Category Archives: Politics & Society

Tiananmen Square (My Uncomfortable Visit)

In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit Tiananmen Square. It was an eerie, haunting experience not simply because of knowing what had happened there 16 years before but because of the pressure to remain silent and forget.

From the night of June 3, 1989 until early morning, Chinese soldiers carried out a clearance operation on and near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, a crackdown on what the Chinese Government wrote off as a “counter-revolutionary riot”.

Western media reported at the time that the death toll from the resulting massacre ranged from 100 to 3,000, but according to a secret UK diplomatic cable released last year, up to 10,000 protesters may have been killed. . . .

Over 1 million people were occupying Tiananmen Square in a show of solidarity by mid-May, but on June 2, China’s rulers made the order to send tanks and armed soldiers into the heart of Beijing.

ABC Report

Only a year earlier we had been treated to high-tech 3-D visuals of Tiananmen Square as a proud jewel of the Chinese exhibit at Brisbane’s World Entertainment Expo.

The event “never happened” according to Chinese government and educational institutions.

Born in 1990, Ming says he never even heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre until he was at university.

He happened to overhear his roommates talking about the so-called June Fourth Incident — a topic which is completely censored by Beijing and inaccessible for ordinary Chinese people.

It is not mentioned in Chinese state media, and it is not taught in schools. It is also a taboo topic even within some Chinese families, including Ming’s.

In 2005 soldiers stood guard at key points to enforce …. I’m not sure what. Presumably the curfew: no-one was allowed there after daylight hours. Possibly against large groups or persons they deemed suspicious from approaching. It remained a vast empty space broken in one direction by Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and queues of people slowly moving past his embalmed body. I felt very conspicuous stepping far away from that shrine to the vast empty expanse of the rest of the square that particular afternoon, with only a handful of others in the area, and with my movements being watched by the many young guards.

What agonized me was the failure of my Chinese hosts to indicate the slightest awareness of why I might have been interested in exploring further there at all after I had completed the obligatory look at Mao’s embalmed corpse. There was the usual talk of old history, of Mao, of the architectural features. . . . I finally burst it out, though nervously, softly: What did they think of what happened …. I don’t think I had the chance to finish my sentence. One girl butted in with a tense, anxious tone (or was that my imagination?) to tell me that yes, some bad people had been there at one time and how soon afterwards soldiers came to her family’s house (far away from Beijing) to ask about her. I think she had been a student at that time. I was told that her parents and neighbours assured the soldiers that she was a “good girl” and was not mixed up with any of those very bad hooligans causing some very bad trouble in Beijing. The soldiers, she told me proudly, went away smiling having been assured by parents and neighbours that she was, as they said, a “good girl”.

The reaction to my question left me in no doubt that I had seriously gaffed. It was not my place to raise such a question about such a “bad thing” that happened so long ago. Was I some sort of sympathizer with “bad people” for even thinking and wanting to ask about that horrible “forgotten” time?

That was the end of my visit to the vast and — except for the guards and the people immediately surrounding Mao’s mausoleum — practically empty Tiananmen Square.

Photo: Guo Jian’s artwork The Square. It’s a model of Tiananmen Square covered in pork mince. (Supplied: Guo Jian)

The Day Another Race Likened Me to an Ape

Photo from flickr

My RSS feeds tell me that there’s a scandal in the U.S. right now over a prominent personality tweeting a comparison of an African American advisor to Obama with an ape.

I had my own small taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a comparison a few years back when I was visiting China. It happened when I was somewhere in the middle of the mainland (certainly away from coastal regions like Shanghai and Beijing where foreigners were not an uncommon sight), in Wuhan province I think. I was sitting with my Chinese friend in a large and crowded cafeteria and was slightly amused to notice that so many of the other diners appeared to be focusing their eyes on me. I assumed the reason was that I was the only white Caucasian in the room. I could not help wondering how often any of these people had ever seen a non-Chinese person “in the flesh” before. I mentioned my thoughts to my Chinese friend whose reply took me aback: I was told they were staring at my hairy legs and arms; I was told that they were thinking that I looked like a monkey.

I confess that that comparison took me aback for a moment. I laughed, but something deep down inside me was not laughing. Did I not belong to a race that historically compared others to subhuman species? That’s what “we” did to “them” — what was the real source of the ugly feelings I was feeling deep down inside at that moment?

That was the first time I had been in a country where I was the racial minority figure and being compared with a wild animal. In Australia I had become accustomed to hearing of certain ignorant whites comparing other races, including Asians, to a species less than human. Here I was in China getting a small taste of the tables being turned.

I was able to laugh it off, though, because I had no reason to suspect there was anything more than innocent curiosity and analogy in the minds of my Chinese neighbours. I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I suspected they all thought I was literally a less evolved animal.

 

Sam Harris’s Immoral Arguments for Israel’s Treatment of Palestinians

Hello Vridar, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. I’ve been far afield exploring new ideas and old. Time to leave self-indulgence aside for a moment and return to share a few of them. (Though my hiatus was not all self-indulgent insofar as some of my time was also taken up exploring new ways to be actively involved in various causes that I care about.)

