Since 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