In recent weeks I have observed U.S. liberals protesting against Terry Jones’ proposal to burn the Qur’an, and countering the pastor’s none-too-subtle violent posture towards Muslims. I’ve also witnessed other liberal-minded folk defending the decision to build an Islamic centre somewhere in the vicinity of the destroyed Twin Towers in New York. Most of this liberal protesting was carried out in the name of tolerance.
Barack Obama also issued a plea for tolerance when he responded to the religious fervor of Pastor Terry Jones. However, when we examine the wording of his plea, it is clear that it is motivated not out of a simple love for Muslims, but essentially by a military purpose. As Obama expains, “it [Qur'an burning] is something that can cause us profound damage around the world.” Where around the world, exactly? The answer is obvious: in territories currently occupied by U.S. imperial forces. For as long as American military forces continue to occupy various foreign and Islamic territories, tolerance will be a useful strategy in identifying enemies and waging war against them:
We are all Americans that stand together against those that would do us harm. It is absolutely important now for the overwhelming majority of American people to hang on to that thing that is best in us – that is our belief in religious tolerance, our clarity about who our enemies are.
- Barack Obama
In Obama’s view - a view of tolerance which might at first glance appear perverse - tolerance is something that divides us from others. Disappointingly, the widespread support of tolerance - as some (mythical) neutral ideal - continues to be largely unchallenged in liberal discourse. But here in the speech of the President of the United States some of its less noble aims are exposed. Tolerance, for President Obama, is clearly aligned with distingushing Americans from non-Americans, acceptable foreign countries from unacceptable foreign countries, “intolerant” people who justifiably may be killed from those who may not. So it seems that, when liberal protestors uphold “toleration,” they are enthusiastically regurgitating a discourse which is spewed forth from the U.S. imperial centre, and which is employed to justify killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilians – civilians whose deaths are permissible due to their classification as “intolerant.”
In Wendy Brown’s interrogation of the discourse of toleration, Regulating Aversion (2006), she comments:
The new [post-September 11] era demanded that questions about tolerance as a domestic governmentality producing and regulating ethnic, religious, racial, and sexual subjects be supplemented with questions about the operation of tolerance in and as a civilizational discourse distinguishing Occident from Orient, liberal from nonliberal regimes, “free” from “nonfree” peoples. Such questions include the following: If tolerance is a political principle used to mark an opposition between liberal and fundamentalist orders, how might liberal tolerance discourse function not only to annoint Western superiority, but also to legitimate Western cultural and political imperialism? That is, how might this discourse actually promote Western supremacy and aggression even as it veils them in the modest dress of tolerance?
Wendy Brown also points out that tolerance – such as that which motivated liberal protestors to oppose the hate-fueled Qur’anic book burnings - is largely unexamined. It has become that dangerous “common sense” which masks the way the U.S. Government employs tolerance in its decades-long campaign of imperial violence.
One way to unmask the supposed “neutrality” of the principle of tolerance is to examine how it is employed at ground zero itself – the tolerance displayed at the various locales of U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan. The main agent of U.S. toleration is the local religious leader who is deemed friendly to U.S. military operations, and who will persuade locals that these invaders are in fact their friends. One such tolerant Muslim is referred to in counter-intelligence manuals as the “mobile mullah:”
Mobile mullah: Another effective tool used by [US Navy Task Force 31, Psychological Operations] is the “mobile mullah.” [Task Force 31] currently uses one Pashtun malowi (district religious leader) and one Tajik mullah (local religious leader). These religious leaders are held in the highest regard among the Afghan people, making them extremely influential. Their words are considered to be the words of Allah … The differing tribal affiliations of the malowi and mullah add to their credibility, especially when trying to encourage Afghans to end their tribal fighting in support of a peaceful nation. Having these two religious leaders work hand in hand with [Coalition Forces] and [Afghan National Security Forces] counters the [Anti-Coalition Militias] message that [Coalition Forces] are there to take Islam away from the Afghan people.
- US Special Forces Southern Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Handbook 2006: 35
In the spirit of toleration, the U.S. army works hand-in-hand with these mobile mullahs, spreading the message of toleration to locals, before deciding which ones to kill. The mobile mullahs distinguish “good Muslims” who do not resist the U.S. invasions from the “bad Muslims” who are the resulting target of those military operations:
[Task Force 31's] current strategy for employment of “the mobile mullah” is to pre-position them during combat operations as part of a [Civil-Military Operations] package … On a conditional basis, this [Civil-Military Operations] package infiltrates into the [area of operations] immediately following major combat operations. [Civil-Military Operations] is only offered to villages on a quid pro quo basis. If villages report [Anti-Coalition Militias] activity and refuse to voluntarily support the [Anti-Coalition Militias], the [Task Force] provides them with [Civil-Military Operations]. [Civil-Military Operations] cannot be used to support the [Anti-Coalition Militias].
- US Special Forces Southern Afghanistan Counterinsurgency Handbook 2006: 35-36
A close inspection of the wording of Obama’s plea for toleration uncovers the thinly veiled governmental purpose of tolerance, as an instrument to label certain foreign territories as “intolerable” to U.S. interests - and thus “justifiably” subject to torture and killing by U.S. troops, without the usual condemnation such activities might otherwise attract. But at ground zero, the shape of this toleration is even more transparent. The U.S. army’s cooperation with complicit Muslim leaders (including the mobile mullahs in Afghanistan – an example par excellence of toleration) is orchestrated for the express purpose of effectively identifying and killing the enemy. The toleration shown to Muslims is the presentable face of Western aggression – which should give us pause to rethink our protests in favour of toleration – not to stop protesting, but to protest at the more radical problems masked by incidental Christian extremists. Not that we should have been so blind. After all, if anybody informed me that they “tolerated” me, I’d be fairly clear where I stood with them.