Locked in Combat

In daily life people get caught up in mutual hatred, unable to see anything about the other person apart from their faults.  It often happens in families and between groups as well.  And it happens in the larger world.

There is no doubt that extremist Muslims hate westerners and even those among themselves who collaborate with us.  But the evidence is piling up that many of us are joining in to keep the hatred alive, providing evidence that justifies their hatred.  “The far right and the jihadis need one another,” says anthropologist Scott Atran.

The plans of Christian ministers to burn Qu’ans clearly show their contempt, and they reinforce the fear and hatred of Muslims in return.  In New York, the vehement opposition to building an Islamic Center and mosque near ground zero confirms the Muslim belief that we will never accept them.  In Europe, there’s a growing impression that Muslims with immigrant backgrounds are “being thrown to the wolves,” says Atran.  France has just banned the wearing of burqas.  Parliamentarians in Holland openly attack Islam. (See “Turn on the Red Light,” in Newsweek.)

The west has been attacked and terrorized by Islamic extremists, and it continues to be attacked by Al Quada operatives who blow up innocent civilians.  It is not hard to understand the wish to retaliate, but it is also not hard to grasp how that can lead to an endless train of violence, steeped in mutual hatred.  Such feelings can be useful in war as a means to motivate soldiers and civilians to fight.  But do we really want to go down that path?

This is not a moral or ethical point.  Nor is it based on the Christian idea of turning the other cheek.  It’s just common sense, rooted in the psychological principle that hatred blinds us to the consequence of our actions.  When it happens to two or more people – or in groups – it’s hard to stop, even when we want to.

In political campaigns the incentives for restraint are loosened.  The short-term gains of a few votes seem to outweigh the long-term harm to peace.  Many observers believe that the French parliament acted cynically to gain votes, and that seems to be true of some Dutch politicians as well.

Will calmer voices prevail here?