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Gaza symmetries and asymmetries

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- "hatred of the other" viewed as a cognitive matter, and Richard Landes on the capacity for self-criticism ]
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Credit: Amir Schiby

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Nicholas Kristof has a post today for the NYT Sunday Review, Who’s Right and Wrong in the Middle East? — in which he explores the symmetries and asymmetries playing out in Gaza. He concludes with the following paragraph:

Here we have a conflict between right and right that has been hijacked by hard-liners on each side who feed each other. It’s not that they are the same, and what I see isn’t equivalence. Yet there is, in some ways, a painful symmetry — and one element is that each side vigorously denies that there is any symmetry at all.

Let that stand as the epigraph of this post, while we turn to EO Wilson for a theoretical basis:

Reification is the quick and easy mental algorithm that creates order in a world otherwise overwhelming in flux and detail. One of its manifestations is the dyadic instinct, the proneness to set up two part classifications in treating socially important arrays. Societies everywhere break people into in-group versus out-group, child versus adult, kin versus non kin, married versus single, and activities into sacred and profane, good and evil. They fortify the boundaries of each division with taboo and ritual. To change from one division to the other requires initiation ceremonies, weddings, blessings, ordinations and other rites of passage that mark every culture.

Rush Dozier in Why We Hate picks up the thread:

Us-them stereotyping emerges directly from the primitive neural system’s basic survival response. It is a form of categorical thinking in which the categories are mutually exclusive. To the primitive areas of the brain, one is either “us” or “them.One cannot be both.

Jesus is reported as saying both “he that is not against us is for us” [Mark 9.40] and “He that is not with me is against me” [Luke 11.23], whereas GW Bush offers less ambiguity: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Dozier again:

It appears that this kind of either-or analysis results from the pre-conscious alerting system’s need for extremely rapid processing, which requires that phenomena be simplified as much as possible and placed in unambiguous categories.

The alert with its binaries, and the analytic, with (hopefully) its nuance — which would we be better advised to entrust with such major matters as war and peace?

Jesus again, overriding the binary opposition [Luke 6.27-28]:

I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

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Let’s move to one specific distinction — one that provide us with a binary, while arguably transcending binary thinking.

Richard Landes makes a strong point in his post titled Self-criticism and cultural development, when he asserts:

Self-criticism stands at the heart of any experiment in civil society.

He continues:

Only when we can acknowledge errors and commit to avoiding making them again, can we have a learning curve. Only when scholars can express their criticism of academic colleagues, and those criticized are able to acknowledge error, can scientific and social thinking develop. Only when religious believers can entertain the possibility that they may not have a monopoly on truth (no matter how convinced they might be of their “Truth”), can various religions live in peace and express their beliefs without fear of violence. Only when political elites are willing to accept negative feedback from people who do not have their power, only when the press can oppose those who control public decision-making, can a government reasonably claim to be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The distinction, the asymmetry I’m interested in exploring today is that between those who self-criticize and can accept criticism, and those who neither self-criticize nor accept criticism.

In my reading of the two quotes from Netanyahu and Diskin that I paired at the tail end of my post Israel / Palestine: some delicate balancing acts, Netanyahu seems to me averse to Israeli self-criticism, while Diskin clearly welcomes and practices it.

Here’s an individual, unofficial example. In an “eyewitness account of how the synagogue of Rue de la Roquette [in Paris] was attacked by a mob, and fought back” titled ‘Yesterday, a Part of My Love for France Left Me’, Aurélie A. wrote:

I can already see myself jumping at the throat of one of the keffiyeh wearers shouting “Death to the Yids!” He wants to kill Jews???!!! I want to leave him for dead! I do not recognize my own hatred!

There’s the binary at work, generating hatred to meet hatred — and the reflective mind that sees the binary as simplistic, and moves self-critically beyond it.

Landes again:

Nothing contrasts more with Israel’s culture of self-criticism than its belligerent neighbors, especially the Palestinians. Here we find one of the most aggressive zero-sum political cultures on record. They accept no responsibility for the war they wage, and justify all their behavior — including how they treat their own people — as a response to the Zionists. They demonize the Zionists with conspiracy theories and blood libels drawn from the most delirious of European anti-Semitic fears to inspire their victimized people to take arms against this malevolent enemy. Who could self-criticize when being assaulted by such merciless and powerful forces? Self-criticism under such conditions is unthinkable, and dissent is treachery. The exceptional number of Palestinians killed by Palestinians suggests a culture in which intimidating dissenters and eliminating traitors is the norm.