Marcus Ranum describes himself as “a computer security specialist, consultant, gamer, crafty artist, photographer, soap and cosmetic experimenter, and all-around surrealist” but whatever one makes of that we all owe him a huge thank you for the enormous effort he made to take on point by point Sam Harris’s justification of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, most recently on display on the Gaza border while leaders congratulated themselves on the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. I have attempted to take on Sam Harris’s arguments in small bite-sized morsels, addressing just one or two salient details at a time. But Marcus Ranum has had the tenacity, the patience, the stamina, to take up each one of Sam Harris’s points that he made in another one of his rambling, contradictory, mealy-mouthed justifications for any bloody action taken against Muslims on Israel’s border. (“Mealy-mouthed” because he will drop in contradictory phrases in hopes you won’t notice the barbarism implicit in his words and that will enable him to protest that you were “taking him out of context”. Marcus R dissects it all leaving Sam H stark naked in the end.)  See

Sam Harris on “Why is That You Never Criticize Israel?”

Bookmark the page now but be sure to return to it when you have a good hour to digest it slowly as it deserves. Needless to say, my complaint is not personal. Sam Harris is a nobody who is given way too much publicity for no clear reason as far as I am concerned. My concern is that Sam Harris is articulating the arguments that are all too common everywhere else and whose assumptions and inhumane values, along with outright ignorance, bigotry, not to mention simple logical deceit, need to be addressed and smacked down.

Some of the points addressed (you’ve heard them all before): read more »

Democracy, data and dirty tricks —

Are any readers old enough to recall Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders? I see Amazon sells a reissued 2007 edition of it. My copy was already old, published 1960, when I first read it. Hidden Persuaders was my introduction to the way the science of psychology was used by the marketing industry to influence potential buyers by subtle manipulation of emotions.

Much later I finally caught up with Manufacturing Consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky; then Taking the Risk Out of Democracy by Alex Carey. Many other works on media have followed and I can now say I have some awareness of the history and methods of how stealthily propaganda has worked to guide “the masses” ever since Edward Bernays and the World War 1 era.

Tonight I watched Four Corners play the ITN documentary Democracy, data and dirty tricks. The promotional blurb reads

Four Corners brings you the undercover investigation that has left social media giant Facebook reeling through the unmasking of the secretive political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Four months in the making, this ITN investigation for Channel 4 in Britain used hidden cameras to reveal the tactics used by the UK firm Cambridge Analytica to influence elections and undermine the democratic process in several countries.

Propagandists know the importance of avoiding any message that looks like propaganda. Soviet and Nazi propaganda was too crude to genuinely persuade millions. Hence control by fear was even more important than the message. Propagandists in western style democracies are far more successful because they are far more subtle. They know how to manipulate behaviour by appealing to emotions. Head arguments and cold facts are irrelevant.

In the program key persons in Cambridge Analytica are filmed boasting how they won the election for Trump by a mere handful of 40,000 votes in key states. It was their research that led them to target those states and focus on the margin of potential swing voters.

Can we begin to raise awareness and push for the role of propaganda to be taught in high schools as part of a core civics curriculum? Without such community awareness how can we expect democracy to ever survive surface.

 

 

 

 

 

Gun Culture: What Makes America Different?

AR-15 Variants (from Wikipedia)

For years, I’ve been meaning to write a book on slavery in the United States. I don’t mean to minimize or oversimplify the issues surrounding the issues of chattel slavery in America, so up front I will say without reservation that the subject is complicated and multifaceted, and that it covers several centuries. It deserves more coverage than I can provide in a single post.

Having said that, I remain convinced that slavery is the fundamental cause of the American Civil War, which is, of course, the consensus among the majority of historians. The weight of the evidence puts the matter beyond dispute. However, whenever we can, we should distinguish proximate causes from ultimate causes.

Saying that slavery caused the Civil War is correct, but insufficient. It would be just as true to say that the election of Abraham Lincoln provoked the South to secede. But why was that the last straw? What did Southerners believe they would lose if they stayed? What did they think they would gain by leaving?

Slavery did not exist in a vacuum. It was not simply an ancillary feature of 19th-century Southern society that, by itself, made them different from the North. Slavery could not exist without the framework that supported it, an interlocking network of structures: Slave society, slave politics, slave economics, slave justice, even slave (pseudo-)science. Religion played a role as well, as Christian clergymen found ready ways to explain why Africans were a cursed race and how slavery was part of the natural order. All of these ingredients working together created Slave Culture.

Slave Culture had its own unique history, as well, which one would expect. That history celebrated the gentleman planter while it warned of the terrors of slave revolt. They were determined to learn the lesson of Haiti. Never let the slave get the upper hand. Always respond with maximum violence.

In a similar way, a large swath of modern America is Gun Culture. I support sensible gun control, including background checks, registries, mandatory gun safety classes, etc. But when gun enthusiasts tell us over and over, “Guns aren’t the problem,” they unwittingly have a point. They are right. For while guns most assuredly are part of the problem, they do not float, detached in the ether. They are not just another consumer product. read more »

Jihad Closer to Marx than the Koran?

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts.

I recently posted a few thoughts of Olivier Roy in his Jihad and Death and here I post something he said in an earlier book, Globalised Islam. In his Introduction chapter he has a section headed Is jihad closer to Marx than to the Koran?

