Clash of civilisation and clash of classes

This piece on Islamic terrorism had been in my in-box for nearly two months. Finally, I got around to reading it.

For some reason, the piece by Ms. Giovanna Jacob made me think about my own position on a couple of current issues, to clarify and re-confirm them. After the exercise, I felt more reassured about my own positions. So, here is a ‘Question & Answer’ that I conducted with my own conscience.

(1) The root-cause theory

(a) The case of Donald Trump

I examined the root-cause theory advanced by apologists for Marxism and/or Islamic terrorism. I wondered if I too had not advocated a variant of the ‘root cause’ theory for the Trump phenomenon.

My answer to my own question: Yes and no. The causes of any phenomenon are many and complex. Financial globalisation, asset bubbles and economic inequality are, undoubtedly, few of the causes behind the rise of Donald Trump. There are other factors too. Disgust with political correctness and hypocrisy. Mistakes made by Republicans and neo-cons among them in shutting down government, shutting down dialogue on things like gun-control, on deficits, on undermining Social Security, on reforms to Wall Street, etc.

Second, the resort to a ‘root cause’ argument can never be an excuse to avoid action in the here and present. That is the message of the quote from the article: “If someone is trying to kill you, you do not start listing up your sins in thought, word, deed and omission from your childhood to the present day: you just try to stop the assassin.” In the case of Donald Trump, there is nothing illegal about what he is doing or saying. Hence, there is no need to contemplate taking action against him even while addressing the root cause.

Indeed, if we have to take action in the present and address root causes of a problem at the same time, one has to remember two things:

(i) The action itself should not exacerbate or enhance the complexity of the problem. For instance, in the case of Donald Trump, if the Republican Party were to thwart his nomination through questionable and unfair means, will the backlash it produces be worse than or better than a Trump candidacy and eventual victory?

(ii) That we had correctly identified the root causes of the problem and not just the one that is convenient to us and one that shoves the blame on the ‘other side’. For example, Western oppression and exploitation are routinely cited as justifications (not explanations) for Islamic terrorism now. Even if one were to accept that argument for the sake of advancing the discussion, it is important to think about other root causes. Muslims have to introspect and reflect on those.

The author alludes to the weak and often silent responses of the moderates among Muslims. There are others too. Historian Bernard Lewis refers to many of them in his book ‘What went wrong?’ written immediately after 9/11. So, a discussion of root causes – even if it is not at the exclusion of immediate actions – has to be comprehensive and not shy away from turning the gaze and the spotlight on oneself and one’s groups and other affiliations.

(b) War reparations, hyperinflation and the Great Depression and the Nazis and Hitler:

Then, there was the discussion on German, Nazis and the emergence of Hitler. Ms. Giovanna Jacob points to the fact that many countries suffered from hyperinflation and the Great Depression. But, not all of them saw an emergence of a ‘Hitler’ in their countries. This is similar to the argument that is advanced against Islamic terrorism. Not all poor and exploited countries take to terrorism to settle scores and, second, those among Muslims who have taken up violence have not necessarily come impoverished families.

This argument too is linked in some respect to the ‘root cause’ issue. That made me think of whether my argument that economic (income and wealth) inequality and diminishing economic opportunities are one of the causes behind the Trump phenomenon was correct.

After my own reflection, I came away satisfied that it was not wrong, for the following reasons:

(i) There are necessary and there are sufficient conditions. I did not and do not think that economic causes are the sole factors. Causal factors in complex phenomenon are usually not simple. Simple and single explanations might be too simplistic.

(ii) There may be other factors too at work. But, sometimes, a spark is needed to light the fire. Hitler got that spark from the economic misery of Germany. So, one cannot rule out a role for German’s economic misery in the rise of Hitler nor can one rely on it for explanation to the exclusion of other factors.

This response might disappoint those who look for neat and black or white explanations. But, the world is not neat nor do simple explanations suffice at all times.

[Parenthetically, I must add here that Jared Bernstein, former Chief Economist to American VP Joe Biden thinks that stagnation in real wages is the reason behind the real anger among American voters that are propelling them towards Donald Trump or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders, I must add.]

(2) Two wrongs not making it right

We know that and often use it with our own children that one mistake does not justify another and that two wrongs do not make a right. There too, it is not clear that we apply the principle at all times evenly.

Trump, again

For example, the question can be raised on the Donald Trump phenomenon too:

“Yes, we agree with you, Nageswaran, that financialisation, financial globalisation, central bank hubris and consequent asset bubbles are all deeply wrong and need to be addressed. But, is Donald Trump the answer? You cannot solve one wrong or mistake with another.”

My response:

(i) We do not know if Donald Trump will be the answer. He may not be elected as US President in November 2016. Second, he has not been foisted or thrust by anyone unfairly. The democratic process that we commit to, has thrown him up. Do we want to complicate the situation by abandoning our core principle of democracy by sabotaging his nomination? Second, what guarantee can we give that the situation would not become worse if one unfairly and undemocratically ejected him? As a tactic too, it might backfire making many consider him an underdog and more sinned against than sinned and rallying around him.

(ii) There is also a need for humility on our part. We do not know if Donald Trump is the answer to the problem. That lies in the future. For now, that he would be a disaster is a view. We should be humble about our certitudes because we did not know or anticipate many things. There are counter-arguments at the practical level too:

(a) Campaign utterances usually do not form the basis for governance. In mature and stable democracies, governance happens at the middle, for better or worse. Campaigns in democracies are often extreme these days but governance, more often than not, is not so, fortunately.

(b)  In the past, the same was said of Ronald Reagan. But, he remains one of the most popular President in many polls in America. Further, although there are debates on the long-term consequences of some of his actions (in Afghanistan, his support for Pakistan, his deficit spending, etc.), for the US, he restored its primacy, dominance and cemented its status by destroying Soviet Union. Importantly, he restored the faith of American people in their own country and in themselves. These too are undeniable.

