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Clean Hands

December 23, 2014
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Iran in the 60s.

I don’t necessarily want to be involved in a protracted slanging match with anyone, so I have closed comments on this. I just want to give my perspective, having listened to a lot of very clever people, and fall back into silence.

I never cease to be amazed in debates about religious extremism at home and abroad by how binary people’s views are and how certain everyone is of their own position being right. I admire that certainty, really. Although it is at the root of the problem, I have a weird envy for it. My uncertainty keeps me up at night.

All those binary arguments – both ways – only work of course, if one sees “The West” as one homogenous, secular (but on the quiet, Christian, really) organism and Islam as another such organism. Which they are obviously not. There are all kinds of Muslims and all kinds of Christians. There is as big a chasm between Jihadi John and, say, a progressive Islamic scholar (chased out of Iran by a regime our governments initially nurtured) as there is between the Reverend Richard Cole and Anders Breivik.

These kinds of binary realities also work only if one examines our own conduct only from year Q, when we the West in our munificence decided that women were no longer chattels, date W when we decided not to incarcerate homosexuals, date E when last a European nation engaged in ethnic cleansing against Muslims (remember Serbrenica?), date R when we last illegally invaded someone, date T etc. And, in the grand scheme of things, all those QWERTY dates are really bloody close. Too close to be speaking with such haughty moral authority.

So, perhaps we could start by acknowledging that this is a multifaceted and multilayered issue. Or perhaps we could leave room for the possibility instead of shouting “TRAITOR!” at anyone who dare point out that we are where we are (and where we are is pretty ugly) because of behaviour on both sides of this awful, global conflict.

I see people on many discussion strings, who keep referring to Islamic countries as “Bronze Age” nations. Well, you may well be right. But if they were Bronze Age nations armed with spears, the extent of the damage they could cause and size of threat they would pose would be different to what it is. Instead, they are Bronze Age nations with 2014 weapons which we sold to them and CONTINUE, actively, to sell to them.

Extremism of any kind is abhorrent and must be fought. ALL extremism. Some nut who thinks he will go to heaven by killing people in a French market is the product of a set of values. Some nut who thinks he is Batman and shoots lots of people in a cinema is the product of another set of values. Accentuating certain aspects of the ugly, violent world in which we find ourselves, while ignoring others, is like throwing sand in our own faces in the middle of a fight.

Please point to a single historical example in which ignorance has been effectively combatted with hatred, or autocracy, or illiberty, or anything other than education. Please point to a single historical example where a war started or grew because of too much compassion. These are genuine requests – there may be some and I may be being foolish. I am open to that possibility, always.

There is a Common Law concept which is useful here. In order for a claimant to seek the protection of the court, they must come with “clean hands”. Do we come to this problem with clean hands? It seems to me, we keep providing nations which have poor levels of education, economic development, democracy, justice, equality, human rights – all the indications of what we see as maturity – with state-of-the-art implements of violence. We are then always, always, always shocked and dismayed when they turn to violence. Meanwhile we count those weapon sales as part of our own civilised economic growth – weapons which we know may at some point kill our own soldiers. We cannot deny entire populations their democratic expression, by buying up their governments and then act surprised when the balloon bulges elsewhere and in a particularly ugly way.

This is not to suggest that those who break our laws and take lives should be given anything less than the harshest treatment our democratic society will allow. All I am saying is that it is not either/or. It is not EITHER fight IS and root out extremist groups OR look at patterns in our own behaviour which perpetuate violence. Let’s do both. Only by both sides taking ownership of their behaviour and the aspects of it which have brought us to this stage can we find a lasting solution. Why say “yeah, right, they will never do that” when you haven’t done so yourself?

It is all too easy and convenient to just say “these people are religious nutters”, press a button, dispatch a drone and hope that *somehow* it’ll all work out THIS time. What was that misattributed quote about insanity being repeating the same action over and over again but expecting different results? It has never worked.

Seeking to affect someone else’s behaviour – in this case, “Islam” – is always a much taller order than changing our own. The simplest way to stop a reciprocally violent relationship is to extricate yourself from that cycle. Why not do that? Why not start with clean hands?

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