Islamic Terrorism: A Thought Experiment

I was thinking about the recurrence of terrible atrocities done in the name of Islam, again, today. Barcelona has been hit, and one assumes that Islam, as a worldview, has something to do with the events, in some way.

Now let’s take this to the extreme (no pun intended). Let’s imagine that a large Islamic extremists continued to hit such nations, or indeed one particular nation in a consistent onslaught. And let’s imagine the commonality is Islamic beliefs (of a particular strain). There is a large series of very egregious terrorist events such as ramming people, or shooting and whatnot.

Would there and should there be a tipping point where some kind of probabilistic (profiling?) analysis of future attacks leads one to reliably predict that Islam is providing the largest fertile grounds for violent terrorism?

Imagine if individuals simply could not be predicted to carry out such actions, that they decide to do these things in isolation as lone wolves and needed no preparation or tools other than a car or van.

Now, before you say it, there are huge killers in all sorts of guises – road traffic incidents, cancer and so on. But there is something about terrorism that plays merry havoc with fears of people and this can affect the behaviour of a free society. For example, if pedestrians are consistently targeted, people simply won’t walk the streets or congregate. This could seriously affect the way that our society works.

So, the question I wanted to ask, given this scenario, is what should one do? What should a government do?

And, as a philosopher, I am interested in moral philosophy, obviously. And, as many atheists do, I adhere to some form of consequentialism, with caveats.

If a community is “responsible” (in a very weak sense) for providing a great threat to society, what actions could be taken?

  1. Nothing, aside from trying “soft” counter-terrorism approaches (like Prevent in the UK)
  2. Thorough vetting of the Islamic communities such as surveillance and thus curtailing their rights in some way
  3. Some kind of outlawing of Islam

This is a sort of spectrum from 1 to 3 whereby we are presently sitting at 1, but we have a choice whether to stay there (in this thought experiment) or increase the sort of action towards 3. But where would you end the move along the continuum?

Any persecution of the Islamic community could be seen in utilitarian light. It could be, under some forms of consequentialism (there are many forms and it can get quite complex), that using people as a means to an end is the most morally appropriate thing to do. In other words, outlawing Islam or having some major surveillance system for reporting system for Muslim communities may result in fewer deaths from terrorism, even though the rights of Muslims would undoubtedly be diminished. Perhaps a Trump-style Muslim travel ban.

However, if a society was to do this, then the feeling of persecution would make the Muslim communities completely otherised and would lead them towards reactionary activities themselves – moderates would become fundamentalists and the whole scenario would be worsened.

The problem is that we have very little data as to what would be the most effective course of action and this holds back ideals of evidence-based policy making.

On the other hand, there could be something that could be done right at the “do nothing” end of the earlier continuum, and that would be something that empowers fellow Muslims to want to do more to root out extremism in their own communities, to incentivise such action – the universal demonisation of the hard-line forms of Islam that produce such terrorists. The onus could get shifted much more robustly onto Muslims themselves to help solve the problem.

This has come under attack before as blaming Muslims (in some sense) for the ineffective capturing of people in early signs of terrorism and saying “this is a M=uslim problem and Muslims need to sort this out!”. Sort of like blaming men for not being better at rooting out over-representation of men in violent crimes.

These are difficult waters to navigate, and action either way could quite easily make matters work. More of the same might allow for further extremist violence, but acting in a strict authoritarian manner might well make things even worse.

What to do?

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