Posts Tagged ‘Skepticism’

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Believable Fiction as a Beacon in the Fog of War: Easy Falsehoods and ‘the Islamic State’

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on July 28, 2014 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

More than a year ago I wrote regarding the Syria conflict that ‘when a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.’

It is an example of a failure of this wariness that spurred me to write another blog post on this much neglected platform.

Today I write about Iraq, and about one of the groups that was made by that conflict, though it existed before. The Islamic State (tIS), the group formerly known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has made, with the aid of a broad coalition of local Sunni tribes, serious gains in the North of Iraq. In the wake of the capture of Mosul the group made the bold move of declaring the Khilafa, ‘crowning’ their leader as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’.

Now I don’t need to tell you, dear brothers and sisters, the appeal that the office of khilafa holds for many Muslims, though many have so far been unimpressed with its tIS manifestation. However this declaration also holds much fear, especially for those whose interests were already in conflict with groups like tIS.

The corollary of this fear has been the spread of appealing falsehoods; news stories that confirm and justify already deeply held anxieties.

As images emerged of churches in Mosul burning, a story of a massive bank heist spread like wildfire. Yet both stories turned out to be entirely false. These tall tales exaggerate and emphasise both the power of tIS and its targeting of Christian communities in Iraq. They gain such purchase because they feed upon that fear, and feed into a narrative around tIS that easily finds confirmation.

The same was true of the recent report that claimed that the Caliph had ordered that ‘FGM’ be carried out upon all female residents of Mosul.

This story was suspicious from the start, to anyone familiar with either tIS’s brand of Islam or with any contact with their supporters. To such people the likely falsehood of such a story was obvious, but our protestations came too late.

It was spread rapidly and published by news organisations from the BBC to the Guardian and al-Arabiya. Pre-existing perceptions of tIS acted as a stand in for evidence, despite calls for scepticism and confirmation.

If one goes on twitter, the occasional person will have their profile picture or avatar punctuated with the letter ‘ن’. This letter is the sound ‘n’ in English, and comes from a report which emerged from Mosul soon after tIS captured the city. The story goes that tIS fighters were marking all the houses of Christians with the letter ‘ن’, which was short for ‘Nasrani’ (Christians) in order to mark them out to be dealt with later.

The origins of the story, as far as I can tell, lays with an announcement by the Patriarch of Baghdad, Mar Raphael Louis Sako, on the 17th of July, which additionally claimed that ‘ر’ (short for ‘Rafiḍah’) marked Shia houses as well.

This image, of minority houses marked upon sectarian lines has much currency in a post-Nazi world. The picture of the Star of David painted upon shops in a ghetto in Germany is an arresting and evocative one. That cultural currency is strikingly illustrated by the aforementioned twitter trend, the image has spread rapidly, and Muslims, Christians and other groups have resoundingly adopted it as symbol of solidarity with Mosul’s Christians.

However how much do we know about the truth behind it? Having asked fighters and tIS supporters alike, one finds little clarity, which brings us to an important point.

tIS isn’t ashamed of what it is. What tied together the stories of Church burnings and FGM was that they were ultimately never confirmed or spread by members or representatives of tIS itself. Yet one finds that they are not at all afraid of spreading the news of those Mosques and Shrines they do destroy, or of the rulings they do enforce in areas they control.

They have, for example, no qualms about issuing details of the ‘jizya’ (tax upon their Christian subjects), issuing ‘urgent clarification’ of its amount and nature. The ‘urgency’ behind the clarification is not clear, but one could well argue that a Christian exodus from tIS controlled areas could have something to do with it.

They also do not shy away from posting publically about their killing. Indeed in a response to a tweet saying exactly that, one of their supporters sent me an image of a severed head…

Accompanied by a smiling emoticon.

While one has to rely on third hand information for much of what occurs on the front lines in Iraq and Syria, when it comes to tIS policies, there is a remarkable amount of clarity, which is pretty easily attained through what is, for such a group, a pretty slick media operation.

When it comes to the marking of Christian houses and an impending genocide against Iraqi Christians, there is little such clarity. Asking members I was met with a number of contrary replies, all of which said it was either rare or faked. Some asserted that it was sprayed on those houses who had paid the jizya (and thus were under the protection of tIS) and others said it indicated empty houses, abandoned by Christians and therefore property of tIS. Early reports of the practice seemed to confirm the latter, but that idea soon vanishes from the reports.

