What causes ISIS? Reconciling tolerance and critical thinking

We live in febrile and disheartening times. In every corner of the globe, people mete out violence and misery on each other without any sense of empathy or consideration. Just this week, an armed American Christian stormed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and killed three people, reportedly motivated by ‘opposition to legal and safe abortion’. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two ethno-religious groups assert a divine entitlement to the same piece of land, and neither side could desist from violence without compromising the core ideological impetus of their faith. In Turkey, President Erdogan, who was once jailed for ‘inciting hatred based on religious differences’, threatens to plunge Turkey back to Ottoman roots by re-emphasising Islamic education in his Imam Hatip schools, confining the role of women to motherhood, and showing disdain for democratic processes (read more here). In the Philippines, Islamic extremist groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front wreak havoc in the lawless regions of Mindanao, kidnapping and ransoming foreign tourists. In Bangladesh, where Islamic militants regularly target secular writers and journalists, 47% of Muslims believe that suicide bombings and violence are ‘often or sometimes’ justified to defend Islam, according to a recent Pew poll. In Nigeria, militant group Boko Haram terrorises local villages and kidnaps young girls to deprive them of an education, all in accordance with their violent interpretation of Islamic doctrine. And in the middle of the maelstrom sits ISIS, the most menacing iteration of religious extremism since al-Qaeda.

The above paragraph exemplifies everything that is wrong with the current discourse surrounding Islamophobia and the causal link between religion and extremism. At first glance, there is nothing controversial or patently untrue about any of the statements I made. Indeed, most of them have been publicly articulated by numerous experts. But consider the following:

We live in febrile and disheartening times. In every corner of the globe, people mete out violence and misery on each other without any sense of empathy or consideration. Just this week, an armed American man, described by his neighbours as a quiet, isolated person who ‘never talked religion or abortion’, stormed a medical clinic in Colorado Springs and killed three people. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, two ethno-nationalist groups assert their historical claims to lands they have both occupied for more than two thousand years, and neither side could desist from violence without losing out on land imbued with central significance to their sense of nation. In Turkey, power-hungry President Erdogan eyes the two-thirds majority in Parliament for his Justice and Development Party that he requires to alter the constitution and shift executive power to the presidency. In the Philippines, youths on Mindanao Island wage a guerilla war against the Filipino military to express their disenchantment at being consistently neglected by the central government. In Pakistan, where just 3% of Muslims believe that suicide bombings and violence are ‘often or sometimes’ justified to defend Islam, 66 journalists have been killed in the line of duty since 2010, including four so far this year. In Nigeria, petro-pirates illegally bunker oil from Western oil pipelines in the Niger Delta to protest environmental degradation and a lack of government reinvestment into the region. And perhaps most threateningly, ISIS uses its warped version of Islam as an excuse to express its disaffection at the exclusionary immigration policies and exploitative capitalist and geopolitical interventions of the West.

Both paragraphs use the same case studies (and even the same Pew poll), both were equally uncontroversial in their content and construction, and yet each characterises the world’s problems in a very different light. The former emphasises religion as the predominant motivation for much of the world’s violence; but with subtle changes in language, the emphasis of certain facts and exclusion of others, the latter can employ the very same examples to suggest that those responsible for global depredations are either  individual lunatics, incursive Western governments or alienated minorities.

Of course, it isn’t particularly groundbreaking to point out that the tools of language, selection and emphasis play a big part in framing an argument. But when someone uses those tools to argue that a person is motivated to commit violence as part of a murderous group like ISIS solely because they are a member of a certain race, or because they hold a certain set of political or religious beliefs, their argument tends to homogenise the intentions of every single member of that race, religion or nation. This is problematic, because human intention – religious, geopolitical or otherwise – is so extraordinarily complex, intersectional and unique to each individual depending on genetic makeup and lived experience, that it does not lend itself readily to simplistic and reductive explanations in opinion pieces – and especially those which are written to support a preconception. In truth, neither of the above paragraphs comes close to constituting a fair assessment of human intention. And I find that on the subject of ISIS, which falls at the junction of a host of complex issues of identity, religion, race, immigration, war and terrorism, the discourse has become particularly toxic and unhelpful.

It seems that people automatically take a side in arguments because they consider it the left or right-wing thing to do. Such a decision necessarily precludes the opportunity, much less the inclination, to instead examine a particular scenario and to come to a fact-based conclusion (even if that conclusion does fly in the face of one’s putative political alignment). However, on such a vexed issue as ISIS, where it can be so injurious to Muslims to call their religion and whole identity violent, but can be simultaneously injurious to hosts of innocent people whom ISIS target to leave Islamic doctrines unscrutinised for the sake of religious sensitivity, it is so important to approach the facts with a dispassionate and open mind, rather than to fit them clumsily into your sweeping worldview.

At the moment, every media organisation with a modicum of popular support engages in this toxic and hapless discourse over ISIS. Collectively, the media have contributed in no small part to the climate of fear and uncertainty in which we are currently living. ISIS would have run out of steam months ago if the media had simply refused to report on their attacks; instead, they have chosen to do ISIS’ PR work for them and to maintain the aura of infamy upon which their existence depends. But while it may be unconstructive to blame the media for simply reporting on terrorism, you can, and certainly should, blame them for obfuscating the issues, and for failing to provide a nuanced assessment of the causes and motivations of ISIS and similar terrorist groups like Boko Haram. The News Limited empire is certainly the most bigoted and incendiary of the media groups in this respect (Rupert Murdoch himself tweeted in typically reductive fashion last year, ‘Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.’). However, they are no more culpable that many media outlets on the so-called ‘left’ (a label I strongly condemn for its implication that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are the countervailing bodies of opinions on the socio-political spectrum to which everyone must conform neatly). Too often do articles use absolutist and reductive soundbites like ‘Islam is a religion of violence’, or ‘Terrorism has no religion’, borne from the perplexing need we have as humans to assume that every effect has a simple cause. But extremism is no simple issue: it should be treated with the careful consideration it deserves.

Loath as I am to generalise so blatantly, there seem to be two main groups who dominate discourse on the topic of ISIS and religious extremism. On the one hand, there are bigots: those who parrot one-liners like ‘Islam is a religion of violence’ to mask their prejudice against Muslims as people. Their disdain for Islam comes purely out of prejudice and a sense of racial or religious superiority, rather than out of any rational and cogent analysis of the ideas of Islam. Their prejudice also informs other policy stances, such as support for minimal immigration from the Middle East into Europe. This group includes people like Andrew Bolt, Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson.

On the other hand, there are what I term ‘tolerant liberals’: those who preach tolerance of Islamic people and their ideas, and who discourage and condemn criticism of Islamic doctrines. They tend to believe that ISIS is made up of disaffected youths, alienated from Western society, who distort the inherently peaceful Islamic doctrines and narratives for their own political ends. They argue that you cannot paint all Muslims with the same brush and label them as all complicit in or permissive of terrorism. Their key one-liners are ‘Islam is not violent, people are violent’, and ‘terrorism has no religion’. This group includes public figures like Waleed Aly and Reza Aslan.

However, there is also a third group, which is all but silenced in the Australian media (though it does receive some airtime in the United States), which I term ‘critical liberals’. Critical liberals believe that tolerant liberals are failing the liberal principle of critical thinking and rational decision-making when they preach tolerance of the ideas of Islam. Their stance is premised on a distinction between the three modes of tolerance: tolerance of behaviour, tolerance of ideas, and tolerance of people. They maintain that while you should always be tolerant and respectful of people, you always have a right to scrutinise and question ideas and behaviours that arise from those ideas. As such, they believe that Islam’s foundational texts and historical narratives are conducive to violence or hostility against non-believers and apostates, and that ISIS is a manifestation of the militant Salafi jihadism that the Qur’an and Hadith too unambiguously encourage. This group includes people like Sam Harris, and consists mostly of atheists who dispute the scientific basis of, and consequences of belief in, every religion.

