How We Should Respond to the New Terrorism

5:30p Wednesday night. That’s enough planning of the new class for school principals that begins in February. My night to make dinner. The Good Wife will be home in an hour. I can make an amazing salad in 30 minutes easy peasy.

How to burn the spare thirty? Obs, college basketball, but the games aren’t that compelling and you can only watch the Property Brothers so much. Surfing, surfing, how ’bout some pre-dinner self flagellation. Fox News.

And then it happens. . . today’s brilliant idea hits me with just 4+ hours to spare. There are two steps the U.S. and the West more generally should take in response to the new terrorism.

1st—Spend one night carefully watching Sean Hannity and other Fox “News” show segments that directly address recent events in Paris.

2nd—Do the exact opposite of what they advocate.

Railing about how the Obama administration and the US always coddles Muslims, the angry men on Sean Hannity’s panel were equal parts fearful and hateful. They demonstrated no knowledge of young French Muslims’ life experiences nor did they have any interest in the larger context of radicalism.

Consequently, they didn’t spend any time discussing prevention. Given the chance, they’d probably banish me to a Caribbean Island max security prison for even suggesting historical context matters. Because that’s probably a form of coddling. Now, as I write, Bill O’Reilly is lionizing the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam who said Muslim immigrants who do not appreciate the way of life in Western civilisations can ‘f*** off’.

Instead of watching Fox News, we should listen to the French secondary school teachers in the suburbs of Paris. For a decade plus they have been trying to tell the French public that the alienated youth they teach are especially susceptible to radicalism. Despite being born in France, they don’t feel French. Many of their frustrations are born of institutional racism and religious persecution. The French government is so committed to secularism that it’s unwilling to accommodate hardly any of their religious practices.

Alienation is no justification for the horrific violence of last week. Worth repeating. Alienation is no justification for the horrific violence of last week, but a Rotterdam Mayor/Fox News mix of fear and hate will only make matters worse. To mitigate the problem governments have to think and act counterintuitively. Instead of succumbing to paralyzing fear and hate and the revenge it breeds, we have to be way smarter than anyone on Fox News about the underlying causes of radicalism. The more we think of this as a century long battle for the hearts and minds of young Muslims worldwide, than a ten or twenty year contest of military might, the better.

We need courage to reject the simple, fearful, hateful diatribes of the Rotterdam Mayor and Fox News. “An eye for an eye,” Ghandi said, “makes the whole world blind.”

One True Religion?

Indulge me while I paint with a broad brush. Most people are either religious or non-religious. Among the religious, quite a few believe their religion is the one true religion. Consequently, those outside their tradition are unsaved or infidels and doomed to eternal damnation.

This “zero-sum, sheeps and goats” line of religious thinking might make a modicum of sense if there was a genuine free-market of religious ideas from which each adult chose once they had considered a wide-ranging smorgasbord. A grand religious meritocracy if you will where the most enlightened, hopeful, helpful religions would probably hold claim to the most adherents.

But that’s not even close to how religious people “choose their religion”. People’s religious choices are mostly the result of where they’re born. And I don’t know about you, but I had no control over where I was born (shout out to my faithful following in Boise, ID). Born in Northern Nigeria, one’s almost certainly a Moslem; Southern Nigeria, a Christian; central India, a Hindu; Israel, a Jew; Alabama, a Southern Baptist: Utah, a Mormon. In fact, do people choose their religion or does their family’s religion or the predominant religion where they grow up tend to choose them?

If religious identities are rooted in geography and culture, “zero-sum, sheep and goat, mine is the one true religion” belief only makes sense if some countries and cultures are special, divinely created, better than the rest. And why trust anyone who believes they won the birthplace lottery of life about religion or anything else?

Related recommendation.

Osama bin Laden is Dead, Al Qaeda is Not

I just finished reading Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, considered by many the definitive “rise of Al Qaeda, 9/11 book”. It was an extremely ambitious project rooted in meticulous research.

Here’s what Patrick Beach said of Wright’s work: Even for Wright — a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who’s long been regarded as a superhumanly tireless journalist — the book is a feat of terrific endurance. He has traveled for much of the past five years, conducted some 600 interviews, compiled a reference library of 150 or more books and inhaled tens of thousands of documents. The guy’s work ethic makes every other scribbler look like a punk. And every single fact, element or category — what Osama bin Laden has had to say about Saddam Hussein, for example — has been annotated and cross-referenced using Wright’s famously meticulous index card system.

The Looming Tower is brilliant on several levels, but maybe its greatest strength is Wright’s remarkable clarity. He always opts for the simplest form of expression, as a result, despite the foreignness of a lot of the content, I almost never had to re-read. Sometimes I chose to re-read a paragraph or two just to marvel at the incredible economy, simplicity, and accessibility of the narrative.

