Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Engineers of Jihad

Following on from my earlier posts regarding the personal characteristics that predispose individuals to getting involved in violent radical Islamist activities I'd like to add a few items and elaborate on some others. 

Muslims (esp. Western liberal) will tell you that concept of 'Jihad' is all about what is called the Major Jihad - the struggle to consciously develop self-control, betterment of the self and suppression of worldly desires or behaviour deemed haram. With practice over time this becomes a subconscious repression of self-esteem, and self-expression becomes an anathema for oneself and others around you. Expecting women to wear the burqa or the hijab is an example of this suppression of self-expression in practice.

Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog published a paper about eight years ago, back in October 2007, entitled the 'Engineers of Jihad' which examined in some depth the over-representation of engineering graduates within violent Islamist organisations. Their findings included the importance of the attraction that engineers have to certainty, binary black and white thinking, a dislike for the social chaos of plurality, a desire to find a neat all-encompassing solution, and to hold
more conservative political and religious views. In MENA countries a family has to make significant sacrifices to send a member through university. Engineering degree-level coursework exposes them to modern engineering technology which is predominantly Western, and then when they graduate they are frequently faced with very few professional opportunities for employment locally, creating personal resentment. Combined with a deeply ingrained societal resentment of the West and Western values this tends to predispose them to religious radicalisation. Perhaps the Luddites of Jihad might be a better term since they are trying to drag society back to the Middle Ages.

So what we are witnessing then is something of a revolution or Reformation of Islam. This time we don't have Martin Luther and the printing press; this is a widespread reformation mainly taking place via modern communication media enabled via the Internet, smart phones, radio and television**. The pace of cultural change has perhaps moved up a gear from a imperceptible drift to a quick march - but social activists (with AK-47s, smartphones or both) are pushing it in different directions in different places and times. Much of Syria and Iraq has temporarily been marched back to the middle ages in many respects - but the Internet is still there (where ISIS haven't switched it off) allowing exchange of information and ideas. In essence this is a war of ideas (like most wars), played out at horrendous cost with peoples lives and destroying the infrastructure and wealth of nations. This time the fight is about what Islam means. We need to reinterpret what it means to be a Muslim.

This is fight that cannot be won with bullets and bombs. Ideas live in peoples heads; they are transmitted or replicated via word of mouth, documents, rituals, videos, Tweets, etc. You can kill people but the ideas live on. Killing tends to generate martyrs, resentment and invite retribution long after the event. Like Goethe's Sorcerers Apprentice (1797). Take up an axe to destroy the broomsticks and each one you break will generate two more active broomsticks. It is only by reciting the right words that you can end the nightmare.

And briefly returning to the contribution of self-esteem to the radicalisation issue. To clarify the incongruity between real self-esteem and religion, because some people seem to have difficulty with this concept, I quote below from Nathaniel Branden (7 Hours Live. Tape 2 at ~34 mins):
"Of the types of neurotic solutions opted for by many people (and these are not mutually exclusive) one of the most important and often deadly types of substitute self-esteem that people can opt for is what I call self-esteem via identification; social or personal identification. 
Social identification means identification of oneself with a movement, a cause, with an organisation, with some greater than myself institution. And from identification with, association with this particular movement, cause, club, group, religion, I derive my personal glory. This is obviously what attracts many people to religion and others to certain types of political movements. This is often the psychology of the True Believer. So by identification with some institution, some structure, some organisation, something larger than myself, I am good, my life has moral meaning, I have significance, I have glory, because I am part of this thing.
Now one of the reasons why this particular type of neurotic self-esteem solution is so socially dangerous and why its probably responsible for more suffering in human history than any other, is the fact that in order to derive my self-esteem from identification with some impersonal abstraction such as a cause, I have to depersonalise myself. I have to make myself an un-person to myself, and when I do that, other people cease to be persons to me and that makes it psychologically much easier for me to kill them, to torture them and to exercise every kind of brutality upon them in the name of this higher abstraction, and to commit atrocities which I could never commit if I thought I was doing this selfishly, in my own name and for my own sake. Once I disappear into this immense personal abstraction, so do you, and so do all human beings, and then we see the kind of atrocities that enter into the history books. The depersonalisation, first of self and then of others - that is the irresistible consequence of identifying personal worth with identification in some kind of abstract cause or movement".
The quote above is taken from recordings of public lectures by Branden which you can find online, but to my knowledge he didn't include anything quite so explicitly anti-religious in his published books. I guess his editor advised him that America in the 1970s was not yet ready for the truth.

