Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Cowardice of Extremism

The radical Islam movement shares some things in common with the radical Reactionaries in America. Among them is the promotion of fear as a way to both unify and discipline those who would nominally identify superficially with their cause.

To-wit, let me bring in Juan Cole:

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination. 
This tactic is similar to the one used by Stalinists in the early 20th century. Decades ago I read an account by the philosopher Karl Popper of how he flirted with Marxism for about 6 months in 1919 when he was auditing classes at the University of Vienna. He left the group in disgust when he discovered that they were attempting to use false flag operations to provoke militant confrontations. In one of them police killed 8 socialist youth at Hörlgasse on 15 June 1919. For the unscrupulous among Bolsheviks–who would later be Stalinists– the fact that most students and workers don’t want to overthrow the business class is inconvenient, and so it seemed desirable to some of them to “sharpen the contradictions” between labor and capital. 
The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.
We often ask ourselves when we read of an attack on, say, an NAACP headquarters in Colorado or  an abortion clinic bombing, what is the point? We ask the same question of the attack on Charlie Hebdo yesterday (more on that in a moment) and yes, there's the surface story of an attack on an enemy that is performing an act someone finds so repulsive, so sacrilegious, that he or she or they must retaliate.

Of course, the vast (and I do mean vast) majority of Muslims don't find this offensive even in the least. In fact, most aren't even aware that there is a sect that believes you shouldn't portray Muhammad because the Middle East is littered with paintings of him. And those who are aware and do not like it, like the vast majority of pro-life Americans, aren't about to take up arms or even post on a shitty little blog like this one threatening the lives of people who may offend them. They're just trying to survive this world, just like you, just like me.

So the superficial argument, while useful, is a shade that covers something Cole alludes to above: an attempt to influence behavior of those beyond the scope of the tiny core at the center of this faction. It's an attempt to bully people not into agreement, but into silence.

It's not unlike the plaintive wailing of conservatives that "Both sides do it!"The mechanism works as follows: You and I both align in some facet of our lives, say we're Mets fans among Yankees fans. You and a bunch of others are fairly moderate in your beliefs. You live and let live, and yes, you get into arguments about the teams but at the end of the day, you go home, eat dinner and go to sleep, just like hundreds of thousands of other Mets fans.

In me, however, some mechanism is triggered, and I become more and more extreme and passionate about my belief. I target Yankees fans as the enemy, I paint them as beer-swilling thugs who would beat up anyone who dares to disagree with them. I voice this opinion loudly and when I am mocked for it or worse, ignored, I become more adamant about my faith. I start to try and demonstrate my point.

So I pick a fight with some Yankees fans. They beat the crap out of me, but not before I put one or two in a hospital. This angers them, and out of fear that there could be more violence and injury waiting out there, they turn up the hostility at anyone wearing a Mets cap. I've "proven" them to be a violent rage-filled gang of thugs. Just like I said they were. But you'll notice something else.

Now I've got you to be more closely aligned with me, because while I initiated the conflict, they've escalated it and dragged you into it. You may not take up arms against them, but you sure as damn well will be more circumspect where you wear your hats. Now I've changed the dialogue to one where I can win by making you the victim. I've terrorized both sides, and can watch the world burn. We are two of a kind not voluntarily, but by force.

I couldn't persuade you of my arguments so I bullied you by proxy into alignment, controlling your behavior by uncontrolling mine. Cole calls this "sharpening the contractions."

In the Charlie Hebdo case, the terrorists had a ready made target, One could make the case that Hebdo practically begged for this attack, as they have a long history of depicting Muhammad (as well as every other religious icon, Christian, Buddhist and Jewish) in a particularly nauseating and unflattering light.

Indeed, Hebdo may be a case of that famous shibboleth from Holmes of shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theatre. It certainly skirts the line of unprotected speech, in that Islamists have threatened cartoonists in the past and certainly Hebdo knew this and turned up the heat.

And France tolerated that.

Which is why Cole's point is apt:
Extremism thrives on other people’s extremism, and is inexorably defeated by tolerance.