Mark Durie explains the Progressive world view of “Universalism” and “Relativism” and way it shapes the Obama administration’s policy regarding Islam. The cognitive dissonance created by this world view and the coping mechanisms employed to maintain it are explored. This is how we have ended up with an insane foreign policy that not only tolerates but values the Islamic culture over our own. This is how we end up with rules of engagement in Afghanistan that value the lives of our enemy over our own soldiers. This is how we end up with a foreign policy that has aligned us with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.This is how we end up with a dead Ambassador in Benghazi. And this is why the Obama administration thinks it’s a good thing to help usher in the rise of the modern Islamic Caliphate.
Wilders in Australia and the “Islamic Problem” – Part II, by Mark Durie, May 29, 2013
This is the second in a four part series of posts written in response to Geert Wilders’ visit to Australia in early 2013.
In a previous post I contrasted Geert Wilders’ view that ‘Islam is the problem’ with the claims of many Muslims who preach with equal conviction that ‘Islam is the solution’, and examined evidence of the negative characteristics associated with belief in Islam, including disadvantaged human development outcomes.
These days many leaders in the West find it convenient to sweep the ‘problem’ of Islam under the carpet. Long gone are the days of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilders’ hero, who declared in Fear God and take your own part that values such as freedom and equality only existed in Europe because it had the military capacity to ‘beat back the Moslem invader’.
However, given the negative outcomes associated with Islam, one of which is Geert Wilders’ need for constant armed guards (some others were enumerated in the previous post), the question whether Islam is the problem or the solution is not something to be just swept under the carpet.
In the fourth and final post of this series we will consider Wilders’ policies for managing ‘the problem’. The third post, the next after this, will review an on-going dispute between critics of Islam as to whether there can be a moderate, tolerable form of Islam. On one side stand those, like Wafa Sultan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Robert Spencer, who consider Islam to be essentially irredeemable. On the other side stand those, like Daniel Pipes and Barry Rubin, who argue that there are different Islams and the ‘solution’ to radical Islam is moderate Islam.
Of course there are many opinions about Islam. In this, the second post in this series, we consider two widely-held secular – and positive – perspectives on Islam which have been influential in shaping the response of secular-minded westerners to Islam. These are universalism and relativism.
Relativism holds that no one religion is true, but as different as they are, all religions are equally valid in their own way, and the differences deserve respect.
Universalism — in the sense used here — holds that the core of religions consists of a set of positive ethical values shared by all people and all faiths.
For many western secular people, universalism and relativism are so deeply embedded in their world view that they have no choice but to process Islam through the grid of these belief systems. This means they pre-judge Islam by limiting their understanding only to what their frame permits them to see. What they observe is not Islam as it really is, but as it appears through the window frame of their own beliefs. They see Islam as their world view tells them it must be.
Clinton’s answer to the evils of extremists — defined as those who believe in religious truth — is respect. If we extend respect to the beliefs of others, treating them as worthy and valid and allowing their beliefs and practices breathing space, she believes these others are more likely to act moderately, and not adopt extremist positions:
“I think the more respect there is for the freedom of religion, the more people will find useful ways to participate in their societies. If they feel suppressed, if there is not that safety valve that they can exercise their own religion, they then oftentimes feel such anger, despair that they turn to violence. They become extremists.”
For Clinton extremism is a vicious circle. The extremist A disrespects the beliefs of B, with the result that B feels such ‘anger’ and ‘despair’ that they become extremists in their turn, disrespecting the beliefs of others. This vicious circle can be broken and turned into a virtuous circle if A chooses to respect B’s beliefs. This respect will help B feel good about themselves, with the result that they become happy and self-confident, renounce extremist ways, and extend respect to others in their turn.
One problem with Clinton’s approach is that it is underpinned by a naive view of human nature. Some oppressive religious ideologies command respect, but are allergic to reciprocating it. If you offer one hand to a hungry lion, there is no guarantee he won’t like the taste of it and devour your other hand as well.
A deeper issue is that ideas do matter. Truth is not only the prerogative of science. Good ideas deserve vigorous support, including theological ideas. Conversely, bad ideas equally deserve to be rejected and refuted. False ideas should be opposed. Some religious beliefs do not deserve respect and it is reasonable to judge some religious beliefs to be true or false. For example, it is not ‘extremism’ to reject or even condemn the religious belief that Usama Bin Ladin is in paradise enjoying his virgins. It is not ‘extremism’ to be certain that the Koran is not the word of God.
The unspoken thesis woven throughout Clinton’s whole message is that the content of Islamic belief is not the problem. For Clinton, ‘tolerance’ means respecting the beliefs of others as valid, including and especially Islam. Renouncing belief in any ultimate truth, while embracing respect for all ‘legitimate religious differences’ is to her the real solution to the problem of religious freedom, and the yardstick of valid religious belief and practice.
Clinton embodies her own recipe for coexistence. She manifests respect for Islam by not criticizing it, apparently in the hope that this will move persecuting Islamic governments towards a less ‘extreme’ — i.e. more relativistic — position like her own.
Clinton’s remedy for religious intolerance is also official US policy. The Obama administration chooses to respect, tolerate and protect Islam as an official tactic to encourage Muslims to be more tolerant and less ‘extreme’.
