Jackson Doughart
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Ideas have consequences: The radical Islam-terror connection

C2C Journal, 08 May 2013

A notable talking point from the Cold War era was “ideas have consequences”. The purport of this formulation, originally expressed by the philosopher Richard M. Weaver, seems straightforward and cogent: the ideas that animate one’s worldview — whether religious or secular — will inevitably animate the way that one chooses to act. For example: pacifists are unlikely to engage in armed conflict, libertarians are unlikely to campaign for tax increases, and Marxists will probably not defend private property.

Yet in the scramble to identify the “root causes” of terrorism, many scholars and commentators have decided that the ideas of the Islamic religion cannot be blamed for heinous acts committed in their name. Perhaps the best instance of this way of thinking is the recent comments of former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who believes that the Boston marathon bombing was motivated not by Islam, but by understandable frustration:

Very often people get incredibly angry about injustices that they see. [The bombers] would have been reading about the torture at Guantanamo Bay, at Bagram airbase. . . . They would have read stuff about . . . people being snatched off streets taken to be tortured, because the Bush regime believed that they were all potential terrorists. . . . People get angry – they lash out. . . . It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who – as we saw in Boston – went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.

One might have asked Mr. Livingstone to explain why no Vietnamese, for example — whose country was measurably impacted by America’s war in Indochina — has ever seen it fit to target American civilians in retribution for “squalid intervention”. Meanwhile, a great many Western terrorist attacks of the past two decades have been committed by people who justify their actions through the Islamic doctrine of jihad, a trend that seems consistent with the motivations of the Boston bombers, and one that cannot be defeated by appeals to mere political correctness.

Though the investigation is only in its infancy, a connection between the bombing and fundamentalist Islamic beliefs can hardly be dismissed as incidental. Consider that the radicalisation of the suspected Tsarnaev brothers was reportedly motivated by their faith, and that this process was accompanied by the influence of Islamists who spread their ideology via the internet. Yet one notices the Left’s hasty attempt to pre-empt any suggestion that Islam and its constituent doctrines could bear inherent responsibility. Consider this quote from the Atlantic Monthly’s Zachary Karabell, intended as praise for the public’s reaction to the bombing, which is representative of this attempt:

The initial leap of some news outlets to Muslim-bait was . . . quashed, as the appetite for such easy blame appears to be fading. As it turns out, the two brothers are Muslim, but not Arab, not Iranian, and not affiliated with any known organized group. That says no more about Islam than Cuban hijackings in the 1970s said something about Catholicism, or than Timothy McVeigh and his Oklahoma madness said anything about Protestants.

This analysis is fanciful. The matter of concern here is not whether Catholics and Protestants, in addition to Muslims, have committed acts of terror. Rather, what matters is whether the doctrines of those religions motivate otherwise sane people to employ such means and desire such ends. And notice that Mr. Karabell equates saying something “about Islam” with saying something “about Protestants”, implying that attributing blame on a religion is exactly the same as attributing blame to all followers of that religion. But can’t one be both against anti-Muslim bigotry and think that radical Islam serves as a breeding ground of ideas and resentments for terror? Or does the latter position automatically entail bigotry?

Granted, not everyone makes this distinction. Some reactionaries in both Europe and North America fail to discriminate between Islam itself and those who adhere thereto, even though Muslims are as pluralistic in their beliefs as Christians are in theirs. The unfortunate presence of such persons serves to justify the real concerns raised by Muslim groups after the Boston incident about a backlash against innocent members of their faith. Yet to represent all people who see a latent connection between certain Islamic ideas and terrorist acts as bigoted borders on the libellous. This error is fuelled by two misapprehensions, whose explanation should clarify a legitimate exposition of the Islam-terror connection.

First, it is often emphasised that followers of the Wahhabist strain of Sunniism and its equivalents in Shiism are a minority, and that to criticise the entire faith on the basis of these small strains is to paint the entire religion with a wide proverbial brush. However, it ought to be kept in mind that by attributing blame on Islamic doctrine for such behaviour, one is not saying that all interpretations of said doctrine motivate the same actions; to the contrary, it is undeniable that many interpretations do not do so. But it remains that Islam in all of its forms is a text-based religion which reveres its holy book as revealed truth. And it is from Quranic scriptures and the Hadith — particularly ones calling for violence against non-believers — that radical Muslims claim their legitimacy.

The fact that most Muslims do not accept the radicals’ interpretation misses the point. Non-radical Muslims may well interpret jihad to mean a personal struggle of faith instead of a mandate for violence against non-believers. Yet because of the fundamental textual nature of Islam, it is with the Word itself, and not merely its interpretations, that one quarrels. And to the extent that the scriptures are protected by a cloak of deference, Islam is indeed responsible when these scriptural doctrines motivate terrorism, just as Christianity held responsibility for religious anti-Semitism when some of its own scriptural passages kindled that prejudice. Such was the case until the Catholic Church expressly repudiated its anti-Semitic doctrines in the 1965 encyclical Nostra Aetate, even though many, if not most, believing Christians had previously abandoned the belief that Jews were collectively guilty of deicide. Likewise, the fact that most Muslims do not support Islamic terrorism does not mean that such terrorism is not Islamic.

Second, to accuse critics of Islam of suffering from “Islamophobia” also reveals an intent to equate them with racial bigots. This is based on either the fact that most Muslims are not white — a moot point in the Boston case, as the Tsarnaevs were (literally) Caucasian — or the tendency to lump all kinds of bigotry into one category. This tendency is particularly harmful to arguments about religion because it fails to appreciate that, unlike ethnicity, religious beliefs are fundamentally a set of ideas in which people choose to believe, which relate directly to the way that people live their lives, and which are perfectly subject to evaluation. Just as one’s liberty to support Communism did not insulate Marxism-Leninism from ideological challenge, the freedom to believe in Islam does not insulate Islam itself from the charge that its doctrines are pernicious.

Political discourse would be considerably improved if people realised that the truth is not egalitarian, even on sensitive topics such as this. But to restate the above proviso, there remains every reason to be conscious of a bigoted tone of voice that opposition to Islam sometimes takes. This does not, however, neuter the real discussion to be had about the effects of Islamic doctrine. If this argument is to remain fruitful, these are two thoughts that any serious person must accommodate, and ones that political commentators ought not to conflate.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com