Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Terrorism

"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, Gaza and Iraq and all of the evil which then necessarily follows.

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 United States, Israel and Russia are not concerning themselves with said grievances. They are instead occupying Middle Eastern territory, carrying out collective punishment – which only serves, as security analysts have for a long time pointed out, to further radicalize the populations and embolden the terrorist elements – and, in fact, organizing, supporting and arming various terrorist groups. It must not be forgotten that the mujahadin, which later became al-Qaeda, was organized, armed and trained by the CIA in order that they might be used in the proxy war with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

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 United States, again, comes from Christian extremism rather than radical Islam. The United States is one of the success cases of Muslim integration. The only problem, and it is a real problem, stems from anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. However, this is not to imply that criticism of Islam or of Islamic practices is parallel to bigotry. The point is that the hysterical claims that Arabs and Muslims, by virtue of being either Arabs or Muslims, are lesser than other people or are more dangerous and savage, are claims manifesting the most archaic form of bigotry that should at least have the decency to present itself from under a white hood, in order that there be no confusion.

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, Northern Ireland is a perfect example. Though some people, such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, pretend that the conflict was solely motivated by religion, it was clearly a political conflict. The solution of the conflict was not to eradicate religion. As Chomsky points out “The right approach [to solving the problem of terrorism] is not only well known, but has been carried out with success…IRA terror was quite a serious matter. For a long time, Britain responded with violence, escalating the terror. Finally, Britain (with US support) began taking seriously the real grievances of the Catholic population. Terror reduced, terrorists were isolated. Northern Ireland is not utopia, but the improvement in the past decade is remarkable.”

5 comments:

Renegade Eye said...

Read this to supplement your excellent post.

I think the new atheists, give cover to imperialism. I know Hitchens knows better, than what he writes.

JDHURF said...

I had not yet read that piece by Trotsky. I do, however, own a copy of Marxism & Terrorism, which is a collection of Trotsky's essays about said subjects published by Pathfinder. I think that his essay On Terrorism offers a fuller realization of his earlier work which you linked to:

Trotsky On Terrorism

I of course agree with you that the new atheists tend to perpetuate imperial propaganda, I pointed out that Harris essentially regurgitates the mad theories of Huntington, Lewis and Dershowitz. Harris devotes an entire portion of his book The End of Faith to Dershowitz's criminal arguments in favor of the use of torture and Harris also devotes an inordinate number of pages to Huntington's childish concept of the so-called "clash of civilizations." I further agree with you that Hitchens damn well knows better. He is just another in the long and treacherous index of apostates and sell-outs, now keeping company with the likes of David Horowitz. Nothing could be more disgraceful.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

JDHURF said...

I think the following excerpt from Trotsky's On Terrorism pretty well sums up his objection:

"In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own cosnciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission…But the smoke from the explosion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement come disillusion and apathy."

On this point, I completely agree with Trotsky.

RNB said...

People such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not pretend that conflicts are solely motivated by religion. You mention an emotionally hysterical response to 9-11. Perhaps understandable for those affected, as you would understand similar responses from those bombed in the occupied territories.

But Richard Dawkins has been making the same arguments against narrow-minded fundamentalism for many decades. The only difference is that after 9-11 there was enough audience to justify the publication.

I cannot see why you characterize simple unbiased rational enquiry as "extremist". Again nobody has claimed that the suicide bombings were solely motivated by religion, but it seems unarguable that religion was a factor that the terrorists used to justify their actions.

So finally I agree that a whole variety of economic and political issues need to be solved. Many of the ruling elite in Afghanistan/Iran/everywhere were misogynist murderous brutes even without Islam to justify their actions. But I think we should be entitled to an argument against some of the core tenets of fundamental texts, and even that argument seems to be denied if you take that particular text as inviolate scripture.

JDHURF said...

rnb said:
"People such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not pretend that conflicts are solely motivated by religion."

Sam Harris makes just such an argument all throughout his book The End of Faith, an argument which he most explicitly distilled on pages 25-29.

"You mention an emotionally hysterical response to 9-11. Perhaps understandable for those affected, as you would understand similar responses from those bombed in the occupied territories."

I understand both reactions, I excuse neither.

"But Richard Dawkins has been making the same arguments against narrow-minded fundamentalism for many decades. The only difference is that after 9-11 there was enough audience to justify the publication."

Hitchens has been making similar arguments for some time also. I was speaking more about Harris, which is why I only cited him in this instance, because Harris self-professes to have been specifically motivated to pen his contribution to the new atheism by the events of 9-11, and all of the nameless infidels whose reaction was the same as his and who take the same narrow-minded and tribal position.

"I cannot see why you characterize simple unbiased rational enquiry as 'extremist'."

When Harris argues that Islam is a “cult of death,” that the only plausible cause for suicide terrorism is the metaphysical beliefs in the principles of martyrdom, ignoring the wealth of scientific and sociopolitical research which says otherwise, and that “science must destroy religion,” it is by no means unfair to point out the obvious, that Harris is a secular extremist.

"Again nobody has claimed that the suicide bombings were solely motivated by religion, but it seems unarguable that religion was a factor that the terrorists used to justify their actions."

I would submit that it appears to me as though you have not yet read Harris' work. I have read and in fact own both of his books and have read, to my knowledge, every article he has written on the subject.

"So finally I agree that a whole variety of economic and political issues need to be solved. Many of the ruling elite in Afghanistan/Iran/everywhere were misogynist murderous brutes even without Islam to justify their actions. But I think we should be entitled to an argument against some of the core tenets of fundamental texts, and even that argument seems to be denied if you take that particular text as inviolate scripture."

I am not arguing that people should be stopped from criticizing religious texts, religious beliefs or religious behavior - were you to review my blog you would realize that I very much engage in such criticism and believe that it is of the utmost importance – I am arguing that people should be serious when they do so, that they should be able to make necessary distinctions and that everyone should be wary of the all too human propensity towards tribalism.

Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Your detractions were appreciated.