Of course this is not definitive, but what is clear is that the claims of an impending genocide are arguably far exaggerated by media to whom it appears a certainty. Indeed those tIS affiliates I spoke with were eager to argue that they had no problem with the Christians, as long as they paid the tax… and that the option on not paying it was not death, but rather expulsion. The latter claim should be taken with a large grain of salt.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, Mosul’s Christian population numbered between 30 and 50 000, by the beginning of this year, that number was 10 000. Many media outlets now report that almost no Christians remain. Regardless of the realities on the ground, the impression of impending ethnic violence has been sufficient to clear the city of most of its Christian residents. This flight must surely have been enhanced by the writings of the Patriarch of Baghdad who, along with making the claim about ‘ن’, called upon Christians to abandon areas in the control of tIS.

The steady flow of information and misinformation is itself an actor in Iraq and Syria. The impression of tIS’s policies towards minorities is far more effective at ethnic cleansing than any reality. The truth or falsehood of the claim itself remains to be shown, but what remains is that the fog of war obscures much.

 

In such times of uncertainty, relying on the stories we already believe will often only lead us further astray. The desire for a strong, easy, ‘truth’ often outweighs even an experienced reporter’s doubts. In the sake of brevity I have focussed on one ‘muddy’ truth about the situation in Iraq and Syria but there are a multiplicity of similarly curious claims that are thrown out in reports by even the most mainstream of news organisations, many of them contradicted by other reports from the ground.

So scepticism remains an imperative.

I wish you all a blessed Eid, and may Allah bring clarity to us all.

And Allah Knows Best.

 

Note: Shoutout to @naza_kat and @prohairetic on twitter as well as Mohamad Tabbaa on FB for the conversations which spurred this post and their contributions to its form. I would have liked to have footnote it fully but this format is tricky for that and many of my sources, for obvious reasons, are unnamed.

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Tinfoil Turbans in the Closet

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

Like a Turkish Imam, Turban tucked away behind the minbar and brought out for salat, some Tinfoil Turbanators keep their headgear well hidden.

They will go to great lengths to hide the extent that they believe, and so will veil their assertions as questions or shield them with analogy. This Tinfoil Turbanist will always avoid coming out and saying what they actually believe.

Maybe this is some attempt at staying hidden from the space lizards, maybe it is a fear of being questioned, who knows? What we do know is that it can be very frustrating to deal with such people, so I will offer what I have learnt doing so.

Clarification is your friend. Ask questions, often. It could be you who is mistaken, maybe they aren’t what they appear at first sight, the only way to know is to ask questions, lots of them. If they avoid answering, get frustrated with you or straight out go on the offensive, it is a good sign that peeking out from that baseball cap is a bit of tinfoil.

Don’t lose your cool. If they maintain the tactic of ‘just asking questions’, when it is clear that there are assertions being made, ask questions to, and do it calmly. Take the lead, show them where their ‘questions’ go. Usually the ‘just asking’ is a ruse to avoid being pinned down on a specific point. Don’t indulge them, it is like trying to grab an oiled pig! Instead let them do the talking, then, once an actual claim has been made, swoop onto it.

Let it go. Sometimes they will avoid the above, and continue to keep it vague, maybe throwing in some ad hominem. If that happens, let it go! There will be another day, and if nothing else it will have made it clear how wishy washy the whole thing is. This is especially sound advice if they bust out the box of personal attacks, questioning your motives, your intelligence etcetera. If this happens, you will either lose your adab, or they will make a fool of themselves. Neither is a good outcome. Walk away.

Eyes on the Prize. Your goal is getting at some kind of truth, remember that. The reason that such people can be such a cause of annoyance is because they keep what they view as the truth close to their chest. This shouldn’t phase you. Know that all the obfuscation, the ad hominem, only brings them further away from making a sound argument. Grin, bear it, and keep your eyes on the prize.

And, as always, Allah knows best.

Another quick one this evening, trying to keep them short, conceptual and sweet. I hope you are all well and I’ll be back soon insha’Allah

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Muslim Science, Muslim Primitivism

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

Many Muslims live every day with a contradiction that I have no doubt would baffle them were it to be reflected on. There are two conflicting but coexisting themes within the community around science. The first is that we invented it, and the second is that it is against us. Islamic Awareness Week stalls and Facebook reposts abound with descriptions of the contributions of Muslim scientists. If they were to be collated, it could be concluded that we invented pretty much everything, from maths to physics to the easy bake oven.

