Jacobin: Don’t blame Islam

Jacobin: Don’t blame Islam February 5, 2015

Jacobin, the leading outlet for socialism and the American left, has been publishing some of my favorite pieces on Islam and atheism in recent months. Last week, David Mizner published a fantastic article on how misplaced our blame on Islam often is, particular in reference to the recent Charlie Hebdo killings.

The truth is not merely that Team USA’s violence is far greater than that of its enemies, or that the former triggers the latter, but that Western governments and their client states have actively empowered right-wing jihadist groups.

Western imperialists depict “Islamic terrorism” as a mysterious, indigenous virus in the way that neocons and their liberal allies blame “black culture” for problems caused by racism and longstanding oppression. There’s nothing ineffable in Islam that produces “terrorism.”

There is, however, a longstanding US effort to use specific facets of Muslim theology as weapons. This is part of a larger context that includes the European colonialism that preceded it and the American coups and wars that have sown chaos and sectarianism and undermined the self-determination of people in the region.

Milne offers a familiar take: the West inflicts enormous violence on people in the Middle East, and — as Ward Churchill once put it — “some people push back.” This is true. Many of those who’ve carried out attacks in Western capitals in the name of Islam — from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber — cite the West’s violence as their motive. Their explanations jibe not only with common sense but with the research of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who found that by far the most significant cause of suicide bombing across the world is foreign occupation.

Mizner goes on to note that “only a tiny fraction of Muslims have joined right-wing jihadist groups,” a point I feel is often underappreciated. If it really is Islamic theology that causes terrorism and violence, why don’t we see more of it? Why do we see it limited to a part of the world where all religious groups seem particularly violent, a place with only 20% of the world’s Muslim population but seemingly all of it’s violent terrorism? He says:

Attempting to bolster his claim that Islam is inherently violent, Bill Maher cites (selective) stats showing many Muslims hold retrograde views on women and gays, but this is a non-sequitur. Holding such views almost never translates into al-Qaeda–ISIS membership.

In his book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists, Charles Kurzman reports that “well over 99 percent” have rejected the call. Despite the West’s routine killing of civilians, the vast majority of Muslims oppose retaliatory attacks on civilians, and even most of those who approve of the tactic are loath to sign on with a movement that kills mostly Muslims.

This is another point that’s often missed. Many new atheists particularly eager to fear-monger about Islam take such poll results out of context to come to the opposite conclusion. Several years ago, Terry Firma at The Friendly Atheist wrote: 

In the United States, the picture is only marginally better. Eight out of ten U.S. Muslims say it’s not cool to strap a bomb to your chest and kill a bunch of kuffar. But nearly two out of ten say that’s dandy… at least in some instances. There are 2.6 million Muslims living in the U.S.… x 19 percent… yep, almost half a million American Muslims give suicide bombers and child-murderers-for-Allah two big thumbs up when they feel the violence is somehow justified.

Is there any other religious group that can “boast” this kind of enthusiasm for grotesque and appalling slaughter? Me, I’m not the slightest bit worried that scores of scheming Christians, Jews, or Buddhists are going to want to blow marathon spectators to smithereens, or butcher atheists and gay people, or fly Boeings into skyscrapers.

Putting stats such as these in meaningful context, however, paints a very different picture. If we’re concerned that 2 in 10 American Muslims say violence against civilians is sometimes justified, what are we to make of the 6 out of 10 Protestants and Catholics  (almost 150 million Americans) and 5 out of 10 “nones” (more than 25 million Americans) who believe the same? Suddenly, half a million Muslims aren’t so scary.

Mizner spends the rest of his piece thoroughly detailing the history in the Middle East that anti-Islamic writers so often seem to forget, and it’s well worth digesting.

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