Aren’t Religion and Politics Both to Blame for War on Terror?

Glenn Greenwald, Murtaza Hussain, Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and others have been debating, rather vehemently recently, the subject of terrorism. The primary rift between them is whether or not the violent acts of Muslim extremists are motivated by religion or politics. In my opinion both are integral and it’s dishonest to pretend differently.

Greenwald and Hussain are of the opinion that- as stated almost universally by each suspected terrorist from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon– Western foreign policy, with its brutal occupations, bombings, drone campaigns, and propping up of oppressive dictators, is actively creating more, not less, of the very thing the “War on Terror” is designed to extirpate: the threat terrorism. Their argument is that it is naive to believe that Western actions do not play a significant role in the blowback we experience in the form of terrorist attacks on Western soil. For them, the simple logic of cause and effect is our guide: If you indiscriminately target citizens and support regimes that kill innocent people in other countries, for the sake of national interests, all while citing “freedom and democracy” as justification for being there, you should not be surprised if retaliation is sought. Greenwald and company do not justify that retaliation, as some of their critics have wrongly asserted. They are merely underlining a rational set of reasons for “why they hate us”, in an effort to counter the “they hate us for our freedoms” narrative that is often force-fed to Western citizens by their governments.

Sullivan and company would disagree about Western militaries indiscriminately targeting civilians. They would suggest that this is where the fundamental distinction between “us and them” lies. We do not purposefully seek to kill innocent civilians when we attack. They do. I’m not convinced this is entirely true. I think both sides are guilty of this motivation. The difference of opinion here is where the ambiguity of the word terrorism is most apparent.

Greenwald finds the word “terrorism” devoid of meaning, stating that it has been euphemistically hijacked and is never applied consistently. He believes that the use of the word is entirely dependent on who the violent actor is. If it’s a Muslim person or entity, and is directed toward the West, the violence is unquestionably labeled terrorism. If the act is committed by a Western nation or entity, different standards within the media and intelligentsia apply. Therefore the violence perpetuated by the West is rarely dealt with honestly. Any attempt at drawing a parallel, or merely questioning if certain Western aggression should be called terror, invites the harshest hyperbolic condemnation from critics, causing genuine efforts to engage the substance of the debate to flounder. This lack of consistency renders the word, in Greenwald’s opinion, meaningless.

His critics seem to disagree. In their view the distinction between what the West has done, and what radical Islam strives to do, is clear. The Fundamental difference, in someone like Sullivan’s mind, is intent. If this is true, then aren’t we guilty of a biased postulation that “our” intent is always noble, and “theirs” is not? Are we even capable of judging this impartially? And doesn’t it betray a certain nationalistic hubris to argue in this way? If the intent is to coerce a populace by means of fear, in order to achieve a political end, it’s hard to look upon Western interventionism honestly and find every instance innocent of that intention. Since I largely agree with Greenwald on this point, I’m not going to penetrate further as I’m more concerned with areas that I think both sides aren’t treating with total veracity.

Andrew Sullivan, Sam Harris, and several other critics, conversely believe that US and Western involvement in the Middle East is not the primary cause of attacks on Western soil. Events like 9/11 and the Boston Marathon, according to them, aren’t as much political as they are religious in nature. Global jihad and the annihilation of the infidel, is the only object on the mind of Islamic extremists that continue to attack the West.

It is their contention that Islam poses a unique threat in the world because currently, it is the only faith that unabashedly incites its followers to violence. They acknowledge the fact that radical Islam is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but they reject the notion that it is just a fringe movement. They believe that it is not relegated to the periphery, but is instead very much a central doctrine that at present inspires far too many people (and governments) to not only look upon the infidel as a perpetual enemy, but also fellow Muslims and countrymen who adhere to subtle nuances of the faith. The sectarian violence that is currently destroying countries like Iraq and Syria are prime examples of the inflexibility of Islam, and thus, entire swaths of Muslims who share a common nationality are being killed for what Freud once called “The Narcissism of the Small Difference.” For Harris and Sullivan, it is the way fanatical interpretations of any faith seem to justify anything, including violence against innocents, which makes radical Islam especially pernicious.

In spite of the validity of their arguments, I can’t help but detect a willful dishonesty on both sides of this argument in certain places.

How can studious political observers like Harris and Sullivan not think that what Western nations have done, and continue to do, throughout the Middle East, has no bearing on the motivations and actions of those who retaliate? Do they hear captured terrorism suspects when they state that they sought revenge on the West for its sustained occupation of Muslim countries, and think they are being disingenuous? That they are choosing to artfully beguile us into believing that this isn’t about religion? Are we supposed to hear those confessions and forget about them, choosing only to focus on the fact that the attackers scream “Allahu Akbar” as they kill?

I’m equally confused by Harris and Sullivan’s willingness, at times, to overlook the circular nature of this conflict. Whether or not you think US intervention is a force for good, it is shortsighted not to see how our presence in the Middle East creates powerful tools for the recruitment of future radicals. Whether it be sanctions or bombings that kill thousands of Iraqis, indiscriminate drone attacks known as “signature strikes” in places like Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, the constant support we grant to some of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the region (including what is arguably the most fundamentalist of all the Islamic governments, Saudi Arabia), the unwaveringly unilateral support for Israel, or the indefinite detention of Muslims in spite of being cleared for release in places like Guantanamo, these realities are known and used to create and solidify anti-Western sentimentality. You cannot possibly expect for Muslims to learn of these policies, accept them insouciantly, and believe that Western “liberators” have their best interests at heart. This is not a defense or justification for the violence that is committed because of the way the aforementioned realities are exploited. But consider the inverse. How would you expect the US and its allies to react if similar practices were directed towards them?

We know exactly how we would react. The way the US exploited the travesty of 9/11 to justify an egregious attack on a nation that had nothing to do with it, was edifying. Furthermore, the US continued to propagandistically exploit the ensuing fear that followed 9/11, as a way to treat human beings- some of whom we call fellow citizens- as second class citizens. Could you imagine what we’d do if we faced the kind of sustained attacks that Middle Easterners are accustomed to? This is not to say that Islamic extremists don’t exploit potential adherents in much the same way. They most certainly do. Hence the circular nature of this “war”.

It’s strange when someone like Sullivan attempts to cite events like our invasion of Iraq, the support for Afghan radicals against the Soviets, and the financial aid we’ve given to regimes like Egypt, as proof of our benevolence in the region. This is once again his way of trying to define intent. The irony of course is that if you look at Afghanistan in the 1980’s, when we armed warlords and radicals with weapons and money in order to kill Russians, the US chose radical Islam over allowing Communism to gain a major foothold in the region. (This was when Communism, not radical Islam, posed the great existential threat to our nation. This is when the same modern day propaganda being used to inspire fear against Islam, was directed against all things Communist. Exchange radical Islam for Communism in any of the writings of the most ardent supporters for perpetual war at that time, and notice the similarity in language; the constancy of the peril we live under; the perverse evil of the imminent threat we must always be prepared to fight. The fact is radical Islam was seen as the lesser of two evils back then; a necessary risk in order to defeat a larger and more ubiquitous threat. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the roles have reversed.)

Closer examination of our involvement in the Middle East reveals that we have invariably supported some of the most brutal Islamic fundamentalist regimes in the region, selling many of them arms that they use against their own people who are struggling for democracy. Does Sullivan actually think we care about these citizens? Does he think we are concerned about their civil rights? About their freedom of expression? We shouldn’t pretend our intentions are anything but self-serving. They always have been. Is Islam- in that part of the world- failing to embrace plurality and modernity? Yes. But it seems that millions of Middle Easterners, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, want something different, as the last two years have indicated with the varying success of the Arab Spring.

The question is this: Do the people in these nations suffer more because of the effect that Islamic radicalism has on their governments, or because Western interventionism- with its long history of colonialist imperialism- has installed puppet regimes that care more about profits and power, than they do about governing their people? And are the two ideas- in concert- not equal conspirators in a larger geopolitical game?

The last issue I take with Sullivan and Harris’ side of this argument is the notion that 9/11 is somehow when this conflict began; that we in America were neutral businessmen in the Middle East, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, Islam attacked us. This reeks of historical revisionism. And that history goes both ways. This war is an ancient one, and has been a self-generating conflict for centuries. (At the heart of the conflict was, and maybe still is, religion on both sides. The religiosity from the West has been used- as Greenwald has stated- rather conspicuously in myriad speeches by Western military and government leaders. In not so subtle language they have stressed that this is an ideological war; that it is the duty of all Christians to combat this enemy, and that the wars in the Middle East have as much to do with religious conviction, as they do anything else.)

Greenwald’s larger point is that Western “interventionism” precedes 9/11; that 9/11 was the manifestation of decades of Western injustice in the Middle East, which in turn caused the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, creating the rationale for subsequent terrorist plots against Western entities ever since. 9/11 was not the beginning of this conflict; it was the continuation of it. Just as the attacks on the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the USS Cole were before it. The war, on both sides, is perpetual by design.

Regardless if you believe “we” are just, and “they” are not, you cannot possibly be acquainted with the realities of this conflict and think that what the West has done in that part of the world, for a very long time, is in no way part of why so many hate us there. Refusal to accept this indicates a blind nationalistic fervor that is just as corruptible as any religion, and is often led by the same irrationality and shunning of evidence that accompanies religious faith.


Any cursory examination of the history of Islam reveals that it isn’t an innately evil force or faith. The Quran, much like the Bible before it, suffers from the duality of its message. It bears the mark of the world it was written for. Like other institutions and faiths, it also possesses a rich cultural history that can claim significant discoveries in science, mathematics, poetry, music, art, and literature. But Islam has not experienced a lasting Reformation. It has not endured a period equivalent to what is now known as the Enlightenment in the West, in which free thought and most importantly doubt, was granted free expression. There exists still, horrid discrimination against atheism and other ideas that are antithetical to Islamic fundamentalism, and often times one takes his or her life into their hands if they are courageous enough to dissent. The right to openly deny and question, that which Islam says is absolute, is foreign to many Muslims living in the Middle East.

Christianity used to be this way until it endured a series of gradual changes that forced the religion to evolve. That’s not my way of saying that Christianity is superior to Islam. I’m simply stating that if we use history as our guide, the various movements that softened the ultra-conservatism of Christianity were a positive for millions of human beings, if not immediately, then certainly over time. Similar changes have not occurred on the same scale in Islam. True we shouldn’t expect Islam to follow the same course that Christianity has. There are innumerable external factors that play into this, many of which involve the history of colonialism. But in theory at least, as I’m sure Harris and Sullivan would agree, an introduction of liberalism is badly needed in Middle Eastern Islamic nations. And by this, I’m not implying that this liberalism should come from the West.

I agree with Harris when he asks if a play like the “Book of Mormon” could expect the same peaceful reaction if it were written about Islam? Could such a satire transpire? Would anyone risk undertaking it? These are valid questions. One has to believe that right now, the answer is no. Greenwald, who is as fierce an advocate of the unequivocal necessity for free speech as we currently have in political commentary, knows this better than anyone: that no idea, philosophy, political ideology, or religion, should be exempt from scrutiny, debate, criticism, or ridicule. Islam struggles with this concept internally, let alone with anyone outside the faith, and on questions of expression and the freedom to examine the realities of the religion, it is failing to engage itself thoughtfully and compassionately. (If we’re being honest, US foreign policy is failing in the exact same way.)

This is not to say that all Muslims think this way. There are far too many examples of Muslim scholars, writers, politicians, intellectuals and religious leaders condemning terrorism and espousing freedom of expression, to think this is true. And to insinuate that over a billion people believe free expression should be stifled, or that Islam is at its most authentic when it’s violent, is a gross misrepresentation of the faith. But there is a very real extremist element within that poses a threat- most commonly to other Muslims- and makes the need for self-criticism all the more difficult, but necessary, in 2013.

The question is why? What is it about Islam that makes the extremist element prone to violence on such consistently large scales? And is it really “more dangerous than other faiths”, or is that Western propaganda manipulating our perceptions? Are we not wrong to implicate Islam as a whole? Isn’t it prejudicial to assume that all Muslims think and believe in this way? One might say that Western foreign policy is to blame for why radicalized Islam is so violent. But it’s also Muslims, not Westerners, who suffer most. Is this the result of some inherent evil of the faith? Or is the religiosity merely a front for the political divide that is at the heart of so much Muslim on Muslim violence? I’d never suggest that there isn’t a political underbelly to suicide bombings, but without the credulity of the believer, and his/her unwavering faith in an eternal reward, the entire practice is neutered. Religion has the monopoly on this kind of thinking, and it always has. But unlike some in this argument, I’d include nationalism in that religious-like description. I think it too demands blind faith to the point that it can inspire people to behave irrationally in certain situations; maybe not for divine rewards, but for the mythology of their nation’s “exceptionalism” in the world.

Where we in the West are most often failed, in terms of our perception of Islam, is how it is treated by the media. We very rarely get to hear from moderate Islamic voices in the wake of terrorist attacks, and the primacy of religious extremism is always promoted- often before it’s definitively known if the suspect is even Muslim- and very little to no focus is placed on the political motives that these terrorists proclaim. The vilification of Islam as a whole is undertaken with relative ease for these precise reasons, and the media circumvents every opportunity to critically debate Western interventionism. It simply doesn’t fit the pervasive narrative that our government promotes. Western media obsequiously ignores the political side of this issue, at the government’s bidding, like the good stenographers that they are.