The following article is my attempt to puncture the cloud of assertions and logical fallacies that surround this discourse. I will go through each of the three groups mentioned above and explain their arguments as strongly as possible. Then I will address the logical flaws in each, examine the preconceptions that members of each group have that might cause them to have certain beliefs, and briefly consider the ideal way forward, both practically and in the interest of intellectual and moral honesty. And given that I have no respect or time for bigots, who rely on demagoguery in the absence of a factual basis for their position, there are two main questions I seek to answer, one theoretical and one practical:

  1. How do we as liberals balance our competing instincts for tolerance and critical thinking? Can the two positions be reconciled at all?
  2. Perhaps more relevantly, which position will best help us to defeat ISIS and minimise religious terrorism in future?

This is a vitally important conversation, but currently it has degraded into a tawdry spectacle of public mud slinging between partisans who select facts and ignore dissenting opinions. And so, in the spirit of dialectic, I will try to offer up both sides of the discourse at full strength, never erring from the premise that no human is more deserving of life than any other, and that sometimes the most moral outcome is not the most intellectually consistent one. By entering without preconceptions and applying equal scrutiny to each of the three camps, I hope to establish which of the three, if any, is most capable of reconciling the respect for diversity with the constructive iconoclasm that every free and progressive society ought to have. But beware, I also have my preconceptions: for one, I just don’t trust the media.

1. Bigots

 What do bigots believe about ISIS and Islam?

Much of the politically and socially conservative side of society approaches the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism with xenophobic and racist preconceptions; hence the label bigots. These bigots are typically of a different ethnic group, nationality and religion to the group they are targeting – in Australia and the US, they are usually white and (nominally at least) Christian. The more brash or uneducated of them tend to homogenise all ethnic groups in the Middle East (for example, they assume that every Saudi Arabian person is Muslim and has the same lived experience and set of beliefs as every Syrian person), and conflate ethnicity with religion by assuming that all Arabs are Muslims and vice versa. At their heart, they are prejudiced: rather than having a rational reason for their concerns about Islam, they denigrate other cultures and religions because they see their own faith or ethnicity as grounds for asserting superiority. As such, ISIS is the perfect scapegoat for their xenophobic fear mongering: they can convince people that ISIS, a murderous minority of Muslim extremists that everyone finds terrifying, is representative of not only the beliefs and behaviours, but also the characters, of the world’s entire Muslim population, the majority of which is not terrifying in the slightest. Therefore, bigots are intolerant of Muslims as people, not just critical of the tenets of their faith. They use ISIS to legitimise the prejudices they would hold even if ISIS did not exist.

A prime example of a bigot is Donald Trump, who has previously vowed to put up a wall across the US-Mexican border to stem the flow of immigrants and recently called for all Muslims to wear identification tags. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, he takes the incidences of Islamist terrorism in the past two decades to suggest that there is a ‘Muslim problem in the world’. Others in this category include Ben Carson, who recently said that a Muslim should never be President of the US, and Andrew Bolt.

What are the flaws in their arguments?

I see little point in arguing extensively against these beliefs, for the reason that they have no logic to pick apart in the first place. Trump, Carson and Andrew Bolt, though they may explain away their prejudices by maintaining that they ‘have some Muslim friends’, clearly believe that some people are better than others by sole virtue of their skin colour, socio-economic background or religion. Ben Carson’s myopia is confounding: that he forgets that he also belongs to a long-persecuted minority in his own country, and that many of the people whose views he shares believe that his skin colour makes him an inferior person, shows how unempathetic he really is. As for Trump and Bolt, they have grown up in environments of immense privilege with little exposure to the world’s diversity, and use specious rhetoric to inflame hatred against the ‘Other’ that they do not understand or care for. Bolt does use ISIS’ actual statements as evidence of their supposed hyper-religious intention (see here), but he comes from a place of such unmitigated hate towards all ethnicities and religions (he is one of the few people overtly racist enough to have been successfully prosecuted under s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act) that the solutions he proposes are discriminatory and intolerant rather than constructive.

If probed a little – no trifling matter, however, when the Andrew Bolts of the world have honed their craft on a strict diet of intellectual dishonesty – it becomes clear that their methodology of ‘I know nice Muslims, but’ is disingenuous. The best way to expose a bigot is to undertake the following thought experiment: ask them what role Islam would play in their perfect world. If they see no place for Islam and offer no logical, reasonable and non-violent solution (or if they advocate for genocide, conversion to another religion, segregation, confinement to certain nation-states, identification tags or any other solution that shows an intolerance for Muslims as people rather than just intolerance of their ideas or behaviours), then he or she is bigoted. This is an important litmus test in the distinction between a bigot and a critical liberal, which I will address later. Alternatively, provided your interviewee supports military intervention as it currently stands, you could ask them whether they would still desire to crush the Islamic State with boots on the ground if it made a pledge to only kill Muslims in the Middle East from now on, and to neither threaten Western oil installations nor attack any Western city ever again. If their answer is no, you can be confident that at the very least, they value some human lives over others, and it would be a fair estimation that they have a prejudice against all Muslims, not just Islamic extremists.

Let’s put the above thought experiments to the test using this article by Robert Spencer, an anti-Islamic author in America. On the surface, his criticisms of Islam as an inherently bigoted and intolerant religion seem eloquently argued, with reference to numerous Qur’anic verses and historical events. However, dig a little deeper, and you find out that Spencer himself is a member of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose family was forced to emigrate from Turkey for those beliefs. This explains why his article focuses on the ways Islamic countries in the Middle East persecutes Christians in particular. You also realise that the magazine in which the article is published, the Front Page Magazine, is a conservative publication with the slogan ‘Inside every liberal is a totalitarian screaming to get out’. Now, it’s absurd to suggest that every single Christian is disqualified from having a valid opinion about the dangers of Islamic doctrine. But in this particular case, Spencer considers everything in absolutist terms. Applying the first litmus test, in his ideal world he would likely not see any place for Islam. James 5:20 encourages conversion of the non-believer by averring that ‘whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins’. This shows that Christians are encouraged to proselytise for their own spiritual benefit. But even if you argue that Catholics place less emphasis on the Bible and more on the performative aspects and rituals of faith, Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants alike would readily admit that evangelism and proselytism are key functions of their church, and that their faith does not freely encourage co-existence between religions.

And as for the second litmus test, it is tough to speculate how Spencer might respond to that question (I suspect he would still encourage military intervention against ISIS in any case, in a bid to protect persecuted Syrian and Iraqi Christians). However, the fact that he provides no practical solution for how to deal with Islamic extremism, other than to portray a Manichaean struggle between the enlightened West and the regressive forces of Islam, indicates his prejudice against Islam and all its followers. Therefore, although the content of a bigot’s arguments may be well argued and ostensibly valid, someone making cogent arguments about a problem in pursuance of a discriminatory agenda will never provide fair and reasonable solutions to that problem. They are coming from a place of hate and absolutism, and that is why it is so important to ask yourself: is this media figure using the facts to reach a just and workable conclusion, or to assert their preconceived, non-negotiable worldview?

Why do bigots think the way they do?

