Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

The Skeptics Movement and Terrorism

I’m being ‘interviewed’ by a friend of a friend. Via email. My interviewer’s project is on:

…“marginalia on skeptical thinking” in which I will interview and interrogate different thinkers who adopt various postures in regards to science as a means of knowing, skepticism as a means to philosophical inquiry, and doubt as a part of a dialectical project.

Skepoet (his internet handle) is interviewing me because my friend touted me as an unusually well informed thinker and writer on issues of terrorism, religious extremism, and security within the Skeptics Movement. While it seems as though Skepoet will likely want to take the discussion into quite philosophical territory, his first question was simple and practical:

What do you think the key problems are there with a lot of the assertions one sees about terrorism from [Skeptics such as] Pat Condell or Sam Harris?

My answer was very long-winded, and will almost certainly be truncated and edited when Skepoet posts it on his blog. However, I also think it functions well as a stand-alone essay that is well suited to the themes of my blog. So here it is in full:

Terrorism and the Skeptics

So the Skeptics are a fairly well informed bunch when it comes to international goings-on. They – we – read the news and enjoy discussing events of significant political or human importance taking place in the Middle East or in Europe, and so-on. And so, of course, Skeptics read about stuff which reasonably carries the label ‘terrorism’. It is the interest of the Skeptics to address and combat bad critical thinking and its harmful consequences, particularly as an apparent result of religious doctrine. Terrorism, as we encounter it, thus seems to be the perfect exemplar of flawed, religious beliefs leading to terribly harmful consequences. And it has escaped no-one’s notice that most of that stuff we call terrorism, insofar as it is reported in our mainstream media, is done by Muslims, and often justified in explicitly Islamic language. This is the context within which we should understand the perspectives of intellectual leaders of the Skeptics community such as Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris School, in which I think we can include Pat Condell along with quite a few other Skeptics, seems to hold the following views on terrorism:
1. Terrorism is caused by extremist, irrational beliefs, usually of a religious character.
2. Islamic scripture and doctrine is essentially conducive to terrorism, to a greater degree than other religion’s texts and doctrines; a moderate Muslim is simply not a very pious Muslim, and is not practicing their own faith in a committed way.
3. Islam as its widely practiced today is particularly conducive to terrorism, with adherents comprising ‘death cults’ and espousing violent cultural chauvinism.
4. Terrorists, by virtue of their extremism and commitment to irrational religious doctrines, cannot be reasoned or bargained with, and should be dealt with via hawikish counterterrorism policies.

All of these views are undermined, to varying but generally substantial degrees, by the history and social science scholarship on terrorism, extremism, religious fundamentalism, and the intersections between ideology and violence. They are undermined in ways that should be understandable to anyone, and their flaws should be apparent to more than just experts in the field.

I will explain how this is the case.

1. There is a robust debate amongst experts as to the causes of terrorism, but that debate has, almost comprehensively, taken it as a given that relevant factors include political freedom, economic development, social structure, government effectiveness, and human security. For at least three decades, scholars on terrorism have considered both ‘underlying’ and ‘proximate’ causes, and specified a relationship between background forces that make terrorism more likely, and ‘triggers’ which push a person or a community into using terrorism. Now, of course these factors influence one-another in complex ways, and the religious or ideological beliefs held by members of a society both influence and are influenced by all these other things. Notably, though perhaps largely as a result of methodological concerns and as a legacy of behaviourism, religion is treated by many experts as epiphenomenal or as an intermediate factor which is caused by other things and serves only to enable immediate moral justification for action. It isn’t often assigned a causal role at all. While I won’t  endorse  this position, I will say that there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that our beliefs concerning legitimate targets and forms of violence, and on tolerance of difference within our community, are strongly shaped by precisely those material and structural forces I previously named. This brings me to number two.

2. Islam isn’t a thing. While there is undeniably bellicose language within Islamic texts, the meaning of those texts is determined solely through human interpretation. Why do so, so many Skeptics seem not to realise this? Some argue that certain kinds of statements terms are harder to interpret in a way that supports liberal values, and are more likely to lead to chauvinism or violence, but there are so many examples of even the most bloodthirsty or misogynist of biblical passages being ‘contextualised away’ by Christians here in North America and the UK which should be immediately available to recall. Many skeptics tend to look upon this process of contextualisation with contempt, noting that these passages are plainly awful and that theological gymnastics are a pathetic attempt to deny the obvious evil of the dogma in question. Other Skeptics argue for some kind of exceptionalism, suggesting that Christianity has a liberal tradition which Islam lacks, perhaps because Islam is hundreds of years younger and just hasn’t had its reformation yet. Well, the first argument is not only narrow-minded but ironic: Skeptics who see biblical literalism as more sound or apt are engaging in amateur theology of their own, and in the process are endorsing the notion that there are certain interpretations of religious texts which are more authoritative or accurate. I think this happens because we come from a tradition in which texts contain fairly clear arguments, penned by philosophers who make full use of modern language to ensure that their ideas are as unequivocal as possible precisely because they are committed to the kind of analytic reason which serves as the foundation to the Skeptics’ ideology. As for the second argument…