The focus of this, with a few Late Ottoman exceptions, is the idea of a Muslim ‘golden age’, where, in places like Cordoba and Harun Rashid’s ‘Bait al-Hikma’ (House of Wisdom), intellectual giants pushed the borders of human knowledge in the name of Prophetic commands. From a historical perspective, this concept certainly reflects something of a reality; however we were not alone in this pursuit. Muslim polymaths slotted into a long tradition of knowledge and intellectual enquiry. They, as Newton describes it, ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’.

This does not diminish their achievements, but it places a stumbling block for the other, contradictory strain that I mentioned. Namely that for many within the community, once the work of this intellectual endeavour began to diminish, what occurred after diminished in value with it. Thus the advances in understandings that were an effective continuation of Muslims are viewed with suspicion.

The second strain is the spread of pseudo-scientific posts, about everything from medicine to ‘natural fallacy’ food discussions. We cannot simultaneously exalt the scientific achievements of the Muslims of that time, and at the same time ignore the science that is their legacy.

To do their legacy the honour it deserves, we must continue it. If all true knowledge is our lost property, we are fools if we wallow in ‘Golden Age’ narratives that endorse the assumption of the stagnation of our societies.

There is no ‘Western Science’ and ‘Eastern Science’… there is just science. We endorse every single stereotype of us when we exalt simplistic anti-science narratives of the ‘mystical east’ with its own medicine and understandings of the world. We do not believe reality works like that.

And Allah knows Best.

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The Collective Work of Scholarship

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

😀

So I felt the need to kind of elaborate the point in the previous post, specifically about the value of the collective work of scholarship. It is something I have been thinking about lately as my house is littered with academic articles and the clattering of my wife’s keyboard.

I am the son of academics, my mother and father both were and are historians. I have spent my life studying on and off, and my wife is something of an intellectual giant. So when I talk about this I guess I am relatively self interested. However I also speak from experience.

‘No man is an island’ goes the saying, similarly no academic is without a citation index! Scholarship, in any discipline, is a scattered but ultimately collective labour. This is something that I am only really now beginning to appreciate.

It is a given in Islamic scholarship, something emphasised in the chains of transmission, in the madahib, the colossal schools of Islamic jurisprudence. The compilation and authentication of the hadeeth, like the schools of law, was a collective work.

Similarly the great work of the sciences mimics this form, consciously and unconsciously (the modern sciences came from religious and philosophical academies and schools after all). A giant web of academics stretches across the globe, arguing, critiquing, confirming and testing knowledge. This vast, if flawed web, is devoted in no small part to knowledge.

This is the reason that when an individual not tapped into that work, not trained or related in any real way (except maybe in dissent) believes themselves to fundamentally know better, it seems ridiculous to those part of that work. I may seem very establishment minded in this respect, but I really feel that the way to express dissent is simple: tap into that network, get educated and be heard.

Someone who apparently has access to truths missed by the mainstream of such scholarship yet refuses to tap into it, to be tested by it and contribute, must be suspect to me. I remember reading an interesting historical hypothesis, it was contained in the book 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. In the book the author talks about how he has not been blinded by the academic eye, which is far too concerned with pre established assumptions, whereas his untrained eye sees truth clear.

It seems on the surface a persuasive assertion, but what it amounted to was a desire to be exempt from criticism. More than any qualifications, what defines an academic is peer review. I know history, and the narratives around history, and the historians who write it, the idea of historians as antiquarians wearing blinders could not be further from the truth.

History, like any other discipline is rather full of conflict, ideas are batted around the arena, and succeed through their evidences and the virtue of their arguments. Scholarship is a living thing, and evolves with time, through that tempering. Some ideas become widely accepted through this process, others remain hotly contested.

Now the idea that an individual has some special insight by having ideas that are not tested, not critiqued, strikes me as a particular type of delusion. Some would assert that academia is a way that people’s independence is neutered by the establishment. To those people I ask politely that they submit themselves to peer review and then get back to me.

Academia has its flaws, and collective scholarship makes mistakes. It is a system and there is always a danger that a flaw becomes part of the system. However the way to address these flaws is with knowledge. In many ways one can’t escape scholarship if one asserts any position on any discipline. What differs is the level of involvement, the accountability, the tapping into that collective work.

