Playing Into ISIS Hands

Well, like you say, cultural artefacts. But really they are for the benefit of the human minds which behold them. Hmm.

Human minds are the environments in which memes reproduce and they are transmitted through language and artefacts. A bridge is not going to be copied unless a human sees it or learns about it and either copies it or extrapolates the principle through trial and error.

I’m trying to think of an example of non-inert media which contains or exemplifies ideology outside of the human mind. More specifically, a conscious human mind.

I wonder if it is possible to have a meme transferred unconsciously (some unconscious behaviour like body language or something) and if that would constitute a splinter of an ideological object being transferred without consciousness acting as a medium. This of course still requires a human mind but that’s as close as I can get.

Unless of course this is a simulation, running on non-conscious, non-mind like hardware in a lab somewhere. Then sure, ideology could exist within the simulating substrate… but it would still be being emulated within the logical construct of a human mind… so no.

It’s almost as if those seeking ideological purity are actually encouraging and eventually enabling the diametric opposite. But against such rebellion, the ideologues fight.

And isn’t that the ultimate horror? Mind control. MKULTRA and the like, the removal of agency. Room 101.

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I think it is really important to go beyond the ideas that IS’ actions either implicate all Muslims or have nothing to do with Islam. It’s interesting to read these interviews with former hostages, prisoners, ex-IS fighters and so on, and get a fuller picture of what motivates the organisation and those who join it. It seems to paint a picture of people who often think in particularly Islamic terms, but in some ways aren’t all that different from the rest of us. It’s one of those times when Godwinning is appropriate - IS is just so cartoonishly evil and bloodthirsty that it’s hard to understand why anyone would join them. On the other hand, plenty of Christians joined the Nazis, yet many of their children and grandchildren are still Christian and more well-known for their tolerance and openness than their hatred.

It can give you a very different perspective on the relative importance of things down here. A number of the things that IS is fighting about aren’t the things that they would otherwise be angry about, and they don’t target the people that they would otherwise. When you can be told stories about the last times that very clearly promote violence, and you are told that this is your part in this story, this can be a powerful motivation for a lot of different actions. For example, there are a number of hadiths that mention people bearing black flags that will come from the east and be victorious.

Three will fight one another for your treasure, each one of them the son of a caliph, but none of them will gain it. Then the black banners will come from the east, and they will kill you in an unprecedented manner.

When you see them, then pledge your allegiance to them even if you have to crawl over the snow, for that is the caliph of Allah, Al-Mahdi.

This site examines them and points out that they are considered weak, but yet:

Throughout history, groups of Muslims have used such traditions and symbols like the black flag to attribute themselves to Al-Mahdi, a righteous ruler who will appear near the end of time. Perhaps among the first to do so was the Abbasid dynasty who carried black banners and referred to their Caliphs as Al-Mahdi in an attempt to legitimize their rule.

So basically, these kinds of statements and narratives can act as a sort of banner that can be used by violent people, which is seen in a number of religious and non-religious groups. Where there are more specific narratives that involve this kind of violence, there are more tools for them to use. When IS comes with a black flag and acts out its part in this narrative, it’s more likely that people respecting that narrative will say that something momentous is happening rather than turning against them.

This is one reason I am very sceptical of nationalism. It is well known to have dangerous results. On the one hand, there are some good things about loving your country and I certainly don’t have a problem with people who do. Like religion though, things that unite people can also separate them from others, so it’s not harmless. I’ve seen this in a few countries where there are nice people who you know not to bring up certain subjects with. China and America are quite similar in this regard. Similarly, I think there are a number of pitfalls in different religions and I don’t like the idea that ‘true religions’ (whatever that is) are loving, peaceful etc. They’re not nothing either. They’re often based a set of ideas and beliefs by very flawed people in particular contexts. The Torah, Qu’ran and hadiths were written in a context of conflict, while the New Testament was written by a minority within an occupied country, so a lot of the violence is more implied. Jesus didn’t attack people, but plenty of people got put on the List. All of them have plenty of handles to be used for good and evil.

For example, Leviticus 19 has plenty that modern humans could learn from. When you harvest your crops, leave some for poor and travelling people. Deal honestly, and don’t have unjust weights. Do justice, and don’t have two kinds of justice for rich and poor. Pay your workers promptly. Don’t slander. Love your neighbour as yourself. Treat foreigners well. However, it’s mixed in with a lot of rubbish. If you make a sacrifice and eat it on the third day rather than burning it, you should be cut off from your people. Don’t make idols (and you know what happens to people who do!). Don’t mix different kinds of seed, cattle or fabric. If a man has sex with a slave girl, she’s someone else’s property so they don’t get put to death (yay!) but he has to pay compensation to God.

Most people manage to come out with something half sensible despite all of this. However, I know quite a few people who would be a lot more tolerant of gay people if they Bible didn’t tell them not to be (or at least they thought it did). They would have a lot more friends outside their religious group and therefore be more understanding of others if the Bible didn’t reinforce the idea that his people were special and should keep themselves separate. They would be more aware of certain faults if the Bible didn’t teach that they were virtues. They would spend less time evangelising and more time providing practical help if they didn’t believe that non-Christians were doomed. They would have different ideas on abortion if they didn’t believe you get assigned a soul at conception. This doesn’t mean that all Christians have to be like this (or that they can’t have a convincing theology that doesn’t emphasise this), but sacred books aren’t blank canvasses and they carry the culture and morality of that time. There are a number of parts of the Bible that you have to either take very metaphorically or quietly ignore.


