the bite of exceptionalism

Is the spread of ideology zero-sum? Does the spread of one ideology undermine the veracity of another?

The answer is, of course, conditional. What are the ideologies at play and to what extent do they oppose/compliment one another?


These thoughts grew in my mind through my reading about the American presence in Afghanistan during the height of the Cold War (see Suzy Hansen’s book, Notes on a Foreign County: An American Abroad in a Post-American World). The American presence in that corner of the world at that time was largely about stemming the threat of ideological contagion. Communism was the threat of the day. By funding the mullahs (Islamic leaders and scholars) and the mujahedeen (Islamic guerilla fighters), the American government hoped to create a bastion against communist ideology. In their minds, Islam was the only force strong enough to defeat it.

Evidently it worked. And it’s become the newest monster to fight. It was, at least in part, the United States that created the current generation of Islamic fundamentalists.[1]

America succeeded in defeating one enemy only to create its next one.

We can debate the level of genuineness and innocence of America’s belief in democracy but it cannot be denied that its foreign policy has, since World War II, been heavily guided by the need to advocate democratic values. Ironically, this advocacy has often included decidedly undemocratic elements and actions, including the support and essentially direct insertion of authoritarian leaders around the world. 

In any case, what makes the American fundamentalist belief in democracy justifiable? (I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to use “fundamentalist” here.) To what extent is it justified? Is the killing of military and civilians alike justified in the pursuit of establishing democratic (read humanitarian) governance?

Many say that currently, the most pressing threat to American democracy is Islamic fundamentalism. Groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood are creating a world they firmly believe in, a world they believe to represent the best version of humanity just as the American establishment is doing. Very few people and institutions are out to destroy the world. Almost everyone is trying to create the world in which they want to live, a “better” world.

American exceptionalism. Islamic exceptionalism. Pick-any-country-or-ideology exceptionalism. How do we fully step outside of our own bubble? Perhaps we can’t.

As much as I at times want to disassociate myself from America, can I really? To what extent can I truly see the world through another’s eyes?

I can never fully leave my Americanness behind. Nor do I think I’d want to. I am, in many ways, a patriot. (I unfortunately do find it difficult to use this term, as it has become, in the mainstream, representative of something rather irreverent.)

In order to live, we need to act, decide. In order to act, we need to believe, believe something. That belief may be irrational or unjustifiable from another perspective, but we ourselves need not be eternally bound by that belief. Curiosity allows us to change, to learn, and thus hopefully to act in accordance with the truth.

[1] Phenomena such as this are supremely complicated and I can hardly claim to scratch the surface in understanding them. However, I do not think it accurate to make broad statements such as that the United States is solely responsible for the current fundamentalist climate in much of the Middle East. I say this not to excuse the doings of the U.S., but rather to nod at the multifaceted and nuanced nature of this history.

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