Judging people by their code of ethics is not tribalism

June 15, 2016 by  

2016-06-15-forthoodIn the aftermath of the Orlando massacre of June 12, 2016, the Ayn Rand Institute’s Elan Journo has written an article in which he condemns the positions of the presumptive presidential nominees of the two biggest political parties in the USA. Journo accuses both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump of failing “to understand the centrality of philosophic ideas in animating the jihadist cause”, and he sums-up Trump’s proposed ban on immigration by Muslims as “tribalism”. I am sympathetic about what he says about Clinton, but I think he gets this one wrong with respect to Trump.

First, my sympathy. With respect to Clinton, Journo writes:

“The same is true of a variation of the Clintonian narrative, which puts even greater emphasis on mental illness. People who are mentally ill, writes Jeet Heer in The New Republic, can be drawn to an “extremist ideology,” so, a “mental-health framework has to be a key part of the solution no less than other policy initiatives” — at least on par with everything else. We can agree that many factors are at play in explaining the actions of a given individual. But it is a serious mistake to downgrade ideology as just one factor among many, precisely because of its immense power over people’s minds, a fact evident in umpteen jihadist attacks. (Besides, you can make a strong claim that espousing jihadist doctrine is kind of detachment from reality: for example, what else can it mean to seek “martyrdom”?)

These prevailing views get the jihadists wrong. We need to grasp that fundamentally the jihadists are moved by the ideas they accept and choose to act on.”

Absolutely correct. Hitler wasn’t a “madman”. He was an evil man, and to deny that judgment of him – to write him off as merely “mad” – is to whitewash Naziism. Hitler was evil because of his philosophy. The same is true of Islamic terrorists. They murder not because their brains are broken, but because they zealously follow their religion, literally – literally, because it is believed by them to be the word of Allah, and not some pope’s interpretation of what god meant – including its calls for attack or murder.

Now, on to my disagreement with Journo’s essay, which concerns the nature of tribalism. Journo writes:

“The view Trump put forward, which appeals to many people, is meant to sound like a serious, factual account. “We are importing Radical Islamic Terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system.” Because Trump has frequently mouthed the words “radical Islam,” some people believe this view constitutes plain-speaking. But instead of conceptualizing the enemy as an ideological movement — one that people join because they choose to embrace particular ideas and doctrines — the account Trump has voiced negates the role of ideas. Essentially, it is a tribalist outlook, dividing the world into us vs. them — America vs. the outsiders.

But it turns out that the killer in Orlando was born — like Trump himself — in New York. Revealingly, the blame is put on the fact that the killer’s parents were Afghan immigrants: “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.” That applies equally to generations of Americans, the vast majority of whom were law abiding citizens. So for Trump, the blame falls on the killer’s outsider bloodline. His parents came from a faraway land, so he is forever an outsider; his beliefs and chosen actions are irrelevant. On this view, the tag “radical Islam” turns out to be vacuous: far from designating a substantive conception of the jihadist cause, in fact it serves as a shorthand for tribalist bigotry against outsiders (which manifests as outright racism when Trump applies it to Hispanics).”

I think Journo’s argument misses the point when it comes to Trump’s proposed policy against Muslim immigration. Yes, some will-be murderers are motivated by Islam, but so are the many many more won’t-be murderers. Recognizing that the motive is religious itself gets one nowhere, if one is responsible for dealing with immigration policy in a situation where it is impossible to know whether or not a person will one day go from being a peaceful physician (or a colleague for whom a baby shower has just been held) to suddenly carrying out a religiously-motivated mass murder.

