Tag: political violence

A Friendly Amendment to a Useful Conversation: Lets Make the World a Better Place

Will Moore

This is a guest post by Christian Davenport, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Will Moore was a close friend of, and  collaborator with, Professor Davenport.

There have several themes emerging out of the loss of our dear colleague that have emerged: how wonderful Will H. Moore (hereafter Will) was as a colleague, teacher and friend as well as a detailed and long-overdue discussion about mental health/care in the profession as well as individual cases. I do not want to detract from that conversation but I do wish to suggest two things.

First, just because we might—and should—provide some venue/place/service for people to share and be heard regarding what is going on in their lives does not mean that all of those in need will avail themselves of such a service. As an African American (after generations of experiments, neglect and poor treatment), I am hesitant to go to anyone’s office; many friends, relatives, and black folk I don’t know share this opinion according to existing research. There are other reasons for not going —pride, fear, a perception of inefficacy, shyness, poverty, etc.

I’m not against the community of scholars identifying and providing such a service. I’m just identifying that there are some limitations that need to be considered. If things were available does not mean that our dear friend would still be here.  It’s a little more complex than that and I wish to probe this a little.

With regards to my work on Rwandan political violence, I was essentially traumatized by my trips. I saw mass graves with bodies still in them, conversed with murderers, interviewed survivors, and surveyed both—as well as bystanders.  There was no one to speak to except the small group of other scholars who were interested/open (like Will) and practitioners who shared the experience (like the late Alison Des Forges), most of whom were dealing with their own stuff. When I later got in trouble for highlighting diverse forms of violence and got labeled a genocide denier/trivializer by the Rwandan government (incorrectly I might add), I was further isolated, unsure whom to talk to, and felt compelled to withdraw. Indeed, during this period I did not really speak to anyone about the experience. This persisted for several years, until I started writing about it—initially in story/blog form.  After I did this, I began to feel more comfortable about continuing my work there.  Upon seeing the scholarship that emerged (after I was criticized and banned), I became enraged—further propelling me into the research about Rwanda, which I am now completing.

Trips to India to study the horror that is untouchability (PDF), and to the Dominican Republic to study the slavery-like condition of Dominican-Haitians in Bateyes, further fueled my negative thoughts/feelings about the human condition. Much less sensationalistic, this says nothing about my constant attention to the plight of African Americans regarding the myriad of ways that they are killed and treated in a discriminatory fashion—the number of ways which only multiplies as I look further (higher rates of diagnosed schizophrenia being the last). I tend not to discuss this last one with any of colleagues and numerous friends because most “don’t want to go there”—including, to be honest, myself. Will would go there. He was always ready to let me vent and I would let him do the same when he so desired. Part of the reason that most would not, however, is that there is no simple resolution to the problem. This leads me to the second point.

Second, I wish to suggest that we not only focus on the scholars who are addressing difficult topics and the support systems around them, but also the system that produced the privilege that so elevated and disturbed our dear friend Will.  I wish to suggest that we focus on the system that produced the misogyny that upset our friend and compelled him to take action—repeatedly. I wish to focus on the racism that compelled him to take action and the repression that provoked him to work so hard. I want to focus on the discipline, departments and society that thrives on ignoring peoples work and creating cultures where folks are intolerant of people who are different, awkward, or even odd.  I do not want to suggest that we turn away from such topics because they are difficult, but rather that we all turn to such topics in order to alleviate the overall cost spent by any single person who studies them.

I say all this because I think that some of our conversation following Will’s departing has been hijacked by a belief that if we just had the right apparatus in place, then we would not currently be where we are. I think that many people are in pain because of the world being the way that it is. We are only going to improve this situation by improving the world around us. We don’t just need a venue for communicating our pain and resolving some massive internal issues that these involve. We need to also address the sources for some of the things that prompt anxiety and depression, as well as that shape the openness of individuals to discuss uncomfortable topics. For example, many do not even acknowledge the high rates of suicide within the African American male population (PDF). To deal with this problem effectively however we not only need to provide venues and strategies for helping this population deal with their mental health, but we also need to stop sticking guns in their faces, patting them down, under-employing them, underestimating them, and subjecting them to microaggressive behavior. These two efforts need to work hand in hand in order to produce a change.

Déjà Vu in Zimbabwe

Polling stations are opening in Zimbabwe, and, if one’s Facebook feed is to be believed, some enthusiastic voters have already spent a few hours queueing (and winter mornings in Zimbabwe are *cold*). Today’s elections are notable for a few reasons: they’re the first elections since extensive state-sponsored violence in 2008; they mark the formal end of the coalition government inaugurated in the aftermath of that violence; and they are the first elections to occur under a brand-spanking-new constitution.  Comparisons to Kenya’s March elections have flown fast and furious.

