Stay Calm but Be Afraid: On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

A few weeks ago I published a long-winded rant about why the West should embark on a military campaign to unseat the Islamic State from its current rabbit’s warren (just to add another buzzword to the list of “safehaven”/“hotbed”/”breeding ground”/”Tora Bora” synonyms) in the Middle East. Within a fortnight this had magically happened.

Western special operations forces already operating on the ground in Iraq and Syria were thence declared forces, Royal Australian Air Force assets were re-assigned to the MEAO and military partnering has begun with the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi military. The good fight appears to be being fought. The very latest developments in the Middle East appear to be promising.

laser guided

Coming to a Muslim-majority country near you

The very latest developments on the home front, however, appear to be the exact opposite. In the wake of a speight of brutal beheadings conducted by ISIS against Western citizens in Syria and Iraq, groups of copycat Islamists and disturbed “lone wolves” have begun plotting similarly-styled acts of violence elsewhere throughout the world.

A beheading of a talented French mountain guide by a group of ISIS fan-boys calling themselves “Jund Al-Khilafah” (Soldiers of the Caliphate) was carried out in a usually-more urbane part of Algeria; an Australian soldier was attacked by unknown assailants in Sydney; and a bomb/beheading/baddie plot was unveiled in a string of counter-terror raids in Brisbane.

The response to the proliferation of ISIS’ methods and ideas in the West has been swift and decisive. Counter-terrorism operations have been stepped up a notch, new legislation has been introduced in parliament to give more powers to the counter-terrorism services and many of these services, particularly policing and intelligence services, have embarked on a media blitz publicising details of every terrorism-related raid in the past fortnight. ASIO and the AFP are at the forefront of the domestic push against Islamist extremism. Overseas too, the war against ISIS carries on.

The secret world is a vital component in the fight against violent Islamist extremism. This is indisputable. The ability for special forces and intelligence agencies to utilise selective violence in a secret manner (or pseudo-secret manner if we look at the Bin Laden raid in Abottobad as an example of what over-publicised secrecy actually means today) is crucial to ultimately purging the world of Islamist extremism.

Unfortunately however, while in a perfect world, the extremist problem would be a problem that the West could kill its way out of, this war is a war against an idea and, as history has shown, ideas can be very hard to kill. Herein lies the problem, and here too also lies the reason why this war seems not to have shifted much in either direction for the last thirteen years.
Most people are probably aware that ideas (and not just political ideas) can be very contagious. Indeed, as even Hollywood has caught on with Leonardo di Caprio’s highly cerebral comment in the movie “Inception”: “the most resilient parasite is an idea”. The waves of political change throughout history are driven by the rolling spring tides of new and infectious ideas. One man’s “dream” paves the way for another man’s presidency; a German sociologist writes a treatise that sparks a revolution in Russia; videos about some strange Pied Piper of child soldiers in Uganda go “viral” on Youtube and idealistic edicts about jihad and the ummah cause young men in the West to go and fight for a violent terrorist group in Iraq.

This is what the biologist Richard Dawkins was talking about when he coined the term “meme” which he conceived of, borrowing from evolutionary theory, as any cultural idea which might be considered a “replicator” – something which creates copies of itself in suitable environments.
Clearly, some of ISIS’ ideas and activities have struck a chord with groups and individuals outside of Iraq and Syria. Influenced by its emancipatory and pseudo-religious rhetoric, young Muslim men in the West are now beginning to answer the call to arms. ISIS has become a meme. In turn, Western governments like ours here in Australia have embarked on hard-hitting operations to root out these individuals and lock them away.

All of this makes for a great news story, and media organisations, as they must (for the function of the media is the reporting of a story), have lapped it up like kittens at the milk bowl. Suddenly, Australian public discourse is now dominated by “the ISIS threat”, by images of Westerners being beheaded in faraway Syria; by police raids in Brisbane and Sydney and declarations by prominent politicians regarding the presumed guilt or innocence of those facing terrorism charges.
While ISIS’ ideas are catching on with misinformed young men the world over, the current media cycle is causing another idea to catch on in the non-Muslim Western population.

