January 25, 2006

More on Allahu Akbar and a Better Editorial

Ilya Feoktistov explains why he used a lurid (though potentially accurate) fiction in place of facts to give voice to his anger at Palestinian terrorism. I don't find fiction to be a useful strategy when dealing with a political problem the scope and details of which utterly confound most of us (and coordinately, I found Spielberg's Munich a terrible film), but Feoktistov more than makes up for it with this editorial.

I've done some research of my own on the dynamics of Palestinian terrorism since "Allahu Akbar and a Bang," and I must say, bluntly, Feoktistov is miles closer to being right than was Justine Simon, and for the reasons enumerated by Feoktistov, though he does understress the role of religious doctrine in accounting for the suicide bombings, preferring to lay the blame solely on anti-Semitism. That clearly is an enormous part of it, but so are the incentives of martyrdom for a Muslim and the doctrines concerning treatment of the unbelievers and the sanctity of any land once possessed by Muslims.

Fundamentalism can be found anywhere, but suicide bombing can't, and there are certain factors stemming directly from the Koran and the hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammed) that have precipitated the employment of this particular tactic and the massive support for it among other Muslims.


  1. Maybe I should just e-mail him, but what do you suppose Mr. Feoktistov means when he refers to himself as "[h]aving experienced an Arab terror attack"?

  2. I did a quick search on the D's website to see if any of his prior op-eds or any stories described any firsthand experience with terrorist attacks, and I found none.

    This may be interesting, though. In an op-ed he wrote back in 2004, he describes the acts of Chechen terrorists in somewhat graphic detail in response to another person's op-ed.

    Then, he says the following:

    Yet I did not cite the above examples to prove that the Russians are right and the Chechens are wrong. I cited them to show that using subjective, emotion-inducing evidence without providing a trace of analysis is a cheap and misleading way to get people to agree with your position. It is a method emloyed by those who can't find substantive arguments to defend their positions and one that works on those who do not have enough objective knowledge to form an educated opinion on an issue. It has been used by the likes of McCarthy, Hitler, a certain war-obsessed American administration and other purveyors of empty demagoguery to convince people to agree with them when they can't do so through objective reasoning. Ahmad went no further, and although his article could be counted on to elicit an emotional response, it dismally fails to provide the reader with any rational knowledge of the Chechen war.

    Making shrill one-sided accusations of atrocities only engenders further conflict by building hatred between the hostile parties and clouding the objectivity of the observing parties. Conversely, a sober analysis of the circumstances and tactics of the Chechen war can show exactly to what extent each side is justified in its hostile actions toward the other.

    The piece is here. http://www.thedartmouth.com/article.php?aid=2004011402010

    This is interesting in light of what he says this morning:

    The purpose of my fictional story about Palestinian suicide bombings against Israelis ("Allahu Akbar and a Bang," Jan. 11) was to relate to the readers my strong personal emotions regarding these incidents. Having experienced an Arab terror attack, I wanted to paint an intimate picture of the conflict that reaches us in the form of dry news and dehumanized debate. My article was meant to convey a profound sympathy for the Israeli victims together with a profound anger at their Palestinian murderers and the society which produces and glorifies them.

    It's not a total contradiction, and maybe he's had a change of heart about the proper way to write an op-ed over the past (nearly exactly) 2 years. Changing your mind about how to make arguments is probably part of the college experience, and I don't mean to act like the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    But it's interesting.

  3. yeah, that is really interesting.

    i mean, he seems to realize the power of the better argument and he clearly is capable of making one, so why didn't he in the first place? I don't know, and I don't think his explanation is quite adequate.

  4. I completely disagree. I'm not going to give Feostikov the encouragement of thinking he's closer to being right than Simon. If Simon's accounting of the situation is somewhat ignorant and uninformed (and overinformed by a sympathetic understanding of the Palestinian plight), Feostikov's is just as absurd. Aside from a disclaimed about 3/4 way through where he acknowledges that there is no clear black and white right or wrong, his interpretation is defined by Israeli victimhood at the hands of Palestinians, like all Muslims, are seething with violent hatred for Jews. He fails to give any credence to the possibility that Israeli policies or Palestinian living conditions could foster such hatred and provide fodder and popular appeal for such extremism. Seal, I think you're making a similar mistake when you point to religious factors enabling suicide bombing. While radicalism is always present, the situation in Palestine has created a large market for this kind of garbage, and its grown into a social phenomenon. Like always, the Israel-Palestine issue is more complex than those who opine on it like to let on.
    The bigger problem I had with Feostikov is this gem of a line:
    "Simon's op-ed was blatantly not meant to give a voice to the Palestinian "other side," but rather to shut up those voices which defend Israel.
    That clearly was not the intent of Simon's op-ed, but Feostikov has so convinced himself of who's to blame and who's innocent, that when approached with an opposing opinion, the best he can muster up is a shrill cry of anti-Semitism. It's a great mechanism, and I'm sure it provides to perfect set of blinders to reinforce this kind of thinking. This notion of victimhood and constant threat at the hands of absolute evil isn't problematic only because it justifies harsh and excessive responses (blatant offense in the name of defensiveness). If being Pro-Israel means being Anti-Palestinian, the only discussion that results is one that scuttles any chance of cooperation and progress.