His opening paragraph makes it clear that the terrorists are introducing innovations to Islamic views on the notion of jihad. In traditional Islam jihad is a collective duty contingent upon circumstances. It is only with modern radical innovators like Sayyid Qutb that jihad has been reinterpreted to mean a “permanent and individual duty”. Here is Roy’s opening paragraph (with my own bolding and paragraph formatting):

Where does the violence of Al Qaeda come from? Islamic radicals as well as many Western observers and experts try to root this violence in an Islamic tradition, or even in the Koran. As we have stated, the debate on what the Koran says is sterile and helps only to support prejudice. The reverse attitude (to explain that the Koran does not define jihad as an armed struggle, and so on) is equally sterile.

That the terrorists claim their violence is religiously motivated and legitimate is in itself important, but does not preclude what Islam really says on violence or from where the terrorists are really coming. We speak about people, acts and motivations, not theology.

Interestingly, however, the terrorists in their endeavour to root their wrath in the Koran are introducing some obvious religious innovations. The most important is the status of jihad. Whatever the complexity of the debate among scholars since the time of the Prophet, two points are clear: jihad is not one the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage) and it is therefore a collective duty (fard kifaya), under given circumstances.

But the radicals, since Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Farrag, explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty (fard ‘ayn).30 This is probably the best criterion with which to draw a line between conservative neofundamentalists and radical ones: the latter are rightly called ‘jihadist’ by the Pakistani press. Among the few writings of Osama Bin Laden, the definition of jihad as a permanent and personal duty holds a central place.31 His concept of suicide attack is not found in Islam.32

31. See Bin Ladens fatwa (published by the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Atabi on 23 February 1998) stating that ‘to kill Americans is a personal duty for all Muslims’. The text can be found at (‘Text of Fatwah Urging Jihad against Americans’).

32. Many sheikhs have condemned the World Trade Centre attacks, while often supporting the Palestinian suicide bombers. See, for example. Sheikh Al Al-bani’s fatwa ‘Suicide Bombing in the Scales of Islamic Law’, which condemns any suicide attacks (‘These suicide missions are not Islamic – period!’; <http:// www.mushmtents.com/aminahsworld/Suicide_bombing2.html>); and the fatwa of Sheikh al-Qaradawi, which forbade attacks on civilians, except in Palestine (Doha, Qatar, 13 September 2001; <http://www.islam-onhne.net/ English/News/2001-09/13/article25.shtml>. See also the fatwa of Qaradawi and others at <http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/Qaradawi_et_al.htm>.

(Globalised Islam, pp. 41f)

It is clear that jihad is traditionally a concept that is justified only as a collective Muslim community response to enemies. It is not, traditionally, “an individual and personal decision”.

The terrorists are evidently in something of a contradiction when on the one hand they claim to be following the pathways of their ancestors, and declare anyone who strays from their path an infidel, yet themselves justify their political activism on an “obvious innovation.”

[M]ost radical militants are engaged in action as individuals, cutting links with their ‘natural’ community (family, ethnic group and nation) to fight beyond the sphere of any real collective identity. This overemphasis on personal jihad complements the lonely situation of the militants, who do not follow their natural community, but join an imagined one.

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts. . . . . (p. 42)

Some historical context

Some have suggested that most present-day conflicts involve Muslims. Maybe so, maybe not. (One should probably elaborate: most conflicts that are of interest to the West involve Muslims.)

read more »

Jihad and Death: The Hero and the Aesthetics of Violence

What inspires the most lethal assailants today is not so much the Quran but a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. (Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2015)

Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. (Scott Atran, … On Violent Extremism…, 2015)

To be in a revolutionary vanguard is an exciting thing. I was once part of just such a fantasy in the religious realm. We saw ourselves as pioneers, a very select few, called to witness to the coming apocalypse, to witness the destruction of society and to be exalted as glorified leaders in the new utopian world to follow. And if we died as martyrs before that transition, then our glory would be truly great.

Olivier Roy in Jihad and Death appears to concur with Atran’s perspective but with a difference. Roy stresses not so much the thrill of seeking to bring about revolution and millennial future but the black nihilism of the entire exercise.

A consistent characteristic of the jihadists, Roy says, is responding to a feeling of humiliation and being dominated by taking on the role of an “avenger” and “lone hero”. A lone hero, yes, but the group is most important, too, because it is the group that will eulogize him when he gets blown up or shot leading an assault.

Radicals’ obituaries are a succession of hagiographies, and even the body of the martyr is above the fate of the everyman: he is handsome and has a sweet smell, or he is sublimated in the explosion. (Jihad and Death, p. 49)

Roy finds most striking the “extraordinary narcissistic posturing” of these jihadists.

They broadcast themselves in self-produced videos before, during, and after their actions (posthumous videos). They pose on Facebook:

  • Salah Abdeslam posted a picture of himself holding the ISIS flag three weeks before the 13 November 2016 attacks in Paris (proof once again that the taqiyya—dissimulation—argument used to explain the normal life of the terrorists is unconvincing).
  • Coulibaly called French television stations while he was holding hostage the customers of the Hyper Cacher market on the outskirts of Paris.
  • Omar Mateen posted selfies while he was shooting his victims in Orlando.
  • Abdelhamid Abaaoud had himself filmed in Syria dragging enemy corpses. Larossi Abballa left statements on Facebook while he was still in the house of the murdered police officers,
  • and Adel Kermiche told his friends that they would be able to stream a video of the murder of Father Hamel in real time.

