Items filtered by date: March 2017

It’s no secret that stoking the fear of “Islamic terrorism” was one element of candidate Trump’s successful campaign and the prime motivation behind his attempt (so far unsuccessful) to ban travel to the US from six Muslim nations.

That fear is real. In the 2016 Survey of American Fears, Chapman University found that people’s top fear was “government corruption” (60.6%). Next came a terrorist attack on the nation (41%); then “not enough money” (39.9%); then “victim of terrorism” (38.5%).

Spoiler alert: leading US terrorism expert Jessica Stern (Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University) estimates that your chances of being killed by a Muslim terrorist are about the same as being killed by lightning. Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt wrote in January 2017 that your chances of being killed by a terrorist in one year are one in three million. By comparison, your chances of dying of cancer this year are one in 600.

Naturally, there is a lot more to say about this topic. But at least you can breathe a sigh of relief before you read on :-).

This blog post is the result of my local library doing a series of talks entitled “Making Sense of Current Events.” I was privileged to kick off the series with this topic and it was well attended. This then is a shortened version of what I presented via Powerpoint.


A/ Islamic-related terrorism will continue

Since 2015 there has been a string of attacks in the West:

  • Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 2015, 17 killed
  • Paris attacks, Nov. 2015, 137
  • San Bernardino attack, Dec. 2015, 14
  • Brussels attacks, March 2016, 34
  • Orlando night club shooting, June 2016, 49
  • Nice truck attack, July 2016, 84
  • Berlin Christmas market attack, Dec. 2016, 12
  • London car & knife attack, March 22, 5

But this shouldn’t keep us from seeing the big picture: since the 9/11/2001 attacks the vast majority of victims have been Muslims themselves (easily 9 out of 10), with the following breakdown:

  • 75% in 25 Muslim-majority nations (126,016)
  • 2.2% in US & Western Europe (3, 689)
  • 22.4% in rest of the world (37, 516)
  • Total: 167, 221 dead

Also, it helps to gain some historical perspective. Post-WWII there have been three waves of terrorism:


a) 1960s & 1970s: the epicenter was in Europe and less in US (wars in Algeria, Vietnam, Northern Ireland); during that period 5,000 people died from terror attacks in France, and around 3,000 in Ireland/UK

b) 1980s: a shift to Latin America w/ insurgencies in Peru, El Salvador and Columbia

c) 1990s till now: Muslim-majority nations of the MENA region and South Asia; it all started in the 1980s with the Afghan mujhadeen's successful guerilla warfare against the USSR in part thanks to US money and arms


Furthermore, according to Massod Farivar, writing for the Voice of America, the distribution of terror attacks shows that it is much more about political instability than about religion. The authors of the 2015 Global Terrorism Index Report indicate that “less than 0.6 per cent of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict and any form of political terror.” Consider too that whereas over 50,000 died from terrorism in Iraq since 2001, only six died in Malaysia.

Right now from Iraq to Pakistan it’s mostly a sectarian war. Sunnis are killing Shiites and one of the driving forces in the region is the Saudi-Iranian rivalry being played out in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But locally, it’s also about political power. Farivar quotes Columbia University’s ME historian Richard Bulliet:


At its core, the violence is part of a broader struggle over power in predominantly Sunni societies where questions over political and religious authority as well as the relationship between religion and modernity linger unsettled decades after European colonial rule and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With Sunnism collapsing as a unifying state institution, Islamists have turned to religion to combat authoritarian regimes…. Sunni Islam… is falling apart drastically, and I think this is the source of a great deal of the violence. Ultimately, that’s the problem: If you have an entrenched state, can you get rid of it without violence? If you don’t believe that’s a possibility, then violence becomes the alternative option.”


At the same time, al-Qaeda and ISIS (after its territory is gone) will go on targeting the US, according to the December 2016 report, “The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, al-Qaeda and Beyond.” Published by the US Institute of Peace, this was a work of collaboration among twenty top academics and specialists in this field. They begin with this general statement:


“The United States alone has spent trillions of dollars—in military campaigns, intelligence, law enforcement, homeland security, and diplomacy—to counter jihadism. Progress has been made; fewer than a hundred people were killed inside the United States between 2001 and late 2016—in stark contrast to the death toll on 9/11. Yet the threat endures.”


Regarding ISIS, the report states that even with the loss of its actual caliphate, it will still retain some appeal. It likely will “endure for years to come as a pure insurgency using terrorist tactics. It revolutionized mobilization of supporters and sympathizers in the West, a lasting legacy as well as a future threat.”

