Andrew Sullivan’s Incoherence on Radical Islam

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Tamerlan-Tsarnaev-1842056Since it became known that the Boston Marathon bombing suspects are Muslims, there has been a predictable celebration by a chorus of right-wing commentators for whom the evil of Islam and the collective guilt of Muslims in such cases are tenets of faith.

More subtle but equally pernicious are the reactions of blogger Andrew Sullivan and political entertainer Bill Maher. While they say they reject Islamophobia and routinely acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are not violent extremists, Sullivan and Maher believe that the left’s defense of Islam from right-wing attacks is overzealous and devolves into “liberal bullshit” at the point where it attempts to deny a) that “jihad” is the primary motivation of the Marathon bombings, and is generally a serious threat; and b) that Islam has certain features that make its religious extremists more violent and dangerous than those of other religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism. These views, they say, are motivated by a dedication to the truth, even when such truth is unpalatable and doesn’t fit well with the bleeding hearts and fuzzy heads of liberals.

While I’m generally a fan of Sullivan and Maher, these positions, far from representing a kind of fearless rationality, are really solid examples of the bullshit they think they stand against. In fact, they’re spectacular attempts to pawn off primitive free association and fuzzy thinking as truth-seeking.

Let’s begin with the idea that the Marathon bombings were caused by “Jihad.” Sullivan does acknowledge, quoting Glenn Greenwald, that the decision of the Tsarnaev brothers to commit their crimes also involved “some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature.” But these, according to Sullivan, cannot be the primary motivations for the behavior of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in particular: “Fanatical Islam is the culprit here” and “of course it was Jihad.”

What does “fanatical Islam” mean? In Tamerlan’s case, it cannot mean merely that he identified as a Muslim and wanted to retaliate against the United States for the deaths of innocent Muslims caused by its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This motive is political, regardless of the fact that it involves Tamerlan defining his political allegiances according to his religious identity. Secular Iraqi, Afghani, or leftist extremists might wish to retaliate based on differing identifications but for what amount essentially to the same political motives. Such motives amount to a form of extremism, in the sense that they take the killing of noncombatants to be justified. But to count as religious extremism they would have to appeal not merely to collective punishment for the deaths of innocent Muslims or Iraqis or Afghanis, but to divinely sanctioned violence against unbelievers: for instance, to the notion that apostates must be killed; or that the only good state is an Islamic state, and that this state must be brought about by any means possible, including the killing of noncombatants.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, the evidence we have so far suggests that Tamerlan’s motives were political in precisely the sense I have described, as were the motives of other recent Muslim terrorists and would-be terrorists. But there is little evidence to suggest that Tamerlan was motivated primarily by “radical Islam,” if we mean by this phrase a belief in divinely sanctioned violence. It’s plausible that Tamerlan was a religious extremist in this sense, and possible that he might not have acted upon his violent impulses in the absence of such a belief. But to say that such a belief was his primary motive ignores everything we know about both his political extremism and his personal life.

From what we know, Tamerlan had personality problems and was violence prone, socially alienated, and unable to find a decent job after the failure of his boxing career. A plausible explanation of his behavior focuses on the intersection of his professed political motives and his obvious personal problems: Tamerlan identified his personal grievances, including his failure to find a home in America, with the grievances of the victims of American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who happen to share his religion. The linchpin in this explanation is the point where the personal meets the political, not the point where a human being is simply overwhelmed by exposure to some religious ideology. For Sullivan’s account to make sense, we would have to believe that even if a large constellation of other causal factors involving character, circumstance, and politics went away, or were significantly decreased in number or intensity – if, for instance, Tamerlan had actually developed a successful boxing career and integrated himself into some community – religious extremism is a powerful force that might nonetheless have intersected his path, infected him in the manner of a virus, and driven him to violence.

That is quintessential bullshit.

If Tamerlan was a religious extremist, this ideology played a supporting role to his political extremism, which functioned in turn to rationalize his personal failures. “Religion made him do it” is about as sophisticated an explanation as a paranoid psychotic’s idea that some of us are subject to mind control by means of satellites. In this sense, Sullivan’s “of course it’s Jihad” is actually closer in spirit to false flag conspiracy theories than to real attempts to understand the phenomenon of terrorism.

The same can be said of the notion there is something special about Islam that makes its fundamentalists more dangerous than those from other systems of belief:  “Islam’s fanatical side – from the Taliban to the Tsarnaevs – is more murderous than most.” Sullivan suggests that Islamic religious fundamentalism is particularly dangerous because it “does not entirely eschew violence (like the Gospels or Buddhism),” and because Mohammed was a military man and political actor. Despite the history of the Christian church as a political entity responsible for a tremendous amount of violence, Sullivan attributes the fact that there is currently more Islamist than Christianist terrorism not to political circumstance but to the restraining effect of Jesus’ pacificism. Echoing Maher, Sullivan also attributes not to an extremist few but to Islam itself the view that “apostates should be killed” and that “negative depictions of the prophet” are “worthy of a death sentence.”

So let’s imagine what would have to hold for all of this to make sense. We would have to believe that while the history of violence associated with the Christian church was a matter of political circumstance overwhelming a pacifist ideology (ignoring the militarism of the Old Testament), violence associated with Islam is primarily a matter of ideology and is allowed to make no such appeal to political circumstance. We’re to imagine that even absent the historical conflict between the West and the Middle East; absent the defeat and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire; absent the Israeli occupation of Palestine; absent the United States’ and Europe’s support of oppressive regimes in the region; absent the military actions by the United States that have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Muslims and continue to kill more on a regular basis; absent all these factors, we’re to imagine that it’s religious ideology – not actual grievances – that is the primary motivator for Middle Eastern terrorism. We must conclude that Islamic religious fundamentalists are “more dangerous” to Westerners not because of the history of conflict between Muslims and the West and the cycle of vengeance this creates, but because their ancient religious text sounds primitive by modern standards and because Mohammed was a political and military actor.