** For a more extensive analysis of the impact of technology on Islam and Christianity over time, please read The Bishop, the Mullah and the Smartphone by Bryan Winters. I personally had some input into this and recommend it to you.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

A small step for a Muslim ...

Why do Islamist terrorists carry out these atrocities? That's the question we all want answered - and I provide some answers based on psychology and sociology here.

The Islamist attacks on the West, such as the recent ones in Paris (13 Nov 2015), Charlie Hebdo, the London bus and tube attacks (2005), the Madrid train bombing (2004), 9/11 (2001) get our attention here in the West, even in New Zealand. But similar attacks are carried out hourly elsewhere against other Muslim sects, Christians, Hindus, Yazidis ... on and on; although the attacks in the MENA region get little attention in the West.

So why do they do it then? Browsing in our local bookshop recently I saw several books on the Islamic State (ISIL / ISIS) phenomenon. They get decent reviews on Amazon, but in my opinion they do not answer the 'why' question because they focus on the wrong thing. They focus exclusively on the political aspects, which while they have some relevance and provide some justification, does not give the whole picture.

The other part of the picture is somewhat taboo and few people seem to have identified it. Hence doesn't it get much airtime. That's the sociological and psychological side. Here I'll try to present a rational and logical view of this - but it assumes the reader has a bit of background in these areas.

Each attack is different, each attacker is different, they have different histories and backgrounds, different levels of education, different countries of origin, yet they strike with one purpose. 

It is well known that a common factor is the attackers' Muslim faith. But world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and even our own John Key here in NZ have said that these attacks are 'nothing to do with Islam'. Muslim leaders have expressed similar sentiments. So what's the deal then?

Let's look at this another way. 

It is well known that Tribal culture is essentially anti self-esteem* by definition. The Tribe is everything; the individual is nothing without the Tribe. 

Islam is in essence a Tribal culture - there are strong rewards for joining and remaining within the 'group' (including those in afterlife) and strong threats and punishments for leaving or apostasy - death (and everlasting punishment in hell). The five pillars of Islam, while they are personal (ie things you do personally) are things that are done as a group. They are designed to strengthen in-group bonding, suppress individuality, give life meaning and diminish the terror of the grave for you.
  • The declaration of faith (Shahada) is clearly little more than a pledge of allegiance to the group. It could literally save your life. At the time of the formation of Islam in 7th century tribal Arabia, with various forms of polytheism prevalent, the Shahada was a renunciation of your previous tribal gods and acknowledgement of the Prophet Mohammed as Allah's messenger - his representative on Earth and therefore your new leader.
  • Prayer (Salat), always includes multiple iterations of the Shahada, and a curse on the Jews and the Christians (last verse of Al Fatiha). Across the five daily prayer times the Shahada is repeated a minimum of 17 times per day and could easily be up to 44 times per day. Prayers take a total of 45-90 minutes per day (excluding ablution time). In summertime the first may be at 03:00 AM and the last at 23:00. This regime both requires and instils a high-level of  suppression of ones own mental, emotional and bodily desires and needs. The 'rewards' for praying as a group grow exponentially as more people take part. This is aimed at coercing all to participate and eliminating individuality. Group prayers are done in regimented straight lines facing Mecca, emphasising equality before Allah.
  • Charity (Zakat), is a form of mandatory taxation for Sunnis (optional for Shia) but must be distributed in the community from which it was taken (ie local Muslims).
  • Fasting (Sawm) is a self-imposed shared hardship which strengthens group bonding and cohesion. Done amongst the heathen in the West it strengthens self-control. Done en-mass in Muslim majority nations it encourages individuals to spy on and coerce others to toe the line.
  • The pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) should be done at least once in your lifetime and is a very public acknowledgement of your being part of the in-group (and possibly your submission to Allah). The mandatory garb worn is specifically intended to remove personal identity and show equality.
The rituals of ablution, prayer, fasting and Hajj are obviously rituals - even to Muslims performing them. With the exception of Zakat (Charity) they provide no real benefit to anyone on earth - although Muslims always hasten to rationalise them. 

These five pillars are just the basics - there are literally thousands of other minor Islamic rituals that can (and should) be incorporated into your daily life as a Muslim.

