An Open Mind: Profiling the Truth
I received another email a few weeks ago professing to show that it was a reasonable and even a responsible activity to profile young muslim men as potential terrorists. The message listed a number of terrorist incidents spread out over the past several decades, and emphasized, again and again as if to hammer it into our memory, that “young muslim men” were the perpetrators in each of the horrible incidents. Therefore, the email concludes, it is right and necessary to profile all young muslim men as threatening and suspicious. These statements are large lies wrapped in tiny truths. They play to the fearful and the simplistic. They are a rallying cry for the zenophobe and the isolationist. “The outsiders want to kill us!” it shouts, and sadly, so many people are eager to take it all in.
The very fundamental problem with this letter’s message is that the things it says are, in fact, true. The incidents that it lists were indeed committed by young muslim men. However, that this is a fact does not mean that it is the essential fact in this complex situation. The message states its facts and offers its own conclusion, and because the facts of the statement are true, we are led to thoughtlessly accept the conclusion it delivers. Since the facts it offers are true, we lock onto that truth and delude ourselves into thinking that we fully understand the issue at hand. It is a simplistic solution that gives us the illusion of comprehending a complex problem without having to study the situation further. This faulty reasoning arrives at the conclusion that since young muslim men committed these acts, then it is true that young muslim men are inherently dangerous. But that assessment is tragically mistaken—the perpetrators of those terrorist acts did not commit them because they were young, or because they were muslim, or because they were men. Those are all certainly facts, and an accurate (though woefully incomplete) description of the terrorists, but they are as irrelevent as they are true.
Young muslim men committed these acts of terror out of anger and desperation and frustration, whether we consider their problems to be real or perceived. This is not an apology for them, nor is it a justification. Our world is so polarized and ideologically narrow-minded that we refuse to admit that the other side of any conflict could possibly have a viewpoint, as if to admit this would be to grant our “enemies” power and strength. And this is not to say that there is any circumstance under which terrorism is justified—there is not. But it does no good to forget that in the hearts and minds of the perpetrators of these acts, their actions are justified and even honorable. As long as we respond to the philosophy of the terrorist with soldiers and bullets, the problems that created their radical death-wish drive to fight can never be addressed. Such extreme religious doctrine as would promote the murderous actions that are too much in the news these days can thrive only in an environment where people are hungry or needy or where opportunity is limited. Under such limited conditions, religion gives people hope. Monotheistic religions in particular confer an incredible sense of empowerment on their followers. By believing that certain laws or decrees originate with their god (the only true god, of course), then they feel justified in using any means to bring their god’s demands to fruition. Granted, this is an extreme, radical interpretation of religious doctrine, but this extremism grows rich and rampant when there is little hope in day to day life.
The Middle East has historically been very loosely governed, with powerful market-based cities surrounded by vast spaces where tribes and nomads wandered freely. Many of the borders and much of the organization they have today were artificially imposed on them by the West. When the European and American decision-makers put their fingers into the middle-eastern soup, they did not necessarily do so with the best interests of the residents in mind. They have supported monarchies and dictatorships that oppress the people but that give strategic support and benefits (especially oil) to us under favorable conditions. The common people in these countries, for the most part, live with very little control over their daily lives. The most radical of them come from conditions of extreme poverty and hopelessness. (Osama bin Laden, of course, comes from a very wealthy family, but his sympathies are strongly aligned with the popular image of the victimized Muslim suffering at the foot of the Western oppressor.) That is why they hate and attack us. Right or wrong, they blame the West for their problems. But whether they are right or wrong is not the issue, because their standard of living is ultimately more important than whether they are right or wrong. For example, look at the lack of violence that American Muslims have displayed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, compared to the problems seen in France and the United Kingdom. It is not because American Muslims are silenced by the government or because they are disloyal Muslims. Rather, we see a more measured and reasonable reaction because they enjoy a higher standard of living than most Muslims around the world, and are better assimilated into American culture than Muslims living in most Western countries. They have jobs and homes and enough food to feed the entire family. As a result, they don’t suffer from the same levels of anguish and desperation that their brothers and sisters in the Middle East must live with every day. This is the key. If we can get beyond the question of blame, on both sides, we may work on the real issues of living conditions, education and hunger that plague the region. We may or may not be to blame for these problems, but that is not the important question.We must not get hung up on who is right and who is wrong, or we will continue to be caught in the stalemate of violence that has described the region for longer than we care to remember. Instead, we must focus our attention on discussing the issues that the extremists of the region feel are important enough to die and kill for. Besides, the fact that they are Muslims is just an accident of history. If they had been of some other faith they would still be using their particular religion to justify their actions, because their religion is the only thing that can empower them to climb out of the desparate straits they find themselves in.