This is the view that Sullivan advances as a reasonable antidote to “liberal bullshit.”

If Islamic fundamentalism were more dangerous than other forms, we would expect empirical evidence to back this up. But as Juan Cole points out, the number of human beings killed by Christians in the 20th century dwarfs the number killed by Muslims. I imagine that Sullivan would like to attribute this difference not to Christian theology but to political circumstances. He would be right, but then he should reflect on his willingness to extend a sort of charity to own faith that he is unwilling to extend to Islam. Sullivan might also try to wriggle out of this problem by restricting the domain of the comparison to violence that is religiously motivated terrorism, and restricting the time frame to say the last 30 years. But then we have borderline cases like the war in Iraq, which we know the United States would never have invaded after 9/11 if it were a non-Muslim nation. Once again, the motive here is better described as political (based on group identification) than religious (based on divinely sanctioned violence). But this just goes to show (again) that the same sorts of political considerations apply to Muslim violence as well: you do not get to avoid the accusation of religious motivation for American violence by highlighting the political nature of its motives, and yet avoid doing the same for terrorism by Muslims.

Finally, if the example of Muhammad were in perpetual danger of corrupting Muslims, then Tamerlan Tsarnaevs would not be so rare. But they are very rare, and they are very rare because the perfect storm of psychological and circumstantial forces needed to bring them about is very rare. Among these forces, religious extremism (in the sense of a belief in divinely justified violence) does not stand out as determinative. On this subject Sullivan makes a telling remark, noting that his shrink tells him such incidents are “multi-determined” (or as a shrink would more likely call it, “over-determined”) but that he finds this idea “unhelpful.”

So here’s a little help as to what over-determined means: you do not get to promote to the status of prime mover one of a constellation of causal factors that are in general neither necessary nor sufficient for a certain effect. You may wish that the world were simpler, but it just isn’t. And “of course it was Jihad” is a response by someone interested not in understanding the world, but in simplifying it beyond recognition. The function of that simplification – and the notion that there is something wrong with Islam – is ironically to promote the notion of collective guilt that is often at the core of extremist ideologies. We’ll leave it to Andrew Sullivan to figure out if he is susceptible to such irrational ideas because he was influenced by one of the less savory verses in the Bible, or whether there are more basic political and psychological motivations at work.

– Wes Alwan

Comments

  1. dmf

    April 26, 2013

    would need some neurophenomenological updating but Stanley Fish’s work on rhetoric and beliefs seems a good antidote to simpleminded models of cognition/causality, oddly I think that both analytic models of reason and continental models of ideology fall into similar kinds of misguided cognitive behavioral psychologies.
    http://books.google.com/books/about/Justifying_Belief.html?id=og1uTg2-JTQC

  2. Steven Clauson

    April 26, 2013

    Here’s how I see it: Christianity and Islam are pretty much on equal footing when it comes to doctrines of violence, and in the past Christianity has been notoriously responsible for bloodshed untold. Islam, however, is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and from that it follows that its culture has had that much less time to develop. It’s obviously much more complicated than that, but I think it makes sense that contemporary Islamic culture is responsible for more religious violence than contemporary Christian culture. But who the fuck cares? The secular US government is still by far the most violent, hegemonic, genocidal entity in human history.

    • Avatar of dominic

      dominic

      April 28, 2013

      Your last sentence is such a flagrant factual inaccuracy I hesitate to even refute it. I hope after years of study you finally someday realize how wrong you are. The US government has certainly committed egregious crimes against humanity, but you obviously do not know enough basic history to know how to put past crimes in context. The Romans, Mongols, and Nazis all have far higher body counts under their belts, and that does NOT account for population growth. In other words, they are not “relative” numbers, the actual dead bodies tower over Americas, and all those regimes did their culling from far smaller populations (and that’s not even taking into account the dead Indians and Africans whose blood is on the hands of the British, Dutch, and French, I’m actually giving you those and you are still wrong).

      • Avatar of dominic

        dominic

        April 28, 2013

        Jesus, I just recently heard a scholar argue that every single dead body in WWII is the fault of the Nazis! And he’s probably right!

    • Russell

      May 2, 2013

      Secular in name only surely. It’ll be truly secular when you can be an atheist and still be president, when churches are taxed, when there are no faith-based initiatives and when most politicians are not literally dripping Jesus off their suit sleeves.

  3. Avatar of Dan Smart

    Dan Smart

    April 26, 2013

    I think part of his response is might be more escapist in nature. It is easier for us to think that there is this one factor that causes terrible things to happen rather then a bevy of issues. It is difficult to think that “But for the grace of god go I”, if I were more impulsive, angrier, felt more alienated, and had something to grasp onto as a focus for those feelings I might do something similar. I think it is compounded by the fact that we all know what it is like to desperately feel each of these emotions, and that scares us. That this particularly evil, and different “other” is so similar to us that they might as well be standing somewhere behind us. So it is just easier to say radical Islam and separate ourselves from them.

  4. Andrew Richey

    April 26, 2013

    Does this analysis apply equally to when people allegedly do nice things because of religion? Is human nature really so “overdetermined” that any given factor — even if that is a person’s core beliefs on the nature of life, the universe, and everything — might as well be so causally inert that we treat it as inefficacious as an abstract object?

    Might I follow this line of reasoning to conclude that no one is entitled to make any tentative, defeasible predictions about the relative probability that my Catholic friend or my Jewish neighbor will serve ham next Easter? Or that we simply have no idea whether my Southern Baptist coworker is more or less likely to support gay marriage than my Unitarian one?

