On forests and trees

Last Thursday, a guy killed 84 people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, including some children. The next day, my taxi driver (in Europe) said if someone killed his kids, he would get a rifle and go and murder as many of “them” as he could. And I suppose that would be quite a considerable number, given he was until recently in the French Foreign Legion.

“Them” turned out not to be psychopathic and suicidal young men with heavy goods vehicle licences, but “Arabs”.

This reaction is pretty common. In Australia, as in America, the idea of banning Muslim immigration has just entered the political and media discourse. Politicians (Pauline Hanson), columnists (Andrew Bolt) and TV presenters (Sonia Kruger) note the “correlation” between Muslim populations and terrorist attacks. Their liberal and left-wing opponents decry this as “the politics of hate” and repeat their appeals for “unity”.

Pauline Hanson, despite being unable to articulate anything coherent, is clearly expressing a sentiment that large numbers of people feel.

Let’s be generous and describe this sentiment as “the instinctive desire to form a group when faced with a threat”. I think that all of us feel this, indeed it might be reasonable to assume we have evolved to react like this. The vast majority of our evolution was spent in groups of 60 – 80 people, mostly close relatives who looked like us. Our greatest survival threats came not from lions, but from other humans. Let’s assume that the danger from “out groups” was at least as high as the individualised threat from anyone “in-group”. This was perhaps not the case for women (whose main existential threat was – and is – the men around them), but maybe out-groups were a real menace for men.

So… we developed an ability to see both forests and trees. When we are threatened, we quickly draw mental lines around groups, to efficiently work out who is a likely friend, or foe.

People like Hanson, Bolt and Kruger have drawn that line around “Muslims”, although they quite happily admit that their line is not especially accurate (“most Muslims are peace loving people”, “I have many Muslim friends” etc.). Donald Trump is less generous – in his circle, only “some” Mexicans are not rapists.

They then need to perform a bit of gymnastics with their faculty to reason to justify including all of these “good” people in the “bad” group. The “good Muslims” are required to publicly denounce their co-religionist terrorists, or even, as Pauline Hanson endearingly put it, state that they are “against Islam”.

Of course, a lot of Muslims do denounce terrorism – but this passes unnoticed or is deemed unsatisfactory – such is the strength of the innate desire to close ranks around an ethnic group. Indeed it seems that Muslim denunciations of terrorism are deemed unsatisfactory if there is a single Muslim who doesn’t denounce it. In addition to assuming some sort of responsibility for the terrorists, the “good Muslims” are somehow also responsible for their co-religionists who do not denounce terrorists. The group logic is undefeatable. They can see no trees – only a forest.

It is a powerful instinct, and liberals – whom I define as the people who see trees more often than they see forests – do themselves no favours by dismissing it as “the politics of hate”. Yes, it is the politics of hate – what next? Firstly, we can’t argue a feeling of hate away with statistics and logic. Secondly, it’s OK to hate someone who can drive over a small child. Hate was invented for people like this.

Denying emotions like hate, of fear, by imploring people to “love” when they have just seen someone commit murder on TV only alienates people. Speaking of which…

There are about one and a half billion Muslims in the world. They have as much in common with each other as a person of “Christian” heritage from Ipswich might have in common with a “Christian” from Lagos, i.e. everything and nothing.  Everything in the sense that we all get on with our daily lives – eating, working, arguing, loving, whingeing, sleeping, procrastinating and generally being human. Nothing, in the sense that everyone just does whatever they like with religion. This is why I get irritated when people say “Islam is violent” or “Islam is a religion of peace”. Islam, like Christianity, or any religion for that matter, is whatever its individual adherents want it to be for them. It’s so diverse that it doesn’t mean anything. Booze shops, brothels and boar hunting (and eating, I am told) all do a good trade in the Muslim country where I live. Women go surfing, drive, fly planes, design bridges, and run Ministries. “Christians” in Nigeria leave offerings for ancestor spirits and “Christians” in the Congo visit witch doctors to treat ailments (and more importantly, win football matches). “Muslims” in Chad and Sudan wear little leather pouches containing pages from the Koran (that they cannot read) to protect them against various things. I have one which (apparently) protects me against women (a gift, for the record). Religious labels have literally no meaning. They describe precisely nothing concrete. The authorities in Muslim-majority countries might have particular views about how people should behave, but plenty of Muslims cheerfully ignore them (or try to) and get on with their lives as they see fit.

