Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Critical Thinking, and Islamic Violence

Browsing lazily through last Saturday’s Australian Financial Review I came across an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who, for having the temerity to have pointed out the obvious about islam, publicly and vociferously, is now forced to live surrounded by security guards.

Towards the end of the article I read the following exchange:

Hirsi Ali’s argument for reformation lies in doctrinal reform. She divides the chapters of the Koran into the Prophet Mohammed’s early period at Mecca, that was spiritual and apolitical, and the other period, his political and military period of Medina. She says under the doctrine of abrogation, official schools of Islamic law have ruled that Medina supersedes the early Meccan period. And this is where Islam needs to change from within if the battle against the extremists is to be won.

From the outside she says countries such as Australia need to refuse Muslim immigrants who are Medinas.

Then there’s education, which she sees as important in the rise and strengthening of moderate Muslims.

“If you learn critical thinking then you’re immunised when a crazy, charismatic person comes along and says, ‘You know I really think you should engage in Holy War’. They would ask: ‘Why would I harm another human being? Why would I give up everything I have here to go to Syria? Why as a woman be a Jihadi wife?’

“The fact that some young Muslims who are raised in western society don’t have that and are attempting to go says something about them, households, mosques and society and that education is failing.”

Granted that our society and our education is failing our young people. Not just muslim youth, but all youth. Can critical thinking immunise people from the bloodthirsty exhortations of the religious? 

1 What is critical thinking?

First – what is critical thinking?

The people at CriticalThinking.org define it as:

 … the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

That’s one hell of a word salad. It’s as if the people behind it collected every positive adjective about the thinking process that they could find, and threw it into a sentence. The result is largely meaningless and impenetrable. Breaking it down, from what I can see they intend to say:

Critical Thinking is the process of rigorously assessing the information that you have in order to make decisions.

OK – but that just sounds like plain old, vanilla ‘thinking’. Thinking is that particular process where we look at the information that we have, assess it in relation to what we want to know and the decision that we want to make, and bring it together in summary form that allows us to use it to make a decision. What is that differentiates ‘critical thinking’ from plain vanilla ‘thinking’?

I have a suspicion that the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical thinking’ has just been appended to the ‘thinking’ part to make it sound important. You can do that with the word ‘critical’: the vampires of the Frankfurt School sought to disguise the stench arising from the verbal sludge and ideological ordure that they vomited up by giving their excretions the name Critical Theory; one of my professors used to ask (and still does ask) his students to ‘outline and critically appraise’ some idea or theory.

It’s a bit like the adjective ‘strategic’: because of the nature of my work I’ve variously worked in the ‘Strategic Communications’ team of an organisation (it was actually a ‘tactical communications’ unit, but just saying that should indicate why the management chose rather to call it ‘strategic’) and also the Strategic Intelligence team of a broader Strategy group (interesting for the fact that the only part of Strategy that worked on strategy was the Strategic Intelligence team, and there, the only strategic intelligence being produced was my work on risks to the organisation and its aims – actual proper strategic risks).

In truth, all thinking is critical, in the sense that it involves assessment and judgement. If it’s not critical, it’s not thinking – it’s mere daydreaming, or rationalisation, or some other use of the mind.

Nevertheless when people talk of ‘critical thinking’, they have something in mind which is distinct from the sort of mental activity that people tend to do in their ordinary life and which passes for thinking among the unenlightened: it is thinking which is actively questioning, sceptical, circumspect, and slow to arrive at a conclusion. It is thinking of a particular kind, for which the appellation ‘critical thinking’ is a clumsy and inaccurate descriptor. We might better think of it as active scepticism.

This is, I think, what Hirsi Ali is aiming at with her discussion of how a person armed with critical thinking might approach the option of becoming a jihadi, a soldier of the faith. ‘Why … ? Why … ? Why …?’

2 Critical thinking as an antidote and prophylactic for terrorism – the evidence

The next question is: is Hirsi Ali correct when she says

If you learn critical thinking then you’re immunised when a crazy, charismatic person comes along and says, ‘You know I really think you should engage in Holy War’.

