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October 8, 2014
Richard Handler

Years ago, after another one of those endless attacks of terrorism, inexplicable, suicidal, homicidal, revolting, and resisting all explanation, a friend put it simply.

“Think of them as motorcycle gangs, come to cause all sorts of mayhem.”  For a moment I felt reassured, even amused, relieved.  Here was some explanation, no matter how inadequate, on which i could hang a label. 

For an instant my friend’s comment overturned the talk of “root causes” and Middle East history lessons -- the psychobabble.  Just think of terrorists as Mideast Hell’s Angels, and for a breathless moment we (my friend and I) could stop banging our heads. 

Our hunger for explanation works by analogy, says cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter.  Psychologists who study learning tell us that when you discover something new you try to put it in terms you already know.  

Motorcycle gang members act like terrorists? Let’s see what characteristics they share.

When an explanation “works,” it expands the domain of understanding.  When it fails, we go hunting for another. X isn’t like Y, so let’s try something else.

I don’t know if I have any better explanation than anyone else for what’s going on in the Middle East: the hideous internet beheadings, the massacre of civilians and prisoners of war, the summary displacement of Yazidis and Christians, the creation of a tide of misery and the uprooting of fellow Muslims turned into refugees.

You can read all sorts of commentary: historical (the division of the Middle East after World War I), psychological (displaced male aggression, turned savagely against women and infidels), sociological (the failure of a part of the world to accommodate “modernity”), philosophical (terror springs from the black hole of nihilism, a recent favorite among some New York Times columnists), the failure of Islam, a wounded and strife torn religion, besieged by its own fundamentalists. 

And of course, there are the tirades of Western critics (and guilt mongers) -- it’s Bush’s fault for invading Iraq!  Or imperialism, oil, capitalism, Steven Harper for wanting to send a few jets and Special Forces for six months on combat missions. 

Take your pick. And as a secularist, I haven’t even included the theological heavyweight: good ol' fashion *sin*.

On a more hopeful note, there’s another mystery to add to the mix. We can see that revealed before our eyes on this week’s episode of Context.

But first, a little context of my own. 

Some analysts claim one the reasons the Middle East has not come to terms with the contemporary world is “modernity.”  Many in the region live tribal, kin based lives. Authority is rooted in the command structures of paternal family. You don’t really trust anybody outside your group or circle of relatives. If you do, you do so with great suspicion.  

We in the West are used to spending much of our time nesting in work families, corporations, jobs, communities of non blood relations. How many times have you been told that your boss is your “friend,” or the workplace your ersatz family? That is, until you are “let go,” fired or made “redundant,”  at which point our surrogate family becomes, once again, a collection  of strangers).  

This tradition of non-kinship based relationships is so present -- yet so invisible--  in our culture, we often take it for granted.

This creation of non-kinship family can be especially strong among people of faith. That’s why on this episode of Context, we see members of a church and organizations like Samaritan’s Purse gathering to sponsor a refugee family who are literally strangers. 

These church congregants have extended their hand to those who are not “kin” and breached one of humanity’s greatest fault lines: its exclusive, tribal (or gang) ethic. This is something religious folk can do very well when need be.

I’m not sure we secularists can do it as well as religious people.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.



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