Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly -- probably Shiite,” he responded, as though he knew what he was talking about. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”
Now, for anyone expecting the new Democratic-led Congress to seriously undertake an investigation into what the mainstream press daintily refers to as “possible misuse of prewar intelligence” and what is more honestly termed “deliberate production and dissemination of lies to justify a war of aggression,” the Congressman’s answers should cause some anxiety. The neocons disdain facts in the material world because they think they can generate them from the ether. Reyes perhaps disdains facts because they’re hard to keep straight in his mind at 5:00, and because he has better things to do with his tax-paid time than grasp the bonehead basics of the study of Islam.
When Bush decided he was going to attack Iraq, soon after 9-11, he ordered the intelligence services to find evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda. At the time, serious academics specializing on the Middle East were very skeptical about the linkage, pointing out that al-Qaeda adheres to a particularly fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam, and is ferociously hostile to the type of secular rule represented by Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party (as well as to Shiism). In August 2004 the 9-11 Commission concluded there had been no operational connections between Saddam and al-Qaeda, but the lie had served its transitory purpose and most of the Congress had bought it. When you combine the abject stupidity of the Congress with the calculated deceit of the neocons and the cruel impulses of a cowboy president, you’re likely to get a war.
I don’t mean to come off like a pompous professor berating a bunch of kids for being behind on their homework. Their ignorance probably won’t kill people. We’re talking about the head of the damned House Intelligence Committee in an era of U.S. confrontation with the 1.2 billion Muslims on the planet admitting he lacks even minimal knowledge about that world religion. One would not expect him, of course, to familiarize himself with the details of Islamic history and the theological divisions between its various schools. But he is clueless about details covered in any reasonably designed International Relations 101 class.
To be fair, he is not alone by any means. Jeff Stein, the national security editor at Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece a few months ago highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the nature of the Muslim faith. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein learnedly, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after a little briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” Last year, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. ... Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.” Yep, that’s your FBI there, that’s theoretically supposed to investigate things, disparaging the information that al-Qaeda is Sunni, and the Hizbollah and Iran are Shiite, as a mere parlor game, and accusing those who think such knowledge matters as nitpicking bullies. It is easy of course to counterattack by simply heaping ridicule on these buttheads, but one must recognize the danger they pose -- and the fundamental evil from which their mental laxity stems. They see the most basic ability to distinguish between the vast spectrum of Muslim communities as irrelevant to their personal careers. Something highly obscure and specialized, like studying Urdu (Hindi, a South Asian language, written with an Arabic-based script). Even though they know that the Bush administration wants to achieve regime change in Syria and Iran, has been meddling big-time in Lebanon, has practically alone in the world justified every Israeli attack on Muslims both Sunni and Shiite, and has championed an “us versus them” and “Good versus Evil” mentality interpreted by much of Bush’s Christian fundamentalist social base as a war on Islam in general -- still, no inclination to actually think about Islam. It’s so much easier to close your eyes, stop up your ears, keep your hand over your mouth, and attach yourself to anti-Muslim bigotry.
The blatant, almost proudly displayed stupidity of these people serves the causes of vilifying Muslims and justifying wars against them. It facilitates the neocons’ project of using terror incidents, hastily followed by the propagation of “noble lies,” to hit at predetermined targets whether or not there’s any connection. An article by Philip Giraldi, in the American Conservative last year reported that Vice President Cheney’s office has specifically told the Pentagon that the military should be prepared for an attack on Iran in the immediate aftermath of “another 9-11 . . . not conditional on Iran actually being involved in the act of terrorism directed against the United States.”
Why should Cheney, in his undisclosed location, worry about showing any actual Iranian involvement? Why, when the entire political establishment has shown itself happy to bury its head in the sand, in blissful ignorance about the Islamic world? Al-Qaeda, or some homegrown group, attacks (say) the Golden Gate Bridge. Well then, time to attack Iran, don’t you think, Congressman Reyes? It’s after five o’clock, and it’s hard to keep things in perspective. But since al-Qaeda’s predominantly Shiite, like Iran, wouldn’t it just make sense? Can’t we count on your approval?
It would not make sense, I’d suggest, to anyone conscious of the very recent past, the recent historical record of administration lies which the political establishment wants to ignore. Soon after the invasion of Iraq, Paul Wolfowitz, dripping with responsibility for the crime told a reporter in Baghdad that he just didn’t understand some people’s concern with historical truth: “I didn’t come (to Iraq) on a search for weapons of mass destruction. If you could get in a relaxed conversation with Iraqis on that subject they’d say why on earth are you Americans fussing so much about this historical issue when we have real problems here, when Baathists are killing us and Baathists are threatening us and we don’t have electricity and we don’t have jobs. Those are the real issues. I’m not saying that getting to the bottom of this WMD issue isn’t important. It is important. But it is not of immediate consequence.”
No, the neocons still well-represented in Cheney’s little circle don’t want Reyes and his colleagues probing into that history of lies, and the technique of lie manufacture, paving the way for more war down the road. They don’t want any discussion of how they systematically used fear and ignorant Islamophobia to achieve their aims. The Congressman’s recent dumb-ass comments must give them comfort.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Gary Leupp
* “We Cannot
Save the Iraqis from Themselves”: Bipartisan Blaming of the Iraqi People
* From Cana to
Qana: From the Wedding Then, To a Slaughter of Innocents Now
of the Holocaust”: More Disinformation on Iran
* “Ideologies of
Hatred”? What Does Condi Mean?