Friday, March 13, 2009

In Defense of Terrorists!

Tolerance among the contending ideologies that dominate Egypt's political and cultural milieu is scarce. The major ideologies that battle for Egypt's mind and soul are marred by their tendency not only to claim that their version of truth is overriding, but also to rule out altogether the validity of 'different' interpretations than their own. For instance, many factions within radical Islamic movements curse the society, call its members infidels and boycott it. Likewise, the liberal intelligentsia, ironically, has a long record of emulating the attitude of its chief adversary. These so-called liberals curse the organizations that endorse violence, call their members 'terrorists' and dismiss any other explanation. The circle of exclusion is therefore firmly sealed.

Scientific analysis is the foremost victim in a milieu characterized by these dogmatic stances. Likewise, rational thinking is clouded by emotions; fear, pain, pleasure, etc, are believed to be the enemies of reason.

For one of these two motivations (whether ideology or emotion), the perpetrators of the recent assault on tourists in Al-Hussein neighborhood, and similar deadly attacks against civilians, are frequently dubbed as "cowards." In war, the enemy is commonly depicted as "coward," though that might not be the case at any epistemological level. That posture either mirrors state propaganda or is a reflection of the dominance of emotions in the processing and retrieving of information.

The theory of 'mirror images' maintains that in hostile relationships, each party holds a mental picture that is diametrically opposed to the picture held by the other party; each party has a positive, virile, moral and benevolent self-image and a negative and malevolent image of the antagonist. Overconfidence in winning military battles and lack of empathy for the other party usually ensues. This kind of black-and-white thinking, research discovered, leads to the prolongation and escalation of conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict and the American-Soviet Cold War are two cases in point.

The adjective 'coward,' and other degrading descriptions, conform more to the contemptible communiqu├ęs of ministries of interior than they do to scientific inquiry or even common sense. By undertaking the attack, the perpetrators have, obviously, antagonized the formidable Egyptian state and risked their physical survival, or at least became vulnerable to imprisonment, plus torture and minus the possibility of a fair trial and a just verdict, hence jeopardizing their present and future welfare. In addition, they rose for what they believe in, abandoned compliance and took a daring initiative to change what they perceived as unjust or corrupt.

Condemning the violent and callous method they used and the political ideology that sanctions shedding the blood of innocent people does not, however, negate the need to discard emotional and ideologically-based readings of social phenomena.

In life, grey is the dominant color; 'black and white' assessments are illusions produced by either ideology or emotion. Accordingly, in the quest for truth, hunters of logic are constantly tempted to rummage around concepts and judgments that are taken for granted. Unlike laymen, they search for the defects of one's self and the advantages of one's adversary.

Politicians act in a different fashion than scholars, however. The rapid increase in using the ambiguous and elusive term 'terrorism' is illuminating. To eliminate dissent and garner support, terms and phrases such as 'terrorism' and 'coward terrorists' have become commonplace in today's world, but that does not necessarily make them scientific or credible. To defame internal and external opponents, 'terrorism' is certainly a convenient affront. That is precisely why it became part of the political dictionary of all parties in the conflict-ridden Middle East. It is analogous to the opportunistic, interest-driven use of the term 'mob' by authoritarian regimes in description of anti-regime protests, though -- or perhaps because -- the term implies, as one scholar pointed out, "gullibility, fickleness, herd-prejudice, [and] lowness of state and habit."

There is a treasure of knowledge and wisdom in the closet of social sciences that could be used to assess political and social phenomena. In Social Movement (Key Concepts in Political Science), for example, Paul Wilkinson defines a social movement as "a deliberate collective endeavor to promote change in any direction and by any means, not excluding violence, illegality, revolution or withdrawal into 'utopian' community." Neither violence nor irrationality, he adds, deprives these groups of the label 'social movement' and, of course, no mention here of the terms 'mob' or 'terrorists.'

Condemning Al-Hussein attack, and attacks against civilians in general, is an imperative moral stance. But that stance should not impinge upon reason. This nation will arguably not progress before ideologically-free and emotionally-free assessments of social and political phenomena prevail.

Nael M. Shama

* This article was published in Daily News (Egypt) on March 12, 2009 under the title "Enemies of Reason."

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