What We're Up Against

This past week, the Times ran a story about the extent of the gains made by the reconstituted Taliban, not just in Afghanistan or in the semi-autonomous tribal regions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but well within Pakistan itself:

Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed “un-Islamic” activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.

The Taliban are now the de facto rulers of the Swat Valley, a chunk of territory the size of Delaware that’s just a hundred miles outside Pakistan’s capitol Islamabad. Every night, they terrify villagers with radio broadcasts announcing who will be killed that night – from policemen to dancing girls – and more often than not, the bodies of those named are dumped in the public square the next morning.

For atheists, this is the endgame. This is what we’re up against. All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy – whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls’ schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition. Violence is all they know and the only method they ever consider. And if they had their way, they’d plunge all the world into the dark age they’ve imposed in miniature in Swat, into perpetual stagnation, fear, and brutality. That is their utopia, their vision for the future of humankind.

One wonders, how many people would they be willing to murder to realize this goal? Would there ever come a time when the slaughter would exhaust even their thirst for bloodshed and force them to conclude that imposing uniformity through violence is futile? Or would they willingly continue shooting and slitting throats until every last spark of independent thought was stamped out from the world – and if so, would they then turn their knives on each other?

But if this story starkly outlines the danger we face and the evil that religious extremists have wrought, it also hints at how we could triumph over them:

“The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib,” said Mr. Naveed Khan, the police official. “But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan.”

For all their cruelty and brutality, they are not invulnerable. They do not command the allegiance of the majority, nor will they ever. They can only succeed by keeping all their slaves terrorized, so that they’re too afraid for their own lives to band together and rise up in unison. If all the people of Swat decided as one to fight back, the Taliban wouldn’t stand a chance against them.

Of course, the opposite is true as well: if the people of Pakistan do not unite to stand up against them (and if the army continues to turn a blind eye, as it has so far been doing), the Taliban will continue to make gains, until in time they might threaten the government itself. Needless to say, in a nuclear-armed state, that would be a catastrophe too horrible to imagine. Only the cold logic of mutually assured destruction kept the Cold War from erupting into a nuclear exchange; if one side in such a standoff was a horde of death-welcoming religious fanatics, as the Taliban are, that slender reed of safety would likely not hold. It’s the moral duty of all nations, the people of Pakistan first and foremost, to fight back against these monsters and ensure that that nightmare scenario never comes to pass.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Kevin Morgan

    For atheists, this is the endgame. This is what we’re up against. All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy -

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Whenever I hear people like this, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or other extremists, spewing forth their garbage I feel that cold paralysis come over me, much like how one freezes before a cliff so as not to fall off. My instincts are usually good about detecting who can be reasoned with and who isn’t worth the effort. Extremists of any kind are a scary lot.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/2009/01/22/besides-hope-for-the-future-i-think-i-just-had-a-geekgasm/ Pedro Timóteo

    And the hope-draining part is, of course, that most theists would be appalled at actions such as the Taliban’s… up to the moment where they’re told that they’re done in the name of faith, religion, God. In an instant, their condemnation for those atrocities just stops, right there.

    Cue Sam Harris’ very true “moderates are at least as bad because they protect the extremists” statement. :(

  • terrence

    Prior to reading this, I was a little bit stuck. Sawing off heads on video or waterboarding, which worse? Tough one. Blowing out womens’ brains in a soccer stadium or sleep deprivation? Hard to say. Thanks for reminding us in such clear and unequivocal terms who the bad guys really are. The comic Denis O’Leary has suggested springing Michael Vick from jail and instead having him sprint endzone to endzone clad in a meat suit in a stadium filled with starving Dobermans. I think this would be a lovely application for captured Taliban as well, especially considering their view on man’s best friend.

  • Michael Manning

    Sorry to say this but it was the Bush Administration that took the eye off the ball and invaded Iraq instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan and eliminating the Taliban as well as bin Laden and al Qaeda. If President Obama is sincere in his renewed effort to help Afghanistan he will also commit the resources to reconstruct the country and provide security from the warlords that thrive when the Taliban disappear.

  • http://goddesscassandra.blogspot.com Antigone

    There is no good guys, or bad guys. This isn’t “Well, they’re horrible, so we’re allowed to do X, which is not as bad as them”. We lose our own humanity when we do things like waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

    Saying that they are terrible doesn’t mean we get to be bad.

  • prase

    They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics…

    They are not nihilistic. A nihilist has no values, no morals. In fact, they are the opposite extreme. I wouldn’t suggest to use the word nihilist the same way how many believers use the word atheist (in sense “wicked and evil person”), it has a different meaning. Otherwise, I have to agree completely that Taliban’s rule is the most extreme sort of theocracy that could be imagined.

    @Pedro Timóteo:

    Cue Sam Harris’ very true “moderates are at least as bad because they protect the extremists” statement.

    Seems to me very false. It reminds me a fascist motto “White Jew is worse than an ordinary Jew because he is not a Jew, but helps him.” Maybe I am a bit biased in this, but I still much prefer living among moderates than among extremists. An practically, all or nothing strategies don’t usually work.

    @Antigone:

    There is no good guys, or bad guys. … We lose our own humanity when we do things like waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

    This is quite close to saying that everybody is right, isn’t it? Some guys are considerably bad and from time to time it happens that one needs to fight them. By the way, nobody is advocating waterboarding here (I hope terrence’s comment was a satire).

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/2009/01/22/besides-hope-for-the-future-i-think-i-just-had-a-geekgasm/ Pedro Timóteo

    Seems to me very false. It reminds me a fascist motto “White Jew is worse than an ordinary Jew because he is not a Jew, but helps him.” Maybe I am a bit biased in this, but I still much prefer living among moderates than among extremists. An practically, all or nothing strategies don’t usually work.

    Of course I’d rather live among moderates as well. :) Harris’ point here is that, while the fundies want to maim and kill us, the moderates say that we can’t criticize the fundies for that, since “it’s their religion”, and religion (of any kind, apparently) is, according to them, above criticism.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    prase,
    There’s a difference between being silent when injustice is done (a la many religious moderates) and doing something to correct injustice (a la those who helped the Jews). Simply because the sayings look similar doesn’t mean that the sitations are the same.

  • Motherbatherick

    There is no good guys, or bad guys. This isn’t “Well, they’re horrible, so we’re allowed to do X, which is not as bad as them”. We lose our own humanity when we do things like waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

    Saying that they are terrible doesn’t mean we get to be bad.

    I am reminded by this of Francis Bacon who stated, “We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do . For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil. For without this, virtue lieth open and unfenced. Nay, an honest man can do no good upon those that are wicked, to reclaim them, without the help of the knowledge of evil.”

  • http://www.currion.net Paul C

    Unless you’re Pakistani – and more specifically a Swat Pathan – in what way are you up against this? I’m not sure that your interpretation of the Taliban is particularly realistic, and it seems likely to me that the people of Swat would be more likely to see you (as an atheist) as more dangerous than the Taliban.

  • Alex Weaver

    Unless you’re Pakistani – and more specifically a Swat Pathan – in what way are you up against this?

    Aside from the observation that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” did you miss the part about them aggressively expanding their influence and resources and potentially becoming strong enough to overthrow and replace the government of a state with a nuclear arsenal?

  • RollingStone

    All that Francis Bacon is saying, in my interpretation, is that in order to combat evil you must understand the way it works. He’s not saying that you have to do it yourself.

    I totally agree with Antigone’s statement that “Saying that they are terrible doesn’t mean we get to be bad.” Even if we are talking about behavior that any reasonable person would agree is terrible, that is still no excuse.

  • Alex Weaver

    Oh, incidentally, everyone keep in mind that these are the people the Wingnuts are trying to protect with their sudden embrace of respecting foreign nations’ sovereignty in response to Obama’s stated unwillingness to let hypothetical cold feet from the Pakistani government stop him from taking out Bin Laden or his allies.

  • Christopher

    They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy –

    Three things:

    1. They are not “amoral” – they do have their own system of “morality,” but it runs contrary to yours. You may find what they do “immoral” according to your value system, but other value systems judge them as being the very definition of what it means to be “moral.”

    2. They are not nihilistic – they want to re-establish the social order with themselves at the top of the hierarchy as the enforcers of the will of “god.” No intellectually honest Nihilist (like myself) would do such a thing. I have no problem with you critizing Nihilism, but for fucks sake don’t associate us with those filthy, “god”-fearing, herd-following fools!

    3. They do seek to create something – a theocracy in the name of their “god,” and the destruction they bring on their opponents are merely means to that end. You may not like what it is they strive to create (I sure as fuck don’t), but you can’t honestly say that they aren’t creating something.

  • prase

    OMGF,

    There’s a difference between being silent when injustice is done and doing something to correct injustice

    Of course there is. There is also a difference between commiting injustice and being silent. My point was that it seems to me like an extremist position when you equate all your opponents, no matter how radical they are.

  • Alex Weaver

    There is not, however, a difference between being silent when injustice is done, and aiding and abetting injustice.

  • Polly

    I agree with how awful they are. I don’t know what to do about it. What I’m pretty sure we should NOT do about it, is continue the cycle of violence. That will turn out to be completely counterproductive. The more we bomb and destroy villages, the more “extremists” we create – coincidence?

    “Casualties of war” doesn’t mean anything to the people on the receiving end. They, understandably, do not understand.

    If some cowardly asshole dropped a bomb on my home from 50,000ft. killing my wife and kids, I’d join the nearest militia looking for payback, too – to hell with the supposed ideals of the bomber.

    I’ll say it again, I DO NOT SUPPORT OUR WARS AND I DO NOT SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. We could just as easily spend those billions building hospitals and schools to “win hearts and minds” rather than on bombs and propaganda.

    Obama hasn’t been in office for hardly a week and already he’s blowing up civillians and violating Pakistan’s sovereignty, a friend of the US in the “War of Terror.”

    I can’t wait for the honeymoon to be over and people to see politicians – of all hues – for what they really are.

  • Christopher

    I can’t wait for the honeymoon to be over and people to see politicians – of all hues – for what they really are.

    I second those sentiments – only when people realize how politicians pull their strings to serve their own purposes will they be able to turn aganst them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Saying that they are terrible doesn’t mean we get to be bad.

    I fully agree with Antigone, here. We, unlike the Taliban, are bound by laws requiring us to respect human rights – even when the rights are those of our enemies, and even when those enemies don’t respect those rights themselves. That is not a weakness of our side, but a strength. When we abide by that principle, we stand on the moral high ground. And that is no small advantage in a battle against a poisonous, destructive ideology like Islamism, which can ultimately be defeated only by the strength of our ideas, not by the size of our guns. When we prove that we’re better than them, we delegitimize the enemy in the eyes of the world and of their people and undercut their support.

    Granted, the Taliban have committed monstrous cruelties, and as a matter of justice I wouldn’t object to seeing them suffer in an amount equal to the suffering they’ve inflicted on others. But as a matter of morality, we can’t do that. The next best thing is to defeat them and then punish them humanely, which achieves the same goal without degrading and brutalizing our own fighting men and women by turning them into agents of inhumanity.

  • abusedbypenguins

    The muslem culture spread over the planet and taken as a whole, what,exactly have they contributed the the rest of human culture? Say for the past 300 years when they are compared to European culture, American culture even the former soviet union tried to contribute something but it backfired. All I see is hate for everything that is not them, which of cource, is all of us. The worst part is that they are using all of the technology that was developed by everyone that is not part of their culture to try and exterminate us. If it wasn’t real is would be a bad scifi movie but the sad part is that it is very real. What are we to do?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Before the latest 300 years though, Muslims did contribute to science, mathematics, etc. It’s a shame that they’ve regressed.

  • terrence

    The problem with Ebon’s last (11:55) is that unlike all previous wars, Patton’s dictum of “making the other SOB die for HIS country” does not apply against this enemy – their whole goal is “martyrdom.” So perhaps the best “humane punishment” would be a ban on executions and a guarantee of lifetime imprisonment.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the pirate

    …their whole goal is “martyrdom.” So perhaps the best “humane punishment” would be a ban on executions and a guarantee of lifetime imprisonment.

    Of course, it is never the head of the organizations who are in a hurry to go and join Allah at the big martyrdom party. Normally after another Number 2 is killed his buddies comment on how wonderful it is that that guy over there has now benn martyred. They remaining idiots manage to sit in their caves and send out more troops to strap on bombs and kill folks in the markets and hotels. So threatening them with sitting in Guantanamo (which plenty of people want to shut down so where do we keep this human refuse) isn’t really such a bad thing for them. They may even get out some day and return to their jihading ways (don’t say it hasn’t happened).