Leaving aside Pauline Hanson, who is uncertain what a Muslim actually is, Andrew Bolt blithely demolished his own “Muslim correlates to terrorism” logic by noting that “Germany has until now been spared the mass murders suffered by so many other countries. Perhaps this is because many of its Muslims have come from Turkey, a country that is more Westernised and advanced than the North African countries”.

Perhaps, but the Turks are still “Muslims” – which is the variable you use to group them and determine the risk of terrorism. You can’t then say that perhaps it is some other factor, such as “Westernisation”, because then we aren’t talking about Islam anymore. We are talking about liberalism versus social conservatism.


The West is an outlier on the global liberal-conservative spectrum of social norms. Therefore, virtually all immigrants to the West come from more socially conservative cultures. Gough Whitlam was furious that the Baltic refugees he (Labour) allowed into Australia subsequently voted for the socially conservative values of the LNP. In the US, Ronald Regan knew that Mexicans were natural republicans “who just don’t know it yet”.

There is a reason why Wahhabi style Islam is described as very “conservative”. It is at the opposite end of the liberal spectrum from gay-marriage and topless bathing. At the Wahhabi end, individuals – their desires and freedoms – have virtually no importance. The group decides how everyone behaves, and it places very tight restrictions on freedom.

The irony of Hanson, Bolt et al. “defending” western values “against Islam”, is, of course, is that by failing to see individual Muslims as anything other than part of a group, they are espousing highly “anti-liberal” values, the opposite of that very western concept: the individual. They continually attack Waleed Aly, who expresses liberal values, because they cannot see him as an individual – he must be seen in the context of a Muslim advocating for “his group”.

Bolt and Hanson are therefore not the defenders of western values, they are the defenders of western traditions. It’s quite a different thing. One of our central values is to keep reforming (or “smashing”, if you are a conservative) our traditions. Traditions which are often anti-liberal, like many human traditions if you go back far enough. Today, conservatives are anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. If Bolt and Hanson had been born a century ago, they would have been anti-women’s franchise, and pro-slavery, because that was “traditional”. That’s what being conservative means: conserving the status quo.

We know the game plan of the anti-liberal extremists who attack the West. It is to drive an ethno-religious wedge through our societies because the liberalism that we practice and sponsor is a cancerous threat to their project. The easiest way to do it is to have a member of an ethnic “out-group” kill some of the “in-group” – ideally in the most horrific way possible. Killing someone whose only crime is to belong to a particular group (e.g. “the West”) is the ultimate denial of individuality. It’s where anti-liberalism ends; in the capacity for genocide. If our extremist anti-liberal enemies can make westerners put 1.5 billion Muslims into a single mental group, they have achieved the first part of their struggle. The second part will be to physically destroy liberal Muslim voices. This is currently being done in Bangladesh, not by poor, oppressed and uneducated people, but by an educated elite which is determined to rule “traditionally” in the hope this will return the Muslim world to its former glory.

The idea that we can reduce risk by banning Muslims from the West – leaving aside the injustice for now – is questionable. Every step we take in an anti-liberal direction – all the hurt, discrimination and injustice we impose – will result in an increase in risk, at least until we have achieved the goal of a mono-ethnic society. And then what? We have a society which has abandoned liberalism – our freedoms – in the name of security. We know this is a false choice. Even Bolt and Hanson know that a government which knows no individual rights, and can act on the whims of the mob, against any minority deemed threatening, is not a safe society for anyone. We will have swapped random crimes perpetrated by lone wolves for a criminal state. We will finally understand what the Russians used to say just after the end of the Soviet Union: Here, the state is not threatened by the mafia, it is the mafia.