Thank you for that. This, and the discussion following, is why I come here.


@jlw @beschizza - would this make good front-page, BoingBoing “exclusive” material?


I’m glad that @Mindysan33 jumped up to ideology as others might go straight for the thought that all humans are inherently violent, and society/religion/whatever can act as a moderating force except when it acts most assuredly as a catalyst.

Which is why I’ve always hewn to the “living document” idea in terms of ancient, or even old, texts. The literalists are doomed to be steamrolled by progress, whether social, technological, or otherwise. The dangerous points happen when evil bastards are able to machinate circumstances or outcomes to the effect of murdering a swath of the population, ostensibly in support of some ‘right’ or necessary action. In turn, that would seem to suggest that with such progress comes a greater responsibility to keep the murderous bastards at bay or to have the empathy, compassion, and elegance of excellent thought that shows the murderous bastards for who they really are and what they’re really after.

And that seems like a really simplistic thought, given the preceding ideas…


When I became disillusioned with evangelicalism (while I was in university), I recognised that there were many other possible interpretations of the Bible, and many other religions. I was part of a small group of students who would talk about our beliefs in a non-judgemental way - we had an atheist, a Christian who was not particularly religious, a Buddhist, an Iraqi Kurd who was a Sufi but essentially Unitarian (the bane of the Islamic society - their spontaneous Arabic/English debates were amazing). I also got to know a number of members of the Islamic society, different kinds of Christian churches and other groups, discussed issues with imams and students, read books, went to events and so on.

I considered becoming a Muslim for a short time, but lost interest because they were practically the same as me. They saw God in much the same way as I did, and reacted in similar ways to the American Jesus that many evangelicals had as their boyfriend. It just didn’t seem to make much sense to change - they weren’t worse than me, but no better either. They were like looking in a mirror, but their beliefs were incompatible with mine in important ways. They prayed in similar ways and saw similar answers to prayer. My Sufi friend would say that our similarities showed we worshipped the same God, but I just came to the conclusion that we were all humans who were basing our beliefs on books that we couldn’t prove the veracity of. Maybe I was right, maybe they were, maybe neither of us was, but we would never budge because we were basing our beliefs on something that was written, wouldn’t change and would always be different.

I could become more liberal, but I’ve never seen a particularly good justification for it. The liberals I met knew less about the Bible than anyone, and I wasn’t sure what it was that they were supposed to be believing in when their God was a construct of changing modern morality.

At this point I still go to church and get on very well with Christians as an atheist. I see many valuable things in religious groups, and many admirable people. I get on well with plenty of Muslims too, but I don’t feel like I have to reconcile what I believe and what I can prove from theology, or that I have to identify with one group and justify why tolerance is right when I know there are plenty of arguments against it in authoritative writings. I don’t demonize the Bible or the Qur’an, but I won’t agree that a correct interpretation of either is unproblematic. That doesn’t mean that I want religious people to change before I can work with them, and my justification for this is not complicated at all.

(I realise that I get autobiographical quite a bit, but this seems like the clearest way to explain my views on this topic)

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Which is, I think, the best possible situation to be in. There’s a great line from the recent Tom Hanks’ flick where his character, James Donovan, is appealing his case in front of the Supreme Court and he says, paraphrasing, that the then-current conflict was a war of ideas; the Russians had expressed theirs and the Supreme Court, in finding for his client, would be expressing the best ideas of America (which he, and I, considered to be right–the court, as you likely know, did not find for his client).

At first glance, I would equate the “construct of changing modern morality” with your prior statement that “…sacred books aren’t blank canvasses and they carry the culture and morality of that time.” Other than that, I’m curious what you mean by “becoming more liberal”? In terms of your religious views?

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Sorry, yes, that’s what I meant - a liberal interpretation of the Bible and my faith. I didn’t have a literal interpretation before, but it wasn’t free either - there are principles you have to follow and you can’t just take the parts you like. Essentially, my theology and ethics were not in balance and I lost interest in trying to reconcile them. Others can, and I have no great problem with that other than the fact that I didn’t find an argument that convinced me.

One of the things I’ve come away with is the reason why I haven’t looked for a group that’s more in line with my beliefs. I don’t need to agree with anyone in order to identify with them, and the act of relating to someone as a human being rather than a sum of their professed beliefs is a powerful way to oppose polarisation and extremism. One of the best things about churches for me is that the best ones put very different people together - young, old, rich, poor, different classes, politics, ethnic backgrounds, beliefs and so on. In the UK, 51% of adult men have no close friends. Churches provide a context for people to spend time with others in a way that is quite rare nowadays. YMMV, obviously, but I gain a lot from being there, even though I’m just looking after the kids in the creche during the service itself (sorry, but even I can’t sit through that every week).

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