  5. "Fundamentalism can be found anywhere, but suicide bombing can't, there are certain factors stemming directly from the Koran and the hadith (the collected sayings of Muhammed) that have precipitated the employment of this particular tactic and the massive support for it among other Muslims."

    What about all the American school shooters who went on suicide missions? --they are, technically, suicide bombers. And the Japanese Kamikaze war planes? I could probably think of a few other examples.

    I'm pretty sure you've seen "The Battle of Algiers," Seal, which is probably the best movie out there on such conflicts, because it paints a bit of evil in both sides.
    Says Ben M'hidi in that movie:

    "Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets."

    That's what suicide bombings are about; it's not religion.

  6. Niral, this is not even close to being a symmetrical situation. There is absolutely no reason to believe that, if the situations were reversed, Israelis would be suicide bombers or that a Palestinian government would show even the limited restraint that Israel has shown.

    The point that someone made in rebuttal to Simon's op-ed is devastating—suicide bombers tend to be better educated and wealthier than the average Palestinian. So is Israeli oppression or Palestinian poverty the only reason behind these obscene actions? Hardly.

    Are the Israelis responsible for their treatment of the Palestinians? Certainly, but there are factors beyond the actions of the Israelis that account for a substantial portion of the Palestinians' actions. Not everything boils down to what Israel has done to the Palestinians; there is a significant remainder, partly cultural and partly religious. And thus, Feoktistov is a whole lot more right than Simon. I'm not saying that he's absolutely right, but just a lot more right.

  7. Nick, there was a religious aspect in the actions of the kamikaze pilots, just as there was in the older version, seppuku.

    In addition, there were no suicide bombings reported in the Algerian fighting. I don't remember any such actions being depicted in the film either. And the fact that these are suicide bombings is important, as it suggests an inspiration different from "normal" guerrilla tactics. I would ascribe this difference to religion—the incomparably strong belief in an afterlife—a fantastic afterlife—is the key difference, I think. It's not just a power differential. Lots of people deal with severely assymetric distributions of power in many other ways, almost none of which involve the combination of self-destruction and the targeting of civilians.

  8. I didn't mean to imply that Palestinians and Israeli actions are symmetrical, just that the history of Israel's creation and the ongoing circumstances have heavily contributed to the conditions now. More importantly, I think its completely irresponsible to say that the key reason for this lies in religion.
    If the situation was reversed, where Palestinians were dominant, had a military and actual government, and lived in fear of destruction, and Israeli's were lacking these institutions and living in not just fear but in desperation or poverty, they probably would not react the same way. I can guarantee though, that Palestine would use weapons instead of suicide bombers, and Israel would not shirk away from killing innocent civilians.
    This is kind of an absurd hypothetical, but the point is that, being kicked off their land, lacking access to political solutions (and not having a social history of using political solutions), and the creation of a social atmosphere that offers either resignation or violent reprise, the Palestinian response is clearly motivated by something more complex than anti-Semitism.
    This is what makes Feostikov unacceptably far from the truth (whatever that truth may be). That, and the second he implies Simon is anti-Israel (and thereby anti-Semetic) he loses all credibility.
    The same texts of Islam exist in every nation where it is practiced. You can say that there is suicide bombing because of the preaching chosen by Palestinian clerics, but you'd be missing part of the picture if you didn't ask why that appeals to people (is it really just the hope of paradise? is that unique to Islam?), why these are the voices of Palestinian Islam that carry over the more moderate ones.
    Religion may be used to justify the suicide bombings, but I think admiration of martyrs goes beyond religious interpretation. There is a larger social phenomenon that feeds off of and into this mentality, and religion is a much smaller factor than, for instance, cultural and social history of resistance, relative power, living conditions, etc.
    The truth of it? I don't think we can fully understand every factor of religion, history, sociology, psychology, economics, etc that make this situation the way it is, and I didn't ever imply Israeli oppression was the only reason - I just said that you lose all credibility by omitting it, and that attributing it to anti-Semitism seems like more of an appeal to emotion and attempt to paint a muddy picture black and white.
    That is what makes both of Feoktistov's articles a better fit for a propaganda leaflet than any serious discussion.

  9. I didn't omit Israeli oppression, I just stressed that there has got to be a factor that accounts for the particular type of terrorism practiced by Palestinians. If we had a bunch of oppressed secular humanists in exactly the same situation, do you think they'd be blowing themselves up in cafes? Or Jains? Or Baha'i? And how about Jews? A lot of suicide bombings during the Holocaust, yeah? Or Christians? There are no suicide bombings in Darfur. Or East Timor.

