Friday, 16 January 2015

Genocide, Guilt And Gormlessness

I'd like to talk about a subtle but crucially important topic on which many well-meaning people go wrong - the distinction between justifiable and unjustifiable claims.

Let's take this statement: "The Mohammedan Conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history" [Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization", Vol. 1, Chap. 16]

A statement like this, suitably backed up by research, is a dot on someone's graph. By itself, it may do nothing either useful or mischievous. All utility and mischief arise from the way dots are joined and extrapolated.

Here's a mischievous way in which the dots may be joined. If one misapplies inductive logic to generalise about a group, one could say, "Muslim invaders and rulers massacred hundreds of thousands of Hindus. Therefore, all Muslims are capable of massacring other people." Further, if one then misapplies deductive logic to make inferences about a member of a group, one could say, "All Muslims are capable of massacring other people. Therefore, my neighbour Ahmed, who is Muslim, is capable of massacring other people. I must therefore fear Ahmed." Never mind that poor Ahmed may be a nerdy software engineer with nothing more on his mind than his weekly grocery shopping. He has now been turned into a potential mass murderer and a threat by the simple misapplication of inductive and deductive logic.

This particular kind of mischievous reasoning is called "guilt by association". Guilt by association is very much in the air these days in the wake of frequent violence and terrorist acts committed by people who happen to be Muslim. There is a narrative pushed by the right wing, both overtly and covertly, that all Muslims are suspect because a few Muslims have engaged in acts of violence. The narrative dovetails neatly with the Right's demonisation of immigrants in general on economic and law-and-order grounds. Immigrants have been held responsible for everything from "taking away our jobs", to being parasites on the welfare state, to being responsible for crime. The cocktail of Islamophobia and xenophobia that the Right is brewing has now put tremendous strain on the social fabric in countries with Muslim minorities, especially Muslim immigrant minorities.

Liberals have a hard fight on their hands attempting to reason with the uncommitted majority not to succumb to the Right's specious arguments. Guilt by association cannot become an accepted narrative in a civilised society.

Having said this, here's what the liberals are doing wrong.

Let's try another way to join the dots. We'll start with a hypothesis (no more than a hypothesis, mind you) that since Islamic religious doctrine has severe injunctions against unbelief (especially polytheism, idolatry and apostasy), it could possibly influence devout Muslims into committing acts of violence and aggression upon those they see as unbelievers. We can test this hypothesis by analysing the possible influence of Islamic doctrine on those who had historically committed such acts of aggression against unbelievers to assess if there was a correlation. For historical figures, we would probably study biographies written by sources that are plausibly unbiased. For present day figures, we might be able to rely on their own testimony. Assuming this causal link between doctrine and violence was proven, one could then survey the opinions of Muslim communities in various countries today to assess their degree of belief in Islamic scripture. If the surveys should find that there is an overwhelming belief in literal interpretations of scripture by Muslims today, there would then be reasonable cause to predict a predisposition towards violence and aggression by Muslims against unbelievers even today.

[This isn't just a thought experiment. Muslim biographers from Ziauddin Barani to Abdul Qadir Al Badaoni have embellished the accounts of their masters' conquests (Mohammed bin Tughlaq and Akbar) with their own hate-filled invective against the infidels who were killed or taken into slavery, which certainly points to the influence of doctrine in such savagery. Timur (Tamerlane) himself seems to have claimed that his motives in invading India were as much to gain spiritual merit by fighting infidels as to plunder their wealth. A recent Pew survey on the attitudes of Muslims around the world today shows a disturbingly high proportion in favour of death for the crime of apostasy. This particular approach to joining the dots seems to have a valid basis in fact.]

The subtle point to note is that although the above reasoning seems to arrive at a very similar conclusion to that of our earlier example, this is not guilt by association! It does not imply that my neighbour Ahmed is a potentially dangerous killer. What it is is a nuanced conclusion about the correlation of intolerant attitudes to violent action, arrived at through data and logic. It would no doubt be a very uncomfortable sort of conclusion, but it would be perfectly defensible. It is also the sort of reasoning that makes liberals break out in hives.

I saw a textbook example of liberal outrage last week when I commented on a post appearing on the Facebook site "The Liberal Indians". My comment was in response to a rather typical left/liberal piece that laid the blame for all violence originating from Muslims at the door of the West. It claimed that recent Islamist terror attacks were all in response to the provocations of the West. I challenged this thesis by providing a simple counterexample. I spoke about the experience that India had with Islam. India is not a Western country, and there was no provocation to Islam in the form of an invasion by any Indian king of Muslim lands. Yet, Indian history bears witness to centuries of brutality inflicted by Muslim invaders and conquerors.

As a specific example, I cited the well-known writings of the American historian Will Durant, together with some informed calculations by the modern Belgian political thinker Koenraad Elst. Elst, basing his calculations upon notes chronicled by Muslim scribes in the retinue of conquerors and kings, came up with a figure of 80 million Hindus massacred by Muslims over a period of 500 years. Perhaps, I suggested, there is something in Islamic doctrine itself that provides a motive for violence against unbelievers, and external provocation is not always necessary.

The liberal response was multi-pronged, and this is a sample of the arguments thrown at me.