    When Owen Flanagan commented on your podcast that Buddhist doctrine does not appear to be conducive to democratic governance, why did you not immediately correct him on the “overdetermination” of human psychology?

    You write, “[f]inally, if the example of Muhammad were in perpetual danger of corrupting Muslims, then Tamerlan Tsarnaevs would not be so rare.” I would begin by questioning where the threshold of un-rareness would have to be to be a genuine cause of concern in your view, when the unit of measurement is dead children and amputated limbs at sporting events, and ask how large the sample size went into the determination of rareness. But more importantly, I would question whether operationalizing the phenomenon of Tsarnaevism by restricting it to “sudden outbursts of extreme mass violence against strangers” while leaving “mere” wife-beating or acid throwing or gay hanging, or donating money to organizations which advocate such things to one side, doesn’t rather stack the deck in an obvious way.

    • Sj

      April 28, 2013

      What, you mean the denial of climate change/evolution, or the denouncement of gay marriage, or discrimination domestically (beyond international crimes) shouldn’t count against the Christian world? http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/12/12/fareed-zakaria-glenn-beck-wrong-about-10-percent-muslims-being-terrorists/ Less than 1 percent of the Muslim world engages in violence (towards women, or animals or any other nation opposing one of the 50 diverse Muslim countries). And to add to this post, only 17 Americans killed by Terrorism las year, as many killed in furniture accidents.

  5. Michael R

    April 26, 2013

    More liberal bullshit. The Islamic doctrine of jihad and martyrdom is the key difference between nutters and bombers. It is the key that difference that trips them over into terrorism.
    http://fjordman.blogspot.com.au/2005/09/islam-is-most-warlike-religion.html
    “Islamic texts encourage terror and fighting to a far larger degree than the original texts of other religions, concludes Tina Magaard. She has a PhD in Textual Analysis and Intercultural Communication from the Sorbonne in Paris, and has spent three years on a research project comparing the original texts of ten religions. “The texts in Islam distinguish themselves from the texts of other religions by encouraging violence and aggression against people with other religious beliefs to a larger degree. There are also straightforward calls for terror. This has long been a taboo in the research into Islam, but it is a fact that we need to deal with,” says Tina Magaard. Moreover, there are hundreds of calls in the Koran for fighting against people of other faiths. “If it is correct that many Muslims view the Koran as the literal words of God, which cannot be interpreted or rephrased, then we have a problem. It is indisputable that the texts encourage terror and violence. Consequently, it must be reasonable to ask Muslims themselves how they relate to the text, if they read it as it is” says Tina Magaard.”
    More liberal bullshit like yours will result in more bombs.
    The blood is on your hands.

      • Russell

        May 2, 2013

        You’re such a funny guy. You certainly love jumping immediately to the defence of your mate Wes don’t you?

        • Avatar of Daniel Horne

          Daniel Horne

          May 2, 2013

          Hi Russell,

          I love clowning people (including myself) who take themselves way too seriously, if that’s what you mean.

          If anyone here really thought this “debate” was so important as to get upset over, we’d be doing more than picking poindexter-fights on an obscure blog.

          This whole thread is comical (and yep, your contributions as well), whether anyone realizes it or not.

          So, sure, I’m happy to “defend” Wes from the painful sting of nerd-rage, insofar as he’s advocating the benefits of everyone calming the fuck down.

          • Russell

            May 2, 2013

            Hi Daniel,

            I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m as calm as can be. In fact I would say that Wes is amongst those that need to “calm the fuck down” and stop being so sensitive and feeling the need to defend each and every religion on the face of the planet at the merest hint of criticism. I wouldn’t say “boo” if it weren’t for religious apologists whingeing all the time.

            If CK MacLeod (below) is right then Wes has misrepresented Sullivan’s position in order to make his point. Also, Bill Maher is primarily a comedian. He takes the piss out of everything, not just religion. Wes should have a happy pill and not get his pants in a bunch so much.

            What in Jesus’ name (woops) is nerd-rage?

          • Avatar of Will Yate

            Will Yate

            May 2, 2013

            He’s got you there, Daniel. Wes’s frantic—and frankly, disturbing—call for dispassionate analysis is a patently ideological travesty of the empirical fact that Mohammed Is Coming For Your Children. Only a true believer would demonize “free association and fuzzy thinking” when any disinterested observer could see that fuzzy thinking is our only way out of this morass, while the real culprit is the inherent violence of a dirty people—greedy, barbarous, and cruel. And I should know: Peter O’Toole told me so.

            In typical liberal-media fashion, you selectively refuse to believe that religious texts inspire violence. You’re so blinded by political correctness that you act as if the Bible is a crazy old book that no sane person would listen to, and yet you refuse to confront the obvious fact that the Koran is a crazy old book that no sane person would listen to.

            The lessons of this fiasco are clear. Much like the truth, philosophy has an obvious liberal bias, and the only way for PEL to redeem itself after this shameful episode is to renounce its smarmy, bleeding-heart tendency to parse arguments, and instead focus on the honest, unbiased work of vilifying people who don’t understand that Christ Is Lord.

            And if you think that’s crazy, let me tell you, I’m an atheist, and therefore what I’m saying is not even remotely crazy.

          • Glen

            May 5, 2013

            Isn’t the most important thing to realize is that religion just exacerbates problems, but isn’t the prime mover in a lot of cases? Ostensibly it looks like the primer mover but is just one factor amongst many. Sometime Christians get a free pass from secularists, who try to say, in effect, that Christians do not have things analogous to Jihad that drive them to do terrible things. But I can imagine an alternative history where the middle-east came to be, politically, economically, and culturally, super-dominant, and throughout its history exploited the rest of the world heavily, and demonized Europeans with their own kind of Orientalism. Suppose the impoverished, miserably, divided, more or less conquered Europeans, in response, revived Christianity, became super-orthodox, and began whispering of new “crusades” against the evil, decadent, middle-eastern metropol.