Now Muslims are not alone in having elaborate religious rituals. Most (all?) religions have these - that's what makes them a religion. But what makes Islam different is the level of commitment needed to carry them out day after day. It is intended to result in identity fusion with the group. The surrender of one's mind, body and 'soul' to the group.

Islam means 'submission' to Allah - submission to Islamic religious authority. And unsurprisingly when you look at the rituals, Muslims see themselves first and foremost as Muslims rather than as citizens of any country (esp the West). They tend to distrust or despise Western forms of authority. The submission (blind faith) in the Quran, the religion and the traditions leads to a kind of moral bewilderment where doing what is 'right' quite obviously goes against any kind of rationality or humanity - yet these are the things you have been taught to value. It is a fact that the average person tends to judge themselves by the values prevalent around them, although those values may not be rational and may not answer to the needs of the individual.

So you have a bunch of individuals with low self-esteem (having inherited values, incapable and unwilling to think for themselves)who distrust authorities (esp Western) which predisposes individuals to believe in conspiracy theories. Then you throw in the fact that the Quran and Hadith are predominantly critical of unbelievers and condone violence against them. For Muslims the Quran is the literal word of God, and the Hadith are highly revered.  The Sirat ul Nabi by early writers such as Ibn Ishaq are filled with vast amounts of violence - not merely isolated incidents.

Any culture, including Islam, at any given time is a group of individuals. Because Islam embodies a tribal culture, individuals (in many respects) have low self-esteem and their identity is fused with the group. It is not therefore entirely surprising that minor 'insults' to the group are seen as major affronts to what is effectively a fragile self-esteem held by the group. If the tribe itself has low self-esteem then other groups are seen as sources of external approval or disapproval. Sources of disapproval should be eliminated.

Then you could look at it from the Transactional Analysis viewpoint put forward by Eric Berne. Human individuals of all cultures have Parent, Adult and Child characteristics or states. Regrettably the vast majority of Muslims through their upbringing (culture) have strong Parent and Child characteristics but very weak Adult characteristics. Muslims are not taught critical thinking - in fact quite the reverse. Learning is done by rote; individual thought and reasoning simply does not generally occur (in any field of education). For this reason, in my experience, Muslim students from Muslim majority countries who come to NZ or the UK to study at university, often have great difficulty adjusting to the idea that they are expected to come up with original work, because they are simply not taught how to think back 'home'. Rote learning and recitation of Quranic verses in Arabic (which they probably do not understand) is expected and asking questions quickly gets you into trouble - so they learn not to ask questions (esp. regarding Islam).

Finally returning to the simplistic political justifications; There is envy and jealousy of the wealth and freedoms enjoyed in the West. There are feelings of inadequacy when Muslims see that God's chosen people are largely left behind in the progress stakes. There is an obvious discrepancy between the prosperity of the infidel West vs. the Islamic world which is largely poor and must therefore be the victim of Western exploitation (as Muslims see it). There will be deep-seated personal frustrations with the worldwide dominance and interference by the West in Muslim nations. So there are wrongs to be righted and a balance to be restored. 

Then ISIL comes along and provides you with a clear direction, with Quranic authority and opportunities for concrete engagement in the cosmic battle for what is 'right' (and perhaps funding). In my opinion, It really wouldn’t take much to tip the balance and turn a semi-rational Muslim into a terrorist, based on their personality traits and upbringing. Progressing from the Major Jihad (struggle to suppress the self) to the Minor Jihad (suppression of others by military means) becomes a necessity.

Note however, that the vast majority of the victims of Islamist violence are in fact other Muslim sects or local (out) groups. This is largely because of their accessibility - it is easier to attack your neighbours than someone on another continent. But it also demonstrates that Western foreign policy is not the key driver of Islamist activities.

If you'll excuse the pun - radicalisation is a small step for a Muslim but a giant regression for mankind. Islamic rituals, traditions, scriptures and faith are the key foundations for this step.

For the sake of brevity I've had to generalise a bit here. Individuals are unique, but there are patterns of behaviour that can be observed. Let me also be clear that most Muslims are not violent radicals, but the potential is there. Most Muslims have not read their holy scriptures in their own language - the danger is that if / when this occurs they might feel obliged to act on them...

Let me be clear that I am not anti-Muslim, but I do think that in general Muslims need to think a little more critically, broaden their viewpoint, read a little more widely.