But, there are valid points to be made when talking about fundamentalist governments like Saudi Arabia, and its efforts to thwart free expression and education; the right to talk openly about the good and the bad of any ideology; the right to satirize and have a sense of humor about religion; the right to compare and contrast; the right to ask for evidence when an institution that makes large claims for itself demands that it is the source of truth; the right to challenge the superstitious, by asserting that life in the here and now is far more entitled to respect than any religious interpretation of the hereafter. This is what made the Reformation- and ultimately the Enlightenment- indispensable in the Western world; the freedom to question government and religious institutions, without fear of being deprived of one’s life or liberty.

Greenwald would probably argue that perhaps the vociferation of extremist elements in this debate is a direct consequence of Western aggression and occupation. As I stated above, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Western involvement in the Middle East has empowered Islamic radicals both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s also plausible to argue that many Western leaders believe in a Christian mission to “tame the savage barbarian” and that aggression is the only way to do so. But isn’t it true that moderate Islam must be more vocal and active throughout the Middle East; that it needs to combat the domineering perception permeating the non-Muslim world that Islam is inherently violent, by first accepting the fact that at present, extremists control the global platform; and that elements of Islam have a problem with modernity, free expression, education, women, freethinkers, and homosexuals? Shouldn’t moderate Islam acknowledge that no idea or institution is beyond reproach and demand that it be the clamoring voice in this discussion?

The West, on the other hand, cannot expect to assuage the threat of terror by using terror. That circular logic has only succeeded in aiding Islamic extremists in gaining support, even from those that don’t condone the ideology. In all of the back and forth between Harris, Sullivan, Hussain, and Greenwald, the question that never gets asked is, what is the US and her allies doing in that part of the world? Why are we really there? The short answer is “national interests”, which is just a euphemism for oil. But the larger issue is more complex, and it is in that complexity that the West must also be honest about what its motivations are and how it can expect perpetual war if it doesn’t change its policies or leave the region. To discern this one needs only to attempt to see from the eyes of the occupied. We once knew that feeling well in this country, just a few centuries ago. Today we’re convinced of our unparalleled amity and of our sincere desire to bring democracy to the world. As many Middle Easterners have stated, the reality on the ground doesn’t jibe with these assertions.

This problem is as old as recorded human history: the struggle for freedom, power, religious liberty, empire, self-governance, expression and equality are constants in our world. Until all of these issues (and the discrepancies within) are dealt with honestly, any hope at constructively addressing radical Islam and Western occupation is futile. I think both sides do a disservice to their positions- and the debate at large- when they refuse to recognize the validity of their opponents’ stronger points. All of these issues play a role in the dilemma of Western and Middle Eastern violence, religiosity, politics, equality, and sovereignty and it’s naïve to suggest otherwise.

In answer to several comments made about this piece, I offer an addendum that can be found here:

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112 Responses to Aren’t Religion and Politics Both to Blame for War on Terror?

  1. Outstanding piece. I tweeted it.

  2. This is a very thoughtful post.

    I would argue that Muslims’ hostility toward atheism and “attacks” against Islam i.e. drawing of Mohammed, *that* Youtube video is part of the larger siege mentality that exists within the Muslim world. A large segment of the Muslim population believe that the United States (and its allies) is at war with Islam itself, and so many of them see no distinction between the war in Iraq or the burning of the Qur’an: it’s all part of a “systematic” campaign to destroy Muslim societies and replace it with something else.

    • I suspect you are quite right that Western meddling in Muslim countries has a lot to do with some of that faith’s adherents not being receptive to ideas of freedom of expression when it is used to ridicule Islam. That said, when they seek residence and/or citizenship in a Western country it is not unreasonable to expect them to abide by Western precepts of free speech.

      • Chuck Wentworth says:

        No, it’s not unreasonable at all. In fact I’d suggest that the reason they seek citizenship in Western countries, is because they espouse these basic freedoms already, and desire to live under a government that protects them. As I said in the piece, the freedom to challenge, debate, criticize, and ridicule any idea- political, religious, etc.- is essential and expressing dissent is not something people should be killed for.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I agree, the distinction isn’t always made, but then again, most Middle Eastern societies aren’t as secular as most Western countries have become. To compartmentalize religion and politics is unfathomable in many of these countries. So the way they perceive Western motivations might say more about their culture than it does anything else. With that said, there have been many military and government leaders, in the West, that have vociferously called this a war against Islam, and that it is the duty of the Christian to combat this “evil”. Thus, religion and politics both play a role.

      Regarding the hostility in Muslim countries towards atheism and free expression on Mohammed, etc., I agree, it’s a major problem and one that I address in the piece. The right to criticize, challenge, debate, and even doubt, what religious and government institutions do and say on any subject whatsoever, should be free to all people.

      • Neil says:

        As I see it, there is a key cultural difference between West and the Middle East that presents something of a roadblock for many. We in the west, particularly in the US, are raised from childhood to understand that everyone has a right to free expression, but the price of that is that you must expect to have your beliefs offended every now and then.

        On the other side of the coin, most of the middle-east cultures have learned over thousands of years to get along – at least well enough to trade – with people who both believe something different from you, and also take their beliefs very seriously indeed.

        In this environment, I believe the right to not be offended to valued more than the right to free expression, as it does a better job of fostering a stable public an commercial life.

        This is almost impossible to take seriously when you have been educated in the US. The right to free speech is seen as so important to fight corruption and other negative political effects, that the right to not be offended has been discarded as an unnecessary burden.

        This is why the Mohammed cartoons seem so harmless to us but drive other cultures to the brink of insanity.

        I’m really not sure what can be done to reconcile the two views.

  3. Ron Watts says:

    The “blowback” has its origins in western activities 50 or so years ago. At that time western countries found and bought oil from a number of middle eastern countries. Oil rigs and housing compounds were arranged for westerners and their families, no jobs for locals. The compounds were off limits to the locals. Alcohol was consumed and western dress for females were in stark contrast to the Muslim ways in these countries. The locals were enraged, but favourable gov’ts and lots of money for the oil, none of which went to the locals has left a legacy of deep dislike and mistrust of westerners that is multiplying today.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I agree with your assessment of the origin of “blowback”. It has its roots in colonialist imperialism. And as long as Western countries continue to occupy these countries under the false pretense of “democracy promotion”, we shouldn’t be surprised by more “blowback”.

  4. I think it’s important to start with the context of the dispute, which is that Glenn Greenwald approvingly tweeted then defended a post by Murtaza Hussain in which he accused Harris and the new atheists of sliding with ease into the “most virulent racism imaginable” and then proceeded to quote mine Harris badly. You can read about the quote mining here. Whatever else that is, is it conducive to a conversation?

    And the Manichean premise of the piece I think is flawed:

    “The primary rift between them is whether or not the violent acts of Muslim extremists are motivated solely by religion or politics.”

    I have some doubt you could find writing from either side saying they think the motivation is “solely” one thing or the other, though I think you’d get closest with Greenwald and his focus on political blowback.

    “The last issue I take with Sullivan and Harris’ side of this argument is the notion that 9/11 is somehow when this conflict began”

    I haven’t seen this notion in Harris’ writing, but you really should his Response to controversy.

    “Do they hear captured terrorism suspects, when they state that they sought revenge on the West for its sustained occupation of Muslim countries, and think they are being disingenuous?”

    So revenge for the occupation of MUSLIM countries is supposed to prove that their motivation…had nothing to do with religion? Call me unconvinced.

    “Isn’t it prejudicial to assume that all Muslims think and believe in this way”

    Please put away this straw man, no one discussed in the article had ever written or said that all Muslims think or do one thing or the other.

    There are bad ideas and good ideas, and bad ideas should be able to be criticized without accusations of racism or Islamophobia.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I’ve been following this dispute from the beginning, so I’m familiar with the quote mining. I agree, many of those quotes were unfairly portrayed. But I’d also suggest that Harris often opportunistically pulls from the Quran in order to underscore just how violent the text is. I’m not saying it isn’t a violent text. It absolutely is. As is the Bible. But both books possess passages of beauty and goodness. (Setting aside the supernatural nonsense of course) It’s far too easy to selectively pull from either book, the morally deplorable passages in order to “prove” that a religion is uniquely violent. So, if we’re being fair, both Harris and Hussain are guilty of quote mining.

      If you read Harris and Sullivan, including their responses to Greenwald, they are convinced that the primary motivation behind terrorist attacks is religion. If you read Greenwald, he believes it’s politics. I explicitly argue in the piece that they are both conspirators in this perpetual war. Each player is willing to concede that what the other is arguing does play a role, but they are pretty vocal about that role being minor in comparison. My point was that it’s dishonest to suggest that both aren’t major factors.

      Never said that the “revenge for the occupation of Muslim countries is supposed to prove that their motivation had nothing to do with religion?”. I acknowledge completely, the role that religion plays in all of this. As I specifically said, it takes a credulous individual to believe that blowing themself up with innocent civilians will lead to a magic place and eternal reward, and that that level of superstitious gullibility is a massive problem. But, the fact is, every terrorist suspect that we’ve been allowed to hear from- especally since 9/11- has stated that a major motivation for attacking the West, is Western actions in their countries. BOTH of these play a role, and we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t. If you want to argue what percentage one plays in relation to the other, okay, but I don’t know how you can quantify that?

      Regarding your last comment on good and bad ideas, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’ll notice I didn’t address the Islamophobia or racism charge, because I don’t think they are justified. And as I stated in the post, all ideas- political, religious, nationalistic, philosophical, etc.- should be (and must be) subject to criticism, debate, and ridicule. As an atheist that very much admires Harris’ work, I find the way in which he challenges bad ideas to be essential.

      • “Thanks for reading and responding. I’ve been following this dispute from the beginning, so I’m familiar with the quote mining.”

        Neither Greenwald nor Murtaza Hussain engaged in “quote-mining” of Sam Harris. As you likely know, that term gained currency when Creationists turned to lifting words from evolutionary scientists out of their writings in a wholly dishonest manner that turned the meaning on its head. I have not encountered anyone doing that with Harris’s words; to quote him and take his words seriously is not to turn the quote’s meaning on its head.

        “As an atheist that very much admires Harris’ work, I find the way in which he challenges bad ideas to be essential.”

        I do not admire Sam Harris, either as an atheist or as a human being. He is a propagandist for American and Israeli nationalism; he is primarily a political writer. I detest his politics.

        To quote an atheist and former Muslim:

        “Any review of Sam Harris and his work is a review essentially of politics. … Harris gave a revealing interview recently to Tablet that best sums up the key themes of his political writing on the Middle East, Israel and the Western relation to Muslims :

        ‘The Israelis are confronting people who will blow themselves up to kill the maximum number of noncombatants and will even use their own children as human shields. They’ll launch their missiles from the edge of a hospital or school so that any retaliation will produce the maximum number of innocent casualties. And they do all this secure in the knowledge that their opponents are genuinely worried about killing innocent people. It’s the most cynical thing imaginable. And yet within the moral discourse of the liberal West, the Israeli side looks like it’s the most egregiously insensitive to the cost of the conflict.'”

        That is Zionist propaganda that could come straight out of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

      • Chuck Wentworth says:

        I wasn’t suggesting that Murtaza unfairly quoted everything attributed to Harris. But I do think the “fascist quote” is, when read in context, not quite fairly portrayed. Harris explains this in his response to Greenwald and I found his explanation reasonable. Whether or not the statement in its proper context is justifiable in regards to how Islam, or radical Islam should be treated, is of course another matter.

        I don’t identify with Harris- or even Hitchens’- politics as much as I do with their views on religion. And the way in which they challenge bad ideas, as I stated before, is necessary. I don’t need to agree with everything Harris does to see the value in his criticism of religion.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Chuck, I don’t think we’re far away from each other on the points that matter. I think that part of the difficulty, and perhaps absurdity, with the whole politics vs. religion debate is that, as you state in the piece, the Islamic world hasn’t gone through an Enlightenment so the two are inextricably linked.

      • Chuck Wentworth says:

        Completely…couldn’t agree more. The only thing I’d add is that we in the West, often because of the way our media exploits our fear, aren’t actively confronting and considering how much the occupation of this part of the world, and the policies that we undertake every day in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, aren’t expunging radical Islam or terrorism…they are doing the exact opposite. As simple as it is, I like to tell people the following: If you place your hand inside a wasp’s nest, and begin to punch away at the interior, should you be surprised if you get stung? And so from that perspective, as you and I have been discussing, it’s clear that both politics and religion play major roles in the perpetuity of this conflict.

    • “and then proceeded to quote mine Harris badly. ”

      This promiscuous deployment of “quote-mining” from Harris and his defenders is noxious and many Harris detractors, such as myself, hold it in utter disdain for being the contrivance it is. Greenwald and other Harris critics are not Creationists lying for Jesus and extrapolating some evolutionary scientist’s words to mean doubt about evolution. Enough of that whining.

      You deny that Harris merits this criticism: “Isn’t it prejudicial to assume that all Muslims think and believe in this way”.

      Permit me to quote Harris, (yes, I know, “quote-mining”):

      “We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It 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.” (The End of Faith, p. 109)

      Sam Harris is an uber-nationalist vis-a-vis both Israel and the U.S. That is, he is in the grips of irrational beliefs about both countries and their Goodness and urgent role in a Manichean Battle. Whatever sins they may have committed in then past, well, these should be overlooked as both glorious states now do battle against the Dark Forces of Islam. For more on Harris and his nationalism, see former Muslim and atheist Theodore Sayeed, “Sam Harris, uncovered.”