  • I was labelled a right wing Hindu, the classic ad hominem. (Clearly, no one had bothered to read my blog posts or my various on-line battles with Hindutva sympathisers. I guess this is the cross that independent thinkers have to bear - being attacked Left, Right and Centre (see what I did there?))
  • I was accused of having a simplistic view of history. My sources were trashed as having a right-wing agenda. Koenraad Elst in particular was described as being "sophisticated but dangerous".
  • I was challenged to prove exact numbers (the number of million Hindus who were reportedly killed) and to justify the claim of "largest genocide in human history", with the implication that if the numbers were any less than claimed (say 10 million instead of 50 million or 80 million), then the entire thesis could be safely rejected.
  • The massacres of the time were ascribed to the violent nature of the period itself - examples of cruelties by non-Muslim rulers were provided.

The last argument is the only one that I would consider plausible, but it should also lend itself to critical, statistical analysis (assuming we have the relevant numbers to go on).

I am not a Muslim-hater, and I made my comment without mischievous intent, in the spirit of logical enquiry. But the ferocity of the response took me by surprise. The peculiarly personal tone of the attacks suggested to me that not only had I hit a raw nerve but that I may actually have stumbled upon a truth that the liberals are desperate to deny.

The point behind my example was simple. If Muslims could visit large-scale violence upon a non-Muslim populace thanks to scriptural injunction, then not all Islamist violence can be laid at the door of the West, nor be ascribed to external provocation in general. For this line of logic to work, it is not relevant whether the number of deaths was 80 million, 50 million or even 10 million. If sufficiently large numbers of Hindus have died at the hands of Muslim invaders and conquerors, and if the accompanying chronicles associate those killings with the doctrinal injunction against idolaters and polytheists, then this would strongly suggest that a predilection for violence exists within Islam.

Therefore, being hung up on a figure of 50 million or 80 million betrays a desire to win the argument on a technicality and shut down an extremely inconvenient line of thought.

My reading of the situation is that the Right wants to join the dots in a mischievous and self-serving way, while the Left wants to deny the existence of dots in the first place. I wonder - Is there a middle ground between the denial of the Left and the mischief of the Right?

As to the sources I quoted, it is not at all clear why Koenraad Elst should be considered "dangerous", other than for the fact that his writings may be misused by mischievous parties to further a divisive agenda.

What should Hindus say to Muslims when they consider the record of Islam in Hindu lands? It is first of all very important not to allot guilt wrongly. Notions of collective or hereditary guilt should be avoided. Today's Muslims cannot help it that other Muslims did certain things in 712 or 1565 or 1971. (Emphasis mine.) One thing they can do, however, is to critically reread their scripture to discern the doctrinal factors of Muslim violence against Hindus and Hinduism. Of course, even without scriptural injunction, people get violent and wage wars; if Mahmud Ghaznavi hadn't come, some of the people he killed would have died in other, non-religious conflicts. But the basic Quranic doctrine of hatred against the unbelievers has also encouraged many good-natured and pious people to take up the sword against Hindus and other Pagans, not because they couldn't control their aggressive instincts, but because they had been told that killing unbelievers was a meritorious act. Good people have perpetrated evil because religious authorities had depicted it as good.

This is material for a no-nonsense dialogue between Hindus and Muslims. But before Hindus address Muslims about this, it is imperative that they inform themselves about this painful history. Apart from unreflected grievances, Hindus have so far not developed a serious critique of Islam's doctrine and historical record. Often practising very sentimental, un-philosophical varieties of their own religion, most Hindus have very sketchy and distorted images of rival religions. Thus, they say that Mohammed was an Avatar of Vishnu, and then think that they have cleverly solved the Hindu-Muslim conflict by flattering the Prophet (in fact, it is an insult to basic Muslim beliefs, which reject divine incarnation, apart from indirectly associating the Prophet with Vishnu's incarnation as a pig). Instead of the silly sop stories which pass as conducive to secularism, Hindus should acquaint themselves with real history and real religious doctrines.

Another thing which we should not forget is that Islam is ultimately rooted in human nature. We need not believe the Muslim claim that the Quran is of divine origin; but then it is not of diabolical origin either, it is a human document. The Quran is in all respects the product of a 7th-century Arab businessman vaguely acquainted with Judeo-Christian notions of monotheism and prophetism, and the good and evil elements in it are very human. Even its negative elements appealed to human instincts, e.g. when Mohammed promised a share in the booty of the caravans he robbed, numerous Arab Pagans took the bait and joined him. The undesirable elements in Islamic doctrine stem from human nature, and can in essence be found elsewhere as well. Keeping that in mind, it should be possible to make a fair evaluation of Islam's career in India on the basis of factual history.
I think Elst makes very sensible suggestions here, both for a clear-headed understanding of history and for an inter-faith dialogue without blame or rancour.

The prevalent attitude among Indian liberals today seems to be to avoid this hard-headed approach altogether and to comfort themselves with visions of a relatively benign encounter of cultures. Their intentions are the best (i.e., to let sleeping dogs lie), but this is not an approach that will work when there is a mischievous Right eager to stir the pot for its own nefarious ends.

Liberal gormlessness has resulted in a political vacuum that is now occupied by the Right. Just because liberals are engaged in a conspiracy of silence regarding the possible links between Islamic scripture and violence by Muslims, it does not mean everyone is silent. The absence of honest debate has left the field open to the dishonest to manipulate facts as they please. It would be far better if liberals could seize the bull by the horns and understand the distinction between a people (individual Muslims) and an ideology (the Islamic religion and its teachings). It is possible to fight to protect the rights of marginalised people even as they challenge illiberal ideas in an ideology.

I explore these ideas further in another post.
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