More ominously, al-Qaeda retains its particular brand and has expanded as a network of affiliated organizations in North Africa, the ME, West Africa, South Asia and the Caucasus. Additionally, it is well entrenched in Yemen. The report adds, “Al-Qaeda has played the long game, and it may prove to be a more enduring model than the Islamic State.”

Do not think that the rivalry between the two organizations will undermine the jihadi cause in the world. Though it’s possible they will skirmish here and there, it’s more likely that they will divide up the task, if only by default:


“The two movements have complementary effects on the global jihadi Salafist network, however. They are both exploiting disenfranchised or disillusioned Sunni youth in the Middle East and abroad. They are both undermining the existing state system and contributing to expanding wars in the region. They are both normalizing the belief that violent jihad is necessary in order to defend the Sunni community globally.”


[If you are unsure about what the Salafi movement represents, read this blog of mine, “The Global Salafi Phenomenon.” It is mostly an apolitical movement which does not engage in violence and which is distinct, yet ideologically very similar to Saudi Wahhabism. Yet as the attacks of 9/11 showed, the leap from peaceful Salafism to Salafi-jihadism is not a great one. Fifteen of the nineteen attackers were Saudi.]

Here are some bullet points I will give you from their section on how to defeat jihadism:


1) It’s a complex phenomenon shaped by “a confluence of trends”: “ideological, geostrategic, sectarian, demographic, economic, and social”

2) “Military means can disrupt, but they can’t permanently dismantle or reverse a trend initially spawned by deep political discontent.”

3) International cooperation and local partnerships are needed, but often require compromises (think of working with a quasi-dictatorship in Egypt)

4) “Marginalizing extremism requires creating a political environment in which jihadism has less and less appeal over time.” Some form of democracy support is crucial.

5) Jihadist movements do everything to entrap foreign powers fighting a futile battle on their own turf. Don’t take the bait! The greater the violence the greater their ability to recruit!

6) Much of the strategy will have to work on reconciling the sectarian divide. But I add: what do you do with the Iran/Saudi grand game in the ME?

7) Pay attention to the human factors: spend money on aid with a long-term strategy, like attending to social dislocation and internally displaced persons in war zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen).

8) Be aware of ISIS’ propaganda at home. If Muslim youth feel battered by discriminatory policies and prejudice, they may be more vulnerable to this propaganda.


In their conclusion (“Future Jihads”) we read:


“The pace of change in the Middle East is unprecedented. So is the range of possible future jihadi threats. No single analytical framework or model suffices to predict the future. Anticipating the next conflict zone—and particularly the next phase of jihadi extremism—is difficult. Extremist organizations quickly morph and adapt tactics—often faster than large bureaucracies and major armies. The reality is that jihadis may always be one step ahead.”


B/ The risk of CBRN terrorism

There is a wealth of writings on terrorism, from books to hundreds of articles in specialized journals. I wanted to give you at least a taste of a 2011 article written by Gregory D. Koblentz (George Mason U.), “Predicting Peril or the Peril of Prediction?”, published in Terrorism and Political Violence 23 (pp. 501-520).

CBRN stands for “chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear” weapons. Concern for the proliferation of these weapons blasted to the top of national security priorities in 1995 after three incidents occurred in close proximity:


1) The Aum Shinrikyo cult used the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subway (11 killed, 1,000s injured)

2) Oklahoma bombing (3 weeks later), 168 killed

3) A white supremacist arrested for fraudulently ordering samples of Yersinia pestis (the bacteria that causes the plague) through the mail


Next, Koblentz uses the Department of Defense definition of terrorism, “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

How is "risk" defined when it comes to CBRN terrorism? Koblentz says risk is the convergence of three factors:


“In the study of terrorism, risk is commonly conceived of as the function of the threat posed by a terrorist group, a chosen target’s vulnerability to attack, and the consequences of a successful attack on the target.”


Among specialists, you find roughly three camps, he says. The “optimists” emphasize the low probability of this kind of attack occurring. The “pessimists” aver that the risk is low, but growing in terms of its probability and the grievous nature of its consequences. Finally, the pragmatists refrain from making any kind of judgment and simply follow the evidence one way or the other.

Most of the article is about evaluating the role of human judgment, “the influence of mental shortcuts (called heuristics) and the systemic errors they create (called biases) on the risk assessment process.” But you ask, “why can’t you just follow the evidence? Don’t facts speak for themselves?” Actually they do not, at least not very clearly. Look at the following examples based on mathematical models:


a) Matthew Bunn asserts that there’s a 3% risk of CBRN terrorism per year

b) John Mueller concludes that it’s one in a million!