            Seems like a reasonable result. Whenever a people are brutalized, they defend themselves, and will use whatever helps them in this regard, like regressive religious traditions. It is only because the west has done so well in dominating the rest of the world that we feel comfortable enough to let our faith erode, or at least evolve into a less militant form.

            Or am I just talking out of my ass?

    • Dan

      June 15, 2013

      The blood is on the hands of a blogger? You are a pathetic excuse for a human.

  6. adrienne warren

    April 27, 2013

    in 1956 during the Hungarian uprising when the population tried to resist the Russian communist government a young Hungarian man threw a homemade bomb at a Russian tank. He was wounded and the red cross medivaced him to the US for treatment. He stayed in America, got married and had a son.
    The marriage was a contentious one that ended badly. The son stayed with his mother and had no contact with his father after the age of ten.
    At the age of 14 the boys mother (a doctor, born in Hungary, came to America after the uprising) gave the boy a chemistry set for Christmas. At age 15, a neighbor ran over the boys dog with his pickup truck. The boy blew up the neighbors truck. Being of a family with more then average wealth the boy was sent to military boarding school rather then prison reform school.
    Upon graduation the boy joined the Army and became EOD. Explosive ordinance disposal.
    This was my ex husband. So when I see the news about the Boston bombing and the two young men involved a I feel a shiver of recognition of a thing a bit too close to home. A friend once remarked, “you know, put your husband in a hoodie with a pair on sunglasses he does kinda look like that sketch of the unibomber”. (This was before the Unibomber was caught.) We both laughed, that light nervous whistling past the grave yard kinda laugh)
    A bomb goes off and its big, it’s dramatic, its scary, and we quite naturally want the reason for the bomb to like wise be big. Jihad is a big scary thing, a fear, an enemy grand enough to match the dramatic destruction of the bombing. But in the end what we have here are two young men motivated by the most common of reasons, family.

  7. Parrhesiastes

    April 27, 2013

    Also, take a look at Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing for a critical perspective.

  8. swallerstein

    April 27, 2013

    Once again, a great article, Wes.

    It would be great if some major media outlet could publish your stuff on this issue.

    • Avatar of dominic

      dominic

      April 28, 2013

      It is not a matter of intellectual or academic historical debate that the influence of Jesus had a pacifying effect on society, and the influence of Mohammad had a militarizing effect. That being said, I am an atheist who is fully aware that if a hostile foreign government were to give massive amounts of money, weapons, and training to radical, armed Christian groups in the US, educated and bourgeois Arabs would be discussing the inherent violent barbarity that defines Christianity.

      • Avatar of Dan Smart

        Dan Smart

        April 29, 2013

        I think you have your causal chain completely backwards. The progression of the west has pacified Christianity, not the other way around, or possibly they progressed together. Christianity has been used, just in the history of the US, to condone slavery, misogyny, war, theft, terrorism, cultural genocide and straight up genocide against the native Americans. The progression of the west helped Christianity along, not the other way around.

        • Avatar of dominic

          dominic

          April 29, 2013

          It does appear that way, but if one were to look at the entire lifespan of Christianity, and it’s interplay with secular government and militaries, it becomes obvious that for most of its lifespan, Christianity as a doctrine has actually acted as an advocate for restraint and mercy. One cannot blame the church for the cavalries of the second half of the 19th century Ameica, and Slavery virtually disappeared from Europe because of the advocacy of the church. The church had nothing to do with the implementation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, though of course the beneficiaries of the trade used the Bible to defend their trade. there are the Crusades, and the “wars of religion,” but even those involve powerful leaders not directly involved in the church who gained land, power, and wealth, so the motivations were not strictly religious. Again I’m an atheist and want all religion equally to become extinct, but as a student of history I can’t ignore Christianities pacifying effects, even if its only by small matters of degree. Also in this type of argument, I am a ware material wealth and political power muddy the waters of movtivation and intention.

          • Avatar of Dan Smart

            Dan Smart

            April 29, 2013

            So let’s recap a few of the situations, first slavery was supported by church officials. It is found in the holy book and was believed by the adherence. Fortunately there were church officials who argued in the opposite direction. This apparently redeems it as a pacifying religion. Jihad is supported by church officials. It is found in the holy book and believed by the adherence. Fortunately there are church officials who argued in the opposite direction. And this makes it a violent religion. No you are right I see the difference in the two situations.

            Ok what about Manifest Destiny? It was a religious argument, supported by church officials, believed by its adherence and justified genocide, but is excusable because….?

            I don’t think the material and political power really muddy the issue, they are the issue. Religion in all of these cases is the excuse and not the cause. The exact same logic that you used to say slavery is not Christianities fault you could use to say terrorism isn’t Islams fault. It is inconsistent to blame one on religion and not the other.

          • Avatar of dominic

            dominic

            April 29, 2013

            Fair enough. For what it’s worth, I’m fully aware that radical Islam as we know it is a product of outside intervention in the Middle East, and that America supported and in some cases, continues to support (Saudi Arabia) conservative, hard line Muslim factions. However the doctrines they adhere to are real. And correct me if I’m wrong, but every passage I know of that supports dlavery is from the Old Testament, and I did specify the “teachings of Jesus.” I don’t know the Bible well enough to swear by this next statement, but I believe it was Paul who preached Evagelism (used to justify manifest Destiny). Speaking of which, although I take extreme issue with certain, in fact most, aspects of evangelism, are there Muslim surgeons and dentists providing free care to third world countries?

