Falling into the Islamist trap

Unlike the recent senseless massacre of children in Pakistan, the attack on Charlie Hebdo is a calculated ploy. Considering the reactions to the attack, the ploy has succeeded.

The perpetrators of these attacks are on a mission to establish a totalitarian Islamic State. A mission not shared by most followers of Islam. They are forced to operate in secrecy and take on the might of most governments. The only way they can succeed is to enlist broader support for their murderous ideology and foment a mass movement.

Most men are too busy living their own lives to bother establishing any kind of state – Islamic or otherwise. Most men are actually just ballast, too confused about the issues at hand to participate in any radical action. Mass movements do not take birth in an atmosphere of peace. Men take up arms only when they are convinced that they are under attack, that they must act immediately to defend their values.

The ploy of the Islamic State is to create an environment where Islam is seen to be under attack. And all the well-intentioned but clueless defenders of free speech, in re-publishing the offensive cartoons, are creating exactly such an environment, achieving for the Islamists what they could not have achieved by themselves.

Most men have little interest in offending others. Even less in ridiculing an abstract idea like religion. But this attack has succeeded in getting people who might never have known of Charlie Hebdo or their offensive cartoons into proclaiming “je suis charlie”.

The issue here is not the right to the freedom of expression. That right is sacred but using it to express what one would not normally express is self-defeating and silly.

The issue here is not the validity of Islam – or any other religion. All religions are fallacious, but ridiculing people’s beliefs is not the way to win them over.

The issue here is how to make the Islamist trap fail, how to prevent the Islamist desperadoes from gaining influence over the majority of Muslims. The key to that is to recognize that men are individuals. They represent themselves, not any community, and certainly not any abstract idea like religion. The actions of individuals professing a particular religion cannot be directly used to judge that religion, and certainly cannot be used to judge other individuals professing the same religion. Attacking the religion merely serves to confuse the judgement of the people professing it, people who would never resort to violence under normal circumstances.

Whether Islam deserves to be ridiculed or not is irrelevant. The murderous pawns of the Islamist State do not represent Islam any more than a peaceful Muslim going about his own life represents Islam. They are all individuals, with their own ideas, responsible for their own actions. Islam stands on its own. As does every religion and every abstract idea.

A change in outlook?

In his latest post, refering to the rebranding of terrorism as man-caused disasters Aristotle The Geek writes

On 9/11/01, some man-caused-disaster-causing-men caused a man-caused disaster

It took me a couple of seconds to parse that, but then I burst out laughing. An year back, I don’t think I would have found it so funny. I would have been more indignant that people in charge of security are busy inventing euphemisms to avoid offending the terrorists.

I am not quite sure what this change means or even whether it is positive or negative. Something to ponder over.

What’s in a name?

Shobha De writes

…Ten days ago, i received a call from a Muslim friend. She sounded a little concerned. Her anxiety had to do with her nephew’s admission into one of Mumbai’s better colleges. His marks were good, his conduct exemplary. He had been a prefect at school and participated in several extracurricular activities. I asked what the hitch was. She sounded almost embarrassed as she said, “Well, we are Muslims and that seems to be the problem in a lot of colleges.”

There is no getting away from the current polarization. … At the time (post- 26/11), we believed it was a passing phase that would disappear once everything ‘settled down’. Except that nobody quite knew what was meant to settle down or whether it would ever happen. … Two years down the line, there are no alibis, no screens to hide behind. Positions have obviously hardened to such a degree that now city colleges have begun to follow their own quota system and turn down eligible students because they are Muslims. … That awful attack was the work of hardcore terrorists. What we are doing may be much worse — we are killing the spirit of innocents. The latter crime may have far more lethal repercussions!

Ten years ago, I might have fully agreed with De. Today I know better. Religion is not like race or caste. It is not something you are born with or into. It is a label for a system of beliefs. Those beliefs can be chosen or rejected. When an overwhelming majority of terrorist activities are carried out by Muslims, it is clear that there is something about belief in Islam that incites people to violence. Religious profiling is hardly comparable to discrimination on the basis of race or caste.

On the other hand, it is also a fact that there are many, many Muslims who are just as rational (or irrational) as people of other religions. These people do not deserve to be profiled out just because they have a Muslim name. What are they to do? There is a simple solution. They can change their names. What’s in a name anyway?

One of my father’s PhD students suspected that her research papers were being discounted because of her gender. She simply resorted to using her initials and surname instead of her full name. Problem solved.

