Monthly Archives: October 2015

ISIS is Weak and Under Performing

waiting for ISIS food

Famished and queuing despondently as far as the eye can see, these images will have the Islamic State’s slick propaganda unit spitting feathers.

In scenes more familiar in the most impoverished refugee camps, scores of downtrodden Syrians wait in line for hours for food in the terror group’s self-declared capital Raqqa.

It’s a far cry from the all-conquering image of prosperity its jihadi PR machine would like the world to believe.

The pictures were posted on Twitter by a member of the anti-ISIS campaign group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently who risk their lives every day by documenting atrocities from inside the city.

ISIS looks like a nightmare from the past. Its tactics are brutal, it’s religiously extreme and it is certainly dangerous. By way of their own words, they want to eliminate infidels, impose strict religious law, and establish the “caliphate.” Many feel already psychologically defeated by ISIS; there is a sense that ISIS’s growth in the future is inevitable and that their sophisticated propaganda will succeed in helping them build the foundation of a genuine state and territory it controls.

But as Stephen Walt has pointed out in Foreign Affairs ISIS is not the first extremist group to pose a threat. Similar movements have been associated with France, Russia, the Chinese, Cuba, as well as Iranian revolutionaries. They were all ruthless and sought to demonstrate their power and determination to everyone else. The good news is that these historically violent and revolutionary groups were all contained and their threats, while in some cases still viable, have all been diminished.

Thomas Lynch III, in a recent report that I highly recommend from the Wilson Center, is quite critical of ISIS and argues that they have underperformed in South Asia and failed their constituents in many ways. They pose no serious threat to Al Qaeda in the global Salafi jihadist project. Lynch compares them to the mythological Icarus by writing that ISIS has flown too close to the sun and engaged in brash and risky strategies that will consume it.

Walt explains that outside efforts to destroy revolutionary movements usually backfire because they harden positions and give these movements more possibilities for expansion by enlisting others in the fight against an outsider. A strong US presence with the stated goal of destroying ISIS would likely aggravate the hostility to the West and encourage ISIS’s claim that infidels and outsiders want to encroach upon their land and culture. The US would be better off “leading from behind” which means to stay in the background and provide quiet support. ISIS controls very small amounts of land and has very few military resources to enforce its doctrines. The Soviet Union could impose communism because of its powerful military establishment. ISIS has relatively few troops and no real military power. Moreover, Lynch poses problems for ISIS and their decision to declare an Islamic State. I elaborate a little on these below. All of these are serious weaknesses or mistakes for ISIS any one of which could potentially lead to their downfall.

  1. The decision by ISIS to declare an Islamic state has encouraged an international coalition of jihadists to oppose it. The declaration of a Caliphate did not resonate with established groups who differ on how they believe the Caliphate should come into being and when the time is right. ISIS will receive no support from various Islamic groups for its proposed Islamic state.
  2. The declaration of the Islamic state is a significant break and a challenge to Al Qaeda’s that only it will make such determinations. ISIS, for example, believes in violence against local opposition groups where the Al Qaeda believes that infidels (that would be Americans and Westerners) must be eliminated as a first priority. ISIS believes in unbridled violence where Al Qaeda is more willing to temper violence – difficult as that is to imagine.
  3. Lynch explains that Al Qaeda supports the slow evolution of Islamic Emirates that one day will merge into a caliphate. This strategy is too slow for ISIS who have declared a caliph now (al-Baghdadi). This has again caused a break in Salafist ideology.

The establishment of a caliphate is unlikely to generate much emotional intensity. It has caused divides among the various groups and will weaken everyone’s credibility. ISIS’s methods might scare Americans and attract some fanatics but it is not popular with many Muslims. And it must compete successfully with many Middle East identities that are national, sectarian, religious, and tribal. There’s a good chance both Al Qaeda and ISIS will implode. This means containment is the most sensible avenue at the moment. Let the United States remain cool for now and treat the main actors as an annoyance that we must keep our eye on, and our pistols cocked, but we will still bide our time.









Essentialism: Gender and Islam

boy and wheelchair-- essentialismname tag essentialism

boy and wheelchair but with classLook at the top picture first and notice the little boy in the wheelchair. He is clearly defined as “different” from the other children and is both spatially and psychologically defined by the chair. He is separate from the class and the chair fundamentally defines him. Now look at the bottom picture. The same little boy is on the right in the stripped sweater. The chair does not define his essence.

The basic tenet of psychological essentialism is the idea that humans have a core belief that unobservable essences are causally responsible for the surface features (behaviors) we observe. As such, the world is divided up into essences from which behaviors can be inferred. It’s the belief in an underlying reality or a true nature that cannot be observed.

At its ugliest, essentialism applied to ethnic groups is a form of racism because we assume that all members of a particular group share an unchangeable core reality with respect to physical or intellectual proclivities. It’s a pretty aggressive verbal attack to accuse someone of essentialism – especially in academia. Note what happened to Larry Summers, then President of Harvard, when he suggested that the scarcity of women in science and engineering might be because of gender differences in intrinsic aptitude. There was an outcry of protest and he no longer holds his coveted position. Moreover, if you believe someone’s behavior is governed by an essentialist property then other avenues of inquiry or explanation are eliminated. Why care about other explanations–social, economic, familial, political, educational–when this unseen essentialist quality explains everything.

Psychological essentialism can function as a “placeholder” in that one can believe that a given category possesses an essence without knowing what the essence is. Seen this way essentialism is a reasoning heuristic. But the reasoning is bad reasoning. The essentialist quality is mysterious and unknown and usually evolved as a result of inductive experiences that lead to mostly unjustified generalities.

One of the most common responses to essentialists is to pose a cultural explanation. But that has become problematic because it trades one orthodoxy for another. The essentialization of culture is no different than the essentialization of women or any other category. Women, for example, have been overgeneralized to the private sphere; that is, their domestic duties have been justified by essentialist explanations. They are assumed to be homogeneous. This has sanctioned the economic and sexual exploitation of women along with a host of distorted opinions, discriminatory practices, all known to be old-fashioned sexism.

In response feminist groups have demanded respect for the diversification of women and recognition of cultural differences resulting in categories such as “African Women,” “Muslim Women,” “Western Women,” “Third World Women,” and the like. These new cultural categories represent a homogeneous collection of heterogeneous people.

There is a conundrum in the feminist literature that depends on belief in women sharing certain properties but also seeks diversity and recognition for individuality. The feminists’ widespread rejection of essentialism has threatened to undermine feminist politics.

How legitimate is it to affix the modifier “Islamic” to some noun. Is there such a thing as “Islamic terrorism?” What essence are we drawing on when we refer to “Islamic art,” “Islamic politics,” “Islamic philosophy,” and “Islamic culture?” Do Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, have an essence? Irfan Khawaja in his article on essentialism and Edward Said’s Orientalism, asked the question “how can one possibly talk about a single essence of Islam when what we see is irreducible variety?” Said goes about the business of claiming an essence for Orientalism while at the same time philosophically challenging essentialism.

In the end, essentialism is truly a psychological phenomenon in that we believe in essences because they are composed of a logic attributable to the “psyche.” The human belief in essences that represent terminal explanations becomes so reductionist that they are soon reduced to nothing.




The Concept of Peace in Islam

peace in Islam

In the West peace means predominantly the absence of war. Peace is the result of institutional agreements or the regulation of behavior and mutual negotiations about what is considered threatening or unacceptable to each side. Solving conflicts is a rational problem-solving activity and reason is primary. It is possible to settle Islamic conflicts and make peace, but it must be done within the conceptual context of the Koran. And in many ways this is not so different from other religions.

In the Muslim tradition peace is associated with human development and justice, but justice that is rooted in the Koran more than secular reason. Peace implies the maintenance of human dignity and a sense of balance and coherence in society. Peace in Islam is associated with God and considered to be one of the names for God. There are roughly 5 approaches to peace.

