I try to live my online life by recognizing the truth of Godwin’s Law and its closely related corollary. Those are: the longer an Internet discussion goes on, the more likely someone will bring up the Nazis; and that the Nazi analogy is usually so absurd, the person making it automatically loses the argument.
But sometimes political speech becomes just a bit too disturbing – and the Nazi analogy is a bit too close to reality – to ignore it.
I’m speaking of Donald Trump’s calls for Muslims to carry special identification and for the closing down of mosques under certain circumstances. This demonization and dehumanization of religious minorities as “the other” as a path to power is just too close what the Nazis did. It’s sickening and un-American. And he won’t really distance himself from these statements when directly asked. I’m not saying that Trump is akin to Hitler. I don’t think he has quite the same methodical, thought-out ideology. That gives him too much credit. He’s just a guy trying to win an election – which is maybe even more disturbing. Who knows what he’ll actually do?
Thankfully, Trump has been criticized by many people, including some Republican presidential candidates (although fairly mildly in some cases). But that’s not enough.
To the moderate, non-bigoted Americans who identify as Republicans, for the love of your country, take back your party. You cannot stay quiet. Stand up and be counted at this time. Learn a bit about fascism, how it started, what it called for, and how it worked. Reject those tactics. Reject religious bigotry. Reject Donald Trump.
Regarding the Syrian refugees, we should let them in, of course.
First, it’s good policy. To undermine support for radical Islam, we have to win moderate and liberal Muslim hearts and minds. By denying entry for the refugees, we give ISIS and similar groups the public relations and moral victory that they want.
It is also just the right thing to do – to help those in need – especially in times of war.
However, we still need to ask why so many Americans areopposed to the Syrian refugees. Some of it might be because they’re uniformed. (The resettlement process is actually quiterigorous.) Undoubtedly some of it is just rank, un-American religious bigotry. I applaud everyone who in the last week has fought against the ignorance and intolerance out there.
But I think advocates of admitting the Syrian refugees need to acknowledge that many Americans are genuinely worried about the safety of their families and friends. It’s unfair to just ignore this worry. After all, we need be honest that, while the risk of terrorism from the refugees – and overall – is small, it will never be zero. There simply cannot be perfect safety.
And that is why we need to enlist our fellow Americans in this battle for hearts and minds. We, as a people, can take a positive, active role in defeating radical ideologies. We don’t do it by closing off our country – and our own hearts and minds. We don’t do it by destroying our open, liberal republican society and its promise of inclusiveness and freedom. Instead, we defeat these radical ideologies by remaining open – and yes, somewhat exposed – and proving that our society is stronger than the illiberal, pre-modern ideologies – like radical Islam – that oppose it.
In a sense, this puts U.S. citizens on the “front lines”. But as the saying goes, freedom isn’t free. Normally that’s used to celebrate soldiers, but I say we use it to celebrate ordinary American citizens who take the risk of setting aside fear and prejudice and dedicate themselves to realizing American values at home. That’s a noble cause. And it’s one all Americans should support.
I’ve seen some stories bouncing around drawing equivalencies between Islam-inspired terrorists and Christianity-inspired terrorists.
Three thoughts occur:
I get the impulse to equate the two. However, the threat from radical Christianist terrorism – both to the West and Islamic countries – is much smaller. That’s good, of course, but why it’s smaller is what really matters. At this point in time, radical Christianists mostly have to operate in stable, secular, liberal democracies that are committed to inclusiveness, have a robust political life, and don’t subscribe to visions of apocalyptic religious war. That kind of society effectively drains the swamp in which these sick ideologies breed. That kind of society needs to appreciated, cherished, and defended.
Fortunately, radical Christianist groups don’t have massive amounts of oil money to fund their operations.
Again, yes, radical Islamists are more dangerous, but we have to keep in mind that they are not an existential threat to the West. ISIS will not be rolling in Washington, D.C., or Paris or London to takeover the country. In the most horrific case imaginable, they might destroy a city, but they will not conquer any Western countries. The fact remains that they and other radical Islamist organizations are a far greater danger to other Muslims than us. We should temper our reactions to match this reality.
During this weekend’s Democratic presidential debate, the Republican presidential candidates went on the attack, criticizing the Democrats for not being willing to say definitively whether we were at war with “radical Islam.” As I’ve written before, I think that the Democrats – as presidential candidates – gave appropriately nuanced responses.
But it goes beyond that. The fact is that I don’t trust the Republicans presidential candidates to properly combat Islamic terrorism. Why? Because I believe their instinct is to turn it into a religious war.
See, I don’t think we’re engaged in an apocalyptic showdown between Islam and Christianity. Instead, I see a minority and reactionary sect of Islam on one side and almost the entire rest of the world on the other side. That includes moderate Muslims, as well as powerful countries and peoples that aren’t actively involved in the conflict right now (and frankly, matter more for the long-term future of geo-politics), like China.
But, seemingly, Republican don’t see it that way. In Foreign Policy magazine, James Bamford has a profile of the chief foreign policy advisor of Ben Carson, one of the leading Republican presidential candidates. According to this advisor, Robert Dees:
“Trying to appease the Muslim religion by saying [it is] a peace-loving religion is problematic. I think they need to show us. Rather than speak of peace, they need to demonstrate peace, and they need to demonstrate how their religion does not lead people to a final end state of violence and oppression.”
Okay. From a guy who also says this:
“My greatest pleasure has been being a private in the Lord’s army.”
And in a PowerPoint presentation said:
“JESUS was the ultimate Resilient Warrior & Leader,”
Hard data are hard to come by, but think for a moment: how many Christians subscribe this aggressive version of Jesus? Maybe about the same number of Islamic radicals? And how are moderate Muslims supposed to feel, when the senior policy advisors of one of the leading candidates of the two big American political parties has this kind of history? I don’t think they would be comforted. This goes directly to whether we can win the battle for hearts and minds – whether we can win over moderate Muslims. If we can’t do that, I think the battle against radical Islam is lost.
By the way, why do we see Islamic radicals running wild, while explicitly radical Christians from the U.S. aren’t committing atrocities in a similar fashion? It’s because the Christian radicals are hemmed in by the robust and secular political institutions of the U.S. and Europe, which require them to advocate and justify their war-like ways in standard foreign policy terms, undermining their religious content.
We need societies free of intractable religious strife, where people can come together – no matter what their religion or worldview – to define their common purpose. It is the only hope for the future. And this is, by the way, how the founding fathers saw the world. It is the source of the First Amendment. It’s the right way to approach the world. It’s worth defending. And you can do that with your vote.
Short answer: Yes, of course. But we can’t say that too loudly.
Let me explain.
This question came up during Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate, which followed the attacks in Paris. I freely admit that – to a wounded and frightened world populace – the Democrats responses seemed like weak tea, with their inability to straightforwardly say whether we were or were not at war with radical Islam. The Republican presidential candidates clearly thought they had a gotchya moment here and attacked the Democrats. Donald Trump even says the problem of terrorism can’t be solved until we say the magic words “radical Islamic terrorism”. (It’s like saying hocus pocus, I guess.)
While this demand to speak the words is probably very satisfying to some, it is also very irresponsible – especially coming from presidential candidates.
You see, what U.S. presidential candidates say is not just for domestic consumption. Their words are heard around the world. Citizens of other countries – who don’t get to vote, of course – are very much effected by what the U.S. does, and they follow our politics closely. When discussing terrorism, you have to be nuanced about how your criticize Islam. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose the battle for hearts and minds before you even have a chance to fight. If we’re ever to stop Islam-inspired terrorism, we cannot alienate moderate Muslims. We cannot have them thinking, “Well, they hate us anyway, so screw ‘em. Bring on the jihad.” Hillary Clinton came closest to articulating this that night. She even – and it kills me to say this – rightly praised George W. Bush for his restraint:
If they hear people running for– president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam– that was one of the real contributions– despite all the other problems that George W. Bush made after 9/11 when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, “We are not at war with Islam or Muslims. We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression.” And yes, we are at war with those people that I don’t want us to be painting with too brand (sic) a brush.
So, what seems like mealy mouthed responses from the Democrats are, in fact, finely calibrated responses.
Can we not criticize Islam at all, then? Of course we can. Look, clearly ISIS is a religiously inspired movement. For some reason – and it’s not at all clear to me why – a certain brand of fundamentalist Islam is proving remarkably attractive to some Muslims across the world, who are willing to travel to Syria to fight and to conduct terrorism at home. This is certainly a fact that Islam and its adherents must confront.
We must discuss, understand, and criticize Islam as it relates to terrorism. But we have to be careful in how we go about it. And certainly presidential candidates saying things that will be perceived to threaten Muslims worldwide won’t help. It matters who does the criticizing. If that’s not satisfying to you, well, I don’t know what to say. Maybe you should just grow up a little.
My heart goes out to all of those killed and wounded by terrorist attacks — in Paris, Beirut, Mumbai, the U.S., of course, and elsewhere. Nothing I write or say can take away the pain, sadness, anger, and vulnerability they must feel. I have a few thoughts regarding terrorism, peace, and human nature that I try to keep in mind at times like these. I don’t think they’re very comforting to those who have lost loved ones, but I hope, should I or my family ever be the victim of these evil events someday, someone would gently remind me of what I wrote here.
It’s important to realize that, as Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack write, we live in one of the safest periods in human history. Many kinds of violence are at historically low levels, and the deaths associated with terrorism are nothing compared to world wars — let alone the very real possibility at one time of a global nuclear war.
Revenge is natural part of human psychology, but blunt, vengeful militarism and bombing will not solve the problem of terrorism. In fact, it can inflame it by creating new enemies, especially when we callously accept that innocents will die as part of our bombing, as we have during Pres. Obama’s drone war. Such bombing becomes, in the minds of innocent victims, just another form of terrorism. Instead, we need to look to policing and politics. A study published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (h/t emptywheel) highlights (PDF) a RAND Corporation report that found that more than 80% of terrorist groups end though improved policing or through the group becoming part of the political process. Military force alone accounted for only 7% of terrorist groups ending. In this case, our strength will come from our restraint.
The same RAND report did find that only 32% of religious terrorist groups ended during its study period. Religious movements seem to be particularly intractable. However, simply blaming religion or, in this case, Islam in particular will not help. In fact, the more we stoke anger and divisiveness — especially along religious lines — the easier it is for them to recruit new terrorists. I’m not saying we can just ignore the religion of the terrorists — after all, it is a significant source of fuel for their movement — but an excessive or unilateral focus on it will only serve the interests of the terrorists.
We in the United States and in the West must acknowledge the role of our foreign policy in creating these terrorists. The list is long: the disastrous decision by the Bush administration to drive us into the Iraq War and destabilize the entire region; the tacit support for all of Israel’s actions, no matter how illegal or misguided; the propping up of brutal regimes that leave very little room for political change; the drone bombing I mentioned above.
Also regarding policy choices, we have to recall that the only reason the Middle East is of unique strategic importance is because of oil. Without the need to keep the oil flowing, we wouldn’t have much interest in the area. After all, there are humanitarian and human rights disasters across the world, but we don’t invade all of them. Also, oil money is what continues to fund much of the violence. Our dependence on oil is a public policy choice that we make. We could be spending the billions we spend on bombs to look at alternatives.
These terrorists are terrible people, but not uniquely terrible. This capacity exists within all societies and within all of us for this kind of violence. We’re all very good at crafting reasons for violence that are very convincing to ourselves. After all, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you live in the United States or another Western nation, count yourself lucky to be living in a certain time and place that is relatively secure and not targeted by the world’s great powers. And count yourself lucky to live a secular nation, where religious extremism is undermined by the larger cultural commitment to peaceful, inclusive, and robust politics. In the long run, the greatest threat to the terrorists is that we stand firm in support of our democratic republican values. The alternative leads to our becoming just like them.