How to Label Perpetrators of Evil

In the day following the San Bernardino, CA. massacre, law enforcement and the media were very cautious not to classify the incident as a terror attack. The situation was framed within the broader “gun issue” just like the “Planned Parenthood shooting” that preceded it by a few days. Reporters described the incident as “the deadliest shooting since Sandy Hook”. It was not until the identity of the suspected couple was released and a large amount of explosives was allegedly discovered in their apartment that the “Islamic Terrorism” hypothesis was openly favored by officials. They showed a remarkable amount of restraint!

After the suspects were identified as “people of Pakistani origin who recently visited Saudi Arabia”, the referent of comparison naturally changed to “since 9-11” or “since the Boston Marathon Bombing”. How do we choose the bag in which we put perpetrators of acts that we abhor? Many were motivated to ask “why not since the Charleston Church Shooting”?

There are two rules that come into play when you label the perpetrator of an act:

  1. First, as a labeler, you are not disinterested. In each public statement that you make, even casually, you are trying (directly or indirectly) to assert your own virtue. You actively try to minimize your distance from an actor you deem virtuous and maximize your distance from an actor that you deem non-virtuous. Say you are a strawberry and a Gala apple does something that you deem commendable, you will exclaim with pride “a fruit did it.” If it is something really really good, you will take your chances and opportunistically claim that “A red fruit did it”. If, however, it was something that you find truly horrible, you will exclaim: “Apples did it, who but apples could? Really !”
  2. Furthermore, it is expedient to identify a negative actor by the most general class that distinguishes it from you. If you are a vegetable with a strong sense of vegetable-supremacy over fruits, you will typically not say “apple” if “fruit” is enough and you will not say “Gala” or “Granny Smith” if “apple” is enough to spare your virtue.

With these two rules, it becomes easy to understand why a white male who massacres a dozen people with an automatic gun is reduced to his possible mental illness. His whiteness and his maleness threaten the labeler’s virtue. Therefore, the labeler has to find a property that will create a distance between them. Since the labeler considers himself sane, insanity will be enough to create a safe distance between them.

If, however, it is a Muslim couple, the labeler can simply say “Muslim Killers”, like the New York Post did. A more detailed characterization could have equally worked, but it would have come with an additional effort for the labeler, and without any perceivable return on investment. It takes real honesty and altruism for a non-Muslim today to characterize the violent extremists like AlQaeda and ISIS as anything else than Muslim.

But it seems everyone applies this rule. The general Muslims public is quickest to declare that ISIS and AlQaeda “are not Muslim” or “have nothing to do with Islam” when they are at least visibly Muslim. Some quietist Salafis will label them as the Khawarij, some traditionalists will see them as some extreme kinds Salafis, while some Shia will see them as extreme types of Sunnis, some Africans Muslims will see them as extreme Arabs, etc. We always try to pick the least costly name that distinguishes us from those whom we deem monsters.

On Amedy Coulibaly and the Unsuspected Way Better Schools Could Save Lives

To be ready to die for a cause is a big deal. I am not talking about committing suicide in a state of utter desperation, or even sacrificing one’s life in the urgency of trying to save a loved one. I am talking about the careful determination that a cause is greater than oneself and hence worth one’s life.

Given the seriousness of it, I expect that determination to be based on solid reasoning. I do not expect to agree with it, but it can’t be outright ridiculous. It should be strong enough to resist your critical reasoning for the length of time that it takes for an idea to settle and become an entrenched part of your worldview.

If you read the transcript of Amedy Coulibaly’s debate with his hostages in the grocery store, you will realize that my expectation is not realistic. The man seemed unable to articulate a coherent argument. He did not seem to possess the basic competencies to adequately put together propositions with logical connectors in order to reach a conclusion.

The part of the transcript that struck me most is when seemingly quoting the Quran, he said « Allah says: ‘They transgress, so transgress in an equal transgression’. This seems to be a quite significant point of his argument! It is somehow the normative part of it. What truly justifies/motivates his behavior. Though I don’t know the whole Quran by heart, I am a regular student of it, and I never met such an injunction. In the parts of the Quran that I have read and which he probably thought he was quoting, it says STRICTLY the opposite.

The two verses that I can think of which come closest are: ‘Fight in the path of Allah those people who fight you and do not transgress; Allah does not like transgressors (2:190)’ and ‘If you punish then punish proportionately, but if you are patient then that’s better(16:126)’. It seems the meaning was completely jumbled in Coulibaly’s mind.

It seems he interpolated the concept of transgression in the first verse with the concept of proportionality in the second verse, and omitted the concept of patience altogether, resulting in his statement ‘They transgress, so transgress in an equal transgression’.