I feel like those who are unwilling to tap into that are necessarily afraid of critique… failing that they must have some aversion to a contribution to their field. If one has discovered some truth, the way to see it come to light is to bring it into the eyes of the world, integrate it into scholarship. 1421 was enough work for a PHD, that his claims on investigation were pretty suspect would seem to show why he did not seek one out.

And Allah Knows Best.

Note: I wrote this some time ago but because it was so repetitive of other points I’d made previously, I didn’t publish it. Figured I wrote it so I might as well publish it 🙂

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Anti-Intellectualism as a Pillar of the Tinfoil Turbanist

In General Discussion on March 10, 2013 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Bareketahu,

I hope this finds you all well 😀

I have been noticing lately than an antipathy towards intellectual endeavour forms a central foundation of the understandings that we have been talking about in this blog. In my interactions with my brothers and sisters in Islam I have found that in general there is a large degree of respect paid towards the Ulema; the scholars. The religious reasons behind this are a multitude and I won’t go into them here but the central point is that for the average believer, the instinctual response to a question about the religion is to seek out a scholar.

This is not simply a trait of the lay Muslim, but also the scholars themselves. In one class the Sheikh was asked a question that was pertinent to a particular topic to which he did not claim extensive knowledge, his reply was an unhesitating ‘I don’t know, but you should ask fulan fulan’.

Being the sons and daughters of Adam, we naturally live in a state of varied and vast ignorance. We may know one or two things, we may even know a large amount of things, but we will never Know, as He does. We must then, by absolute necessity, be willing to admit the gaps in our knowledge. This is not simply a sign that one is intellectually consistent, but to do otherwise seems to me as something of a rebellion against the reality of the religion itself.

The wearer of the Tinfoil Turban, even if never stooping to such outright rebellion, rides a unicycle around the edges. Be it medicine, science, politics, history or any other subject which has its scholars, the Tinfoil Turbanist will reject the possibility that those scholars know something they don’t. There is the keen assertion that the intellectual endeavour of not only an individual but often an entire discipline, is second to their own knowledge of the topic at hand, however cursory their education in it.

There are a number of different ways that this anti-Intellectualism manifests itself;

1. The home grown theorist. This individual’s Tinfoil headgear is wholly self constructed. A home grown theorist decides that the scholars in whatever discipline have gotten it wrong. Perhaps they believe that the whole system of scholarship is rotten, root to branch. Maybe they believe that if they educate themselves within the system, it will corrupt them. They may even believe that a conspiracy exists to silence anything but their incoherent YouTube manifestos…

Regardless, they feel that the best way to respond is to start from scratch. Whether they have to hand a perpetual motion machine or have discovered the real history of the world, they know for certain that those who possibly dedicated their life to study of a subject have missed what their layman’s enquiry has laid bare.

2. The fringe follower. The fringe follower is not themselves the one taking the fight to the scholars, it is another whom they follow. Be they a discredited doctor with fraudulent studies or a conspiracy theorist sans research, their ‘expert’ will be the only one they accept. This is, I guess, a step up from the home grown theorist, for this person at least attributes authority to someone other than themselves. The contempt for ‘experts’ is now given an exception in the form of a single expert, whose claims they likely will not have independently verified.

3. The ancient wisdom. Scholarship may have moved on long ago, but to the wearer of this Tinfoil headwrap, you wouldn’t know. It is possible they think Freud had it right, and ‘new’ Psychology is jibber jabber. Maybe they think the real medicine was with Aristotle, Francis Bacon’s last name is haraam! The contempt for intellectual endeavour now moves from an individual expert to a bunch of former, probably long dead, experts. This happens in a range of different disciplines, from farming to medicine, where the changes in the understandings of the scholars are frozen at a specific point and taken as gospel. This kind of Tinfoil Turbanist must completely ignore the critiques of the New School, in order to maintain the coherence of the Old.

4. Fight the Power/to the people. This type of Tinfoil Turbanist reverses the trend, it isn’t dead theorists now, nor is it a fringe expert, rather the scholarship they take faith in is that of those who are not scholars. This is a common tactic in Australian politics, the most blatant appeal to anti-intellectualism. Essentially the authority lays with the lay people, for the scholars are too educated, too removed from the real world (whatever that means). This could manifest itself as a privileging of ‘a mother’s wisdom’ over a medical professional, or an appeal to the ‘common sense of the people’ in contrast to academics in their Ivory Towers. It is an interesting appeal to populism and one that I have been coming across relatively frequently.