Plainly, Koblentz opines, “Different experts using the same model can come up with radically different estimates of the threat. Despite the use of mathematical formula and statistical analyses, these types of quantitative risk assessments remain reliant on the judgment of experts. As a result, they remain susceptible to the biases discussed above.”

But these wildly different conclusions greatly impact the real world. In the decade between 2001 and 2011, the US spent $60 billion on building defenses against biological terrorism. Many critics noted that this expenditure took funds away from the necessary research on immediate health threats. Then too, it’s a matter of priorities. In 2009 Homeland Security spent $9 billion on CBRN terror, but only $1.3 to counter IEDs. With hindsight of course, that wasn’t so wise.

Admittedly, terrorism studies are a work in progress. In another 2011 article, this time for the University of Virginia Law School, John Monahan evaluates the state of research on radicalization (is there a profile for people who radicalize? “The Individual Risk Assessment of Terrorism”). As it turns out, acts of “common violence” are quite different from acts of terrorism. The four characteristics generally accepted (in some combination) as predictors of common violence (“criminal history, an irresponsible lifestyle, psychopathy and criminal attitudes, and substance abuse”) generally do not apply to terrorists. Monahan continues,


“In addition, there is little empirical evidence supporting the validity of other putative risk factors for terrorism beyond what is already obvious (i.e., age, gender, and perhaps marital status). Indeed, the strongest empirical findings are entirely negative: terrorists in general tend not to be impoverished or mentally ill or substance abusers or psychopaths or otherwise criminal; suicidal terrorists tend not to be clinically suicidal. In no society studied to date have personality traits been found to distinguish those who engage in terrorism from those who refrain from it.”


Monahan concludes that further research must focus on identifying “robust individual risk factors.” In his opinion, there are four promising ones: ideology, affiliations, moral emotions, and grievances. But ideology by itself says virtually nothing about a person. He quotes the authors of another study:

“Polls in Muslim countries indicate that millions sympathize with jihadist goals or justify terrorist attacks. But Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands. The challenge is to explain how only one in a thousand with radical beliefs is involved in radical action.”


Between 2014-2015 there may have been up to 80,000 jihadis worldwide. But the fight against ISIS since then has killed over 60,000 ISIS fighters. And this is not counting the relative drying up of recruits due to their crushing defeat. So yes, “Muslim terrorists number only in the thousands.”

Herein ends the first part of this blog. I begin the second half of this blog on the threat of Islamic terrorism with the advice, “take a deep breath!” Just as I began here with the “spoiler alert,” the chances of you and I being victims of terrorism are very minute indeed.

When President Donald Trump announced his first refugee ban, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz fired back that his company would hire 10,000 refugees. In turn, this ignited a social media firestorm from conservatives vowing to boycott the brand. Though Starbucks disputes this will have any effect on its bottom line, it does underscore in graphic terms what we all know – our nation is deeply polarized these days!

This blog reflects what I have learned in the last couple of months from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounce “height”). First I showed my Comparative Religion classes a TED talk Haidt did in 2008 that seemed very prescient relative to what’s happening today. Then I read a long article he wrote that was published in July 2016 after Trump became the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party – hence the title for the blog post: “Nationalism Rising: When and Why Nationalism beats globalism.”

Haidt forced me to think outside of my own comfort zone. I hope you find this helpful too.


The 5 moral foundations of the human mind

There’s nothing remotely religious about Haidt and his colleagues’ research on the social dimensions of morality. It’s all based on evolutionary psychology with data comparisons from all parts of the world. In his 2008 TED talk Haidt approvingly quotes Stephen Pinker’s thesis in developmental psychology that human beings at birth come into the world not as a “blank slate” but with many ingrained moral dispositions. He calls this “the first draft of the moral mind.” Naturally, that first draft gets modified as the child grows up in a particular family, goes to school, and moves around in various social contexts over time.

