Islam is Not the Problem
This post is a part of the “Empowering Unbelief” weekly column in which arguments for naturalism and secular humanism are discussed from a lay perspective.
In the wake of the the September 11th, 2001 attacks the U.S. was — still largely is — gripped with a crippling fear of Muslims. Desperately grasping for an explanation for why anyone would commit such a crime, most people (myself included) accepted the administration’s narrative of the events. On September 20, 2001 President Bush gave a speech that spelled it out for us. He said they were “enemies of freedom,” that “freedom itself is under attack,” and Al Qaeda’s “goal is remaking the world — and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” To his credit he attempted to temper the inevitable jingoism:
“The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics — a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.
I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.”
Despite those kind words, religious and secular alike began to characterize Muslims as belonging to an inherently evil faith. Sam Harris, a prominent atheist and author, wrote in a chapter called “The Problem with Islam” in his book The End of Faith that “[i]t is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of hadith, which recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet.” He characterizes suicidal jihad as an inherent aspect of Islam that cannot be ignored by a truly devout Muslim; “On almost every page, the Koran instructs observant Muslims to despise non-believers. On almost every page, it prepares the ground for religious conflict.”
The trouble with this kind of thinking is two-fold. 1) It reduces the motivations for Islamic violence down to a single factor — religion — ignoring their own stated motivations; 2) the same criticism can be leveled at both of Islam’s sister Abrahamic faiths, yet the majority of practitioners of all three are overwhelmingly peaceful.
In Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” he spells out his motivations clearly. To paraphrase: “You attack us and support regimes that attack and oppress us. You prop up governments that humiliate us physically and by stealing the wealth from our natural resources. Your forces occupy our countries, and holy lands. Your policies have starved the Muslims of Iraq. Etc.” There are of course heavy amounts of extreme Islamic rhetoric within — “Allah, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge. … The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.” — but I think it’s pretty clear that his tangible grievances are the primary motivation. Real or imagined*, those motives are what should be addressed. Responding with greater force only creates more terrorists:
“The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote shortly after that “bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. [He] is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world,” and largely succeeded: “U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” And arguably remains so, even after his death.”
I hope it should be obvious that pointing this out does not mean that I condone Islamic terrorism. Empathizing with people is not the same as justifying them. I abhor violence in all its forms, and especially the taking of civilian lives. I believe in non-violent resistance as an effective — and the only ethical — option for standing up to oppressors. But those kinds of movements are difficult, time-consuming, and for rational people. It’s hard to stay rational in the face of decades of humiliation, however. People use violence and force as a desperate attempt to “save face.”
We saw this during the recent riots in London. For years black communities there have faced intimidation, including periodic and utterly random searches, from police and high levels of unemployment. Is it any surprise that the gunning down of a black man (widely perceived to be innocent) by police would act like a match to a drought-stricken grassland? Yes, many Muslims react to a degree that is inconceivable to Westerners over cartoons of Muhammad — ‘barbaric’ is perhaps even appropriate here — but we should bear in mind that that reaction is in the context of decades of Western humiliation.
Religiosity and fundamentalism correlate strongly with societal dysfunction. Many atheists take this to mean that if we eliminate religion with our awesome Reason the world will become a better place, but I see the arrow of causality more likely running in the other direction. Rather than religion causing societal problems, I think societies with those kinds of problems tend to more readily turn to religion for answers. Certainly religion can then perpetuate this by prescribing actions that cause more harm — thus ensuring its own survival (eg. abstinence only education actually leads to more teen pregnancies) — but the best way to help people is probably just to help them. Fight for policies that actually help people get healthier, reduce wealth inequality, minimize their life-insecurity (not dropping bombs on them with robots might be a nice place to start), and discourage jingoism. Everyone would be better off, and there would be a lot less fundamentalism.
The second point that the same criticism — “Look at what the words say! This is awful stuff!” — can be made of Christianity and Judaism should be pretty obvious. The Bible is filled with genocides commanded and committed by God, death penalties for all kinds of minor infractions (“cursing” your parents among them), how to sell your daughter into slavery, absolution for rapists if they pay the father a fine and marry the victim, and loads more cruelty and violence. It’s been used to justify hundreds of years of war and slavery. Despite the media’s anathema to the moniker, Christian terrorists exist aplenty. Just this past July, a self-described right-wing “crusader” named Anders Breivik murdered 8 people (injuring 91 more) with a bomb in Oslo while simultaneously gunning down 69 teenagers (injuring another 62) at a camp for liberal activists.
The real point here of course isn’t that we should be terrified of these religions as well because of their texts or how literally some of their members take them. The overwhelming majority of people of all faiths are nonviolent, and would cite their faith as a source of those beliefs — even though a more “correct” (to some) interpretation suggests otherwise. In fact, a recent Gallup poll of over 130 countries found that religious identity has very little correlation to a person’s views about attacking civilians. “Almost all residents surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa who reject attacks on civilians say religion is an important part of their daily lives — much like those who say attacks are sometimes justified.”
Just to drive the last little nail in this myth’s coffin, another Gallup study found that American Muslims are the least likely of any religious segment (including non-religious) to think that targeting civilians with violence is justified. Indeed, when the question is [paraphrasing] “What is your opinion of the military targeting civilians?” American Muslims are by far the highest percent in the “Never justified” camp, and every other religion — besides no religion — actually has a majority favoring “Sometimes justified.”
It is imperative that we break free from the simplistic notions we have been fed about the causes of international terrorism and recognize it for what it unmistakably is — blowback for our own foreign policies. If we wish to curb terrorism rather than feed it with more aggression we must look hard at the policies that create the conditions for its continued existence. Religion — even religious extremism — is not the root of all evil. It is a symptom that will worsen if we don’t cure the real diseases: inequality, exploitation, and the commodification of human lives.
“In 1958, President Eisenhower, in internal documents long since released, asked his—raised the question with his staff about why there’s a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world. He said, not from the governments, but from the people. And the National Security Council, major planning body, had just released a study on this in which they said that they concluded that there’s a perception in the Arab world that the United States supports harsh, oppressive dictatorships and that the U.S. blocks democracy and development and that we do it because we want to keep control over their energy resources. And it went on to say that this is fairly accurate, and that’s pretty much what we should be doing, as long as the populations are kept quiet.”