After his recruiters, funders and accomplices are found and appropriately dealt with, the school system that he graduated from should be reformed in depth, because it seems, basic general education –learning to read, to be rigorous with citations, and to detect an incoherence in an argument– could actually have been a life saver…

Islam and Violence

With reassuring regularity, Muslim factions around the world commit atrocities in the name of their faith. Of the kind, AQMI, Boko Haram and ISIS are the most recent offenders. They have abducted, enslaved, and killed, most efficiently and ruthlessly, at thousands of miles distance, as if they had conspired. For the sane mind, regular occurrences tend to suggest a shared underlying cause. Thus, people ask: Is Islam a vector of violence, are Muslims disproportionately violent? Every news report struggles to camouflage this question behind a wall of political correctness — and with varying success. But the question cannot stay behind, it hurls itself on the Muslim who restlessly wields one of three shields: condemnation, explanation or justification.

So, is there something about Islam that uniquely causes violence? This is a timely and contentious question, especially for a convinced Muslim. But before saying anything on the question, one is in the right to critique it first, by saying that very serious forms of violence are perpetrated daily by the very people who accuse Muslims of being intrinsically violent. One key difference between the ordinary citizen of a stable state –such as myself– and the Muslim terrorist in some dusty desert is that, through a sophisticated yet subtle process, I have outsourced all violence that benefits me to political, military and corporate institutions. These institutions are generally perceived as the legitimate depositors of violence and they possess the means to organize the discourse on violence itself. As a result, I tend to see myself as innocent when in fact, whenever I turn the lights on, eat chocolate, drive a car or wear a shirt, I am killing a child in Niger, Ivory Coast, Iraq, or Bengladesh, but my hands are never bloody.

Whenever the question is asked, as a defense, Muslims often retort that they are peaceful in their overwhelming majority and that terrorists are a minority. Even though I believe this is true, I must say that it may not be a sufficient response — although smoking is a cause of cancer, the majority of smokers may not actually die of cancer. The decisive question would be along the following lines: would people of other faiths (or people of no faith) subjected to the same circumstances as the future muslim terrorists engage in violent behavior at a higher rate? Clearly, nobody can answer this question for the simple reason that history does not repeat itself. The circumstances lived by Muslims today cannot be easily replicated: postcolonialism, corrupt governments, economic inequality, lost sense of grandeur, confrontation with the dominant worldview, etc.

As rigorous discourse fails, conjecture becomes the next best thing, so let us conjecture.

Without suspense, I conjecture that yes, there is indeed a danger of violence in Islam. There may be many causes.  The one that I find most determinant is the complexity of the islamic ethics. The ethics of islam is neither romantic nor cynic, it is a realist ethics which makes no abstraction of man’s embeddedness in nature and society. The human is neither idealized by angelism (or celibacy, or monasticism),  nor abased by an original sin. He or she is a complex being facing a demanding world, who is required to act here and now.

What I mean by « complexity of the ethics » is that Islam opts neither for pacifism, bellicism, stoicism, hedonism, nor, for that matter, any of such ideologies. It sees them all as reductionisms. Interestingly, you will find isolated excerpts in the Quran that appear to advocate one or the other of these normative perspectives on « the good life ». But overall, for Islam, at least in my understanding, all these perspectives are relative, the only absolute statement is ‘tawheed’, the Unity of God.

To illustrate the complexity, Muslim believe that saving a single human life is like saving the whole of humanity (Q 5: 32), but they also believe that this material life is worth little (Q 57:20). They believe that humans are God’s privileged creatures (Q 17:70), yet they also believes that the creation of nature is greater than their own creation (Q 40:57). Muslims believe that they cannot attain piety without giving away from what they most dearly love (Q3:92), but they also believe that excess, even in generosity, is morally objectionable (Q17:29). The Muslims believe that they should patiently bear whatever fate befalls them (Q 31:17), but they also think one should always strive with her last energy. The Muslims believe that proportionate revenge is a sacred right but they also believe that forgiveness is a higher virtue (Q 42: 39-43). The list could go on forever to illustrate the complex belief system of one who ultimately believes that submission, yes, submission, is the path to freedom!

This makes for a prismatic ethics that refracts light in a rainbow of wavelengths. One who lives his life by balancing all facets is the ideal Muslim, the one to whom the brilliant light was given so he could walk amongst people (Q 6 : 122), as a true member of ‘ummatun waçatan’, ‘The community of the middle path’ (Q 2: 143).

Unfortunately, many will not attain this balance and, as you may expect, I think that most violent radicals are of this group. Instead of seeing the light which sums all colors, they only see the shades of red! They essentialize some of the perspectives at the expense the others, with terrible consequence. ‘Muslim terrorism’ is the side effect of a potent medicine taken in the wrong environment, without respecting dosage! How can you then blame the pharmacist?

You may think that what I said above is just a different version of the usual argument that « It is a minority that does not follow the true Islam ». No. what I am really saying is that Islam is a complex belief system and that the Quran is not a simple instruction book. It places the believer in a permanent state of moral tension which sometimes demands to fight and sometimes demands to be patient and to forgive. Any attempt to solve the ‘Muslim Terrorism’ problem must take this fact seriously. There is in Islam situations in which violence is the morally acceptable course of action. Thus, one who purports to fight terrorism should make sure that, through their actions, they are not making it easy for an unethical leader to convince his following that violence is the appropriate response. I am not sure the people purporting to fight ‘Muslim Terrorism’ are aware of that.