    I'm not saying that Islam is evil; far from. But it is certainly central to the lives of the very people who are committing these acts. We in America are so quick to point to the theological agenda at the heart of our theocrats, why do we hesitate to notice it in the Palestinians? Islam is as fundamental to the lives of these bombers as Christianity is to Jerry Falwell.

    Now, the rebuttal is that this is a debased or diseased form of Islam, just as Falwell's version is a debased form of Christianity. Well, in reality, there is a lot more textual support for both extremists than for religious moderates.

    Here is one site that lists a number of passages from the Koran that expressly call for violent action against unbelievers.

    And what checks are there on this violent action? It should be retaliatory: ""And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits, surely Allah does not love those who exceed the limits...
    And fight with them until there is no persecution, and religion should be only for Allah, but if they desist, then there should be no hostility except against the oppressors." (2:193, 196).

    Guess what—none of that is likely to apply to Israelis.

  10. How far do these sociological circumstances really go, though?

    We hold criminals responsible for what they do and condemn them morally, even though many of them grew up poor, had 1 parent, have drug problems, etc. The only time we don't do this is when they (a) lack the capacity to understand what they're doing or (b) have a justification for what they're doing.

    Unless you're arguing that the Palestinian suicide bombers are either too mentally incapacitated to understand what they're doing or that they're justified and acting out of some kind of self-defense, I don't see that these other factors have much to do with whether you can condemn them morally.

    The Palestinians are in a tough situation. Israel isn't being very nice to them, and many of them think that Israel is sitting on something that's rightfully theirs. That doesn't mean that they're any less evil when they take it upon themselves to kill innocents and that it's any less justified to take measures to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

    I think the accusation of anti-Semitism gets thrown around more often than it should, but some of the more virulent defenses of suicide bombers certainly have that undertone.

  11. A good deal of the disagreement between me and Seal might honestly come from how religious we are....or actually, how Seal's religious and I'm not. My belief is that these people have settled on violent response, and if religion provides the moral justification they need for it, or martyrdom provides the frame for societal support of suicide bombings, than religion plays a secondary role. Someone with more faith in religion than myself, who honestly feels compelled by scripture - maybe I don't have the experience of such devoutness and what it can motivate. But again, out of the entire history of Islam, even in the past hundred years, Muslims have expressed resistance in ways ranging from the Pan-Arab liberation movement, Islamo-socialist revolution, Islamo-fascist tyranny, and suicide bombings now in Palestine.
    The point is that there is something unique to the Palestinian condition and their society regardless of the religious context in which it is carried out.

  12. The point is that there is something unique to the Palestinian condition and their society regardless of the religious context in which it is carried out.

    I agree. I think the particular situation Palestinians are in acts enzymatically—it quite likely determines the rate at which these acts occur. But my point is that Islamic doctrine, or a particular selection of it, is the substrate—the raw material for this particular type of reaction. I think you might say that I've got it backwards, but support for suicide bombings is more common among Muslims in general than any other religion, oppressed or otherwise.

    This page has a poll taken of Muslims only in 2002, asking if suicide bombing in the defense of Islam was justifiable. In 11 of 14 countries, a quarter or more say yes. But even this is a bit misleading. In actuality, the poll was conducted on an often-sometimes-rarely-never scale, and rarely is counted in the no column. If rarelys are added in, things jump an appreciable amount. Now, support has dropped off quite a bit since 2002, and that's a great sign, but it's still not even close to the numbers you'd see from non-Muslim countries. In addition, this poll didn't even ask Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Egypt (the question was actually banned there), Sudan, Palestine, Iran, or Iraq. Those countries aren't likely to have a supermajority condemning the practice.

    I see no reason to overlook religion as the major motivating factor when its practitioners show such a markedly different attitude toward suicide bombing from the rest of the world and that religion specifically demands a central place in the life of those practitioners.

  13. Today's D (January 27) has three more op-eds on the Feoktistov-Simon debate.

    All of them take Simon's side.

    In "Israelis as Intolerant as Palestinians," Paul Pope '05 responds to Feoktistov's poll data on the Palestinians with poll data on what Israelis think:

    In "On the Wrong Boat," Fred Meyer '08 argues that the United States and Israel are not in fact "in the same boat," and that the United States is not "stuck" joining Israel and fighting the Palestinians.

    And in "A Tribalist Tone," Religion professor A. Kevin Reinhart (who teaches many of Dartmouth's classes on Islam, though I *think* he's an atheist) states that he is "diisappointed to the see The Dartmouth giving more than half a page to a columnist who week after week gives vent to his 'strong personal emotions' -- bigotry and hatred, toward Palestinians, Muslims and Arabs."

    All interesting for those still following this.