      • “promiscuous”, “noxious”, “disdain”, and “contrivance” all in a single sentence. The overheated, prolix locution really reminds of Greenwald, though, no, I don’t think you are a sock puppet. I just find it interesting.

        Anyway, the quote-mining word can’t be used here because Creationists used it? You have to know that that doesn’t constitute a defense against the quote-mining charge. It’s just silly.

        Lastly, I presume you think that the quote you gave constitutes proof that Harris assumes “that all Muslims think and behave in this way”. I honestly don’t see how it does, feel free to explain it how it does.

      • joe says:

        @thesystemoftheworld – do you not see the point as being that the belief that “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran” implies the belief that all Muslim share the same vision, and would act on such a vision in ways that necessitate our “war on Islam”?

      • joe, no I don’t see it. Saying we are at war with a “vision of life”, to me doesn’t imply that all Muslims share that vision of life. You could easily write that we are at war with a “vision of life” seen in the Old Testament, but that wouldn’t mean, or imply, that all Jews or Christians follow that vision. Particularly when, in other places you’ve EXPLICITLY said you DON’T think all Muslims follow that vision. Hence the quote-mining charge.

    • “The overheated, prolix locution really reminds of Greenwald”

      He and I have both heard that before, i.e., that our writing styles are similar. But I’m not verbose or repetitive, and he’s smarter than I am.

      “Anyway, the quote-mining word can’t be used here because Creationists used it? You have to know that that doesn’t constitute a defense against the quote-mining charge.”

      As you are obviously aware, the term “quote-mining” denotes thoroughly dishonest use of someone’s words. Neither Harris nor Hussain did anything other than discuss what Harris has written, by committing the sin of…quoting him! Even if, as Mr. Wentworth does, one thinks Hussain used the “fascist quote” in a manner “not quite fairly portrayed,” this is not akin to quote-mining.

      Many have objected to those Harris words, including Christopher Hitches who labeled them “irresponsible.” (Am I now “quote-mining” HItchens?)

      Ironically, you and other Harris defenders deploy the accusation of quote-mining in a manner that is as fundamentally dishonest as are the Creationist to whom the term properly applies. It is anti-intellectual and meant to foreclose critical analysis of what Sam Harris has written in the realm of politics.

    • lyn says:

      So revenge for the occupation of MUSLIM countries is supposed to prove that their motivation…had nothing to do with religion? Call me unconvinced.

      And for 500 years western countries have invaded, bombed, and otherwise wiped from existence the majority of recent civilizations. All of this was originally done for resources, for christianity, and for white supremacy, but we are suppose to believe this all changed under the mythical “enlightenement”. How do we know it changed at that point, because all the textbooks say so damnit! Because what we “know” is more important than the actual “evidence”, it allows us to claim race/religious blindness while selectively targeting minority groups by holding up the worst 1% of 1% of 1% as the typical member of that minority race. It gives us permission to forgive and forget that almost all the countries invaded by the “West” were minority countries, that they even refer to a homogenous culture called “west” linking all of europe by nothing other than color, and that we can find the money to rebuild Europe after a World War, but never to end hunger, homeliness, or repair war–torne nations in non “western countries”.

      My point is, as long as the “west” refers to itself as such, promotes its history in the most self-flattering and revisionist of manners while emphasizing and exaggerating the ills of others, I am unconvinced. The argument that the “west” is driven by racist and christian-fundamentalism dogma that promotes violence, conquest, and genocide as cultural motifs, after 500 years of world dominance, is far more valid than the ones made here regarding Islam as some homogenous ideology.

      • “So revenge for the occupation of MUSLIM countries is supposed to prove that their motivation…had nothing to do with religion? Call me unconvinced. ”

        It is tribalism, which is forged by religions, nationalist commitment, ethnicity, and other commonalities. Dismissing the Muslim world’s justified, political grievances by claiming it is all about religion is to operate at an incorrect category level. Rather like saying the IRA was all about standing up for Catholicism. The IRA was tribal, bonded by religious heritage, but the grievances it had were political.

  5. skedag says:

    Reblogged this on skedag and commented:
    Well worth a read!

  6. freakademic says:

    The problem with your argument is that it is impossible to have a moderate, honest, introspective national conversation when faced with a very real mortal threat from outside. If anything, this is why our leadership has been so eager to manufacture threats in the first place: to avoid the sort of introspection that might lead to a rebalancing of power relationships. In much of the Middle East, however, these threats do not need to be manufactured. They are very real. The pressure to ‘rally round the flag’ must be enormous.

    Likewise, due to colonialism, imperialism, the imposition of state power along secular, often Western-inspired lines, and constant belittlement of both religion in general, and Islam in particular in the media (and our media influence has spread far and wide), many Muslims feel that their beliefs, identity, and religion are under attack, just a their nations are under attack. The simple practice of the Muslim religion is offensive to many Westerners. Muslims are therefore somewhat defensive. Where there has historically been a great deal of debate and plurality within the religion, there is now a greater pressure to conform to an idealized Islam – and power is being mobilized to define what this ideal Islam is.

    Even relatively thoughtful articles like this (FAR more fair than anything most Muslims see of our culture) link freedom, liberality, intellectual integrity, and “progress” with less religion. Thus, the perception becomes that even the best-intentioned Weaterners would probably like to see the religion disappear (to separate belief from practice, as Christianity is perceived to have done would be the death of a religion for whom practice and belief, belief and understanding, have always been equally important). In countries where 98% of people are Muslim, moreover, freedom to most people means a flexible application of religion. They want Islam to be pervasive, but they want the public Islam to accommodate everyone.

    I am speaking here as a former atheist, an Islamic convert, who has had difficulty with some Muslims who would prefer that we not ask why we do this, or where it says not to do that. For me it is a matter of finding which practices are truly required by religion and which are cultural practices that have been canonized. But for many Muslims, questioning the religion, embattled as it is, weakens it. This is an insecurity that is anathema to the scriptural rendering of the faith, where nonbelievers are told to bring their doubts, to bring arguments and proofs against the religion. This is a religion where believers themselves questioned their prophet and received patient explanation of what was required and why. But it is an insecurity that is perhaps understandable in a climate that vilifies the faith, and given the history if having Weatern values shoved down the collective throats of much of the Middle East.

    • freakademic says:

      Just to be clear, I see no threat in criticisms, jokes, etc about Islam, nor do I think the author is criticizing Islam in any way. My point is simply that less religion in daily life is too often with more freedom and that even in something as well thought-out as this, there are passages that can be interpreted in this way.

      • freakademic says:

        *too often equated with

      • Chuck Wentworth says:

        Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response. I’m extremely curious to learn more about your journey from atheism to Islam. I’d love to hear more about that.

        For the sake of clarity, I don’t believe “more freedom equates to less religion”. In fact I think the exact opposite. I’m an atheist, but I believe strongly in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. And it’s because I’m in the irreligious minority of this country that I believe so strongly in it, because the only way my right to unbelief will remain unfettered, is if everyone else’s right to believe (or not believe) according to their own conscience, is protected under the law. This is exactly the kind of plurality that is lacking in many Middle Eastern countries.

        But I agree with what you said about it being unfathomable in many Middle Eastern countries to distinguish between religion and politics. Christianity used to be this way in the West, and if many conservative groups had their way it still would be a bit more intertwined. I think having the two entities separated is necessary to the advancement of freedom and equality in any given nation.

        But whatever your religious or political convictions are, the freedom to engage in a discussion, debate, critique of every man-made institution that exists- including religion- is not only positive, but also necessary. It’s the only way we, as nations and as a species, learn and grow and find common ground. So I reject any effort that is made to stifle speech, or religious practice, or political discussion. I want more dialogue and plurality, not less.

      • I would be very interested to hear more about the journey from atheism to Islam as well. You seem like a pretty liberal Muslim, I’d like to hear how you square ideas like individual right and freedom of conscience with your faith. What are you thoughts on homosexuality? Gay marriage? Apostacy? Women’s rights?

      • Dan Brockett says:

        I agree, in theory, that separation between church and state is ideal. By enforcing faith, the Theocrat politicizes it, cheapening it and generating resistance to the faith as people get tired of his oppression. Moreover, “there is no compulsion in religion,” and from personal experience and from my own ideological slant, people should have freedom of conscience and logic (as they see it). To be clear, though, there is no “church” in Islam, in most cases at any rate (Iranian Shiism is one exception). So you really end up talking religion and politics, which really becomes morality and politics, since religion and morality are inseparable for a person of faith. You definitely need SOME morality in politics and the question becomes ‘where do we draw the line?” Most Muslim countries are really little more theocratic than we are, it just stands out more to us because the religious bases for many of our rules have been obscured over time and we take our own rules for granted to some extent. Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc definitely need to step off, though. And it’s worth mentioning that the more we vilify Islam, the more influential the Saudis, Wahhabis become.

        As to what led me to Islam, the story’s not as interesting as you might think, at least not intellectually. I had a personally powerful experience that served as evidence that I should give Islam a chance. This is the sort of evidence that only truly works for me. From the outside, most logical atheists will rightly dismiss it. There is a great distance between the experience and any description I could give of it – and in any case it would be anecdotal evidence, coming as it does from one of many billions of people.

        It was around six months before I converted. I looked into the Islamic position on a few key issues and the overall belief system made more sense logically than Christianity, for sure. There was no really central logical contradiction as there was in Christianity. Some of the more controversial positions within Islam seemed to be a matter of interpretation and of confusion between culture and religion. Others only seemed controversial when interpreted outside the social context in which they were intended to exist (thus, as a corollary, some of the greatest injustices in Islam happen in the West, removed from the social networks and infrastructure that are supposed to prevent abuse). Satisfied that there was nothing I truly could not accept, I chose to accept Islam on the strength if the evidence alluded to above.

        Since then, I’ve continued to learn here and there, when I have run into issues where Islam and my own internal morality seemed to be in conflict (this tends to be a case of misinterpreting the text). That is, I have not spent the time necessary to know the minutaea of the religion and eloquently explain its more controversial elements – let alone try to convince someone of the beauty of the society envisioned by the Quran and Sunnah (which has been realized to different degrees in different places and times historically).

        To respond to ‘system’, homosexuality does not exist as a concept in Islam, scripturally. Only the act itself, penetration of a man by another man, is mentioned. And it is a sin. But a man penetrating a woman who is not his wife is a sin, too. So is eating pork, drinking alcohol, missing one of the obligatory prayers, etc. We’re all guilty of something. And temptation, desire, etc are not sinful in Islam. Only doing a forbidden act, or neglecting a required one are sinful in Islam. So for me, a homosexual is someone who has been given a very difficult test of faith (if he has faith), in that they desire to do something sinful. If they give in to that, they’ve sinned, but there’s nothing especially noteworthy about that. Allah knows I’ve done things with women I wasn’t supposed to – as have most Muslim men. Anyway, it’s not my place to judge.

        Gay marriage – is not recognized in Islam. But, marriage is really a secular institution here. You get a license from the government, for fuck’s sake. There’s no reason it should be disallowed by a government (a secular body). And no one intends to force priests, pastors, or imams to gay marry people, right? So, I don’t see the issue. By the same token, I think polygamy and polygyny should be allowed, provided that any and all spouses are aware of the polygamous/polygynous nature of the marriage proposed (whether each spouse would get tax breaks, or immigration benefits in this scenario is a worthy topic for argument). And on that note, my take on polygamy in Islam is that it is subtly discouraged in the text, but explicitly allowed. I don’t support the practice, but I support people’s right to choose to practice it – and this extends to homosexuality, abortion, polygyny, and various forms of drug use. And I don’t look down on people for doing wrong. Most of my close friends are atheist, and one of them is a gay man; I privately would love for them to convert and for him to magically be straight, for their own sakes, but I this would probably be news to them. I do not try to convert people, I do not try to convince people. When they ask me about religious stuff, I give my opinion and what I think the mainstream understanding is, and we leave it at that it argue the merits depending on their preference. I remember all too well what it feels like to be pressured by religious people.

      • Chuck Wentworth says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m curious, can you recall what you weren’t getting from an atheistic worldview that you were able to “get” from an Islamic one?

      • The commenting system here is a bit strange, only allowing 3 levels of replies, so I’m not exactly sure where this is going to show up. But in reply to Dan, thanks for the taking the time to discuss your conversion and faith.

        I presume you are from the West, but I of course could be wrong. When you mention that marriage is really a secular institution “here”, where are you referring to?

      • freakademic says:

        Ideologically speaking, the Islamic worldview has not given me atheism couldn’t have*. Ideas are more flexible than that (there are, for example, Christian and Atheist Islamists, who promote the social order embodied in Islam, but do not follow the religion). In fact, one of the things I was surprised at was how closely the Islamic point of view matched up with my own ideas, formed either as a Christian in my youth, or as an atheist (I use the term loosely; I was somewhere in the gray areas between atheism and agnosticism) adult. I think, if I were to define this broadly, I would say that the Islamic worldview (textually and historically) combines very nicely the concepts of individual freedoms and accountability with communal obligations in both directions. So the individual has freedom of conscience and bears ultimate responsibility for his or her actions at the same time that he or she has specific obligations to various members of his his or her family and community – and his or her family or community has obligations to him/her as well. In a functioning Islamic society, there is never a situation where someone who needs help has nowhere to turn (in practice, of course, there can be breakdowns). I would point out that this is not what exists in a lot of Muslim countries, as the attempts at institutional reform since the 19th century have complicated things**.