It is acting out the glory of the superhero in a movie or videogame.

A typical cliche is that of the future hero whose destiny is not at first clear, as he leads an empty or too-normal life. And then he receives the call (taken in its religious sense of a sudden vocation, but with reference to the popular video game “Call of Duty”) and turns into an almost supernatural, omnipotent character.

The narrative draws upon the mythical image of the first followers of Muhammad, to martyrdom and the right to sex slaves, to the conquest of deserts and cities.

A scene from film Salò

But this master narrative also fits within a very modern aesthetics of heroism and violence. Their video-editing techniques (fast cutting, succession of images, voice-over, slow motion used to dramatic effect, haunting modern music, juxtaposition of different scenes, targets plastered over faces) are those of video clips and reality television. Violence is theatricalized and scripted in sophisticated videos. Many executions are known to have been rehearsed prior to filming, which in some cases might explain the apparent passivity of the hostages.

This “barbarity” does not belong to times past: it makes use of a “Sadean” code such as that dramatized by Pier Paolo Pasolini in the film Salò (1975). A small, all-powerful group in a restricted space, united by an ideology, asserts all rights over life as well as sex. But this all-powerfulness takes on two different aspects: the law of the group and the staging of self. None of them can satisfy their desires on their own, none of them can rape at will: rape must be theatricalized and involve the group. As in the film Salò, in ISIS territory sex slaves are exhibited, exchanged, and forced into sexual behaviors that have nothing “matrimonial” about them. They are tortured and killed. But the group member who acts out of view of the others and without their approval is a transgressor and is executed in turn. Sharia, more than a legal system, is in this case a metaphor for the rules of the group, which has become a sect. (Jihad and Death, p. 50)

Thus Roy sees the ISIS as having set up a real-life “gaming space”. The heroes have a vast desert through which they can ride in their four-wheel drives, “hair and flags blowing in the wind, guns raised, fraternity exhibited by the uniform, often similar to the ninja model.”

Young losers from destitute suburbs become handsome, and plenty of young girls on Facebook go into raptures over their look. The video game turns into an epic adventure in a huge playground. (p. 51)


read more »

Why Blaming Islam for Terrorism is Misguided

Yes, we know that suicide terrorists regularly announce that they are killing in the name of Allah and they quote the Koran to justify what they are doing. And, of course we should, must, listen to what they say and take it seriously.

Far from denying any of that, I think it is all necessary information that needs to be registered and understood if we want to understand why some people proclaim that they “love death as we love life”.

One Vridar reader recently invited me to read an article that presented a point of view contradicting the one in my two recent posts on Jihad and Death. The article is Islamic Terrorism is Motivated by Religion, Not Retribution.

Let me explain as simply and clearly as possible why I believe the article is misguided.

The article’s fundamental argument is that

  • if we can show that the terrorists cannot be motivated by a desire to seek vengeance against Western powers for their policies in the Middle East,
  • and if we can show that the terrorists themselves repeatedly claim to be motivated by religion and quote the Koran to justify their killing,
  • then obviously we are forced to conclude that Islam is responsible for terrorism.

The article makes the comparison with neo-Nazis. It is obviously the ideology of the neo-Nazis that motivates their hate and racism; it ought to be just as obvious that it is Islam that motivates the Islamist terrorists.

The first point of the argument (to demonstrate that it makes no sense to blame Western powers foreign policies as the motivating grievance of the extremists) can be accepted. Terrorist movements have changed over the decades. (Western powers have certainly exacerbated and even created conditions that have fanned radicalization, but it is evident that many of the terrorist attacks are not directly related to seeking retribution for Western policies.)

It is the second point that is ill-informed. Islam has been around for a long time but the Islamist terrorism that we are witnessing day is a very recent development. It is a very “new thing” claiming to be inspired by something very old. It is like a modern day Jonestown type cult claiming to have rediscovered long-lost “truths” in the Bible of which the mainstream churches have for centuries forgotten or even heretically left behind. Look into the cult’s origins and you won’t find the Bible despite the insistence of cult members that the Bible is their sole authority. No, they have learned to interpret and apply Bible verses the way a cult leader has taught them in other writings and sermons. The question to ask is, What factors cause a person to join such a cult in the first place?

Ed Husain wrote of his own experience with extremism in The Islamist: why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left, and recalls the horror with which the Islamist ideology was met by most “ordinary Muslims” when they first heard of it. His recollections as a child spending time with his devout grandfather:

As they compared notes on abstract subjects in impenetrable languages, I buried myself in Inspector Morse or a Judy Blume. I heard names such as ‘Mawdudi’ being severely criticized, an organization named Jamat-e-Islami being refuted and invalidated on theological grounds. All of it was
beyond me. . . . (p. 10)

Then later when Ed was 16 years old:

. . . I recalled Grandpa and his students, many of them clerics trained in madrassas in India and Bangladesh, talking about the Jamat-e-Islam in disparaging terms. I had heard many of these conversations taking place between imams in various towns, and they complained about the increasing influence of jamat-e-Islami activists in their mosques. They had sought clarity from Grandpa about the nature of the Jamat-e-Islami, and Grandpa had spoken repeatedly about a man named Abul Ala Mawdudi.