Vast swathes of Western populations follow bigoted politicians like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban because they forget that they are not special, that they benefitted from the birth lottery, and that there are 7 billion other people whose lives matter. In this way, the prevailing characteristic of the bigot is selfishness. It is selfishness that causes them to fear sharing their land and resources with others; it is selfishness (or exceptionalism) that causes them to favour those who look and speak like them and to distrust those who do not. In some ways, it is ironic that human exceptionalism – the hope that we are special and unique – is both our greatest comfort as individuals, and the greatest obstacle to progress as a community.

Unfortunately, bigots compensate for their lack of factual analysis by increasing the intensity of their opinions. As a result, bigots are extremely slippery and difficult to engage with in discussions, as they will use facts selectively and often resort to ad hominem attacks or vacuous casuistry to muddy the waters. Moreover, they are impossible to eradicate unless you provide everyone with a familial and educational environment that supports diversity and tolerance, and that encourages critical thinking and the pursuit of truth. You just cannot change the mind of a person who has been inculcated from a young age to believe that all Muslims are inferior or dangerous, because it conflicts with the worldview that they have spent a lifetime honing and shaping. And let’s face it, very few people are humble enough to actively accept that the worldview their parents and school taught them is wrong, and to then take the time to reach an informed and balanced opinion. But equally, their chauvinism has no place in a society predicated on a social contract that demands that people forfeit their rights to engage in a social Darwinist free-for-all melee and instead be subjected to equal treatment under a common law. And so it goes without saying that bigots who consider Muslims to be fundamentally inferior do not have a place at the table in a debate over the complex causes of terrorism.

2. Tolerant liberals

What do tolerant liberals believe about ISIS and Islam?

The mainstream liberal approach to religious extremism comes in the form of ‘tolerant liberalism’. Tolerant liberals believe that Islam is neither good nor bad by itself, but is capable of being manipulated and used as a banner to justify evil acts with other nationalist or geopolitical motives. ISIS is therefore the exception to, rather than the natural consequence of, belief in Islamic doctrines, and is comprised of youths who crave adventure and feel politically and socially alienated from their Western societies. In other words, they believe that ISIS does not reflect Islam any more than the KKK reflected Christianity or Rakhine extremists reflect mainstream Buddhism. Therefore, they argue that we should be tolerant of all moderate Muslims rather than preach hate and demonise them for their beliefs, and recognise that ISIS, not every Muslim, is the real enemy. Both atheists and religious people can be tolerant liberals.

Barack Obama is an example of a tolerant liberal figure: he has called Islam a ‘religion of peace’, and has distinguished Islam, which is a neutral religion that over 1 billion people follow peacefully, with Islamism (the movement that aims to replace existing political institutions with Islamic law) and jihadism (the use of force to achieve the Islamist movement), which a tiny minority of Muslims use as transparent moral justification to protest pre-existing grievances.

Australian news figure Waleed Aly is another prominent tolerant liberal. His recent video professed the view that ISIS aims to split the world into two camps and to cause societies to ‘turn on each other’, causing outcast Muslims across the Western world to defect to ISIS. He suggests that those who ‘fire off misguided missives of hate’ against Muslims are in fact playing right into ISIS’ hands. He therefore calls on people to show support for, and to act in solidarity with, all moderate Muslims in Western societies.

Do tolerant liberals believe ISIS has negotiable political goals?

On this question, there is a split in the tolerant liberal camp. The majority will tell you that ISIS is a militant jihadist group that will not stop short of forming a caliphate. They suggest that this goal is not reflective of Islamic principles whatsoever, and is the result of distortion. Because it is the result of distortion, it is not negotiable and is so inimical to the principles of national sovereignty and democracy that ISIS must be destroyed via military means rather than social re-engineering or diplomatic pressure. However, a few tolerant liberals will tell you that the caliphate motivation is pure puffery masking their political discontent, which could be mitigated if they had been better integrated into Western societies, or if there had been more stability in Iraq and Syria. This is where Reza Aslan sits: he blamed the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 on a failure to tolerate multiculturalism in France rather than on adherence to the tenet of Islam which forbids the visual depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.

Why do tolerant liberals believe what they do?

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that there are two subgroups of tolerant liberals, each with their own reflexive bias that causes them to emphasise tolerance: those with religious beliefs themselves, and those who are atheist.

Members of the former group view religion in its usual form as a morally neutral set of beliefs with a benign transformative effect on the human character. They suggest that ISIS is a violent warping of the ideas of Islam, and that the unwarped ideas of Islam are innocuous and often have positive effects on their subscribers, who gain meaning and direction in their lives. Of course, the religious tolerant liberal must also be sufficiently humble, moderate and respectful of equality to accept that other people can hold different beliefs and still be entitled to a full and happy life. Therefore, people like Waleed Aly (who is Muslim), Barack Obama (who is Christian), and Reza Aslan (who is Muslim but is also a theologian, which strengthens the rose-coloured lens with which he views religion), all come from a place where they recognise that religion should be a huge aspect in people’s lives.

Tolerant liberals who are atheist have a similar, but not identical, set of preconceptions about religion. Obviously, they do not subscribe to a religion themselves, but they choose to live harmoniously with other religions, perhaps out of the belief that all humans are equal regardless of denomination. Therefore, although they might doubt the positive transformative power of religion, they still appreciate the power of religion to improve other people and give their lives meaning. And so at a delicate time like this, they prioritise tolerance over critical thinking about religion: they refrain from questioning whether religion does have negative effects – whether there is a causal link between the beliefs of Muslims and the behaviours of ISIS – and instead show their support for Muslims in the community. In sum, these people come from a place where they recognise that religion is a huge aspect in people’s lives, and publicly reserve judgement on whether it should be.

The main idea to take out of the above paragraphs is that both religious and atheist tolerant liberals tolerate people and tolerate ideas, but do not tolerate behaviours. They tolerate ideas because they have preconceptions that cause them to protect ideas, like religion, from scrutiny.

Are there any flaws in their arguments?

Make no mistake, at such a precarious time, showing Muslims that we respect and value them as people, and that we aren’t all out to take pot-shots at their beliefs seems to be a worthwhile course of action, particularly to counter the huge amount of bigotry that has emerged against Muslims as a group. However, the next question to ask is whether tolerant liberals are warranted in tolerating Islamic ideas.

There are five arguments I will raise in answering this question, and the below statement will act as the condensed version of the tolerant liberal point of view that I wish to examine.

‘ISIS warps the doctrines of Islam and is not a true reflection of its tenets, which are neutral/advocate for peace.’ In other words, we should tolerate Muslims as people, and tolerate Islamic ideas.

  1. Foundational texts

The best place to start in determining what a religion does or does not condone is with its foundational texts: in the case of Islam, the Qur’an and the Hadith. Even a cursory glance at the Qur’an is enough to establish that it dichotomises the world into Muslims and non-believers (or infidels), and permits the use of violence against infidels. Some would contest this characterisation and selectively cherry-pick examples of passages that advocate peace, divorcing them from their context. I admit that I am also about to put forward a characterisation of the Qu’ran without going through each Surah with a fine-toothed comb, for the sake of brevity. However, the examples I have chosen come predominantly from the third Surah, the Imrans, and I hope to convey the consistency with which the writer condemns the non-believer and praises the believer (or alternatively, the jarring inconsistencies of a supposedly coherent doctrine, if you believe that the Imrans do not reflect the overarching tone of the Qu’ran).