        What Islam has done for me ideologically is spark an interest in the Muslim world, and the history of the region, which has absolutely reshaped my assumptions and perspective on the world. Egypt has obviously had different things to offer in this way than Tunis, which has been different from Southeast Arabia. I’m finding it difficult to condense several years of study into a short paragraph.

        But, for example, (and the following is a very summary treatment of a more complicated reality) it was very common to have overlapping spheres of loose governance – family, “tribe”, local leaders, religious leaders, national leaders. The individual was able to choose the forum for his grievance. If he was accused of something, the people judging him would know him personally, and he them – and if he felt their judgment was unfair, he generally had recourse to the more powerful local leader, or national ruler. Laws were applied flexibly, human being to human being on a case-by-case basis. And this was not entirely an Islamic thing. This model of governance was practiced in Europe through the Middle Ages as well (I’m less certain of the exact form here, but colleagues have assured me there are parallels). In Southeast Arabia, local and tribal leaders were elected (generally from one family line) and could be easily removed from office – and were if they were unable to maintain support. Leaders did not make decisions without consultation, which was usually public (except at the highest level with the Sultan; but most everything was handled locally anyway). Consent, in short, had to be constantly renewed at most every level. It could be withdrawn. Basically, one could argue that societies were more democratic before democracy and more free before these freedoms were put to paper (why do you think they needed to be written down?).

        There was and is an institutionalization of society and a growing pervasiveness of power that did not exist in these, supposedly more primitive, times and places. And there is a dehumanization that goes along with this. And it is the tragedy of this, and the fact that too many of us here still have the attitude that “they” (“over there”) need to somehow become like “us,” that strikes me the most clearly in political discourse. It is arrogant and ill-informed. I think the conversation should be about how we can have our cake and eat it too. How can we get back to living in a more human society without sacrificing plurality? How can we have a society that makes sure everyone has someone to take care of them when they’re young, sick, old, hurt, etc without sacrificing the vibrancy of our economy? THESE are the questions that need asked.

        @System: Marriage is a secular institution in that there is no need for any religious ceremomy. Rather, what is required is a marriage license from the state. While most people do have a priest, rabbi or imam perform the ceremony, I would argue that this is often window-dressing. Moreover, our rules for what constitutes a marriage are not governed by religious bodies or scriptures, but by a secular legal code. For this reason, I cannot understand the argument against gay marriage in this country, as any religious element in our marriages is optional and will remain unchanged. I am from the United States, for the record, from Iowa.

        *The Muslim religion has given me greater peace of mind, in situations where that otherwise would not have been the case. Prayer, in particular, has calmed me down when the world pisses me off, and comforts me when the world is just too depressing (I suspect anyone who really thinks about politics and economics, and remembers that their reading about real people feels this way at times).

        **This is an evasion. I won’t write about this sans research materials, and I don’t want to bust them out for this post. Also, it’s a depressing story, and somewhat boring to write about. Khaled Fahmy does a solid job of writing about this in the Egyptian context, if you’re interested. I will say that countries where British and French intervention was not so direct seem to have adapted local forms of government more effectively. I refer to the UAE and Oman most particularly (this is where my own research is focused and I feel most comfortable making such statements), but I suspect this applies to Qatar and Kuwait as well, to some degree.

    • “To respond to ‘system’, homosexuality does not exist as a concept in Islam, scripturally. ”

      This is also true for Christianity. It is actually true also for Judaism; “homosexuality” did not exist for virtually all of the world until quite recently in history.

      That some people are hard-wired for exclusive attraction to their own sex conflicts with many cultures, but I am persuaded by empirical evidence that this is true. Thus, I believe that inflexible religion, whether Islam, Christianity or any other faith or worldview, should adjust to the reality that homosexuals exist.

      Scriptures written in a time before the advent of certain discoveries can be inimical to human growth and progress if taken literally and considered ultimately authoritative.

      • Dan Brockett says:

        Edit: I use the term polygyny when I meant polyandry.

        Well, there is no ‘adjustment’ of religion. The text says what it says and means what it means. And it says explicitly that sex between two men is a sin. For someone who does not believe, this is a text written by men in a social context and modification seems okay, but for Muslims it is the word of God and he knew all about this hardwiring and forbade the practice anyway. Some men are hard wired to be attracted to other men – almost certainly a fact (almost because I’m trusting people who know the sciences better than I). But in the Islamic view, the desire is just that – desire – and not a sin. The act is a choice (just as it is for a young straight man who REALLY wants to have sex, but is unmarried – isn’t his desire hardwire e as well?) and is a sin.

        This does not mean the prohibition should be legally enforced (it shouldn’t), nor should Muslims judge one another (let alone non-Muslims) for engaging in it, but it does mean that we are forced to acknowledge it as a sin. It also means that pressuring Muslims to say otherwise is an attack on the basis of the faith as a whole. To be clear, it is acceptable to ask that homosexual behavior not be punished, that homosexuals not be harassed, etc, but not to ask that Muslims ignore sections of what, for us, is the literal word of God.

        Religion is not philosophy. It is religion. And if this bothers you, I would point out that all too often in the wrong direction anyway. Look no further than Christianity’s approach to poverty and violence at various times and places in history and today.

      • Dan Brockett says:

        Edit: I use the term polygyny when I meant polyandry.

        Well, there is no ‘adjustment’ of religion. The text says what it says and means what it means. And it says explicitly that sex between two men is a sin. For someone who does not believe, this is a text written by men in a social context and modification seems okay, but for Muslims it is the word of God and he knew all about this hardwiring and forbade the practice anyway. Some men are hard wired to be attracted to other men – almost certainly a fact (almost because I’m trusting people who know the sciences better than I). But in the Islamic view, the desire is just that – desire – and not a sin. The act is a choice (just as it is for a young straight man who REALLY wants to have sex, but is unmarried – isn’t his desire hardwire e as well?) and is a sin.

        This does not mean the prohibition should be legally enforced (it shouldn’t), nor should Muslims judge one another (let alone non-Muslims) for engaging in it, but it does mean that we are forced to acknowledge it as a sin. It also means that pressuring Muslims to say otherwise is an attack on the basis of the faith as a whole. To be clear, it is acceptable to ask that homosexual behavior not be punished, that homosexuals not be harassed, etc, but not to ask that Muslims ignore sections of what, for us, is the literal word of God.

        Religion is not philosophy. It is religion. And if this bothers you, I would point out that all too often reinterpretation and selective ignorance in religion goes in the wrong direction anyway. Look no further than Christianity’s approach to poverty and violence at various times and places in history and today.

  7. rishiahuja says:

    A thoughtful discussion of a very relevant issue of our times. Articles like these make you appreciate the power of words and their power on shaping your thinking.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I appreciate the kind words. And I agree, words are powerful, powerful entities in and of themselves.

  8. One issue of blow back I have: Can’t you make the argument that inaction also produces blow back of its own? We have not intervened militarily in Syria, and as a result, the rebels we like are being crowded out by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I think one could make the argument you’re making, sure. In wrestling with this issue, I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s black and white and has clear cut, easy to see answers at every turn. It’s not, it doesn’t, and I fully acknowledge that.

      But what I will ask in response to your comment is, if you use Iraq as our lens, let’s say we intervene in Syria and we succeed in overthrowing Assad, what would you propose should happen after the fact? Because clearly we did not have an appropriate plan in Iraq, as the perpetual sectarian violence and lawlessness that’s currently unfolding there attests to. What should happen, in the way of reconstruction and government, after Assad? That’s the real challenge. Because that’s when the violence- believe it or not- could get even worse as more and more radical elements fight for power. I’m not saying what’s happening there now is not horrendous or that a change isn’t needed. Clearly something has to give. I’m merely pointing out the totality of the challenge. I’m interested in your thoughts.

      • Dan Brockett says:

        Our intervention on someone’s behalf has tended to de-legitimize them as well.

      • Dave at collinda says:


        Thanks for the excellent article. You have attracted an unusually thoughtful audience (I having only discovered your blog through Greenwald’s tip of the hat for this piece) and you are to be congratulated for that as well; it certainly is a rarity these days.

        The question you pose here – what comes after the overthrown of a Saddam or Assad – traces back to that colonialism you speak to at another point in this discussion. I find it useful to bear in mind that many (most, by my reckoning) of the nation states of the regions are a result of the dividing of spoils between France and England following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917. It seems reasonable to conclude that such forced associations, ignoring historic tribal loyalties and rivalries as well as differences in religious belief and practice were a direct cause of the proliferation of “iron-fisted,” totalitarian regimes throughout the region. As such, and as is so evident in Iraq, once that power vacuum is created with no power of equal strength to fill the void, all of those suppressed tensions must erupt. Having erupted, how stability can then be restored by forces internal to that artificial nation-state is problematic in the extreme. To suggest as an alternative an externally imposed solution should be obviously ludicrous, but for those advocating the original intervention I doubt that such is the case. It really does become something of a Humpty Dumpty problem.

      • Terry Adams says:

        Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful response. Regarding Syria, I’m just not convinced that the US getting involved militarily, is going to make things better. It’s an immensely complicated situation, and the loss of life there is heartbreaking. But so many hawks in our government keep advocating military intervention with very little thought or discussion of what comes after. And with Iraq so close in our rearview mirror, we shouldn’t make that mistake again. Whether or not one agrees with us even being in Iraq to begin with is a separate point. It’s clear that once we were there, the problem of reconstruction, not to mention the issue of sectarianism, the use of extremists as proxy killing squads, and the failure to provide necessities to civilians, underscored just how unprepared we were for the massive challenge of “rebuilding” a nation. I think you and I are on the same page here.

  9. Absolutely brilliant! Have you read up on the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols? Their culture was very advanced with free reign in both thought, liberty and everything else we have taken for granted only these past few centuries, light years ahead of the West at the time until their rivers ran red in blood and ink. I have always thought the turning point of Islam was at this time as the muslim world came under attack from both West and East hence their hostility to invaders since. Great read though Chuck.
    From Australia with love, Trav.

    • Chuck Wentworth says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. Do you have a particular book you could recommend on the subject you’re referencing? I’d love to read more about it.

      • Not off the top of my head currently waiting for my plane to Hawaii, I can reccomend however something better. Dan Carlins hardcore history podcast, if you don’t want to listen to the whole series of the Mongols the last two episodes of that saga shall fill any questions you have. They left no survivors and destroyed the irrigation systems. They skinned civilians of their fat and put it in their catapults lighting it on fire and sending over walls. They cut down every tree and also launched them over the walls, they did what we refer to now as the ‘double tap’ where they came back 3 days later after the sacking and killed the survivors who had hidden under dead bodies. They destroyed all the writings of the worlds most advanced scientists and academics burning them or throwing into river. Their population only just recovered these last 50 years just in time for the bush family. Islam was beautiful and still is but these aggressive attitudes towards invaders are steeped ever since. My iPhone typed description does no justice to the tragedy I highly reccomend that podcast and of course my own 🙂

      • Terry Adams says:

        Much appreciated. I’ll check it out.

  10. pdmikk says:

    Good thoughts vis-a-vis the nationalistic “dehumanizing of the other” on both sides. I think you underplay, somewhat, the scope of economic greed as a driver for Western activities even though you make a valid assertion that Western “national interest” is a euphemism for oil. I think the “interests” involved are more than just oil, rather, they are primarily about ensuring primacy for a global corporatocracy.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and for responding. I agree with you completely in regards to the corporate element in all this. But that wasn’t what I was arguing. I thought it was implied, when making comments about oil, national interests, as well as mentioning how no one on either side of this debate regularly asks what the US and its allies are doing in the Middle East to begin with, that I was referring to the monetary interests and avarice that are driving things. So no, I wasn’t attempting to underplay the greed aspect, I was more concerned with addressing the reasons for perpetual war. Certainly, money is at the heart of that.

  11. Bindu Desai says:

    Till a few years ago the religion with which the majority of suicide bombers were affiliated was Hindu, practised by Sri Lankan Tamils. For an interesting discussion of the political use of religion in such bombings see Robert Pape’s book ” Dying to win”

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for responding. You’re right, the Sri Lankan Tamils have their history of suicide bombings. This only underscores my larger point pertaining to the credulity it takes to believe in some kind of divine reward for killing yourself and others. Religion is where you find this kind of irrationality. (And nationalism is a kind of religion in my opinion.) But I could just as easy make the case that Christians were once the greatest extremist threat on the planet. Particularly to women, free thinkers, non-Christians, and Christians of varying nuances of the faith. This doesn’t take away the fact that there is an issue with radical Islam and that it is the most violent and extremist interpretation of any faith today. And violence aside, there is a larger issue with basic freedoms that cannot be overcome without non-violent but much more aggressive action taken by moderate Muslims. Even so, if we are to analyze the issue constructively, we must also treat the consequences of imperialism, at the hands of Western nations, that have riddled the Middle East for centuries. Until we realize that both of these realities are problematic, and are only creating a self-sustaining war, we’ll forever be stuck in the “my side is better than your side” argument.

  12. KAC says:

    Interesting article, indeed. In responding, I will leave aside some items I accept as facts and therefore they can’t be changed. They contribute to or may have been the genesis of the problem but, in and of themselves, they are insufficient to explain, justify or excuse the evolution from “first principles” to the present situation. In this group of facts, I include the pernicious aspects of religion as well as the contentious involvement of “the West” in non-Western cultures.

