Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fanaticism Bubbling Up Around Us

"Where have we heard it before? ...[W]hen fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir."
 - Carl Sagan 
The last couple of weeks have indeed been very unsettling. As I write this Brussels and Tunisia remain on lockdown while French, American, and Russian bombs rain on Syria - and another MSF hospital - in response to the horrific and cowardly attacks by Daesh on random civilians in Paris. Turkish fighter jets have just shot down a Russian warplane at the Syrian border - "a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices" (Putin). And NATO is urging calm as concern grows about a possible Russian response against Turkey - and therefore NATO.

Meanwhile, at home, Americans turned to Syrian refugees and Muslims in general (or people who "look Muslim") as means to assuage their fears - and stoke some others. Elected leaders and presidential candidates quickly called for an immediate halt to our already modest humanitarian contribution to the refugee crisis that we helped create (through our destabilization of Iraq), and some have even suggested that we screen refugees for Christianity. Others have suggested ID cards or a badge (possibly yellow?) that Muslims would be required to wear. As I've noted previously, our reactions to terrorism are often more terrorizing than the original act, and this case is certainly no exception to that rule. Terrorism is designed to cause terror and fear in a population, and it works because we let it do just that.

As happened after 9/11, there is much discussion again about the connection between Islam and terrorism. In my last post I acknowledged a "connection between some interpretations of the religion and bad or violent behavior" but took issue with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar's taxonomy of "Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam" - which appears to be nothing more than another way to insult critics of the Sam Harris plan for dealing with jihadists (attack secular liberals as apologists for Islam). Harris is apparently still licking the wounds from his embarrassing email exchange with Noam Chomsky.

The extent to which Islam (or Christianity, or Buddhism) plays a role in terrorism is clearly not zero. But fundamentalism and fanaticism are not unique to Islam. Nor are the real or perceived injustices that also play a role in terrorism. Reality is never black and white. I suspect Christopher Hitchens, if he were still alive, would be absolutely livid over our failure thus far to render Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Rouhani to their opposition - as we did with Saddam. Perhaps after we release photos of their sons' dead bodies - a clear war crime in a more quaint era - the terrorists will finally understand that we really mean business? I'm not holding my breath. Nor will I be silent about the fanaticism that is bubbling up around us and consuming us. Evil will never be defeated through imitation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam Taxonomy Misfit

"I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
 - Groucho Marx
I think this article could be one of the most important I have ever written on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Why? It is because of the growing obscurantism that has made it almost impossible to have any discussion whatever about Islam without terms such as Islamophobe and Pseudo-Liberal Apologist
 being thrown around on the innertubes. I've never really fit into groups of any kind, and I think labels are often misleading (if sometimes also useful). So I'm not too surprised that I don't really fit neatly into any of the categories in Faisal Saeed Al Mutar's taxonomy of Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam (Free Inquiry, vol 36 issue 1).

First, I'm nonviolent ("Muslim Conservative") and I believe in welcoming gays as equal citizens ("Muslim Moderate"). I accept that there is a link between radical interpretations of Islam and radical Islamic jihadi terrorism and advocate for liberal government and separation of religion and state (Muslim Reformer). But I'm also a non-Muslim white liberal ("Pseudo-Liberal Apologist") who thinks that there is a connection between some interpretations of the religion and bad or violent behavior, care about issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights, and tend to differentiate between Islam as a set of ideas and interpretations and Muslims as people ("Genuine Critic of Islam").

In fact the "Pro-Christian Right Anti-Muslim Groups" and "Far-Right Jewish Groups" are the only categories in Faisal's taxonomy that I don't share at least one trait with, but if you added blasphemy rights advocate (at least with respect to blasphemy against Islam) then I could probably even agree with these groups on something! Also missing completely from Faisal's taxonomy is anyone who believes that American "policy choices have consequences" (9/11 Commission) and are also a factor in, but not necessarily the only "result or cause" of, radical Islamic jihadi terrorism. Or that the threat itself in this case is overblown in the U.S. relative even to the other terrorist risks that we currently face (not to mention the state-sponsored terrorism carried out in our name elsewhere in the world) and that our non-proportional overreactions make it worse. Also troubling, especially in light of recent news, is the fact that none of Faisal's groups seem to care about religious liberty or the very real threat of violence and discrimination against religious minorities (of which I include myself). So I want to associate myself with all these other groups as well. Sorry, but...


* I suspect that Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and Chris Stedman would call the Pseudo-Liberal Apologist category a "straw man" of their positions, but I'll let them deconstruct that aspect. Needless to say, I doubt this category will encourage the type of honest conversation that Faisal bemoans as missing from this debate - more likely it will just further polarize it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Yonatan Zunger (Google+ Chief Architect) on Da'esh's attack on Paris

Updated: November 18 - added a few new links and another endnote (*) .

The chief architect for Google+ has posted a long but thoughtful* (and admittedly frustrated) piece about the Paris attacks by Da'esh (the organization formerly known as ISIS). He downplays the role of religion (and oil) as having "little to nothing to do with what we're seeing," which I think is an overstatement** if in some ways true in this case, but his online rant against the "Internet and the airwaves alike [being] filled with profound waves of self-serving nonsense and stupidity from left and right alike" is otherwise a pretty good overview of the complexity of this situation - and lack of simple solutions - in general. For additional recent and historical commentary on terrorism that I have found interesting, see this page.

* But it's still too early to say anything for sure on that Syrian refugee passport.

** John Horgan, Irish psychologist and terrorism expert, provides what I think is a more accurate and modest assessment of the role of religion in terrorism:
"Just like talking about 'terrorism,' it has become impossible to talk about the relationship between Islam and terrorism without causing great offense to some. Debate is so polarized now between those who say that we if we want to understand terrorism, Islam is 'everything,' and those who say that Islam is completely irrelevant. Both positions are incorrect. I certainly think the role of Islam, and religious ideology more generally, is vastly overstated as a mobilizing agent for involvement in political violence. I believe it is far more relevant in terms of sustaining commitment and continued engagement with a group. Islamic content is used both as a defense of activity as well as a justification for certain kinds of tactics. This is not unique to Islam, however, and I think any 'believer' can take great comfort from religious precepts especially if they are struggling to justify to themselves (as well as others) what they have now gotten themselves into. It’s the uncritical embracing of religious ideology that is often associated with terrorism. This is why I think converts appear especially susceptible to terrorist recruiters. They don’t have the deeper religious knowledge that could easily rebut many of the clichéd arguments used by recruiters attempting to inspire young Muslims to mobilize in the first place."
Finally, evolutionary anthropologist Scott Atran digs some into the real sources of inspiration:
"[W]hat inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive."