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  • Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context, pt. 1

    Posted by T. Greer on 28th October 2013 (All posts by )

    How to make sense of radical Islamic terrorism? This violence is barbaric – but it is not senseless. When you understand the society from which savagery has sprung, the cold logic behind these attacks becomes all too apparent.

    Image: Smoke rises from the Westgate Mall


    Brendon O’Niell says it is time to recognize the sheer barbarity of 21st century Islamic terror attacks:

    In Western news-making and opinion-forming circles, there’s a palpable reluctance to talk about the most noteworthy thing about modern Islamist violence: its barbarism, its graphic lack of moral restraint. This goes beyond the BBC’s yellow reluctance to deploy the T-word – terrorism – in relation to the bloody assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya at the weekend. Across the commentating board, people are sheepish about pointing out the historically unique lunacy of Islamist violence and its utter detachment from any recognisable moral universe or human values. We have to talk about this barbarism; we have to appreciate how new and unusual it is, how different it is even from the terrorism of the 1970s or of the early twentieth century. We owe it to the victims of these assaults, and to the principle of honest and frank political debate, to face up to the unhinged, morally unanchored nature of Islamist violence in the 21st century.” [1]

    I applaud Mr. O’Niell’s frankness. Islamic terrorist groups like Al-Shabaab are savage, barbaric, and evil. Period. They should be seen by all and denounced by all as the monstrous brutes that they have become. Civilization has a pale; this lies beyond it.

    But stating this is not enough. We cannot simply name a man a monster — we must try to understand why so many men want to be monsters in the first place. O’Niell is less helpful here:

    Time and again, one reads about Islamist attacks that seem to defy not only the most basic of humanity’s moral strictures but also political and even guerrilla logic…. consider the attack on Westgate in Kenya, where both the old and the young, black and white, male and female were targeted. With no clear stated aims from the people who carried the attack out, and no logic to their strange and brutal behaviour, Westgate had more in common with those mass mall and school shootings that are occasionally carried out by disturbed people in the West than it did with the political violence of yesteryear.[2]

    There are problems with this line of thought. In his zeal to denounce Islamic terrorism O’Niell makes two errors: 1) He assumes that indiscriminate slaughter of ‘the young and old, black and white, male and female’ is a ‘new and unusual’ development in human history and 2) that the sheer barbarity of these acts ‘defy logic.’

    Perhaps the Khwarazmians also thought the slaughter they witnessed was something new under the sun:

    The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out on to the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women fiom the men. Alas! How many peri-like ones did they drag from the bosom: of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

    The Mongols ordered that, apart from four hundred artisans whom they specified and selected from amongst the men and some children, girls and boys, whom they bore into captivity, the whole population, including the women and children, should be killed, and no one, whether woman or man, be spared. The people of Merv were then distributed among the soldiers and levies, and, in short, to each man was allotted the execution of three or four hundred persons.[3]

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, War and Peace | 15 Comments »

    Independence and Rights

    Posted by T. Greer on 16th September 2013 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at the Scholar’s Stage, 15 September 2013.

     “The Freedman”
    John Quincy Adam Ward. 1863. Displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


    The phrase “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a truism long accepted. I do not question the general truth this phrase attempts to convey, but I sometimes find it obscures more than it reveals. Men on opposing lines of battle may both fight in the name of freedom yet be fighting for very different things. “Freedom” comes in all shapes and sizes; when a Pashtun elder uses a word like freedom he may not be thinking anything close to the thoughts expressed at the average American Independence Day parade.

    The freedom fighters of the American revolution fought in the name of liberty. The liberty they battled for came in two distinct flavors, each reflecting an esteemed political tradition inherited from their brothers across the sea. The first is the classical liberal tradition; the second the classical republican. In many ways the political history of the republic they founded was an attempt to reconcile these two traditions. [1] Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Politics | 8 Comments »

    Do The Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?

    Posted by T. Greer on 24th August 2013 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at The Scholar’s Stage on the 27th of May, 2013.

    A selection of the 60 volume Great Books of the Western World.
    Image source.


    A “proper education” changes with its times.

    In the days of America’s founding a true education was a classical education. An educated man was not simply expected to be familiar with the great works of Greek and Roman civilization; the study of these works was the foundation of education itself. Thomas Jefferson’s advice to an aspiring nephew captures the attitudes of his era:

    It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith’s history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope’s and Swift’s works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Cicero’s philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca…. 

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    Posted in Book Notes, History | 11 Comments »