    Louis Althusser wrote, “Ideology is the imaginary relationship people have with the real conditions of their existence.” In this case, governments in predominantly Muslim countries have failed to “deliver the goods” to their citizens in terms of education, employment, economic opportunity and individual liberties: these are the “real conditions of their existence” and in my opinion that failure of governance created the substrate for the current situation. So, some ideology featuring revealed truths (Pan-Arabism, Communism, and now political Islam) becomes the panacea for all that, by essentially establishing a syllogism of, “If only we did this and that, then all those problems would vanish.” This is a real exercise in self-delusion and it can be (and has) been used to justify all sorts of infamy. Fantasy thinking of this sort is so consistent and so repetitive in history that I can only surmise it reflects some innate shortcoming in human biology or, more likely, simple laziness. Instead of picking up after the disasters; instead of analyzing their defeat(s); instead of understanding their adversaries; many have taken the easier out. By adhering to a program that justifies rejection of compromise and equates that rejection with both wisdom and virtue the cycle becomes self-sustaining. By debating whether or not Islam is inherently more violent than some other religion and by inveighing against Western intervention people are diverted from the real problems. I guess, to sum it all up, I’ll conclude with Walt Kelly’s famous quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and for your analysis. I guess, on many levels I agree with you. We are an inherently irrational species that prefers to indulge our illusions rather than do the real work involved in understanding. This is why I chose to engage this debate because I think both factors, radicalized religion and Western “intervention”, aren’t often dealt with honestly. And I too agree that this debate, and more importantly the real world implications involved with the various actors, is circular in nature. But you said, “By debating whether or not Islam is inherently more violent than some other religion and by inveighing against Western intervention people are diverted from the real problems.” What do you think the real problems are? I’m asking genuinely.

      • KAC says:

        Not intending to be pedantic, but the “real problem” is overpopulation. In this regard, Muslim countries have both barrels pointing right at them.

        According to OECD/World Bank statistics, the population of the Middle East was 132 million in 1990 and 212 million in 2010. This equals 61% population growth over a 20 year time span. If this rate of increase is sustained (and there’s no indication that it won’t be) there will be > 340 million inhabitants of that region by 2030. Once the Middle East’s water dries up due to climate change and overpopulation, the autocrats/kleptocrats/theocrats and “royalty” (not that these are mutually exclusive categories) who control that ratty little corner of the planet will simply be swept away. “Be fertile and multiply”, indeed. Why Bronze Age myths sway minds in the 21st century is a great mystery, one smarter people than I haven’t unravelled.

        Given that, the issue of who is “right” and who is “wrong” is simply a distraction and it’s a non-issue. Worse, that distraction is being used by cynical governments and religious leaders to distract the population from what’s really going on.

        Paraphrasing Diderot, men will never be truly free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. That sounds more anodyne in Walt Kelly’s formulation…and his pithy summary is more appropriately inclusive.

  13. Bob Tweed says:

    On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan does like the Pet Shop Boys, so there’s at least ONE very small redeeming feature and value to his writing. Okay, that and the fact he likes puppy dogs, particularly beagles. Aside from that, he’s a pathetically emotional knee-jerk reactionary concern troll who types before he thinks.

  14. Saf says:

    Great article, but I think the assertion that what is required is a reformation in the Islamic world betrays a misunderstanding of Islamic history. Islam was far more liberal and accommodating of differences and diversity. And may well have been more liberal by now. Unfortunately what happened was a puritan ideology called wahabiesm aligned with the Saudi petro dollars hijacked the religion and set the course of Islamic history backwards to European dark ages level. What has happened the moderate jurists or the ulema, which were institutions that kept such extemest sects at bay and de legitimised have been destroyed and because the house al-saud holds the keys to the Islamic holy sites and has the money and power to aggressively promote their world view, we are in the current mess, For a fascinating and insightful view into this please read wrestling Islam from the extremist by k about el fadl

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I’ll definitely check out the book you mentioned. I’m always attempting to learn more about the historical evolution of the Middle East. I am familiar with what you’re saying on a general level. I’m aware that in earlier points in history, Islam embraced a certain openness that other ideologies lacked. As I stated in the piece, you cannot have many of the cultural achievements Islam has encouraged and been the inspiration for, without a certain liberality. I was attempting to lament the fact that Islam hasn’t experienced the kind of sustained “reformation” that something like Christianity has. As I said in my post, I’m not suggesting that Christianity is superior because of this. Nor would I assert that these movements in the Christian world were easy or without violence and terror. Quite the opposite. In the long run however, it was a positive thing for the societies that were influenced by these changes. In the Middle East, for a variety of reasons that include colonialist imperialism- which continues to this day- along with all of the things you mentioned, Islam’s more libral movements have been stunted.

  15. John Hudson says:

    I appreciate the thoughtful analysis of this debate. While I agree that US foreign policy certainly plays a role in acts of violence, I think Sam Harris has a point when he argues that there are many other countries (Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Chile, the Philippines, etc.) which have also suffered as a result of US military intervention, yet do not have the same militant elements within their societies. If US military aggression alone were the reason for “terrorist” actions directed at the US, then there should be many more “terrorist” orginizations throughout the world.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. You make an excellent point, which is precisely why I’ve argued that both foreign policy and religious extremism must be considered. We cannot afford to make this about one or the other.

      • Pedestrian says:

        That’s why I don’t think you can take our the role of history in this story. A country like Iraq has been invaded, divided and bombed as a result of complex internal and external issues for the past 100 years (ONLY looking at the past 100 years, and it’s disentanglement from the Ottoman Empire). it is not a matter of American intervention in the region alone, but the colonial intervention, Ottoman rule and its own religious/political/social structures.
        People often forget that when we talk about the Middle East, history goes back some TEN thousand years of intense vibrant, turbulent human interaction. While i am not suggesting we all need to be archeologists to understand what is going on there, I don’t think you can really understand anything without having some basic, yet deep level of historical context.

      • Terry Adams says:

        Thanks for reading and responding. I agree with what you are saying completely. I touch on the history in the piece, and I acknowledge full well that in many ways, the turmoil and conflict go back many centuries. But that doesn’t absolve us from attempting to grapple with the problem, and its real world implicatons in 2013. There are many lives at stake, both within and without the Middle East, and so it’s worth it for us to attempt to treat honestly, the religious, political, imperial, and cultural realities that are influencing the day to day in the 21st century.

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  17. hussain ahmad says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the writer’s argument. Faith is the secondary reason for Muslims choosing to kill others, political being the primary reason. Look at Myanmar, where adherents of Buddhism, the most peaceful of all religions with its injection not to harm any living being, leave alone human being, are killing Muslims. Is Buddhism to be blamed for this cruelty? No. Look at the suicides of Tibetan Buddhists to protest Chinese tyranny. It’s a political act, not a religious one. People derive strength from all kinds of ideologies and faiths when they are pushed into retaliatory action.

  18. Nate Bowman says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful piece.
    As Dave-at-collinda said above, you have also drawn a thoughtful audience, something rare on the blogs in general and specifically on this topic.

    I find difference with you on two points.
    1: ” I’d never suggest that there isn’t a political underbelly to suicide bombings, but without the credulity of the believer, and his/her unwavering faith in an eternal reward, the entire practice is neutered. Religion has the monopoly on this kind of thinking, and it always has. But unlike some in this argument, I’d include nationalism in that religious-like description. I think it too demands blind faith to the point that it can inspire people to behave irrationally in certain situations; maybe not for divine rewards, but for the mythology of their nation’s “exceptionalism” in the world.”
    I think the emphasis on “the entire practice is neutered” if not for the religious or nationalistic fervor is limiting. I think (and I believe that Glenn Greenwald and others think) that it is not only cultural and sociological forces that drive one to be willing to forfeit their life, but it is very personal and psychological reasons (like losing a child). That it may not necessarily be for a “cause” but to stop something that is taking away an important part of someone’s life. Thus, I would disagree that “Religion has the monopoly on this kind of thinking.” What comes to mind is the many instances during WWII that people gave up their lives not because they were opposed to Nazism or so loyal to their country, but because soldiers entered their village and killed people indiscriminately.

    2: I find a similar limiting factor in the inclusion of the lack of an Enlightenment Period in Islam as a necessary step. As far as I know, the Ottoman Empire ruled by allowing the cultures it dominated to exist as they had before and to make positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy a desirable life goal. In addition, the fervor with which the west has supported fundamentalist regimes makes it just another reason that Islam may not have experienced that same Enlightenment. Anyway, in the end, something does not feel right about your arguing this. I have to give it some more thought.

    None of this makes me appreciate what you have written any less.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful analysis. On your second point first: something might not feel right about this because it feels like you’re agreeing to some kind of religious or cultural superiority. I say this, because I wrestled with it too, and felt uncomfortable expressing it. And while the history of Islam has its moments of liberality, the fact is that in 2013 such an “Enlightenment” or “Reformation” has not sustained. And by this, I don’t mean it from a Western perspective. I say in the piece that we shouldn’t expect Islam to follow the path of Christianity. That’s unrealistic and it is in many ways wrong, but by “Englightenment and Reformation” I really just mean gradual cultural shifts that were geared towards greater plurarity, by combating ultra-conservatism in both religion and the culture at large. Now, your point about Western occupation and its supporting of certain regimes, is a relevent point that I agree is part of the issue, and I said that in my piece.

      On your first point, I think what you’re describing is probably true, but throughout history, not just in Islam, it has been humanity’s adherence to large movements, organizations, militaries, and religions that have led to the killing and death of many millions of people. Now, many of the motivations for joining these groups could have been- along with religion, nationalist, political- to protect one’s family, homeland, way of life, etc, but the reason people are motivated to join groups that would help them live and protect their family, etc., is because other groups are using violence for any number of reasons, be they religious, political, etc. So in essence, the nature of the conflict from that perspective, is circular.

      But let’s face it, in 2013, the suicide bombing community is almost exclusively religious. Are their motivations political? Yes. But their ratonale is religious.

      • Nate Bowman says:

        Thank you for engaging. Again, thoughtfully.
        On the not feeling right, I merely wanted to let you know that, though I can not put to words the reasons for my disagreement, it is nevertheless there. It is based on the way you said what you said and not on a preconceived notion that what you said shouldn’t be so. When I can state my case clearly, I will return.

        I am not comfortable with your generalities about people’s motivations. And your argument which seems to me to be:
        1. Large movements, etc. have led to many deaths
        2. That people join groups to counteract another group’s actions
        3. That explains the conflict.
        I disagree that a person must need join a group in order to respond to the actions of the offending group.
        That is why I found the political/religious dichotomy limiting in not only describing the situation, but the framing of the discussion itself. There have been numerous individual Muslims who have acted out for personal reasons and have found no need to join any group, for instance. And, needless to say, the fact that they are Muslims does not mean that they acted out in behalf of Islam.

      • Terry Adams says:

        Actually, I think what I was striving to say was that most of the violence, death, and destruction throughout history, has come at the hands of governments, religions, political movements, etc. In short, people en masse, organized and motivated by a common cause, belief, or ideology. Has violence been undertaken by individuals motivated by any number of reasons? Certainly. But the most horrific and wide-sweeping cases have often involved some combination of the aforemetioned “reasons”.

        You said there have been numerous Muslims that have acted out for personal reasons, please cite some examples? The Boston Marathon bombers cited US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Woolwich terrorist looked right into a camera phone and said that Western governments should remove themselves from “their lands”, all while screaming “Allahu Akbar”. These are perfect examples of individually motivated people, who are citing very large reasons- the very ones I addressed in my piece- for acting violently.

  19. Neil says:

    I’m kind of amazed that this debate even exists, to be honest. The debate itself says a lot more about the human psyche than it does about either of the religions being discussed.

    Any rational unbiased survey of the two religions will conclude that they are equally capable of inspiring both love and hate in large quantities. In this respect it is a testament to their flexibility, and a reason for their longevity, that support can be found in their holy books for just about any agenda a ruler of any time-period wished to pursue.

    If the Koran is found to have a firmer idea of ‘Jihad’ and what that entails than the Christian Bible does, that is only because of the time and place it was written, and what the Prophet was trying to do. The Bible is explicitly in favour of evangelical missionaries converting all the peoples of earth, and more than a few popes over the years have taken that to mean at the point of a sword if need be.

    You are either ignorant and just lying if you are claiming that there is something different about Islam that promotes terrorism more than Christianity does.

    Another argument people make is that Islam is simply more brutal and less civilised than Christianity. These is willful delusion at best. There is a huge amount of noise from Hitchens and others about the beheadings that seem to occur whenever a hostage is taken and can’t be easily ransomed. And the Woolwich incident certainly reinforces that idea.

    But you can open the Christian Bible at nearly any page and find beheading and much worse meted out for the slightest offense. The Biblical punishment for virtually every crime is death – a sure sign of a morally perverted outlook – and there seems to have been an active competition among Christians at various points to device a method of execution that would produce the most pain possible for the longest possible time. The Catholic Inquisition is widely knwo as a time of brutality but the actual level of evil in the torture equipment that was invented is difficult to appreciate without lengthy study of each device. And this carried on, enthusiastically supported by the Pope, for three entire centuries.

    Can you imagine how the Bible must have been regarded by members of other faiths at he halfway point of this 300-year nightmare? it would have seem to be the embodiment of every evil human trait imaginable.

    This is where, despite practically worshiping he man, I walked away from Hitchens and now see him as the flawed human he always was. He just had a rational-thinking blind spot for Islam and Saddam Hussain, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for commenting. I’m not attempting to argue, nor compare, the two religions. I agree that both books, both histories, and both ideologies are riddled with positive and a whole lot of negative. I was only attempting to examine the argument of the protagonists involved, by deconstructing the “us or them” mentality that pervades the larger debate. In doing so, I posited that both religion and politics play major roles in this self-sustaining conflict. I think that is true. But knowing the history of the religion, on both sides, as you suggest, is important.