Almost always, whenever Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Central Asia, and/or the “War on Terrorism” comes up in conversation I’m amazed at two things: 1) how strong everyone’s opinions are how we should combat Al-Qaeda and 2) how little those same people know about Islam, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. As just one example, I would guess less than 10% of North Americans could correctly list the “five pillars of Islam“.

Since Al Qaeda hasn’t pulled off a 9/11-scale attack in the U.S. over the last nine plus years, and Osama bin Laden has been killed, the vast majority of U.S. citizens would say our post 9/11 response and current military commitments have been spot-on, but I’m not so sure the world is much more secure than in 2001 despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our trillions of dollars of military spending.

Reading one excellent book doesn’t make me an expert, but here are some of the most relevant post-bin Laden things I learned from The Looming Tower: 1) Arab governments’ torturing and killing of Islamic fundamentalists repeatedly led to increased Islamic fundamentalism. 2) Islamic fundamentalism is an ideology; consequently, it rests far more on ideas than on one or a few charismatic leaders. Our military, by itself, even with its special forces and drones, cannot defeat the ideology. 3A) Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s top officials always hoped the 9/11 attacks would draw the U.S. into a protracted conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have been successful in fomenting more violence. 3B) Osama bin Laden was not, and Al Qaeda’s top officials are not, afraid to die for their ideas. They embrace the idea of martyrdom. 4) Osama bin Laden’s death will no doubt damage Al Qaeda’s finances, but those losses could conceivably be offset by the organization’s ability to leverage his new status as a martyr to recruit new members. I disagree with the “experts” on television right now saying this is an Al Qaeda “deathblow”.

I am not even close to mourning bin Laden, but forgive me if I sit out the raucous public celebrations. It’s far too early to know whether this is a substantive turning point in creating a more peaceful, secure world for all the world’s people.


The Constitution and Christmas

Last Sunday the wife’s Sunday school class on making Christmas less stressful and more meaningful went really well. At least for the first fifty minutes. During the last ten it devolved into a gripe session about public school and state government political correctness. Then on Monday a grad student of mine sent me an email conveying the same things. Here’s an excerpt. “At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter to eliminate Jesus, in all public matter. And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith. Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace. The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded. The reason for the season , stopped before it started.”

At the end of the Sunday school class I sat in silence because I knew there was nothing I could say in a few minutes that would change anyone’s mind. Good thing probably because the teach may not have appreciated my stirring the pot. But that pot needs to be stirred.

Here’s what my conservative evangelical Christian friends would have me believe. The “founding fathers” were Christians and we are a Christian nation, a shining city upon a hill. As a result, public schools and other public places should allow the public expression of Christian faith whatever the form: the posting of the Ten Commandments, group prayer, the singing of Christian songs at Christmas, or the display of nativities or crosses. For the majority, Christianity is our common heritage, the national default if you will. People of other faiths should go ahead and celebrate in whatever ways they want in private, but as a distinct minority, they shouldn’t expect public schools and public places to accommodate their preferences.

In contrast, I believe the following.

1) We are a religiously pluralistic nation made up of many Christians mixed together with Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, atheists, and on and on.

2) Our greatest strength is our Constitution which protects minority rights against majority rule and creates a level playing field with respect to citizens’ diverse religious beliefs. Mutual respect undergirds that neutrality and enables us to peacefully co-exist.

3) Selflessness is a central tenet of Christianity; as a result, Christians should take some time to think about what it would be like if public schools and places were primarily Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or anti-religious. The alternative is for Christians to forgo selflessness, devalue Christianity, and continue to insist on a “majority wins” approach to governing public places.

4) The “wall of separation between church and state” principle is misunderstood by Christians who instinctively view it as problematic. Christianity can be taught in public schools as long as it’s done in a comparative, non-evangelical way. Many Christians conflate religious neutrality and anti-religiousness.

5) One Sunday schooler took a swipe at Kwanza and “other minor religious celebrations.” Christians who complain about religious neutrality in public schools and public spaces are struggling to come to grips with the fact that demographics have changed in the United States and they resent that they have to change any aspect of how they grew up experiencing Christmas. It’s difficult to exaggerate the deep symbolic meaning Christmas-oriented language and music in public schools from yesteryear has on many middle-aged and elderly Christians.

6) It’s utterly and completely ludicrous for Christians to suggest anyone is “forbidden to speak of salvation and grace”. It compromises their credibility as thinking people. How much of an adult Christian’s life is spent in public schools and spaces, five percent? Ninety-five percent of the time there’s absolute freedom to speak of one’s religious beliefs and convictions in whatever way one chooses. The “forbidden” argument couldn’t be more disingenuous and it makes a mockery of believers of different faiths who are truly persecuted by their governments.

7) The historical Jesus lived in a religiously diverse world. Instead of complaining that the first century world in which he lived wasn’t explicitly Christian enough, he focused on spreading his message through example, and in essence, competing on a level playing field. Christians today should do the same.