"Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” – Noam Chomsky.
At this point in time many atheists and non-believers revere Sam Harris as one of the preeminent “new atheists.” My blog post entitled “Secular Tribalism” was in part a response to this phenomenon of “new atheism;” which is nothing new, the term is misleading for several reasons, it’s simply extremist, narrow-minded and tribal atheism.
The entire phenomenon of new atheism has emerged mostly from the smoldering rubble of the twin towers. It is more of an emotionally hysterical response to 9-11 than it is of scientific inquiry; thus accounts for the sudden concern for “Islamic terrorism” when, in fact, such terrorism had been occurring for years.
Sam Harris is one of the leading figures of the assault on religion, from violent to benign, and argues that terrorism as it is emanating from the Arab world is produced within and through the paradigm of Islam. Were it not for the metaphysical beliefs in the principles of martyrdom, argues Harris, the Arab world would not be producing suicide terrorism. However, Harris relies upon neither empirical evidence nor any sort of scientific data set; he simply propagates anecdotal stories and intuitive hearsay.
Scott Atran, the world's leading specialist on the subject of terrorism and also, if it is of any interest, an atheist, points out that, through studying every case of terrorism recorded in modern history, there is found an inverse correlation between suicidal terrorism and such things as Mosque attendance, knowledge of the Qur’an and involvement with Islam. Suicide terrorism is motivated by moral outrage stemming from desperate situations and small, tight groups which form strong familial bonds. The moral outrage being stimulated by, for instance, the ongoing military occupations of the West Bank,
Taking a more historical view of this one can go all the way back to what is referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam,” which spanned from approximately the eighth century to the fourteenth or fifteenth. During this time Arab culture did very well with the presence of Islam. The Andalusian philosophers usually debated within the confines of Islam. On can take a look at the work of Ibn Rushd, for example, a semi-materialist, and find serious philosophy which incorporated Aristotle’s work. During the so-called “golden age” there was a lively and diverse Islamic intelligentsia ranging form the orthodox to the utter heretical.
Extremists such as Harris either have to ignore or distort this period. Some go so far as to argue that the end of the golden age was the result of Islam itself. Scott Atran points to the “golden age” and the fact that “all of a sudden it disappeared” and then asks “what happened, was there a flip-flop of an essence?” His response, as is mine, is of course not. As he continues, there “were massive waves of Mongols and other Asian hordes and then the colonials completely sundered the Arab heartland.” The devastation of the Arab world not being the inevitable product of Islam, but rather, Western colonial-imperialism and its nefarious consequences.
Atran points out that only now is the Arab world being reconstituted, very slowly, and that the “jihadis see themselves as the vanguard of a massive, transnational, media driven political awakening of which the Arabian mythos…is the motive to reconquer dignity.”
The usual and predictable response of the extremist to this history is to charge the individual who is presenting it with offering apologetics for Islam, for calling for “understanding” of terrorism as if to justify it.
This is, of course, standard propaganda. No one is arguing for the understanding of terrorism in order to justify it or excuse it. Serious people, such as Scott Atran and Noam Chomsky, are calling for understanding in order to better understand the sources and motivations for terrorism in the full range of complexity in the socio-political and historical contexts from which they arise to therefore be more equipped to eradicate terrorism.
In the Arab world there are very serious grievances felt by the populations and from these grievances terrorist groups organize and use as a pretext said grievances so as to appear as a vanguard of the oppressed and impoverished. If anyone is at all serious about eradicating terrorism, one would not only combat the terrorist groups, an entirely valid tactic, but, they would also address the very real and serious grievances of the populations, in order that terrorist bands no longer be able to present themselves as a vanguard of the so aggrieved.
Unfortunately, powerful states such as the
To solve the problem of “Islamic terrorism” requires a deeper and more serious analysis of the situation from which it emerges. The reactionary and blind response that is the claim that terrorism is motivated solely by the principles of Islam is just plain ignorant. Another very serious factor which must be either ignored or dismissed by the extremists such as Harris is that the extremists are viewing, in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson - a well known astrophysicist and, like both Atran and Chomsky, also an atheist – “suicide bombings as some kind of intrinsically noble exercise within the paradigm [of Islam] and abhorrent from the outside, but, would there be suicide bombings if the Islamic community had their own air force and tanks? I don’t think so. They would be invoking the military machines that the rest of the West has available to itself.” Atran responds by saying that the jihadis he interviews “say so quite specifically”; which accounts for the fact that when attempted suicide bombers are interviewed and asked what their motivations were they rarely if ever invoke Islamic metaphysics, instead referring to the plight of their benighted brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories, the moral outrage Atran speaks of.
The real threat of “Islamic terrorism” is not a threat of the religion of Islam, for Americans and the West generally, the real religious threat comes from Christian extremists, not radical Muslims, it is a threat of Western Imperialism and the blowback which it quite understandably and predictably instigates. The religious threat in the
This sort of conflated anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry Edward Said referred to as “Orientalism” in his book of the same title. Said argues that “Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness. . . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge…My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting…I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism.”
So-called Islamic terrorism is not only largely the product of colonial-imperialism, but, furthermore, it is then incorporated within the intelligentsia as propaganda to help further the imperial ambitions of the state power to which the intelligentsia is subservient. Such is the case of the conjured al-Qaeda hysteria. As Scott Atran points out, al-Qaeda is no longer a going threat and the mujahadin do not constitute an existential threat at all, they never have. Orientalism and this conjured al-Qaeda hysteria – Islamic terrorism – is nothing more than the new paradigm of imperial propaganda; it has now effectively replaced the anti-Communist cult which stoked the fires of the Cold War mythology.
Harris plays his atheist part in perpetuating this imperial propaganda by incorporating the ultra-right screeds produced by the neoconservative likes of Samuel P. Huntington, Bernard Lewis and Alan Dershowitz and then regurgitating their theses in his books, articles and speeches.
Ultimately, to solve the problem of terrorism, keeping to just the terrorism of others, does not include the eradication of the religion of Islam, it requires a solution to the socioeconomic and political conflicts which readily give rise to general discontent and moral outrage which are then used as pretexts by terrorists so as to fashion themselves as a vanguard of the people.
In this sense,