Natural Man

A&L links to reviews of two new books – one on the nature of Al Quada and the other on the nature of man.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Raymond Ibrahim, editor and translator of The Al Qaeda Reader, argues that

Whatever one’s position in regard to the “war on terror,” understanding the ideas of our enemy is both a practical necessity in wartime and a fundamental liberal value. It is my hope that both sides in this bitter debate will profit from a deeper acquaintance with these works. In any case, it simply will not do to dismiss Al Qaeda as an irrational movement without ideas.

As an intern at the Library of Congress, he assessed masses of untranslated material from the Middle East pass through; most were not aimed at the West, but were, instead,

theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things — Zionism, Bush’s “Crusade,” malnourished Iraqi children — that formed the core of Al Qaeda’s messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam’s most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of “reciprocity” was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words “West,” “U.S.,” or “Israel.” All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, “kufr” — “infidelity” — the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through “tongue and teeth.”

Dennet generally keeps up on scholars like Pinker. With a new book out, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, the linguist is making the rounds. A&L links to Saletan’s “The Double Thinker” in the New York Times and Norm Geras to the somewhat obtuse Guardian interview with Oliver Burkeman, “Basic Instincts.” Geras in “The Denial of Human Nature,” notes the value of a belief in human nature, one we share:

It’s one obvious basis for a philosophy of universal human rights – the idea that we share a common human nature, and by virtue of it common needs, common capacities and fundamental interests. These interests ought to be protected. Granted, the fact that a common human nature provides the intellectual basis for a justification of universal rights does not by itself show that there is such a common human nature. But there is one – as any open-eyed consultation of historical, anthropological and cultural evidence will vouchsafe. We can argue about what traits it includes and what traits it doesn’t – a really important area of argument – but the denial of there being any human nature at all is wasted breath.

Of course, these two book reviews, which seem so different, lead us to gratitude for the eighteenth century, so fascinated by and absorbed in defining human nature, so certain it existed and that defining it was important, so reverent toward the divine spark they believed animated all of us, so dedicated to ensuring the kind of rights innate in our nature were to be respected and allowed expression. And so, we hear Abigail addressing John and Hamilton & Madison arguing it out. And as John tells us how much he longs for his family and how much more important that tie is, he acknowledges the importance of his broader (if weaker) loyalty to what he describes as all of our species.

4 thoughts on “Natural Man”

  1. theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims.

    I think two many people make the error of assuming that international conflict (or any group vs non-group conflict) results from some sort of negative interaction between the two groups. More specifically, a lot of people assume that if group A attacked group B then group B must have done something to provoke group A. In practice, this assumption leads to a foreign policy of appeasement on the part of group B who seeks to find some magical combination of actions that will pacify group A.

    However, I think history has shown that aggressive wars are driven primarily by the internal dynamics of each particular group. The actions of external actors rarely have little to do with source of the aggression. Fascist struck out at others due to the fascist belief that the good of one’s own ethnic group trumped all other considerations. Their fundamental belief in the inevitability and even desirability of interethnic conflict drove them inexorably to war. Once Fascist attained power, no non-violent action of any external actors could prevent the war. The Cold War arose from the communist doctrine of historical inevitability and the dependent belief that communist would be in perpetual violent struggle with all non-communist groups. No action that the non-communist world could have taken would have changed the aggressive behavior of the communist. The Cold War ended when communism lost its grip on power and the behavior of the former communist countries changed, not when the free-world changed.

    Likewise, the aggression of the Islamist springs from their own internal dynamics and not from any particular affronts by the non-islamic world. The Islamist believe that they have a literal god-given right and obligation to rule the world. This internal dynamic will cause them to attack all who do not hold their particular beliefs. Like fascist and communist before them, they will interpret all attempts at conciliation as craven compilation to their power. No actions of the non-Islamist will defect them from their aggressive course.

    I think the unwillingness to recognize that their own internal dynamics and not our offending actions drive external threats arises from a form of narcism. In the end, we simply can’t believe that the entire world doesn’t revolve around us. When something happens, it has to ultimately be the result of something we did. By extension, this means that ultimately, we control everyone else in the world by our own actions.

    It’s a comforting but ultimately delusional belief.

  2. However, I think history has shown that aggressive wars are driven primarily by the internal dynamics of each particular group. The actions of external actors rarely have little to do with source of the aggression.

    I think it’s the internal dynamics of the aggressor group AND behavior by the target group that lead the aggressor group to infer that the target group is weak and may be profitably attacked. Bin Laden attacked us not only because of his ideology but also because he thought, based on our recent history and his misunderstanding of our society, that we wouldn’t fight. The Iranian regime continues to attack us via proxies, and continually probes us via political stratagems, not only because of their ideology and imperial ambitions, but also to assess our behavior and because they don’t think we will respond forcefully.

    The target group can usually, via its behavior, influence the behavior of the aggressor group.

  3. Jonathan,

    I think your correct if we think about the total causes of actual aggressive acts. However, I was thinking more in terms of the cause of the initial hostile beliefs.

    I think the internal dynamics prime the aggressor to attack while the missteps of the targets create the specific opportunities to attack that the aggressor then exploits. In other words, a target can forestall a specific attack by altering its behavior to make the price of an attack unacceptably high but it cannot alter the internal dynamic that drives the aggressor to consider an attack in the first place. For example, during the Cold War the nuclear deterrent prevented the Soviets from making overt attacks with its formal military but it did nothing to prevent the Soviets from finding some other means of attacking.

    Perhaps I should say that the actions of the target can change the timing and the manner of an actual specific attack but that they cannot change the internal dynamics of the aggressor that cause it to seek some form of attack in the first place.

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