          • Avatar of Dan Smart

            Dan Smart

            April 30, 2013

            I think we both agree that church members do things that are bad and use their religious books to support those actions. Also that the Christian organizations give more than other religious organizations, which might be partly because of the relative wealth and education of the west.

            “every passage I know of that supports slavery is from the Old Testament” Jesus told several stories that had slaves or servants in it and he made no mention of the moral status, he seemed nonplussed. Paul had several scriptures that were used to support slavery. For instance from Paul “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.”

            “Are there Muslim surgeons and dentists providing free care to third world countries?” Yes, Doctors without border (Médecins Sans Frontières) does not require a religious test. Also there are Muslim specific without borders aid workers, Muslims Without Borders. It is slightly worrying that you might not think there are.

          • Avatar of dominic

            dominic

            April 30, 2013

            I was aware, but had forgotten, that Jesus was silent on slavery.

  9. CK MacLeod

    April 27, 2013

    I don’t consider myself generally a fan of either Sullivan or Maher, and I do find this post useful and overall well-done, but I also think it’s possibly overdone, in that it proceeds from a tendentious misstatement of at least Sullivan’s position, as laid out in the linked “Of course it was Jihad” post and as in others he has written on this subject. (I’m not convinced Maher’s opinions actually qualify as positions.) As for the “a” point, Sullivan specifically acknowledges a potential “multi-causal” explanation for the crimes, and declares the latter to be obviously, my emphasis, “also religiously motivated,” not, as this post would have it, primarily religiously motivated. This questions may dissolve into semantic or even philosophical issues, but even this post admits that those crimes resulted from an over-determining intersection or conjuncture of causes. In other words, maybe someone like them in all respects except religious affiliation would have done bad things at some point, but the particular bad things they did were shaped by, and inevitably can be tied to, Jihadism. Sullivan’s depiction under the “b” point is also not quite the same as summarized, “that Islam has certain features that make its religious extremists more violent and dangerous than those of other religions, such as Christianity and Buddhism.” What Sullivan goes on to claim, concurring with a particular reader inspired by a passage from Democracy in America, is that Islam or core Islamic teachings centered on the life and sayings of the Prophet, unlike Christianity and specifically the Jesus of the Gospels, rather than offering correctives to its violent extremists, offers encouragement or models for emulation. Though we can agree with Juan Cole and all sensible observers that nominally Christian cultures have been, overall, immensely violent, and immensely more violent we might say materially than Muslim cultures, as for the particular question of terrorism, here as warlike voluntarism not as a sum total all political violence, there is arguably a specific problem related to Jihadism. How important this problem is relative to other problems or how we might best deal with it or even simply compare it other problems are other questions. Where Sullivan, and others go very far wrong, in my opinion, is in appearing to suggest that a peculiar problem with what we might call applied Islamic discourse ought or can be taken as an indictment of Islam, in favor of Christianity or a Christian-inflected liberal democratism, or, as some atheists have sought to claim, against religion in general.

  10. Michael R

    April 27, 2013

    More from the “something special about Islam” file …
    http://www.politicalislam.com/store/a-taste-of-islam-series/product/the-life-of-mohammed//
    “In Medina, Mohammed sat all day long beside his 12-year-old wife while they watched as the heads of 800 Jews were removed by sword.2. Their heads were cut off because they had said that Mohammed was not the prophet of Allah. Muslims view these deaths as necessary because denying Mohammed’s prophet-hood was an offense against Islam, and beheading is the accepted method of punishment, sanctioned by Allah…

    Apologists (dhimmis) say that this was a historic event, that all cultures have violence in their past, and that no judgment should be passed. They ignore the Islamic belief that the Sunna, Mohammed’s words and deeds in the past, is the perfect model for today and tomorrow and forever. They ignore the fact that this past event of the beheading of 800 Jewish men continues to be acceptable in the present and the future, thus the fate of Daniel Pearl (a reporter who was beheaded on camera).

    2. The Life of Muhammad, A. Guillaume, Oxford University Press, 1982, pg. 464.”
    ——–
    Are you still going to equate Muhammad with Jesus and the Buddha?
    A Rational Study of Radical Islam, by Dr. Bill Warner (PhD in physics and math):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9sYgqRtZGg

  11. C. M. Frederick

    April 30, 2013

    Only one word comes to my mind regarding all of this: disproportion. The hype and mania and hysteria surrounding this Boston event is disheartening, disturbing and dangerous. And the vast majority of opinion, rhetoric and analysis surrounding the event is either presumptuous, fallacious or misguided at best. The only winning move is not to play this game… Andrew Sullivan and Bill Maher may have their opinions, but that doesn’t mean they have informed or cogent opinions. I just wonder how many decades we will be caught in this current religious/cultural/civilizational pissing contest. Righteousness is a nasty trait indeed.

  12. Mark Landis

    April 30, 2013

    Honestly, the examination of motive, both of the alleged perpetrators, and of the media coverage of the perpetrators as well as the event seems more than a little bit over-done.

    Some things simply are, and the droning hyperbole necessary to label the commentators as somehow misinformed, ill guided, purveyors of journalistic crapola screams of someone that needs a hobby. Philosophy is required for us to examine why we think the way we do, but saying something over, and over, and over until your audience eyes glaze over from boredom does not a sound argument make.

    Take the dog for a walk. Get some fresh air, perhaps a little sunshine, and don’t take yourself so damned serious.

  13. Josh Friedlander

    April 30, 2013

    Great essay, Wes. Just a very minor niggle – it’s “tenets” of faith, not “tenants”.

