Marie Harf, the cretinous propagandist and campaign veteran installed by the Obama administration at the State Department — the misfit who plays Messy Marvin to Jen Psaki’s feckless Pippi Longstocking — has called down upon herself a Malibu mudslide of mockery and derision for suggesting that what’s really needed in the war against the Islamic State et al. is better employment opportunities — “jobs for jihadis,” as her critics put it. She later explained that her observations unfortunately were “too nuanced” for the simple minds of the dunderheads who twice elected her boss president of these United States. That a member of the Obama administration should say something stupid about world affairs is about as newsworthy as Joe Biden’s being creepy and handsy with women in public, but Harf’s particular breed of wrongness is worth considering inasmuch as it illuminates one of the principal reasons that we are not winning — and will not win — what we insist on calling the “war on terror.”
The secular imagination is, as an instrument for understanding human action at large, a very limited tool, and one that is entirely inadequate for understanding the cultural phenomenon that the West currently finds itself confronting, which is Islam — not extremism, not radicalism, not terrorism, but Islam itself, a religion that both is embedded in a culture and serves as the foundation in which other cultures, ideologies, and social tendencies are embedded. This is not to say, as some of our more energetic culture warriors would have it, that Islam itself is the enemy, and categorically incompatible with liberal values, but only to recognize that Islam carries radical Islam within it, and that the jihadist element making war on all opportune fronts — not only on the West — is not an alien force appended to Islam but an organic part of the whole.
My own personal experience with Islam is mainly confined to my time in India, where Muslims are a minority, one that has experienced real persecution and perpetrated the same. There is Muslim fanaticism in India, as well as Hindu fanaticism. Sometimes the product is comedy: The Hindu temple down the street from my apartment in Delhi would sometimes play loud marching-band music over its truly impressive sound system in an attempt to drown out the muezzin’s call to prayer at the mosque around the corner. Sometimes the product is personal tragedy: Arriving home in the early-morning hours, I discovered the hanging body of a young man who had been lynched; I was later informed that he had crossed the Hindu-Muslim romantic boundary, though I never learned which side of it he was on. And sometimes the result is national tragedy: In the city of Ayodhya, a low-level civil war has been fought for years over the Babri Masjid, a mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babur on a site sacred to Hindus because it is believed to be the birthplace of the god-king Ram and therefore a holy place where liberation from the cycle of death and reincarnation may be obtained. It may have been the site of a Hindu temple, and in 1992 a mob of Hindu fanatics demolished the mosque, going at it with sledgehammers before tearing it brick from brick with their bare hands. In the riots and communal fighting leading up to the demolition and following it, more than 2,000 people died.
This was some 465 years after the mosque was built in 1527.
India has of course suffered from Islamic extremism since the beginning — since before the beginning, in fact, having been partitioned (which occasioned another bloody civil conflict) at the insistence of Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an utterly secular, Bismarckian practitioner of realpolitik who believed, contra the idealism of Mohandas Gandhi et al., that in a multicultural society, somebody is going to be on top, and it wasn’t going to be Muslims in an India that is 80-odd percent Hindu. The subsequent career of Pakistan and its devolution from U.S. client state to failed state suggests the limits of identity politics.
Americans — including conservatives — are a lot more like Marie Harf than we are like Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist prime minister of India, or Nawaz Sharif, the Muslim League prime minister of Pakistan. We are certainly more like Marie Harf than we are like the men who leave their homes in Iraq, Russia, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere to behead and immolate strangers in foreign lands. When people have been comfortable long enough, they find it impossible to imagine a moral and political universe in which more is at stake than comfort, whether economic or social.
Setting aside such universals as cancer and such acts of God (if that term may be permitted) as being struck by lightning, what is the worst thing that is likely to happen to Marie Harf? Losing her job. Why? Because the most important thing in her life was getting that job. In a secular life — and the lives of Americans and Europeans are by and large secular, even for the sincerely religious among us — the economic opportunity that Harf proffered as a palliative to what ails the Islamic world is, if not the most important thing in life, then near to it. Divorce rates in the United States rise by a fifth after a husband loses his job — and American men are more likely to kill themselves during a bout of long-term unemployment than after a divorce, loss of a loved one, or other unhappy incident.
Employment speaks so deeply to the regnant American notion of self that the inability to hold a job is listed as a notable symptom of any number of psychiatric disorders. F. A. Hayek worried about the company man’s displacement of the entrepreneur and the small proprietor, believing that lifelong employment in the beige precincts of bureaucracies, whether corporate or governmental, encouraged dependency, passivity, conformity, and the mental habits associated with these things. What, then, might he have made of Marie Harf, whose function in the vast bureaucracy of the State Department is not to do what she’s told but to repeat what she’s told until she’s so accomplished at it that she doesn’t necessarily need to be told in the first place, the party line having been written in her heart?
At the CIA, Harf was “promoted” from Middle East analyst to press liaison, which does not suggest a rich intellectual life. She then went to work for the Obama campaign and, as a reward, was installed in another media-relations job, at the State Department. It may be that she reads Marcus Aurelius in the original Greek in her spare time and has a life of deep spiritual communion, but all perceivable indications are that she is a familiar modern type, a person whose life is defined by the social status and economic station associated with a job, whose education (B.A. in political science, Indiana, M.A. in foreign affairs, Virginia) was organized around securing such a job, and whose life ambition is to move through the cursus honorum associated with her class and sense of self-worth, whether that means highly paid sinecures (the Chelsea Clinton model) or seeking elected office as a form of self-validation (the Sandra Fluke model).
If you are Marie Harf, there are very few problems that a good (or better) job cannot solve. And if you are Marie Harf, there are few catastrophes in life greater than the inability to secure a good job. We are not nearly so worried about getting into Paradise as getting into Princeton — assuming that we make the distinction at all.
We may mock her. But we are Marie Harf.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.