(c) Finally, shall we also pause and think about the responsible and sober people that brought the world to the brink of collapse in 2008 and have again done so, with their post-2008 policies? Robbing the savers and pensioners and engineering transfer of wealth from them to debtors, through negative interest rates, is an extreme form of redistribution. What yardstick allows us to look benignly upon such actions? Can Trump really do worse than them?

Babri Masjid 1992

Another issue that came to my mind is the issue of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 in India.

The question/argument can run as follows: “Yes, the demolition of Hindu temples was wrong. But, did the demolition of the Masjid there help to solve or complicate the situation in India? Was one wrong the right way to correct another wrong?”

My response:

(i) It is a convention that has evolved through usage that one wrong is not the answer to another wrong.

(ii) But, it is an eternal principle or Dharma of nature that all actions have consequences. That overrides (i) above because that is more powerful. Hence, actions will always have consequences. Unfortunately, we cannot determine the form and the timing of the consequences occurring. There is no expiration date for the consequences. Nature determines that. It is, indeed, inevitable.

(iii) Further, the nature and severity of the original action, as perceived by the victims, make reactions and responses of an equally violent magnitude, inevitable. It can and will have to be tackled as a ‘Law and Order’ matter at the specific instance but it cannot be judged unfair or unreasonable, from other planes.

(3) The dharma of ‘Actions have consequences’

This dharma caused another question to pop up in my head. If actions have consequences and if one cannot determine the nature, the form and the timing of those consequences, perhaps, Western nations are simply reaping the consequences of their sins against natives, colonies and others over the years or centuries. Can that be a basis for understanding Islamic terrorism, philosophically?

My response: It is true that the West is indeed reaping its own consequences. However, it can only be a philosophical explanation but it becomes problematic as a practical explanation for several reasons:

(i) The natives or the blacks or slaves or citizens of former colonies are not retaliating or rebelling against the West or Christian Whites. Do Islamists have really a grievance against the West?

Question: Didn’t you say that one couldn’t predict or dictate the form that consequences would take?

My response: Yes, true but that brings me to the second part of my response which has three parts, in turn!

(ii(a)) Islamic nations and citizens have received assistance from the West economically and militarily. They have been squandered by their own rulers and further, their religious heads have kept the societies chained to dogmas. Hence, they have battles to wage internally with their rulers and with their religious dogmas first.

Indeed, that leads us to another important dharma that is hard to practice: we cleanse ourselves before we point out the dirt in others.

(ii(b)) If you are still not convinced that you should condemn Islamic terrorism, here is my final answer: please remember that all actions have consequences. Just as the West is experiencing the consequences for its actions, the ‘consequent’ action of Islamic terrorists is the first link in the next chain of ‘action-consequence’ cycle. Islamists too will face the consequences of their actions now. Indeed, just as the Western societies face the consequences for the mistakes their governments have committed in their name, Muslims too would face the consequences for the acts of terrorism committed in their name. That is why it is a cycle of retribution.  It is permanent.

(ii(c)) Finally, you have no idea whether Islamic terrorism is about securing justice or about dominance and re-fashioning of the world.

(4) Conclusions form the ‘interview’

Balance and fairness is hard work

I realise that how complex and difficult these questions are. It is possible to conflate and confuse people who have no time (not as jobless as I am) nor inclination to delve deeper into these issues. Achieving consistency with dharmic principles, balance in thoughts, fairness in arguments, improving one’s situation and achieving dominance over the other are not only difficult but also incompatible.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that most of them are taken in by the proximate, most insistent and most persistently repeated explanations no matter it is mostly misleading and incorrect. Cognitive biases that we are born with, virtually guarantee such an outcome. That too is in the nature of things.

These situations easily lend themselves to selective interpretation and selective application of logic and principles. It is easy to be seduced by the certitude of one’s own logic without realising that one is merely applying it selectively and conveniently. Reasoned and reasonable thinking is just a lot of hard work. That is why achieving the right balance in our thoughts and actions consistently is not easy at all.

That is why, much as we can and do debate the action-reaction cycles, the fairness and unfairness of them all, most of the cycles are inevitable and indeed, Nature ordains them. There is no getting away from it.

Nature restores balance from imbalance

If individually, all of us, are balanced, fair and truthful in our own judgements, there is a greater chance of the collective will being balanced, fair and truthful. Otherwise, nature will find its own way of imposing that balance. That won’t be pleasant. Indeed, the longer the imbalance continues in our thinking and the more pervasive it is, the bigger will be the shock that Nature would administer to remove the imbalance and restore balance.

Currently, there are so many imbalances within societies, nations and in the wider world that have accumulated over the last two to four decades, that a great upheaval awaits us. Three decades of debt-driven economic growth has created a class of rich and a class of indebted poor. The middle class is either hollowed out or thinning in several Western countries. Then, there is the scourge of Islamic terrorism. The backlash from Europe towards refugees is only its most recent manifestation. Therefore, there is a simultaneous clash of classes and clash of civilisations. Worse, the warring parties in each clash collide and collude with the parties in the other clash resulting in a clash between the clashes too!

2 thoughts on “Clash of civilisation and clash of classes

  1. Interesting article, Ananth. Yes, no one can escape the dharma that actions have consequences. This article can be further easy to read and to follow if this complicated format had been given up and if it had been written in a straight forward fashion. Nevertheless, highly thought provoking! Thanks – VP

  2. I agree with you about the complicated format. The exercise in the mind could have been transcribed in a more readable format. Let me try and do it. Thank you, Prabhakar-ji.

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