Skip to content Skip to footer
It’s Not About Religion: A Conversation With Author and Middle East Expert Gregory Harms
(Image: Perceval Pr)

It’s Not About Religion: A Conversation With Author and Middle East Expert Gregory Harms

(Image: Perceval Pr)

This conversation about Harms’ new book places responsibility for US foreign policy on the US population – even as it undresses the propaganda that distorts Americans’ perception of the people in the Middle East and turns them against Muslims at home.

I met Gregory Harms when he turned to me in a bar in Joliet, Illinois, after hearing me give a positive appraisal of Neil Young’s career. Harms agreed with me, and made a remark I cannot remember. My booze-soaked memory of that evening, as unreliable as it is, has no doubt that Harms’ comment was smart, interesting and original.

Harms is a man of formidable intellect and admirable honesty, but he is also a man of inspiring courage. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he realized, with embarrassment, that he was painfully uninformed on matters concerning the Middle East, Islam, and American foreign policy. Rather than turning to the mindless clichés and meaningless platitudes of the mainline media, he initiated an exploratory journey that would take him all the way to the West Bank, Gaza, and most of Israel. The results of his research, his self-discovery as a tough social critic, and his gathering of moral fortitude are gifts to citizens hoping to gain a clearer view of the world – most especially America’s role in it.

In 2005, Pluto Press published Harms’ first book, The Palestine-Israel Conflict, which provides an outstanding introduction to readers interested in gaining an understanding deeper than the one-note headlines that dominate reporting on the region. Five years later, Pluto published his second book, Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East. In his sophomore effort, Harms brings the same probity that served him well in his first book to an analysis of US-Israeli relations.

Now, Harms is back with a timely, challenging and important book, It’s Not About Religion (Perceval Press). Harms’ new book effectively undresses the insipid and insidious propaganda that distorts America’s perception of the people in the Middle East and often turns them against Muslims at home. In a succinct 90 pages, Harms educates readers on the history of the Middle East, how the West has prevented democracy from taking shape throughout the region, and how America has continually invaded its countries, interfered with its elections, and simultaneously managed to convince many Americans that all the aggression and intervention is innocently committed in defense of American lives. Harms shows how our perceptions of Islam are dangerously wrong and how our beliefs about US foreign policy are often naive.

He also offers hope in his steadfast belief in the power of democracy and organized action from the bottom to actualize change and make the world more livable.

My friend Gregory conducts himself with humility. So, he will not explain that he is emblematic of the hope that results from the empowerment of everyday people. Harms chose to educate himself, and then chose to educate others – all in keeping the faith that, someday, the waters of justice may wash the blood from our hands.

He has emerged as an important alternative voice to the militarism of American adventurism, and I was privileged to interview him on his new book, It’s Not About Religion and the issues surrounding it.

David Masciotra: Gregory, your new book, It’s Not about Religion, makes the claim, as the title suggests, that widespread discontent in the Middle East with Western, and specifically American, society is not about religion. What, then, is it about? And what is about religion in the Middle East?

Gregory Harms: After World War I, Western Europe – mainly Britain and France – divided up the Ottoman Empire into the states that now comprise the modern Middle East. It’s important to bear in mind that these countries are relatively young – about 90 years old. When this system was forced upon the region, Europe installed leaders who would basically provide two services: cooperate with Western interests and keep their respective populations under control. Well, it’s no surprise why you need population control under these circumstances, because the interests of Western power are not exactly in sync with the interests of the people living in the region.

So, as of the 1920s and 1930s, you start seeing regional discontent; by the 1950s and 1960s the Middle East had already gained its reputation for being unstable; and by the 1980s, the region as it exists now was ratcheted into place. All this time, Middle Eastern societies have lived under both Western manipulation (American after 1945) and an array of autocratic monarchies and/or military dictatorships. The grievances of the populations are reasonable and clear: they want to be free of these circumstances, they want to have a political say and they want the basics of human dignity.