‘As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.’ (3:56)

‘God does not guide the evil-doers. Their reward will be the curse of God, the angels, and all mankind. Their punishment shall not be mitigated, nor shall they be reprieved; except those who afterwards repent and mend their ways, for God is forgiving and merciful.’ (3:89)

‘Believers, do not make friends with any but your own people. They will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is evident from what they utter with their mouths, but greater is the hatred which their breasts conceal.’ (3:118)

‘Never think that those who were slain in the cause of God are dead. They are alive, and well provided for by their Lord; pleased with his gifts and rejoicing that those they left behind, who have not yet joined them, have nothing to fear or to regret; rejoicing in God’s grace and bounty. God will not deny the faithful their reward.’ (3:169)

Just in the above four examples from the Imrans, you clearly see that the words on the page suggest:

  1. That non-believers are eternally cursed and deserve continual punishment from God;
  2. That a Muslim ought not befriend or trust any non-believer; and
  3. That those who give up their lives for the Islamic faith are rewarded.

Those that insist that the Qur’an’s overarching tone is one of reconciliation or peace are not being intellectually honest, and are ignoring plain facts in favour of their own rose-coloured view of Islam. The fact is that the words of the Qur’an are reasonably capable of admitting an interpretation that endorses intolerance, couched in a perverse and dichotomous logic of believers and infidels. However, this does not tend to be an area of contention, for the reason that the literal meaning of the words is so unambiguous: any reasonable person would readily accept that the words on the page admit this interpretation. Whether or not people are to interpret those words literally, or metaphorically, or not at all – in other words, whether the words should be limited by their 7th century context, or whether they were designed as timeless dictums to be applied in the current context – is the contentious issue, and will be addressed in the next sections.

  1. Islamic historical narratives

The next point to consider is the legacy of violence and conquest that has punctuated Islamic history. Some tolerant liberals maintain that ISIS and al-Qaeda must be motivated by geopolitical concerns, because Islamic terrorism is a new phenomenon that did not exist fifty years ago. I would respectfully disagree – history is littered with examples of crimes committed in the name of Islam and of inter-religious friction. Rather, the apparent proliferation of terrorist attacks can be explained in part by today’s unprecedented ubiquity and depth of media coverage, but also by the recent developments to communication technology that have made internationally coordinated and meticulously planned terrorist attacks feasible. After all, Muhammad himself dedicated the majority of his life towards destroying the Jewish tribes in modern-day Saudi Arabia, to reclaim the holy cities. He is reputed to have wiped out the Qurayza tribe in Medina in 627AD and to have beheaded or enslaved the entire tribe. In that respect, Muhammad closely adhered to such clauses in the Qur’an as ‘So when you meet those who disbelieve, strike their necks until you have inflicted slaughter upon them’ (47: 4). The centuries after his death were also mired in violent wars between factions competing to be his official heir, which caused the Sunni-Shia split. And perhaps most relevantly, Islamist powerhouses like the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk caliphate that inhabited modern-day Egypt, the Seljuks, Safavids and Timurids all conquered swathes of land and formed great empires with Islamist political configurations to varying extents. Their conquests contributed to a rich narrative of conquest in the name of Islam, all in a bid to fulfil the political ideology of Sunni Islam in creating a caliphate governed by sharia.

At the time of the Ottomans, conquest was rather common, and I am certainly not suggesting that Muslims were the sole aggressors throughout history – Christians were just as responsible for horrible atrocities, as were the Mongols and Ming dynasty. I also know that many Muslims are critical of the historical violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, and are strongly in favour of peace; that is not the issue here. My point is merely that with such a patent historical legacy of conquest, there is clear and extensive precedent for a group of Muslims to seek territorial gains under the banner of the star and the crescent moon. A statistically negligible minority of Muslims derives inspiration in actual fact to reprise the feats of the Ottomans or of Muhammad himself; but precedent still exists, and so long as it does, then the historical narratives of Islam can be said to be permissive of coordinated violence.

  1. ISIS statements

If a causal link between Islamic beliefs and violent behaviour does exist in theory, as the above examination of the foundational texts and historical narratives of Islam seems to suggest, then the next question is whether Islamic extremists actually make the link in practice. That is to say, does ISIS profess to commit terrorist acts in furtherance of its Islamic precepts, or for other reasons?

Reza Aslan would have you believe that it is obvious to any reasonable Muslim that the Qur’an has a specific historical context, and that what was written in the Qur’an may have been suitable for that context, but not for contemporary society. In his 2005 book ‘No God but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam’, he writes,

‘The notion that historical context should play no role in the interpretation of the Quran – that what applied to Muhammad’s community applies to all Muslim communities for all time – is simply an untenable position in every sense.’

However, if you look at the statements that ISIS has made as to why they are carry out terrorist attacks, it would appear that not every Muslim is as reasonable as he would like. Consider the following statement, which was issued after the recent Paris attack, which killed 129 people:

‘A group of believers from the soldiers of the caliphate set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe: Paris. They divorced worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah’s sake…and his allies. Allah granted victory upon their hands and vast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.’

This statement appears to be an accurate reflection of the principles espoused in the Qur’an. They are destroying the infidels or ‘carriers of the cross’ in Paris, they are sacrificing their lives for God (recall 3:169, which states that ‘those who are slain in the name of God are…alive and well provided for by their Lord’), and they are blessed and supported by Allah (recall 3:89).

Also consider the following excerpt from a speech made by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, available here:

‘If you can kill an American or European infidel – especially the spiteful and cursed French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the infidel fighters, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon God, and kill them in any way possible. Do not consult with anyone and do not seek anyone’s advice. Whether they are civilian or military, the same ruling applies. Both of them are disbelievers. Both of them are fighters, so it is permitted to shed their blood and take their money.’

ISIS is clearly not justifying their aggression on any other geopolitical grievance. They do not blame the American exploitation of oil reserves in the Middle East, or their invasion of Iraq in 2003: they state that it is an act of jihad. Sure, one of the bombers in Paris supposedly cried out ‘This is for Syria’, but given that their statements before and after clearly articulated that their motive was religious and not political, surely we can assume that there was no collective political motive; rather, that particular bomber might have an individual political motive because he lost a family member in a Western airstrike, or is channelling his anti-market rage against the West. What is more likely, that the Charlie Hebdo killers chose to kill those particular cartoonists because they were discontent with the social services that the Hollande government had provided them, or because they wanted to seek revenge against the people who had deliberately and provocatively done what their faith prohibits, in depicting Muhammad? Even though I am sure a few ISIS members do have other motivations besides religious zeal, much of the testimony from former ISIS fighters suggests that religion is the sole motivating factor for their behaviour. Even if you do argue that the ISIS leaders are pragmatic puppet masters who use Islam to lure in gullible foot soldiers, then surely there is still something grievously wrong with an Islamic doctrine that so easily allows its subscribers to be manipulated into violence? And even if just one fighter was motivated by religious zeal, it must be subject to scrutiny and discussion, rather than being shelved in the name of religious sensitivity.

Even the Ladenese Epistle of 1996 (in which Osama bin Laden expressed his anger at American troops being stationed on supposedly holy Saudi Arabian land) was not the articulation of a negotiable demand that could be placated through a specific course of action. Rather, it was a fabrication of a legitimate claim to announce war against the West and carry out the 9/11 attacks, to appeal to borderline extremist Muslims needing that extra ounce of moral conviction. That is to say, if the US had removed troops from Saudi soil, forfeited all claims to Saudi oil and given them $2 billion as a gesture of good will, it would not have stopped the 9/11 attacks. His outcry against US presence in Saudi Arabia was unreasonable in a globalised world with international movement of people and resources, and it shows that Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam was incompatible with 21st century society. And given that his epistle is littered with Quranic references, such as ‘no power and power acquiring except through Allah’, it seems that the values the Qur’an literally espouses are inimical to globalisation, and that there are concrete historical examples of people interpreting the Qur’an in this violent way.

