Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Call To Diarize

With Islamic militants causing havoc in the Middle East and elsewhere, there is an ongoing furor about what should happen to the thousands and thousands of refugees fleeing Syria for, well, anyplace that's not Syria. Europe, mostly, since it's the mostly-functional place that's in the neighborhood.

I fear I lack expertise and certainly firsthand knowledge of the situation, but the ongoing flood of stories related to the breakdown of civilization compels one to take a stand. The situation is further complicated (for me) by who is espousing what view. Conservatives think that the problem is Islam (or, if they're honest, brown-skinned people generally) and that refugees--any refugees, from anywhere--should be refused asylum. And worse. My company of fellow liberals tends to believe in tolerance and moderation and to argue that most Muslims, like most Christians, are good and non-violent people.

My views align much more with liberals than conservatives (with whom I share seemingly not a single gene of my intellectual DNA), but on this topic I'm uneasy--something I'm reminded of constantly by my inability to bestow my pathetic "like" to most of my friends' pro-refugee FaceBook posts, or at least not without some ambivalence.

But a couple thoughts recur as I go over these news items. One is Sam Harris's reminder that Muslim "extremists" are extreme only in their belief in the literal truth of their texts. They act as they do not because it's fun to blow people up but rather because they feel it is their duty to do so--and because of their conviction that they will be rewarded for doing this duty. This is why so many are willing--even eager--to die carrying out their missions; they are sure their reward is waiting just on the other side (a reward which, curiously, seems to closely resemble what they're rejecting with such dispatch here on Earth). So the hard truth is that the problem to a large degree IS Islam itself. (Certainly magical thinking is the more general problem here, but the biggest fire to put out in this case involves this religion and these specific bits of magical thinking.)

The other thought, of which we are often reminded by people like Pat Condell, is that the "moderate" Muslims who flee the violence of their home lands often seek to impose their will in their new homes when they reach sufficient numbers. This is not in and of itself problematic: it's what all of us do, generally finding others with our beliefs and convictions and banding together to change the world in ways that seem congenial or appropriate to us. But what I can't shake is the sense that--to some extent (and maybe the "extent" involved invalidates my argument entirely)--the refugees are bringing the very disease with them that they're fleeing in the first place. I fear their broken societies might stem in large part from the incompatibility of the modern world with the pre-scientific views held by many of their citizens. The Muslim fundies argue that the modern world itself is evil and retrograde and must be resisted and destroyed. ("Well there's your problem," as Adam Savage liked to say.)

Obviously an overwhelming majority of the general population rejects this view, yet we're the ones being blown up and slaughtered (admittedly, in small numbers as yet here in the US). Places like Sweden, which for some time now have encouraged displaced Muslims to come and make a life there are now grappling with those newcomers trying to reshape the landscape in unwelcome ways. This might, I think, have been anticipated. (There's a subchapter here about meddling American foreign policy and fundamentalist religion swelling to fill a void we've unwittingly created. But I'm even less able to talk coherently about that.)

So though I hesitate to say it--not least because it sounds perilously like something heard at a Republican debate--it's not completely irrational to worry that the problems of religious violence will come with the refugees, if not immediately then almost certainly in time as numbers and concentrations grow. It has nothing to do with the quality of the people involved; our problems stem from magical thinking in general, and from the specific magic believed in this case.

I don't know the numbers, but I'd venture this: those committing violence against humanity are probably a vanishing small number as a percentage of the faithful. If we widen our view to look at those who do not commit violence but who condone it or think it justifiable, the number grows a good bit. And if we look at the people who disagree with the violent acts but cannot bring themselves to condemn them--who, perhaps, realize they have no grounding to condemn them--then our number grows further; until I suspect we're looking at a substantial figure. This is how moderate religion is part of the problem and not of the solution; not because most people commit the violence, but because clinging to their own magical thinking deprives them of any leverage against the fundamentalist. "Moderate religion" fails as an antidote both because moderates almost by definition lack vigor and zeal, and because the "holy" book they claim to follow does not allow them to disregard the passages they find distasteful. Thinking there such a thing as a "holy" book in the first place is the problem, not any part of its solution.

