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Winning the War for Hearts and Minds – While We Still Can

The United States and the international community (including much of the Islamic world itself) today finds itself attempting to survive a war against al Queda and the forces of Islamic terror. Our invasion of Iraq was the lynchpin of an ambitious strategy long advocated by the Project for the New American Century, dedicated to, as former United States Ambassador Joe Wilson has described it, “redrawing the political map of the Middle East”. Although only a few months old, this strategy has become the subject of an intense debate.

Bush Administration defenders claim that more progress is being made in the reconstruction of Iraq in that same short period than was accomplished at a similar point in either Germany or Japan after World War II. Administration critics point out that this policy, once advocated as a possible vaccine for a potential alliance between secular Baath Party thugs like Saddam Hussein and Islamic radicals like Osama Bin Laden, may have actually brought such an alliance to life. We further argue that because of the unconscious fashion in which it was launched, it has simultaneously drained precious human and economic resources, wrecked our Nation's international reputation, but most terribly, has inspired a wildfire of new Islamic terrorist recruitment – a wildfire as terrifying as the conflagrations we watch today consuming homes and landscapes in Southern California.

What should be obvious to all parties is that any program to survive the current crisis must be multi-dimensional – with armed force, enhanced collaboration among international law enforcement and banking agencies, and dramatically improved homeland defense (like truly safeguarding American and international ports) each playing a crucial role. However, in my opinion, even the optimal combination of these three elements will not be sufficient without the addition of one final component – the component of understanding, and the ability to think one's way to victory in a war of ideas.

Lethal Weapon
What is this larger war really about? Can we even concretely list the mundane causes without falling victim to our own ideological prejudices? In truth, it can be a tremendous challenge.

Why do the terrorists hate us? In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush said that terrorists hated America because they were jealous of our freedom and wealth. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman has expounded on the sense of cultural impotency and political despair within the Muslim world, and how the deep frustration that accompanies such feelings might explain the willingness of young men and even women to end potentially promising lives while killing the supposed enemies of either Islam or the Palestinian people. Friedman makes a fair point, even if, in my opinion, he has retreated to an “end justifies the means” rationale for continuing to support the war that Bush clearly attempted to sell “on the wings of a lie” (the very words that Friedman has used on more occasions than I can count, and which, as far as I'm concerned is the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors within the context of a democratic system of government). But, clearly, political reform in the Middle East would be a good thing. That said, I don't think that political reform represents the whole story. So, perhaps a better question might be why does anyone hate that which they do not understand? And why has religious dogma so often been turned into something akin to a lethal weapon?

The recent story involving Lt. General William G. Boykin might prove illustrative in this regard. Boykin's service record marks him as an authentic American patriot, and absolutely the kind of man you'd want serving beside you in any battle where courage, conviction and intestinal fortitude were essential ingredients if either of you were to survive. But what are we to make of Boykin's mixing of incredibly subjective religious dogma and nationalism? For instance, how is his statement (in describing Somalian warlord General Adid) that “I knew that my god was bigger than his...I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol” very different from Osama Bin Laden's celebration of Allah in the videotape where he describes the destruction of the World Trade Center? Or Boykin's statement that it's "a guy named Satan" who "wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army”? Does he not understand that America's nickname in much of the Islamic world is “the great Satan”? If history teaches us anything, it is that when either side in any battle evokes the image of Satan, their goal is simply to demonize the opponent. If both sides are truly effective at that goal, it only makes reaching an eventual resolution that much harder – as we are watching with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The PLO clearly chose the option of demonizing Israel in years past, and in the process created a monster they can no longer control, called Hamas – which now only marches to the beat of their own twisted, hate-filled drummer.

