Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Discrimination, distrust and xenophobia: Part 3

(This is the third article in a multi-part series. If you haven't already read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend that you do so before continuing here.)

Q: You're practicing moral equivalence by insinuating that our civilization is as bad as that of the Islamic world. What about 'honor killings' by Muslims, children who are stoned to death because they wear certain fashions, the beheading of hostages, the mass murder of schoolchildren, allowing girls in a burning school to die because they lacked sufficiently 'modest' clothing to wear during their escape, and so on? These aren't the acts of a civilized people - they're barbaric! How can you expect me to trust Muslims with those examples in mind?

A: We'll discuss 'moral equivalence' in a moment: but first, I'm not 'insinuating that our civilization is as bad' as anything else. I make no such claim. By trying to make my argument 'universal', you're extrapolating from the particular to the general. You're saying that because some individuals or groups have behaved in a certain manner, everyone sharing a common faith and/or culture with those groups must and will inevitably behave in the same way. That doesn't necessarily follow.

Consider these examples:

  • Some US firearms enthusiasts have also proved to be members or supporters of domestic terrorist organizations. That doesn't mean that all, or even many, US firearms enthusiasts are so implicated. No general correlation has ever been demonstrated between an interest in firearms and a propensity towards terrorism.
  • Some ministers of religion have also proved to be child abusers. (I've written extensively about this problem - see the list of articles in the sidebar.) However, the vast majority of ministers are not child abusers, and no general correlation has been established between that vocation and that crime.
  • Some married couples are 'swingers', preferring a sexually adventurous lifestyle. However, that doesn't imply that the majority of married couples are so inclined; nor does it pre-judge whether or not a monogamous lifestyle is any better (or worse) than a polyamorous one. That's a matter for the moral standards and judgment of the parties concerned, based on their own faith (if any), philosophies and lifestyles.
  • To use a more technical example, some car accidents are caused by brake failures; however, this doesn't imply that most or all car accidents are caused by brake failures.

Let's address some of the specific examples cited. 'Honor killings' have little to do with Islamic theology, but a great deal to do with paternalistic, patriarchal societies that have had little or no exposure to (or which have rejected) the socially liberalizing influences that have shaped and formed Western culture. Arab and Middle Eastern society in particular has been influenced by the concept of 'Namus', which predates the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 'Honor killings' have also occurred in Christian, Sikh and Hindu families and cultures, and across all religions in caste-ridden Indian culture, and in traditional South American society. (For that matter, consider how a romantic relationship across clan lines was one of the bones of contention in the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud here in the USA!)

According to news reports, the children and youths in Iraq who were stoned to death for wearing 'emo' fashions appear to have been murdered by what are described as 'extremist Shi'a militias'. The leaders of all the major Muslim groups in Iraq have condemned the killings. (Bear in mind that Islam probably has as many divisions as Christianity - Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi, Salafi, Wahhabi, etc., with each of those major 'denominations' broken into multiple smaller sects as well.) I don't think you can extrapolate the actions of 'extremist militias' to an entire religion. If you do, you may as well label all American Puritans and their descendants as witch-burners, following the example set by some of their forefathers at Salem; or 'tar' all American Baptists with the 'brush' of the rabid prejudice demonstrated by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Similarly, there have been many incidents in recent years of Nigerian Christian pastors and their churches inflicting torture and/or murder on young people they regard as 'witches'. Such atrocities are hardly confined to Islam.

The beheading of hostages was, indeed, conducted by terrorists: but the fact that many of them were Muslims is incidental to their terrorism. Most had additional motivations that had little or nothing to do with their religion. Note, too, the conduct of so-called 'Christian' terrorists such as the 'Real IRA' who planted the Omagh bomb in 1998, killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. Was their 'faith' a factor in their terrorism? Are murders by the detonation of high explosives somehow less heinous than murders by beheading? Both methods are equally gruesome - ask those who've seen their aftermaths! (I have.) Should all Northern Irish Christians belonging to the same denomination(s) as the Real IRA terrorists be condemned because of the actions of the latter? In the same way, the mass murder of schoolchildren at Beslan was conducted by separatist terrorists. Their Muslim faith was a factor in their motivation, but not the only or even the primary one. Furthermore, some of the hostages they murdered were members of their own faith - something that demonstrates very clearly the indiscriminate nature of their savagery.