I do not follow U.S. politics closely, but I can assure you that it is not insignificant for the presidential candidate (or for the leader) of a major political party to identify “radical Islam” as the problem. The denial that religion has anything to do with mass shootings – by Muslims yelling “Allahu Akbar” as they murder large numbers of Jews, or homosexuals, etc. – has been a problem, everywhere, for decades. “Radical Islam” refers to the essential problem both because it mentions a religion (i.e., the religion in question) and because of the very nature of the word “radical”: going to the root; to the fundamental; to the essence. Dress codes and dietary requirements are not the root or essence of any religion. Murdering the infidel, in contrast, is a defence of the essence of Islam which is: total submission to the will of Allah. Compare the term “radical Islam” to the various non-essential or misleading terms one sees/hears, like “political Islam”. Demanding complete submission to the will of Allah is all political. How you treat another person is politics, whether or not you do it through a government. “Islamism” is calculated falsely to suggest that we’re talking about an “ism” that isn’t simply Islam. It’s not at all a bad thing – and is a significant and good thing – for a politician essentially to point out that the problem is people who take Islam seriously, right down to the fundamentals, without exception…in other words: radically Islamic people of any genetic make-up or language or place of origin.

Nor is it “tribalism” to keep a person out of one’s country on the basis of the would-be immigrant’s religion. Yes, tribalism is a form of collectivism, and to judge an individual by his/her non-chosen qualities (e.g., the colour of his skin, his/her sex, etc.) is unjust. However, religion is not an unchosen quality, and it is not unjust to judge a person by the choices he or she makes. To suggest that treating all adherents of Islam the same way is “tribalism” is to suggest that it is unjust to judge a person by his/her chosen religious beliefs. And, to suggest that is to suggest that it is unjust to judge a person by their deep-seated political ideology; that it is unjust to judge a person evil on the basis he/she is a Nazi, or a communist, etc., because “Well, he/she might not act on the Naziism or communism he/she holds so dear”. To judge each individual by his/her adherence to Islam is not to judge Muslims as a collective. It is to judge each individual according to his/her code of good and evil, virtue and vice. The fact that many individuals have the same code – e.g., Islam – does not make judging each of them accordingly – because of that code – “tribalism”. One million eager Nazis were all evil, because they were all eager Nazis, not because they were a deindividualized collective.

To write-off the importance of allowing the immigration of the Orlando murderer’s parents – to imply racism with words like “bloodline” – is also an error. Blood is not chosen, but religion is.

The notion Journo is conjuring up is “well, it could have been the case that the Orlando murderer would not have adopted his parents religion, and grown up a good happy Objectivist, so: tribalism.” That’s wrong for at least four reasons. One: it isn’t the case that he did not adopt his parents religion. Two: it is the case that most people are brought up in the religion (if any) that their parents practice, and a significant percentage just stick with that religion until they die (much as most people will vote red, or vote blue, for their entire lives without giving much thought to the policies or politicians in their party). Three: it is the case that had the Orlando murderer’s parents – and the Orlando murderer – been denied entry to the USA due to a policy against immigration by practicioners of Islam, there would not have been the Orlando murders. And, four: had the Orlando murderer’s parents been denied entry for practicing Islam, and had the Orlando murderer – while abroad – dropped Islam and found Objectivism (or Judaism, or Catholicism, etc.), he would not be denied entry to the USA under a policy against Muslim immigration.

So long as a person chooses to hold the same ideology that motivates Islamic terrorism – by previously peaceful people, every day or week or month – one is simply telling everyone “Given the acts of other people who are motivated by the religion I hold dear, it is possible, if improbable, that I’m a ticking timebomb, but until I murder someone, you’ll never know”. What do you do with a such a statement? For a policy maker, there are only two choices: “Come on in, we’ll take our chances” or “Come back when you’ve dropped your religion, because we’re done taking chances with that religion”. How many thousands of Americans have to be murdered in the USA, on account of Islam, before one decides it’s fair to draw the line?

As far as I’m concerned, the person who says “I’m a devout communist, and I want to immigrate to the USA” is a person who should be told, simply: “No”. The fact that most communists in the USA (and there are many…witness the Bernie Sanders phenomenon…but also the Hillary Clinton phenomenon) won’t be “radical” enough to do what the radical leftist Weather Underground Organization did (bombings etc) does not mean that one should have an open-door policy to communists. Exactly what is the upside for the USA and its future?

Note that I’m not making a blanket statement about the author, or other things he has written, and I admire him considerably for all he does for the cause of reason and freedom. I just think he’s got it wrong, on this count, in terms of whether a ban on Muslim immigration qualifies as tribalism.


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