanis set up "BLESS the Bible Day on September 11." As I'm writing this, the group already has 150 members -- more than three times the number that Pastor Terry Jones cons into listening to him every Sunday.

There is much to be worried about on this ninth anniversary of 9/11. It is hard, however, to worry too much in the face of the mercy and love of people of all faiths reaching out to each other to fight the hatred and bitterness. Had that spirit prevailed across the mainstream media in the United States, perhaps we'd have a lot less to talk about this 9/11 -- focusing instead on the tremendous strength of the innocent families that lost loved ones on that day.



How to Ruin OPEC's Birthday

The Middle Eastern oil cartel celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. Here's how to keep it from running our lives for another half-century.

Fifty years ago this week, five of the world's top oil-producing countries convened in Baghdad to form the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The goal of the cartel was to "assert its member countries' legitimate rights" and gain "a major say in the pricing of crude oil on world markets." OPEC did just that. In the decades that followed, its members nationalized international companies' oil fields and infrastructure assets, instated a quota system, and gained the upper hand in price negotiations. Within a decade, they had become the most powerful cartel in modern history.

As their collective power grew, OPEC members learned to use oil as an instrument of geopolitical power. Their boldest experiment occurred in 1973, when the cartel's Arab members imposed a painful five-month oil embargo to deter Western nations from supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Since then, OPEC has earned a reputation as a club of greedy, non democratic governments whose oil ministers, who gather in Vienna every few months to set the price of crude, hold everyone else's economic fate in their hands.

But OPEC's well-deserved reputation as a bully obscures another fact: For all its bluster, the group seems almost uninterested in actually getting all its oil out of the ground. Today, the cartel's 12 members account for 78 percent of global oil reserves, but produce only one-third of the actual oil supply; the world's non-OPEC producers, with little more than a fifth of the world's oil at their disposal, pump twice as much. Even with the 2007 induction of two new members, Angola and Ecuador, who collectively produce as much oil each day as Norway, OPEC produces today less oil than it did before the 1973 embargo.

And though OPEC prides itself on controlling almost all the market's spare production capacity -- the main protection the world's economy has against supply disruptions -- its performance as a buffer against oil shocks is similarly unremarkable. The cartel has seldom used its vaunted capacity to rescue an oil-starved market. Time and again when disruptions occur, OPEC drags its feet and ignores consumers' pleas to open the spigot and provide some relief. Instead, it insists, as it did when oil prices spiked to nearly $150 a barrel in July 2008, that the market is well-supplied and that high oil prices are the work of speculators and SUV-driving soccer moms.

OPEC members, meanwhile, are in most cases responsible for the very same supply disruptions they claim to be interested in countering: We have the cartel's members to thank for not just the 1973 embargo, but also Saddam Hussein's attacks on Iran and Kuwait, Nigeria's endless war in the Niger Delta, and the 2003 oil strike in Venezuela. OPEC may claim to be the global economy's fireman, but its members have spent more time behaving like arsonists. The cartel's machinations have gone toward exactly one end: maintaining a virtual monopoly over the world's most necessary fuel, while blocking competition from alternative energy sources.

Half a century of a transportation sector dominated by OPEC has numbed us to this reality and led us to accept the cartel's shenanigans as a fait accompli. We shouldn't. In a modern global economy where free trade, open markets, and strict anti-trust laws are bedrock principles, there is no room for a cartel dominating any commodity -- not least the most strategic one of all.

So far the U.S. Congress has mainly fought OPEC the American way: in court. In 2000, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the NOPEC (No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels) bill, which would have enabled the Justice Department to sue in federal court "any nation ... that is engaging in cartel or conspiracy to limit the production of oil." Responding to the public's rage over high gas prices the House of Representatives passed the measure in 2008. The Senate did not, but George W. Bush's White House announced that it would veto NOPEC if it ever made it into law, sparing us the media circus that would have inevitably followed had the U.S. government tried to sue Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Amid the NOPEC theatrics, the United States surrendered the only actual leverage it ever had over OPEC: In 2005, it approved the admission of Saudi Arabia -- which effectively runs the cartel -- to the World Trade Organization.

Efforts by Congress and successive administrations to address OPEC's domination over the oil market through policies that increase either the availability of petroleum (like domestic drilling) or the efficiency of its use (like increasing mandatory fuel-efficiency standards) have proved equally futile, due to the global nature of the oil trade and humanity's near-total reliance on the fuel for transportation. Whenever non-OPEC producers like the United States increase their production, OPEC decreases supply accordingly, keeping the overall amount of oil in the market the same. OPEC's response to conservation is similar. When gasoline prices soared in 2007 and 2008, American drivers reduced their consumption by as much as 10 percent -- a savings of nearly a million barrels a day. In response, OPEC throttled supply down by 4 million barrels a day. In other words, when we drill more, OPEC drills less. When we use less, OPEC, again, drills less.

To weaken OPEC we must change the playing field altogether -- we must force the cartel to compete against not just other oil suppliers, but other fuels and energy sources. We need new vehicles that enable a whole new kind of fuel competition.

A shift from cars powered by oil to cars powered by electricity -- whether plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles -- would have tremendous impact on the oil market. Electricity is cheap, clean, scalable, and readily available. Most importantly, 98 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from non-petroleum energy sources such as coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and renewable energy.

But studies project that electric vehicles will not reach a market penetration deep enough to threaten OPEC before 2030, which means that we need near-term solutions as well. One option is a simple technical fix which, according to General Motors, costs just $70 per car: turning every new vehicle sold in the United States into a flex-fuel vehicle. Cars powered by internal combustion engines could run on any combination of gasoline and alcohol fuels such as ethanol and methanol made from coal, natural gas, and biomass. The spot price for methanol from natural gas, currently under $1 a gallon, is competitive on a per-mile basis with gasoline.

Congress could make this happen by imposing an open fuel standard, requiring new vehicles to be flex-fuel-capable. Such a standard would put a virtual cap on the price of oil. Consumers would opt for the most economic fuel on a per-mile cost basis and thus shift to substitute fuels the next time OPEC allows the price of oil to exceed a certain threshold. Because no automaker can give up on the U.S. market, the open fuel standard would become a de facto global standard. Cars sold anywhere in the world would be flex-fuel models, allowing small and developing countries to develop competitive fuel markets and domestic alternative fuel industries, while protecting themselves against economically devastating oil shocks.

An open fuel standard would add just $70 to the cost of a new car, the equivalent of filling up a couple of tanks at the pump. Such minimal investment would enable the United States for the first time to challenge OPEC using the weapon the cartel fears most: competition at the pump. Neglecting to adopt such a standard, and thus maintaining oil's virtual monopoly over transportation fuel and strategic importance, is the best birthday gift the United States could give its least-favorite cartel.