Born in 1903, Mawdudi was a Pakistani journalist who translated the Koran according to his own whims, without reference to or within the paradigm of classical Muslim scholarship. He developed and promoted a new brand of Islam, highly politicized and deeply anti-Western. Mawdudi . . . was the first Muslim to reject Islam as a religion and rebrand it as an ‘ideology’. (pp. 22f, my bolding)

Likewise with Islamist violent extremism. Modern day “prophets” have written their own politico-religious ideologies that they claim to be based on the “long-forgotten truths” of the Koran and hadiths. The first was Qutb with Milestones. (The links are to Vridar posts on the topics. See the side box for the initial reception among religious Muslims on another early jihadist ideologue, Mawdudi.) Others have followed. One of the most influential is The Management of Savagery by “Naji”. My recent post mentioned Al-Awlaki, a major influence among English speaking recruits.

Those writings, not the Koran, are the Mein Kampfs of jihadism. Those writings lead persuaded readers to reject the preachings and Koranic studies of the imams and to quote-mine the Koran for proof-texts to justify their political and ideological agendas.

Understanding why

If we want to understand radicalism we need to go beyond what the extremists themselves say about their motives. Yes, we must listen to them, of course, and understand their world-view. But to take an extreme analogy, if someone says he believes God told him to kill someone, we don’t necessarily take his word as the whole story. We ask, Why did he believe God told him to do that? Is he mentally ill? Schizoid?

Some extreme Christian cults do horrible things, but it is hard to say that Christianity is to blame when most Christians deplore what they do. Instead, scholars study  psychological and sociological factors that are associated with persons joining extreme or bizarre cults. Same with Nazism. It would be ignorantly simplistic to blame Nietsche or even Socialism for the National-Socialist (Nazi) movement.

If we want to understand poverty we can blame the laziness and self-indulgence of the victims or we can take a more comprehensive view that includes a study of the institutional factors that have created a class of down-and-outs.

Many communities are enlightened enough to know that policing alone is inadequate to confront the problem of youth crime. Most parents know that youth behaviour is complex. So positive youth programs, clubs, recreational venues, and so forth are also very important.

Any attempt to blame Islam for terrorism runs into a few facts that belie that charge: jihadism is a very recent phenomenon — that is, it has only very recently emerged to become associated with the Muslim world; it has attracted only a very few, many of whom are largely ignorant of the details of the Koran and Islam and who often do not practice a religious life; and most Muslims deplore terrorist violence and are even overwhelmingly the victims of it.

If the religion of Islam is responsible for modern jihadism then we have to somehow explain why Islamist suicide bombers and other murderous jihadis were not part of our landscape for most of the twentieth century and earlier. We need to explain why most Muslims condemn their violence and why, given the larger picture, terrorists target mostly Muslims.

We need to build up a big picture. That will include listening to what the jihadis say about their motives but it will not naively assume that that is the entire story. After all, most followers of the Koran deplore terrorism so saying Islam causes terrorism makes no sense. It does not explain why a handful of people, contrary to the overwhelming majority of believers, say they are so motivated.

This post is only addressing the reason I am convinced that we cannot accuse the religion of Islam itself of being responsible for terrorist violence. I am not addressing here the studies that do explore, through data-based research, a more comprehensive understanding of what lies at the root of this modern horror.

Some of the past posts that do address those studies:

The most recent ones, of course, on Olivier Roy’s Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State

A series on Riaz Hassan’s Inside Muslim Minds

A series on Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko’s Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and to Us

Series on Jason Burke’s of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy

On an article by Scott Atran and a series on his book, Talking with the Enemy

Several on Thomas Hegghammer’s publications:

A key quotation in Raffaello Pantucci’s “We Love Death as You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists

On Nate Rosenblatt’s All Jihad Is Local

On William McCants’ article How Terrorists Convince Themselves to Kill and other writings

And several on ISIS, including….

A post on by Mohammed Hafez’s Manufacturing Human Bombs: The Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers

On Robert Pape’s Dying to Win

Then there are a number of posts on Islam more generally:

On Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from within

John Esposito’s Who Speaks for Islam?

A post containing an extensive bibliography:

There are many more posts accessible by searching for terms like “terrorism”, “islamism”, “islam”, “islamic state”.

 

 

Jihad and Death, part 2. “The Avenging Hero of the Suffering Muslim Community”

This post is a continuation from Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State.

–o0o–

Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts. Some are involved in drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes. MI5 says there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation. (Alan Travis, “MI5 Report Challenges Views on Terrorism in Britain,” The Guardian, 20 August 2008).

As a result of the above MI5 conclusion and similar findings by other professional researchers Olivier Roy concludes in Jihad and Death

But as we have seen, jihadis do not descend into violence after poring over the sacred texts. They do not have the necessary religious culture—and, above all, care little about having one. They do not become radicals because they have misread the texts or because they have been manipulated. They are radicals because they choose to be, because only radicalism appeals to them. No matter what database is taken as a reference, the paucity of religious knowledge among jihadis is patent. (p. 42)

Yet often we read commentaries by persons who seek explanations for terrorism in the religious texts of Islam. After all, those texts are within easy reach and would appear to offer easy answers. There is a problem, however. Reading sacred texts is not analysing the minds and personalities of the terrorists themselves. Roy himself puts part of the blame for this misguided approach on “the profound secularization of both our societies and our knowledge” so that we end up having “only a textual approach to religion, disregarding what [he calls] religiosity.”

