London ten years on

In July 2005 I was in Surry Hills, far from London, and still working at Sydney Boys High where much of July found me in dialogue with our Muslim students. I also began attending South Sydney Uniting Church. My archive for July 2005 is still intact.

Here are some entries from that month. Internal links may have died.


08 JUL 2005

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— photo by Derek Langley.

All About Evil

13 JUL 2005

All About Evil

In the light of London and so much else, I again turned to another of the best books of the past decade, along with Amin Maalouf’s On Identity, referred to in more depth in my English and ESL Blog recently. This other book is Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Pimlico edition 2001). The head link here is to psychologist of the mind and language Steven Pinker, a review first published in the New York Times. Pinker wrote:

…Glover does not let our species off so lightly. He shows that distinctive patterns of cruelty and callousness pop up repeatedly in history, cutting across times, places and political systems. He insists that ‘we need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us,’ not to make us pessimists but as ‘part of the project of caging and taming them.’ For Glover argues that human nature encompasses not just destructive impulses but ‘moral resources’: humane impulses that sometimes recoil from the intentions of the monsters. The course of history, and our hopes for the future, are shaped by struggles among these impulses inside countless minds.

The great contribution of Humanity is a dissection of these motives. This is not, as some might fear, an attempt to reduce history to psychology. Glover makes it clear that the motives are responses to the larger community and manifest themselves in different ways in different social and political contexts.

Here are some of the monsters. Pure, amoral self-interest. Sadism and the thrill of the battlefield. Tribalism, which elevates the group above the individual and turns personal enmity into feuding, war and genocide. Ideology, which can convince people that a struggle between groups — races for the Nazis, classes for the Marxists — is inevitable and necessary for progress. The ‘Hobbesian trap,’ in which a nation is tempted to attack a neighbor out of fear that it would otherwise attack first, like an armed homeowner who surprises an armed burglar, tempting each to shoot first to avoid being shot…

And more besides.

It is indeed not a perfect book, but as blogger Kieran Setiya, who teaches Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh says earlier this year, “If you wanted to “teach ethics” (as opposed to moral philosophy) in, for instance, a high school classroom, you could do a lot worse than Humanity.” Those interested in philosophy might also read Robert Halliday, “Being Human, Naturally.”

Another reviewer who takes Humanity very seriously is William Schweiker, a professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, a 2003 review.

Glover argues that three sensibilities restrain violence: sympathy, recognition of human dignity, and a sense of moral identity. People sense a moral bond with others and restrain their actions because of their sympathy with others’ suffering, their acknowledgment that others are due respect, and their belief that acts of violence toward others would destroy their own sense of self and community.Sympathy, dignity and moral identity are features of most of our lives most of the time, which is why the world is not normally torn apart by festivals of cruelty. Ethics can be reconstructed on the basis of these features of ordinary life, Glover believes, without recourse to disputed rational axioms or religious beliefs…

But whatever one’s criticisms of Glover’s Humanity, its aim is plainly and forthrightly humane. Given that aim, religious people face a choice. They may either put their moral convictions and energies in the service of our shared humanity on this fragile planet, or they may stress local identities and a sense of moral uniqueness, and in doing so with a clean conscience allow the horror to continue. Everyone must confront certain questions in the light of the recent past. What can we human beings learn from the violence of the past century? Can we escape the entrapments that foster and lead to violence? How do we preserve our humanity? How have our religious traditions fostered and continued to foster untold acts of barbarism?

Those are questions that trouble one as one confronts those sad sick bombers who somehow managed to lose all their “sense of moral bond with others” in order to serve an appetite they thought, perhaps, was God, becoming not martyrs but murderers.

But just as troubling is the reflection that there is no such thing as a good bomb. Whether delivered close-up in a rucksack, or dropped from a great height, or fired in a smart missile from a safe distance, or planted as a land mine, the bomb is a satanic device, always was and always will be.

Will we ever learn? Books like Humanity and On Identity at least raise hope…

How to confront a cult of terror

16 JUL 2005

I heard about Waleed Aly’s piece in this morning’s Age on Radio National this morning. I was very impressed with what this young Muslim from Victoria had to say then, and commend the article for its good sense and sanity.

Cult psychology may help explain why young men become suicide murderers.

Zealots who tend to violence are meant to be easy to spot. That is why the identities of the alleged London bombers are so arresting. All were British born and raised. Most were well educated, showing no signs of religious fervour. Only one appears to have been remotely socially dysfunctional. For those who believe in the stereotyped terrorist as either rabidly fanatical or desperate, illiterate, and oppressed, this superficial normality is mystifying. It is therefore dangerous to reduce this kind of terrorism to an inherent consequence of Islamist extremism.

Certainly it has that expression, but a suicide bomber’s psychology is far too complex to be categorised neatly. Some may simply be suicidal, looking to give their life meaning. Like many suicide victims, they may appear normal while suffering intense feelings of social alienation and humiliation. Some might just be brainwashed. Whatever the case, it appears that the ideal candidate for a suicide bomber is not someone who is religious – but someone vulnerable to exploitation.

…The vague labels of “Islamism” and “extremism” do not sufficiently capture this psychology.

Behaviourally, this has all the hallmarks of a cult. It is worth considering this as the appropriate model to analyse these latest attacks…

Do read it all.

London forces a liberal rethink

25 JUL 2005

I dealt with this typical Akerman contribution to the destruction of harmony in our society last week in my more public mode. So I won’t bother with his substandard logic and ersatz patriotism this time.

It is disturbing to reflect, though, that my genocidal friend yesterday admits his opinions derive from The Daily Telegraph and talk-back radio. By driving the debate in this polarised fashion, by blurring distinctions that must be made if any sane discourse on the current world situation is to be even possible, and by even more reprehensibly doing this for the sake of “ratings” rather than truth, is more than irresponsible. It is actually HELPING the cause of terrorism. Fomenting hate in such a broad-brush manner to include all of a group, such as all Muslims, or at least so the vulnerable and uncritical readers and listeners take it whatever the hired mouth might really think, is in fact to give ammunition to those who say: see, they hate you, they don’t accept you, they are at war with you.

So thanks, Piers and company, for pouring petrol on the fire time after time…

Mind you, some of the sad cowboy movie rhetoric that emanates from Washington and the Pentagon has been a poor example to the rest of us too.

Who in God’s name are “THEY”?

26 JUL 2005

Western people should be aware of the many dramatically different shades of opinion in the Muslim world. There are too many lazy, unexamined assumptions about Islam, which tends to be regarded as an amorphous, monolithic entity. Remarks such as “They hate our freedom” may give some a righteous glow, but are not useful because they are rarely accompanied by a rigorous analysis of who exactly “they” are… — Karen Armstrong

That is from what I now see to be one of the most relevant and timely posts I have ever put on my Tripod English and ESL site. I was over at the girls school today, having been given some poems written by a Year 12 student there to comment on, and the Head of English there, an old friend, and I agreed the world had indeed gone mad lately. “Can you believe,” said Tess, “someone told me talk-back radio yesterday was wall-to-wall ‘why I hate Muslims’.”

Sadly, I can believe it. And it is utterly wrong. Hating “them”, whoever “they” might be, and most people have no idea who “they” actually are, is just as wrong as “they” hating “us.” The hate is the disease. More hate is never the solution.

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There is nothing strange or new in followers of Islam, even young ones of Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Iraqi or other origin, such as those in the Salt Mine’s Islamic Students’ Society — Australians all — opposing terrorism. Witness the poster (above) they put up around the school last year.


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