Power: In Islam sometimes it is necessary to simply assert political power and use secular tools to manage disorder; disorder and chaos are considered threats to Islam and must be dealt with. This approach emphasizes political necessities because the population or some aspect of the community is threatening the good order of Islam.

Peace Based on Koranic Law: Peace is a condition of the Koran and violations of rules are inconsistent with peace. The values of the Koran must be in place or the community is characterized as unstable and disorderly. A situation in which these values are not present may be characterized as disorderly, unstable and un-Islamic. Sometimes this approach can be abused because of the easy or casual assertion that Islamic law is being violated and thus harsh consequences are justified.

Peace Through the Power of Communication: There is a tradition of mediation and arbitration (these are fundamentally communicative in nature) in Islam. The concept of balance remains important here. This is the notion of peace which is consistent with the West and some secular approaches. It recognizes that balance in society is not only maintained by religious precept but by restorative justice. Consequently, those who have experienced loss can be compensated or when one family is disadvantaged by another balance is restored through repayment or restoration of some type.

Peace Through Power: Islam also calls for nonviolence and the maintenance of security even when these things must be maintained through traditional power. Again, the approach is rooted in a concept of coherence and balance where peace is maintained by responding to the other’s needs. Secure and authentic peace must be rooted in human dignity.

Peace Through the Regard for the Other: The love of God in the precepts of Islam make for a broad and encompassing harmony. Again, this is a place where the religious and the secular can meet because one is expressed by the other. Each person is able to turn inward and find the value in the other through Islam. There is room here for change and transformation including the possibility of redemption.

Islam recognizes that humans are social and must live together. Thus, there has developed a line of thinking from religious documents to the daily organization of society. This is essentially the relationship between Islam and the state. There is much in Islam that puts the community’s interest first. But most important of all is the consistency between religious principles and the political system which always provides an avenue of redress. The community always has its mundane and routine needs but these are rooted in tradition, respect, and consistency with Islamic law. Islam is a classically collectivist culture where individuals are less important than the collectivity. Individuals are punished or judged to the extent that they disturb the good order of the community. The individual counts little by himself – a concept quite different in the West. It is the clan or society that has the right to protect itself by punishing a recalcitrant individual. Someone’s guilt or innocence is couched in the context of threatening or sustaining the community. And there must be an authority (textual or human) responsible for maintaining community order. This is regarded as absolutely necessary since society without authority is impossible.





Why Putin’s Support of Syria Is Okay for Israel

Putin and Netanyahu

Even at the risk of overstating the point, Russia has an increasingly more accommodating stance toward Israel than most people realize. One reason for this is Russia’s claim to support political systems that defend their citizens. Edward Luttwak, writing in Tablet, sang Putin’s praises for his “defense of his friends” and criticized the Obama administration for abandoning their partners every time the police shoot at a protester. Putin supports Syria surely because he wants to keep his base at Tartus, but he also wants to establish Russia as a friend who can be counted on.

Putin expresses the same sensibilities about Israel – he respects their right to defend themselves. The more general and encompassing relationship between Russia and Israel is accommodating even though there is a history of contentious disagreement. The Soviet Union did align themselves with Arab nationalist governments and Israel and the Soviet Union were estranged for many years. But they exchanged ambassadors again in 1991 and continue to have a certain amount of trade. Israel occasionally sends fighter-bombers over Syria to hit Hezbollah targets and Netanyahu and Putin have agreed to inform each other about flight plans. Think about this a moment. Russia has accepted Israel’s right to bomb in Syria when Russia has troops and equipment on the ground. That requires a fair amount of trust and cooperation.

According to Michael Katz in the Middle East Quarterly Putin has worked to upgrade Russia’s relations with Israel. There are numerous flights each day from Tel Aviv to Moscow and a large Russian population in Israel. Still, we can’t be too sanguine about this because serious differences remain. Moscow supports Iran’s nuclear development and provides many of the construction contractors. This support for Iran is certainly puzzling because Russia may be a practical political system, but it clearly opposes and objects to ISIS and all the efforts to establish an Islamic state be it Sunni or Shia. Stopping the Islamic state, a goal he shares with Israel, is one of its stated justifications for its Syrian support.

