Between the Points of the Pen and the Sword

The pen is mightier than the sword only as long as it takes for the swordsman to get within range of the writer. At which point the former will be free to make an example of the writer, and write his own message with the writer’s pen and blood.

As the tragedy in Paris has shown, it is not enough to say that people should be free to exercise their right to free speech. Free speech is lip service unless that speech is defended against all that seek to silence it — be they terrorists, militaries, or governments foreign and domestic. While Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, depicting an image of the Prophet Muhammad, may be seen as a symbol of defiance, it is also guaranteed to provoke Muslim extremists — the equivalent of a wounded matador, alone and unarmed, waving a crimson flag in front of a blood-maddened bull.

The world is seeing a clash of cultures. France has a long and storied history of satire and political irreverance in the grand tradition of Voltaire; to these jesters, everybody and everything is fair game for insults and criticism, and they are not required to pay a high social cost for their words. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, brook no dissent and tolerate no slight towards the symbols and articles of their faith, and will not hesitate to turn their ire on anyone who contradicts these values. This is especially pronounced among people from honour- and tribal-based cultures in the Middle East, for whom every insult must be returned with blood or blood money.

The language of satire, or indeed any kind of intellectual discourse, is not necessarily universal. Some brands of writing appeal to some people, others will offend those same people, and published ideas do not necessarily influence everyone they come into contact with. But violence is a universal language, and any given degree of violence has predictable first- and second-order effects on the target. Left unchecked, the extremists will win.

The modern terrorist employs fourth generation warfare to achieve strategic effects. One of the key principles of fourth generation warfare is to control the narrative. Extremists with the capacity and willingness to do violence in addition to spreading propaganda are going to seize the narrative. Whenever they encounter organisations that criticise them, insult them, or otherwise publish ideas contrary to what they stand for, extremists will target them for assassination and destruction. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is just the latest and most public of a long and lamentable history of violence against journalists and writers. The individual shooters may be motivated for any number of reasons, personal or ideological, but the strategic effect would be to punish and terrorise people who disagree with the extremist ideology, publicise their own ideology and demonstrate their power to the world.

News organisations, and by extension societies, targeted by such extremists will tend towards two courses of action. The first is to cease and desist publishing ‘inflammatory’ or ‘provocative’ material, either out of a sense of self-preservation or some misguided notion of respect for diversity. In which case the terrorists win the war of ideas, since they will be the only ones publishing inflammatory, provocative and therefore eye-grabbing content. The second is to puff up their chests and continue publishing provocative material. People will naturally laud these acts and naturally let the whole world know — and, naturally, the extremists will redouble their efforts and continue targeting such people and organisations until their staff are intimidated into resigning or until they are annihilated.

Between the jester with a pen and a terrorist with a machine gun, bet on the terrorist.

The next question, then, is what can be done in the wake of the Paris attacks. The easy approach, of course, is to condemn everybody that publishes offensive material — either of all kinds, or more commonly, offensive to Muslims. While benevolent, this is misguided. Terrorists do not care about offensive material — they just want to be the only ones offending people.

Freedom of speech must by necessity carry the freedom to offend. Puerile humour, the kind that Charlie Hebdo specialises in, is of course likely to offend people. But so can well-researched, thought-out white papers. It is only a question of audience and likelihood. Scour the Internet long enough and you will find flame wars and heated debates over everything from PC vs Apple vs console, the exact role of prebiotic starch in digestion, interpretations of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 9mm vs .45. it is impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy how controversial something will be, and to say that materials that appear to offend a given class of people (such as Muslims) is to treat that class of people as infantile subhuman creatures, driven entirely by base emotions, guaranteed to explode into tantrums and violence when triggered. Beyond the inherent prejudice involved, refusing to publish offensive material is little more than appeasement, and appeasement is not a viable survival strategy when faced with barbarians who wish nothing less than the destruction of civilisation.

Another easy approach is to enhance security measures in the name of counterterrorism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is calling for new laws to break into encrypted terrorist chatter. Actual enforcement may prove stickier: it would require the government to either pre-emptively ban encryption protocols it cannot break, or private corporations to give the government unilateral access to confidential communications between innocent clients. It is easy to justify such an approach by claiming that it will save lives. The problem is that terrorists do not kill for the sake of killing; they are interested in mass casualties only insofar as they inflict terror on the target population. Terrorists kill civilians to degrade the values of society, in the case of Paris freedom of speech. Security measures that sacrifice freedom in order to fight terrorists who aim to subvert freedom are doing the terrorists’ work for them.

Fourth generation warfare is a sophisticated series of tactics and strategy to exhaust and hollow the state, tempting it into self-destruction. Countering 4GW requires similar sophistication, combining both the pen and the sword.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, upholding freedom of speech, and the freedom to offend, must still be paramount. At the policy level, neither the state or the industry should pass laws or regulations, formal or informal, that suppresses anybody’s right to say anything. The only exception should be made for speech that incites or enables violence.

