The Halloween 2017 terror attack in New York brought forth the usual affirmations of courage and resilience amid the sorrow, though these have been joined by a growing sense of frustration that the United States is not making progress in its struggle against Islamic extremism. Such confusion stems from the fact that Americans are far more capable of facing the effects of this resistant pathology than they are of looking into its causes.
While discussing his book The Righteous Mind with Bill Moyers on PBS in early 2012, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lamented how what he called the “sacralization” of social entities, ranging from victim groups to America itself, impedes rational, honest, and creative thinking in our angry age.
“Whenever you sacralize something, there you will find ignorance, blindness to the truth, and resistance to evidence,” Haidt said. Citing an example, “American foreign policy did contribute to 9/11, but you can’t say that because people on the Right will see that as sacrilege.”
We are more than half a millennium into an intellectual evolution in the Western world in which the Italian Renaissance freed history and politics from divine determination, the Scientific Revolution established an empirical and inductive approach to reality, and the European Enlightenment won freedom of thought. One should be able to say anything that proceeds from a comprehensive presentation of evidence, a rigorous analysis of these facts, and rationally defensible conclusions drawn from such an interpretation. This ability to think critically and speak freely is all the more vital amid an ongoing crisis characterized by repeated mass casualty terrorist attacks, prolonged and devastating wars, and persistent threats to national and international security.
Yet nearly seventeen years since September 11, long after the natural cognitive dissonance provoked by such an experience should have cleared, Americans are, as Professor Haidt pointed out, still drifting in a mental fog on this subject reminiscent of pre-modern modes of thinking. It remains very difficult to talk about the conflict with jihad as anything other than a Manichean battle of good versus evil or to analyze it objectively within a detailed context of the United States’ historical engagement with the Muslim world.
This crippling of the critical faculty by considerations of an almost theological correctness has greatly inhibited Americans’ understanding of the nature of Islamic extremism and the United States’ relation to it, contributing to the length and inefficacy of the wars that have been waged against it. We would do well therefore to remember what have been the effects of such suppressions of debate in the past and the beneficial results when they were overcome.
The classic example of truth impeded by a sacred mind-set is the resistance to the heliocentric system of Nicolaus Copernicus and the persecution of its greatest champion, Galileo Galilee. However, amid a continuing attack upon the body politic by a phenomenon that is habitually referred to in metaphors of disease, the history of the understanding of celestial bodies is not as revealing as that of human anatomy and pathology.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the unquestioned authority on these subjects was the Greek scientist Galen, though he never dissected a human body and merely repeated Hippocrates’s belief that diseases are caused by an imbalance of “humors.” Relying on animal dissections and speculative analogies, he could not know what was underneath the human skin or how it worked because he had never seen it or even tried to look there. Even when the taboo against intrusive postmortems weakened, if anatomists found anything at variance with Galen, they simply disregarded it—until the advent of a genius who believed that life was all about “knowing how to see”: Leonardo da Vinci.
As the medical writer Sherwin B. Nuland explained in a probing life of this polymath that focused on his anatomical researches, Leonardo’s radical empiricism, though not entirely free from bias, caused him to regard the work of earlier experts as “teachings to be tested and challenged rather than teachings to be accepted and verified.” Vowing to “begin with the experience and by means of it investigate the cause,” Leonardo set dogma aside and plunged into experiment. Over the course of decades of objective study, Leonardo systematically dissected dozens of cadavers, saw what was actually there, came to understand how organs functioned within the system of the human body, identified diseases such as arteriosclerosis, and set it all down in dynamic drawings explicated by a brilliant text.
With time, his methods were followed by Andreas Vesalius, William Harvey, and all those who have ever contributed to the rational miracle that is modern medicine.
How would the struggle with Islamic extremism look if subjected to Vincian scrutiny? How would such contrasting assertions as “Intolerance is basic to Islam,” “Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are violent,” “Jihad is a cancer that has metastasized,” or even the great taboo, “American foreign policy contributed to 9/11,” stand up against a body of evidence that was analyzed on the basis of “knowing how to see” and not cherry-picked to prove them?
This change in method would have to begin with a working knowledge of the actual tenets of Islam, and the trajectory of political developments in the Muslim world since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I placed it in direct contact with modernity. It would need to recall that most countries in the region sought secular bases of legitimacy over the past century, with the crucial exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and that both have been treated as vital American allies for nearly seventy years. The religious ideologies that guide their rulers would have to be examined in detail, along with their socioeconomic motivations. Islamic extremism in words and deeds would have to be assessed in terms of its state-level or non-state origins, sources of support, and patterns of diffusion. Finally, the policies of the United States and these allies in the Soviet-Afghan War, during which the most extreme Islamist groups received the lion’s share of aid and were then allowed to continue unmolested as Pakistani proxies after America withdrew from the region, would have to be objectively analyzed, as well as their historical effects.
Most American government officials and foreign policy experts would counter that all this has been done for decades and agree with counterterrorism blogger Robert Chesney that “both the Bush and Obama administrations cared a great deal about trying to find ways to prevent radicalization, and if anyone knew how to actually ‘block the pathways’ in a reliable and scalable way it would have been done long ago.”
Yet this sanguine assertion ignores the powerful psychological prejudices that Prof. Haidt addresses. The motives for rejecting or suppressing evidence about the origin, spread, and nature of Islamic extremism are legion. Among them are sheer foreign policy orthodoxy, threats to vested interest groups, the difficulty of the proposed policy changes, a resistance to national self-examination, the perceived need to maintain America’s image intact, and, most importantly, a profound fear of a backlash: “You can’t say that.”
However, a great nation at war is in no more of a position to be held back by such taboos than is a physician seeking to treat a serious illness or a patient in denial that such a serious condition exists. No ideas based on fact and logic have ever been intrinsically daring; they are only daring in a hostile social and psychological environment. What is desperately needed amid this unending struggle with jihad is not bias-appeasement or face-saving but truth-seeking and problem-solving, regardless of their emotional or practical difficulty. And the urgency for such openness grows with each new terror attack.
An unfettered discourse on Islamic extremism and the United States’ relation to it holds forth the promise of a comprehensive fresh view of the matter that would yield a comprehensive new strategy that effects a cure. We might well emerge from such a free and open debate as blameless knights in a contest with dragons or conclude that the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves—or any of the many shades in between.
Only we must be able to say it.