Anti-liberal elements in the Islamic world and the West both seek the same thing: a return to a better past, and preservation of existing traditions or restoration of former traditions (which are essentially about restricting individual freedoms). Liberal values, which promote individual liberties, are perceived as moral decay in the West and the East alike. Western anti-liberals thrive on terrorist attacks to fuel tribal group thinking, group control and to undermine our ability to see individuals. Islamist anti-liberals need western anti-liberals to treat all Muslims as a group, destroying the argument of Muslim liberals that “western” liberal values are, in fact, universal. They need to cast liberalism as a peculiar set of western “tribal values” that is closed to outsiders.

Western anti-liberals start by isolating ethnic minorities (indeed, calling for their internment) but will ultimately restrict other individual freedoms, with the goal of restoring lost traditions (like marriage, the importance of family, respecting the head of the household, banning “unnatural” sexuality etc).

We don’t need to use too much imagination to guess how Islamist anti-liberals will behave when in power.

It’s important to recognise that even if western and Islamist anti-liberals seek conflict with each other, they are allies in their political projects. Conflict with out-groups and repression of the individual is the project. If this seems incredible, consider that the history of humanity is one of constant conflict with out-groups and zero individual rights. That’s our evolutionary “normal”. History, as it turns out, is not dead.

So what to do? Because I like lists, how about:

  1. Look for the trees in the forest, and never see people as part of a group before seeing them as an individual. No individual ever has to answer for the actions of any other individual, regardless of the “group” memberships they may share. Individuals have to answer for their own actions and opinions, nothing more. Prove the Islamist anti-liberals wrong and embrace our Muslim liberal allies. Note that “seeing the individual” means being consistent in our support of individual rights. So-called liberals who are shy about reproaching Muslim anti-liberals for fear of being labelled islamophobic are applying “group logic”. The message to Muslim liberals – to the young, gay Muslim, for example – is that “you don’t really have any individual rights, you’re actually part-owned by your group”. At the same time, anti-liberals who selectively apply liberal ideas as a stick to beat ethnic minorities need to be exposed as frauds.
  1. Reserve our fear and loathing for the smallest and most precise group possible, not a billion Muslims. Perhaps isolated, suicidal, megalomanic and sociopathic young men looking for a sense of meaning would be a better group to be concerned about. After all, drawing a line around this group would help us be less blind to the Anders Breiviks and Oklahoma bombers in our midst. The conflict we face is not one between Muslims and the West, it is one between extremist anti-liberals, their psychopathic recruits, and everyone else. The anti-liberals have been losing for years, as liberalism progresses around the world. They need to redefine the conflict into an ethnic one in order to win. They may be a tiny minority, but they know our Achilles’ heel: our underlying anti-liberal instincts.
  1. On that note, we should also reach out to the large segments of anti-liberals in our own societies. We should organise those no-man’s land football matches that occurred at Christmas during the First World War. This is what Waleed Aly refers to when saying that Sonia Kruger is not evil. Social conservatives have valid concerns about the constant “reform” of tradition in the name of individual liberty. At least in the West, their fears are less about freedoms that have been secured (which are familiar and not too scary) than about the direction we might be heading. Hence the constant refrain that gay marriage will lead to polygamy and bestiality (the last claim being a bit implausible – genuine liberals would never sanction non-consensual sex. If anything, animal rights are being enhanced. Get used to humus). The sense of instability and “loss of control” that featured in the Brexit campaign is as much about social norms as it is about borders. Liberals should recognise that all sorts of traditions are wonderful and do not curtail any freedoms. Christmas does not need to be “de-Jesused” to make it more inclusive. That would be like me arguing that Ramadan should be banned because it excludes non-Muslims. There is nothing exclusive about Ramadan or Christmas, unless, of course, you want to make them that way. As previously mentioned, religion is whatever you want it to be: both occasions can represent great traditions of hospitality and kindness. Liberals need to listen a bit more to social conservative concerns about loss of identity. There is plenty we can do to improve that sense of community that they value and miss. Attend a street party. Bake one of your old, racist neighbours a cake. Happily, reaching out to social conservatives is the easiest part of the struggle. There is nothing that a shared cup of tea and a chat about the cricket cannot improve.