Century Marks

Century Marks

Two of a kind

President Obama chose former senator Chuck Hagel as his next secretary of defense because they both have an aversion to war, says journalist Bob Woodward. They both think that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was bungled and that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary. Hagel thinks foreign policy should come from the White House, not the Defense Department. Hagel taught a course at Georgetown University called Re­defining Geopolitical Relation­ships. He believes that the Iraq war made Iran the strongest country in the region, and he worries that Iraq will become an Iranian satellite. A veteran of the Vietnam War, he contends that the U.S. needs to avoid massive land wars (Washington Post, January 27).

Humble laws

Traditional Islamic law made a distinction between Shari‘a (divine law) and fiqh (human articulation of that law). Islamic law is humble, holding that no human being can absolutely know God’s law (Shari‘a); it is also pluralistic, allowing for different interpretations. Premodern Islamic governments recognized this distinction and allowed for a variety of interpretations of fiqh, respecting different Islamic legal schools. The enactment of Shari‘a in Muslim-majority states today blurs this distinction. These Muslim states are a modern mutation owing much to the European nation-state model. Americans shouldn’t be concerned when Muslims want to live according to Shari‘a, for that doesn’t mean they want the state to rule by it (Asifa Quraishi-Landes, “Sharia and Diversity: Why Americans Are Missing the Point,” Institute for Social Policy and Understanding report).


Last October reporter Clare Morgana Gillis visited the northwest corner of Syria. The Free Syrian Army had recently pushed the Syrian regime’s forces out of the region, but it was still being shelled. Gillis found decimated forests, abandoned villages, unpicked olives weighing down their branches, apples rotting on the trees. One elderly farmer, waving two guns, said: “Nobody outside is hearing us. . . . People all through the Muslim world made demonstrations about this Muhammad video. This is junk! God will protect Muhammad--who is protecting us?” A Catholic priest in a mostly abandoned Christian village said: “This is not our war. It’s between Sunnis, Alawites and Shia. . . . Christians refuse to take arms—our weapon is to pray” (American Scholar, Web exclusive).

Mission creep

Historically Americans tended to be suspicious of standing armies, preferring instead to use temporary militias. It was not until World War II that a standing army was established, with some dissent. Robert Taft, a Republican senator from Ohio, predicted accurately in May 1941 that if the United States were to enter the war, it would have “to maintain a police force perpetually in Germany and throughout Europe.” A permanent Department of Defense wasn’t established until after the war. Now the U.S. not only has a standing army, it has perpetual war, argues Jill Lepore—war perpetuated by what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Lockheed Martin alone has annual defense contracts of about $30 billion and spends $15 million a year on lobbying and campaign contributions (New Yorker, January 28).


As late as the mid-1970s the National Rifle Association (founded in 1871) focused on hunting, conservation and marksmanship. But at its annual meeting in 1977 it was taken over by radical gun rights activists, who reshaped the group’s orientation. The old guard had plans to move headquarters to Colorado, but the new leaders decided that the real action was in Washington. Today the NRA is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the country. William J. Vizzard, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms official, says the NRA has no interest in compromise. “They’re not interested in fixing things. They want to stir things up, and the more they stir things up, the more members they get and the more money they make” (Washington Post, January 12).