Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The "new atheism" and Islamic terrorists

I made a post about the "new atheism" and history, so I thought I might as well round it out with a post on how Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris think about some more recent events.

Anti-Muslim attitudes are hardly the exclusive province of the "new atheism", but you do find them there. (Naturally, I continue to leave Dennett out of this.) In support of the claim that religion is dangerous, the chief contemporary example is of course the 9/11 attacks, and associated terrorist attacks by Muslims. Somehow these attacks are supposed to be motivated adherence to Islamic principles.

Well, I think I mentioned this before, but, as far as I can tell, the motivations of terrorists and the reasons why Muslims tend to be angry at the West don't have much to do with specifically Islamic or specifically religious ideals.

Before I get into details, here's an interesting comparison. Can the Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu militias killed about a million people (mostly Tutsis, but some not) over the course of about a hundred days, be explained by reference to ideals inherent in Hutu religion or Hutu culture? Were there inherently violent Hutu ideals which helped motivate that insane slaughter? Well, no. The Hutu and Tutsi populations shared pretty much the same religious demographics, and there was no such thing as a specifically Hutu culture, or specifically Hutu ideals. But that didn't prove any obstacle to power-hungry Hutu demagogues.

With that in mind, let's consider the two common candidates for Islamic ideals especially responsible for terrorism by Muslims: jihad and martyrdom. Dawkins, for example, picked up these points a few days after 9/11, and has been waving them about ever since. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris follows suit and declares:
Subtract the Muslim belief in martyrdom and jihad, and the actions of suicide bombers become completely unintelligible
OK, let's see about that.


The standard view of jihad seems to be this. Jihad is primarily a spiritual struggle. I'm not sure, but some Muslims seem not to recognize violent forms of jihad at all. For those who do, though, violent jihad, jihad as holy war, isn't what some seem to think it is: you don't embark on a holy war just because some random nut says that Allah said so, or because you don't like non-Muslims. Rather, violent jihad is authorized by the Koran under specific circumstances: when Islam is facing violent persecution. That is, if an armed force is trying to wipe Islam off of the face of the earth, Muslims are warranted in coming together and fighting back in the name of Islam.

Three comments about this conception of jihad.

First, this isn't a view specific to "moderate" Muslims, but can be seen also in the arguments Islamic terrorists give in justification of their activities: a central premise is that Islam is under attack by America and its allies, Israel in particular. This is explicit in Bin Laden's 1998 fatwah declaring holy war, for example. He argues for holy war against America, and the two main premises of this argument are:
All these crimes and sins committed by the Americans [in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel] are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. And ulema have throughout Islamic history unanimously agreed that the jihad is an individual duty if the enemy destroys the Muslim countries.
Second, it's not hard to see how a demagogue like Bin Laden could make a convincing case for the claim that the West is violently persecuting Islam. Bin Laden referred to Western and Israeli military activity, and while the real motivations for that activity have little to do with the fact that the people in the area are predominantly Muslim, it probably wouldn't take much spin to create that perception. (In terms of religious persecution complexes, this one is infinitely more plausible than that of those Christians who imagine that they suffer political persecution here in America.) Once that's settled, add to it the fact that Muslims are seriously outgunned, and things can look grim for the future of Islam.

Finally, you don't need to be a Muslim to think that a violent response is warranted when violent persecution is threatening your very way of life. Quite the contrary: assuming it's at all possible to do so, it would be extraordinary for a people to refuse to respond violently in the face of that sort of threat. Such a refusal would require an uncompromising pacifism bordering on religious fervor, or a visionary or prophet showing a better way. (History records one occasion when the enlightened democratic West seemed genuinely threatened in its very way of life. The response involved Churchill firebombing German cities - civilians and all.)


As for martyrdom, the promises of virgins in the afterlife, or whatever, I can't see how that's relevant. For one thing, I can't imagine what difference it makes that the 9/11 terrorists perished in their own attacks; it hardly would have been an improvement if they'd managed to kill all those people while living to tell the tale.

The problem isn't that the 9/11 attackers died in their attacks; the problem is that they made the attacks at all. And the concept of martyrdom isn't necessary for the conclusion that Americans should be killed. If the concept of martyrdom plays any role at all, it's in... well, let's follow Bill Maher in being honest in our labeling: all a belief in martyrdom can explain is how these guys got so brave as to be willing to pilot planes into buildings while remaining in the planes. It doesn't explain why they accepted the cause of killing Americans, but maybe it could explain why they were willing to sacrifice their lives for that cause.

Is that right? Is it necessary to believe in the Muslim afterlife in order to do die for a cause, whatever it may be? Is it necessary to believe in any sort of afterlife? Not as far as I can tell. You might as well declare that there are no atheists in foxholes.

(It's an interesting asymmetry in the minds of many atheists of the anti-religious variety that they are entirely willing to implicate beliefs about the afterlife in the commission of evil acts, but reluctant to implicate such beliefs in the commission of good acts. Belief in the afterlife is not the least bit necessary to be willing to sacrifice oneself for a good cause, but it must play a crucial role in the willingness to sacrifice oneself for an evil cause.)

* * *

Now, I said that specifically Islamic ideals (the ones brought up above, at least) aren't really necessary to explain the motives underlying terrorism on the part of Muslims. That said, I think Islam does play a role. But it's the same role played by nationality or race in other conflicts: it's a source of group identity that can be exploited by demagogues under the right sorts of circumstances. As in the role played by "Hutu identity" in the Rwandan genocide, the content of that identity, or whether or not it even has any discernible content, isn't essential.

1 comment:

Paul said...

Damn, I wish I'd found this post earlier... now I'm relegated to making mostly unnoticed comments.

Are there certain "Islamic" beliefs that enable suicide bombings? Short answer - yes. Most suicide bombers in the most recent campaigns (Iraq, Afghanistan, the Second Intifada, and Al Qaeda's jihad) really are motivated in crucial part by visions of a glorious afterlife. And the virgins thing, though almost certainly mistranslated, actually counts - the fools in the martyrdom videos are often damn near salivating over the prospect.

But it's ludicrous to say that this makes suicide bombing a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, or even a uniquely religious one. The now-marginal Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade subset of Fatah, for example, didn't claim explicit religious sanction for its bommbings like Hamas or Al Qaeda do. A far starker example would be the Tamil Tigers, who have never promised their human missiles a bountiful afterlife but have fielded (at last count) nearly 150 suicide bombers in Sri Lanka. For other examples, see the Japanese kamikaze pilots, the Jewish Zealots of the 1st century AD, or the Sikh bodyguards who assassinated Indira Gandhi. Or (shameless plug coming up) just peruse my M.A. thesis, when I get around to posting it on my blog.

That's not to say there aren't serious problems in Islam right now; there are. Chief among them is a disturbing legitimacy conferred, even by many 'moderate' Muslims, upon those who respond to perceived heresy with violence and collective punishment. But that's an argument for another day. In the meantime, speaking as a proud atheist, I've lost most of my once-substantial respect for Richard Dawkins, who now pursues his atheism with the characteristic snark and lack of intellectual rigour one typically expects from the most ardent religious fundamentalists.

One more thing: "'There are no atheists in foxholes' isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes." - James Morrow