      • Neil says:

        I should clarify that I agree with pretty much everything you say. When I used ‘you’ in my comment, I was using it to mean ‘anyone’, not you specifically. Perhaps that’s a colloquialism or just a bad habit of mine.

  20. David Byron says:

    “What is it about Islam that makes the extremist element prone to violence on such consistently large scales?”

    I couldn’t take this article seriously after that line. Western Christian countries kill by the tens of thousand, hundreds of thousand and by the million. But it’s Islam that is the violent religion? Because Islam (accounting for something like one thousand times less killing) is, “prone to violence on such consistently large scales”?

    The author is struggling mightily to avoid any obvious conclusions. Rather like his repeated attempts to assure us that although Western imperialism effects “terrorists” motivations, nevertheless, it doesn’t. Because to admit it does would be to “defend and justify” it. Instead they are “exploiting” those events the same way Bush exploited 9-11 to invade Iraq. That would be an OK analogy if “terrorists” were attacking Switzerland using US atrocities as justification, but since they are using US atrocities to justify attacking the US that kinda isn’t exploitation is it? That kinda is a justification actually. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone that.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and for you criticism. I’m going to guess you didn’t read the rest of the paragraph you quoted, because if you had, you’d have read a series of musing questions (mostly rhetorical) to point out that the answers aren’t so easy. That’s why, as you say, I appear to be “avoiding” conclusions, because in my estimation, the answers are multifaceted and are anything but black and white. With that said, I’m also unsure if you read the entire first half of the piece, which explicitly names the many different egregious practices of Western occupation and invasion, all of which I underline as reasons for “blowback”. I don’t think you understood the sentence you quoted, because I specifically stated that it was the “extremist element in Islam” that is prone to violence, which is true. And as far as religion goes, it’s hard to argue that it’s not extremely violent. Now, if you want to make an argument that Western militaries, and the violence they have reigned down on the Middle East, have really just been proxies for a greater Christian movement, okay. (In fact, I mention in the piece, where Western military and government leaders have used expressly religious language to gain favor for the wars of the last decade. As did I mention how far this war goes back.) But I was attempting to distinguish between religion and nationalism. Both, as I attempted to argue, are problematic, because both require and encourage, a blind faith in the inherent rightness of their side. If you want to dispel that notion, and again, make the claim that Western militaries are still religiously motivated, I’m all ears. As I stated in my piece, I think it’s very plausible, at least in regards to how the people in these Western countries view the “War on Terror”, and how many of them shun some of the most basic Christian values that in other circumstances they might embrance.

  21. Sheryll says:

    This is an extremely valuable analysis. But you alluded to Glenn Greenwald being open to a bit of criticism, as is Sullivan, and I am not getting how exactly, it’s a bit fuzzy to me. Except for Greenwald’s leaving out Why does the West continually go into and muck with Muslim-dominated countries? The obvious answer is oil, you agree, but neither you nor your interpretation of the four writers gives us a wider, deeper, nuanced answer. You suggest this as an area to study, and it certainly is. I would be interested in learning about it. I tend to eagerly read and learn from Greenwald. So I was looking for a place (s) he might be wrong. And what are the areas of validity Sullivan has that Greenwald should be acknowledging are correct? I am lazy, or I would go back and try to find your answers which are likely there.
    Thank you for a very thoughtful article.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I was being critical of Greenwald for not grappling with the freedom of expression- or lack thereof- in fundamentalist Islam. I was also being critical of the fact that, while Western interventionism is without question responsible for far more death in the Middle East in the last few decades, the extremist elements of radical Islam, and the violence that they reign down on their own people, is something that must be dealt with honestly. And while that is unquestionably political, it is also majorly influenced by religion. I might not have explicitly stated things like “Greenwald is a fault”, etc, but when I mention that he knows full well that ideas should not be immune from criticism, I’m essentially stating that while he aggressively calls out those who would use politics to threaten freedom of speech- even for views he personally finds noxious- he often abstains from calling out Islamic fundamentalists when they repress freedom of expression in and outside the Middle East. For more, see my follow up piece:

  22. N. Friedman says:

    You have written an interesting but, in my view, flawed piece.

    The issue here is to understand the Islamist movement, which is at the heart of the matter. It is a question for historians, not one of logic. The Islamist movement owes its origins to the decline of Islam as a politically powerful religion – i.e., to the demise of the Ottoman Empire. That is where one has to look if one wishes to understand the movement. The rest of what occurs are excuses for violence.

    The demise of the Ottoman Empire resulted in the creation of modern Turkey. Modern Turkey under Attaturk eliminated the Caliphate, which was the religious backbone of Islamic political power. Attaturk was accused by religious holy rollers of being a secret Jew or in league with the Jews. This was the original sin of the matter. The US had exactly nothing to do with it and, to note, the US had nearly nothing to do with the fall of the Ottoman Empire – an empire against which, in WWI, the US played no role and, in fact, did not break relations or declare war against even though the Empire allied with Germany.

    The Islamist movement is a religious restoration movement. The restoration sought by Islamists are twofold: First, a restoration of the privileges, generally speaking, held by the Muslims over non-Muslims most especially in the Islamic regions (something which the Ottoman Empire itself had undermined) and, most particularly, the privileges held by the clerical class, which wants its place in society to be dominant (which requires, as they see it, the restoration of Shari’a as the law or at least the primary basis for law). Second, a restoration of Islam as the world’s dominant political power.

    Now, it is rather obvious how the recruiting occurs – and it is not to be found primarily in what captured jihadis tell their captors. The question that defines what such Islamists think is what they write, say and do among fellow Islamists. There, the issue is a mixture of religion and politics, with hatred for what the “West” is and has done to Islam (i.e., defeated it and humiliated it) and glory in what Islam holds out, purified of the mistakes made by Muslims over centuries that weakened Islamic power by walking away from the early vision of their prophet and his companions.

    All over the world, people hurt and dominate each other and that results in retaliation. However, what sets the violence of the Islamic regions apart from what, for example, the South and Central Americans do is the ideology that creates and justifies the violence. It is the central issue and it is not one that has much to do with any specific or group of events by Westerners but is driven by the Islamist ideology. We are not in much of a position, if history is any guide, to affect ideological movements as bystanders or by means of addressing the grievances, legitimate or otherwise, of an ideological movement. Such grievances are always “spun” – and nearly always successfully “spun” – to fit the movement’s needs at any given moment.

    People like Mr. Greenwald seem to think that if the US did not support, for example brutal regimes, we would have peace. Which is to say, he would have us cease support, for example, of Saudi Arabia. That, however, makes no sense. The issue with Saudi Arabia for Islamists, for example, is that the country is insufficiently pious, that there are cracks in its intolerant version of religion. Islamists further object that the US is permitted to house troops, most particularly, Christian and Jewish troops, in the country. That is not a question of propping up a corrupt regime but two other things: one, that the regime cannot fend fully for itself (which is perceived as humiliating by Islamists, who view Islam as including a means of self-defense) and, two, that the Arabian peninsula is supposed to be for Muslims.

    Moreover, the US did not prop up the worst of the regimes. Syria was far worse than any of the regimes supported by the US. So was Libya (although, relatively recently, it came to be supported by the US). So was Iraq, which the US stopped supporting in 1990. Egypt was supported by the US but – and this is to be noted – within days of the time that unrest started in Egypt, the US dropped the “supported” regime. That has been true throughout the region. So, the allegation that the US prevented politics is not supported by the evidence. Just the opposite, for the last two decades, the US has sided with those who have sought change. This was, after all, the policy of the Bush administration and, while not openly, by the Obama administration as well.

    Moreover and more important to the issue, whether or not the US supported a regime, the regimes saw it in their interest to blame the US for the failures of such countries. This crucially fed hatred of the US. Moreover, such countries saw it in their interest to blame Israel for such the failures of such countries. This too is crucial. This is what average Muslims heard daily, that the West including the US and Israel, are to blame for the horrible conditions in some parts of the Arab regions. That, not the regimes which, due to their weak hold on power, needed to create the boogieman – something which has a long history in the world.

    Consider: at the end of the Cold War, the prop that held up Arab regimes (i.e., that they could exist in the shadow of the fight between the West and the communist powers) was undermined. A new means to deflect attention from political and societal problems was needed. Large sums of money were invested, in Muslim countries and in the West (see e.g., money spent at the LSE to, presumably affect opinion). Absent such money invested, these countries would all have fallen long ago. Western reporters would have spent their time attacking the rampant corruption, civil rights horror, lack of freedom, etc., etc.. The money spent created a large group of writers who effectively helped prop up these regimes by deflecting attention onto the West and Israel while downplaying problems in Arab and other Muslim countries. There was very big money behind all of this. In any event, note the failure of much of the Western political and educational establishment to anticipate the so-called Arab spring. That was a product of a concerted campaign financed by Arab regimes.

    Now, has the West including the US and Israel done bad things? Certainly. They have done bad things and good things. But, they are certainly not the reason that Arab governments chose to blame the US and Israel for all problems. Expanding our horizon to take in non-Arabs (e.g., the Iranians), the Ayatollahs do not hate Israel for what they do to Arabs. Persians are most notably hostile to Arabs, most particularly but not exclusively because of the Iran-Iraq war and the Shi’s -Sunni divide. But, the Iranian government is truly hostile to Israel because it is run by Jews, which, on the Iranian Islamist view, have traversed the lowly station assigned them by Islam to the point of governing Muslims – a sin. This view is basic Islamist ideology, not just Iranians. The difference for Arabs is that they – or at least some of them – have an actual dispute with Israel. Iran does not, yet it is equally hostile.

    So, the Israelis could be angels but to Islamist – who tap into Islam for authority on this point -, Israel is inherently and without regard to its behavior, a sin against Allah because it is ruled by lowly Jews. Moreover, they perceive Israel as being planted in the Muslim regions as a sign of Western power – a part of what their ideology calls Western “arrogance.” This has nothing to do with what you call “unilateral” support. It has to do with the fact that Israel, founded in land that, until recently, was governed by Muslims, is not ruled by Muslims.

    Here is my last point. An ideological movement can arise out of many things. However, defeating that ideology, once it forms into a movement, is rarely accomplished by addressing supposed grievances. The maturing of the ideology into a movement is a strong sign that it is too late to be appeased. Take, in this regard, the Nazi ideology, which developed out of the humiliation of Germany in losing WWI, being forced, in the aftermath, into a difficult settlement and out of hatred for Jews, who were said to have betrayed Germany (something rather similar to the allegation that Jews were involved in the destruction of the Caliphate). Appeasing the Nazis was seen as a sign of weakness, not an effort to redress a wrong.

    Harris is too hostile to Islam. Sullivan is insufficiently knowledgeable, in my view. Greenwald has no apparent interest in what Islamist think. And, you are correct to look to both political and religious motivations. However, the fact that jihadis are trained like puppets to say this or that when captured is a rather trivial consideration. My bet is that you can find literature from Islamist writings giving instructions on what to say when captured. In fact, I have read such literature.

    What matters is what Islamist write, say and do among themselves. Primarily, this has to do with a religious revival movement, as noted initially. Do acts of the West help recruit people? Perhaps. But, that was true for when the allies bombed the Germans in WWII. It is not, however, the prime cause. It is primarily an excuse.

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  24. I’m sick to death of monotheism. Why are they forever fighting and trying to involve the rest of us (the majority of the world’s population btw) in their violent squabbles over minute differences?

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I agree, religion is a major problem. But, as my article attempts to point out, nationalism has taken rise over the last century to kind of supplement and in some ways surpass organized religion, insofar as it can make otherwise rational human beings do horrendous things for King and country. Not unlike religion, which does things for God.

    • N. Friedman says:

      Monotheism is not a single ideology although there are features common to all monotheisms. Which aspects of Monotheism do you find objectionable? Moreover, are the aspects you find objectionable traits solely of monotheism or does atheism (as is often the case) share the same traits?

      I think what you mean to say is that you object to religion. So far as I know, devout believers hold to the view that their own faith is the truth. That often leads to violence. In the case of Christianity and Islam, the view is that this truth is something that needs to be shared with mankind. In the case of Judaism and Hinduism, the view is that such truth does not need to be shared with mankind. Either can lead to violence although those who want to spread the faith tend to cause the bulk of the violence, so far as I know.

      Atheists also believe they have the truth. Atheists of the Marxist persuasion have held that their truth should be shared with mankind – just like Christians and Muslims. And, like them, Atheistic violence has been very brutal. There are other Atheists – although rather small in number, historically speaking – who follow the Jewish and Hindu model.

      It is where it becomes necessary to bring the truth to all mankind that violence is centrally involved.

      In the case of religion, there is also the issue of the preservation of insane customs – in today’s world, female circumcision being an example. Atheists tend to think, by contrast, that science is the determinant means of thought – although, in the USSR, science that ran against communist ideology found the same sort of difficulties that Galileo ran into. So, this is not quite as clear-cut as one might imagine, if we go by how societies actually behave.

      I rather think that one has to react the same way to Atheists as to religious people – noting the good and the bad.

      • Terry Adams says:

        What traits does atheism share with monotheism?

