Paris Terror Attacks

On 2015 November 13, Paris was attacked by Muslim terrorists, and 130 innocent people were killed.

Regie Hamm:
I work in the world of entertainment. My colleagues and I live a life of creativity, philosophizing and experimentation. We build nothing, feed no one, serve no one and provide nothing of life-sustaining value. We are the singers and dancers and circus clowns. And even as we bask in this pointless existence, we have the audacity to pontificate and issue decrees and tell the world where it has gone wrong. Some of us even have the unmitigated gaul to do this from bed (are you listening Russell Brand?)

Most of my contemporaries in the entertainment business are liberal progressives. I’m pretty used to it and I get along with them fine. They are, for the most part, harmless. But what I know that many of them seem to not be able to get their heads around is that we all get to be peevish punks for one reason only …We. Are. Protected.

Free societies don’t just happen on their own. ...

Sam Harris:
Understanding and criticizing the doctrine of Islam—and finding some way to inspire Muslims to reform it—is one of the most important challenges the civilized world now faces. But the task isn’t as simple as discrediting the false doctrines of Muslim “extremists,” because most of their views are not false by the light of scripture. A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran. The reality of martyrdom and the sanctity of armed jihad are about as controversial under Islam as the resurrection of Jesus is under Christianity. It is not an accident that millions of Muslims recite the shahadah or make pilgrimage to Mecca. Neither is it an accident that horrific footage of infidels and apostates being decapitated has become a popular form of pornography throughout the Muslim world. Each of these practices, including this ghastly method of murder, find explicit support in scripture.

But there is now a large industry of obfuscation designed to protect Muslims from having to grapple with these truths. Our humanities and social science departments are filled with scholars and pseudo-scholars deemed to be experts in terrorism, religion, Islamic jurisprudence, anthropology, political science, and other diverse fields, who claim that where Muslim intolerance and violence are concerned, nothing is ever what it seems. ...

Bret Stephens:
We live in the age of the sanctified tantrum—the political and religious furies we dare not name or shame, much less confront.

Students bully college administrators with contrived political demands. The administrators plead they can do better, then capitulate. Incompetent writers pen trite racial screeds aimed at the very society that lifts them above their ability. They are hailed as geniuses. Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination epitomizes the politics of the tantrum. He’s angry as hell, and so is his base. We’re supposed to respect this.

And then there is the tantrum of Islam, another eruption of rage that feeds off our astonishing willingness to indulge it. ...

Naftali Bennett:
Europe, the U.S. and their allies can defeat the terrorists of Islamic State, or ISIS. The first step is making the decision to fight back. The next step is understanding that drones and standoff missiles will not be enough. Ground troops will be needed.

In 2002 Israel went on the offensive in the West Bank cities of Nablus, Jenin, Jericho and Tulkarm, going house-to-house and door-to-door to hunt down Palestinian terror suspects. ...

Some people are going to quibble about the phrase 'Muslim terrorists'. That's just tough. These are invariably the same people who never hesitate to generalize about the people they don't like politically: Republicans, Conservatives, whatever. So you can skip the lecture.

Site Update

I took a hiatus from posting here from the beginning of 2015, and at one point had decided to stop posting here entirely. But the Google stats tell me I'm still getting traffic here, and I've been wanting to get back into political blogging, so here we go.

The Threat of Threats

You'll hear some people point out that statistically, your individual chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is very small - less than your chance of being struck by lightning, or sucked up in a twister, or trampled by a caribou, or whatever.

And that's factually true, but it misses the real threat of terrorism, which is to gradually intimidate society and its institutions into complying with the objectives of the jihadi islamist movement behind the attacks.

By incrementally applying pressure, first here, then there, they hope to erode the resistance of a free society over a period of time. These guys aren't stupid. They are smart, sophisticated, and very very patient. They know what they're doing, and they know that it works.


And what, Gul'Dan, must we give in return?

A teenage Austrian girl who fled to Syria along with her friend is believed to have been beaten to death after being caught trying to flee the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa.

Samra Kesinovic, 17, and her friend Sabina Selimovic became 'poster girls' for ISIS after they arrived in Syria in April 2014.

I don't know what it is about islamist jihadi ideology that appeals to young people from liberal, secular, western backgrounds.