The risk of this strategy is that it can minimize instances of Islamic persecution and conceal its causes. This all too easily ends up becoming collusion. For example, one of the most disappointing features of Clinton’s 2012 religious freedom speech was that the US Government’s 2011 Religious Freedom Report failed to identify Egypt and Pakistan as a ‘countries of particular concern’ for religious freedom, despite all the evidence. The most plausible explanation is that the Obama Administration did not want to ‘humiliate’ their Islamist allies – inciting them to ‘anger’ and ‘despair’ – so it downplayed their prevailing patterns of religious persecution deeply rooted in Islamic dogma.
President Obama also looks at the world through universalist eyes. This was reflected in his 2009 Cairo speech in which he stated that Islam’s values are American values:
“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
Universalism comes under pressure from the cognitive dissonance caused by the fact that people of sincere faith actually promote and live out vastly diverse values, many of which certainly would not agree with Fraser’s personal conception of universal ‘human values’. One true believer divests themselves of all their possessions to devote their life to helping the poor. Another flies a plane into a skyscraper to kill thousands. Both believers are equally sincere. They differ, not in the intensity of their beliefs, but in what their beliefs consist of. It is their contrasting, not held-in-common values which cause them to act in completely opposite ways.
(The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ was coined in 1957 by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter in When Prophecy Fails, a study of a UFO cult’s coping mechanisms when an expected apocalypse failed to eventuate.)
Managing Cognitive Dissonance: Coping Strategies
There is a cost in retaining a belief which cannot be easily reconciled with reality. The relativist and the universalist need to deploy a range of coping strategies to help them hang on to their failing world views.
One strategy is to avoid being confronted with information which could make the feelings of dissonance worse. One does not expect Malcolm Fraser spends much time browing the hadiths of Muhammad.
Another coping strategy is to demonize a bearer of bad news. Thus it can be reassuring and self-comforting for Geert Wilders to be vilified as ‘extreme right wing’. The passion of the accusation is a reflection of the depth of the anxiety standing behind it.
Another strategy is to shift blame. I have many times given addresses on the Koranic motivation for violence, after which someone in the audience has stood up and asked “What about the crusades: Christians have been violent too!” So true, but this is quite irrelevant to the challenge of understanding and engaging with Islam’s doctrines. This deflection has a purely emotional function, as it serves to reduce cognitive dissonance: by diverting attention away from stress-inducing information about Islam, it helps relieve a person of the responsibility to make a moral judgement about Islam which has challenging and perhaps frightening implications.
Sometimes blame-shifting means searching around for a surrogate cause. This was the coping mechanism played out after the Fort Hood Massacre, when Major Nidal Hasan, acting in accordance with jihad principles he had so clearly expounded in a medical seminar attacked and killed 13 fellow soldiers. After the event, President Obama pleaded with Americans not to ‘jump to conclusions’ saying, “we cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing.” Newsweek’s Evan Thomas opined ‘he’s probably just a nut case.’
Sometimes blame shifting can involve constructing elaborate alternative narratives. An example is the claim that the Palestinian conflict is the underlying cause of global jihad terrorism. Hence Malcolm Fraser’s claim that the West’s support for Israel perpetuates a breeding ground for terrorism:
“… the West’s one-sided policies relating to Israel and Palestine … is an abscess which breeds terrorists and will do so until there is a viable two-state solution.
This view can be understood as an elaborate coping mechanism for managing the cognitive dissonance caused by the problem of Islamic violence, a phenomenon which however predates the formation of the modern state of Israel by 1400 years.
President Bush’s public statement after the 9/11 atrocity that “Islam is Peace” (implying that the attackers were not genuine Muslims and were not motivated by Islam) is another example.
Suppression of cognitive dissonance is not merely an individual experience. It can be an epidemic, a mass psychosis, as coping mechanisms are replicated across newspapers, board rooms, government policies, talkback radio shows, family gathering and internet forums. For example, the rising hatred being directed against Israel across Europe is a societal response to manage the cognitive dissonance — and fear — caused by the rise of supremacist Islam.
When the Obama administration banned the use of the expressions ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ in discussions of terrorist threats by its security officials, this was an institutional form of deligitimizing and veiling the well-attested religious motivations of terrorists. This illustrates how a cognitive coping mechanism can be played out at the highest levels of government, even through deliberate policy decisions, and filter down to change the thought patterns of society.
When newspapers and police forces repeatedly suppress Islamic motivations of crimes (see here and here) — whether in Egypt or in the West – this is a manifestation of a coping mechanism which has become a cultural trait.
Denial can be comforting. It spares one the trauma and hard work of engaging with realities which do not fit with cherished and deeply held personal beliefs, and few things are more personal than one’s beliefs about religion. But will it deliver peace and harmony?
The problem is that the relativist and universalist belief systems are not reasonable. They are not credible. Not being truth-based, and relying on prejudice, they demand intense, constant and costly management of cognitive dissonance. Truth is the first casualty of these coping strategies, which result in bad policy, and poor strategies which only serve to empower and cover for enemies of freedom and truth.
Shameful, painful examples abound. Consider Major Nidal Hassan, the jihadi-for-a-day, who continues to draw an army salary while the Pentagon persists in mis-classifying his killing spree, performed while shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’, as ‘workplace violence’. One consequence is that his wounded victims have not been granted benefits normally available to those injured in combat, such as Purple Heart retirement and preferential medical support.