Sunday, September 12, 2010

What I remember on 9/11

Twitter this weekend is full of messages like "never forget" referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but I think people have already forgotten. 9/11 wasn't just a tragedy, like an earthquake or tsunami; it was an attack. It was part of a conflict that is still unresolved.

As our presidents (Bush and Obama) remind us, we are not at war with the religion of Islam. That's true, but Islam is not just a religion. It is also an ideology shared by over a billion Muslims. This ideology disagrees with out views on freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and the equality of woman. There is no "moderate majority" that agree with us on these points -- the vast majority disagree (according to surveys like those from the Pew Research Center). Thus, while we are not in conflict with the religion of Islam, we are certainly in conflict with the ideology.

Ayan Hirsi Ali describes this best in her books Infidel and Nomad. These are autobiographical works telling her story about growing up in the Islamic country Somalia, escaping from an arranged marriage to Holland, and rising to become a member of the Dutch parliament.

In her books, she tells of her struggle to answer the question "Why is the West so prosperous and happy, while Islamic countries (especially Somalia) are not?". Her answer is because the West went through the Age of Enlightenment, and learned to put reason above emotion, to question institutions, customs, and morals. She claims that the Islamic world has yet to go through such a change -- and that Islam will constantly be in conflict with the West until that happens.

Ayan describes this in a more confrontational way. While both ideologies want the same thing (peace and prosperity), both ideologies are not equal. One is better than the other. The West's ideology is better than Islam's. We should stand up for the West's ideals.

An example of this is religious tolerance. Muslims overwhelmingly support tolerance of other religions. Their history on this is better than ours. While the "Inquisition" of the Catholic Church was burning non-believers, Christians and Jews were living harmoniously in Islamic countries. Even today, Christians live relatively undisturbed in Islamic theocracies like Iran.

Yet it is not so much the goal of religious tolerance that is important so much how we get there.

What Muslims believe is that we should not needlessly criticize, insult, or mock each other's religion. If everyone does this, then we will have peace.

The West believes the opposite. We believe that we should ignore the criticisms, insults, and mocking by others. We should not get upset over such trivial things. If everyone does this, then we will have peace.

As Ayan points out in her books, one of these ideologies is better than the other. Restrictions on "insults" always have a chilling effect on free speech, because somebody will always find a reason to be insulted by speech they don't like. You can't stop everyone from being insulting; there will always be some jerk wanting to burn the Koran inciting violence. Therefore, Ayan argues, the West's values of ignoring insults is inherently a better ideology than Islam's value of not giving insult.

Ayan tells stories about how as a child, she was taught to respond to insults with violence. She also tells about how, when working as a translator, she had to translate for a Somali family whose child was in trouble for fighting in elementary school. The Somali's kept arguing with the teacher "but the other kid insulted our kid", believing that this would get their child out of trouble. The child was only doing what the parents had taught him, to respond to insults with violence. Ayan had to translate not only language but culture, explaining that in West, we teach our children that violence is never justified, and that insults should be ignored.

Yet, as adults, we seem to forget this when it's convenient. A good example is the American politician Sarah Palin, a leader in the opposition party. Every month she expresses outrage over some new "politically incorrect" insult against her involving the clothes she wears, the fact she's a woman, her retarded child, or an off-color joke involving her children. Rather than ignoring these insults, she magnifies and distorts them to incite her followers.

Sarah Palin is one of many who oppose the "Ground Zero Mosque", because it insults the memory of those who died on 9/11, and is seen as Muslims celebrating their "victory" over the Twin Towers. Sure, the "mosque" is a bit insulting, but here's the thing: get over it. The reason Al Qaeda attacked us was because they were violently opposed to our Western ideals. We can't then turn around and ignore these ideals when we feel insulted. No matter how much we find the "Ground Zero Mosque" insulting (and it is insulting), the only proper response is to "turn the other cheek" and to "forgive those who trespass against us".

We have also forgotten our principles in the "Koran burning controversy. We all agree that the guy, Pastor Jones, is a jerk and a nutcase. But here's the thing: he is only a jerk. He is not some harbinger of the apocalypse. He is not responsible for the violence that has erupted in the Muslim world protesting the burning. It's those who perpetrate this violence who are responsible. Every time we credit him for "causing so much damage by threatening to burn the Quran", we inflate his importance.

Instead of inflating his importance, our leaders should do the opposite and largely ignore him. When forced to confront the issue, our leaders should say something like "I condemn his actions, but he's just a nutcase unworthy of our attention". Our leaders should do this because, indeed, he's just a nutcase unworthy of our attention.

Instead of appeasing the Muslim angry over the incident, President Obama should have used this as a "teachable moment". What we Americans stand for is the right to speak, no matter how much we are offended by that speech. While our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are controversial, our goals are clear: we want them (the Muslims in those countries) to have to same freedoms we have. We want them to have the freedom to burn the American flag, the Bible, and yes, the Koran too.

What concerns me is not just the conflict in the real world, but also in cyberspace, where "cyberbullying" has become a big issue. There are many who want laws outlawing this. But this is the same free-speech issue. There is no way to stop cyberbullying that does not also have chilling effects on speech. Rather than fighting for laws to stop the bullies, we should be teaching our kids how to resolve conflicts, especially online. For example, if other kids are spreading a rumor online about you, your proper response is to firmly deny it, but otherwise ignore it. Getting upset about it is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I fully support the fine art of Internet "trolls", like 4chan /b/ anonymous. While I would probably dislike these guys in person (they are just a bunch of jerks), trolls teach people the lesson to not get so upset over things. I've been trolled. People have posted things in mailing lists that have really upset me. And then I later realize that they don't care one way or the other, they were just trying to make me upset. This has tought me how small I was, and that I should learn to rise above such petty squabbles. As they had. It is only when you don't get upset and take serious what people (usually strangers) post online can you truly live at peace with yourself, and others.


What I choose to remember this September 11 is to stand up for the principles they attacked on that day. One of those principles is "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me". Rather than appease those every time they perceive an insult from America, I'm going to point out that they are wrong for getting offended.

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