3. There are many examples of Muslim groups whose message appears very liberal and tolerant, as well as very pious.There are groups such as Imaan or al-Faitha, which campaign for greater acceptance for LGBT persons within Muslim communities on the basis of extensive theological argument. There are political parties such as Hizb al-Wasat, whose platform endorses liberal democracy of a type quite similar to what we enjoy here, in religious langauge and with reference to religious norms and principles. I published an article last year on Islamic norms and liberal democracy, as it happens. Anyway, the point is that while there is undoubtedly a powerful, global conservative movement in Islam, and while most Muslim communities in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East – and their young diasporas in Europe – would not be what I’d call liberal, this does not mean that those Muslims who are liberal are necessarily any worse at being Muslim. Nor does it mean that Islam just hasn’t yet had its reformation. Remember what I wrote earlier about religious beliefs being strongly shaped by material and structural forces? One doesn’t need to spend long comparing the conditions of primarily Muslim countries to Canada, the US, or the UK to see why something other than a failure to reach the requisite theological epoch could be behind Islam’s apparent conservatism. At the same time, one is likely to find greater similarities between Islam and Christianity as its practiced in, say, many African countries, compared to similarities between Christianity there and Christianity here. Again, this is not an argument for crass material determinism – and the powerful conservative religious movements amongst US Christians and British Muslims alike would be two prima facie confounding examples – but for the recognition that belief systems aren’t objects that endure unaffected by the world in which they dwell, exerting causal influences but receiving none from elsewhere.

4. I’ll make this short, since I appear to have rambled and ranted quite a lot. Terrorism is not some kind of extension of religiously driven rage, nor is it the inevitable and cathartic shucking of shackles by the colonised. It is a strategic response, an attempt to connect means to ends in an appropriate and efficient way. Without a doubt, individuals committing acts of terrorism believe that the harm they cause is justified, and thus from our perspective they are likely to be quite ‘extreme’ in their beliefs. WIthout a doubt, the moral principles by which those who use terrorism justify their actions are quite often expressed in religious langauge, and makes reference to the grievences – whether legitimate or not – of the colonised and the oppressed. But if terrorists didn’t think that terrorism would serve their goals, they wouldn’t be terrorists because they wouldn’t use terrorism. We might very reasonably think that the cost of bargaining with groups that hold highly illiberal social goals is too high, but there is no necessary reason why we should come to that conclusion. We might decide, after careful consideration of its associated benefits and costs, that hawkish counterterrorism is the best way to go, but that decision should be both contextually contingent and tentative. It may be a tired maxim, but very often, violence begets more violence.

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4 responses to “The Skeptics Movement and Terrorism

  1. frangistani May 21, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    2) I’m going to risk engaging in some amateur theology of my own here. I thought Islam’s tendency to be pretty illiberal as compared to the other Abrahamic faiths might be explained by the difference between holy books written essentially by randomers versus a message straight from God. So, for example, my Rabbi is happy to explain away the seemingly anti-gay or pro-slavery elements of the Torah as products of the society that wrote it. By contrast, if you believe a message comes directly from God, that type of broad interpretation doesn’t seem legitimate and there’s less scope for deviation from the literal meaning of the text. Thoughts?

    3) Where’s your article on Islamic norms and liberal democracy? I’d like to read it!

    • Said Simon May 21, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Muslim scholars can and do offer the same sorts of explanations. This is because while Muslims might all remain committed to the notion that the Qur’an is a ‘message straight from God’, there is quite a lot of debate over just what that message might be.

      Consider the following hypothetical:
      Al and La are both reading the same passages of their holy book. Both believe that those passages contain a divine command. Al believes that this divine command is fairly obvious, and can be found in a simple, literal reading of the text. La believes that the true divine command is not so obvious, and indeed, quite different from what a literalist reading would produce. La thinks that the only way to find that message is to contextualise the text within a certain historical setting, to place it with a larger system of divine command, or to otherwise treat it as a metaphor. Both Al and La are pious, but they could nevertheless end up with radically different versions of something that is, nominally, the same religion.

      This plays out in Islam today. It has played out in Islam since there was an Islam. It happens in Christianity and Judaism too. And in constitutional law, for that matter, at least in certain notable ways. And this is why one can never say that there is some sort of essentially illiberal quality to a religious tradition, noting also that Islam is certainly not a single belief system, even of certain varieties of Islam share common propositions.

      My article: https://saidsimon.wordpress.com/2011/08/22/islamic-norms-democratic-accountability/

      • frangistani May 22, 2012 at 11:09 am

        OK. I think you mostly answered my question in your original post actually – I thought a literal reading of the Quran would be more correct because I was expecting Allah to write (or dictate) like a Western philosopher. This is clearly silly.

        When you talk about contextualising the text “within a certain historical setting”, is this premised on the idea that the Quran was revealed such as to be appropriate to desert-dwelling folk in the 7th century, and that it has to be interpreted to take subsequent moral developments into account?

        Anyway, thanks for the post. You’ve made me think better.

  2. Pingback: Islam: no more essentially ‘fundamentalist’ than any other religion « Said Simon

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