It’s a big claim. Can it possibly be correct? It suggests that all we need to do in order to rid the world of fanaticism, and ideological and religious violence, is to have people learn critical thinking. Paradise on earth might merely be a few semesters of further education away. Could it be this easy?

Firstly, is there any empirical evidence supporting the claim? Has someone gone out and assessed whether those people trained in critical thinking are less likely to become religiously-inspired murderers than people not trained in critical thinking?

A quick Google search didn’t produce anything. There was this piece of wishful thinking:

The answer doesn’t lie in telling people what to think, which has a generally disastrous record. Little will be achieved by trying to double down on censorship and monitoring. As early net pioneer John Gilmour once said, the net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Instead the response has to lie in teaching people to think.

Perhaps I’m being dewy-eyed about the power of reason and of rationality, but a big deficit has opened up between how young people consume information and how we’re teaching them to assess it. I don’t blame schools for that; the speed of the media revolution is dizzying for teachers too. But they have to shape up quickly. All of us now need be the guardians of own truths, the gatekeepers and editors of what we read and produce.

The ability to judge the merits of different pieces of information is not new; it is the basis of much of classical philosophy. However, the architecture and functionality of the Internet makes the job of separating the wheat from the chaff even harder, and a specific body of skills and knowledge is required to make informed judgments. Although there are some promising initiatives in some schools, coverage is patchy and too many schools do not teach it. All schools must teach pupils about how to do this. Some of it is about net specific challenges: search engine optimisation, video splicing, network effects, blogging techniques. But mostly it’s about general epistemology: how to weigh up different truth claims, propaganda techniques, source attribution.

We need people to reject extremism of their own volition; anything else is pyrrhic. That will only happen if people are able to encounter extreme ideas and still have the critical faculties to make up their own mind.

[I also found this piece of deliciously self-unaware ‘Critical Theory’ – ‘Terrorism, System Thinking and Critical Discourse Analysis'(my emphasis):

Starting from a critical analysis of the US intervention in Afghanistan in response to the 11 September 2001 events, this paper seeks to propose a different approach to terrorism/ counterterrorism analysis consisting in putting at the forefront the discursive dimension of the phenomenon through the lens of critical discourse analysis and in grounding it in a system thinking approach. The main argument is that ‘terrorism’ [note the ‘scare quotes’] cannot be understood outside a context, language and culture, and that to be fully grasped as a dynamic phenomenon, it has to be framed in a systems perspective. Among the key elements of system thinking that can enhance the understanding of terrorism are boundary definition, casual loops [I think they mean ‘causal’, but who really knows] and feedbacks, delays, emergent properties and overshoot-and-collapse.

They get paid to write this stuff, by the way.]

And there was this response to the wishful thinking:

Critical Thinking Against Terrorism?

Back in March Jamie Bartlett of Demos wrote  a challenging article arguing that the best antidote to terrorist recruitment was encouraging people to think for themselves, and to think critically. 

There is much to be said for this approach, not least because it has the potential to undermine at source those joining and supporting groups such as Islamic State, and also the conspiratorial mind-set which ensures such groups flourish. I have five comments on Bartlett’s article … 

The first three comments, and the fifth are boilerplate, but the fourth is quite interesting, and I will come back to it later in this essay:

4. I have not seen any detailed research on the numbers of UK students and graduates in Syria/Iraq, and their academic backgrounds. Indeed both FOSIS (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies) and UK Universities declined to reply when I asked each how many university students are currently fighting in Iraq and Syria. My instinct would be that amongst those fighters there will be a lot more from technical backgrounds than Sociology students. Jason Burke has made the point about the number of technical students in Al-Qaeda and related groups – I have seen nothing to indicate IS will be any different.

Might that indicate again that the problem is how people think, how they process information and consequently decide to act?

And that’s it.

That’s it. Nothing more.

No hypothesis as to why critical thinking will reduce the chance that a person will become a murderous automaton. No empirical evaluation of the hypothesis, aimed at disproving it.

Nothing like that.

Just bare-faced assertion that teaching critical thinking will discourage terrorist activity.

