Thursday, November 19, 2015

What distinguishes us from terrorists?

Clearly, opening our nation up to resettlement of refugees from Syria (and elsewhere) exposes us to the risk of allowing a few terrorists to infiltrate the US by masquerading as refugees.  And if one were to be a victim of an attack by one of those terrorists, I can only imagine the rage that someone might feel about the situation.  But let's just think a bit deeper about what's going on.  The refugees are fleeing the war and persecution by radical muslims - most of them have experienced directly the terror of living in fear of the radical theocrats.  They only seek to escape the horror of these brutal theocratic regimes in their own nations.

What actually would be accomplished by turning these refugees away?  Is it currently impossible for terrorists to gain entry into the US by any means other than hiding among refugees?  Will any effort to offer help to these needy people be outweighed by the possibility that some of them are actually terrorist infiltrators?  It seems obvious to me that turning our back on the refugees likely will cause some of the refugees to become supporters of the terrorists, if only as a means of self-defense.  Closing our borders will not prevent terrorists from gaining entry - some are already here and more will arrive even without this heartless rejection of people in desperate need.  It seems pretty evident to me that declining to accept refugees carries with the loss of any claim to being morally superior to terrorists (who also have utterly no concern for the suffering of the innocent).  We become no better than the terrorists by not caring about what agonies will be inflicted upon the innocent among the refugees.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that refusing the pleas of the refugees indicates an utter lack of empathy - the ability to put oneself in the situation of another person, and to understand thereby what they must be experiencing.  Empathy is the path to resolving differences and recognizing how you might feel in someone else's position.  If you feel religiously inclined, empathy and the compassion it creates is one of the messages in the new testament - the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind quickly.  We can be so consumed with tribalistic fear of people from other cultures that our xenophobia dominates our compassion, which is precisely the opposite of the message attributed to jesus christ.  That message is simply one of empathy and the recognition that we are all the same underneath all the tribalistic superficialities.

I have no wish to see more terrorists enter the US.  I would not want to see more Americans become terrorist victims.  I can understand the concerns, but what I'm trying to suggest is that turning our backs on people seeking our assistance is not the way to address the threat of terrorism.  In fact, it actually is a recruiting tool for islamic jihadists, who want to spread the notion that the West is waging war, not on terror, but on islam.  It really isn't in our best interest to shut the door on the refugees.  Further, history tells us that many people coming to America from foreign soil become the most fervent of American patriots.  If we refuse aid to the refugees, or discriminate against them if they are allowed in, we're only giving aid and comfort to the terrorists.  Our own self-interest should be considered here, and a xenophobic reaction to the refugees is contrary to that self-interest.  Shutting them out will not solve the challenge of terrorists on American soil.

Some have said that compassion is a weakness that will be exploited by the jihadists, who will be laughing at our weakness even as they kill us.  But is this putative weakness not the same "weakness" of jesus himself, as claimed in the new testament?  Is this "weakness" not one of our greatest strengths, as a nation?  What does the inscription on the Statue of Liberty say?
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Surely these refugees are "tempest tost"!  Do we truly want to wash our hands of that message?  The message we should be sending is that secular America occupies the moral high ground, and is distinguishably the moral superior to the terrorists.  We should be putting our American (and christian) ideals into real-world practice, not honoring them with lip service even as we dishonor them with our lack of empathy for the suffering of others.  Ultimately, that's a better strategy for fighting terrorism than xenophobic tribalism and bombs.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Religion doesn't get a free pass here

With all the anger and sadness that's been generated by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, many seem to want to describe the terrorists as demonic, inhuman animals and downplay any role that religion might play in islamic terror.  We always de-humanize our "enemies" to justify inflicting violence on them.  Well, religion doesn't get a free pass, here.  The Koran is full of calls for murder to be visited upon unbelievers (including, by the way, muslims guilty of "apostasy").  Islam is pretty far from a religion of peace if you simply read the primary source of their religious dogma.  The jihadists are giving their koran a fundamentalist reading, and accept the koran's words literally, rather than cherry-picking only the parts that seem peaceful and loving.

ISIS is openly seeking to return to a 7th-century version of islam, with its harsh shariah laws and aggressive conquering of territory in order to impose islam on everyone in full force.  They seek to hasten the islamic apocalypse, not unlike their christian counterparts. [They're quite willing to use modern weapons and the Internet to further their goals, however, in a classic case of fundamentalist hypocrisy.]  These people are not simply lunatics or wild demons - they're intelligent people who have adopted a particularly virulent perspective on islam and believe in it with what is clearly religious fervor.  That doesn't make them lunatics or demons - only people guided by a misguided flavor of their religious faith.  That version isn't shared by most muslims around the world.

They're too weak to impose their will in "set piece" military actions and are too small a minority to impose their will politically, but rather use the classic tactics of the weak:   guerrilla warfare and terrorism.  They seek to enlist more muslims to their cause by inducing the non-muslim world to wage war on islam, thereby recruiting new followers from among muslims angered by collateral damage from the absurd, unwinnable "war on terror".  The fear and anger they create by their terrorism is working.  The "solution" many in the West favor is that of military action, rather than seeking some other way to solve the problem of terrorism.  It should be evident that violence in return for violence is almost never a real solution to the problem (despite the prevalence of vengeance as an excuse for violence in so many movies), but we return to it again and again because vengeance is easily justified, despite the historical evidence that violence only creates more violence in return.  An eye for an eye leaves both sides blind.

I'm not saying we should simply surrender to violent attack.  We can and should defend ourselves, and we should seek out and bring justice to those who commit terrorist acts.  But as I've mentioned in the past, we should not limit our our responses only to military ones.  We must address the causes of terrorism, and one of the causes is religious fundamentalist extremism.  Religion cannot be divorced from many extremists acts (bombing abortion clinics, for instance).

Very few christians today would be willing to enlist in or otherwise provide support for a crusade against muslims - historically, of course, the Crusades were precisely a war by christians on muslims to "rescue" the Middle Eastern "holy land" from the "barbaric" muslims.  To the best of my knowledge, muslims have not forgotten about the Crusades, and it's understandable if they see the Western war on terror in different terms than we do.  The fact is that christians and muslims not only share the same deity (under a different name) but both consider the biblical Jesus to be an important part of their faith.  Further, beyond their religious dogma, the fundamentalist, extreme believers in both christianity and islam are really brothers under the skin.  For the most part, christians today dismiss those willing to commit violence in the name of jesus and christian dogma as "not true christians" or simply "nut cases".  Most modern christians want to wash the christian faith clean of any violence (despite its prominence in the bible - as well as the koran), and don't want to accept any responsibility for violence done in the name of christianity.  I see both religions, christianity and islam, as cut from the same cloth.  Most modern muslims also repudiate the violence and hate contained in the koran, not unlike the majority of modern christians who repudiate all the ugliness contained in the bible.  It's within those groups of folks that we might be able to find a solution to terrorism done in the name of religion.

Many of those same christians, however, of late are seeing islam as being responsible for the terrorism its extremists inflict on the world (which, by the way, also is being visited on other muslims as well as christians).  This is spawning the very hatred of muslims that the terrorists want to create by their deeds.  I've said many times, we're losing the war on terror, because (among other things) we've allowed ourselves to get worked up into favoring solutions of violent vengeance rather than a rational consideration of the causes of terrorism and what we ought to do to try to find real solutions rather than inflicting hate and vengeance on all muslims.  I'm not saying it's going to be easy.  I'm fresh out of magic bullets and I'm definitely not in favor of singing kumbaya around the campfire with terrorists.  We have to work out a non-violent solution between moderate muslims and the moderates in the non-muslim world.