What has happened over the decades, however, is an increase in religiosity and in social conservatism. Moreover, the leaderships have used religion as a means of projecting the image of legitimacy as well as controlling the populations. So, yes, religion has entered the picture, but after the fact. For the populations, it has been common to look to religion – that is, Islam – as a means of preserving one’s identity and dignity.

Islam plays an important role in Arab-Middle Eastern culture. The name of God is invoked daily by just exchanging pleasantries with a person. So, it makes sense that if Islam runs throughout the culture – the language, the customs, the celebrations – then it’s going to come out elsewhere, such as expressions of violence. But the core grievances among the shopkeeper, the student, the grandmother, the political activist, the Islamist and the jihadist are basically the same. And they’re not spiritual in nature.

As an aside, it’s important to note that the discontent in the Middle East is typically not directed at American society. It’s directed at the US government – a crucial distinction one is routinely reminded of while there.

DM: Is it fair to say then, and forgive me if I’m simplifying, that the people of Middle Eastern countries desire autonomy, self-determination, freedom and security, just like Westerners? And that the policies of Western power (UK, France, America, etcetera) have prevented Middle Eastern people – from the grandmother to the shopkeeper, from the student to the jihadist – from enjoying these things? If the story is that simple – after all, we in the United States didn’t like when people knocked our buildings down and we wouldn’t like foreign governments interfering with our elections or occupying our territory – why is there such resistance to understanding that truth? Why is there such a widespread belief that Middle Eastern people, with the emphasis on Muslims, hate American culture for its freedom and are hellbent on our destruction?

GH: I wouldn’t say there’s a resistance to understanding the truth. Though the story is basically simple, discussing it plainly and accurately requires a breakdown of preconceptions and a deviation from how the region has been presented to us for the last 200 years. I think once the subject of US involvement in the Middle East is discussed in plain, accurate language, there is a general openness to the truth. It’s been my observation that Americans want better information, they just don’t know where to start or who to believe. The population is generally unsure about the outside world.

Regarding perceptions of the Middle East and Arab-Islamic culture, this runs the course of American history. Through the Bible, poetry, paintings, travelogues by missionaries and writers like Mark Twain, and up to and including modern filmmaking, the Middle East has always been portrayed in a narrow, reductive, two-dimensional manner. Up until the mid-20th century, there were basically two conceptions of the Middle East: one of mysterious, ancient grandeur, and the dusty, backward one that exists. Mark Twain drives this point home in his book The Innocents Abroad. But now the latter conception – the one crawling with “swarms of animated rags,” to use Twain’s phrase – has been modified. As of the 1960s and 1970s, the Middle East went from backward to backward and violent. Now the “swarms of animated rags” have guns and hate America.

And it is here where a resistance to the truth exists. There is a resistance in the news media to present the region as being populated by three-dimensional human beings who have the same kinds of wants and needs as we do. In order to carry out the policies that the United States does in the Middle East, the population here has to be either indifferent or on board. If they’re against it, it won’t fly. So, the major news companies tread lightly in their reportage: enemies get treated harshly and allies get treated politely – regardless of the realities. This isn’t a conspiracy theory; it just makes practical sense. Washington DC has a policy agenda that’s expansionist and global in scope. Major corporate firms benefit from this orientation. The media organizations are either owned by or are themselves large firms, and they wish to protect their access, prestige and advertising revenue. Hence the limited, constrained, subtractive reporting. And hence the population not knowing how to process events like 9/11 or initiatives to invade Iraq.

DM: You say that there isn’t much resistance to the truth from the general population, but when Ron Paul gave a similar analysis of the US interventionism in the Middle East, he was booed at the Republican debate. When a celebrity, such as Sean Penn or Susan Sarandon, does it, they are called anti-American.

GH: In those instances you’re talking about high concentrations of, or particular attention paid to, a specific mindset. The audiences at the GOP debates, for instance, aren’t representative of the population as a whole. There’s a good deal of ideology in that crowd.