  14. Russell

    May 2, 2013

    What people believe has an impact on how they behave. It is not a coincidence that very few few atheists go around killing themselves in suicide attacks. That is because they don’t believe they will be re-united with Grandma in Heaven when they die. Very few atheists have been known to burn witches, deny aids-ravaged Africans access to contraception, fly planes into buildings or bomb abortion clinics. Open your eyes.

    You may want to argue that there are competing motivations in these cases but the glaring, self-evident common thread in all of these things is religion.

    It is not anti-Christian or anti-Islamic to point out that those believers have a motivation for violence at their fingertips that is unavailable to secularists, who have no such doctrinal book in their library.

    People like you would have us believe that it is anti-religious to whisper a single word of criticism in that direction. It is ok to criticise religion. It is ok to criticise anything. Freedom of speech is in your Constitution isn’t it?

    By the way, stop pretending you’re an atheist. What’s wrong with officially coming out? It’s pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain and you have nothing to be ashamed of. You’ll have literally billions of friends almost immediately.

    • John

      May 3, 2013

      Wow.

    • 1Revelations117

      May 3, 2013

      Would that I were as free from the burden of textual support as Russell here (credit due to Dr. Berry, ep. 61).

      Yes, what people believe has an impact on what they believe, the very issue addressed above is what that relation is. There is room for your correlation between belief and action, just don’t pretend there is something you have enough evidence to demonstrate is uniquely egregious. If we follow you into the “common thread” is religion we end up with a totalizing critique that is not all that helpful in getting people who believe to act better.

      I’m just going to bracket the psychological projections of your last three paragraphs.

      I’ll leave you with the thought that, if I were inclined, I’d throw in a polemic about how Stalin and the USSR were nominally atheist. If you refrained from flaming me, you might say that Stalin didn’t go around killing soviets because he was an atheist, but because of the politics, etc. and you’d be right, because those beliefs, like other beliefs, exist in structures of power that transmit and perpetuate violence. The structures of power where the “foreigners” are represented as less than or backward or “other.” The structures of power that support a wealthy, evangelizing (white and western) “new atheism” that demonizes Muslims in the same way the political right does and then righteously proclaims the moral superiority of atheism to Christians.

      I’m not a believer, but I don’t believe that’s right.

      • Russell

        May 5, 2013

        I disagree with much of what you say and I touch on some of your points in my reply to Adam Y.

        Suffice it to add that saying Stalin could have been motivated by his atheism (ie. his lack of belief in a god) is like saying he could have been motivated by his lack of belief in Santa Claus.

    • Adam Y

      May 4, 2013

      “It is not a coincidence that very few few atheists go around killing themselves in suicide attacks.”

      Never heard of the Tamil Tigers then? Or is it just convenient to ignore them?

      Not that I am claiming a case of someones atheism having made them do it. I tend to find that political concerns are a better motivator to action than metaphysical commitments. Is that so crazy?

      • Russell

        May 5, 2013

        “Never heard of the Tamil Tigers then? Or is it just convenient to ignore them?”

        It wasn’t convenient to ignore them, no, but I guess I can understand you thinking so.

        It is debatable whether the Tamil Tigers, being predominantly Hindu, are also predominantly atheist, but I’d rather just concede the point. Regardless, the atheists I was referring to are garden variety atheists who don’t believe in a god and don’t believe in an afterlife, which the Tamil Tigers do.

        My point, which I may not have conveyed clearly enough by the sound of it (I thought the Grandma thing cleared it up), is simply this:

        Someone who thinks this life is their only life is less likely to strap explosives to themselves or fly into a building than someone who thinks this life is just the door to another life.

        “Not that I am claiming a case of someones atheism having made them do it.”

        I’m struggling to imagine a situation where atheism COULD be a motivation for violence. Atheism is the ABSENCE of a belief. It has no tenets or guiding principles and no old books to refer to. How would an atheist be motivated to violence by his/her LACK of belief?

        “I tend to find that political concerns are a better motivator to action than metaphysical commitments. Is that so crazy?”

        I don’t think that’s crazy at all but theists and atheists alike share that potential political motivation. My point is that theists have an ADDITIONAL motivation for violence that atheists don’t. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying that every violent act carried out by a theist is motivated solely by their religion. This is the straw man apologists set up to muddy the waters. I’m quite happy to buy into the competing motivations scenario and to accept your contention about political concerns, but apologists like Wes refuse to acknowledge the ace up the sleeve that theists have by way of their belief system and their violent Bronze Age books.

        The theist has the religion as motivation. The atheist doesn’t have the religion as motivation.

        • K

          May 5, 2013

          “Atheism is the ABSENCE of a belief”

          Yes, just as the belief that snow is white is not a belief but the abscence of the belief that snow is not white.

          “I’m struggling to imagine a situation where atheism COULD be a motivation for violence.”

          I’m struggling to imagine a situation were theism could be a motivating force for anything without any additional belief, theism taken to be the belief that there exists atleast one god.

          “My point is that theists have an ADDITIONAL motivation for violence that atheists don’t”

          Yes, and people who know that there exists watermelons have exactly one additional potential motivation for violence that non-believers in watermelons does not have.
          What do you suppose one is to make of this fact?
          Oh, and I should really not say additional, since the number of possible motivations of two persons with two contradictory views (all other things being equal) are exactly proportional to eachother.

          • Russell

            May 5, 2013

            “Yes, just as the belief that snow is white is not a belief but the abscence of the belief that snow is not white.”

            Why did you even write this sentence? The entire paragraph was …

            “I’m struggling to imagine a situation where atheism COULD be a motivation for violence. Atheism is the ABSENCE of a belief. It has no tenets or guiding principles and no old books to refer to. How would an atheist be motivated to violence by his/her LACK of belief?”