But even closer to home, it's instructive to focus on what I perceive as the consciousness behind Mel Gibson's much discussed new film, documenting Christ's passion and crucifixion. How could a movie that has yet to be even shown to the general public incite so much controversy? People who have actually seen a rough cut of the film describe it as profoundly moving, if violent and emotionally wrenching. The violence is, frankly speaking, a staple of Gibson films. It's how we came to know and love him – in movies like the Lethal Weapon or Mad Max series, and later with inspiring, entertaining films like Braveheart and The Patriot.

What fascinates me is Gibson's underlying psycho-spiritual intention in making a passion film. For instance, what was Gibson implying in January 2003 when he stated, in response to Bill O'Reilly's question if the movie might offend Jews: "Anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability." I'd like to ask Gibson who this “anybody” might be, with regard to the specific subject matter of his film? Two thousand years later, who could possibly be alive today who could even vaguely bear any semblance of “responsibility” for the crucifixion of Jesus? If one sensibly attempts to put themselves in the shoes of “Jews” at the time of the historical Christ's ministry, they are forced to adopt a persona involving multiple personalities. Clearly, some “Jews” thought Jesus was the Messiah; other “Jews” thought Jesus was a heretic or a threat to their authority; other “Jews” who heard Jesus must of thought him an interesting Rabbi, but may have frankly been more interested in news of the chariot races that spring; and some “Jews” must have lived their entire lives without ever knowing that he had ever been born. What defensible conclusions can Gibson or anyone else possibly draw about this incredibly diverse group, who are often lumped together under the umbrella description of “Jews”? Or, in truth, what could Gibson be implying about the descendents of the Romans – the alternate heavy in any passion play? Scripture tells us that Jesus himself, while dying on the cross, cries out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”. While Jesus' entire ministry is one devoted to the themes of forgiveness, love and non-violence, one wonders why Gibson is still apparently focused on assigning blame. Besides, what is Jesus' story without the resurrection? Has he understood the larger importance of Jesus' ministry at all? This so reminds me of some advice that Jack Phelan, a Communications Professor at Fordham University in the late 70s, once gave, imploring his students to "not blame the problems of the world on Christ, since Jesus' philosophy had never been tried”. Gibson's response to O'Reilly prompts me to ponder conditions within the dungeon his consciousness is clearly imprisoned within. That said, in Gibson's defense, let me suggest that were we to survey the religious scene across the planet at the current moment, we would be likely to find a multitude of similar dungeons.

Pluto in Sagittarius Revisited
I wrote an essay in the Spring of 2003 entitled “A Bubble in Time” (www.hpleft.com/040303.html), exploring the psycho-spiritual impact of transiting Pluto's passage through tropical Sagittarius. Here's a brief explanatory excerpt from that essay:

“This age of rapidly expanding bubbles began in January 1995, when the planet Pluto, as referenced against the coordinates of the tropical zodiacal, left the sign of Scorpio and moved into Sagittarius. Astrologers describe Pluto as the planet of dramatic transformations, of evolutional changes in cultures, ideologies, human activities and consciousness itself. The sign of Sagittarius, said to be ruled by the planet Jupiter, is intimately concerned with the nature and power of beliefs, in our coming to grips with issues around faith (both religious and psychological), and in evaluating the validity of these beliefs within the framework of the physical world. In a very real sense, when Pluto entered tropical Sagittarius, for a period of 13 years, the dynamics underpinning human beliefs found themselves under a high-powered cosmic microscope.”

In this essay, I identified several “bubbles” that anyone might recognize – a internet stock bubble, a new economy bubble, a real estate bubble, a religious bubble (which, I should add, continues to expand throughout the world as fear and apprehension about the future grows), and a nationalist bubble – which I believe has taken hold here in America, as well as in places like Chechnya, Palestine, Israel, Kashmir and Pakistan, and I suspect, in countless other nations across the planet.

In that same article, I wrote:
Sagittarius is also strongly connected to the concept of religion, or expressed more concretely – the establishment of specific belief systems about the nature of humanity's relationship to the cosmos, for the purpose of making us feel more comfortable during our tenure here on earth.”