Russia has had its own problems with the Chechnyans and can sympathize with Israel’s struggle with Palestinians and Jihadist Islam. In fact, the declaration of “no negotiations with terrorists” is probably the most characteristic statement that binds Israel and Russia. Putin has pointed out the similarities between the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians and Russia’s with the Chechnyans and this has translated into mutual sympathy. But is sharing terrorism experiences sufficient to move the Russians more toward Israel? I think not. Katz in the article referenced above believes a more recent Russian pro-Israel attitude is the result of Putin’s personal preference. Putin has a deep dislike for the Chechnyans and believes they have no justification for complaints against Russia. He refuses to recognize their complaints or negotiate with them. Couple this with Israel’s general agreement and sympathy for Russia’s stance toward the Chechnyans, and you have the makings of a common enemy resulting in Israel-Russian alignment.

In the end, the relationship between Russia and Israel will remain as complex and multifaceted as the situation in Syria. Israel is certainly gratified that Russia is bombing ISIS targets and considers them a threat. But, on the other hand, Israel has no sympathy for maintaining the Assad regime and will never align with Russia on this matter. Then again, to make matters even more confusing, Russia is attacking militias some of which are supported by the United States – a great friend of Israel.

Before you know it the United States will be siding with its enemy Iran (Shia Muslims) against ISIS (Sunni Muslims) and asking the Russians to stop supporting Alawite Muslims (the Assad regime) and join with the United States and Iran to fight ISIS, while Israel sits safely on the sidelines. Wait a minute! That’s what’s happening now.






Individual Decision-Making Is a Rat’s Nest of Distortions

bad decision-making

As Daniel Kahneman describes, there are two types of thinking. The first called System 1 thinking is quick, immediate, impulsive, emotional, and reptilian. It has its foundation in our early evolutionary development and has the advantage of being responsive quickly and almost automatically. So, sexually charged messages are processed without much thought and on the basis of an immediate emotional and physiological response. System 2 thinking came later in human development and it is slow, deliberative, and reflective. This is how decisions are supposed to be made in democracies and in the context of complex data and argument.

Cass Sunstein in his work on decision-making explains how there are not enough System 2 thinkers and, moreover, there is a tendency to think decision-making is mostly subject to System 2 thinking when much of it is corrupted by the anger and emotions of System 1 thinking. This is the trap of believing that individuals mostly maximize rational preferences and are rational actors. Sunstein and his associates in a number of their publications (cf. Wiser: Getting beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter) claim that groups should be more deliberative and subject to System 2 thinking and therefore make better decisions. But they don’t.

Individuals who are making decisions are a rat’s nest of biases, distortions, and prejudices. They are overconfident, emotional, and will follow the herd. Their thinking is clouded by interpersonal relations including status hierarchies they wish to respect; they repress information that might upset someone; they seek information that confirms what they believe already and they are overly influenced by other individuals who are either attractive, particularly persuasive, or maintain some psychological “hold” on the individual. People who hold on to ideological beliefs with great fortitude and refuse to budge from their belief system, who automatically incorporate every position other than their own as either a threat or something to be embraced devolve into System 1 thinkers. This describes the Congressional Republicans as well as nationalistic and religious zealots.

System 1 thinking is so typically distorted and commonplace in decision-making groups that research has shown that decisions can be improved if members don’t meet. Statistical groups are sometimes superior because they focus on the task and eliminate social influences. But statistical groups do not have the epistemic advantage of communication which, if participants can overcome their distortions and improve their argumentative skills, has the potential of producing new knowledge and creative outcomes.

Statistical non-interactive groups may offer some decision-making advantages that accrue through the cumulative effects of individual knowledge and information. But they are quite deficient when dealing with deep differences and those who are intolerant and prejudice prone. The value and effectiveness of the contact hypothesis is a well-established and even demonstrates positive results with the most intolerant and ideological. Threat and anxiety reduction are one of the theoretical benefits of contact and these apply also to the highly intolerant.


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