”Those who will make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”
During my studies I had the pleasure of working at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Nottingham. Out of the dozens of people and nationalities working there, I seemed to connect best with this guy Adhil, who was an Indian Muslim. At first I was quite surprised that someone would actually pray five times a day. I didn’t mind it of course. He didn’t mind me not praying at all.
Like many others, he was in the UK for a work placement and eventually returned to Ahmadabad. I believe he married a woman he had met once before. He was also curious about me living together with my girlfriend and not being married. I told him about a saying we have in Finland – ”Never buy a pig in a bag.” He considered the approach pragmatic.
Later, I have learned that ’chemistry’ between people is almost impossible to fake – you either like someone or you don’t. It is one of those instincts we all recognize but can’t really define. It is also universal – the same mechanisms work everywhere. It is as likely that you will find a kindred spirit from the other side of the globe as from your next door. I have noticed that this fact is widely understood by people who have spent considerable time abroad or otherwise outside their comfort zone. If we are not exposed to individuals from other backgrounds, we tend to overestimate the influence that the culture has on people’s personalities, aspirations and values. The idea that people are remarkably similar all around the globe is perhaps the least known fact that I know of.
The memory of that moment occurred to me when I was listening to commentaries about the recent attacks in Paris.
The motivations of angry young men
Humanity itself is very much the same, no matter what type of government people live under. Vast majority of us want to live ”ordinary” lives in peace and quiet. People are willing to tolerate a lot of hardship in order to have such opportunity – as the current flow of refugees in the Mediterranean demonstrates.
What then drives people to commit atrocities?
Voltaire, the French enlightenment philosopher, was not a great fan of religion. His point that religion can be used to mobilize the masses to do terrible things is close to being banal these days. And we know from the history of the 20th century that widely believed absurdities can as easily be secular in nature.
Both Voltaire and countless of others have concluded that the best antidote against collective absurdity is to provide people with opportunities. Opportunity should be interpreted in the widest sense here: as an opportunity to educate oneself; an opportunity to be free of repression or exclusion of any form; and an opportunity to strive for one’s dreams and goals, whatever they may be.
Where such opportunities exist the message of ignorance and intolerance is a difficult one to get across.
Studies have shown that majority of convicted criminals consider themselves to be victims of circumstances. Alienation and the feeling of being a victim can be abused by people who convince young men to become murderers. It is important to understand this mechanism whatever the reasons for the victimization because this is the process by which absurdities turn into plausible world views.
Unfortunately some self-proclaimed beacons of liberty suggest that there is a greater plot at play here – they claim that we are witnessing a full blown clash of civilizations. Ironically this narrative is considered appealing especially among the less fortunate parts of European societies with less opportunities.
Some will no doubt use these attacks as proof that this supposedly tells something fundamental about Islam itself. As an atheist I am not a fan of any religion but I can’t think of many more absurd ideas than to lump over one billion people together with predetermined character traits!
However, while caution is always warranted, so is justice. It is clear that crimes, such as the attacks in Paris (or Beirut and Baghdad for that matter) cannot be tolerated. Violent criminal groups such as the Islamic State and its ilk should obviously be stopped – with force where necessary.
How to make societies more resistant against absurdities?
Despite being a lesser factor, I do believe the attacks tell something about societies that lack (secular) independent structures. If any force – religious or secular – has too strong influence over a society there is a risk that it will start hindering its development.
I would argue that the values of the enlightenment – liberty, tolerance and progress – are instrumental in the design of any society that wants to vaccinate itself against ignorance and intolerance.
Societies that try to guarantee their citizens with opportunities and allow space for any set of beliefs, modern or traditional, are the ones’ best shielded against widespread absurdity. A secular constitution with checks and balances and separation of powers – the idea is hardly anything new.
These ideals are mutually exclusive only with sets of beliefs that do not denounce violence and oppression as legitimate means to their ends. In principle, this goal has been achieved already in the signing of the UN’s declaration of universal human rights.
I understand that the values derived from the enlightenment are not universally accepted. However, in my experience these values are followed on the individual level almost everywhere on the planet. When asked, most would agree that we should treat others the way we expect to be treated ourselves. I would propose though, that instead of enlightenment values, they should be called “the lowest common denominator-values” – that should be catchy enough.
Considering the next steps
Despite the trying times we should remember that we are talking about people like ourselves when we draw artificial and arbitrary lines on the geographical and ideological maps. It would not only be cruel but also counterproductive to blame the refugees for this. They are one symptom of the same cause – lack of opportunity – that led to the attacks. It would be wise to assimilate rather than alienate the newcomers.
Current threats must be fought of course but to fight terrorism it is as important to eliminate its root causes – lack of opportunities. Young men and women who have the opportunity to freely choose the life they want to live are virtually impossible to conscript to fight for absurd causes.
The coming months will measure the level of maturity of the French society. It would be fitting that the cradle of the enlightenment would illuminate the world about how to stand up against an enemy as treacherous as self-righteous causes.