These four are the main characters, and, despite being relatively mutually exclusive, may well be found in the same individual.

Of course these classifications come with some caveats. To start with there is a distinction between following a minority opinion within scholarship and privileging a fringe position. Difference amongst scholars is the norm in any discipline, and thus schools with mutually exclusive claims arise. There is a gaping chasm between following the Shafii madhab and following some brother that had a dream he was the Mahdi and has come to abrogate the Sacred Law. The former retains a respect for scholarship, a respect for ones ignorance, the latter much less so.

The Mahdi analogy certainly follows though. One finds within these movements a kind of Messianic quality, that sense of an abrogation of established authority, of the norms of the world. One can certainly understand the appeal! Indeed we know well that once in a while there have been those whose revolutionary claims have rung true, and they have come and become the law themselves. However ‘once in a while’ remains the operative term.

Importantly, the authority of Prophethood was backed up with a range of things. It was not simply an appeal to authority and neither is this argument. At the core of a respect for scholarship is the acceptance that the collective work of learned individuals has fundamental value, and that challenging such a thing requires at least a comparable level of knowledge. This collective scholarship can and is wrong, but that in itself lends no credibility to a challenger who has even less weight behind them. Galileo was right because he was right, not because he challenged authority.

When challenged on fringe beliefs you will find yourself constantly confronted with a claim that the person presenting them has intellectual courage, that they are a free thinker, someone who looks outside the box. However when a person unlearned in any particular field is unable to accept their lack of knowledge, and, from that position of ignorance makes wild claims, it speaks to something else. An inability to accept one’s ignorance does not speak to intellectual courage, it rather points towards arrogance at worst and deep ignorance at best, usually it seems an unpleasant combination of the two.

Scholarship may be flawed, but forced to choose between that and the above, I’ll usually go with ‘those who know’ over those who think they know better!

And Allah Knows Best.

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‘And debate with them in the best of ways’; two logical fallacies.

In General Discussion on March 4, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

😀

So, as you may have guessed, a lot of my posts have a strong relation to arguments I get to on the Wild West of discussion that is the internet. I thought I would discuss a couple of logical fallacies in relation to good discussion, and relate them to my previous post as well as the concept of adhab in Islam.

So to start with, we have what is called the ad hominem fallacy. This fallacy is often colloquially used to refer to insults, but it is more than that. The ad hominem fallacy is an argument that, rather than focussing on the points made, focuses on the character of the person making the points. Now it should stand to reason that the two are unrelated, yet we as humans often fall into the trap presented by this fallacy.

One of the main ways this occurs is accusations of hypocrisy. An individual will point out a contradiction between what a person advocates in their argument, and what they actually do. In reality an individual’s hypocrisy will rarely have any relationship with an argument (unless, for example, it is an argument about character). If I drank, yet told others not to drink, would my hypocrisy have any bearing upon the validity of my argument about the negative nature of drinking?

Another way this creeps in is through arguments about an individual’s motivation. It is a common tactic in discussions to point out that a person’s background is the reason behind the argument they are making. That may be true, but what does it have to do with the validity of the argument they are making? Nothing. A Palestinian or Israeli’s investment in the conflict does not make either of their claims more or less true. The truth of their arguments is what defines the truth of their arguments!

Finally, the most classic form of ad hominem is the aforementioned insults. If I’m thick as a block of wood, it won’t make me saying ‘one plus one equals two’ any less true. The character of an individual, any flaws, physical characteristics or anything else, are irrelevant to any points they make.

It is important to be able to both identify ad hominem in other’s points as well as your own. The first is in order to point out what is a cheap or ignorant tactic in a debate. The second is purely a matter of good conduct! You must remember that you never have to resort to ad hominem. Indeed if you do, you are showing that you do not trust your own arguments. As Allah says: ‘and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious’[1], not only does ridding your argument of such fallacies make them more sound, it will be an act of good adhab (manners) and an emulation of Prophetic character.

The second is related to the first, in that it is about irrelevant points of discussion. It is called the non sequitur fallacy. The literal meaning of non sequitur is ‘it does not follow’ and is similar to ad hominem (Latin for ‘to the man’) in that it is both easy to make and quite common, despite being easy to spot. A non sequitur fallacy is when there is a disconnection between two parts of someone’s argument. It can also refer to a point made against another argument that has nothing to do with it.