Reza Aslan, in his capacity as a theologian, and other tolerant liberals like Waleed Aly, who is Muslim, are so convinced from their own studies or personal experience that all religion is an inherently positive thing, that they ignore the clear possibility that one religion might be more conducive to violence and intolerance in the way it is constructed (i.e. its texts and narratives) than another. Aslan views religion as the constant, the unimpeachable medium by which to connect spiritually to the world around you, and views humans as varying in how and to what extent they believe in their religion. But doesn’t the way someone engages with a religion depend not only on his or her individual cognitive and emotional disposition, but also on the content and construction of the religion? What if a religion that consistently tells people they are allowed to cut off the hands of thieves (Qur’an 5:38) and strike the necks of disbelievers (47:4) is actually more likely to breed violent subscribers than other sets of beliefs?

After all, there is no such thing as militant vegetarianism, because there is no foundational text that provides the moral logic for vegetarians to kill carnivores or cut the hands off omnivores; there was no six-centuries-long empire of vegetarians conquering carnivores to provide inspiration. It might sound like a ludicrous comparison, but what is the difference between Islam and vegetarianism? Both sets of beliefs give rise to certain practices that affect your everyday life. Followers of both believe that their beliefs are moral and character improving, that their practices improve the world, and that their belief is a part of their identity. And neither belief gives any justification for killing other people. So any argument that Islam is a ‘bigger part of someone’s life’ or ‘a more central part of someone’s identity’ than vegetarianism is irrelevant, because believing you were created by the one true God who watches over you is not a violent idea in itself. It became violent in its construction: its early followers told believers that they were purer than other people and that they were entitled to conquer the lands of infidels. Construction is the only difference between Islam and vegetarianism. And so what reason is there to believe Reza Aslan when he avers that Islam has been warped by ISIS and al-Qaeda, and is not a true reflection of the faith, when ISIS are simply choosing to believe passages that are written in far too specific a fashion to admit only metaphorical interpretation, in the primary book that is meant to tell them how to be a Muslim?

  1. Polls and country case studies

So far, it has been established that 1) Islamic doctrine does condone violence, and that 2) terrorist groups have professed to commit their violent acts in accordance with this doctrine. It is now time to consider how much of the Muslim population of the world also give credence to passages in the Qur’an and Hadith that condone violence.

Reza Aslan claims that we should not paint Muslims with a single brush, and that religious extremism in some Islamic countries, like Saudi Arabia, is more reflective of the repressive politics of that individual country than of the inherent backwardness of Islam. In numerous interviews, he gives the examples of Indonesia, Turkey and Bangladesh as countries that have successfully reconciled democracy and Islam, and in which people live in freedom. However, this is a plausible lie. Under President Erdogan, Turkey has become much more Islamist: he has publicly stated that women are not equal to men and should aspire to be mothers (read a critique of that statement here), he has banned alcohol from city cafés, and has emphasised religious education in schools. In Bangladesh, five secular bloggers have been brutally murdered this year alone by Muslim extremists who took offense at their writing. This includes Avijit Roy, administrator for the blog Mukto-Mona (an Internet forum for freethinkers, rationalists, atheists and humanists), who was hacked to death by members of the Islamic militant organisation Ansarullah Bangla Team on February 26. In Indonesia in 2013, there were 220 cases of attacks on religious minorities. Moreover, in Nigeria, Somalia, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco and the Philippines, Muslim insurgent groups are active.

And so Reza Aslan disingenuously suggests that any majority Muslim country that is not in full-on civil war like Syria is a successful democracy, when simple facts suggest otherwise. Similarly, tolerant liberals claim that the fact the London bombers were British-Pakistani, whereas the 9/11 perpetrators were Yemeni, discounts there being some uniform jihadist impetus, and instead means that they were reacting to specific national grievances. But doesn’t it just suggest that the foundational texts of Islam permit the same violent conduct conclusions regardless of the differing political environments in which they are studied? Of course, once again this is not to say that a majority of Muslims are violent: it simply debunks the idea that only a few Muslim majority states are politically unstable, and that the instability arises independently of the fact they are predominantly Muslim. Rather, it goes to show that Islamic extremism by a minority of people occurs in the majority of Muslim countries.

As for poll results, I am wary of the fact that phrasing and sample size can drastically affect the results, and will try to be as balanced as possible. In a recent Pew Poll on the subject of ISIS, which surveyed 11 countries, it as found that 63 million people support ISIS, which accounted for 14% of those surveyed. In Pakistan, 28% view ISIS unfavourably, 62% aren’t sure, and 9% are in support; this compared to 14% support in Nigeria, 11% in Malaysia, 11% in Senegal and 0% in Lebanon. According to another poll, 47% of Bangladeshi Muslims say that suicide bombings and violence are ‘often or sometimes’ justified to ‘defend Islam’, but only 3% of Pakistani Muslims believe the same thing. Another 2015 poll suggests that 19% of Muslim-Americans say that violence is justified in order to make Sharia the law in the United States, while 66% disagree. 83% of Pakistanis support stoning adulterers, 78% support killing apostates (see poll here), and as of 2009, 81% of Egyptians, 76% of Pakistanis, 49% of Indonesians and 76% of Moroccans want strict sharia imposed in every country.

As you can see, these poll results vary considerably, and so I will not make too many inferences. However, it is reasonably uncontroversial to take from those results that if you assume that 0.0001% of Muslims are extremists (which is probably too high a figure), then of the 99.9999% of Muslims who do not engage in Salafi jihadism, a sizable proportion still support political Islam and many of the elements of sharia, like death for apostasy, that the Qur’an stipulates. This further debunks the idea that Islam itself is a peaceful or neutral religion that is warped and manipulated by a tiny majority: in fact, many Muslims can be peaceful but still interpret the violent or illiberal clauses in the Qur’an literally. Again, that is not to say that these people are not permitted to believe those things, or are somehow inferior for believing them, but it does puncture the argument that any theoretical causal link between the texts and narratives of Islam and the violent and illiberal beliefs and behaviours of Muslims does not exist in practice.

  1. Gun control

So far I have established that Islam is constructed in a way that more easily leads to violent interpretations than other ideologies, and that both terrorist groups and quite a few moderate Muslims do literally believe the principles established in the foundational texts. My final piece of analysis in discussing why tolerant liberals err in sparing Islamic ideas from critical scrutiny regards the gun control debate. Tolerant liberals like Waleed Aly and Barack Obama are strongly in favour of gun control, and they disagree with the argument that ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ Aly and Obama still favour gun control reform even though a majority of gun owners are peaceful, because they recognise that it only takes the extreme actions of a few to disproportionately threaten the public interest. Now, compare this to their attitude on Islam. The same people who refuse to accept the premise that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ are happy to believe that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’, and that ‘Islam is not inherently violent, people are violent’. In both cases, it is a tiny minority that use Islam and guns for violent ends, and both believing in God and possessing firearms are constitutionally provided rights (if you assume just for the sake of this argument that the 2nd amendment does in fact confer a right on civilians to bear arms). And yet Obama and Aly would have us criticising gun ownership using cogent, fact-based reasoning, and not even placing the lightest scrutiny on Islamic doctrine, or admit the causal link between Islamic beliefs and violent behaviour.

However, I am most definitely not suggesting that for the sake of moral and intellectual consistency, we should limit or ban religion just like we should limit gun ownership. But we do need a robust debate between intellectually honest liberals about what is causing religious extremism, and it is just not true that religion has absolutely no part in motivating ISIS. I am happy to concede that ISIS might be partially motivated by geopolitical or other concerns. But a fundamental part of their motivation, and the main mechanism by which they attract new recruits, is by referencing Islamic beliefs and doctrines without misrepresentation or exaggeration.

