Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fort Hood Incident

There's no way that a person concerned about Islamophobia could ignore the Fort Hood incident. I've been posting on discussion boards all week, and this post is to some degree a summary of what I read and wrote. I've got one main point I want to make, but there are a couple of auxiliary points that can't be ignored, not even in the interests of stylistic coherence.

I)There are a lot of Muslims, even very conservative ones, who are openly repudiating the shooter. I visited the site of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Radical Imam "linked" to Hasan, who praised the shootings. By my estimation, The Muslim posters who criticized his stance outnumbered the supporters by about two to one. There are also several prominent Islamic organizations and clerics who have denounced the shootings, including a very conservative imam in Saudi Arabia. It's important to remember that, just because someone has hateful beliefs about women's rights to drive cars and show their faces in public, doesn't mean they think it's OK to murder people in the name of God. All this can be found at the City of Brass Blog, by Aziz Poonawalla. Poonawalla also quotes from an interview with al-Awlaki, back in the days when he was a moderate. An even more extensive list of Muslim organizations condemning extremism can be found at www.theamericanmuslim.org

I've always been a bit irritated by the cries of "Where's the Muslim Outrage" every time a Muslim nutjob blows something up. First of all, I haven't seen any Christian organizations speaking out against the abortion clinic murders,and no one seems angry about that. Secondly, there are two excellent reasons why most Muslims are hesitant to speak up against Muslim extremism 1) It's hard for Muslims to feel solidarity with a government that treats them as collateral damage. American government policy assumes that the danger of terrorism justifies harrasing innocent Muslims at airports, arresting and detaining them without trial, and killing them with robot drones. This is not the sort of behavior that inspires trust in those on the receiving end. 2)Speaking up against Muslim extremists greatly increases your chances of being killed by them. Muslim extremists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. Despite these factors however, more and more Muslims are denouncing the Fort Hood Shootings, and I applaud their courage. It must be difficult to be caught between two groups that violently disagree with each other, each of which is determined to dehumanize you if you show any signs of disagreeing with them.

II) A lot of people are complaining about the fact that maintaining "PC" attitudes has compromised our ability to protect ourselves against terrorism. I think this is a false controversy because:




Sorry to shout and repeat myself, but this is something that doesn't get said often or loudly enough. It's not just that terrorism is the lesser danger. Islamophobia is the thing that makes terrorism grow, and so fighting Islamophobia is the most effective way of fighting terrorism. I write this blog because I don't want to live in a country where guys in pickup trucks are running around shooting little girls in hijabs, and their fathers are responding by bombing pickup trucks. Islamophobia is the first step in that direction, just as man-on-the-street anti-semitism was the first step towards Auschwitz. You don't have to be a Muslim to condemn Islamophobia, just as you don't have to be Jewish to condemn Auschwitz.

Now to the real meat of this post: The dispute over whether Hasan is a "Lone Gunman" or a "Terrorist" or in David Brooks' words, was this "an isolated personal breakdown" or an "ideological assault". If we start with the Aristotelian category system (as Common Sense always does), the natural thing is to look for the essential properties that define each of these categories, and see which of these properties Hassan possesses. As new information came in, Muslims and others argued over whether Hasan was really a Muslim, whether he shouted "Alahu Akbar!" when he was shooting, whether he exchanged emails with Anwar al-Awlaki etc. David Brooks came up with what he saw as the most essential property of all: The embracing of a narrative that "has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so."

One commenter on the NYTimes website correctly pointed out that because Brooks asserted that "the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy", he had bought into the exact same narrative himself. The only difference between Brooks and Hasan on this issue was which side of the narrative they each chose to play out. I would add that the fact that innocent Muslims are often seen as collateral damage shows that both sides embracing this narrative "shrink their circle of concern".

Brooks argues that Hasan must be seen as as a terrorist because he had this narrative in his head: end of story, and anyone who wanted to include any other narrative was not "serious". That is the problem with arguments using the Aristotelian category system: they ultimately boil down to assertions that "My intuitions can beat up your intuitions" as to the differences between accidental and essential properties." This is the main reason that the classical American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, and Dewey), adopted a method James called "cash value analysis". They claimed that the meaning of any assertion consists of nothing but the actions that accepting it would require. If there is no difference in action, there is no difference in meaning. Suppose we argue about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Everyone recognizes that tomatoes have seeds, and thus are fruits from a biologist's point of view, and that they provide the kinds of nutrients that prompt nutritionists to classify them as vegetables. According to the pragmatists, that settles the matter. There is no point in asking whether the tomato is REALLY a Fruit or REALLY a vegetable, independent of these kinds of actions.

Similarly we need to ask ourselves "How would it effect our behavior, our goals, our actions if we labeled Hasan a terrorist or a loan gunman?" If we label him a terrorist, this could mean that we should strengthen the Patriot act, throw all Muslims out of the military, and cry out that Bush, unlike Obama, kept us safe from terrorism. If that's what you mean by terrorist, then I will argue against all of these actions. Such an argument has some real chance of being about the facts, rather than an empty question about definitions. Similarly, if we label him a lone gunman, we need to ask whether gun control laws ought to be tightened to stop crazed actions like this, and we need to stop comparing him to Osama Bin Laden and start comparing him to people like the Columbine Killers, the Korean student at Chapman University, and probably most importantly, the other shooters who have killed people at Fort Hood during the past few years. It seems to me that Hasan has much more in common with the latter than the former. The thing that made Bin Laden dangerous was the fact that he once had an organized military machine that had almost complete control of a foreign country. This enabled him to launch a well co-ordinated strike involving dozens or even hundreds of accomplices. The fact that Hasan and Bin Laden had the same narrative in their heads is an accidental, not an essential property, and therefore should not be used to put them in the same category. What goes on between their ears is not the problem, the problem is what actions they perform and/or are capable of performing. The actions that Hasan performed were those of a lone gunman, and that's what they would have been even if, like the Columbine killers, he had had two or three friends who had helped him. His appearance on the scene gives us no reason to either believe or disbelieve that terrorism is again on the march, or that we need to gird up our loins to prepare for another 9/11 style assault.

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