*Note also that 'self-esteem' is a very much misunderstood term. Please read some extensive documentation from someone such as Nathaniel Branden before leaping to conclusions about use of term here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Only Connect

E.M. Forster, Howards End, 1910.
...Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
This is a plea to Kiwis and to people the world over. Make connections. Make personal connections. Get to know your neighbours, colleagues, workmates, classmates, inmates and especially those from other cultures. So often there is beauty and treasure right in front of us, yet we frequently make no effort to discover it. Perhaps you know someone who seems a bit withdrawn or doesn’t engage with the crowd; an 'outsider'? Don't just make assumptions based on what you see or what you've heard; don’t simply talk about them; talk to them. Break the ice. Ask questions, respond. Discover what makes them tick. Discover their background. We are all haunted by our past to a greater or lesser extent. Take a little time to get to know them. Their history, their aspirations. They will have much to share. New Zealand has a great diversity of cultures - we need to break down the barriers between them. It is sometimes difficult for us, but try to put our prejudices, assumptions, guesswork and fears aside and engage directly. 

As NZ begrudgingly takes in a small number of Syrian refugees, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that our Muslim community here does not become isolated from the rest of the population. In my experience, Muslims as yet have no serious political aspirations in NZ beyond a genuine willingness to engage across communities and see improvements for all. There is little or no Muslim-specific political agenda, militancy, wish for separatism or special treatment. The vast majority of Muslims in NZ follow what you might call the 'fluffy personal version' of Islam. This provides them with a set of rules and regulations about how they should behave, and by-and-large they don't want to control the behaviour of others.

In my view this is because, at the moment, the Muslims here (like most migrants of any race or creed here) are consciously or unconsciously trying to get away from something. People don't choose to come to this tiny set of islands in the middle of nowhere unless you're escaping from something - whether that be the restrictions of your culture, society, family, your past life, yourself. They are mavericks. So it is unlikely that the current set of Muslims would want to impose strict Sharia (law) on themselves or anyone else.

This escapism or maverick nature of the current set of Muslims here is partly a function of the tiny percentage (1%) of the NZ population that they represent. However, as that percentage grows over time, the dynamics are likely to change. It would no longer be possible for incoming Muslims to seek refuge from the world here. The community would start 'policing' itself and the new Muslim migrants would be those who want to join a Muslim community, not those who are prepared to go-it-alone. It would become increasingly difficult for members of that community to express their own opinions; they would have to toe the line.

Toeing the line, Islamic style. (Grand Mosque of Nishapur 27/9/2013)
Slavery, Terrorism and Islam (Hammond P, 2010) provides examples of the typical behaviour of Muslim communities as they grow and the percentage increases relative to non-Muslims. This is summarised in a blog here, which obviously has a very negative bias, but that doesn’t necessarily make it incorrect.

Islam indoctrinates its followers with a sense of supremacy: Islam is the only true faith and will eventually conquer the whole world. Muslims don't do humility very well. 

I'm asking Kiwis to build close relationships, bridges, with their Muslim community to help them integrate, build understanding and trust, help them to see that there is value in other cultures and that the 'infidels' are not all bad. Act as ambassadors. You will be representing your country, your culture, your kin.

This wont be any easy battle. Muslims are extraordinarily prone to  conspiracy theories and have a very deep distrust of the West (esp. the US, Britain and Israel). This mistrust at a very general level is based on decades of official foreign policy, implementation of that policy on the ground and activities of global corporations. There is a real sense of victimisation (IMHO based on the aforementioned indoctrinated self-esteem deficit). The recent opinion poll conducted within Iraq and Syria by ORB shows that over 80% believe that ISIL is an US/foreign made group. There is actually much evidence to support that view. It didn't appear to be a planned outcome, and it wasn't directly controlled, but the outcome was ISIL. Muslims I have spoken to in NZ and globally believe that the outcome was planned - to create an an ongoing state of war in the MENA region; providing wealth for the Western arms and oil industries and keeping the Muslim world in subjugation to the West. Opinions are not the same as facts, but perceptions control our thoughts and actions.

At an interpersonal level things are better. Muslims are unlikely to reject an honest friendly approach. An issue however. is that while individuals can develop good working relationships across cultural divides, these will be seen by Muslims as a 'special case'. This belief would allow Muslims to reconcile their prejudices about the great Satan (the US and Western civilisation) with their own experience. Nevertheless it is a small but necessary step along the road to integration.