Closing critique

When ethno-nationalists like the Tamil Tigers make the news for using heinous forms of violence like suicide bombing against their opponents, we label them lunatics and reaffirm the concept that no one nation or their peoples has the right to feel or exert superiority over any other nation. Diasporas in every country of the world march in protest and the UN rearticulates the concepts of self-determination for minorities, a ‘right to culture’ under Article 27 of the ICCPR, and so on and so forth. And yet when religious fundamentalists like ISIS, or MILF in the Philippines, or Boko Haram in Nigeria, target infidels or Western tourists or children who receive a secular education, tolerant liberals immediately chastise anyone who suggests that they were acting in pursuance of the agenda laid out clearly before them not only in the foundational texts of Islam, but in the example set by historical Islamist powerhouses like the Ottoman Empire. Instead, we get articles from apologists telling us specifically not to question Islamic doctrines, lest we persecute Muslims further and push them towards ISIS. But in truth, these apologists are doing two things. Firstly, they are patronising all Muslims by portraying them as unstable, as on the edge of militant aggression, and as those we have to tiptoe around. They begin to be vilified even more strongly by bigots, and but also begin to be homogenised and spoken for by tolerant liberals. But secondly, they are implicitly roping off all criticism of religion as off limits, and threatening anyone who does with the title of bigot. Waleed is completely reasonable in calling for a little more love and a little less hate, but that should not come at the expense of critical thinking: we should not have to take any issue off the table as a legitimate topic for discussion, and particularly not Islam, if there is a belief on reasonable grounds that Islamic ideas are contributing to religious terrorism. We should be able to turn to our Muslim friends and show our respect and acknowledge that we are equal, but at the same time calmly, dispassionately and fairly discuss and examine the compatibility of their religious precepts with the society that we want to build – and not even necessarily a society in the narrow Western liberal democratic mould as envisaged in France or the United States by the likes of Jefferson, Paine and Rousseau. In that same way, our Muslim friends can question our vegetarianism or sense of nationalism or political views just as readily, if they reasonably believe that those views might be injurious to the public interest.

3. Critical liberals

Bigots and tolerant liberals dominate public discourse about ISIS and religious terrorism. However, there is a third group of ‘critical liberals’, who emerged in reaction to the attitudes of tolerant liberals. Fundamentally, critical liberals believe that liberals should not feel obliged to tolerate Islamic ideas for the sake of religious sensitivity. They believe that although Muslims are equal to all other people, Islamic beliefs have consequences that are necessarily illiberal and potentially violent – and so they tolerate the people, but not the ideas. Sam Harris, a prominent critical liberal, explains that in the same way that someone criticising Communism in the 1970s did not necessarily hate all Chinese or Russian people, someone criticising Islamic ideas is not necessarily Islamophobic. And yet because this distinction between people and ideas is so subtle, tolerant liberals often accuse critical liberals of being bigoted or Islamophobic.

I have already provided most of the content of the critical liberal standpoint in my critique of tolerant liberals. It can be summarised in the following points:

  1. The doctrines and historical narratives of Islam are conducive to intolerance and violence. In other words, Islam is different to Islamism and jihadism, but Islam facilitates Islamism and jihadism.
  2. While very few Muslims are jihadists, a sizable proportion of Muslims are in fact Islamists and take the laws for blasphemy, apostasy and martyrdom seriously.
  3. Tolerant liberals have ignored these facts, and have prioritised appeasement and unity with the Muslim community over critical discussion about whether Islamic precepts might be contributing to religious terrorism. This amounts to a repudiation of the liberal value of critical thinking.
  4. Critical liberals demand intellectual honesty on the subject from moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so that moderate Muslims can reform the faith to de-emphasise violence and make it more compatible with 21st century global values.

What preconceptions do they have?

It is important to consider that although Sam Harris and other critical liberals claim to be motivated by a pursuit for truth via the application of reason, they are also prone to subconscious biases that inform what and how they argue. In the same way that most tolerant liberals view religion as a positive or neutral phenomenon, most critical liberals are atheists who believe that religion is generally incompatible with the values of a secular liberal society.

They give four main pieces of evidence to this end:

  1. Religion preys on weakness

Religion aims to keep you weak. It continually tells you that you are the subject of a supremely powerful Being, to whom you owe your existence and the fruits of your labour. It provides strict guidelines for what constitutes sin, so that people cannot help but breach it and feel guilty, thereby making them feel even more indebted to God. Even in success, it tries to keep people down, instilling a kind of imposter complex that causes you to defer your talents to some God. For example, Jarryd Hayne thanked God for making the 49ers roster rather than thanking his coaches, trainers and himself for helping him achieve the requisite skill and fitness levels. Mother Teresa, who often said that suffering is a gift from God, also shows how the main way religion spreads is through fear and weakness: when people have nothing to lose, fear death and need consolation, they turn to God. The debt they then feel like they owe God can prompt them to do the most desperate things in his name, even without religious doctrines that encourage violence.

  1. Religion imbues people with sense of superiority

Any religion is necessarily exclusive: it provides a complete and indisputable explanation for the ways of the world. This means that a subscriber to that religion will always believe to some extent that those who do not believe are inferior, either spiritually or intellectually. They derive moral direction from their often-conservative scriptures, and look disapprovingly at those who do not conduct their lives within the same rigid moral boundaries. This sense of chauvinism can make religious people feel like they are unconstrained by secular laws and engaged in a Manichaean struggle of good against evil, justifying any violent measure in the name of cleansing the world of the inferior.

  1. Religion’s specific tenets are often incompatible with liberal democratic society

There are a host of religious laws that contravene the simplest of human rights and liberal values:

  • Tolerant liberals often argue that wearing a burqa is a matter of choice for Muslim women, and that we should not impose our Western sartorial standards on other cultures we might not understand. However, doesn’t wearing a burqa, the rationale behind which in Islamic culture is to instil modesty into women and prevent them from entertaining the animal impulses of men, perpetuate the victim-shaming rape culture? Doesn’t that remove moral culpability from men, who are assumed to be sexually deviant, and blame any rape on a women’s failure to be modest? And more generally, gender inequality is entrenched in the Qur’an, in passages like (4:11): ‘A male shall inherit twice as much as a female. If there be more than two girls, they shall have two-thirds of the inheritance, but if there be one only, she shall inherit the half.’ So is it really a surprise that Erdogan sees a limited role in society for women when the tenets of his faith advocate the same thing?
  • The punishment for apostasy from Islam is death. That is, a person can merely change the way they think and be punished by death. Its occurrence in Saudi Arabia this year, and on orders by the government no less, shows that it continues to be practised.
  • The punishment for adultery, which flourishes in Western liberal societies, is punishable by death for stoning, which happened in Pakistan last year. Any cultural relativist argument – i.e. that Pakistan simply has different moral standards that we should not judge – is condescending, since there are certainly common human rights standards that any person would agree upon, and being pummelled to death by rocks for marrying someone you love is so devoid of human dignity that it has no place anywhere. Moreover, even if the punishment was acceptable, there was no due process or presumption of innocence.
  • The idea that anyone who criticises a religion or depicts Muhammad (exercising freedom of speech in the process) is contravening freedom of religion is fallacious. As Sam Harris says, nothing I could say impinges upon someone else’s right to practise a religion. And so killing someone for exercising freedom of speech, as happened with Charlie Hebdo and to 5 Bangladeshi bloggers this year, is fundamentally illiberal.
  • Christians demand that pseudo-science such as intelligent design be taught in schools despite having no basis in fact, and that homosexuals not be depicted favourably in school curriculums.
  • All religions aim to convert and impose their laws on the rest of the world, but any state that manages this is a theocracy that contravenes the secular principle of separation of church and state. Furthermore, the concept of a global caliphate is incompatible with ideas of national sovereignty and globalisation.
  1. Religion breaks social contract theory

Religions do not have the same responsibility to the state as regular citizens do. One quite tangible example of this is the fact they receive tax exemptions. But more generally, Tocqueville warned that for democracy to be successful, it requires an inquisitive, politically conscious and educated electorate that is not afraid to question things. However, religion tells people what to think and encourages educational and political stagnation amongst its adherents. And so even if a religion does not come to officially infiltrate the state apparatus as it desires, it can create a sector of people who prioritise the interests of their fellow believers over the interests of the entire community, and are unwilling to compromise.