The unfortunately narrow-minded style of the current middle-east conflicts is much like a schoolyard fight between obstinate five-year olds. I hit you, you hit me back. I hit you, you hit me back. I hit you, ad infinitum, ad nasueum. This childish exercise can never end, because as long as there is anyone standing on either side, they will follow the now-traditional course of “I hit you, you hit me back.” There is certainly an element of human nature to this exchange, in that we are a defensive, egoistic race that rather enjoys identifying enemies and entering into battle with them. Still, there is a such an astonishing level of short-sightedness to these proceedings that it staggers me. Can’t anyone see, after all these many years, that it is going nowhere? The conflicts to be resolved in the Middle East are conflicts of ideology, of perceptions, and these can only be resolved by talking. Hezbollah cannot achieve their goal, because they seek the eradication of Israel, which both Isreal itself and the international community will never allow to happen. Therefore, Hezbollah’s goals must change. For that matter, so must Israel’s, who must enter into sincere talks with their hated enemies for any progress to occur. One day it must become obvious to all parties that they will never completely kill off their enemies, and so must start to actually talk to them. The argument that the enemy cannot be trusted and that talks are pointless is precisely what has gotten us into the trouble we are in. Each side mistrusts the other, so if only that criteria were used then no one would ever resolve anything at all. Likewise, America’s current strategy cannot win in Iraq. For victory, the United States requires that the insurgents stop attacking, but America’s very presence and their actions are the fuel that stokes the fires of resentment and hatred that keep the ranks of the insurgency full of eager, even suicidal, recruits. The United States can never kill them all, because for each one they kill, they feed the indignation that keeps more of them coming to die for their cause. It is a simple, and incredibly tragic, mathematical equation. This is the greater truth behind the shallow truth of simply identifying who is attacking us. “Young muslim men” are not the problem. The problem is an atmosphere of narrow-mindedness, arrogance, and religious extremism that are not only at the core of these conflicts, but are also the very reason that these conflicts have never been resolved.
This is an incredibly complex issue, with conflicts and nuances going back many, many centuries. The grudges in the region are deeply ingrained, the social tendencies many and varied. It is far too complex for me to go into specific detail, and I’m far from knowledgable enough in the history of the region. But my point here is not dependent on these details. We need to be very careful of what we read and what we believe, no matter how clear-cut and logical it may seem. The email that sparked all this is not harmful because it’s a lie—it’s harmful because it is partially true, and the small truth that it delivers tricks you into thinking that you understand the greater truth of the problem. That greater truth is that everyone has a viewpoint, and that our personal determination of right and wrong are not reliable points for basing an argument. In today’s world we make villainous charicatures of our adversaries as if they hate us because they are evil and we are virtuous. We act as if enough bombs and bullets could solve the problem by eradicating their evil from the earth. But by viewing the situation in this way, though it may make us feel righteous and pure, in reality it creates a tragic vacuum of communication wherein we can never hope to solve our conflicts in the only way possible—by trying to understand each other. There is much short-sighted reactionism on both sides of any conflict, and plenty of historical and cultural inertia pressing people into acts of violence. But we must resist the blind impulse to fight, to kill, to close our eyes to reason and compassion. We must open our hearts and our minds to each other’s truths, because without an open mind, there can be no hope at all.
August 18, 2006
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved