The Geopolitics of Oil Promotes Islamic Fundamentalism. Ben Affleck's Political Correctness Doesn't. Tell Sam Harris.

It feels good for many people to look at Islam without looking at the bigger picture of geopolitics and foreign policy, but doing so allows us to repeat the same mistakes, while focusing intently on only part of the problem.
10/14/2014 07:45 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2014
In this Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 photo released by the U.S. Air Force, a B-1B Lancer disengages from a KC-135 Stratotanker af
In this Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 photo released by the U.S. Air Force, a B-1B Lancer disengages from a KC-135 Stratotanker after refueling during U.S.-led airstrikes on Islamic State group targets in Syria. Nearly 2 out of 3 Americans back U.S. airstrikes to combat Islamic extremists and half also think there's a high risk of a future terrorist attack on American soil. Americans surveyed for an Associated Press-GfK poll are split on whether they approve of the way President Barack Obama is generally handling the threat from the Islamic State group and other terrorists. Yet despite more than a decade of costly war, about a third favor going even beyond airstrikes and putting U.S. military boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria — something Obama says he has no plans to do. (AP Photo/Staff Sgt. Ciara Wymbs, U.S. Air Force)

"But what about the billions in weapons we give to Saudi Arabia, the most extreme example of everything Sam Harris advocates against, doesn't this undermine..."

Straw Man!

Non Sequitur!

If those are your first impressions of the headline, or of this article, take a moment to look at the geopolitics of oil (or the Cold War and the war on terror) and how our foreign policy decisions contradict the values and advocacy of Sam Harris and others who often times rightfully criticize Islam. Any rational critique of Islam that doesn't include the phrase "oil is the engine of the world economy" at some point within the argument risks omitting the 800 pound gorilla directly linked to wars, Islamic fundamentalism, and terrorism.

In The Reality of Islam, Sam Harris states "civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth" and that "Muslim moderates, wherever they are, must be given every tool necessary to win a war of ideas." He also argues that, "Political correctness and fears of racism have rendered many secular Europeans incapable of opposing the terrifying religious commitments of the extremists in their midst."

This all sounds great, until one types www.opec.org and reads that close to 70 percent of the world's oil reserves are located in a region of the world that is predominantly Muslim. The uber-rational calls for sanity by Sam Harris and like-minded individuals are blissfully ignorant of the fact that "civilized nations" have only "united" to ensure at all costs that the global economy is lubricated with oil. Thus, Muslim moderates being given "every tool necessary to win the war of ideas" is not only a fantasy, but doesn't take into account the Cold War, oil's importance to the global economy, the war on terror, or any other colossal factor that influences both Islam and the West's relationship with Islam.

Focusing on our mistakes in the Middle East DOES NOT condone the atrocious elements of radical Islam (to assume this argument condones any aspects of extremism is irrational) nor do our foreign policy blunders contradict the belief that humanist values should indeed be promoted within Muslim nations.

However, critiquing Islam without mentioning the Cold War, oil, or the war on terror is like blaming global warming solely on the sun, or ignoring the chum we place in the water before a shark attack.

We continually sell billions of weapons to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, even though both counties have been linked to the origins of the Islamic radicalism we're fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Brooking's Institution states that Pakistan "has been intimately associated with the Taliban since its birth in the mid-1990s." How have we reacted to this? In 2010, the U.S. gave $2.5 billion in direct military assistance to Pakistan and we've given billions in economic and military assistance since 1962.

As for Saudi Arabia, The New York Times reported that lawyers for the families of 9/11 victims found "new evidence of extensive financial support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups by members of the Saudi royal family." Pertaining to its involvement with ISIS, The Independent's Patrick Cockburn writes that "Saudi Arabia has created a Frankenstein's monster over which it is rapidly losing control." How has the U.S. ensured that Saudi Arabia doesn't foment Islamic fundamentalism? In 2010, the U.S. signed a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and hundreds of billions in weapons deals since the 1980s.

When Sam Harris writes, "It is time we realized that the endgame for civilization is not political correctness," he is correct. It's important to condemn any bad ideas promoted by Islam, including the horrifying intimidation experience by Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. However, it's far more relevant to explain how these bad ideas are promoted by our weapons, funding, and political support, whenever we deem it necessary in terms of national security.

Harris makes the pristine delineation between the "Mother lode of bad ideas" within Islam and foreign policy related to our oil interests, but he conveniently fails to mention that both are interconnected in ways that make them inseparable. As stated within a review by the Middle East Policy Council of Steve A. Yetiv's The Petroleum Triangle: Oil, Globalization, And Terror, our oil addiction is directly linked to fundamentalism and terror:

When it comes to September 11, oil plays a crucial role in explaining al-Qaeda's motivations. Oil money was pivotal to funding the Afghan resistance, which counted among its ranks many Pakistanis educated in Saudi-funded madrassas. Oil money was also decisive for the rise of the Taliban, who also studied in the Saudi-sponsored schools and offered al-Qaeda a safe heaven for its operations in Afghanistan.

More broadly, oil has turned out to be crucial in financing terrorist networks and activities...

As many scholars have shown, there are powerful connections between oil and the lack of democracy...