I also wrote:
“If we want to understand the dark side of faith, of an unhealthy response to our need to feel safe and secure in an often frightening world, we only need look at the rise of religious fundamentalism in Islam and Christianity. One of the characteristic elements of these extreme forms of both world religions is a need to divide the world between the blessed and those who are somehow servants of Satan. Both groups frequently speak of the righteousness of their political causes. Another trait in common is an embrace of moral clarity (to borrow a phrase that Dick Cheney has used in an eerily similar context) – often achieved by a return to a strict, literalist interpretation of scriptural texts, in contrast to a metaphoric re-interpretation of those texts in light of modern scholarship and our much greater understanding of human psychology, comparative mythology and religion.”

With Pluto slated to remain in Sagittarius until 2008-09, I've been thinking a lot about this phenomenon, and how humanity might finally go about bringing forth the best potentials of this experience – while the lesson is still ours to have. The following analogy comes to mind.

Imagine that the field of our consciousness – our ability to understand both the seen and unseen dimensions of our universe, both individually and collectively – is as large as a baseball or football stadium. With Pluto in Sagittarius, the human species is being challenged to expand our minds to fill that entire field of consciousness. Now, there are two possible approaches to doing this.

The first approach, an ego-based approach, involves attempting to expand one's current, incredibly limited consciousness to fill that space. This approach inevitably leads to the rapidly expanding bubbles that we've all watched with our own eyes – like the mania over internet stocks, or the astonishing faith-based activism that a suicide bomber expresses. Think about it. How sure of their grasp of absolute truth must any man or woman be to be willing to crash an airliner into a skyscraper, and not only end their life, but the lives of thousands of people they have never met – in the belief that their sacrifice will result in their immediate installation in Paradise? That's certainly taking your beliefs much too seriously.

It's clear to most observers that this bubble-based approach is not the way to go. If the cosmos were asking each of us to expand our minds to fill the field of that entire stadium, how might we more effectively attempt it? Well, we might consider adding our knowledge, experiences and understanding of the world to that of others, and especially to those of people who don't think in quite the same way that we do. So, for instance:

If one were a liberal Catholic, they might begin by talking to more conservative Catholics to understand why they thought what they thought, on a core psycho-spiritual level, and try to build a bridge based on what each of them had in common.

But it wouldn't end there. Next, they might repeat this process by talking to an Episcopalian, a Southern Baptist, a Lutheran and a Unitarian.

And they wouldn't stop there. They'd next talk to Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews of all political persuasions.

They'd next talk to Sufis, Shiites, and Sunni Muslims, to again identify what strands of thought they shared. They'd be creative, and try to put themselves inside that world, and imagine what the truly core principles of each of these groups might be.

They'd next talk to Hindus and Buddhists and Taoists. But you still wouldn't want to stop there.

You'd next talk to Native American, African and other indigenous peoples – each of whom have their own authentic connection to the divine.

And you'd talk to agnostic- and atheistic-leaning men and woman of good will.

And physicists and astronomers and scientists in any number of different specialties.

And Freudians and Jungians and advocates of other schools of modern psychology.

And both western and Vedic astrologers.

As before, you'd be looking to both build on those things you shared agreement on, and be intellectually flexible enough to perhaps change your own perspective if the other's conception actually, once you came to know it, made more sense.

By that point, if enough of us had actually attempted to listen to a few of those voices, and open our hearts and minds to how all of these men and women of good will had come to appreciate the wonder of the world, it would be so much easier for any of us to allow our consciousness to humbly and gracefully fill the entire space of that stadium. In a very real sense, we would be the sum of everyone's wisdom and understanding. The people who emerged from this process might actually be capable of coming to grips with the seemingly insoluble problems represented by overpopulation, hunger, racism, nuclear proliferation and the ecological deterioration of the planet.