        I’m an atheist and I don’t believe that I “have the truth”. Far from it. In fact, most atheists I know are very much willing to concede what it is they don’t know, which in the argument over God’s existence, is EVERYTHING. Can’t say the same for most believers. I’d never claim to know whether God exists or not. It’s intellectually dishonest to say otherwise and again, most atheists I know share this way of thinking. You should be careful not to generalize in this way.

        And I’d like you to point out the atheist violence that you’re talking about. You’ll unquestionably name Stalin and the Soviet Union and Mao and China, but while these nations were against religion, and were atheistic in a general sense, I don’t think they were inherently violent because they were atheists. That’s a common straw man in this argument that needs to be put to bed. In other words, there were other “isms” leading their ideological violence that can be critiqued and pointed to before non-belief.

        And let me just assume as well, that you’re going to lump Hitler into this group. I’d advise you to read closer if in fact you do. He was not an atheist. His ideology had pagan roots, and was primarily concerned with issues of race. And the Catholic church, was complicit in Hitler’s facism. Facism, in reality, is really just a euphemism for “Ultra-Right Wing Catholic Orthodoxy”.

        I couldn’t agree with you more in regards to the insane customs of religion. But I take issue with your comments on science. Atheists adhere to science because it best explains why the world works the way that it does. It isn’t interested in ideology or agendas, it simply aims to discover the truth. It also will acknowledge when it’s wrong, and will make adjustments to meet constant changes in understanding. Religion does not do this until it absolutely has to. And even then, it’s reluctant. Are there still big picture questions that science cannot answer? Absolutely. And it will be the first to admit that THEY DON’T KNOW, which again, is the honest answer to these questions. Religion- for the most part- doesn’t do that. It inserts God into the gaps in our knowledge, when there is no reason to do so. This kind of dishonesty has negative consequences, particularly in the realms of education and planetary changes in climate.

        Has science also been used for bad? Certainly. The amount of money and research that we put into more effectively killing one another is the best example of that. Science, being practiced by man, is not infallible.

  25. Reason says:

    “Western Christian countries kill by the tens of thousand, hundreds of thousand and by the million. But it’s Islam that is the violent religion?”

    Yes. The imputed “Christianity” of Western countries has nothing to do with the killing they’re doing (and have done) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries, just as Hitler’s well-documented vegetarianism had nothing to do with the Holocaust. This is such an elementary and obvious point that I find it hard to believe people can’t see it, and have to conclude they just don’t want to.

    That aside, I don’t know of any “Western Christian countries” (Vatican City aside)–meaning ones that are governed in the name of Christianity under Christian principles. By contrast, there are literally dozens of Muslim countries.

  26. Reason says:

    BTW, Terry, I inevitably find that summaries of what Harris says are misrepresentations. For example, you say that “The primary rift between [Harris et al] is whether or not the violent acts of Muslim extremists are motivated solely by religion or politics,” but Harris himself says that “I have never argued (and would never argue) that all conflicts are attributable to religion or that all suicide bombing is the product of Islam.” I disagree with Harris on many points (which I’ve seen mainly in passing, since I don’t seek out his writing), but I don’t believe in misrepresenting his (or anyone’s) views and I’m sorry to see how regularly and egregiously his critics do so.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and for your criticism. Admittedly the use of the word “solely” was probably a poor choice on my part. I’ll probably go change it now to say “primarily” instead of “solely”. But I’d suggest looking a little closer to Harris’ statements not about “all conflicts”, but about the specific situation in the Middle East, and about Western intervention. I’ve heard him state things like: and I’m paraphrasing- “People claiming that the terrorist threat is due to Western foreign policy are delusional.” And his arguments are pretty consisent with that. So while I might have chosen a different word than “solely”, I don’t think my larger premise is too far off. It certainly isn’t an “egregious” embellishment of his views, as you seem to encounter from other critics.

  27. Syd says:

    This is an interesting article but it is left to the discussion that followed to touch upon some of the most crucial points. In the so called war on terror the vast majority of atrocities committed have been Muslim on Muslim. Since the end of the downfall of Saddam Iraq has been plagued with the most barbaric Sunni – Shia internicine strife. This is being replicated in Syria which is proving a magnet for fanatics from both communities to enact out divisions that have tormented the Muslim world on and off for centuries. Western intervention may have been a catalyst in that it has reset the balance in favour of one or other community but the hatreds born of theological disagreement are innate within the Muslim communities of the Middle East.
    For hundreds of years Europe ripped itself apart over theological differences between the two major strands of Christianity. Theological disputes proved a justification for some of the most heinous acts imaginable. Europe and the West has moved on but it would seem that the Muslim Middle East has not. Religion is being used to propel individuals onto acts of unadulterated barbarism.
    Religion has only been a force for good when there has been a separation of church and state and it has focused on its spiritual role and steered clear of politics.
    This is not the case with Islam. It has not evolved to that point. The religion becomes not only central to the individual but to the state. Individual freedoms become subordinated. Criticism of religion particularly criticism of The Prophet becomes in some cases a capital crime. Muslims the world over are unable to accept the Western concept of free speech which offers the right ( within reason) to insult whoever they wish. Hence the hysterical response including the issuing of fatwas in response to the Mohammed cartoons.
    Harris has a much clearer understanding of the threat posed by political Islam then Greenwald whose anti-Americanism blinds him to the realities of those he is so quick to defend.
    The West considers the Middle East crucial to its national interest because of its dependency on oil.
    The West’s interference around the globe is nothing new in the context of human history.Let’s not forget How a few tribesmen from Mecca and their ancestors set about conquering a large part of the globe. The problem with Greenwald is his failure to apply this historical context when he rantsagainst US imperialism.

    PS. I have struggled against the odds with the word editor on this site . Please can somebody advise how to edit the text. The cursor never goes where I want it to.

    • Neil says:

      “Harris has a much clearer understanding of the threat posed by political Islam then Greenwald whose anti-Americanism blinds him to the realities of those he is so quick to defend.”

      There is no genuine existential threat from ‘Political Islam’.

      Political Islam wouldn’t even exist today if the west hadn’t been interfering in the middle east for the last century. Any threat that political Islam poses today would evaporate practically overnight if that interference stopped and the west removed all it’s military apparatus, personnel, and financial support in the region.

      (Yes, I know that’s nearly impossible today but it is ultimately the only solution)

      The vast majority of eager young ‘terrorists’ who were recruited to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan by the CIA were only interested in the conflicts in their local areas, and returned home to fight there, when the Russians were eventually defeated.

      Even when the 9/11 plan was being developed, most Al-Qaeda higher-ups were more interested in using those resources to directly attack other Muslim groups, or the American facilities that they saw as an affront on their holy lands.

      Attacking America itself was – and still is – barely relevant to their own priorities.

      All we have to do to end this absurd ‘war on terror’ is leave the whole area to sort things out itself. But we can’t do that, because around 1946, one of the hawks in congress said something like the following:

      “WW2 was won because we had vast reserves of American oil to power the whole thing. When WW3 is fought, there won’t be enough oil in America to win. We need to make sure we have the oil we need to win WW3”

      It would have been impossible to disagree with that statement at the time, but just look at what it has caused in the 60 years since. And now if there was a WW3, the amount of oil you had wouldn’t matter a damn bit.

      • Terry Adams says:

        This is the kind of claim that I was attempting to draw out and engage. I’m not convinced that if we left the region, and abandoned our avarice for oil, that radical Islam would cease; or at the very least cease to be a threat to us. I’d like for the US and its allies to entertain this, and at least put it to practice in order to see what would ensue, primarily because I think it’s important for Middle Easterners to control their own governments’ direction, but even so, there is a very real religious element to this, which I think is reflected in the violence we are seeing between the varying sects of the faith. Is Western interventionism part of the problem in terms of stoking that fire? I think so. And the way in which the US props up many of the most brutal dictators in that region is clearly a problem. But even if we were able to somehow remove ourself completely from the Middle East, I’m not certain that it would eliminate radical Islam. I’ll have to think more on this.

      • Neil McLachlan says:

        I am testing out the method of replying by email, as the message seems to imply is possible. I’ll check the blog out later to see if this has actually worked.

        Anyway, it is certainly true that the spectre of extremist Islam won’t evaporate the instant we pull our fingers out of all those middle-eastern pies. Unfortunately we have being pouring gasoline on the fire for so long that many of the extremist Islamic groups have amassed enormous wealth and power that doesn’t just evaporate overnight. Some countries would end up with theocracies every bit as bad as the worst of the western-backed regimes. It can take many decades before the population is able to defeat entrenched dictators, as we saw in eastern Europe from WW2 to 1990.

        I believe in today’s world this would actually happen much more quickly than the Soviet example. There are very high levels of literacy and college-level education right across the Arab world, and the ‘new’ generations are, I suspect, less likely to put up with totalitarian theocracy than people in decades past.

        Look at Europe now. The idea of constant warring and terrorism between European states is unthinkable but it has been at peace for just a single lifetime. There’s no reason the Arab world couldn’t be transformed just as quickly. But that process can’t even *begin* until we realise our own needs are not somehow more important than their rights.

        Even if there are some nasty Sharia-based Islamic states that come into existence in the political vacuum of a post-interference middle east, this isn’t a military issue. This is a diplomatic and human-rights issue. If the US and Russia stopped pouring weapons and money into the area, those few undesirable regimes would collapse a lot faster. We really are pouring fuel on the fire with Islamic extremism; US and European arms manufacturers have been *pouring* their products into the area for the last 60 years.

        People seem to belittle the idea of diplomacy these days, but it is far more effective than any kind of military action. It always has been. Diplomacy was *born* out of the recognition of the unbearable cost of military conflict. Let them do their jobs.

        Extreme Islam won’t disappear overnight if we stop interfering. But where it will exist, it will be *there* and not in the US or other ‘Christian’ countries. The Arab world has a long history of both violent conflict, and peaceful coexistence. There were many city-states in Arab history where all flavors of Islam and Christianity lived cheek-by-jowl and held no contempt for one another. The Arab world prior to WW2 was nothing like the violent bloodbath it is today. The Arab love of trade and mercantilism has been holding back the intolerance of religion for a thousand years before we got involved.

        The issue of Israel is the one problem in my ‘rainbows and sunshine’ view. I don’t know what the answer is, because I can’t approve of just leaving that country to fend for itself – nuclear war would be inevitable. But once again I believe the issue with Israel *can* be solved as a diplomatic issue, once it is freed from the influence of superpowers with many ulterior motives.

      • Terry Adams says:

        The one option that is rarely discussed, is diplomacy. That, or the completely removal of our presence in the region in an effort for peace. I agree, militarism is rarely the way.

      • Neil McLachlan says:

        I guess we have to bear in mind Dr Steven Pinker’s research that shows we are living in the least violent period of history. In fact the last two millennia of human history has featured a near-continual reduction in violence. The increasing use of diplomacy instead of conflict has had a major role in that, and it’s been no accident. Overall, the world *is* using diplomacy more often and more effectively than we ever have in the past.

        There is just this one part of the world where many in the west would say that diplomacy has failed and (911 changed *everything*) we are now officially at war.

        But diplomacy’s effectiveness is severely limited without mutual trust and respect. The way the Arab oil reserves were initially exploited, and the way the west reacted when various Arab states tried to nationalise those reserves, showed every middle-eastern citizen exactly how much they were respected by the west. Almost everything we have done since then has been interpreted – mostly correctly – as another sign that we simply don’t respect them, their culture, or their beliefs.

        So the diplomats have a very tough task to build something out of that legacy of dishonest dealings. I think there is a path, but it has to begin with respect – by recognising that the rights of Arab peoples are just as important as our own. Can you think of a more fundamental requirement for peace? Yet the actions of the west make it obvious that we don’t think Arabs have any rights at all.

      • Terry Adams says:

        Yes, I’m familiar with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. I wasn’t referring to diplomacy as it relates to the entire globe. I was referring to the Middle East. And by diplomacy, I don’t mean sanctions and various methods of coercion or political corruption in order to benefit national interests. I was referring to ways that recognize, as you said, the inherent humanity of all people involved. This is of course incredibly idealistic, as history shows us that taking into consideration the humanity of other countries’ citizens, is not necessarily the highest of our priorities.

  28. EC says:

    I think you’re too kind to Sullivan and Harris, but thanks for the thoughtful piece.

  29. Pingback: Harris’ heresies: The Hussain-Bensinger dialogue, part two | nothing is mere

  30. Syd says:

    To Neil

    ” There is no genuine existential threat from ‘Political Islam”

    I suppose that depends on where you live, and for that matter what you define as existential.
    I would concur that the threats to the West from ‘Islamism’ are limited at the moment but that could change. However as I said in my post, most acts of terrorism in teh Middle East tend to be Muslim on Muslim.
    Iran, as a (Shia) Islamic state poses a serious threat to her neighbours. Her influence over Hezbollah and interferrence in Syria (directly, and indirectly via Hezbollah) poses a serious
    existential threat to the region. The consensus is she is seeking nuclear weapons which is causing concern not just to Israel but to the Gulf states.

    PS I want to write more but the site is playing up so much that I can’t be bothered. The details window keeps covering up the text screen

    • Terry Adams says:

      Actually, the consensus in both the American and even Israeli intelligence communities is that Iran is not currently developing weapons, and may have no intention of doing so. At best, that’s unclear. In truth, many countries in the Middle East think that Iran having a nuclear weapon would be a benefit to the region, because it would deter US and Israeli imperialism. The common consensus in the region, is that the biggest threats to peace and instability are Israel, followed by the US. Does that rationale possess a racial and religious underbelly? No question. But whether you think the US and Israel is wrong or right, it’s hard to argue- even if only from a perception standpoint- that what we’ve been doing in that part of the world for a long time, is not helping our image there, and a lot of Muslims have died as a result.