As for the 2002 tragedy at a Saudi Arabian school, this was caused by that country's so-called 'religious police' - a force unique to that country, and to the Wahhabi sect of Islam, although a few other Islamic nations have comparable bodies. Anyone in their right minds will have no hesitation in condemning that incident as institutionalized, legalized murder. However, bear in mind that most Muslim nations are not dominated by Wahhabi Islam, and don't have 'religious police' like this. One can't extrapolate from one incident in one nation, however evil it may have been, in order to conclude that all Muslim nations and societies are therefore evil as well.

Having examined the specific incidents raised by some questioners, let's take a closer look at 'moral equivalence'. The term has its origins in William James' essay 'The Moral Equivalent of War', published in 1906. However, there are many contemporary definitions of the term. Here are a few examples.

  • Wikipedia: 'a term used in political debate, usually to criticize any denial that a moral hierarchy can be assessed of two sides in a conflict, or in the actions or tactics of two sides'.
  • The Augean Stables: 'The “we are just as bad as… or worse than them” mentality'.
  • KSU lecture: 'defining distinct and conflicting moral behaviors in similar terms'.
  • Flashcard definition: 'All moral claims are equal. For instance, subjectivists believe that whatever they think is true is true for them. Therefore all moral truths are equivalent. So if one person thinks that killing someone is O.K. and someone thinks that killing people is not O.K. then both moral views are equally true'.

You'll note that these definitions (selected from among many available through an online search) don't exactly agree with each other! If the concept itself is unclear, how is moral equivalence to be identified?

Examples of 'extrapolating from the particular to the general', as discussed above, are not the same thing as 'moral equivalence'. I'm merely demonstrating that one can't determine, on the basis of a particular incident or series of incidents, that all similar incidents will involve identical element(s). Furthermore, while I've tried to explain the historical and/or cultural background to some of the atrocities mentioned in the question above, I have at no time sought to justify those atrocities. They are, and will always be, moral obscenities, utterly evil, repugnant to any civilized society, unacceptable in any individual philosophy or behavior. I'm not trying to excuse them on the basis of their 'moral equivalence' to other atrocities committed by other individuals and groups. Instead, I've tried to demonstrate that all such incidents are intrinsically wrong. They are neither more nor less 'good' than each other; they are equally evil.

The fact that evil acts have been perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists does not mean that the whole of Islam is guilty of those acts, just as the perpetration of equally evil acts by terrorists who happen to be Christian does not mean that the whole of Christianity is guilty of them. That's not moral equivalence; that's common sense. The fact that there are ultra-Orthodox Jews who behave towards women in a manner reminiscent of some aspects of the Taliban's behavior in Afghanistan, does not mean that the mainstream of either the Jewish or Muslim faiths can be accused of condoning, or used to justify or excuse, such behavior. Extremism in any form - whether political, social, religious, or whatever - is, by definition, not mainstream.

That said, there's a very important aspect to the use of terms such as 'moral equivalence'. It's been my experience that many - although not all - of those who raise such issues seek to use them as an escape route. If they can accuse others of 'moral equivalence', they can then feel justified in ignoring their arguments on the grounds that they're intrinsically invalid. That's a cop-out. It lets them avoid having to examine their own attitudes and beliefs. As a general rule (albeit with significant exceptions), I submit that many people who attach such labels to an argument, or issue, or debate, rather than get down to brass tacks and examine its elements in detail, are trying to avoid the issue.

I'd like to invite you to examine some of the reader comments following previous articles in this series as an illustration of what I mean. Please note that I'm not attacking those who've commented; I'm merely trying to illustrate my point, so that we can all learn from this discussion. In those articles, I advanced certain arguments, pointed out certain facts, illustrated certain realities: but some commentators chose to introduce different arguments, facts and realities, then responded to those instead of mine. It was probably a subconscious reaction on their part . . . but it's one I've encountered many times before. All of us - including myself - are prone to the erroneous attitude of "My mind's made up - don't confuse me with the facts!" We tend to listen and judge selectively rather than rationally. We'll choose what to listen to on the basis of whether or not it reinforces our prejudices. If something doesn't accord with them, we'll almost instinctively turn away from it, or counter it by introducing other things that do accord with our prejudices. Human beings in general are very bad at being objective, rather than subjective, in our analyses and assessments.