Theology basically involves interpreting scriptures in a comprehensive discursive system that isolates dogma from all the rest: emotion, imagination, aesthetics, and so on. But what is at work here is precisely religiosity — in other words, the way in which the believer experiences religion and appropriates elements of theology, practices, imaginaries, and rites, to construct a transcendency for himself — and not religion. In the case of the jihadi, this construction places him in contempt of life: his own and that of others. (pp. 42-43, my bolding in all quotations)

Incantatory logic

The jihadi is infused less with “the methodological tradition of exegesis of the Prophets” than with visions of heroism and violence. The theology provides a veneer of “proof-texting” (my term, not Roy’s) rationalization for those visions. Such verses become incantations, or a Christian fundamentalist’s “proof-texts” or ideological slogans.

When young jihadis speak of “truth,” it is never in reference to discursive knowledge. They are referring to their own certainty, sometimes supported by an incantatory reference to the shuyukh, the sheikhs, whom they have never read. In them they thus find whatever they put there themselves. The linkage between their imaginary and science is brought about by two things: terminology (peppering ones French or English with Arabic words) and the brutal, non-discursive affirmation of a verse or a hadith, made up of one or two sentences at most, such as the famous verse: “Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another.” Short texts such as these are thrown up in peoples faces (just as the Red Guards threw Mao quotes in each others faces), without ever referring to other texts, let alone seeking a more overall logical significance. . . . . Radicals talk less about religion than Salafis do: their posts and their texts revolve more around action than religion. The circulation of religious texts is secondary with al-Qaeda, central in ISIS propaganda, incantatory among radicals. Their reading material is found mostly on the internet: al-Awlaki is very popular because he speaks English. (pp. 43-44)

The Avenging Hero

The “imaginary” that Olivier Roy believes to be the true interest of the jihadi terrorist is primarily that of “the avenging hero of the suffering Muslim community”. On what does he base this view? On what the terrorists themselves say. The same themes recur with them but Roy takes the words of the leader of the group responsible for the July 2005 London bombings, Mohammed Siddique Khan, as representative of their motivations:

1. Khan begins by citing the atrocities of the Western nations against the “Muslim people” (in the transcript he says, “my people all over the world”);

2. next, Kahn announces himself as fulfilling the role of the avenging hero (“I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters,” “Now you too will taste the reality of this situation”);

3. finally, he announces his love of death (“We love death as much as you love life”), and his confidence of entering heaven (“May Allah … raise me amongst those whom I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs,” etc.).

The same vengeance motivation was dramatized by ISIS executioners when they made their victims suffer the same way as Muslims (e.g. wearing Guantanamo dress, being burned alive or blown up). read more »

Jihad and Death, the global appeal of Islamic State

Now that Islamic State has been defeated in the most prominent of its several bases it may not be a bad idea to extend our understanding of what we have just witnessed and its likely ongoing ramifications.

Olivier Roy

There is something terribly modern about the jihadi terrorist violence that has unfolded in the past twenty years or so.

Of course, neither terrorism nor jihad is a new phenomenon. Forms of “globalized” terrorism . . . developed as early as the late nineteenth century with the anarchist movement, culminating in the first manifestation of global terrorism with the alliance formed by the Baader-Meinhof gang, Palestinian extreme left groups, and the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s. As for the reference to jihad, it is found in the Quran and regularly resurfaces in the Muslim world—particularly through the term mujahid, characteristic of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and the Afghan resistance.

What is new is the association of terrorism and jihadism with the deliberate pursuit of death.

Those are the opening lines of Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy, translated from French by Cynthia Schoch. The book has been noticed with reviews easy to find on the web — in Church Times, The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Haaretz, Jihad WatchMiddle East Media and Book Reviews Online, The National, New York Journal of Books, Our Daily ReadThe Times. . . .

Most of history’s terrorists are on record as carefully planning their escape. Olivier Roy sees the current wave Islamic State inspired terrorists as fundamentally a nihilistic youth movement. The perpetrators are not as a rule long and deeply immersed in Islam; on the contrary, their sentiments of fervent religiosity are expressed by a smattering of decontextualized “proof texts” and surface only in a matter of weeks or months before those perpetrators embark on their ultimate goal of a suicide mission. Before that time, and even during that same period, their lives are stained by unreligious practices — petty crime, alcohol, sex, drugs — but suicide, they believe will atone for all of their sins and even grant apostate family members a path to paradise.

It is a generational movement, Roy argues, comparable to the terror once wreaked by China’s Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The old Islam of their parents is to be wiped out to make way for the original faith and practice. But they are not even making room for a new society; they seek death.

The caliphate is a fantasy. It is the myth of an ideological entity constantly expanding its territory. Its strategic impossibility explains why those who identify with it, instead of devoting themselves to the interests of local Muslims, have entered a death pact. There is no political perspective, no bright future, not even a place to pray in peace.

