I doubt that there is any more corrupting element in contemporary public debate than the good people syndrome: talking heads who say things, not because they have any knowledge or understanding, but because it is what good people say.
There are forms of it on a wide range of issues, and on all sides of politics, but it seems unlikely that the public debate about any issue is as thoroughly corrupted by the good people syndrome as that on Islam.
Part of the problem is quite straightforward: Islam is a religion which is omnipresent in the news but absent in the shared experience of the overwhelming majority of Westerners. Furthermore, it is not merely a religion, it is also a civilisation; one with superficial similarities to our own but quite deep differences. Faced with the deadly combination of surface familiarity and deep ignorance, the good people syndrome fills the gap. Especially for modern secular folk, who generally just can’t take religious motives seriously.
To take perhaps the most important difference: we in the West are children of Aristotle and Muslims are mostly not. We are generally not actual Aristotelians (though Aristotelian philosophy is currently enjoying one it recurring resurgences within Western philosophy). But we do accept two basic Aristotelian ideas–that the world has its own inherent existence and structures and the moral realm exists independent of revelation.
These ideas may seem so basic one might wonder how anyone could think otherwise. Well, mainstream Islam thinks otherwise, for it accepts neither idea. A consequence of the defeat of Aristotelian ideas in mainstream Islam, particularly due to the efforts and influence of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), the most important figure in mainstream Islam after Muhammad himself.
For al-Ghazali, and mainstream Islam ever since, causation is merely the habits of God, which He can change at any time, while there is no good outside the realm of revelation. That is, things are good because God wills it, not–as in Christianity and Judaism, especially after Mosheh ben Maimon aka Maimonedes (1138?-1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)–God wills them because they are good. “Conversations” between the West and Islam are mostly dialogues of the deaf, because the underlying presumptions are so different.
The golden age of Islamic achievement largely predates al-Ghazali (and that of Arab achievement almost entirely does). Not entirely a coincidence, since causation as the habits of God and revelation as the limits of morality do rather inhibit intellectual effort being put anywhere other than religion. The shock of the Mongol incursions, including the end of the Baghdad Caliphate (1258), reinforced this inward looking tendency, this entrenched atavism. An atavism that Arab journalist Hisham Melhem identifies as central to the contemporary collapse of Arab civilisation but which he studiously fails to identify a source for.
Islam became a civilisation remarkably uncurious about the outside world, poorly able to mobilise its resources. A civilisation which lacked responsive resilience, and so dealt badly with the challenges of history (as it largely still does, at least in the Middle East–Bengali and Malay Islam does rather better). Thus, Palestinian intellectual Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (1925-2012) can list a whole series of “bad things” which happened to Islam, but entirely fails to ask why Islam so persistently failed to rise to the challenges facing it. For example, Europe learnt far more from its (relatively minor) crusading effort (which al-Hassan paints as far more destructive than than it was) than Islam learnt from its centuries of far greater aggression against Europe and Christendom (which al-Hassan entirely ignores), even after Islam began to fall behind European technology and organisational capacity.
One can understand the dilemma of Arab and Muslim intellectuals. It is not merely that not blaming Islam is what “good people” do, it is that opening up that issue makes any such intellectual a target for the homicidally enraged who are both a symptom and a cause of Middle Eastern Islam’s cognitive stagnation and disastrous divisions.
One can understand the dilemma of Western strategists dealing with the jihadis: say that the problem is Islam and that appears to make all Muslims (over a billion of them) the enemy. Yet, say the problem is not Islam, and one is basing one’s strategy on untruth and delusion–not a basis for any sort of success. For the jihadis are very much a product of Islam: indeed, they represent the modern iterations of continuing patterns within Islam.
So the problem is within Islam. Not an ideal rhetorical formulation, but one that has the advantage of being true.
The good person pay-off
But neither of these excuses hold for Western talking heads. They are not responsible for Western strategy and a clearly in minimal danger from enraged jihadis. Alas, that not-being-responsible-for-anything is much of the problem: given the lack of any responsibility (except, clearly somewhat notional one to truth and understanding) aiming to be seen as one of the good people gives by far the best pay-off.
So ignorant nonsense gets spouted because it is established as what good people say.
I was confronted with a particularly egregious example of good people syndrome listening in a waiting room to some talking heads discuss the recent fatal (to the attacker) stabbing at a Melbourne police station. One of the talking heads opined about “disenfranchised youth”. The dead attacker (shot dead with a single bullet after stabbing two counter-terrorism officers at Endeavour Hills police station: a somewhat reassuring contrast to police killings in the US–i.e. not an unarmed man, not shot multiple times) fits in with a much larger pattern. The “disenfranchisement” of such homicidal males being that they are not–given their gender (male) and beliefs (Muslim)–master-belief overlords of what they survey, as promised by God through the Quran, the example of the Prophet and Sharia.
When Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to explain what the jihadis are about in his 29 September 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly all he had to do was quote them. Starting with the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi two months previous:
A day will soon come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master… The Muslims will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism… and destroy the idol of democracy. Now listen to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. He proclaims a similar vision of the future: We say this to the West… By Allah you will be defeated. Tomorrow our nation will sit on the throne of the world.
Or, perhaps General Muhammad Ali Jafari, current commander of Iran Revolutionary Guards:
Our Imam did not limit the Islamic Revolution to this country… Our duty is to prepare the way for an Islamic world government…
Or Iran’s current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book written a few years ago:
We have a fundamental problem with the West, and especially with America. This is because we are heirs to a global mission, which is tied to our raison d’etre… A global mission which is tied to our very reason of being.
… How come Malaysia doesn’t have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order.
Changing the international order to a Muslim order, of course. Such an order does not require everyone to be Muslim; just have the Muslims in charge and everyone obeying Sharia, the law of God, sovereign of all.
Such ambitions may seem mad–the master-race Nazis only wanted lebensraum; these ambitions are much more grandiose. But the Companions (Sahabah) of the Prophet overthrew the Sasanian Empire–heir to over a millennia of Zoroastrian empires–and half the Roman Empire in a few short decades. Ascribe the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Empire to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the example of the Companions of the Prophet has powerful contemporary as well as religious resonance.
(As an aside, it is also worth remembering that in 1923 Hitler was a beer hall agitator, leader of a small movement, part of a coalition whose attempt to overthrow a provincial government was put down with almost contemptible ease: 18 years later, his armies had occupied Austria and the Czech lands, had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and had reached the outskirts of Moscow.)
Besides, the journey itself is enough: die in the service of creating the Muslim World Order and off to Paradise you go. Not to mention a sense of brotherhood, purpose, masterly killing, plus possible rape and pillage on the way through. Hence Islam’s most obvious comparative advantage being in homicidal religious gangsterism.
But, hey, that is not what good people say. And what they don’t know about Islam is almost everything.