Terrorism and Charlie Hedbo

A few disjointed words on my musings while reading the papers.

Trying to figure out what drives people to kill, to hate, and to extreme intolerance is hard. A lot of very smart people have tried to make headway for a long time, and yet we know little of practical use. Consequently, don’t expect me to change the status quo. It’s not (just) deprivation, it’s not your local church, it’s not your parents.

Calling the attack on the Canadian parliament, or the rampage in France, or similar attacks “Terrorism” or “Islamic” “Militant” etc. bothers me. France definitely falls in the terrorism category, Canada and some others less so. However (and this may change) we’re stirring mentally disturbed people, people clearly having difficulty being part of society, and radicalized criminals together with evil terrorist masterminds familiar from TV, and I don’t think that’s at all helpful. Terrorism has never been well defined — one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter, and today things are even more murky. Anti-IRS? Anti-abortion? KKK? Anti-semitist? Firebombing mosques? Bombing schools? Done by individuals, done by small groups, done by militias, done by people coming back from a training camp in the Middle East? Sometimes the line is clear, sometimes much less so.

The Canadian shooter was mentally disturbed, and there’s little need to go down any more rabbit holes with that.

The French perpetrators were criminals and drug dealers with pornography and dubious religious discipline. Yes, they were motivated by some fantasy version of Jihad and Islam, but from all we’ve learned so far they were thugs, and not particularly observant Muslims. This to me is at odds with the narrative that Islam is the driving force behind the massacres.

Another point to make is how rare these kinds of attacks in the West are. Considering the population statistics, they’re complete and utter outliers. If any sizable portion of the Muslim population in the US, France or Germany for example were radicals bent on violence, things would look completely different. There are bombings and similar attacks due to job grievances, racism or just plain mental illness.

One of the clerks in the kosher shop that was attacked in Paris was a Muslim, and he shepherded many clients to safety. One of the policemen either responding to, or guarding the newspaper offices was a Muslim. Obviously, then, there are Muslims, and Jews, and Christians and all kinds of believers that have figured out how to live and work together in France.

Reading the comments, both on FB and various newspapers, suggesting that the violence is inherent in Islam and by corollary all Muslims should GTFO or convert if we want peace in our countries is pretty painful. Yes, there’s a violent aspect to Islam and the Koran. Surprise, ditto for Christianity. Or, seen from a different angle, there are plenty of Muslims that are living amongst us. They run businesses, have families, have integrated in the communities, and want nothing to do with the hateful versions of Islam. To tell them that no, it doesn’t matter what they believe or do, they implicitly support barbarism is not only rude, it’s very disturbing, because it’s the textbook example of religious intolerance, and exactly the kind of thing that all the anti-discrimination principles are meant to combat. We live with Islam, and we will live with Islam, and that will not change. We better figure out a way to deal with it. You can be against ISIS and yet respect the religion of your neighbor doing database administration for the phone company.

Things are never as black-and-white as we’d like. Of course communities are responsible for doing something about hateful preachers or those advocating violence. But what exactly are Muslims in perfectly civil and nice mosques expected to do about things that maybe happening in another city? Maybe there are things that can be done. Maybe there are things that should be done. If so, they’re not obvious to me. There is media bias, and there’s whitewashing. Unless clearly overwhelming, cherry-picking one or the other as an anecdotal example doesn’t redefine reality.

Drawing a line between unhealthy self-censorship and healthy respect is no easier. Should you be able to offend a religious figure? Yes. Should you? Possibly not. Personally, I strongly believe that those in power must be held accountable, and parody is a way to do so; if history is any guide, there are no things that do not eventually require us to lampoon them. Making fun of a religious figure and making fun of a problematic interpretation or representation of said figure are two different things. The prophets pictured in many of the controversial caricatures are not those venerated by most Muslims, they are the prophets venerated and imaged by intolerant, destructive fanatics. To me, this difference is crucial. As usual with parodies, if you’re offended by someone’s depiction of things you hold dear, it’s always worth re-examining said things and just why you were offended.

There’s a virulent and extremely dangerous ideology in radical Islam. It appeals to people. The organized barbarism, as well as the individual criminals motivated by their visions of it define themselves in terms of Islam. This makes it very difficult to separate militant Islam from the peaceful, everyday Islam. Is there a media bias giving extra weight on the religion in headlines? I don’t know. Meanwhile in Africa, for example, there are utter atrocities being perpetrated in the name of Christ, but much fewer headlines about this. Is it because of the particular religion, or is it because we just don’t happen to care about that part of the planet currently? Then again, we’re also not greatly publicizing a lot of the Muslim-on-Muslim violence, all of which does suggest that what we see on the news is skewing our perceptions.

Terrorism in the modern era isn’t new. There were, and are, the Red Army Faction, Weathermen, Unabomber, (P)IRA, ETA, crazy American militias and many others. Some were driven by political grievances. (Although in the case of the IRA this was often dressed, simplistically, as Protestant vs. Catholic. Tell me there are not at least a few corollaries there.) Often these were movements that attracted people because terrorist life was exciting, gave a person a way to belong, a way to make a difference, to be famous, and get girls. Many of the same reasons seem to be drawing youth to fight in the Middle East as well, except now under the guise of Jihad instead of anarchy or communism. To think that somehow the threat of a bomb in a shopping mall was brought to us by Islamists is inaccurate.

The words we use to define concepts and the words we use in our headlines shape the way we think of things. I’m afraid the ones we’re using now don’t help us make sense of the world we live in, but I have no better ones to suggest.

Posted by Toivo Voll