            People make the case (like 1Revelations117 above) that, for example, Stalin may have been motivated by his atheism. I’m saying that is rubbish because Atheism is not a belief but a negative stance to a single question. In the same way I would dismiss claims that Stalin may have been motivated by his Asnow-is-not-white-ism. What on earth is your point?

            “I’m struggling to imagine a situation were theism could be a motivating force for anything without any additional belief, theism taken to be the belief that there exists atleast one god.”

            Are you kidding me? You don’t have to look very hard to find motivation for violence in the Bible or the Koran. It’s all over the place. Ask Kurt Westergaard if he can imagine a situation where religious belief was the motivating force for violence.

            “Yes, and people who know that there exists watermelons have exactly one additional potential motivation for violence that non-believers in watermelons does not have. What do you suppose one is to make of this fact?

            Not much. People don’t keep books, replete with violence and questionable morality, in their bedside tables that they believe are the written word of an all-powerful watermelon, nor that this watermelon has an invisible background universe where they’ll end up having a lovely time after they die.

            “Oh, and I should really not say additional, since the number of possible motivations of two persons with two contradictory views (all other things being equal) are exactly proportional to eachother.”

            Huh?

  15. 1Revelations117

    May 5, 2013

    Hey Russell,

    I guess I’m throwing you questions because it feels like you’re justifying moralizing judgements about believers because their holy books have a cruddy idea of what acceptable violence could be, and that’s a lot of people to write off (however misguided they are).

    There’s a lot going on as beliefs are translated into action, and I think Wes is right in pointing out that some people are unjustifiably trying to assert that there is something unique about Islam’s violence. I don’t think there’s much else there.

    • Russell

      May 5, 2013

      Hi 1R117,

      Maybe we are talking at cross purposes – I’m not sure. I don’t think I’m writing off believers at all, certainly not all of them. I’m just making the observation that there is a potential source of violence provided by the religion that doesn’t exist for non-believers.

      I can’t speak for “some people” but my point is not about the uniqueness of Islam’s violence. In general I don’t think Wes is about that either. He has spoken in precisely the same terms about Christianity on the podcast.

      My point is about the fact that believers have an additional motivation for violence provided by their books. Pure and simple. I’m not sure how else to say it. It seems a completely non-controversial point to me but the arguments that come back always go off at tangents like Stalin and watermelons and snow-is-not-white and politics.

      People A believe in a god and life after death and have a “holy” book etc. and people B don’t. Both groups could be motivated by politics or socio-economics and so on but only one group can be motivated by religion. How do you interpret this any other way than to say that Group A have an “additional motivation”? I don’t get it. I’d be very grateful if you could explain it.

      I think what is going on is that people get offended and defensive when you appear to be criticising their religion and, being well trained in dogma to begin with, they obstinately refuse to concede the point, probably for fear that it may be the beginning of some slippery slope.

      • K

        May 6, 2013

        “How do you interpret this any other way than to say that Group A have an “additional motivation”? I don’t get it. I’d be very grateful if you could explain it.”

        Let me explain it, to say Group A has an additional motivation to Group B means that Group B has one more motivation than Group A, just like saying that a car with five wheels have one additional wheel to a car with four wheels.
        There is nothing in what you have said that leads to the conclusion that it is the case that theists by definition have an additional motivation for violence than atheist, only that they have atleast one different motivation for violence, namely the belief in god.

        The only way to make it so atheist by definition have atleast one less motivation for violence than theists is to make the argument that atheism is not the belief that there exists no god, but an abscence of the belief that there exists a god. Now this would make the claim that Group A have an “additional motivation” true.
        The problem is that its not an convincing argument, it’s just nonsense. My point with the snow is white sentence was to point out how much nonsense it is.

        All the other things you say about religous texts is quite irrelevant to the claim you’re making, it doesn’t matter if Group B has any number of reasons for violence that Group A doesn’t have, all you have proved is thet the two groups have different motivations, not that Group B has additional motivations.

        • Russell

          May 6, 2013

          “The only way to make it so atheist by definition have atleast one less motivation for violence than theists is to make the argument that atheism is not the belief that there exists no god, but an abscence of the belief that there exists a god. Now this would make the claim that Group A have an “additional motivation” true.”

          Which is PRECISELY my argument. Have you not read anything I’ve said?

          “The problem is that its not an convincing argument, it’s just nonsense. My point with the snow is white sentence was to point out how much nonsense it is.”

          Now that’s a different thing. So you disagree with the premise that atheism is the “absence of a belief in a god”. Now I understand where you are coming from at least but I would say the snow is white thing is the actual nonsense here.

          Neither you nor I nor anyone else knows for certain that there is or isn’t a god. Certainly you can’t prove there is one and I can’t prove there isn’t one. So I view atheism as simply a rejection of any claim that there is a god. Anything stronger than that would be unjustified. If you think atheists are saying “there is no god” there is no point continuing this debate but I think you are wrong. I don’t know any atheists like that although I’m sure there are a few. Even Richard Dawkins, ill-considered by theists as a militant atheist, puts himself one category away from making that claim in his book The God Delusion.

          • K

            May 7, 2013

            “So I view atheism as simply a rejection of any claim that there is a god.”

            See this is were you confuse me, since you use language that leads one to belive that atheism is taken to mean the belief that there is no god.
            Generally the view that the statement “there is a god” is undecidable or something along that line is called agnosticism.
            Nevertheless it’s now clear what you think atheism is. It can be for example someone who has never though about the existens of god, and therefore has no belief in either direction.

            Now It’s clear to me given two people A and B were A neither believes god exists or god doesn’t exist, and B believes god exists, then B has one additional possible motivation for violence than A. But only if these are their only beliefs.