While states have a duty to protect their people, the greater the power a state has the greater the potential for abuse. Counterterrorism laws and policies that further increase the power of the state must include clauses for checks and balances, such as an oversight committee, requirements for warrants, and strategies that enable as precise a targeting method as possible to minimise the chances of innocents being caught in the dragnet. While swords are useful when faced with an enemy, it must be remembered that swords have two edges.

At the individual level, I think people should give some thought about the material they read and critique. This is not to say their tastes should fit mine, rather that it is useful to think about the effects of publishing something, be it in praise or condemnation of an idea. It is equally useful to make a distinction between crass or offensive material and material that promotes critical thought. All public speech, either in favour or as critique, will promote an idea to whoever happens to be the audience, followed by how the speaker frames and interprets that idea. One’s personal taste is entirely personal, but one does not need to critique every offensive thing either. Publicity is the oxygen of ideas and memes; to defeat them, I think starving them of attention would be the best approach. This would mean supporting and publicising speech that affirms the values that underpin civilisation, and ignoring that which do not — and, perhaps, by rhetorically savaging those that undermine it with the goal of discrediting the underlying ideas.

But beyond the level of the pen, people and organisations have to take personal security seriously. I will grant that this tends to be more useful against criminals than terrorists, but people who publish the kind of speech that offends terrorists are statistically more likely to be targeted by such people. Remaining a soft target exposes them and their families to death and fates worse than death — and turns them into a message for their colleagues and fellow citizens. Further, it is increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to respond in time to a defeat a terrorist attack unless they happen to be in the vicinity. People who dare to dance with the devil must be ready to defend themselves, with violence if necessary. That means seeking training from competent professionals, establishing a security plan, hiring skilled protectors, and other such measures. I suspect in the long term, only people and organisations that can bear the cost of enhanced security measures will be free to criticise terrorism and its adherents without fear of death or ruin.

Fourth generation warfare combines the pen and sword, the former through propaganda and the latter through terrorist violence. It is not enough to pick one or the other in response. Society has to choose both, the former to spread the memes that affirm civilisation and undercut those that undermine it, and the latter to deter and defeat those who would use the sword against it.

The politics of choice, faith and inclusiveness

I am truly puzzled over recent events. In Malaysia, unknown attackers have firebombed four churches as the row over the word ‘Allah’ escalates. In France, Parliament will consider passing a law that bans the burqa or niqab later this month. I’ll look at both cases in this post.


Let’s look at Malaysia. Conservative Muslims have argued that ‘Allah’ may only be used by Muslims; allowing other religions to use this word would lead to confusion and people converting from Islam. The very inconvenient fact that Arab-speaking Jews and Christians have and still use ‘Allah’ has been ignored thus far. The fundamentalists have framed this issue as defending Islam against…some kind of undefined, unspecified, possible intangible, yet somehow real aggressor.

How, exactly, do you ‘defend’ a religion? Can you build a suit of armour around a set of practices and beliefs? Perhaps mount weapons while you’re at it, and take potshots at threatening non-believers. Will shouting yourself hoarse  to drown out infidels work? The whole notion, frankly, is as absurd as measuring sanity with a ruler. You can’t quantify the unquantifiable, and that is exactly what they fundamentalists are proposing.

What is religion? Every religion is a series of practices based on a core of ideas. Christianity involves worship at a church and understanding the supremacy of God and the message of Jesus. Islam involves more regular worship at a mosque and understanding the supremacy of Allah and the message of the prophet Mohammad. What is ‘practice’? Something you do. The imperative word being ‘do’. And the precursor to action is a thought, an idea, that you need to do something. In this light, a religion is a collection of ideas bundled together for practice.

Now, how do you harm an idea? Do you poke it with a pencil until it comes apart? Do you shoot it until it exsanguinates? Do you blow it up with a bomb? Again, it’s like measuring sanity with a ruler — you can’t. Ideas can only be proven or disproven, credited or discredited. When disproven or discredited, ideas fade away — eventually. Let’s look at white supremacy. It is younger than Islam, has been disproven and universally condemned, is in fact implicitly illegal in anti-hate and anti-prejudice laws — and it is still around. Can Islam lose any of its character when it has been around for centuries, has not been disproven, is a mainstream religion, over a non-issue involving the use of a word that Arab-speaking Abrahamic believers everywhere outside Malaysia have used since pre-Islamic times?

The answer is no.

Do the fundamentalists see this? The answer is no. As it stands, they seem to embrace the notion that they are a majority group locked in an eternal conflict with other races, always on the defensive against perceived acts of aggression, ready to strike back at anything that threatens their sense of identity. Hence this. Frankly, if the collective body of fundamentalists could be seen as a human being, it would be diagnosed as paranoid.

Worse, they will spark self-fulfilling prophecies. See my previous post for a more in-depth explanation. Suffice to say, their actions will anger and provoke fundamentalists and extremists from other races and religions, or whomever their perceived antagonist of the day is. Those extremists would then be pushed towards hate crimes, justifying them as necessary actions ‘in defence of’ the Cause. The fundamentalists would decry these attacks from the opposing side, the extremists will perform other attacks, and a spiral of violence is born.