That's why facts are so important. In analyzing anything, we need as many objective, independently verifiable facts as we can obtain or deduce, because our feelings, emotions, prejudices and mental filters are all too prone to obscure rational thought and lead us astray. As the late, great Robert Heinlein said through his most famous fictional character, Lazarus Long:

"What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what 'the stars foretell', avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable 'verdict of history' - what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"

In this series of articles, I'm trying as hard as I can to use facts as the basis for my arguments. I'm providing links where possible, so you can check them for yourself and make up your own mind whether or not they're true. When I believe I've shown something to be true, I then use it to advance my argument; but if it's false, you're more than welcome to attack my arguments on the basis of their factually defective foundation. On the other hand, if the facts do support my arguments, I hope you'll be willing to re-examine your own attitudes and preconceptions, and perhaps be open to changing your mind - and your attitude. I promise to do the same as I read your input in this discussion. That's what makes us rational human beings, after all!

Tomorrow we'll examine claims that Islam should be considered a 'general' threat, because the majority of the sort of incidents described above have been perpetrated by Muslims. As you might suspect if you've followed this series of articles this far, that's not quite as simple as it might appear . . .



Tom Bridgeland said...

Looking forward to tomorrow's post.

tweell said...

Neat wordsmithing, but still not convincing, sorry.

You have not explained why Pot, meet Kettle is not moral equivalence. You have not explained why How is this more evil is not moral equivalence. In your earlier examples, you put one bad action against another, that is the essence of moral equivalence to the best of my understanding.

By your words (part 1), I should consider all former and current Catholic priests child molesters and treat them accordingly, for such was my experience at that age. This is what the media has broadcast, this is what I have known. However, I am an adult, responsible for my beliefs and actions, and understand that you and many others are not that way. I hold others responsible for their beliefs and actions, noting that if the silent majority does nothing, than they do indeed encourage evil to flourish.

Peter said...

@tweell: Regrettably, you appear to have completely misunderstood my meaning, and also appear to be confused about moral equivalence (which I've addressed at some length in this article). If even those seeking to define the concept can't agree, it's clearly a rather less concrete and objective reality than you'd like it to be.

I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Perhaps later articles in the series will help to clarify the matter. I hope so.

tweell said...

I would note that you and others have an interest in keeping that nasty moral equivalence 'complicated'. Much easier to ignore arguments that use your words, facts and realities that way, and gives you a superior attitude, to boot!

I will also note that facts are facts, and as such are not yours or mine. Considering some facts as yours shows a rather obvious prejudice on your part.
'In those articles, I advanced certain arguments, pointed out certain facts, illustrated certain realities: but some commentators chose to introduce different arguments, facts and realities, then responded to those instead of mine.'

Shutting up now, as your promise to re-examine your attitudes, etc. looks to be wearing thin.

Peter B said...

Any discussion of Islam should start with the fact that Islam is governed by a comprehensive cradle to grave legal system that includes what in other legal systems are civil and criminal law, as well as regulating the religious life of Muslims. By the way, "totalitarian" didn't use to be pejorative; it used to have a similar meaning to "holistic" and both were used positively. The direction that mainstream Islamic thought has taken lately, though, is totalitarian in the modern sense as well.
Islam has not yet undergone a Reformation (though there are those who say that the Wahhabi/Salafi resurgence in modern time is it) which, given the bloody history of the Reformation in Europe may be a good thing. Or not.

Let's just consider one duty shared by Christians and Muslims: to proselytize. Peter, if you as a Christian call on me to become Christian too, what happens if I refuse? Do you have the right to attack me in self-defense on account of my refusal of your call?

