The Jihad Problem

Solidarity: The ties in society that bring people together as one.

First and foremost, my sympathy goes out to the victims and their families of the recent Paris tragedy. This genocidal violence has been taking place all throughout the Middle East and other parts of the world for years and has seem to have gotten worse in recent times.  I can only hope that humanity worldwide will begin to have a serious conversation about the growing problem of Islamic terrorism and what we can do to prevent it.

The question is: where does that conversation even begin? I believe the answer to that question lies within neuroscience. If we want to understand how humans can commit such atrocities like the one we saw on Friday, we must attempt to understand the human brain.

Coincidentally, I learned of the attacks in Paris while watching episode 5 of a new series on PBS called The Brain. This episode discussed in-group / out-group thinking and how our brains have evolved to accept social bonds, which was critical to the development of civilization. What I found to be extremely relevant to this conversation is just how easily susceptible the human brain is to dehumanizing people belonging to the out-group.

Just dwell on that for a moment: It is easier to dehumanize people who are different from yourself. We are all prone to this ability of degradation whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Combined with propaganda, the idea of dehumanization can spread on a massive scale. This is precisely how the Nazi’s were able to commit such atrocities against the Jewish people. The more differences between people, the easier it becomes to dehumanize them.

This becomes clear when you break people down by race, religion, political identity and class. Most humans form in-groups based on these four characteristics. Sure it’s possible that a poor black liberal atheist and a rich white conservative christian could form an in-group with each other- but why? There is one thing that tends to disregard these characteristics: culture. We see it all the time in sports, music, art and many other hobbies. Having similar interests can bring even the most extreme opposites together.

But not everyone shares the same interests and our cultures can be vastly different. And even when they are the same, many people still feed off their preconceived stereotypes to the point that they simply don’t care. So how do we bring people who are fundamentally different together? Is solidarity possible for everyone? Is world peace simply delusional thinking?

Our history is filled with horror stories of our ancestors trying to build a utopia. We must not repeat these mistakes, but we mustn’t dismiss the idea of creating a better world. We can achieve progress- and I believe the key to that progress is through the education of our values and why we share them throughout the western world. Values like science, secularism, critical thinking, liberty and human rights.

To create a better world, these values must be shared globally. To start, we should discourage childhood indoctrination and continue having open ended conversations. We should implement these values in our public schools and work towards a universal standard for human rights. These types of changes won’t come easily and it will take generations for sufficient change, but progress is possible with time. It must be possible in todays global society.

But how do we deal with people who believe in martyrdom and violence to accomplish their goals? How do we deal with people who reject critical thinking and reason?

I believe that violence is only justified in self defense. However, pacifism is not the morally superior solution to groups like ISIS and Boko Haram who murder, rape and enslave their populations while standing against important universal values. It is these values that are worth defending. Countries must come together and form a global coalition to fight against this common enemy.

We must admit that Islamism and the spread of Sharia Law is an integral part of the problem- that many of their specific beliefs conflict with the values that the civilized world champions. However, we must be careful to separate the millions of nominal Muslims from the Islamists and Jihadists who wish to impose their ideology over the rest of us. We must not be divided by xenophobia.  The future of tolerance depends on it.