Maybe it's the quest for a strong identity in a world that seems to offer only bland, generic identities.

Maybe it's the dangerous lure of the exotic and the primitive in a world that seems almost too civilized, too comfortable, too safe.

Maybe it's admiration of the ruthless power of the jihadis, or fear of that power, or the desire to put one's money on "the strong horse".

Or maybe it's even simpler than that: the promise of untold wealth and power tomorrow if one will only swear fealty to the Muslim warriors today.

These girls figured out more than a year ago that they had made a terrible mistake. But it was already too late, and there was no turning back.

The Radical

I've recently had the pleasure of reading 'My Year Inside Radical Islam' by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Daveed's book interested me because his journey in some ways paralleled, and in some ways mirrored, my own. And I believe there are also important lessons to be learned about identity, will, and the spread of radical Islam today.

Daveed was born in 1976, into a liberal, secular Jewish family in Ashland, Oregon. They lived at what he describes as "the hippie end of a hippie town" and embraced a spiritual, multicultural ethos. In his activist college days, he became friends with al-Husein Madhany, who would provide Daveed's introduction to Islam. Before long, Daveed embraced the Muslim faith and converted.

Al-Husein's mystical, universalistic, Sufi-oriented brand of Islam appealed to Daveed. But as he became more deeply involved in Islam through the Al-Haramain Foundation, he quickly became exposed to a very different side of the faith - one bitterly opposed to the message of people like Al-Husein.

I recommend reading the book to find out how Daveed found his way out of radical Islam, and came to embrace another faith.

I found DGR's book fascinating on a number of levels, some of them personal. Like Daveed, I'm a convert, but not to Islam or Christianity. Born in suburban New England about half a generation earlier than Daveed, I grew up in a home that, apart from my family's lack of Jewish roots, sounds similar to Daveed's in a lot of ways. My parents were nominally Unitarian Universalists, who had broken away from their conservative Christian upbringings and met in a Unitarian church. As a young adult I became interested in Judaism, learning Hebrew and attending Jewish services (first Reform and Conservative, later Orthodox) from my late teens to early twenties. At 25 I had an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

But I want to get back to DGR's book. Reading 'My Year Inside Radical Islam', I was struck by the way the fanatical Salafi stream of Islam drove out the milder Sufi and Nashqibandi strains - and I was reminded of my friend Michael Totten's book 'Where the West Ends'. Totten traveled throughout eastern Europe and western Asia, along the fault-lines of cultures. He witnessed many things, including the inexorable advance of radical Islam against the moderate forms of the religion. In my review of the book I wrote that

There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. ...

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav - and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not - as Westerners sometimes imagine - a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

And I think that that's the same thing Daveed Gartenstein-Ross witnessed in his time in the world of Islam.

My own relationship to religion is complicated and better suited to another post. But I do want to bring up Natan Sharansky's central insight from his book 'Defending Identity':

"The enemy's will is strong because his identity is strong. And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own."

The widely-accepted fallacy is that "conflicts arise because of religious dogma, so if we get rid of religious dogma we'll reduce conflicts". But the danger in having no fixed set of doctrines is that you can easily get drawn into all kinds of crazy stuff. And that's as true today as it was when Daveed was in college.

Devotion to a good doctrine can give you the strength and the faith to reject bad ones. What you believe matters.


Freedom and Power

I've been posting for eleven years at Dreams Into Lightning on Blogger. I'm now moving my current events and political writing onto Freedom and Power at WordPress. All my new posts will appear there.


General Nagata and the Secret Sauce

 WASHINGTON — Maj. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, commander of American Special Operations forces in the Middle East, sought help this summer in solving an urgent problem for the American military: What makes the Islamic State so dangerous?
In the space of two short paragraphs, the NYT uses the words "decipher', "complex", "conundrum", "brain", "professors", "understand", and "idea" - in connection with a savage, sadistic enemy that rapes and tortures children.

This is the language of intellectuals whose only weapons are their intellects and their immense self-regard.

There is a time for intellect and reflection; and there is a time for courage and action. The sad irony here is that these geniuses are precisely the people who will NEVER understand the Islamic State. It is too simple for them to grasp.


I found the intellectualism of the Times' approach off-putting, but I want to focus here on what I take to be the substance of Gen. Nagata's comments.  I'll begin at the end: 

“When I watch Americans use words like cowardly, barbaric, murder, outrageous, shocking, etc., to describe a violent extremist organization’s actions, we are playing right into the enemy’s hands,” General Nagata added. “They want us to become emotional. They revel in being called murderers when the words are coming from an apostate.”

There are three components to this quote:  (1) "playing into the enemy's hands" i.e. the assumption that if the enemy wants us to do something, it is in our interest to do the opposite; (2) "they want us to become emotional" and therefore respond with rash, ill-considered action; and (3) "they revel in being called murderers [by] an apostate" because this is an indication that they're fighting an effective war against an an enemy they hold in contempt.

In general, you want to do the opposite of what the enemy wants you to do; but if you have reason to believe you can win a confrontation and that the enemy underestimates your capabilities, then you and the enemy want the same thing:  you both want a confrontation.  If you have capabilities that the enemy doesn't know about or underestimates, then it's in your interest to do what the enemy wants, and it would be just as logical to speak of the enemy playing into your hands.  That Gen. Nagata presents this scenario in purely reactive terms is, I think, unfortunate.

Clearly a calculated decision is more likely to represent sound judgment than an emotional one.  But an emotional - or I would say gut-level - response to a threat is basically one of two things:  fight or flight.  The enemy prefers the latter because it makes their job easier:  they can then enslave and butcher us at their leisure with minimal cost or risk to themselves.  The enemy "want us to become emotional" precisely to the extent that they assume this will be our response, and their early experience with the Iraqi Army no doubt confirmed this assumption.  We gain the advantage precisely to the extent that we defy the assumption.

It is perfectly reasonable for any army to value a reputation for toughness.  Combat involves killing and soldiers are not babysitters.  When the enemy embraces an ethic (for want of a better word) utterly different from our own, we should not be surprised that they take pride in being called murderers, as it signifies both their effectiveness and their indifference to our cultural standards.  Yet all of this seems to be a conundrum for Gen. Nagata.

Returning to the question of "playing into the enemy's hands", I would say that the enemy's interests are served just as well when we busy ourselves with endless hairsplitting and deliberation.  By Nagata's own admission, he does not understand the movement, or even its "idea", and therefore is not even close to defeating the enemy.

A general who wants to "engage in a long-term conversation" does not fill me with confidence.  This is an admirable trait for a debating society, less so for an army.


It looks to me like Gen. Nagata - along with a lot of other smart people - is trying to find the "secret sauce" of Islamic State's success.  There is nothing wrong with that, I just don't think it is all that complicated.  You can control people pretty easily if you terrorize them enough. 

I think a more interesting and more productive approach would be to find the secret of those who have successfully resisted - notably the Kurds.  It seems that a strong cultural identity is a key ingredient.

"The enemy's will is strong because his identity is strong.  And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own."  This is Natan Sharansky's thesis in 'Defending Identity' (preface, p. x), and I think it's an important idea for us now.

Sharansky explores the perceived conflict between identity and liberty, and refutes the liberal fallacy that "nationalism leads to oppression, so we must erase all forms of national or group identity".  On the contrary, Sharansky asserts:  "Despite our profound differences, we recognized that to successfully defend the values most dear to us, we had to make sure that others were strong enough to defend theirs."  (Sharansky, p.41.)  Among Sharansky's closest allies in the Soviet prison camp were evangelical Christians.

Michael J. Totten observed - back in 2006 - that "the Kurdistan Regional Government actually provides money and housing for Arab Christians who want to pick up and resettle in the north."  ('In the Wake of the Surge', p. 31.)  This suggests to me that the Kurds as a culture have internalized Sharansky's insight. 

I don't know if there is a "secret sauce" for Kurdish success, but if there is, I think its ingredients include a sense of identity.  I think Americans have a long-established sense of national identity that incorporates this insight.  Perhaps Iraqis, as a nation, have yet to develop it.  Perhaps they can learn it from the Kurds.


Happy New Year

Or Sylvester as it's known in some parts.  Ring out the old, ring in the new, and don't do anything dethpicable.