However, this solution only works for those who really do not care about their religion. And that is as it should be. Those Muslims who are irrational enough to believe that they are really losing something by adopting a non-Muslim sounding name get to live in a world filled with people just like them. In other words, they deserve what they get.

NYC mosque and symbolism

Ari Armstrong has a thorough post on the controversial NYC mosque. Here are some good excerpts

…the building of Cordoba House represents a symbolic victory for America’s enemies, and blocking it would constitute a symbolic victory for America’s self-defense.
The question, then, is whether a symbolic display may ever properly be proscribed legally. My initial reaction is to say no; the First Amendment properly protects symbolic expression, and only actions (including active provocation of violence) properly may be criminalized.

I submit that it is precisely this obsessive agonizing over Cordoba House that reflects a posture of defeat and surrender. Why would people spend one minute of their time trying to get rid of some damned prayer center, when they could spend that minute urging the United States government to take decisive action against America’s true enemies? What exactly are our priorities, here?

As disgusting as the idea of a mosque being built in the vicinity of what was once the WTC is, it remains a symbolic victory for Islamists. Leonard Peikoff – in his podcast (transcript) – and Amy Peikoff – in her post – seem to suggest that this symbol represents an existential threat to America. Had someone other than Peikoff taken this position, I would have ignored it. But on more thought, there is something to it. As a rational person driven by logic rather than emotion, I do not attach much significance to symbols. But the same certainly cannot be said about the radical or even moderate Islamists. If a symbol can inspire radical Islamists to further violence – and a mosque on property that was destroyed by Islamic terrorists is certainly a powerful symbol – does it still remain “just a symbol”? I hold that the state cannot legitimately curtail a merely symbolic expression because a symbolic expression is an expression of ideas and not of action. Does that principle still hold when one deals with enemies who do not make that distinction? I am not really sure.

Here is an excerpt from Steve Simpson’s post on NoodleFood.

There’s an odd sort of contradiction at the heart of the argument in favor of cajoling a zoning board into denying the land owners the right to build. It consists in saying that the government will not use legitimate anti-terror laws to prosecute the owners if they support terrorism, but it will use illegitimate, non-objective laws and processes to accomplish the same ends. But if officials lack the will to use legitimate means to go after terrorists, why would they possess the will to use illegitimate means? Supporting this effort seems destined to fail, in which case those who have done so have thrown away principle for nothing at all. And if government is willing to go after the terrorists, why would we ever support using illegitimate means when we could support using legitimate means? Trusting the government with arbitrary power is always a bad bet.

It is clear that trying to prevent the construction of the mosque by taking recourse to bad zoning laws is a bad idea. But I don’t think that is the point of contention. The real question is – Is this really an issue of the right to property or the right to free expression? As Peikoff notes in his podcast, property rights are contextual. They presume a context of a mostly rational, freedom respecting society. It would be impossible to apply them in a society where people do not respect even the right to life. When one is dealing with precisely such enemies, does the context remain unchanged?

20,000 civilians killed in Sri Lanka?

Recently, there have been reports about the killing of large number of civilians in the recently concluded military operations in Sri Lanka. Now, I have never followed Sri Lankan politics in any detail. So I cannot comment on which side (if any) is in the right. But that is not the purpose of the post. I am writing this post because I am a little surprised at my own reaction to this. Or rather the lack of reaction. I feel nothing at all. No sympathy for those killed, no anger or admiration for the fighters on either side, nothing at all. A single untimely death can be a tragedy but 20,000 just leaves me untouched. I believe in the benevolent universe premise and thus have a default good-will toward people I do not know, an expression of the idea that human life is valuable. Does the lack of reaction contradict this premise? Have I turned into a cynic?

To get atleast some minimal understanding of what the conflict was all about, I looked up LTTE on wikipedia. In a long article, the only reason mentioned for the cause of the conflict is this one line: “The Tamil Tigers claimed to be fighting to protect the country’s Tamil minority from discrimination at the hands of the successive Sinhalese majority governments that have ruled the country since independence”. That and the two maps in the same article indicate that the conflict is ethnic. An ethnic conflict is inconceivable to me in the sense that I cannot even remotely understand the kind of thinking that would motivate a person to participate in it. I have zero respect for any religion (never had any) or for tradition for its own sake. That people are willing to fight and kill for the sake of religion and/or tradition is inconceivable.