            How do you go from this fact to the fact that theists in general have additional motivations for violence that atheist doesn’t have?
            If the atheist for example know that there exists watermelons and the theist never even thought about watermelons, it would no longer be true that the theist have an additional possible motivation for violence. The atheist and theist would then have exactly the same number of possible motivations, albeit different from eachother.

            In the real world labelling someone an atheist or a theist says nothing of which one has the highest number of possible motivations for violence.

          • Russell

            May 8, 2013

            Hi K.

            “See this is were you confuse me, since you use language that leads one to belive that atheism is taken to mean the belief that there is no god.
            Generally the view that the statement “there is a god” is undecidable or something along that line is called agnosticism.
            Nevertheless it’s now clear what you think atheism is. It can be for example someone who has never though about the existens of god, and therefore has no belief in either direction.”

            We seem to be really confusing each other and I’m not sure even now that we understand each other. Maybe it’s partly the terminology and our different understanding of the words.

            Here is what I understand a theist, an atheist, a gnostic and an agnostic to be.

            1. A theist is someone who has a belief that a god exists.

            2. An atheist is someone who is NOT theist, someone who does not have a belief that a god exists.

            3. A gnostic is someone who goes beyond mere belief and actually claims KNOWLEDGE that a god exists. Forgetting gods and mysticism, gnostic means “of or relating to knowledge”.

            4. An agnostic is someone who is NOT gnostic, someone who does not claim knowledge.

            Generally people say they are agnostic if their answer to the question “Do you believe in a god?” is “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know”, but these answers relate to KNOWLEDGE whereas the question itself relates to BELIEF. So they are not really answering the question. A gnostic is someone who claims knowledge and an agnostic is someone who doesn’t. If your answer is anything other than “yes” to the above question then to me you are an atheist. You can’t dodge the question by saying neither “yes” nor “no” because you either believe a thing or you don’t. You can’t half believe something because that equates to not believing it.

            Therefore I would say that everyone in the world is either a theist or an atheist. If they believe in a god then obviously they are a theist. Everyone else is an atheist. If they have never even considered the question then obviously they are NOT theist = atheist. If they are “not sure” or “don’t know” then clearly they don’t believe and they are an atheist.

            Whether they are gnostic or agnostic relates to the level of certainty of their belief or the level of certainty of the inverse of their absence of belief. Most theists and atheists alike would not claim certainty and so would both be agnostic, the former an agnostic theist and the latter an agnostic atheist. A theist who claims to know there is a god would be a gnostic theist and an atheist who claims to know there is no god would be a gnostic atheist. These gnostic positions seem unreasonable to me for both theists and atheists alike.

            All of the semantics aside, let me make one last attempt to say why I think theists have an additional motivation for violence. But maybe my language right there is what is sending you off on a tangent about watermelons, so perhaps it would be better to say that theists have a motivation for violence that is UNAVAILABLE to atheists. They have Bronze Age books in their bedside tables that many of them believe to be the inerrant word of an all-powerful deity. This book is replete with homophobia, stonings, slavery, murder and genocide. It is an “us or them” book and it has the potential to inspire a believer to violence. Atheists don’t have these books or at least don’t “believe” them. This seems a non-controversial point to me. I think I’ve said enough on the topic now.

  16. Brian

    February 5, 2014

    I don’t know if the fact that more violent crimes are being committed today by Christians than Muslims, or some history of political violence in the name of Christianity, really goes to the heart of the point Sullivan wants to make, which he suggests he reiterates in the “liberal bullshit” post by approving of something written by a Tocqueville-quoting reader.

    This seems to be that it is harder to find the necessary components for a “Christian state” in Christian texts than it is to find those for a Muslim one in Muslim ones. As long as religions point back to some origin, the differences between these origins (the textual content of the revelations) matter, even if there is some universal feeling or another that makes all religions potentially similar in the abstract. Sullivan seems to doubt that we do ourselves much good to pretend there is a meaningful Christian analogue for, you know, Shari’a (which includes the actions of the Prophet), or that this difference has no bearing on contemporary political matters. Certainly it would be dubious to claim, as one poster does, that all religions are on some “historical” trajectory toward a state of universal Enlightenment. Though you’re not wrong to suggest that Muslims are often reacting to very real injustices, attention to key “fundamentalist” texts (see Khomeini, Maududi, Shariati) suggests that they are also largely reacting–on account of what seems to be a more or less natural need for something that the ensuing “materialism” seems to deny–directly to the prospect of exactly such a state.

    Reactionary or conservative Christians in similar positions are forced in one way or another (as they were even in the days of Canon Law and the Puritans) to fall back pretty heavily on some civil or common law, whose source is not God’s word, which sort of makes a Christian political entity hard to construct. Shari’a makes a lot of these sorts of provisions in God’s name, which helps explain why countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran can claim to relate so much of their body of laws back to revelation. That is, it has been, is, and will be harder for Christians to sustain such a case in a way that doesn’t call directly for political supplements to revelation. This remains so even if the deepest motivation of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists alike–and you can get this sense from what they actually say–is to locate a source of political power that “frees” them from anyone but what they take to be God.

    Close attention to Sullivan’s follow-up post, at least, indicates that something like this–Islam is more political than Christianity–is closer to the heart of his point than “Islam is more violent than Christianity.” In other words, Christianity doesn’t itself represent a viable constitutional alternative to liberal democracy, or to anything else for that matter; Islam, to which the fact that about 35% of the world’s population lives in nations whose constitutions draw in one way or another on Shari’a attests, would seem to be a different case. If you can’t see that the existence of this sort of fundamental political alternative represents a problem on a scale different than whatever kinds of violence are included in the statistic that shows Christians to be more crime-prone than Muslims (i.e., after the fact of the establishment of political laws, laws that establish an entire way of life…), you’re talking directly past Sullivan.

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