There is a well known quote from a Protestant minister named Martin Niemoller (1892-1984) who argued for the defense of others:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The argument is by all accounts a practical one, not a moral one. The quote suggests that people should stand up against prejudice because hatred is a slippery slope. The selfish reasoning has different aspects: fight for others before the evil comes for you; and fight for others, and hopefully they will fight for you as well due to the same logic.
Do world leaders actually use such self-motivating arguments in practice? Are the arguments effective in curbing hate and attacks driven by hatred?
Rallying for the Victims
Consider the situation of Jews in France over the past few years.
The Anti Defamation League did a study of anti-Semitism in 2014 which it updated in 2015. The study found that while most countries in the world witnessed very small changes in the level of hatred against Jews, France saw a dramatic drop.
- Christians: In 2014, 40% of French Christians held anti-Semitic views. That number dropped to 17% in 2015.
- Business: In 2014, 51% of France believed that Jews had too much control of the financial markets. One year later, only 33% held such views – mostly Muslims (63%)
- Global Affairs: In 2014, 46% of France believed that Jews had too much control over world affairs, a number that dropped to 22% in 2015 (again, predominantly French Muslims, 54% compared to Christians at 21%)
- Pompous: In 2014, 33% of France thought that Jews thought themselves superior to others, dropping almost in half to 17% in 2015 (Muslims were more than twice as likely as Christians to hold this view)
- Media: In 2014, 44% of France thought that Jews had too much control of the media, which dropped to only 21% in 2015 (Muslims were almost 3 times more likely to hold that view).
- World Wars: In 2014, 18% of the French considered the Jews behind major world wars. In 2015, that number was one-third, 6% (with Muslims FOUR times as likely as Christians to hold such view).
What happened between the two polls in France to cause such a dramatic shift in the perception of Jews? ADL commented that various terrorist attacks and violence against Jews over 2014 brought a sense of solidarity for the Jews in France, as well as in Germany and Belgium where other attacks occurred:
“The poll found a marked increase in concern about violence against Jews in all three countries. The results indicate that heightened awareness of violence against Jews fosters a sense of solidarity with the Jewish community and that strong condemnation by political and civic leaders makes expressing anti-Semitism less acceptable.”
Such statement from the ADL would seem to confirm that speaking up in defense of a persecuted group improves their situation, and indeed that may have been a contributor to the dramatic improvement of the French perception of Jews.
Rallying for the Perpetrator
In June 2015, the Pew Research Center did a survey of the French in their attitudes towards Muslims in the aftermath of deadly attacks committed by Islamic terrorists. In a surprising finding, the French viewed the group that perpetrated the violence MORE favorably than before, going from a 72% favorability rating to 76%. The improvement in opinions went across all political ideologies, including the far right which saw a movement of 60% to 63%, including a strong favorability rating doubling from 8% to 16%.
This dynamic happened in the United States after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks as well. Overall, Americans’ positive impressions of Muslims jumped from 45% to 59%, with the far right jumping the most, from 35% favorable feelings to 64%.
Pew reached a similar conclusion as the ADL, and attributed the increased positive feelings towards Muslims stemming from the call for unity among leaders such as President George W Bush who said: “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”
The famous Niemoller quote considered people’s selfish motivations to defend others, while world leaders appealed to people to turn away from hatred in pursuit of unity. Whether in France or the USA, those calls seemed effective in changing attitudes, but did they lower the number of attacks?
In the United States, the number of attacks inspired by radical Islam has accelerated since the middle of 2015, with roughly 30 incidents over the past year (compared to 62 in the prior 14 years). Have the number of attacks increased because of the calls by President-elect Donald Trump to perform “extreme vetting” of Muslims interested in coming to the United States from countries at war with the US? Possibly. It is certainly an extreme jump in jihadist attacks.
However France has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of Islamic attacks, which began to spike in December 2014. There have been roughly 20 attacks over the past two years, which roughly equals the prior 25-years’ of attacks. Various pundits speculate a number of causes including the French colonialist past and the marginalization of Muslim immigrants in French society. But those excuses must be dismissed, as those dynamics have been at play for dozens of years.
Others point out to the rise in the number of Muslim immigrants from the war-torn Middle East. These immigrants arrived into France, Belgium and other countries, bringing their anger with them. The stories they tell of the destruction of their homes fuels the anger of the resident Muslims that were already in the country. Rather than be grateful for their safety, they attack the liberal society which replaced their Muslim world. While the attacks by Muslims has led to the growth of far-right nationalist parties that argue to stem the flow of Muslim refugees, the far-right has overall been more positive towards the Islamic community.
It would appear that calls for calm and unity by government leaders is effective in reducing hatred, but does little to curtail terrorism. To reduce terrorism, the most effective course may be to end the wars in the Middle East, including Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Peace at home is achieved with peace abroad.
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