The conflict is not new. It has been going on for decades. What have all these “civilians” been doing while a civil war was raging in their country? Either they have actively supported it or they have ignored it even though they knew they would be caught in the cross-fire. Either way they have not demonstrated any respect for human life, not even their own. If they never cared much about their own lives, why should I? Anyhow, I don’t even subscribe to the idea that civilians should be exempt from military operations.

The first time I heard about the LTTE was when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. I was only a kid then. It is telling that in all the time since then (almost two decades) I did not even know what the conflict was about. I have never been particularly interested in politics but that does not explain it. I knew what the American civil war was about, for instance. I never knew what the conflict was about because in all the reports that I must have read or glanced at, I found no sensible reasons.

To sum up, my lack of reaction was because I did not care about these people at all, not because I did not know them but because I knew (only implicitly) that they were not acting sensibly. I still hold that “human life is valuable”. But human (in this context) is more than a biological description. And people who are willing to participate in ethnic strife or to live passively while it destroys everything around them do not qualify.

As I was writing this I remembered that Aristotle The Geek had recently written somehing about Prabhakaran (the LTTE leader). So I searched for LTTE on his blog and found these two posts. The first reveals that socialism was part of the idealogy of the LTTE. So the civilians who supported the LTTE are not just tribalistic but also socialist. The comments in the second raise another issue – how do collectives relate to individualism and should one recognize them? I will write about that later.

Terrorism and moral outrage

In my last post, I wrote about political outrage among the public (directed at the politicians) in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Mumbai and why it is unjustified (Ramesh has a long post on a similar theme that, unlike mine, is not polemical). This post is about moral outrage and its importance.

Why do we feel morally outraged by a terrorist attack? Is it because of the number of people who are injured or killed? No. People die because of a number of causes but we don’t feel outraged by their deaths. Is it because the deaths were untimely? No. People die in accidents but we don’t feel outraged at that. Is it because the deaths were preventable? No. People die in adventure sports but we don’t feel outraged by that. We feel outraged because the injuries and deaths inflicted by the terrorists are unjust. Because the people who suffer do not deserve to suffer. Because they are not morally responsible for the whatever grievances (if any) the terrorists may have. Specifically, the moral value that the terrorists outrage is justice. And the implicit principle by which we recognize the violation of justice is deliberate initiation of force – the use of force against men who did not use it. Consider some simple examples to see that it is indeed so.

A soldier is practising with his rifle in an enclosure. Someone accidentally enters it and gets killed. We do not feel outraged at the soldier because his act was not deliberate.

A trader on the stock market loses his entire fortune and kills himself. We do not feel outraged at the other traders on the market because there is no force involved.

A criminal tries to set fire to someone’s house. The victim happens to have a gun and shoots the criminal. We do not feel outraged at the victim because he has not initiated force, but merely used it in retalliation.

Note that this principle is an absolute. No mitigating factors, ideas, or convictions can justify deliberate initiation of force. If men wish to remain in a civilized society (and with the size of the world population being what it is, there is no other way to live), they must recognize this principle, or rather, the extent to which a society recognizes and implements this principle is the extent of its civilization.

A person who violates this principle is a criminal and deserves to be treated as such. Most people who do so are petty, short sighted crooks who seek short term gains and hope to get away with their crimes. They deserve punishment proportionate to their crimes (and it is a matter of philosophy of law to determine this punishment). A terrorist however is not an ordinary criminal. Whatever his motivations, he is not after short term gains. His acts are a rejection of civilization as such. The only appropriate response – morally and practically – to a terrorist act is the use of overwhelming force in retalliation and defence. Morally, overwhelming force is justified because what is at stake is the very principle of civilization. Practically, overwhelming force is necessary, because any indication of uncertainty can only increase the motivation of the terrorists (more so when the terrorists are motivated by supremacist religious principles). The only proper issues to be considered in a response to a terrorist act are ones of strategy – not what needs to be done, but how it should be done.

Such a response might involve civilian casualties in the countries that harbour and promote terrorism. The moral responsibility for any innocent people who may suffer in such an attack belongs to the terrorists, to the governments who support them and to the civilians who elect the governments. And it is here that moral courage and certainty comes into play. Are we so sure of our innocence that we are willing to take all measures to protect them? Do we value our lives enough to believe that force used in retalliating to lethal threats is always justified? Do we believe fully in the justice of our cause to accept the idea that there are no innocents in war?