Now, this isn't an original idea. The basic concept is the exact one that Joseph Campbell followed in writing “Hero With a Thousand Faces” and his many studies of comparative mythology. It's the process that underlies any study of comparative religion. It involves two quintessentially Sagittarian qualities – an innate faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos, and an insatiable urge to understand the world. The Sagittarian premises behind this synthetic approach are simple. If the cosmos is benevolent, and one assumes that God or the Goddess does not make mistakes, but sometimes limits its expression of ultimate truth to small kernels that our culturally conditioned minds can grasp, then nearly every form of worship must hold a grain of truth within it. It may very well be that each of these different strands of the great cosmic song was introduced at a specific time and place, with a specific group of men and women, and a specific lesson or phase of cultural evolution, in mind. While each strand has power, and is imbued with an innate ability to transport an individual to the mountaintop, it may only reflect a piece of the great song; and to ultimately hear that song properly, it might well be necessary for everyone to be singing together.

America, the Global Village
My generation was perhaps the last one taught that America was a melting pot. In retrospect, that analogy was clearly incorrect. Immigrants come to America from every country in the world. They bring with them their religions, their cultures and their cuisines. Within a generation of their arrival, their offspring have become decidedly “American”. But America has also been changed by them, and inescapably enlarged in ways we may not initially appreciate.

Our technological age is transforming the entire world into the very thing that America already is – a global village. To my way of thinking, this single fact bodes well for America's ultimate survival in the War on Terror. We continually evolve in a direction that I believe that the cosmos hopes that the entire planet will move towards. I believe that our embrace of diversity can point the way for an entire world. Call that my “Pluto in Sagittarius” inflated idea, if you like. Maybe it is or maybe it isn't. But, if you look across the planet today, you discover that so many of the great threats we face have much to do with people or countries that are threatened by cultural or spiritual pluralism – Kashmir, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, to name only a few where religious sparks threaten to set their region, if not an entire world, on fire. Or consider the problems presented by old style totalitarian states like North Korea, Cuba and China – where ideological control is as important a component today as it was forty years ago. The need for ideological control is inevitably a byproduct of fear – and this need for ideological control is often equally present in theological as well as authoritarian political structures. In comparison, both democracy and cultural evolution can be unruly, and sometimes only progress, to borrow a phrase from Goethe, as would a drunken beggar on horseback. It can, in short, generate an awful lot of fear in people yet to make friends with the process of cultural, societal and political individuation. But it may be, in this era of nuclear proliferation and international terrorism, that only authentic bridge building, and the encouragement of an unforced, gentle process of political and cultural individuation, offers any hope for the ultimate survival of the species.

To cast this equation in more concrete terms, let's consider Pakistan a bit more closely. Pakistan is said to have forty nuclear warheads. We know the intelligence services of Pakistan were actively involved in training the Taliban and al Queda. General Musharraf is said to have purged many of those sympathetic to the terrorist cause from his military and intelligence services. But did he get them all? Or, do some of these purged officers have supporters still capable of fomenting a coup against Musharraf, and restoring these radical Islamist elements to power? What would happen if those forty warheads fell into the hands of forces who buy into the ideology of radical “jihad”, and who might believe than an entire nation would earn an eternity in Paradise if it was destroyed while destroying the enemy of Islam – or phrased in terms that might profoundly unnerve General Boykin, “the Great Satan”? Or, if those forces were at least willing to allow a weapon or two to fall into the hands of al Queda operatives? What would the first, second and third moves of any United States Administration be in response to the potentially deadly combination of nuclear weapons and the ideology of jihad? I haven't heard that question posed to any candidate in any of the Democratic debates. I'd be interested in hearing how candidates would respond to that entirely plausible scenario. Of course, I'm not sure that there even is a good answer – at least as viewed within a conventional frame of consciousness. The very best solution, in my view, would be to do everything in your power now to prevent attitudes in Pakistan from hardening in a fashion that would allow such men to even come to power.