As documented in a mountain of polling data, the population is rational and consistent when it comes to its foreign policy preferences. The population might not be knowledgeable about specifics, but its wants and instincts are rational. The majority of Americans prefer a more democratized, multilateral, UN-based foreign policy. While they sympathize with Israel, they view the Palestinians as being treated unfairly and favor a two-state solution. And this despite the media’s obfuscation. If Americans were really shown Israel’s occupation in forensic, high-definition detail, there would be no more occupation.

DM: Gregory, I don’t want to get stuck on this, but I’ll ask one more question on the topic. You point to polling data that indicates the rationality of the American public on foreign policy and domestic treatment of Muslim citizens. There is, however, polling data that suggests otherwise. The most recent example I could cite is the widespread support of President Obama’s drone strike program.

GH: The polling data indicating the rationality and consistency of policy preferences among Americans is overwhelming. I would suggest the work of political scientist Benjamin Page (and respective co-authors), who have analyzed this in serious detail. This isn’t to suggest the public is necessarily correct or makes the right judgment every time, and as I mentioned, the public’s knowledge of foreign affairs is low. But given what the population is presented, public opinion is consistent and stable.

Approval for the drone program is basically consistent with the public’s views on defense in general. Americans are politically left of the Democratic party on almost all major policy issues – health care, abortion, the environment, the economy and so on. But when it comes to defense and security issues, the population’s fears are revealed. The drone approval is unsurprising when the context is considered: the drones address matters of defense without sending more troops, which the country has a very low tolerance for right now.

Similarly, the public approved the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by 70 percent. Again, indicating fear.

DM: The German philosopher Martin Heidegger warned about the consequences of negative identity – that is, identification in opposition to the other. Doesn’t it seem like much of American culture is built on negative identity? Aren’t we always identifying ourselves in opposition to the other, even if the other is part of our own polity: black Americans, “communists,” Muslim “terrorists,” et al.?

GH: When viewing “the other,” yes, humans take note of distinction. Two kids with different skin color will likely discern the fact. Racial judgment is something different. And the “Muslim terrorist” stereotype falls within this kind of thinking. Televised news of the Middle East is basically always bad news: men shouting and carrying (or shooting) machine guns, things blowing up, things that have already been blown up and so on. Looking through the lens of the major news organizations, one couldn’t be blamed for assuming nothing else happens there. And then you add Hollywood’s contributions, which have been more of the same. So as a result of this constant, decades-long reductive treatment – not to mention the 200 years of sedimented assumptions pre-existing in our thinking – you have a set of caricatures who now represent the Arab Middle East.

DM: You cover the ground of what Edward Said called Orientalism in your book, and you do it very convincingly and eloquently. You also make reference to other groups of people – Native Americans, various immigrant groups, African-Americans and others – who have also been on the receiving end of demonization from the American government and press. You trace a long history of viciously skewed perceptions of Muslims – as you say, it goes all the way back to Twain – but how much of this fits into what Gore Vidal called the “enemy-of-the-month club”? Can you elaborate on the connection between the distorted presentation from policymakers and media heavyweights, who are probably educated enough to know better, and a large portion of the public that accepts the biased and dishonest narrative?

GH: If one is going to conduct an expansionist national program, a good many people are going to be trampled upon. Chances are, the policymaker views himself as exceptional and entitled, anyway. But racism and xenophobia are going to play a critical role in both animating his behavior as well as justifying it afterward. Fear is also going to help gain the population’s approval for adventures they ordinarily wouldn’t support.

So, those getting trampled either have it coming as punishment for posing a threat to our way of life, or they get trampled as a means of helping them along the path of progress. Being viewed as simpler beasts or children, they could only need punishment or assistance. I still occasionally hear graduate students in the humanities and academics ponderously suggest – in the form of a question, of course – that imperialism did play a positive role in helping advance subject populations. So, we’re not talking about a mindset that exists solely in the past.

In the case of the United States, the culture has always been insular and easily frightened of people foreign and/or brown. And the leadership and the intellectual class have played a role in dialing up these fears and providing the proper rationale. But even so, in A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn talks about the gentry’s fear of poor whites and black slaves in early America finding common cause. Can’t have that.

