Last night via the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution, I led a Town Hall Meeting on the recent activities of ISIS in Paris, Beirut, Russia and beyond.
We had a room of concerned, warm, kind, educated and passionate participants. I wanted to share with those who could not attend the framing of the conversation. A fuller review may appear on the narrative website.
Barbarism v Civilization?
I framed the conversation with the question of "Barbarism v Civilization" based on an email exchange I had with one of my intellectual and personal mentors. Here I will discuss the contribution of this juxtaposition and its limitations.
Barbarism v Civilization adjusts Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." We are not talking here about Islam versus Christianity. This is not a clash between civilizations. ISIS is not a civilization.
If this was Islam v Christianity we might have been dead long ago. Given the number of Muslims in Indonesia alone, if there were really an intractable conflict between these religions/cultures, Christian cultures would have been annihilated years ago.
No, this is not Islam v. Christianity because both groups have millions of individuals who participate in the social contract.
By social contract, I am referring to the 18th Century notion that we agree to join together and lose some personal rights in exchange for social participation. Without this agreement, we slip back to the Hobbesian state of nature, where I can bop you over the head if I want your house, car, or partner.
Most of the world has agreed that we will not bop each other over the head. The occasional bop if one is starving and needs some bread is now more largely excused (the subject of Les Miserables).
ISIS and their friends (those 40 countries selling to them), are not in agreement with this social contract. They want to live "outside" what justice expert John Rawls calls "The Society of Peoples." These are civilizations that are different but can work well together.
ISIS does not really count as a civilization, but is rather a counter narrative TO civilization. Perhaps the laws of physics demand that every thing must have its opposite.
The 19th Century French writer Edmond de Goncourt, made this statement above. I'm not sure how he would respond to last week's attack. Was France really going to die of "civilization" if ISIS didn't barbarically attack its citizens?
That said, there was some interesting dialogue last night about trying to understand what exactly ISIS wants. One of our faculty did some fascinating research on their propaganda, saying that at their core, ISIS is against secularism, free choice and anyone who does not follow the Koran, who they call "shirkers." Shirking their responsibility. The most surprising was that their messaging isn't aimed primarily at Westerners. It is aimed at the Muslim world. They want a return of the Caliphate.
Therefore, it is important not to position this conflict as Muslim v. Western, because it's really not just about us. Of course, we like to be the center of everything. We get G.I. Joe inspired when we feel life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are at stake. But this isn't all about having the freedom to be gay, wear sexy clothes, or believe in Jesus Christ.
What is Barbarism?
While the word Barbarianism didn't really enter the English language until the 16th century, the Greeks and Romans used it to talk about those people with funny languages. In other words, Barbarians were those "not like us." They where the others. They are those we do not understand.
Barbaric in modern terms has a colloquial meaning of violent lawlessness. What is happening is barbaric. And there is no place for barbaric acts. That said, it's dangerous to label a whole people "barbaric." When we do this, we forget to check ourselves and make sure that we too are not barbaric.
Naming an action barbaric, works.
Is there anything to understand about ISIS?
I don't know. Right now they have a limited voice. They are not coming to a negotiating table. We go to jail if we talk to them.
I do wonder, based on the film Kandahar Journals, whether everyone in ISIS is really that on board with the agenda. People join for many reasons. By assuming they are all equally committed might make them stronger than they actually are.
What to do with Barbarianism?
Martin Luther King Jr. knew that violence would not lead to the changes he ultimately wanted. The Black Panthers did not agree. They believed justice could only be found with guns. They did not believe their modern enslavement could be be upended with words in sit ins. ISIS agrees.
Of course, ISIS and the Black Panthers are quite different. My point is that thugs bludgeoning us is not likely to lead to anything more than more their demise. King made this distinction in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail which refers to the extensive training non-violence required.
I'm not saying we shouldn't raid the homes of terrorists and capture the leaders. What I'm want to invite into the conversation is refection on what is barbaric and what is not.
The Barbarianism framing helps us constantly check ourselves for barbarian behavior. We need to keep asking: How can we stop the at
tacks without becoming like them?
A colleague told me a best friend from high school is sitting in a hospital in Belgium. For wearing a hijab, she was beaten to a pulp by some Belgians. Is that civilization?
What about the young Muslim kids in Loudon County, VA who are getting bullied in schools with no one stepping in. Is that civilization?
Being civilized in a time of war isn't easy, but there are ways to be compassionate and non-hysterical.
Let's challenge barbarism without becoming it...