Friday, August 11, 2006

Choosing Sides

One of the common threads of the patchwork of Islamist lunacy afflicting the globe is its targeting of any efforts by Muslims and non-Muslims (or different types of Muslims) to get along. The current wave of Shiite-Sunni violence in Iraq can be traced to an attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February. It was designed to foment violence between the two communities, and it has succeeded.

India is a country where, given the difficult demographic hand it has been dealt, people get along well enough by the standards of the developing world. (Certainly in comparison to neighboring Pakistan, where the Hindus were mostly chased out at independence and where Sunni-Shiite violence is common.) But when trains in Bombay are bombed, killing hundreds, not only is increased sectarian tension the result, it is what the bombers are counting on. The encouragement of angry separatism by jihadi entrepreneurs in Europe and other places where Muslims are a minority is designed to cleave Muslims there off the society around them. To do this requires teaching them of their innate differences with everyone else, and the impossibility of reconciling those differences. It is of raw material like this that plots to murder thousands of infidels over the ocean are formed. Even the Sept. 11 attacks are arguably in part an attack on intergroup cooperation, in that the U.S. was on Sept. 10 a society where Muslims integrated peacefully like every other group, perhaps better than anywhere they are a minority. But from the moment the planes hit the towers, a lingering suspicion of them has inevitably lurked in the hearts of many of their fellow citizens.

All of this has the makings of a very disturbing equilibrium. Suppose that there is a society with Muslims and non-Muslims leaving together tolerantly. (Shiites and Sunnis would work just as well.) The Muslim community is ordered by radicalism from most to least. At the left end of the spectrum is the guy who spent six months training in Afghanistan and spends all day downloading beheading videos and bombmaking instructions from the Internet; at the right is the Muslim doctor who sits on the local school board, whose daughter has married a non-Muslim and whose son went to West Point. The government is aware of radical tendencies, and focuses its law-enforcement efforts purely where the danger (which is thought to be limited to isolated, small incidents) is perceived to be. It therefore only monitors the far left end of the spectrum.

One day a spectacular event, say, Sept. 11 or the bombing of the Samarra mosque occurs. People in the other community suddenly realize that the level of danger is much higher than they thought. Given that, they must expand the portion of the spectrum they monitor , because even if less radical Muslims are less likely to go violent, the consequences if they do are much more severe. (In Iraq, it might be new violence by Shiite militias against Sunnis rather than activities by the government.)

But the increased efforts against less radical portions of the populations means that those portions, and even some people more moderate than that, see a threat to themselves based on their tribal identity. The basic genetic imperatives of tribal solidarity that we all have to some extent accentuate this effect, so that more of the Muslim community begins to see itself in opposition to the rest of society. But this in turn requires law enforcement efforts to be expanded even more, because the percevied average radicalism of the Muslim community has increased, which only serves to further radicalize the population.

In this scenario, everyone is acting rationally at all times, and most of the time without being motivated by any intrinsic intertribal hatred per se. But the result is that ultimately most Muslims come to see themselves as oppressed by the rest of society, and most of the rest of society comes to see all Muslims as a threat. Non-Muslims more and more fear what is going on in the mosques and demand that the law do something about it, and Muslims more and more fear what is going on in the FBI, correspondingly becoming more isolated from the society around them.

This is the outcome that separatists in multitribal societies always seek – the radicalization of both communities, which forces even peacefully inclined people to take sides. This serves to increase the importance of (and thus the rents accruing to) the leaders of the separatist movement. And this is the outcome we are probably already seeing in Iraq, where the cooperative center is shrinking by the day in the Shiite and Sunni communities. (And maybe not just there. Today Shiites attacked the offices of a Kurdish party in Baghdad.) And maybe in the West as well. 22 percent of British Muslims (and 31 percent of young ones) believe that the London subway bombings were justified. Indeed, the increased radicalism of Muslim youth relative to their parents (many of the plane-plot suspects came from decidedly non-radical families) may be evidence of this process in action. On the non-Muslim side, about a third of Americans think U.S. Muslims are sympathetic to Al Qaeda, and 39 percent admit to harboring some prejudice. President Bush yesterday made a point of using the phrase “Islamic fascism” which has been floating around the commentariat for quite awhile but is the kind of language the Administration has generally avoided using.

What can be done? There are no easy answers. Increasing the incentives for intertribal cooperation is the most obvious. As I have argued before, unrestricted commerce provides greater opportunity for people to gain from intertribal cooperation. In the survey from USA Today linked above, those who know Muslims personally (with work being one of the best ways to meet them) are considerably less worried than those who don't. But even this is no magic bullet. The refusal to subsidize tribal separatism (e.g., through programs emphasizing static, zero-sum multiculturalism in the schools) can also contribute at the margins. And the simple model sketched above suggests that if the initial skepticism of the other is sufficiently small the unfortunate segregation dynamic may not happen. But ultimately, if people are sufficiently predisposed to fear the other, one event may permanently drive them apart, with potentially grim consequences.

The Daily Mail has a report on a new poll indicating that British sentiments against Islam generally as a threat to Western society are hardening. Perhaps this is a temporary effect of the reports on the transatlantic-plane-destruction plot. But perhaps not.


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