It’s said that nothing is harder to kill than an idea. Trying to stamp out a deeply felt belief by force, especially a religious belief, not only makes its followers cling to it more tenaciously, it gives them an aura of martyrdom that makes the belief look even more attractive to outsiders. And when the belief in question is a religious belief whose scriptures claim that persecution of the faithful is a sign of their righteousness, these tendencies become all the stronger.
This is more than just an academic debate, unfortunately, because we’re currently seeing it play out in the spread of militant Islam. In some form or another, Islam is practiced by almost a third of the population of this planet, and this means there’s a vast pool of people who are susceptible to the siren song of radical preachers calling for violent jihad. Fundamentalism is spreading among them like a weed, and the memes that give fundamentalist Islam its resilience and persistence are interwoven with memes that encourage acts of bloodshed and terrorism: suicide bombings, chopping off heads and hands, stoning and hanging as routine punishments, the execution of apostates, the brutal oppression of women and religious minorities.
Nor can it be said any longer that militant, fundamentalist Islam is just an insignificant minority within a peaceful faith community. Polls of Muslim countries routinely find that majorities or sizable pluralities approve of tactics like suicide bombing, even against civilians (see p.39). And diplomatic organizations representing dozens of Islamic governments are still pressing for legal restrictions on free speech around the world. In most Muslim-majority nations, the rights of women and minorities, both de facto and de jure, are practically nonexistent.
We badly need to provoke a new Enlightenment in the Islamic world, but how? As any atheist knows, religious memes are self-protecting; they come packaged with concepts such as faith, obedience to religious authorities, the command to trust only one book, and the promise of hellfire for those who disobey or doubt, all of which make it difficult for people inside the religion to take a critical look at their own beliefs. Once they’ve taken root, they’re very difficult to eradicate.
To answer this question, I think it’s worth asking another one. Why is it that violent Islam has had so much success at spreading itself? How has it made so many converts?
I don’t believe that it’s because militant Islam is intrinsically more appealing than moderate Islam, or because it offers a stronger sense of purpose or identity. Nor is it because, as racists sometimes claim, Muslim people are less intelligent or more prone to violence than Westerners. I think the real explanation is very different and, once you realize it, much more obvious. Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains it in her book Nomad, describing her experiences with rootless Somali youth in Nairobi:
“Some of these young men later repented and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. They would go to Saudi Arabia on Islamic scholarships and come back as preachers of what we would now call radical Islam. Their own story was compelling, for they had been saved from evil, Westernized behavior when Allah showed them the straight path.” [p.57]
This makes the otherwise mysterious success of Islamism much more understandable. There’s nothing inexplicable about it – it’s entirely to be expected that the wealthiest faction will have the most ability to spread its message. And this is all the more true when they’re preaching to people in poor and developing nations, who stand to gain the most from affiliating themselves with the Islamist movement and the financial power that supports it. Most of these countries have governments that are weak, corrupt or autocratic, making an attractive alternative of charismatic Islamist preachers who claim to represent virtue and societal order. And in many poverty-stricken regions, Saudi-funded madrassas are literally the only source of education, which means these preachers face little resistance or competition in the battle for young minds. (This sheds some light on why the Afghani Taliban are so bent on destroying Western-built schools, especially girls’ schools. It’s not just because they want to keep women ignorant; it’s because they fear the competition.)
And this theory points the way to breaking the power of radical Islam: We badly need to free ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuel. The fact that it lubricates every part of our economy means that America and the West are, in effect, paying a tax to the religious fanatics who desire our destruction. This isn’t a new observation, of course, but I think this analysis clarifies the direct connection between our addiction to oil and the spread of jihadist ideologies that cultivate theocracy and terrorism.
If we could develop an alternative-energy economy not based on importing fossil fuels from the Mideast, the Islamist regimes would shrivel up and die, and the source of funding for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would dry up virtually overnight. As it is, we’re bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a futile quest to establish Western-friendly regimes, while at the same time spending rivers of cash that flows to the factions resisting us. We’re fighting the enemy with one hand while aiding them with the other. It would be laughably absurd, if the consequences weren’t so deadly serious.