A great amount of research has found that oil money is linked to the prevalence of schools that foment extremist religious views, the rise of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as a "lack of democracy" in the Middle East.

Therefore, how can one possibly claim that Ben Affleck, liberalism, multiculturalism, or "political correctness" overshadow the billions of dollars that flow through Saudi Arabia (and other oil-producing nations in the region), into schools it funds that promote extremism, as well as the billions in weapons we provide theocracies that bolster fundamentalist interpretation of Islam?

Furthermore, Harris is only partly correct when he states, "It now appears to be a truism in foreign policy circles that real reform in the Muslim world cannot be imposed from the outside." Perhaps, but denying petro-dollars to regimes who commit human rights abuses in the name of religion is the most powerful way to promote reform "from the outside." Democratic reforms will never happen from within these countries if they don't have the economic and political incentives to alter their theology.

Former head of the CIA James Woolsey explained to the Stanford Law School in 2010 how oil keeps Muslim nations within the grip of religious extremism, as well as how oil funds this perverse religious interpretation:

"If you have a country that is an dictatorship, controlled by a very small group of people, and it comes into possession of a valuable commodity, then even though that country is getting richer, it's not getting richer in any meaningful way that builds up a prosperous, enfranchised middle class and paves the way for democracy," Woolsey said. "That added economic rent only enhances the wealth and the power of those few people, consolidating power in their hands."

This wealth is put to uses that "are not in pretty much anyone's best interest," he said.

"By and large, it is oil money that is funding the madrasas that teaches little boys that becoming suicide bombers is a good, reasonable life choice for them," Woolsey said. "Next time you go to a filling station, you will know where that money is coming from. So, to put it mildly, we are paying for both sides of this war on terrorism."

The world's addiction to oil gives Middle Eastern governments little reason to usher Islam into modernity. In addition, it doesn't help that we're more than willing to pay for "both sides of this war on terrorism" and overlook the fact that Saudi Arabia funds schools that teach "becoming suicide bombers is a good, reasonable life choice."

Also, one year after 9/11 the Cato Institute published a commentary titled, Is Terrorism the Price of Saudi Oil? The following analysis highlights how one of our closest allies in the Middle East has been linked to funding the same terrorism we're fighting today:

Not only were 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers Saudis, but it is widely acknowledged that Saudi money has flowed into al Qaeda's coffers...

Washington may not be able to force Saudi Arabia to accept political or religious freedom. But it can insist that Riyadh cooperate to turn off the financial spigot for terrorists...

America's most important foreign-policy objective is defeating terrorism, and the most important contribution that Saudi Arabia can make is to cut off funding for al Qaeda or related networks.

Whenever someone asks, "What other religion flies planes into buildings?" simply respond by asking "What other religion has the United States fund its most extreme theocracy, even in light of its links to terrorism?" Fast forward to 2014 and Saudi Arabia has today been linked to the creation of ISIS, so history repeats itself.

How are these grandiose issues not overshadowing vapid discussions of how liberals (try naming even one liberal who has ever condoned honor killings, stoning, violence against women, etc.) and their political correctness undermine the fight against radical Islam?

In the recent Real Time debate with Ben Affleck, Dr. Sam Harris said, "The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people." True, reasoned critique of Islam is warranted, needed, and should never be confused with bigotry. However, Ben Affleck's reaction to a perceived attempt at painting hundreds of millions with the same brush because of poll numbers isn't a meme. All you have to do is learn how this prejudice has affected the Sikh American community; and they're not even Muslim. SALDEF Executive Director Jasjit Singh's Huffington Post article eloquently describes how Bill O'Reilly's "he looks like a Muslim" remark spurs hatred and prejudice that affect all Americans. This so-called "meme" is also the reason why conservatives in 7 states have banned Sharia law, but rejoice over the Hobby Lobby ruling, or threaten to leave the GOP because of gay marriage.

Compared to the scourge of "political correctness," the billions in weapons and oil money we give to Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia (without asking they allow their women to drive or protect minorities from persecution), or the fact we've invited Islamic fundamentalist to the White House when they fought the Soviets, does infinitely more to entrench the abhorrent aspects of Islam condemned by Sam Harris and others within Muslim nations. Reagan boldly declared "We support the Mujahidin," knowing full well that they personified everything Sam Harris abhors, but national security trumped values then, and it continues to trump values today. Saudi Arabia still hasn't allowed its women to drive, even with all the billions in weapons and military support we provide this country, but why should they? We've never made women's rights in that country part of our national security agenda, so let's just harp forever about the fact Islam promotes bad ideas.

It feels good for many people to look at Islam without looking at the bigger picture of geopolitics and foreign policy, but doing so allows us to repeat the same mistakes, while focusing intently on only part of the problem. Sam Harris is a good man and a great philosopher, but his omission of history undermines his arguments. The day we place human rights and other precious values ahead of pragmatism related to oil and our latest foreign policy concerns will be the day that Islam takes a meaningful step towards modernity. Saying this doesn't condone the negative aspects of Islam, it simply addresses how we overlook Islamic fundamentalism when it suits us economically, or whenever our national security is put ahead of our ideals.