But at bottom, and all across cultures and disciplines, he and his colleagues found that there were five moral foundations of morality, or sources of intuition and emotions:


1) Harm/care: our brains as mammals cause us to feel compassion for those most vulnerable, compel us to care about them, and castigate those who cause them harm

2) Fairness/reciprocity: we’re also programmed to believe in people’s equality, and hence in justice, and additionally in some form of the “golden rule”

3) In-group/ loyalty: only humans create large groups that cooperate, first and foremost to fight any competitors; schools or sport teams’ loyalty are also good examples of this

4) Authority/respect: hierarchy comes naturally in human society, but respect for authority can also manifest as love, and not just fear of a greater power

5) Purity/sanctity: any ideology that says that virtue can be cultivated by controlling our body; it could be about abstaining from sex, but also about controlling what we eat


Then they gave out questionnaires to about 30,000 Americans that measured the relative strength of these values for each respondent. Also part of the questionnaire was whether the person self-identified as “liberal” or “conservative” politically. The result was astounding. Everyone scored high on the first two moral values, harm and fairness, but that was the extent of the liberals’ moral scope – just a two-foundation morality. By contrast, the more conservative a person is, the more the next three values grow in importance. As Haidt puts it, “conservatives have more of a five-channel, or five-foundation morality.”

Surprisingly perhaps, this same kind of result holds for questionnaires given out in many other countries around the world. Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe, everyone agrees about the importance of care and fairness, but it is around issues of in-group, authority and purity that the moral arguments become heated.

The rest of his talk, then, is focused on the two facts of 1) social entropy (left to their own devices, human groups degenerate over time because of in-fighting and chaos); 2) fruitful cooperation entails putting all five moral tools to use. At this point he brings in religion. It is a controversial finding, he admits, but much research points to the emergence of religion as a means of bringing societies together and be able to move forward. Look at all the great civilizations of the past, he says. There was usually some kind of religious component that united people and energized them to achieve the common good.

This research led to the writing of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. But here I’m more concerned with what he wrote during the 2016 electoral campaign.


The rise of the globalists

In Haidt’s “Nationalism Rising” he point to the World Values Survey that in six waves since the early 1980s has charted people’s values and beliefs around the globe. Just about all of these nations have grown more prosperous in the meantime, with some transitioning from communism to capitalism, from autocracy to democracy. How have their values changed in this time period?

Despite all the variations from one country to the next, there are nevertheless common trends that emerge. They move forward according to two axes. He explains:


“[F]irst, as they industrialize, they move away from ‘traditional values’ in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward ‘secular rational’ values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from ‘survival values’ emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward ‘self-expression’ or ‘emancipative values’ that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.”


When the rule of law is established to some extent and corruption in government is at least curtailed, societies tend to see people live more comfortably; and as they feel safer and more prosperous, they tend to become “more open and tolerant.” Along with the internet and access to movies and other aspects of global culture worldwide, they gradually develop a “cosmopolitan” worldview – literally becoming “citizens of the world.”

Perhaps the best way to describe this “vision of heaven for multicultural globalists” is to quote from John Lennon’s song:


Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.


But as Haidt notes, “it’s naïveté, sacrilege, and treason for nationalists.”


How globalists trigger the nationalist reaction

Some forms of nationalism can be illiberal and outright racist – think of the extreme represented by Hitler’s National Socialism, or even white supremacy groups in contemporary America. But at core, it’s a reemphasis on the in-group, authority and purity values mentioned above. It’s really about a social contract, contends Haidt:


“Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.”


But what has fed the conflicts between the globalists and nationalists of late has been the flood of immigrants pouring onto Europe’s shores. There had been a steady stream of economic and political refugees crossing from Africa into Spain, but things have accelerated by multiple digits since the Arab uprisings in 2011, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. In 2016 around 5,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. I dealt with this issue in two blogs about inequality (the first, and the second).

Haidt captures some of these feelings on both sides as these events unfolded:


“But if you are a European nationalist, watching the nightly news may have felt like watching the spread of the Zika virus, moving steadily northward from the chaos zones of southwest Asia and north Africa….

By the summer of 2015 the nationalist side was already at the boiling point, shouting ‘enough is enough, close the tap,’ when the globalists proclaimed, ‘let us open the floodgates, it’s the compassionate thing to do, and if you oppose us you are a racist.’ Might that not provoke even fairly reasonable people to rage? Might that not make many of them more receptive to arguments, ideas, and political parties that lean toward the illiberal side of nationalism and that were considered taboo just a few years earlier?


Yet in this conversation, the word “racism” is too imprecise to be helpful. What the nationalists are objecting to, in fact, is what they perceive as the immigrants’ different values and abhorrent practices, which represent a threat to their way of life. Of course, there are politicians who exploit and amplify those fears for their own gain.