Just to be fair, though, let’s say the assertion is true, and that people who are taught critical thinking are less likely to become religiously-inspired terrorists. Given the tremendous positive externalities created by having a population of people who can engage in critical thinking, why aren’t governments, or even private charities and institutions, subsidising the teaching of critical thinking? Surely it’s a much cheaper, more effective, and infinitely more humane approach to removing the terrorist threat than bombing to bits, shooting in the face, or gaoling for life, people who are, or who are suspected of being, terrorists?

Why isn’t anyone making this case. [I see a business opportunity here, by the way.]

Possibly because the case hasn’t been made. Possibly because the case has been made but no-one in government believes it. Or possibly because the case has been made, and people in government believe it, but it will take two generations to see any positive results, and we have to deal with terrorists now, in real time, and so it’s better to devote scarce resources to dealing with what is, than with trying to address a problem that will only arise in the future.

There may also be other reasons, which I cannot at the moment conceive. In any case, what we have found is:

  • while some people, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, assert that teaching people critical thinking will reduce the chance that those people will become religiously-inspired terrorists, there is no evidence supporting this assertion – and no investigations appear to have been carried out;
  • even if the assertions of Hirsi Ali et al. are true, no-one in government or civil society is acting on them.

3 Assessing the possible effectiveness of critical thinking

Let’s put all that behind us, and consider how critical thinking might be effective in preventing people, and especially youth, from becoming terrorist automatons.

Critical thinking relies heavily on asking questions – who, what, where, how, why -and drawing out implications. It is strongest, and most useful, in finding contradictions in beliefs, finding weak or questionable assumptions, and finding ‘holes’ and gaps in systems of thinking and belief. The reason why you might subject yourself and your beliefs and assumptions to critical thinking is to test them for consistency, coherence and completeness. It really is a great method for this.

Islam is a complete and closed system of belief. Its early scholars worked on it for hundreds of years to ensure that it would be a complete and closed system, and once they had shut the book on their work, they declared that the book is shut and is never to be opened again. As such: islam provides believers with answers for every question – not just with regard to theology, but also with regard to how to live in the world, how to treat non-believers, and how to extend and strengthen the cause of islam in the world.

You can question it all day and night, you won’t find any gaps or contradictions. They were all settled by the koranic scholars hundreds of years ago.

This closure and completeness renders islam, to my eyes, completely immune to the challenge of critical thinking. For whatever question the critical thinker can pose to the would-be muslim terrorist, islam has an answer which is consistent with why the would-be terrorist should become a terrorist.

For example, here are Hirsi Ali’s questions, and the answers that a koranic scholar would provide her with:

Crazy, charismatic person: ‘You know I really think you should engage in Holy War’.

Would-be terrorist engaging in critical thinking: ‘Why would I harm another human being?

CCP: ‘The koran exhorts you to take up the cause of jihad, and kill the infidels wherever you find them. The hadith give us many examples of the followers of allah and the prophet slaughtering infidels in their hundreds, in the cause of furthering the glory and reach of islam. For example, … etc, etc

WBTECT: ‘Why would I give up everything I have here to go to Syria?’

CCP: ‘Syria is the place of jihad in our current time. As a muslim, you are under an obligation to carry out jihad against the enemies of islam. The brothers are fighting the enemies of islam in Syria. The final battle, before Armageddon, will be held at Dabiq. Dabiq is in Syria … etc, etc.

WBTECT: ‘Why as a woman be a Jihadi wife?’

CCP: ‘The koran tells us that it is the duty of a muslim woman to support jihad, and to support her husband in the cause of jihad. What better fate could a woman want, than to be the bride of a brave jihadi fighting in the cause of islam against the infidels … etc, etc.

For every question that the critical thinker can conceive, the jihadi recruiter can find an answer which is both in complete consistency with islam, and which can be supported by the text of the koran and the hadith.

In light of this result, critical thinking may actually make the problem worse, by providing the jihadi recruiter with a chance to provide coherent, consistent answers to the questions of the would-be terrorist engaging in critical thinking.

The strong internal logic of a closed system is ineluctable. It removes all resistance.


(To be continued)


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Epistemic Rationality, Good Thinking, Instrumental Rationality, Sound Reasoning. Bookmark the permalink.

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