      I agree with you that most of the victims of radical Islam are Muslims. That’s hard to dispute. Which is precisely why I don’t believe that if the US was to leave the region, radical Islam would subside. It simply might decrease the threat it could impose on the West, as well as give the people in those countries the opportunity to influence their own governments without outside impediment.

      Sorry about the functionality of the site. I can’t really do anything about that.

    • Neil says:

      I am reasonably sure that the threat from Iran is a fabrication. Iran hasn’t been the aggressor in a war for something like three centuries, and prior to the Islamic revolution Tehran was a beautiful, modern, tolerant and cosmopolitan city.

      The revolution was purely a reaction from the people to the overthrow of their government, in a coup that we know incontrovertibly now was funded by the CIA for the sole reason that the Shah had taken back their oil resources.

      It’s unfortunate that the anger over this coup was harnessed by the religious right in Iran, so the new government was a very conservative theocracy. And it was only to be expected that their attitude to the west would be extremely hostile.

      But they have been pragmatic enough to avoid outright confrontation and still sell their oil internationally. The Iran/Iraq war in which millions of young Iranians died was another US-fomented plot to regain control of Iranian oil via their stooge Saddam Hussein. It’s not difficult, given this history, to see how the people and particularly the government of Iran feels victimized and vengeful toward the west.

      The fact that they do funnel money and weapons to various terrorist groups that are aligned against US interests isn’t exactly surprising. But history shows clearly that Iran is very reluctant to engage in all-out war with anyone.

      The other Arab states know this, as numerous surveys have shown that both leadership and citizenry of Arab countries believe that Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be more likely to promote peace in the region than encourage more conflict. The idea of Iran unilaterally launching a first nuclear strike against any other country is laughable.

      The US government really has worked very hard since the days of the Nixon administration to paint Iran in the worst light possible. It seems to have mostly worked.

  31. Michael McMillan says:

    This type of extremism is not unique to religious fundamentalism. Ideologies like communism or fascism have created many murderers and suicide/murder type attacks throughout the history. Just look at many of the Germans that killed or were killed for the Nazi ideology. Or the terrorist activities for the communist and fascist agendas during the 70’s and 80’s in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
    I am not trying to compare any of these ideologies. We in the US have been spared from many of these trends in the rest of the world and have forgotten how people were using various ideologies/religions to brainwash people from all sorts of social status.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for responding. I’d argue that our nationalism, and the almost religous-like belief in our inherent US exceptionalism, has led to a blind faith-like acquiesence to many of the hegemonic campaigns that we have undertaken since becoming the world’s great superpower in the wake of WWII; in other words, “we” are always acting benevolently, and “they” (whoever they might be) are not, even though that can often fly in the face of the actual evidence and historical record.

      If you read my piece again, you’ll note that I’m critical of extremism that exists both within and without religion. And don’t forget that many of the Latin American and Middle Eastern “fascist” regimes that killed thousands and thousands of people, were often propped up and supported by the US.

  32. Debbie(aussie) says:

    An extremely well written an vert thoughtful article.

  33. N. Friedman says:


    For whatever reason, the reply button does not appear beneath your comment directed to me.

    I fear that you did not quite follow my point. The majority of atheists, historically, have been evangelical in their desire to spread their faith. I suggest spending some time with communists, if you doubt me. The communist movement has been the most popular atheistic movement of all time. And, it has been very violent, for the very same type of reasons that religious evangelical movements are violent. Communists believe that they hold the secret to civilization’s woes, something that should be the common property of all mankind.

    Moreover, the reasons for violence in atheistic societies derives, I think, out of the problem that, absent belief in God, all is thought, in the end, to be permitted – as the existentialist would have it. In the case of the communists, there were those in the wrong social classes and those who were insufficiently devout and those used, as in the Soviet purges, whether or not guilty of anything, to set an example. Violence is inevitable to viewpoints which believe they hold a truth that should govern all mankind.

    As for science, you should look into how psychology and evolution were treated in the USSR. Both hold to doctrines that do not quite mesh well with communism. Both were put under pressure to amend their wrongful ways – just like occurred with regard to people like Galileo.

    Now, as for your version of Atheism, I have no disagreement because I am not a mind reader. However, if you ask me, an Atheist does hold a view about the world, one believed to be the truth, viz., there is no God. For what it is worth, I think the more logical view is that of the agnostic. The agnostic retains critical doubt about the world’s nature and about God. It is certainly possible that a God exists. It may be thoroughly illogical to be a believer but, of course, that is what faith is all about. See, Kierkegaard’s discussion of faith in the context of the story of the binding of Isaac. In any event, agnosticism is the view of the true scientist. After all, it is possible that the Atheist is wrong. Likewise, it is possible that the theist is wrong as well.

    • Neil McLachlan says:

      This comment is so absurd I can’t be sure it’s not a joke.

      First, I’ve been an atheist all my life and I’ve never been ‘evangelical’ about it, nor have I ever met an atheist who was. The few well-known public atheists such as Harris & Dawkins are evangelical because they, themselves, have decided to take that approach. I commend them for it, but the vast majority of atheists are almost completely silent.

      Second, atheism isn’t a faith and in fact requires an absence of faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Atheism at its core is a rejection of this mode of belief: We require evidence, and plenty of it.

      Next, you conflate atheism and communism, as if one requires the other. You also seem to think that communism is defined as the totalitarian regime that ruled the USSR after the Bolshevik revolution. This is all utter nonsense: There are several capitalist economies where the majority of voters identify as atheist. An atheist’s preferred system of government could be literally anything – there’s nothing in the logic of atheism that suggests a preference for a particular economic system.

      Further, the writings of Karl Marx never hinted at the type of brutal regime that grew out of the revolution in Russia. That was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, who was almost certainly mentally ill and the worst mass-murderer of his own people in recorded history. You obviously believe that this is the only possible outcome when a country adopts communist ideals, but you are simply wrong. I personally think communism is fatally flawed and can never be implemented in a pure sense, but I know what it actually *is*. Communism is *not* Stalin’s Russia.

      You also express the idea that without belief in God, society will quickly degenerate as ‘all is permitted’. I suggest you look at some actual facts instead of just making stuff up in your head, because it is well known that atheists have lower levels of crime, lower murder rates, lower divorce rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, longer average lifespans, higher levels of education, and higher earning power throughout their careers.

      This is true when you look at countries like Sweden that have a majority of atheists, and it’s also true when you just compare atheists and Christians in the USA.

      Finally, you don’t even know what the words ‘Atheist’ and ‘Agnostic’ mean. They are not different versions of a similar idea. They are completely different words.

      An atheist believes that God does not exist.

      An agnostic believes it is impossible to know if God exists.

      I can be an atheist and an agnostic, which means I personally don’t believe God exists, but I also accept it’s impossible to know for sure. Sometimes this is called ‘soft atheism’.

      I can be an atheist but *not* agnostic, which means I personally don’t believe God exists, and I believe it’s possible to be sure about it. This might be called ‘hard atheism’.

      The problem with all of your comments is that you just don’t seem to know very much about any of this.

      • N. Friedman says:

        Neil, Thanks for your comment.

        I think I justified my points. I did not say that communism and atheism are one and the same. I said that communism has been the most popular version of atheism and that communism is evangelical. I stand by that. Moreover, Marx sought to unite the working class – again, he sought to bring all of them on board to his way of thinking. That required advocacy and proselytizing.

        I never said Marx desired a brutal regime. I said it is inevitable in his ideas (i.e., if followed in a thoroughgoing manner). I stand by that point. I did not say that Atheism had to be evangelical. I said that the communist variety – i.e., the dominant movement, thus far, of atheists – is brutal. Consider: Atheists who take the non-evangelical approach are limited in numbers. While I note you claim otherwise, I think you confuse atheists with people who do not go to religious institutions.

        What I think can be stated truthfully is that religion as a guiding principle for society has fallen away in some parts of the world (e.g., in the US, Europe and much of Asia). Decisions of governments are made nearly exclusively on a practical, not a religious, basis in such regions. However, religions have sought refuge in the private sphere – although, again, decisions about family and business are, for such people (at least in my experience with such people), made more on a practical than a religious basis.

        The proposition, “I do not believe in God” is a proposition claiming to state something true about the nature of the universe. It is not merely a reaction to those who claim that “I believe in God.” The Atheist’s noted proposition is a step further than the agnostic goes. The agnostic is reacting to both propositions with the view that such things cannot be stated with certainty – and, atheists, by definition, are certain that there is no God just like theists are certain there is a god. You call the Atheist position “hard” atheism. That is a cop out. What you are saying is that you highly doubt there is a God but you could be wrong – which is what agnostic normally claim. Again, this is something I have written about extensively, so I rather resent your claim that I know nothing about the topic.

        I did not say that belief in God is necessary for society to avoid brutality. I said that the evangelical form of atheism has, historically, been very brutal and that such is inherent in Atheism because Atheism is a statement claiming to have an important truth about the universe – that there is no God. That does not mean that all Atheisms have to be brutal and not all Atheistic philosophies are brutal. The same is true of religions. Hinduism is not evangelical and, for that reason, does not run into the problem of concern that others do not hold the truth. The same is true for Judaism, which allows for non-Jews who do not hold the truth to be left alone entirely. Neither religion turns on people merely for holding the wrong views and, when they are brutal – which has certainly occurred in history -, it is for different reasons. There is nothing like the takfiri doctrine which now plagues the Islamic regions and the brutality of China under the similar (purifying) cultural revolution, when I was younger. There is nothing like what Christians directed at Jews since its early days to recently.

        I do not think I have said anything which cannot be back up. I think that you do not like that the most important segment of Atheists so far have been among history’s most brutal people, whether we are talking about communistic atheists in the USSR, China, North Korea, Cambodia or Albania, etc., etc.

      • Terry Adams says:

        Communism isn’t inherently violent or evangelical. It’s no different from any of the other “isms” that man has ever created or promoted. The people who embody the various “isms” make them what they are. But to the other Neil’s point, Stalin and Mao and whomever else you want to lump into this generalization, were deranged, paranoid, corrupt, manaical DICTATORS that grabbed power and killed anyone they perceived to be a threat, believer and non-believer alike. These men made Saddam Hussein look like Gandhi. Find me an atheist author that espouses behavior like this. Stalin didn’t do what he did because he was an atheist. That’s far too general of a statement.

        Let’s put it this way…there were many other “isms” that motivated Stalin to rule as he did. If you want to make the argument that atheism was one of those, okay, but it certainly wasn’t the primary one.

        And I’d suggest you read the Communist Manifesto again…Marx wasn’t attempting to create a world of atheists. Far from it. He might have proselytized, but it wasn’t in an attempt to create a country of non-believers.

        It sounds like you need to hang around with more atheists. I know many. None of them are evangelical, so I don’t know where you’re getting your numbers in regards to “evangelical vs non-evangelical” atheists. I think you’re assuming wrongly here.

        You should understand that there is a fundamental difference between confronting or challenging bad ideas when they are in the public sphere, and stridently belittling or attempting to persuade others into believing as you do, by actively seeking confrontation. I think you’re confusing the two. There isn’t anything evangelical about an atheist, agnostic, or irreligious individual, arguing that creationism shouldn’t be taught in school, or that anthropogenic climate change is real and that we shouldn’t accept scriptural reasons for not doing something about it. Bad ideas should be challenged, regardless of one’s religious background.

        And no, the proposition, “I do not believe in God”, is not a claim stating to know a truth about the universe. Why? The inclusion of the word BELIEVE. If I said, “I KNOW there is no God”, then I’m claimiing to know somemthing definitive. See the distinction? It’s an important one. If you ask me whether or not I KNOW there is a God, I’d say I don’t. It’s my contention that there is no evidence of an all-encompassing being. Science explains what religion used to say was God’s doing. Proving religious claims false, doesn’t answer the question of God’s existence, but it gives us less of a reason to believe in what its interpretation of God is. Could God exist in some other form that we can’t possibly articulate? Sure. But there is no evidence for that either. This is why I BELIEVE that there is no God. At least not any man-made idea of he/she/it. Because that’s what religion is; a man-made manifestation of our credulous ancestors attempts to explain the big questions. We just don’t have to assume many of them anymore. So no, I don’t think the honest approach is the agnostic one. I think it’s a cop-out.

      • Terry Adams says:

        I second everything you said. Thanks.

    • Terry Adams says:

      I basically agree with everything the other Neil said in reply to you.

  34. David Lee says:

    It’s a very interesting and important question; I think you’re right that both the ideology and the history are important. Personally I believe that a wide range of ideologies could stand in for Islam and it would make nearly no difference. The ideology is wielded as a tool to justify the retaliatory actions. All that’s required is that the ideology’s content is large and diverse enough that one can cherry-pick those aspects that support one’s agenda and ignore the contradictory parts. (American history/mythology serves the same role on this side.)

    So the ideology plays an indispensable role, but in my view the ultimate cause is historical grievance. Still, I don’t think there’s any way to suss this sort of thing out, or that it’s even important to do so (i.e. place a certain weight on one side and the other.) I think it’s enough to acknowledge that both are important. That said, not a lot can be done about the religious ideology that happens to be in use, while a lot can be done about our historical role in that area of the world.

    • Terry Adams says:

      Thanks for reading and responding. I agree, there is no clear answer. I just think the two sides often ignore the valid arguments posed on both sides, which is detrimental to the big picture.

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