Enter here Karen Stenner’s classic book on political psychology, The Authoritarian Dynamic. This is how Haidt describes her thesis:


“Her core finding is that authoritarianism is not a stable personality trait. It is rather a psychological predisposition to become intolerant when the person perceives a certain kind of threat. It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group, kicking out foreigners and non-conformists, and stamping out dissent within the group. At those times they are more attracted to strongmen and the use of force. At other times, when they perceive no such threat, they are not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”


What “pushes that button” is what she calls a “normative threat,” when leaders are not worthy of respect, when society is fraying at the seams and threatening chaos. As Haidt puts it, “it’s the perception that ‘we’ are falling apart.” Most nationalists, he adds, are just trying to protect the homeland, not just their income or family.

Stenner conducted some studies in a variety of national settings and when a scenario came up showing that Americans were becoming more similar, “authoritarians were no more racist and intolerant than others.” But change the direction in which society is moving and something gets triggered:


“But when Stenner gave them a news story suggesting that Americans are becoming more morally diverse, the button got pushed, the ‘authoritarian dynamic’ kicked in, and they became more racist and intolerant. For example, ‘maintaining order in the nation’ became a higher national priority while ‘protecting freedom of speech’ became a lower priority. They became more critical of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce.”


Not surprisingly, when asked about what values should be emphasized above others in raising one’s children, authoritarians put “obedience” above “tolerance and respect for other people” or “independence.”

Haidt also likes Stenner’s distinction between “status-quo conservatives” (those wary about any radical change) and authoritarians. This was graphically demonstrated by the quasi-unanimous opposition to Donald Trump by the Republican establishment during most of the 2016 presidential campaign. At the same time, Stenner gives the reason most Republican leaders rallied behind him once it was clear he would be the party’s nominee (though writing years before):


“But status quo conservatives can be drawn into alliance with authoritarians when they perceive that progressives have subverted the country’s traditions and identity so badly that dramatic political actions (such as Brexit, or banning Muslim immigration to the United States) are seen as the only remaining way of yelling 'Stop!' Brexit can seem less radical than the prospect of absorption into the “ever closer union” of the EU.”


This dynamic also explains why Muslim immigrants pose a greater threat than immigrants from anywhere else. But it’s not so much about security as it is about what Stenner calls a “normative” threat. Muslims generally do not assimilate as easily as immigrants from other backgrounds. They require high maintenance – building mosques, seeking special treatment for prayer spaces at work, insisting on halal meat, having their women wear hijabs and in some cases even niqabs (full face veils). This represents a threat to western secular civilization. Many in the US would add “a threat to Christian civilization.” Besides, Europe has been discussing for at least two decades the ins and outs of “reasonable accommodation” for Muslim immigrants. In Sweden, for instance, public swimming pools now offer specific times reserved for female swimmers in order to accommodate Muslims.


What do we take away from this?

I offer three takeaways:


1. Start listening to one another: If globalists are in power, they need to think how best not to trigger an authoritarian reaction. Angela Merkel, after welcoming over a million mostly Muslim refugees in Germany in the last two years, has a great challenge before her. That would be like if the US had let four million Muslims!

On the micro level, let’s learn to reach out to people on the other side of the political divide, wherever we happen to be. Building a healthy democratic society will mean paying attention to all five foundational values mentioned above: fairness and care; but too, group loyalty, respect for authority (including religious authority), and moral uprightness (sanctity/purity). Many times, bridge-building starts within our families!


2. Assimilation versus multiculturalism? I have no space to deal with this here, but I want to push back just a bit against this Haidt conclusion:

“If the story I have told here is correct, then the globalists could easily speak, act, and legislate in ways that drain passions and votes away from nationalist parties, but this would require some deep rethinking about the value of national identities and cohesive moral communities. It would require abandoning the multicultural approach to immigration and embracing assimilation.”

The classic contrast here would be between France (staunchly assimilationist) and the UK (multiculturalist, including Sharia courts!). I believe France’s hardline stance against Muslim expression will only invite more terror attacks. Further, it seems to me that Britain has managed its multiculturalism rather well. But so much more could be said …


3. Be loyal to your nation, but remember the big picture. If you know anything about this website, you know that my lifelong commitment is to building bridges between adherents of different faith traditions in the name of Jesus, most notably between Muslims and Christians. This endeavor knows no national boundaries. In fact, its objective is to raise awareness of and commitment to our calling to care for our fellow human beings and for our planet as God’s trustees on earth. With the privilege of a trust comes responsibility and accountability. And that means moving forward with sensitivity, wisdom and love in these troubled times. Reconciliation and peacebuilding are the order of the day!