Roy speaks of the Islamization of radicalism. He rejects the notion that it is Islam that is being radicalized. No, it is the other way around today. Fundamentalism, he argues, does not produce violence. Other factors contribute to violence. Islam, moreover, condemns suicide missions of the type longed for by modern day Islamist terrorists, because it anticipates God’s will. The suicide bomber does not allow God to decide the time of his or her death and is for that reason condemned by even Salafi Muslims.

But while the concept of the caliphate is indeed part of the Muslim religious imaginary, the same is not true for the pursuit of death. Salafism, accused of all kinds of evils, condemns suicide because it anticipates Gods will. Salafism is primarily concerned with codifying individual behavior: it regulates everything, including the use of violence. Salafis are not out to die. Instead, obsessed by salvation, they need life in order to prepare to meet their Lord at the end of an earthly existence led according to its rites and rituals. (Roy, p. 4)

There is no military or strategic advantage to be won by ongoing suicide operations. Yes, we know about asymmetrical warfare and the power and even success achieved by small bands against organized national armies. But suicide attacks lose trained and hardened warriors every time. The goal as set out in radical manifestos is to fan further radicalization, especially among Muslim communities. Hence most targets are Muslims in the Middle East, not Westerners.

I believe that the systematic association with death is one of the keys to today’s radicalization: the nihilist dimension is central. What fascinates is pure revolt, not the construction of a utopia. Violence is not a means. It is an end in itself. It is violence devoid of a future. If this were not the case, it would be merely an option instead of a norm and a conscious choice.

But what about the lone wolf nutter?

The genius of ISIS is to offer young volunteers the narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations. So much the better for ISIS if other volunteers to die—psychopaths, people with suicidal tendencies, or rebels without a cause—have little to do with the movement, but are prepared to play out a scenario that lends their personal despair a global dimension. (p. 5)

It’s not easy reading interpretations like Roy’s. I look forward to what other specialists in the field have to say about his book, but so far he does not seem very far removed from what several of them have written.

If so, it will surely pass, just as other nihilistic and suicidal “fashions” among youth in the past have passed. That doesn’t make the present any easier, of course, and it leaves us apprehensive of what might follow.

This association of course does not cover the entire issue. It is perfectly conceivable that other, more “rational,” forms of terrorism might soon emerge on the scene. It is also possible that this form of terrorism is merely temporary and that the protest will take on other forms, perhaps more political ones. (p. 5)

 

 

The Decline in Analytic Thinking among U.S. Presidents and the Rise of Propaganda

An interesting article appears in the current issue of Translational Issues in Psychological Science: it describes research (based on analysis of inaugural addresses, presidential documents, State of the Union Addresses, and general election debates) into the level of analytical thinking among United States presidents from Washington to Trump. (H/T Alternet)

The article, The exception or the rule: Using words to assess analytic thinking, Donald Trump, and the American presidency, by Kayla Jordan and James Pennebaker, assigns an “average analytic score” of 96.53 for George Washington at 96.53 and 43.99 for Donald Trump.

The scores for all the presidents are listed and analysed, but there appears to me to be one correlation that is not addressed at all in the discussion. It relates to a change or turning point with Woodrow Wilson. Let me explain.

The first twenty-six presidents, Washington to Taft, all have average analytic scores bouncing around the high 90s.

Then Woodrow Wilson appears and the 90s are touched only once after that:

I can’t say it’s a fact, of course, because I have not myself analysed the documents from which the scores were derived or the advice that went into the preparation of them.

But I can’t help but wonder if there is any causal relationship here to the introduction of “scientific” propaganda techniques through the Committee on Public Information (or Creel Committee). One of the more famous names on the Committee was, of course, Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud.

The age of propaganda through researched psychological techniques began in America with Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to persuade Americans to get involved in “World War 1”.

I don’t think the propaganda machine has removed itself totally from political usefulness ever since. The Cold War era was obviously a time of propaganda warfare, and one has to be an ostrich not to have noticed the efforts of “public relations” machinery in American presidential elections and political image work ever since.

Another graphic in the article that points to the Woodrow Wilson turning point: read more »

Still Chosen After All These Centuries: Readings on Modern Jewish Experiences

I have been reading (and re-reading) several books on the grisly history of anti-Semitism. A few weeks ago I posted on a couple of thoughts that arose out of my reading of From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (1980) by Jacob Katz. Katz covers the rise of anti-Semitism from the Age of Enlightenment through to the rise of Nazism. His survey covers not only Germany but also France and Austria-Hungary during that period.

If hatred of Jews is a product of Christianity’s ancient and medieval heritage of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, why did anti-Semitism flourish despite the advent of the Enlightenment, rationalism, the ideals of brotherhood and equality that were fanned with the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests? How do we explain the survival and eventual avalanching of ant-Semitism despite a time in history when Jews were finding themselves being successfully assimilated into society as professionals, intellectuals, and more?

Through Katz’s book it is clear that Hitler did not suddenly come upon the scene and manufacture a popular antagonism against Jews. Hitler merely exploited what was already fermenting before his arrival on the scene.

Katz’s answers are interesting. They are compatible, for most part, with the analyses of the other authors I read.