Those who say all who criticize Israeli actions are “Anti-Semitic” are overreaching: there is certainly a strong current of anti-Semitism alive and at large in the world, but the capacities to self-criticize and to accept criticism imply that one may critique what one loves as an expression of that love.

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The image of the four Bakr boys no longer playing soccer on the beach which heads this post is the work of the Israeli artist Amir Schiby. You can read it as a pro-Palestinian work of propaganda — or as an artistic criticism by an Israeli of the current Israeli operation in Gaza. You can also read it as a simple, beautiful expression of grief.

Its beauty argues for one of the latter two interpretations, and Schiby’s own statement on his FaceBook page that he intended it “as a tribute to all children living in war zones” clearly suggests the third.

Not a binary, partisan statement, then, and not even the raising of a “provocative question” — but an arrow to the heart, a wordless pang of grief.

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Posts from my Coursera classes 3 — on knowing Shia from Sunni

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Bush, Reyes and McCain as leading indicators of a difficult learning-curve ]
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Here’s another in my series of posts taken from MOOCs I’ve been participating in. This one comes from the Changing World Order Coursera MOOC from Leiden University, and deals with the knowledge senior US politicians have shown of the distinction between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam — as fundamental as the distinction between Protestant and Catholic within Christianity, and similarly basic in that further distinctions of detail also merit our awareness and consideration.

I am posting it here today not just because it’s part of the series of “bigger picture” mini-essays [1, 2] I’m drawing together as I continue to participate in these MOOC discussions, but also so that I can link to it in my post on Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond.

Here’s the post in question:

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As to the knowledge of these distinctions present in American politicians, here are some data points, one from George W Bush shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, one from the incoming Democratic chair of the House intelligence Committee in 2006, and one from John McCain in 2008.

President GW Bush:

A year after the Axis of Evil speech, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans … As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites.  It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. … So two months before he ordered U.S. troops into the country, the president of the United States did not appear to know about the division among Iraqis that has defined the country’s history and politics.  He would not have understood why non-Arab Iran might gain a foothold in post-Saddam Iraq.  He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects that he did not know existed.

— Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End

Rep Silvestre Reyes:

In 2006, the New York Times reported on Rep Silvestre Reyes’ answers to two questions:

  • Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite?
  • Which sect dominates Hezbollah?

Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.

“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

— New York Times, Refresher Course for Congress: Telling Sunni From Shiite

Sen. John McCain:

Sen. John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to promote his foreign policy expertise, misidentified in remarks Tuesday which broad category of Iraqi extremists are allegedly receiving support from Iran.

He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives “taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate’s ear. McCain then said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.”

A McCain Gaffe in Jordan, Washington Post, 2008

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Somewhere between intelligence and decision-making, there’s a gap…

– hipbone

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Previous posts in this series:

  • Posts from my Coursera classes I — dehumanization, consequences
  • Posts from my Coursera classes 2 — angles on the Taliban
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    The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]
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    I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.

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    And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!

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    He must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil

    Sunday, September 1st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- borrowing my title from Shakespeare, though Chaucer and Erasmus said it first ]
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    You may or may not like John Kerry. You may or may not like Assad. You may or may not like Mother Teresa, or Michèle Duvalier and Papa Doc. Rumsfeld and or Saddam. GW Bush or Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud. But paired photos of someone you dislike with someone many of us loathe is a neat visual tactic in which the not-so-bad party of the first part is tarred by association with the way-more-evil party of the second.

    Does it ever work the other way around, though? is the party of the second part ever redeemed through contact with the party of the first? or even relieved of a few tens or hundreds of thousand dollars for authentic, charitable purposes?

    What would I know?

    The simplest way in which the two images above can be seen as similar to one another is that each one features someone named Teresa. But that’s not the point.

    And I do have to say, that restaurant in Damascus looks pleasant enough.

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    Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

    Monday, March 25th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- if we omit all mention of the Qur'an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]
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    On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:
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    Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…

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    Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

    It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

    After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

    MEMRI picks up the story here:

    The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

    This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

    This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

    It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

    MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

    SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

    The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.

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    Sadly, however…

    Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

    We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

    So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

    Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

    That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.

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    I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

    CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

    Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

    That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.

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    As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

    We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

    There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

    And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

    There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

    … we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

    And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

    Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

    Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

    For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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    Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

    Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

    Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

    I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.

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    Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

    I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

    That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

    The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

    No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

    and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

    you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

    We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

    For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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    For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

    But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

    Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

    Words fail me.

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