Education is the only means of breaking down these stereotypes. And don’t count on the educated class to lead the way. Things have certainly improved regarding tolerance and depictions of the different groups and ethnicities in film, for instance, but the improvements have come from popular pressure, as is usually the case.

DM: It is difficult for reason to defeat fear, but it is possible. After all, we’ve made great strides on other racial and ethnic issues. Your book describes the improvements in Hollywood’s portrayal of the Middle East, for example. What kind of education is required for reason to defeat fear, and where do you think it will come from? Your book provides a wonderful education. Is it part of a larger cultural and political effort you’ve observed?

GH: I agree, the country is not same place it was in, say, the 1950s. Issues of race, gender, sexuality and so forth have made great strides. We’re a more civilized society.

The improvements come from street level. Black Americans have struggled since day one, and the civil rights movement was the culmination of broad, organized, focused, popular resistance. As a result – to address the topic of moviemaking – the shift in how blacks are portrayed in film and television has been enormous. That wasn’t an idea thought up one afternoon by the top studio executives in Hollywood. It came from below. There was a popular demand to cast African-Americans as three-dimensional people. This more humanized thinking then spreads, and society’s ethical standards improve. The issue gets sensitized. And therefore, the film industry becomes more careful on account of the vigilance and pressure. More than that, diversity evolves into an aesthetic and a point of pride. I’m thinking here of the entire Star Trek franchise and The Matrix trilogy. There are other examples. Now having a multicultural, multi-ethnic cast has become standardized to a degree.

With Arabs and Islam in film, there’s a long way to go. However, in the last ten years, there has been one good independent film after another featuring Middle Eastern cultures. Hollywood has been slower on this point, but I have noticed improvements. But the world of independent film is changing the game, especially foreign independents. I just recently saw the 2011 Iranian film A Separation. Not just an excellent film, in my opinion, but it got a lot of attention by American critics and won a boatload of awards, including an Oscar for best foreign-language film. So, it is happening. But it’s trickle up.

Concerning education, it can come from a variety of sources and take place anywhere. Film can help, and is helping right now. But instances of education don’t necessarily have to be formal or official or singular. Education can come in the form of conversation and people dialoguing informally. It doesn’t have to take place at a university or in a theater. It can take place waiting for the bus.

One area where there’s been improvement, again, is independent and foreign news media. Democracy NOW! does excellent work and is gaining attention. And Al Jazeera is getting more attention. Americans would do well to demand a cable channel dedicated to Al Jazeera English; I think there’s some hesitation yet, but if people watched it, I think they’d be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the coverage.

DM: One of the issues that comes to mind on which education is desperately needed is the idea of perpetual conflict in the Middle East. I was fascinated by the point you make in the book that an “aid to external dominance is constant friction and a state of no war, no peace.” You then go on to explain how policymakers seek to “maintain a minimum of tension.” That’s an interesting twist on the oft-repeated cliche of “Oh, those people are always fighting and always will.” Could you elaborate on the American role in continuing the fight?

GH: It’s no secret the region is rich in natural resources, and Washington desires influence over the whole area. This requires a basic level of stability. As we talked about, the populations are not in approval of US domination or their local, national situations. Therefore the region’s leaders have the job of suppressing resistance and so-called instability in their own countries. (Israel’s job is to help carry out this task on a regional level.)

Given the arrangement, it’s obvious there’s going to be tension. What planners in the White House have done now for decades is try to strike a delicate balance: things can’t get too hot, because then they could possibly spin out of control and alter the status quo; and things can’t be too calm, because then Washington can’t use the image of diplomatic concern as a cover for its involvement in the region. Also, when the situation is too calm, there’s less justification for flooding the area with weapons – a major gift to the US defense industry. Right now, a missile defense system is being planned in the Persian Gulf on the premise that Iran poses a threat. The New York Times just reported [on August 27] that US arms sales are currently at an all-time high and account for 75 percent of the global market.

I’m reading Al Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara’s excellent new book The Invisible Arab, and he makes clear how the region’s leaders and regimes have also used these tensions to their own advantage, justifying states of emergency and draconian security measures. However, despite US and local domination, the status quo in the Middle East is changing. The Arab Spring uprisings have made a serious impact, and in the process, have smashed a list of Western preconceptions about the Arab world.