Because that's what an authority on war under Sharia states. In an article from the US Army's War College's Parameters, Myers reviews The Quranic Concept of War
Here is an excerpt [emphases mine]:

[Allah Bukhsh K. Brohi, the former Pakistani ambassador to India] recounts the classic dualisms of Islamic theology; that the world is a place of struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, between Haq and Na-Haq (truth and untruth), and between halal and haram (legitimate and forbid- den). According to Brohi, it is the duty of man to opt for goodness and reject evil. Brohi appeals to the “greater jihad,” a post-classical jihad doctrine developed by the mystical Sufi order and other Shia scholars.
Brohi places jihad in the context of communal if not imperial obligation; both controversial formulations:
When a believer sees that someone is trying to obstruct another believer from traveling the road that leads to God, spirit of Jehad requires that such a man who is imposing obstacles should be prevented from doing so and the obstacles placed by him should also be removed, so that mankind may be freely able to negotiate its own path that leads to Heaven.” To do otherwise, “by not striving to clear or straighten the path we [Muslims] become passive spectators of the counter-initiatory forces imposing a blockade in the way of those who mean to keep their faith with God.["]
This viewpoint appears to reflect the classic, collective duty within jihad doctrine, to defend the Islamic community from threats—the concept of defensive jihad. Brohi is saying much more than that; however, he is attempting to delineate the duty—the proactive duty—to clear the path for Islam. It is necessary not only to defend the individual believer if he is being hindered in his faith, but also to remove the obstacles of those counter-initiatory forces hindering his Islamic development. This begs the question of what is actually meant by the initiatory forces. The answer is clear to Brohi; the force of initiative is Islam and its Muslim members. “It is the duty of a believer to carry forward the Message of God and to bring it to notice of his fellow-men in handsome ways. But if someone attempts to obstruct him from doing so he is entitled as a matter of defense, to retaliate.”

Peter B said...

Note that well: If you refuse Islam's dawa, its call to become Muslim -- a call that was extended by bin Laden to the President of the United States, and which was not accepted, acts of Jihad, such as the September 11 attacks, are not aggressive but defensive.
Peter, I am sure that in your prison work you saw many men who thought like this.
It is my impression that Christianity stands against this thinking. Islam, on the other hand, has a strong trend of incorporating it.

Back to the review:

This formulation would appear to turn the concept of defense on its head. To the extent that a Muslim may proclaim Islam and proselytize, or Islam, as a faith, seeks to extend its invitation and reach—initiate its advance—but is unable to do so, then that represents an overt threat justifying—a defensive jihad. According to Brohi, this does not result in the “ordinary wars which mankind has been fighting for the sake of either revenge or for securing . . . more land or more booty . . . [this] striving must be [is] for the sake of God. Wars in the theory of Islam are . . . to advance God’s purposes on earth, and invariably they are defensive in character.” In other words, everywhere the message of God and Islam is or can be hindered from expan- sion, resisted or opposed by some “obstruction” (a term not clearly defined) Islam is intrinsically entitled to defend its manifest destiny.
While his logic is controversial, Brohi is not unique in his extrapolation. His theory in fact reflects the argument of Rashid Rida, a conservative disciple of the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh. In 1913 Abduh published an article evaluating Islam’s early military campaigns and determined that Islam’s early neighbors “prevented the proclamation of truth” engendering the defense of Islam. “Our religion is not like others that defend themselves . . . but our defense of our religion is the proclamation of truth and the removal of distortion and misrepresentation of it.”

Joe in PNG said...

I think that the biggest problem many have with "the other" is that they do not know- really know in a personal, go out to lunch with kind of sense- people who are different.

By not knowing people who are different, it is easy to set up a Straw Man based on the worst bits collected and bundled together.

So a black man with no white friends beleives that white folks are closet klansmen wanting to bring back Jim Crow.

A white man with no real black friends can see every young black man wearing a hoodie as a potential gang member waiting for some lame excuse to riot.

Once you get to know people who are diffrent, you find that... they aren't so different after all. Many Muslems really DON"T want to live under Muslim Law, as many Baptist don't really live up to the full tenants of their Church.

And every idealogy has the same problems with motivation as the other. You find the same kind of pew warmers, slakers, unmotivated yes men, hypocrits, and people who hold private doubts in the mosque as you do at any Baptist church.