Are there any logical flaws in critical liberal arguments?

I explained before that tolerant liberals are not intellectually honest because they secretly envisage religion playing a strong part in society. As a result, they are unwilling to apply a critical lens onto religion at all, as if even trying to improve the values that a religion advocates is somehow bigoted. Instead, they try to find other motives for religious terrorism, such as geopolitical concerns, or they try to distance religious terrorism from the base doctrines of that religion.

But in a similar vein, Sam Harris’ argument is limited by the fact that he desires a world without religion. As a result, he is blind (or at least far less willing to recognise) any non-religious motivation that groups like ISIS and Boko Haram might have. After all, it is definitely true that ISIS is not reflective of most Muslims, that it is making the most of a power vacuum in Syria and Iraq, and is profiting from selling oil to Turkey. In that respect, Harris is also being clouded by his preconceptions and is not giving due consideration to the complex nature of human intention. However, I tend to think he is not arguing in absolutist terms that religious zeal is the be-all and end-all of ISIS’ motivation. He is simply stressing that religion is an operating and substantial motivating factor, and that moderate Muslims and tolerant liberals cannot continue to deny that ISIS is a direct result of belief in Islamic doctrines, and that their motivation is substantially religious. Human intention is complex; and so where tolerant liberals place no emphasis on ISIS’ religious intention, critical liberals tend to overlook non-religious intention.

Media clashes between liberals

  1. Ben Affleck vs. Sam Harris

Late last year on Real Time with Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris had an argument on the very topic of ISIS and the causes of religious terrorism (available here).

On the one hand, Harris argued:

‘Liberals have failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticise white theocracy and Christians, but when you talk about the treatment of homosexuals and women and intellectuals in the Muslim world, we have failed. Every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.’

Discounting Affleck’s misguided interruption, in which he asked Sam Harris, who has clearly studied the Qur’an in depth, whether he ‘understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam’, he then responded by giving the following characterisation:

‘How about the more than a billion Muslims who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who go to school?’

This is a common tolerant liberal statement, and deserves to be unpacked more substantially than Bill Maher did. Firstly, that statement is not strictly true in the first place, as per the poll results referenced earlier. There are not 1 billion jihadists, certainly, but a substantial amount of Muslims hold beliefs that we would consider to be inimical to the values of liberal democracy.

Secondly, even if it were true, the fact that very few Muslims are violent happens in spite of Islamic doctrine, not because of it. As I analysed earlier, Islamic doctrine, when assessed objectively, condones the use of violence in the name of Allah; and furthermore, ISIS and other religious terrorist organisations profess to be acting within the directions clearly stipulated in these doctrines. Therefore, rather than those who are extremist being the outliers who warp Islam, it seems that moderate Muslims are the ones who do not interpret Islam the way it was intended to be interpreted. This is obviously not a bad thing, but it does raise the question: if you start to doubt the morality of some parts of the religious doctrine to which you subscribe, does that not completely undermine the supposedly infallible nature of the doctrine? And if you pick and choose parts to believe, surely you are no longer accurately reflecting the values of that religion, but rather honing your own set of moral values? And so doesn’t that mean that any Muslim who does not cut the hand off thieves, and any Catholic who uses contraception or has sex before marriage is in fact determining what is moral without the aid of religion, even though it is commonly argued by zealots that morality is impossible without religion to guide you?

And thirdly, even if extremists were distorting the doctrines of Islam, surely it should be in the interests of all moderate Muslims to reform the doctrines of their faith to ensure that no one can perpetrate terrorist acts under the moral justification that they are acting in the name of God?

Ben Affleck labels Harris a bigot and Islamophobic because, as Harris says, he ‘conflates criticism of the doctrine of Islam (which is no different to criticising capitalism or militarisation) with bigotry towards Muslims as people.’ Affleck’s feckless apologetics remind us that we should not merely assume a position in blind obeisance to left-wing ideology. This issue is not a simple matter of bigot vs. progressive, and that is why you must not take preconceptions into the argument, but rather derive a defensible conclusion from the available facts.

  1. Sam Harris vs. Reza Aslan

Many tolerant liberals idolise Reza Aslan as champion of tolerance and liberalism in one particular video where he calls out Fox News anchors for being Islamophobic. I wish firstly to critique Aslan’s arguments myself, and secondly to provide Harris’ own response.

Aslan makes a few key statements as part of his argument that Islam is not a religion of violence, but merely a neutral religion manipulated by violent people and opportunistic tyrants in certain states. These are:

  1. ‘Muslim majority countries have elected seven women as heads of state – how many have we in America elected?’
  2. ‘It might not be [a free and open society for women] in Iran or Saudi Arabia, it is in Indonesia and Malaysia, in Bangladesh, in Turkey.’
  3. ‘We should not paint all Muslim countries with a single brush – [the political repression in Saudi Arabia] is not representative of Islam, it’s representative of Saudi Arabia.’
  4. ‘If you’re a violent person, your Islam or Hinduism is going to be violent. There are riotous Buddhists murdering women and children in Myanmar.’

All four statements are misleading and problematic. Firstly, the fact that a country has elected a woman or minority leader does not magically make it a bastion of equality and tolerance. By that logic, the events of Ferguson and Baltimore should never have happened because Barack Obama was President. Secondly, the statement that it is a free and open society for women in Turkey and Bangladesh is just a lie: I have already explained how Erdogan sees no role for women other than as mothers, and in Bangladesh 87% of Muslim women are abused by their husbands in some form (although beware that the source for this statistic is a bigoted website, so it could well be inaccurate). Thirdly, it is again disingenuous to claim that Saudi Arabia’s repression is not linked to Islam at all, given that it is a theocratic state governed by sharia, the set of laws that the Qur’an explicitly advocates! Just this year an apostate was sentenced to death by an official court in Saudi Arabia: tell me with a straight face that Islam had nothing to do with that court ruling. He also confuses correlation and causation: just because a Muslim majority country is democratic does not mean that it is democratic and liberal because it is Muslim-majority. Ironically, if anything, the only reason some Muslim majority countries like Indonesia are freer is because they specifically do not have political Islam. And lastly, Aslan’s fourth statement is a truism: violent people are obviously going to be violent regardless of their beliefs. But that does not rebut the idea that some religions permit violence more readily than others: and the Qur’an, replete with passages about conquest and killing infidels, is more permissive of violence than the Dhammapada.

Harris issued the following response, which puts the issue to bed:

‘Muslim extremists do not distort or exaggerate Islamic ideas – they resort to the most literal and comprehensive interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith. What is ISIS doing that Muhammad did not do or advocate? That is a body blow to political correctness that just has to land.’