    Putting a predator missile through their torso reduces the risks to me and you and I doubt it really hurts the psyches of the airmen pushing the buttons all that much. And if Mr. Splattered-all-over-the-walls-terrorist wanted it that way, then happy to oblige.

  • Jim Baerg

    In the case of terrorists who commit their crimes in the name of Islam, I keep thinking there would be an element of poetic justice if they were imprisoned, but given only food that was fine by any rational standard but very definitely *not* Halal.

    Thoughts on whether this would do more harm than good on the PR front?

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    It would certainly do more harm than good to our standing with the rest of the world.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    It would certainly do more harm than good to our standing with the rest of the world.

    and we’d never do it. Kill them, torture them, imprison them without trial yes, but violate their religious sensibilities? never!!

  • Staceyjw

    Steve-
    NO KIDDING- we can brutally kill the same people that we would never dare to serve non-religiously approved food? What a joke! I have no problem insulting the religious sensibilities of ANY terrorist (or anyone else, truthfully). The only reason not to do it more often is that its likely to make the religious person MORE harsh in their beliefs. Better to ignore any religious implications, rather than purposely aggravate them- you don’t create martyrs this way.

    Stacey

  • http://www.brucealderman.info/blog/ BruceA

    Pedro -

    Cue Sam Harris’ very true “moderates are at least as bad because they protect the extremists” statement. :(

    I don’t think that’s true. I could name several religious moderates who have stood their ground against extremists: from Martin Luther King to Kay Hagan, from Barry Lynn (Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) to the plaintiffs in the Dover “intelligent design” trial (many of whom are practicing Christians) to Muslims Speak Out, an advocacy group of Muslims speaking out against Muslim extremism. And don’t forget Barack Obama, who has publicly said he wants all Americans — including atheists and agnostics — to be welcome in the public arena.

    But if the perception exists that religious moderates don’t speak up, then perhaps it’s necessary for moderates to speak louder. It isn’t off-limits for moderates to criticize others for their religion, especially if the practice of that religion violates other people’s rights. As a religious moderate, I’ll take this as a personal challenge: I’m going to make a greater effort, this year and beyond, to speak out against fundamentalist extremism.

  • http://www.wayofthemind.org/2009/01/22/besides-hope-for-the-future-i-think-i-just-had-a-geekgasm/ Pedro Timóteo

    They are not nihilistic – they want to re-establish the social order with themselves at the top of the hierarchy as the enforcers of the will of “god.”

    “They don’t want to destroy — they just want to create a wasteland.”
    :)

  • http://www.currion.net Paul C

    Aside from the observation that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” did you miss the part about them aggressively expanding their influence and resources and potentially becoming strong enough to overthrow and replace the government of a state with a nuclear arsenal?

    I didn’t miss it, no. However I don’t think a failed state with a nuclear arsenal in the hands of poorly-educated muslim fundamentalists is a particular problem for atheists – I tend to see it more as a problem for everybody, don’t you?

    As for “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” – well, I just don’t believe that to be true.

  • Christopher

    “They don’t want to destroy — they just want to create a wasteland.”
    :)

    Where you and I see a wasteland, another may see an oasis for his mores and values (as ridiculous as they are) – even acts of destruction create something, just as acts of creation destroy something to make room for the newly created thing.

  • windy

    I fully agree with Antigone, here. We, unlike the Taliban, are bound by laws requiring us to respect human rights

    If ‘we’= Western atheists, how much is this commitment worth if our governments continue to kill those same civilians the Taliban threatens? How is that respecting human rights? I agree with Polly’s post and I think the original post seems rather tone deaf in light of the continuing drone strikes in Pakistan.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Update: In a horrendous act of cowardice, the Pakistan government has caved in to the Taliban and announced that Sharia will henceforth be the law of the land in Swat.

    This was a terrible decision, not just for the people living in that area but for the message it sends. Islamist militants everywhere have been given the understanding that, if only they kill enough people, eventually the government will back down and they’ll get their way.


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