DM: And you make the point in your book that all of this remains a constant of US foreign policy. Given that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season, can you describe how party and personality differences amount to very little deviation from US foreign policy norms? Would you say that we can expect the same policies in that region from a second President Obama term or a first President Romney term?

GH: The desire for global preponderance remains fixed, which explains the continuity since 1945. There are certainly differences from one executive to another, but the overarching program is the same. One doesn’t rise up that high in government without possessing the requisite assumptions, inclinations and drives. Despite the personality differences, these are team players who are willing and able to defend the faith. Party politics serve more as a distraction for the public than they do as an actual boundary for where legislators stand on Capitol Hill.

A second Obama term might see some measure of peace process theater regarding the Palestine-Israel issue. But that’s a maybe. So far, he’s continued the carte blanche given to Tel Aviv by the Bush II administration. On balance, Obama’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been aggressive and violent. His call for quote-unquote “change” has been thin on the ground.

It is difficult to determine where Romney really stands on foreign policy. In his pursuit of the GOP ticket, and being sponsored by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the governor’s statements on the matter have indeed been ultra-hawkish. But Romney is something of a windsock, so it’s hard to tell. He has endeavored to present himself as being much different than Obama, which isn’t the case. Furthermore, the Republican policy agenda is so far removed from what most Americans want that the fact has to be covered up with increasingly severe social conservatism and militant talk about Israel and the Iranian threat. The GOP seems desperate, and I don’t know if it has much of a future on its present course. Like I said, the population is left of the Democrats, and the Republicans are moving further rightward. Once behind the Resolute desk, though, Romney as president would probably track somewhere between Bush W. and Obama. However, especially with Paul Ryan in tow, it might be best not to find out.

DM: Your analysis of these issues – in the book and in this interview – is very rational and expressed with great clarity. You aren’t distracted by personality or swept away in rhetorical fervor.

GH: I think there’s too much, as you say, personality and rhetorical fervor, and I certainly don’t want to contribute to it. In examining these things, such trivialities are best ignored. They’re mostly either affected, or created by a PR firm, or merely what the major news outlets choose to focus on. They don’t mean much of anything. Which is why I said that party politics is basically there to distract. If you’re focusing on so-and-so’s personality and getting caught up in the “gaffes,” you’re probably too close. When you pull back, filter out the trivialities and start looking at patterns, a more accurate picture emerges. Our political wants and needs are far too important to allow the conversation to be steered by the two major parties, Time Warner and News Corp.

There’s a very good example of people taking control of the discussion, and it’s happening right now in the Middle East. And they have a lot more to push against than we do.

DM: One of the larger background issues to your book that you address on page 1 is the idea that religion is the major cause of most wars. It is a cliché that gets tossed around pretty often. You argue that it simply isn’t true. Can you elaborate on that?

GH: I would say it’s less of a cliché and more of a misreading of history, but maybe an understandable one. The lines of conflict tend to get drawn at lines of nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion and the like. So, when war erupts, many times you have people of different backgrounds battling one another. What is immediately noticed are the perceptible differences between the two warring groups – and then it’s a mere hop in logic to assume those salient differences are the root cause, which is rarely the case.

The differences are often used to instill fear and hatred in the population, thus allowing leaders to pursue their usually less-than-spiritual agendas.

DM: How do you suggest we proceed on human rights abuses in the Islamic world, especially concerning the treatment of women? It seems that we shouldn’t make the mistake of speaking as if that is representative of the entire faith or region, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be bashful about condemning real violence and misogyny. How do you walk that tightrope if it comes up in conversation or your writing?

GH: The Islamic world spans a good portion of the globe, from Morocco to Indonesia. So I’ll focus here on Southwest Asia, from Israel to Pakistan.

Abuses against women occur everywhere in the region, and in places like Afghanistan – we’ve all heard the stories – nightmarish things are being done. These acts – anywhere – might be carried out in the name of Islam, but seem to be either tribal behavior, or the byproduct of increased harsh social conservatism, and so on. There’s really no tightrope to walk.