An example of the latter type of mistake would be me pointing out that ‘I think that Mushroom is disgusting, because it is a fungus and has a horrible slimy texture when cooked’. To which the person committing the fallacy would reply with ‘but mushrooms are a good source of protein’. While the point the person is making may be true, it does not relate to my assertion. It is thus a non sequitur.

An example of the former would be someone saying ‘you are critical of people un-critically accepting narratives, post-structuralists reject absolute truth narratives, and therefore you are a post-structuralist’. The first statement is true, the second statement is true, but the third is not necessarily true, it does not automatically follow.

This type of fallacy is surprisingly common, especially in political debates. They are however easy to avoid, simply by making sure that there is a link between each premise and its conclusion. Avoiding such fallacies is again a matter of good adhab, as non sequiturs are a type of falsehood. When one thing has nothing to do with another thing, but is presented as though it is, one is lying. The non  sequitur is thus often used by people deliberately to distract from the unsupportable nature of their own arguments. ‘Look at how bad it is for the Palestinians, things are worse there than here, so why ask for reform?’ sound familiar?

I pray you are all in the best of health and iman.

Til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.


[1] Surah An-Nahl , Yusuf Ali translation.

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Ragged Human Edges

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on March 1, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu,

😀

I hope this finds you all in the best of health and iman. I would start with an apology for my lack of posts, but since that ends up being what I do every time, I will try and stop it from becoming customary.

Jason Stearns, in his book ‘Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’ about the war in the Congo said the following:

The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands – some historic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but ragged human edges.

That idea, of ragged human edges, is what I wanted to focus on today in talking about the relationship (yet again) of scepticism and politics.

While scepticism defines no particular political ideology, it is an essential tool for anyone who involves themselves in politics, and exists as often a counterpoint to ideology. Ideology is, at the end of the day, about narratives. An informed scepticism is a check to those narratives, a balance for the tendency of ideology to encourage self-deception.

I began to think about this in relation to the book that the quote is from. Stearns discussed how the balance of media coverage, of Africa anyway, was strangely skewed towards conflicts with easily grasped narratives. The Congo, a conflict that has accounted for at least 3 million lives, thousands of rapes and war crimes that makes one numb with horror, received a tiny percentage of the coverage of things like the civil war in Libya or the conflict in Darfur.

This, he argues, is because for those conflicts one can draw out easily recognisable ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. There are the heroic rebels, the genocidal Islamists, the comical dictators and the simple story of a rebellion, or genocide or whatever.

What his point shows is the level to which human beings generally balk from nuance. The conflict in the Congo is not covered because of a conspiratorial menace, but rather because people shy away from things that require a complex understanding; conflicts where the line between perpetrator and victim are constantly shifting, or don’t exist at all.

The reality is that that nuance is the norm, not the exception. Life and politics in general, rather than being about goodies and baddies, is precisely about the ragged human edges. No conflict conforms perfectly to an ideological narrative because such narratives usually stem from self-interest, and such interests usually lead to self delusion.

I have been engaging in discussion relating to Syria of late, and found that the above trend is very much present. One finds two extreme positions, one that wholeheartedly endorses the rebellion, endorses Western intervention and anything else to get rid of Assad. The other swallows the Baathist party line, where the people in Homs are massacring themselves to get sympathy and Assad is the great defender of the Palestinians and without the Baathists the entire Middle East will be conquered by Israel.

I am not on the ground in Homs or Damascus, so what I know of the conflict is always going to be viewed through the lens of a range of biased sources. However what we should instinctively do is question such clear, black and white narratives of the conflict. We must ask ourselves to what extent all the assumptions of either side are required.

Does one have to support intervention to support the Syrian people? Does one have to support Assad to oppose it? Does a fear for what will happen after Assad automatically have to equate to a support of his regime?

Of course interests abound that muddy the waters. Ideology plays a huge role here. Western Leftists naturally like the idea of a socialist hero, standing without support against American imperialism. The idea of a kafir Alawi government oppressing a Sunni majority with the backing of Iran appeals to Sunni /Arab narratives of the Iranian menace. Enthusiastic Westerners love the idea of a popular uprising against a dictator and the Shia can readily view an attack on pseudo-Shia Assad as reinforcing a persecution complex.

When a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.

This is not a world of easy, pleasant narratives, it is a world of ragged human edges.

I pray that we are all given the sagacity to see truth clear from falsehood, to seek nuance and intellectual conviction.

Keep well til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.