Forging Common Ground
Both the Koran and the Ode to Joy, the Frederick Schiller poem that Beethoven set to music in the choral movement of the Ninth Symphony, postulate that all men are brothers. That's what I'd describe as common ground. But what about these words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

One could argue that, seen from Ralph Waldo Emerson's proverbial mountaintop, all three share important strands of agreement. That would suggest that the United States and Islam have more in common than either might have originally thought. The big question is whether there is anyone in the current Administration that can sell that kind of vision, or would even want to? In my opinion, there are at least two Democratic Presidential candidates who can – John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich. There are possibly more. But can Dubya? We know that he's making noises as if he's willing to move in that direction. For instance, in his most recent White House press conference, President Bush told the nation:

Our war is not against the Muslim faith. As a matter of fact, as you mentioned, tonight we're celebrating the Iftaar dinner with Muslim leaders. We welcome Muslims in our country. In America, we love the fact that we are a society in which people can pray openly -- or not pray at all, for that matter. And I made that point to the Muslim leaders.

But the message his actions since 9/11 have sent has been less about bridge building and more about demonstrating the military might of the United States, and about intimidation. The average Muslim in the region, not to mention the terrorists, knows all about intimidation. Their governments use that strategy on a regular basis. Does anyone seriously believe that it works with people who believe that they achieve Paradise simply by blowing their imagined enemies to kingdom-come? Now, let me be clear that I'm not suggesting that anything we do with regard to honest, authentic bridge-building is going to impact the behavior of the vast majority of terrorists – who have already turned to the dark side, so to speak. They will have to be dealt with through more conventional means. The real impact is going to be on those individuals who are so moved by our willingness to acknowledge their value, and our sincere and heartfelt willingness to explore our common ground, that they will choose to embrace what Abraham Lincoln described as “the better angels of our nature” – and reject the terrorists and their radical ideology. That, in my humble opinion, is the only way that we can ultimately defeat al Queda - by making common cause with good people around the planet, and hence making it impossible for groups like al Queda to either recruit, or pay for future operations.

It strikes this observer that the war that we became engaged in after 9/11 may indeed be about bigger issues than we can possibly imagine. In a very real sense, the ideal endpoint of this war may not be victory at all, but reconciliation, and a new paradigm where all of us change a little, and some of us change a lot. That may seem like a frightening prospect, but it may also ultimately represent the only credible option – the decision of a nation and a world to embark on a collective journey of discovery and reconciliation. As Joseph Campbell wrote, the essential outlines of this path are neither strange nor forbidding, and have been with us from the very beginning of spiritual history.

"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the journey alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

In an era where weapons of mass destruction make it entirely possible to end life as we know it, and the very strong likelihood that those weapons will someday end up in terrorist hands if things continue apace, it strikes me that it is in the best interests of the United States – the nation that clearly has the most to lose, and a nation that possesses what I would argue is a spiritual charter entirely consistent with such a process – to begin to actively, and seriously, promote this kind of expansive spiritual and intellectual dialogue across the planet.

America is about nothing if not ideas, or the courage to expand frontiers, or a willingness to perpetually adjust for the discrepancy between our Founders' magnificent vision and reality on the ground. As a nation that exists as an ever expanding global village, who is better positioned to lead this process of understanding the many strands of the great cosmic song – and to very specifically identify those things that unite us, rather than divide us? What I am very specifically suggesting is that the ultimate weapon in a war of ideas might actually be the embrace of a greater, more luminous idea. In this time of ever-increasing danger for the species, it simply strikes me that friends who share so much with each other, and who believe that they have so much to learn from each other, are much less likely to destroy each other. Hence, in the final analysis, my lofty idea could also be viewed as nothing more than a prudent strategy for self-preservation.

Matthew Carnicelli, © 2003. All rights reserved.

Originally published November 08, 2003.

For more on Pluto's passage through Sagittarius and Capricorn, see:

Size Matters: Understanding the Size-Related Dynamics of Our Emerging American Crisis?
America at a Crossroads
The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?
A Brief Look Forward
A Bubble in Time