If we wish to make a difference, then we have to locate ourselves in the picture and ask: What can we achieve? What outcomes can we bring about?

As we’ve been touching on throughout the conversation, the region is home to manipulation, corruption, despotism, conflict and warfare. The clock is therefore continually stopped or turned back. Because of the Russian and US invasions and occupations of Afghanistan – 20 of the last 30 years – it has been reduced to a virtual country. There were signs of improvement there in the 1970s, but now it’s barely a nation-state. The brutal human rights abuses are, of course, the responsibility of the perpetrators, but to dismiss the context is to basically create a lie. Can we expect Afghanistan to function like Norway after what it’s been through?

So, now we have two options: we can make the easy assertion that those people are backward, senseless and violent, or we can take stock of US contributions to the problem, which are enormous. The United States is perhaps the freest country in the world, which means we can influence our government with the least amount of restriction. I mean, let’s be honest: what restrictions are there?

Calling a halt to these foreign adventures would help those at the receiving end immensely. Had Afghanistan been allowed to evolve, with foreign support instead of foreign assault, it might not be Norway right now, but it would be much farther down the road and the abuses at far lower levels.

Afghanistan is an extreme case, but the point applies generally. If the Middle East and Southwest Asia were allowed to develop and progress, the level of human rights abuses in general would fall. A healthy majority of Americans desire less intervention there and more UN involvement. So, the opinion is already in place. Now it’s just a matter of speaking up. And power always and absolutely fears populations, so we needn’t even speak that loudly.

DM: The New York Police Department recently revealed that after six years of monitoring mosques and Islamic organizations they have uncovered zero productive leads in any terrorism investigations. Do you see the NYPD’s pointless invasion of citizen privacy as emblematic of the future? Might more people begin to realize that it is “not about religion,” as your book’s title says, and might we finally see an end to this nonsense?

GH: There’s a domestic and a foreign component to your question, which then converge.

The NYPD’s operations hark back to the past as much as they might signal future trends. Whether it’s been communists, leftist organizations, labor organizations, black organizations or Japanese Americans during World War II, perceived threats – real or not – get spied on and mistreated. The attacks on 9/11 were carried out by Arab Muslims, so that’s the demographic concern. True, there are other groups within or similar to al-Qaeda that would like to see a repeat of that morning, and that is a clear and real security issue. But there’s acting on reasonable suspicion, and then there’s baseless, illegal profiling and constitutional infringement. And the latter should be taken very seriously by every American citizen.

That’s the domestic consideration. The foreign component we’ve covered throughout, and that is, we need to ask why 9/11 happened. Despite being who he was, Osama bin Laden did answer the question clearly just before the 2004 US elections. Maintaining it was not because of al-Qaeda’s supposed hatred of American freedoms, he said, “let [President Bush] tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example…. Just as you waste our security, we will waste your security.” As we talked about earlier, the people’s grievances are fairly consistent across the region. There are a lot of people carrying a lot of anger. With over 200 million people just in the area spanning Egypt to Iran, it’s not a stretch to guess that a few are going to express their grievances in the most vicious and catastrophic way they can think of. That’s not a justification of what was done, but when the record of what Washington has carried out or abetted in the Middle East over the last 60 years is included in the discussion, 9/11 is then located in a much broader context.

In a sense, however, both components are ultimately domestic. As always, the burden is on the populace. It suffers the terrorist reprisals of our foreign policy; it suffers the wars that were created in the wake of 9/11; it suffers the drain on the economy as a result of these wars; it suffers the damage done to the social fabric when there is always and forever someone to fear; and it suffers the infringements and threats to its civil liberties carried out in the name of national security.

Though the populace bears the burdens, it also possesses immense power. The public can effect change, but it can’t do so in a vacuum. Education not only provides better understanding, it provides increased confidence. Things are improving with alternative news sources and the Internet, but the misconceptions, myths and prejudgments run deep. I feel addressing the question of religion is one place to start.

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.