Another work, one that covers a wider field than Katz’s primary focus on the history of written ideas, is The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933 (2002) by Amos Elon. Elon writes more colourful portraits of individuals, from Moses Mendelssohn to Albert Einstein. Elon takes us through the struggles of many high-achieving Jews to slough off their “Jewishness” in order to become one with other Germans both in professional status and cultural acceptance. Yet, the “pity of it all” was, of course, that the reader knows the outcome before the final chapter and that it was all in vain.

Meanwhile, I found myself turning back to re-read Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (2008 edition) by Israel Shahak. Shahak’s little volume is a sharp reminder of the unsavoury tribalism at the heart of beliefs and practices of many religiously conservative Jews and nationalist Israelis even today. So often a haloed religious smile hypocritically hides a judgmental, intolerant heart. Elements of the superstitions and ugly tribalism associated with medieval Jewish ghetto life that more cosmopolitan Jews since the Enlightenment have sought so diligently to escape are still with us, unfortunately.

Finally there was The Jewish Century (2004), an award-winning book by Yuri Slezkine. Slezkine’s primary focus, unlike the above works, is on the Jewish experience in Russia and the contrasting experiences of Jewish emigres in, above all, the United States of America and Israel. His first few chapters were far too literary, metaphorical, for my taste that was seeking something more direct and prosaic. But I could not ignore his point and had absorbed his message by the final section.

Once again we find ourselves immersed in the by now familiar story: Jews finding themselves, or rather making themselves, increasingly accepted in their host society only to find themselves suddenly once again fallen from grace despite their best and most loyal efforts. Tribal nationalism trumped the idealism of socialism in Russia. The same atavistic nationalism that animated the pre-war world survives as a regressive anachronism in Zionism.

Only Israel continued to live in the European 1930s; only Israel still belonged to the eternally young, worshiped athleticism and inarticulateness, celebrated combat and secret police, promoting hiking and scouting, despised doubt and introspection, embodied the seamless unity of the chosen, and rejected most traits traditionally associated with Jewishness. (p. 327)

How has it been allowed to flourish as such an anachronism? Whence the unquestioning support for the Zionist state of Israel from the world that fought to end the worst excesses of nationalism and racism?

The most fundamental way in which World War II transformed the world was that it gave birth to a new moral absolute: the Nazis as universal evil. . . .

It was only a matter of time, in other words, before the central targets of Nazi violence became the world’s universal victims. From being the Jewish God’s Chosen People, the Jews had become the Nazis’ chosen people, and by becoming the Nazis’ chosen people, they became the Chosen People of the postwar Western world. The Holocaust became the measure of all crimes, and anti-Semitism became the only irredeemable form of ethnic bigotry in Western public life (no other kind of national hostility, however chronic or violent, has a special term attached to it — unless one counts “racism,” which is comparable but not tribe-specific). (pp. 360-361, my bolding)

read more »

Flawed Counter-Terrorists

Maajid Nawaz

A autobiography I found of special interest in understanding how a British Muslim became radicalized and eventually de-radicalized was Radical by Maajid Nawaz. I discussed one aspect of it in the post The Conflict between Islamism and Islam. From his biography and in his online writings and talks I have read and heard since there is absolutely no way I could ever think of Maajid Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist” as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has branded him. (My reading of the SPLC’s justification is that key persons in that organization fail to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, and it is such persons whom Nawaz and others warn against. Incidentally, I have had to ask at least one Islamist to stop using the comments on this blog as a platform for spreading that ideology.)

Maajid Nawaz comes across to me as a flawed leader in the constellation of counter-extremist efforts. There is no one cause for radicalization and different motivations propel different persons in that direction. I once posted that I saw Maajid Nawaz as an example of a “status seeking” radical, following the descriptions of a wide range of historical extremists by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko in Friction. Such a motivation would explain what I think has been Maajid Nawaz’s biggest mistake — collaborating with a genuine “anti-Muslim extremist”, Sam Harris, with the publication and promotion of  their jointly authored book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. The association has certainly lifted Maajid’s public profile at a time when reports that he had not fully honest about his past began to surface, but it would have been, well, possibly more appropriate for him to admit and apologize for past errors and move on by building on his experiences instead of offering opportunities for the Sam Harris’s and Jerry Coynes to falsely use him to promote prejudices he himself opposes. But, then again, there is money involved, and the need to sustain a cash flow for his organization, Quilliam. He has put himself in a difficult position.

Wheh! After all of that introduction, now to the point of this post. Salon.com has posted an interview with Maajid Nawaz where he is given a chance to explain himself and what he stands for, along with a commentary on the term he coined, “regressive left”, that has taken on entirely new connotations among Islamophobes like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne.

Former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz on “regressive leftism” — and why the SPLC has labeled him an “anti-Muslim extremist”

 

Life and views of a war correspondent

A most interesting fifty-minute long interview with British journalist based in the Middle East, Robert Fisk:

Robert Fisk: life as a war correspondent

  • He does not believe a journalist should be neutral, but that he should take a position on rights and wrongs.
  • He offers interesting commentary on the media, how reporting practices have changed, and the consequences for the type of news the public receives.
  • For memory buffs, he has some interesting biographical commentary on his father’s experiences in war.
  • Contrasting today’s Western leaders who have not had personal experience with war with those of a previous generation.
  • He talks about his interviews with Osama bin Laden.
  • Lots of interesting personal anecdotes.
  • A great insight into one of the better journalists reporting on the Middle East today.