Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Resisting Feedback Loops of Ideological Violence: Answering a Commenter's Question

In a comment on my previous post, Mike H asked (simply playing Devil's Advocate) how I would respond to the following claim:

"The very fact that those who oppose an all-out ban bring up the likelihood that a ban would actually increase terrorism in the future seems to prove the point - that there is an inherent problem with what we call 'terrorism' in the very essence of Islam that is just waiting to explode and which could awaken at any time or place."

Since my answer was too long to post as a comment, I post it here instead:

It is part of the very essence of ideologies of division that they operate in this way, but Islam needn't be formulated in such ideological terms. In fact, many Muslims (all the Muslims I know personally) reject such an ideological understanding of Islam.

But divisive ideologies are real--and you can find them alive and well in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, they are also alive and well everywhere else in the world. And that creates the danger of feedback loops of escalating hostility unless we stand against these ideologies.

Here's how these feedback loops work. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, and within each group there is a subgroup that views itself as locked in a zero-sum struggle with the other group. Acts by members of A that treat all of B as the enemy strengthen the position of those within B who claim that all of A is the enemy, earning them more recruits and greater strength. This in turn will lead to more acts by members of B treating all of A as the enemy...and the feedback loop is off and running.

Of course, there's the question of whether something in the Koran or in Islam's history and traditions lends itself to such us/them ideology. And the reality is this: if you leaf through the Koran, you can find texts to support such ideological thinking. I'm no expert in Muslim history, but you can probably find things there to support such ideological thinking, too. But I've leafed through the copy of the Koran that I got when I went to a Muslim open house, and so I know you can also find things there to oppose ideological divisiveness.

The same is true of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures and histories/traditions: you can find plenty of texts that support us/them ideology; and you can find texts that oppose such ideology. What you do with these complex texts and traditions depends on the interpretive lens you bring to bear. The more that ideologies of division prevail within a religious community, the more that texts and traditions will be interpreted in ways that feed those ideologies.

The Muslims I know personally read the Koran and their tradition in ways utterly opposed to the ideologies that fuel terrorism and underwrite dreams of Muslim world-domination. U.S. policies that single out Muslims in a sweeping way will cause them substantial hardship and will inspire in them fear for the future and outrage against the administration, but will almost certainly not inspire them to adopt ideologies of division and turn them into terrorists.

But there are those on the fence who will be pushed towards embracing this ideological us/them version of Islam by such policies. Of course, most who end up in this ideological camp don't commit acts of terror (although they may cheer them). But policies that treat all of Islam as the enemy will not merely help to push more people towards extremist views but will also push more of those with these extremist views into extremist actions.

But this isn't a distinctively Muslim thing. The same is true on the other side of the divide. Most Americans don't view all of Islam as the enemy. But some do. And if a handful of Islamist extremists commit another significant terrorist attack on US soil, guess what will happen? The number of Americans who think all Muslims are the enemy will grow (especially if there are prominent voices of authority encouraging it). And of those who harbor such ideology, more will be inspired to strike out against innocent Muslims, committing hate crimes and the like. The position of those in authority who harbor such ideological views will likely be strengthened, making it more likely that America will implement military policies that strike out at the Muslim world in ways that harm innocent Muslims. And it will be less likely that this cost in innocent lives will be treated as a weighty loss.

When this happens, ideological extremists in the Muslim world will likely say something like the following: "These actions by the American government show that there is something in the very essence of the West that is just waiting to explode against us!"

Put another way, this kind of language is part of the ideology of division that fuels inter-group conflict and makes such conflict escalate and become increasingly entrenched. We can step away from escalating cycles of violence only by resisting these ideas--only by stepping back and blaming the ideology of division itself, manifested on all sides, instead of fueling it on our side by saying that there is something in the very essence of "them" that causes the problem.

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. I think the two big things that supplement the earlier argument, both of which you seemed to address here, are views about what Islam “inherently” is and how we approach our own violence and/or “texts of terror”.

    Feedback loops seem really apt here. For one, the illustration has the potential to help get us out of our skin in a way - to look at how we might respond to an equivalent sort of action had the roles been reversed. A ban just is the sort of thing that will likely lead to escalating hostility and self-fulfilling prophecy. So yeah, you’d probably hear ”These actions by the American government show that there is something in the very essence of the West that is just waiting to explode against us!”

    By itself though, as powerful as it is, the argument still seems susceptible to the “Well, everything pisses these guys off! It’s only a matter of time!” sort of argument.

    So it needs to get into the particularities of Islam itself (and I don’t subscribe to the idea that Christians have the right or ability to say what Islam “inherently” is). Here, it’s better to listen rather than grab a verse or two from the Koran or parrot some fundamentalist Christian apologetics and think we know what we’re talking about.

    We can’t ignore our own violence (in this area we can and need to speak, and I think we need to extend the same generosity to other’s hermeneutics as we extend to ourselves). Do we acknowledge the violence in our sacred texts? If we were to accept violence in the Jewish Scriptures as part of the “essence” and then say “but we have a New Testament”, are we arguing that Jesus was a “bad Jew”? Why is it appropriate to make our own violence and us/them mentality the exception and ‘theirs’ the rule? Do we acknowledge the hermeneutical complexity of our own tradition and scriptures? So much to be said here.

    All this said, here’s the thing. I’m not any kind of expert in counter terrorism or why one person becomes radicalized and not another. I don’t know that anyone can say with 100% certainty what will or will not “work”. Perhaps a lack of a ban could be spun to say that “The US is trying to bring you in to corrupt you in their Western ways” or something like that. You just don’t know. Outcomes are beyond controlling. But to me, outside of the complex and often abstract politics of bans and immigration, what can’t be denied is the good (and de-escalation) that happens when one person genuinely meets another person in their time of need.

    Apologies for the long comment. Great posts!