The Logic of Genocide

Last month, I wrote about the hideous spectacle of ordinary religious people defending genocide because it’s commanded in the Bible – with some of them professing to not even understand why nonbelievers would have a problem with this. Greta Christina also highlighted this horrific mindset in the writing of William Lane Craig, the renowned Christian apologist who thinks that the worst consequence of Israelite soldiers slaughtering women and children would be the suffering it would cause to the soldiers.

In my post, I held this forth as proof of how the fantasy of the afterlife clouds and distorts morality until the worst evils are seen as good. To most of the believers making this pro-genocide argument, it’s a harmless thought experiment with no bearing on reality. But this logic can’t be easily confined to the realm of abstract theology. Once it’s accepted, inevitably it spreads, and the same reasoning that excuses destruction and mass murder in holy books can just as easily excuse destruction and mass murder in the real world. Today, I’d like to report a concrete example of that.

Earlier this month, U.S. federal prosecutors moved to dismiss the indictment in United States of America vs. Osama bin Laden, that particular case now being very definitely settled. But in some of the evidence that prosecutors had gathered to be prepared if the case ever came to trial, there’s a very interesting bit of testimony.

According to Wikipedia, the first bombing attack carried out by al-Qaeda was against a hotel in Yemen in December 1992. The attack was aimed at American soldiers, but instead killed a hotel employee and an Austrian citizen. To justify these lives taken in error, another founding member of al-Qaeda, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, considered to be one of the most religiously knowledgeable members, issued a fatwa: the killing of innocent bystanders was justified, because if the person killed was a good Muslim, they would go to Paradise and this was a desirable fate, whereas if the person killed was an infidel, they would go to Hell and this was God’s deserved justice.

This information came out in the cross-examination of a witness named Jamal el-Fadl, a Sudanese militant who turned informer for the U.S. government (go here and search for “Tamiyeh”):

Q. Well, in his speech, according to you, Mr. Salim talked about – am I saying this person’s name right, Tamiyeh?
A. Mohamed Ibn Tamiyeh.
Q. Tamiyeh. He told you what Tamiyeh had said back in 17 or 1800 about a war with the Tartans… that sometimes in a war civilians get killed, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that that’s okay, because if they’re good people, they’re lucky enough to go to heaven quicker?
A. Yes.
Q. And if they’re bad people, they deserve to go to hell anyway, right?
A. Yes.
Q. And that was his way of saying to you and everyone else listening, it’s okay to kill civilians if you have to because I say it and another scholar says it and that scholar interpreting the Koran says it, right?
A. Yes.
Q. So that was to mean to say to everybody, it’s okay, don’t worry if you kill civilians, it’s part of what we have to do?
A. Yes, under war.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s the same nihilistic logic used by William Lane Craig and other Christian apologists to justify the Canaanite genocide in the Bible. The only difference is that here, instead of being used as a thought experiment to defend a mass slaughter that may or may not have happened in the distant past, it’s being used here and now to defend the indiscriminate killing of human beings.

Craig, for one, hasn’t shied away from the comparison. In an article on his website, he says this:

The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory; it’s that it has got the wrong God.

Like Osama bin Laden and the terrorists of al-Qaeda, William Lane Craig believes that it’s a religious duty to commit indiscriminate mass murder if God has commanded it, and that obeying this command would be a heroic and praiseworthy deed. They don’t disagree on whether doing this would be wrong; the only difference between them is whether they believe God has in fact issued such a command.

Craig and other professional Christian apologists have so thoroughly deadened their consciences that they see nothing wrong or dangerous about this. But for humanity’s sake, we can hope that most ordinary Christians haven’t gone so far. The next time someone uses this argument to defend the atrocities of the Bible, point out this comparison and ask them, “Are you saying that Osama bin Laden’s theology was correct, he was just wrong about a few factual points?” If the realization that they’re endorsing the logic of most the notorious mass murderer in recent history doesn’t sway them, then almost certainly nothing else will either.

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About Adam Lee

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