So what’s new?  Very little.  Indeed, elections in Zimbabwe seem to have taken on an almost eerily repetitive quality.  Once again, opposition leader and former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai is facing off against Robert Mugabe, now 89 and with 33 years in power under his belt (as well as some great quotes).  Once again, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, has instituted a campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition activists and office-holders. Once again, there is evidence of planned electoral manipulation.  Concerns center on the flawed voter registration exercise, which may have left hundreds of thousands of ghost voters on the voting rolls.  And once again, conversation within Zimbabwe tends to find its way back to the interminable Mnangagwa-Mujuru succession struggle within ZANU-PF, now over a decade old.

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Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy

Historical perspective

As James Poulous reminds me, 2010 ain’t got nothing on 1968, let alone the long 1960s.

Violent rhetoric?
Worse.

Societal polarization?
Worse.

Political violence, including assassinations?
Much worse.

It is something of a testament to how far we’ve come that what outrages us now is relatively tame compared to the spewings of the far left and the far right less than half a century ago.

I still don’t have much use for claims that center-left politicians are trying to destroy the United States, or that center-right politicians are fascists. I still think that most of the political elites accusing their opponents of trying to institute tyranny and implying the need for armed revolt are lying weasels. But let’s not wax nostalgia about some golden past of American politics, okay?

Violent Rhetoric, Rhetorical Violence, and all that

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a debate going on about the relationship between rhetoric and violence (meta). I basically agree with Henry Farrell’s take:

One can say that there is (moderate) evidence supporting the argument that violent rhetoric makes violent action more likely. But this does not and cannot show, in the absence of other evidence, that any particular violent action is the product of a general atmosphere of violent rhetoric.

Still, I find myself compelled to comment.

First, of course there’s &$^!!$@* relationship between rhetoric and violence! It doesn’t take a great deal of study of organized political violence to figure this one out. The parameters of debate here are actually quite narrow: whether overheated rhetoric in a generally peaceful environment leads some individuals to commit acts of violence that they otherwise would have eschewed.*

Second, I find this debate somewhat beside the point. The real issue, in my opinion, concerns cynicism and hypocrisy.

Mainstream right-wing voices have spent the last two years building the case that President Obama is an Islamo-Marxist intent on imposing Sharia law, confiscating property, nationalizing the health care system, giving U.S. territory back to the Native Americans, abetting terrorism, and otherwise destroying the entire foundation of the American Republic. Republican elected officials and candidates for high political office have explicitly (or all but) argued that if the political process fails to roll back key Obama initiatives then political violence is an appropriate response.

If they believe this crap, it shouldn’t matter whether Jared Lee Loughner was a left-wing anarchist,** a Tea Party stalwart, or (as seems most likely) so disturbed as to hold beliefs that transcend such simplistic (and coherent) categorizations. They might disagree with Loughner’s reasons for action, but they’re on extremely thin ice when it comes to condemning his chosen method of pursuing political change.

What their condemnations prove, I think, is that most of the political elites spewing their nonsense don’t believe a word of it. After all, the Republican House of Representatives isn’t going to be rolling back any of Obama’s key policy achievements any time soon. And even if they miraculously did, we’d still be stuck with a Senate and Executive controlled by sinister agents doing everything in their power to drag America down the road of Islamo-fascist-communist-gay tyranny. If I accepted this worldview, I certainly wouldn’t place my faith in John Boehner to defend the nation. Would you?

So, no, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, the extreme right-wing blogsphere, and rest of the usual suspects aren’t culpable for the death of a nine-year old girl in Arizona. And yes, elements of left shouldn’t accuse them of culpability. They aren’t accessories to murder; they’re just hypocritical weasels.

*In fact, the majority of this debate covers even more limited ground, insofar as it excludes (1) violence against property and (2) threats of violence designed to intimate politicians and their supporters.
**That link, by the way, provides a wonderful example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy: among other things, if Loughner was an anti-Semite then he couldn’t have been a Tea Party supporter. Sigh.

Causation, Correlation, Aggression, and Political Rhetoric

John Sides at the Monkey Cage weighs in with some social science on the relationship between militant metaphors in political speech and individuals’ willingness to engage in actual political violence against government officials. The findings he cites: an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies. Moreover:

This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ads and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

But his real point is that we should be cautious of inferring from this or any wider probabilistic data causation regarding a specific event:

To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.

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