Indeed, what this constant news reportage and speight of police press meetings does is reinforce the idea (shall we call it a “meme”) that 1.) “modern terrorism is predominantly caused by people who are Muslim.” Empirically speaking, it is true that the majority of terrorist attacks today (at least in the context of a peacetime Western country) are caused by fighting aged males indoctrinated into a radical political permutation of the Islamic faith. As such, as long as we are careful to use the adverb “predominantly”, the above statement is probably true.
The second thing the TV-watching public is reminded of with the constant reportage of counter-terrorism operations is that 2.) “terrorism is a threat”. This also, is true. Acts of terrorism constitute a direct threat to the lives of civilians in the areas where these acts occur.
While, as noted, both statement 1 and 2 are correct, we can also see from the police’s recent media blitz how the general public can, when thinking about Muslim people and terrorism in the context of the above two truisms, arrive at a very dangerous type of conclusion which logicians call a “syllogistic fallacy”.
“What on earth is a ‘syllogism’?” You might ask. “And how does a syllogism end up becoming fallacious?” Well, I’m glad you asked.
A syllogism, according to a dead Greek guy named Aristotle is an argument that uses logical reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are assumed to be true. To enlighten us, Aristotle gave the following example of a “syllogism”:

All men are mortal. (This is the first proposition called “The Major Premise”)
Socrates is a man. (This is the second proposition called “The Minor Premise”)
Therefore Socrates is mortal. (This is the “Conclusion”)

This syllogism involves three terms (men, mortal and Socrates), which logicians will tell us is a prerequisite for a syllogism to be true. We might replace these three terms with the letters “A”, “B” or “C” just like swapping numbers for letters in high school algebra.
Thus, with Aristotle’s help we have the following structure.

The Major Premise: All A are B
The Minor Premise: C is the same as A
Conclusion: Therefore, all C are B

While the first syllogism about Socrates is true, if we ever-so-slightly tweak its wording we can end up with a syllogistic fallacy – a gross untruth or at the very least an unspecified truth. Let’s replace the word “all” with “some”, for example.
The Major Premise: Some men are mortal
The Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
While you and I know that Socrates is (and was) mortal – the conclusion arrived at in this context is in fact unclear (it’s a syllogistic fallacy) because if the major premise is assumed to be true (that some but not necessarily all men are mortal) than Socrates’ mortality can neither be proved or disproved based on the information we have available.

A bit confusing? Well deal with it, because this is exactly what is wrong with the whole “Muslim-Terrorist” equivocation in the public imagination.

For starters, let’s take A, B and C, replace them with terms like “terrorism”, “threat” and “Muslim” and then, like dirty laundry in the wash, put them through a logical spin cycle and wait till the machine regurgitates them all twisted up. What is likely to occur if the media-police machine keeps on spinning in its current cycle (the cycle of mixing and mashing imagery of Australian Muslims, ISIS beheadings and counter-terror raids) is the emergence of a syllogistic fallacy in Australian public opinion.
The Major Premise: Some Muslims are Terrorists
The Minor Premise: The Man is a Muslim
Conclusion: Therefore, The Man is a Terrorist
Most people of reasonable intelligence can immediately see the syllogistic fallacy being employed here. The major premise explicitly uses the word “some” and yet the person has jumped to a false conclusion. The threat that this syllogistic fallacy poses to public law and order (in the form of new Cronulla-style race riots or tit-for-tat backlash between Muslims and Anglo-Saxon Australians) is the reason why Tony Abbott constantly reminds us on television (immediately after a counter-terrorism raid is made public) that “not all Muslims are terrorists”. People need to know that only some Muslims are terrorists because otherwise bad things would happen.
With the insertion of a 24 hour media cycle flashing words like “terror plot revealed” or “mosque raid” on our TV screens the public is constantly reminded that terrorist attacks are being planned by Muslims. The two terms are epileptically-flickered, transposed and ultimately confused until we end up with an even more dangerous fallacy which logicians might call a “fallacy of the illicit minor”. The fallacy is structured as follows:
The Major Premise: Terrorism is a threat
The Minor Premise: Terrorism is committed by Muslim people
Conclusion: Therefore, all Muslim people are a threat