  1. CJ Werleman article

The last example I wish to dissect very briefly is this article published in Salon last year by Australian-born atheist CJ Werleman, who has seemingly made a career in Sam Harris-bashing. His article is indignant and rather arrogant, and so I will gladly rebut him with commensurate disrespect. He makes the following statements:

‘We’ve spent the last half century waging and funding wars in the Middle East, playing one side off against the other, stoking ethnic rivalries, and arming regimes that inflict economic oppression upon their people.’

True, but that geopolitical motivation is not mutually exclusive with religious motivation. Funnily enough, the US has both an exploitative and hawkish neo-liberal agenda and is full of infidels within the meaning of the Qur’an. Werleman is just using a bunch of true statements to then assert a causal link between those motivations and terrorism, even though ISIS’ statements do not once mention economic oppression or the Western intervention into Iraq as reasons for their attacks. Has ISIS told Werleman something we haven’t been told, or is he just drawing conclusions to fit his preconceived view and ignoring any piece of evidence that disputes that?

‘The 17 Saudi 9/11 hijackers made their intent clear; they wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia.’

Even if we indulged his assertion that the 9/11 attackers had a ‘clear intent’ to force the US out of Saudi Arabia, Werleman is using selective emphasis to his devious advantage. Osama bin Laden’s own writing confirms that the substance of their objection was on  the religious, not geopolitical, basis that they considered it sacrilegious for infidels to be present on Holy Land.

‘The belief that Islam is the root of terrorism doesn’t explain how Western-targeted terrorism coincides with the period post oil being discovered in the Middle East during the 1930-’60s and the establishment of the Jewish state on Arab Palestinian land.’

Another specious argument – using Werleman’s own generous 30-year incubation period from 1930 – 1960, we could speculate with equal conviction that the emergence of Western-targeted terrorism coincided with developments to communication technology and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, which previously held all the Holy Lands and most of the Middle East under the one Sunni caliphate, causing a power vacuum upon which two religious groups with competing divine claims on that land (Palestine and Israel) sought to capitalise. So if Zionists and Palestinians did indeed ‘get along’ before Western presence in the region, it was only because there were far fewer Jews in the region before WW2, and because the Ottoman caliphate enforced peace on everyone! Unlike Werleman, however, I don’t intend to stick fastidiously to that characterisation of the causes of ISIS – I’m humble enough to acknowledge my limits. The pertinent conclusion  is that Werleman positing a plausible alternative cause to terrorism doesn’t automatically invalidate other arguments for its proliferation.

‘[Harris] ignores how our arms for oil strategy has created a permanent majority economic underclass in countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iraq—which creates an environment for the criminal class to thrive. It’s from the criminal class that groups like ISIS draw their support.’

Werleman is trying to depict terrorism as the sigh of the oppressed, as if it is understandable and natural for poor people to respond to their lives of squalor by attacking the offices of cartoonists or Paris nightclubs. But in truth, the idea that terrorists are all poor is as believable as it is roundly false. Most of the 9/11 bombers were university-educated men from middle class families. Moreover, many studies on al-Qaeda and religious terrorist groups, including Mousseau’s ‘Market Civilisation and its Clash with Terror’, have posited that religious terrorism is the mechanism through which rich disenfranchised patrons of clientelist economies (i.e. economies based on networks between kinship groups) direct their anti-market rage towards the West, as retaliation for replacing their close-knit economic networks with market economic systems that favour actors who contract with those they do not know, not just those who are in their kinship group. Mousseau stressed that religion was the mechanism that reconnects these patrons to their clients, and that provides the moral justification to these ousted patrons to express their alienation through violence on a major scale. That is an example of a theory that takes into account the complexity of human intention as simultaneously religious and non-religious: why then can’t Werleman concede that religion might have influenced even a single ISIS fighter?

‘Painting ISIS as motivated primarily by religious fanaticism, rather than tribal territorial goals (self-determination) gives political cover for military hawks to execute a military solution over a diplomatic one.’

Werleman seems to suggest that ISIS would be receptive to diplomatic approaches once they simply acquire the land they desire. Has there been the slightest inkling, however, that these militants only desire a finite area of land? He is naïve enough to think they will just stop and cut a deal with the rest of the world when they are satisfied, when every single indication suggests that their goals are unreasonable, incompatible with the concept of national sovereignty, and not amenable to diplomatic resolution.

What is the way forward?

Bigots say that all Muslims are violent because they hold prejudices against them. Tolerant liberals say that to counter the bigotry directed at Muslims, we should show support to Muslims and not tolerate any criticism of their beliefs, lest it alienate them further. And critical liberals say that Muslims are not violent as people, but there is a direct causal link between their beliefs and terrorism, a link that ISIS is acting upon.

Of the three standpoints, there is no doubt that critical liberals are the most intellectually honest. But intellectual honesty is not always useful in a world governed by emotions and full of people without the requisite level of education to be intellectually honest. Theoretically speaking, there is no need to reconcile critical thinking and tolerance, because you can tolerate a person but apply critical thinking on their beliefs and behaviours at the same time. But practically speaking, criticising Islamic beliefs at such a precarious point in time does give credibility to the arguments of bigots, who just want to lambaste Islam for their own prejudicial ends. The fact of the matter is, not everyone is rational enough to differentiate between tolerating people and tolerating ideas, and some Muslims will inevitably interpret criticism of their beliefs as criticism of their identity and their community. And given that religion will persist until we no longer fear death or suffer inequality, it does not seem worth alienating Muslims right now and risking larger schisms just for the sake of intellectual consistency.

Therefore, the most practical option appears to be this: we preach unity and tolerance of Muslim people and their ideas until ISIS is destroyed, ever mindful of the part religion does play in motivating these terrorists, and then we have earnest and respectful discussions, in which moderate Muslim leaders will play an instrumental part, about how to minimise the violent aspects to Islamic doctrines and narratives. Sam Harris calls for a ‘reformation’ of Islam, but I do not believe there is much room for reform per se: after all, you can hardly rewrite the Qur’an. No, the solution will be some combination of education and connection, in order to make Islamic doctrine more liberal democracy-friendly. Education will be vital in teaching young Muslims that their beliefs give them no right to think themselves superior to anyone else, and that liberal democratic values are just as important as the precepts of the Qur’an. This will help them recognise that they have responsibilities both to God and to their fellow humans. But perhaps more importantly, young Muslims require connection. I stated earlier that religion becomes a safety net in times of desperation, and so people with nothing are much more likely to hitch their wagon to the more desperate elements of religious doctrine in order to get back ahead. Therefore, an inclusive socio-political environment with a generous immigration policy, adequate social services, strong legislative protections for racial and gender equality and an engaging education system with clear pathways to employment are all essential components of a society without extremism. In Audrey Kurth Cronin’s words, stopping religious terrorism requires both stopping the hyper-religious motivation of small groups (as Sam Harris argues), but also stopping the ‘enabling environment of bad governance, non-existent social services and poverty that allows discontent to fester’ (as Reza Aslan argues).

Of course, terrorism and extremism will continue in some form or another regardless of the success of that moderation of Islam. But we have to leave religious zealots no room to justify their actions under religious doctrine. To do that, we have to ensure that Islamic doctrines and narratives no longer condone violence explicitly or implicitly, but also that Western societies no longer view Muslims as the ‘Other’, to be demonised, homogenised and viewed with suspicion. Of course there is nothing wrong with the young woman who goes to the mosque with her family, prays five times a day, studies at her local university and has a close circle of friends. But we must ensure that that is the model Muslim in the Islamic metanarrative, and not the noble jihadi imposing the word of God onto unrighteous infidels.

Further reading:

Graeme Wood, ‘What ISIS Really Wants.’ The Atlantic, March 2015, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group.’ Foreign Affairs, March 2015, available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/isis-not-terrorist-group


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