Monthly Archives: August 2016
Trump continues to use fear appeals and scare tactics when it comes to Muslims and terror. And while he is minimally effective – and getting less so every day – his supporters are sympathetic others who are increasingly misinformed about terror and Islam. A piece of video footage showing Trump supporters at a rally had one fellow screaming at another that Islam was an “ideology.” The point was that Islam is a nefarious set of beliefs and practices designed to manipulate you into its belief system.
The dilemma here is that defining Islam as violent justifies an armed response when, in fact, the only response that will be effective is a long-term war of ideas pitting *Islamist extremism against liberal democracies. As Gutmann and Thompson have claimed in their highly recommended book Democracy and Disagreement,“of the challenges that American democracy faces today, none is more formidable than the problem of moral disagreement.” In other words, those who have sacred values and are what Scott Atran calls “devoted actors” rather than “rational actors” pose the biggest challenge to liberal democracies because conflicts over fundamental values are so resistant to resolution. You cannot simply subject the moral disagreement to the rational calculations of the marketplace.
But if wanton murder of men, women, and children is so fundamental to Islam why is it such a recent phenomenon on the world stage? Why doesn’t “jihadism” as it has come to be known have long history? Typically, Islamist terror is first associated with the 1979 Iranian revolution. But even the Iranian revolution can be analyzed as a clash of political ideologies where Islamists attach themselves to religious sounding terminology (“infidels,” “holy wars,” “party of God”) in order to give themselves religious justification.
It is true enough that Islamism is really a totalitarian movement that has hijacked some religious terminology in an effort to alter traditional Islam and challenge Western democracies. But Boroumand and Boroumand writing in the Journal of Democracy make the following emphatic statement and I quote in full:
“There is in the history of Islam no precedent for the utterly unrestrained violence of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah… To kill oneself while wantonly murdering women, children, and people of all religions and descriptions… has nothing to do with Islam and one does not have to be a learned theologian to see this… The truth is that contemporary Islamist terror is an eminently modern practice thoroughly at odds with Islamic traditions and ethics” (p.6).
I don’t mean to imply that traditional Islamic religious teachings hold an inclusive democratic vision for the world or that it resonates with contemporary ideas about liberal democracies and human rights. But the long view of any religious evolution has it moving toward a widening circle of inclusion and dignity for others. As of now, there are more than a few Islamic countries that are pluralistic but have no political concept of “pluralism.” For this reason they define rigid group boundaries and more nascent forms of control.
But as with most of the issues in this election, Trump is not the answer to anything.
*Terminology note: I use “Islamist” or “Islamism” to refer to those extreme groups or ideologies that justify violence and cherry pick the Koran to give their ideology a religious sounding façade. The term “Islamic” refers to the long political, religious, and scholarly tradition of institutional Islam.
When Donald Trump proposed that Ghazala Khan – the Muslim Goldstar mother of Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq – was not allowed to speak, ostensibly because of Muslim sexist control of women, he dehumanized Mrs. Khan. Interestingly, Trump dehumanized Mrs. Khan by assuming that Islam was responsible for her dehumanization thus projecting the issue to the foreground.
To “dehumanize” someone is typically thought of as portraying the other person as uncivilized and animal-like. It has historically been used to explain the psychological changes in individuals during times of war or atrocity. In order for genocide and mass murder to take place the perpetrator must see his enemy as less than human and thereby more deserving of being killed. And, dehumanization helps perpetrators justify their behavior since they are not taking the life of a “real” human being.
But in recent decades researchers have been more interested in subtle forms of dehumanization in which human characteristics (such as emotions) are denied to some other individual or group. This can happen on an individual as well as group basis. Freedom of expression, for example, is considered a natural “human” right and it is “dehumanizing” to deny the right. Most research is on racial and ethnic groups. For example, studies show that the association of one ethnic group with an animal (e.g. Blacks with apes) causes significant perceptual distortions such as the overestimation of children ages and criminal culpability. Such research helps explain police violence and the disparities of police violence toward different groups (for a review of dehumanization research see Haslam and Stratemeyer).
Immigrants and asylum-seekers are also dehumanized (Trump calling Mexicans coming over the border “rapists” and “drug dealers”) as well as an increasing number of groups such as psychiatric patients, homeless people, gay men, and older adults. Although dehumanization is related to stereotypes, they are not equivalent since it is possible to stereotype without dehumanizing and vice versa. Moreover, keep in mind that “super humanizing” someone is equally as dehumanizing since it defines them as “other than human.” The ascription of superhuman physical or sexual qualities to an ethnic group diminishes the recognition of their experience of pain and their capacities for sensitivity.
The consequences of dehumanizing are serious and persistent. More than a few studies report how dehumanization leads to increased punishment because offenders are considered less than human, as well as the endorsement of extralegal behavior such as torture for terrorists. Trump’s dehumanization of Mrs. Khan perpetuated a stereotype designed to challenge the authenticity of their sacrifice, and to categorize the Khans in such a way as to make them less deserving of sympathy. Individuals or groups who are dehumanized are assumed to be less worthy of respect and conciliation.
The combination of stereotypes and dehumanization makes for an explosive mixture producing distorted perceptions and easy justification of violence. But even in situations where violence is less implicated (the Trump example) there is a sort of psychological violence that makes it easier to overlook or ignore the potential for aggression and cognitive distortions.