The Dodgy Syllogism

A week ago I bought a copy of The Sunday Times.  I don’t normally take The Sunday Times, but I saw it on the news stand, and an article, “We are in denial about Islam”, by Tony Blair, caught my eye.  This followed the attacks in Belgium, and I was curious to know the ex-Prime Minister’s opinion.  I have been mulling over the article for a week now, wondering if I’ve really understood its drift.  I will try to precis Mr Blair’s argument:

We are at war with extremist Islamism.  The conflict is going to be long.  The attacks on us are going to become more frequent and more severe.  We need to tackle the problem at its root, which is an ideology shared not by thousands, but by many millions of people.  This ideology – “Islamism” – is a perversion of an honourable and peaceful faith.  “Islamism” begets Islamic extremism.  Islamism even in its more moderate and non-violent form has a way of thinking that is inconsistent with a pluralist and open-minded view of the world.  Islamism seeks dominance.  It cannot be contained; it has to be defeated.

We need to improve intelligence cooperation across Europe and elsewhere, removing all obstacles of bureaucracy and, in some cases, normal legal processes.  Isis has to be crushed.  We must confront and defeat terrorists where they try to hold territory.  Ground forces are necessary to win this fight and ours are the most capable.  Prejudice needs to be rooted out of education systems globally.  In Europe, Britain should take the lead in this struggle which is similar to that against revolutionary communism, and fascism.  The entire body politic needs to “rediscover its muscularity”.  We’ve been here before.      

Well, today I took The Sunday Times again, confident there would be some reaction in the Letters column.  There were six short letters.  The first blamed Tony Blair and George W Bush for the rise of Isis.  The second despaired of any coherent global strategy as the members of the UN Security Council are only acting out of self-interest.  The third drew attention to the corrupt and sectarian nature of the Iraqi state, which sprang from the invasion.  The fourth sees Mr Blair as responsible, and asks to be spared the sermon.  The fifth supports Mr Blair’s view.  The sixth calls upon European nations to tackle deprivation in their Muslim communities.

I confess I was disappointed with the standard of debate, on all sides.  Granted the printed version of Mr Blair’s essay was an extract of a longer piece available on line; and I suspect the readers’ correspondence similarly were extracts of longer letters.  But we have to evaluate the arguments, as they have been presented.  The letters for the most part amounted to a hand-wringing exercise, dominated by a predictable ad hominem attack on Mr Blair.  I had much rather that any riposte had taken the form of literary criticism, that is, an analysis of what Mr Blair has to say, and – if justified – a demolition of it on its own terms.

It seems to me that Mr Blair’s argument takes the form of a dodgy syllogism.  Recall that a syllogism is a logical argument consisting of two premises leading inescapably to a conclusion. A sound syllogism would be: All men are mortal; Sophocles was a man; ergo Sophocles was mortal.  A dodgy syllogism would be: Sophocles was mortal; Sophocles was a man; ergo all men are mortal.  Mr Blair’s syllogism takes the form of the latter: We are at war with extremist Islamism; “Islamism” begets extremist Islamism; ergo we are at war with Islamism.  If you propound an axiom concerning all the members of a large class of entities you are entitled to apply it to any subgroup within the class.  If on the other hand you propound an axiom concerning a subgroup within a class, you are not logically entitled to apply the axiom to the whole class.  This conflation, almost by a sleight of hand, of “Islamism” with “Islamic extremism” creates an enemy for us, of many millions of people.  Corollaries to this follow thick and fast.  Because “Islamism” seeks dominance, and cannot be contained, it has to be defeated, militarily.  This involves not merely intelligence gathering, but combat, that is, troops on the ground.  The UK must be involved and must take a lead role.  This is a call to arms, on a vast scale.

But Mr Blair’s first premise, “We are at war with Islamist extremism” (the first sentence of Mr Blair’s essay) is already suspect.  Currently the UK is not, as far as I know, at war with anybody.  Now you can certainly wage war against extremists, but is it possible to wage war against an ideology?  You may be able to “crush” (sic) Isis, but can you crush an ideology in the same way? Can you really kill off an idea with a drone strike?  Reading Mr Blair’s essay reminded me of an extraordinary passage in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, a description of an army incensed by a wind coming off the desert.  The army declares war on the wind, puts on combat gear, takes up arms, and goes out to the desert to confront the wind.  The army is completely engulfed in a sand storm and never seen again.

Any conflict of ideas is virtual; it takes place not on a battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of people.  We seldom talk about the origin of hatred, or try to understand why it is there.  At Eastertide, would we not do well to remember Jesus’ advice to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”?  Most people think that is impossibly sentimental, and – well – just impossible.  Yet to think so is to fail to understand the hard core of pragmatism underlying this teaching.  Love undermines hatred.  It leaves hatred with nowhere to go.


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