Needless to say, we do not have such courage or certainty. And for good reason. We simply do not value our lives high enough. We believe in a code of ethics that holds serving others as the highest virtue. We constantly tolerate any amount of interference from the governments in our private lives. We advocate policies that are based on nothing but coercion. We participate in a political system that recognizes no absolute principles and places no limitations on the powers of the government to coerce people. There is no way we can say that we deserve to live even if it takes a war that may kill innocents to secure our lives. Is it any wonder that the statements of our elected representatives are empty platitudes devoid of any meaning or intent? And is it any wonder that the terrorists are convinced that they are morally supreme?

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The moral outrage that we feel everytime the terrorists attack, is a badge of virtue. It represents the implicit sense of justice that is needed for a civilized society. But in itself, it is not a guide to action. What we need is to understand the principles on which that sense of outrage is based and apply them consistently. Until we do so, until we establish a just society based on absolute moral principles, we will have no answer to terrorism.

Note: The ‘we’ in this post refers to the dominant culture as I see it.

Terrorism and democracy

If The Times of India is to be believed, the mood of the public after the latest terrorist attack is different – it is one of outrage and anger.

…this was one outrage which finally snapped the endurance and infinite generosity of India. In the past, every assault on Mumbai — where, at times, the death toll was higher — had produced a flicker of anger, followed by an astonishing display of fatalism…
The mood is different this week; it is palpably angry…

So a country of men who look to the state to solve their personal problems is outraged that the government they have elected has failed to solve its problems? A country of men who cannot take personal responsibility in social and economic matters is outraged that their government has failed to take collective responsibility in political matters? A country of men which believes in a political system that grants voting rights to men who perpetrate honor killings and communal riots is outraged that their government lacks the moral courage to take appropriate measures?

Jug Suraiya writes

This is why 26/11 is tantamount to a blood-drenched referendum on India: which of the two Indias the world’s largest and most irrepressible democracy, or the world’s most corrupt and cynical mobocracy will emerge from the ordeal?…
It’s referendum time for India. Are we going to remain weak and vulnerable to repeated assault because of our inner divisiveness? Or are we going to beat the bastards, are we going to triumph over terror by surviving it, not on its dehumanising terms but on our own terms of a proudly free society and a strong and cohesive democracy impervious and unsusceptible to the exploitative politics of caste, creed and ethnic division? It’s time to choose.

Indeed it is time to choose. But what are the two choices that Suraiya is writing about. I see only one choice there. Suraiya is calling for a strong, free and cohesive democracy. Sounds good, except for the fact that the meaning of these words will be decided by a vote. And among the voters will be the men who perpetrate and condone honor killings, who kill their new-born daughters, who participate in riots, who indulge in violent strikes and hold cities to ransom. And manipulating these voters and ruling over them will be the men who are best able to play ruthless games of power. And cheering them on and waxing eloquent will be fools like Suraiya who believe that there is some magic in a democratic vote that turns vice into virtue. No, we will not achieve either freedom or security by going down this path. The path of democracy is what we have been following all this while. And this is where it has brought us. Care to see where it will take us next? We will have stronger laws and more teams of trained commandos. And when the next terrorist strike happens, these commandos will be busy raiding a party of teenagers high on drugs or settling some political score in a country that will have turned into a police state.

What is the alternative? It is to develop the moral courage to assert that political principles are not open to a vote, to assert that the right is a matter of fact and not of consensus, to reject a system of government that allows the least scrupulous to grab the most power, to develop a sense of personal responsibility for our problems, to value our lives and freedom enough to reject any interference.

So long as we do not value our own lives and allow our freedom to be chipped away in small pieces – by laws that ban smoking and make helmets mandatory – and large ones – by laws that enforce reservations, ban the setting up of educational institutes for profit, ban people from selling their property on their own terms – we have no cause to be outraged that the government does not value our lives either.

It is time to choose – freedom, responsibility and security or democracy, corruption, paternalism and terrorism. And if we make the wrong choice we will find that the rejection of all principles in a democratic free-for-all does not magically turn into sound politics. The last century saw the collapse of socialist governments under the weight of their flawed principles. Democracies do not have that risk – they have no weight to collapse under. But that will not prevent them from being blown away under the onslaught of Islamic terrorism which does have an ideology, believes in it and is committed to do whatever it takes to establish it.

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