Why is this conclusion and our thinking about Muslim people wrong? Because while the major and minor premises are correct, the conclusion is wrong because the minor term “Muslim people” is undistributed in the minor premise but distributed in the conclusion. That is to say, the conclusion refers to “all Muslim people” but the minor premise refers only to a vague, ill-defined and selective group of Muslim people who are committing the terrorist acts.
An anti-government conspiracy theorist using the format of “the ilicit minor” might look at the above media laundry cycle and, in tying it to some insidious plot being brewed up in the Orwellian dungeons of ASIO, start believing similar falsehoods:
The Major Premise: Conspiracies are evil
The Minor Premise: Conspiracies are committed by governments
Conclusion: The Government is evil
In this context, the minor premise talks about “governments” (that is, some and not all governments) so there is no proof for arriving at the conclusion that “The Government” – that is, this particular Government – is necessarily evil.
Finally, the fallacy of the illicit minor is also seen being employed by the at-risk demographic that is most affected by this media hoo-hah – the young, socially-aware Muslim male looking at the recent mayhem – the publicised raids, the trials by media and the inferences being made when the terms “terrorism” and “Muslim” are included in the same sentence in “breaking news” headlines. He too arrives at his own conclusion driven by a similar fallacy.
The Major Premise: Targeting Muslims is unjust
The Minor Premise: Police and the media are targeting Muslims
Conclusion: The police are unjust.
Here, we can probably guess what would happen to ISIS’ recruitment numbers if this easy-to-arrive-at syllogistic fallacy continues to be reinforced again and again.
It is perhaps necessary to emphasise that all of the above syllogisms are categorically false and their falseness stems from the absence of the word “all” in the minor premise (the first phrase doesn’t say “terrorism is committed by all Muslim people” nor does the last syllogism’s minor premise indicated that “all” Muslims are being targeted by police). But often the problem with syllogistic fallacies is that, at first glance, they often seem to make perfect sense, despite their inherent falseness.
When most people think really hard about it, they are fully aware that the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” is false. There are 1.6 billion Muslims on Earth and the number of people involved in terrorism is, quite obviously, far less than that. But when press releases from police commissioners, from politicians and from attorney-generals are constantly updating the public about every minutiae of a particular counter-terrorist raid then it is easy to see how Islamophobia can become memetic in a hyper-aware, over-the-shoulder-looking public.
The unfortunate thing here is that with an increase in reportage about the latest “Muslim” bomb plot we are likely to see an increase in retaliatory violence targeted against Muslims. We are also likely to see an increase in young Western Muslims going overseas to participate in brutal, bloody conflicts. Any demand for the public to “remain calm” will have little influence as the media barrage increases.
While the violent ideology of the Islamic State is memetically replicating itself amongst disaffected Muslim youth in the Western world, we are seeing, in turn, the memetic replication of Islamophobia in the Western world as a response to this. This, in turn, creates more disenfranchised Muslim youth prepared to travel to Syraq to fight in the jihad which, in turn (again), fuels further anti-Muslim sentiment. Thus we see the formation of a vicious cycle, or, as I would term it, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the legislative domain, we see the emergence of a parliamentary push for greater powers for intelligence and police agencies. More than likely, ASIO and the police are pushing hard for these powers in the wake of the ISIS threat and are using these publicised raids to drive public opinion for the desired new powers in their favour.
It’s not necessarily conspiracy theory-esque to arrive at this conclusion either. If an organisation working in the interests of a public good wants more of something, it publicises its good works and then is rewarded with more of that something. ASIO and the police want more powers (and likely more money) to conduct domestic counter-terrorism operations.

It follows, therefore, that by publicising their counter-terrorism successes they will be given more powers (and $$$). The irony is that by publicising a raid, these government organisations are effectively negating the gains made by the raid. By publicising a raid, the police are unintentionally (through the media) reinforcing the Islamophobic syllogism being made by the public which leads to more hatred against Muslims and ultimately more angry Muslims.
Which leads us to our final syllogistic fallacy, the fallacy being committed by the government agencies involved in the fight against domestic terrorism. The structure of this fallacy is as follows:

Major Premise: Terrorists plots make people afraid.
Minor Premise: The government must keep the people calm.
Conclusion: Publicising terror plots will keep the people calm.
The police and intelligence organisations have worked long and hard to maintain a veil of secrecy by arguing that if the public were to get a hold of some of the details of these operations, the operations themselves would be compromised. Ironically however, the police, while arguing that the parliament should give them greater powers and greater secrecy, have in publicising the details of their own operations, compromised the efficacy of these operations.
The use of secrecy is necessary in the fight against Islamist extremism. The police and intelligence organisations should make the most of this hard-won secrecy. Maybe they should button-up a bit more.

1 thought on “Stay Calm but Be Afraid: On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

  1. Pingback: Anti-Anti Islam | Dispatches from the Periphery

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