The situation is further complicated by a Maslow's Hierarchy kind of scenario wherein the refugees are initially looking at much bigger problems than whether society is amenable their religious practices. Asylum countries are faced first with the reality of people needing the most basic needs--food and water and medical care and housing--followed by things like social services and schools for children. By the time these things are settled, the problems of religion seem small compared to the crisis phase just overcome. Our natural and laudable tendency is to help those in need; and the refugees (like the hitchhiker who wants only to ride in nice cars) are not in a position to make demands when their very lives and their most basic needs are at risk. But it's naive not to expect those demands to come.

The elephant in the room is religion itself. It's the tendency toward magical thinking, toward accepting and believing things that manifestly aren't true. We're reluctant / unwilling to face this plainly, clearly because the obvious dysfunction of one group's magical thinking inevitably puts the untenability of our own magical thinking under the microscope. When American conservatives say "Islam is the problem" what they're really saying is "those people are following the wrong religion." But if the moderate is helpless against fundamentalist zeal, then fighting fundamentalist fire with a different fundamentalist fire is stupidity itself. As history amply demonstrates: our story is full of the brutal sectarian slaughter that follows sure as gravity from this line of thinking.

But be that as it may, I fear that whatever our good intentions Islam is not a force to be reasoned with. There is no compromise solution waiting for us to grasp. The fundamentalists who drive the religion care nothing for our good intentions and accommodation except as it paves the way forward for them. We can only combat the clearly dysfunctional magical thinking of one group by jettisoning our own--and hoping that refugees connect the good lives available to them with the secularity of the societies in which they settle. (This might be a new idea to some of them.) This purging of magical thinking seems to be happening, at least in the developed world. Big social change takes time to effect. But in a world of instant and almost unlimited information, sectarian violence based on magic--and the transparent mingling of religious zeal with the desire for power--is clearly playing a role in chasing young people from the church in droves. That's a hugely positive development, but it's naive to think that this kind of power structure will fade away quietly.


Karlo said...

Well written. I share your concerns.

William Stachour said...

Thanks. I'm just thinking aloud, trying to find a path thru my own cognitive dissonance.

VV said...

I think you nailed it in the "magical thinking" argument. Our Christian fundamentalists can be as extreme and dangerous as Islamic fundamentalists, even though we as a nation refuse to acknowledge them as such. I've been watching the steady decline in intellect, critical thinking, and rationality in our country. It's very disconcerting to try to explain, educate, or reason with people who are either intellectually incapable of understanding an argument, or philosophically opposed to being exposed to any idea that conflicts with their belief system. It's irrationality at it's core. Even when I've been able to get some people to follow me down a path with facts and evidence, even with the truth right in front of them, they inevitably say, "well I still believe," whatever their viewpont is, even though I've just shown them it's factually wrong. As much as I believe in a Creator and a purpose in all this world (which I realize here's no proof for) if I ruled the world, I would ban organized religion and require a greater depth of education for the masses to disuade this magical thinking, which is just intelectual laziness. For me, it's okay to think about a God, or wonder what our purpose is here, but it's not okay to kill people, or make them live by what I believe. It's not okay to operate in a world by magical beliefs instead of cold, hard, facts.

William Stachour said...

I appreciate that you read my blather in the first place! It's easy enough for me to pose the issues; quite another to propose really meaningful solutions. As a non-religious person, it's easy enough for me to say "I suffer no such issues," but that helps not at all. Religion is a force which must be reckoned with, and my wishing to wipe it aside doesn't move things forward very far.

But I often don't really organize my thoughts without writing them down--and sometimes not even then.


VV said...

That's why I enjoy Blogging more than FB, we can dissect ideas, arguments, and bounce them off others. Even if we haven't formulated solutions, getting other points of view can move us toward a resolution.