The only permanent solution is inclusiveness. Again, read my previous post. Yes, there will be short-term costs. Yes, there will be resistance. But to quote Arthur Schopenhauer, all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident. I’m hoping the Malaysian High Court is willing to facilitate this process. But I’m not holding my breath.


France is also very concerned about Islam. So concerned that the French Parliament is moving to consider an outright ban on burqas and niqabs. This is done in the name of sexual equality and secularism, in the face of a growing number of Frenchwomen wearing the apparently formerly rare garment — so many, in fact, that the proponents of the law cannot give an actual figure (source).

This article is the one of the most insightful ones I have seen on this issue. Let me see this in a different light: will the law achieve its intended effect?

The answer, I think, is ‘partially, at high long-term cost’. Muslim women with a rather liberal interpretation of the faith may stop wearing the burqa — such a thing does not really inconvenience her. Devout Muslim women would either take off their burqas — and remember the government as one that rejects an aspect of the Muslim identity — or put up with a never-ending series of fines. Women who are ‘forced’ to wear the burqa will be caught between a rock and a hard place: put up with fines, or put up with a disapproving family. And they, too, will resent the State for putting them in such a position.

And then there’s the Muslims who will interpret the law as an attack on the faith, misguided or intentional. And devout Muslim males (and females) who will be offended at the sight of Muslim women not wearing the burqa or niqab.  Should the law pass, they will have a very convenient target to vent their anger: the French government. The result: hate crimes, for starters.

Islam, by the way, is France’s second-largest religion. You can imagine the hue and cry that would follow by appearing to oppress a large minority group.

The French approach is very similar to pointing a gun at a man and ordering him to do something for you. He may comply, but it doesn’t mean that he won’t resent you after the fact, or find ways and means to get back at you. Or he might not comply, and instead lash out at you. You achieve short-term compliance, but you are setting yourself up for long-term hostility.

What can be done? Again, the answer seems to come down to the principle of inclusiveness. The first step is to abandon the religion of secularism (not to mention the law to be passed in Parliament). This ‘principle’, interpreted in France, basically forbids anyone from practicing his or her faith in public — and seems to be squarely aimed at Muslims. The second is to introduce measures to integrate people of all religions into society: hold inter-religious conferences, visit ghettos, improve the lives of the less well-off regardless of faith, teaching children about other faiths, and so on. The third is to host dialogues within Islam regarding the niqab; Muslim scholars are divided on this issue, and by airing their arguments and beliefs, the people will be better informed, and choose accordingly. Discussing the actual policies is outside the scope of this post, but the key here would be information, choice, and inclusiveness.


In the above two cases, the private intersects with the public. The practices of the individual is apparently at odds with societal norms. In both, I have argued for maximising the choice and right of the individual. This is because the nature of the individual influences society more than society influences the individual.

Here’s an analogy. Take a pencil, a ruler, and an eraser. You can do plenty with these things: write, do homework, draw, correct mistakes, and so on. Now insert a pen. You have thus put together a basic stationery set for the student who may only work with pens, not pencils; and the student or person who may use pencils has an additional option. Add a brush and some paints and now you have everything you need to produce a painting and sign it with your name. Throw in a pair of scissors and you can do basic craft work.

Take each item as an individual, and each group of items as society. The addition of people with different skills — or are just different — changes the nature of the group, and therefore society. A social group is thus a very fluid concept, dependent entirely on the properties of the people within. At the same time, how the people act may be influenced by the group, but not necessarily be a direct function of that group. For example, with my art and craft kit as described above, I can use the scissors to cut out a piece of paper for a work of art, cut open some paper packaging, or stab someone.

Why would I want to stab someone? The most likely explanation is that he or she seems to pose a clear and present danger to myself or someone else, is armed, and does not seem to be listening to my attempts at negotiation. Substitute ‘I’ for ‘extremist’, ‘stab’ for ‘attack’ and ‘someone’ for a social group of your choice (blacks, Americans, Muslims, etc.), and ‘someone else’ as the extremist’s identified in-group (white, Muslim, American, etc.). That right there is the driving factor behind many ideologically driven acts of hate and terror.

How do you prevent this? You remove the notion that there is a threat. You make yourself look less threatening and more friendly and tolerant. You listen to the views of someone else, no matter how contradictory to your personal beliefs, without judgment. In short, you be inclusive. Substitute ‘you’ for ‘society’ and ‘majority social group’ — this is how to prevent conflict. By removing a cause for conflict, and by building good relations, the individual will not feel threatened, and would be more willing to use his or her skills for the greater good. I can go back to using my scissors for my work, and I wouldn’t be afraid to lend it to you if you need them, so to speak.

Society is inherently fluid. It is temporary. The only real differences between a nation and a group of friends are capabilities, population, scale, reproductive capability and life expectancy. By empowering the individual with choices — be it by allowing him to use the word ‘Allah’ or ensuring that she may choose whether to wear her burqa — and by accepting that individual for who and what he is, society tends to benefit because that person’s skills can be harnessed willingly for the greater good of society. That, I think, is the final objective of politics.