The good people syndrome

By Lorenzo

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. 

Ignorant familiarity

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 Ab? ??mid Mu?ammad ibn Mu?ammad al-Ghaz?l? (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.

Awkward avoidance

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.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]


  1. Posted October 5, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    I regularly cop a greasy eyeball when I am asked for my opinion on the topic du jour and merely shrug and say “I don’t know.” I know lots about a few things, a bit about a lot of things, and nothing about most things. It is my right to know nothing about something, and I wish people would respect that right.

  2. Peter Hindrup
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    So there some amongst the Muslim hords who believe that they are the chosen ones, or something similar. The Germans claimed that they were part of the master race, Jews claim to be the chosen people, some extremist Christians support Israel Zionism because they believe it advances gods plans to return, it would be difficult to find a nation that hadn’t made the claim that they had the best fighting men in the world, and the US claims to be ‘exceptional’ and a light to the world — Obama was blathering on, along these lines very recently.

    Yet the Muslims are demonised simple because some of their extremist blather on, in the same way!

    And do not bring up the nonsense that beheading a person is worse than blowing them to bits with drones. Remember it is ‘we’, the ‘West’ that are the invaders.

  3. conrad
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    You can an additional problem for them that exists in the 20th and 21st century, which is that science is now often a winner-take-all game, where the winner takes all and can then invest the winnings into getting further ahead.

    The basic problem is that most of these places are hopelessly sexist, so you lose half your workforce and brains. You also end up with dependency ratios of about 1:2, unlike most Western countries which have ratios of about 2:1. So you not only lose smart people, but you have less money to invest in the smart people.

    A kick on effect of this is that most of the countries are pretty awful places to live if you happen to be someone into free thought and science (or just female or gay). So they never attract really smart people, unlike, for example, the US, which basically conglomerates the smartest people in the world into a few places (e.g., Silicon Valley). In addition, many of the smart people want to leave ASAP, and so they have huge brain drain problems (Iran, for example, is thought to have the biggest brain drain in the world — for obvious reasons) where they are losing basically unreplacable people.

  4. Joanne
    Posted October 5, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    The Jews’ claim to be the Chosen People has nothing to do with any idea that they’re supposed to be masters of the world. It’s just the claim that they have covenant with God, just the same as the Christians claim for themselves and the Muslims for themselves.

  5. Posted October 8, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I have just been to Turkey for a month which unfortunately is gradually turning away from being Ataturk’s secular state into an Islamic one. I never understood until reading this article why Islam after all the innovation up to the fall of the Baghdad Caliphate became so non-scientific and fundamentalist. Thanks for the information about Al Ghazi most enlightening (for give the pun). It explains a lot.

    Not only does Islam disenfranchise half the population it also allows first cousin marriages which is bad for gene pool.

  6. conrad
    Posted October 9, 2014 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    Most Western states (including Aus) allow first cousin marriages too, although it is now very uncommon, which is somewhat atypical historically (

  7. John H.
    Posted October 12, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Storm in a teacup Lorenzo. The primary goal of terrorists is to mobilise the wider Islamic community so the Christian and Jewish West can be overthrown. Not working, in fact it is doing the exact opposite: fracturing the very peoples they need to unite. Terrorists are not all idiots and know without that wider support their efforts are in vain. Their efforts are in vain.

    Good people, polite society: I sometimes refer to this as middle class moral cowardice. It is easy to be tolerant but sometimes we need to be intolerant, to castigate those who believe this or that. Unfortunately people have confused tolerance of diversity with acceptance of the beliefs and behaviors that come with diversity.

    Sure, morality is contingent, we cannot absolutely ground it in certainty. We can’t do that in lots of things, we keep on learning and a substantial part of that learning is letting go of old ideas.

    Islam does have its problems, not least being this quote from the Quran:

    “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other. ANd he amongst you that turns to them [for friendship] is of them. Verily Gods guides not a people unjust.”

    Beyond Terror and Martyrdom, Gilles Kepel

    Yet x10 millions of Muslims love us. So obviously Muslims en masse do not adopt the literalist interpretation of the Quran. As always a peoples’ behavior is not solely a function of their beliefs.

    We have killed many more innocents than terrorists. Who are the good people?

  8. cohenite
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Great essay; there is a divide between the world view of Islam and the West. I used to think Foucault’s plasticity of human consciousness was stupid, that there were objective values; but Islam disproves that

    For Foucault, we exist trapped within a kind of postmodern labyrinth (or “archive”), where truths are relative to the societies and practices that develop them. This is not a facile cultural relativism. Instead, we are invited to understand truths as problematized, coloured by the contexts and subjects that produce them. The power structures that restrain us are also what makes our freedom possible, conditioning our thought at a collective, unconscious level.

    The Muslim sees the world differently. When the West invites Islam in to assimilate Islam sees a wrong, even mad structure which it must change.

  9. Adrien
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    So ‘we’ in the West are Aristotelian (save those of us who are Plationic and the rest of us who are neither) whilst ‘they’ are, well, religious nutjobs.


    Obviously quoting Iran’s foreign minister is representative because he was democratically elected (cough) and anyone who knows any Persians will find that they entirely agree with the views of their government and the Islamic State (of Fubar) et al whilst everyone in the US of A is a moderate and stoic Aristotelian.

    Except the people who believe:

    The Bible tells us that the world will be fooled by the false prophet performing miracles in the sight of men, like pulling fire from the sky. The false prophet will seem to everyone to have Godly power and will fool everyone into worshiping the Antichrist.

    Lucky none of them ever get influential within the Federal government.

  10. Adrien
    Posted October 13, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Sorry the above quote is from one of many Christian sites in the US. The false prophet is Muhammed.

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