From left: Nicholas Kristof, Michael Steele, Ben Affleck, Bill Maher and Sam Harris. >YouTube/Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO
Comments by Republican presidential contender Ben Carson that he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” and his later clarification that for a Muslim to be president, he or she must “reject the tenets of Islam,” highlights how in the United States, Muslims are often regarded as little more than robots, programmed by a particular interpretation of Islamic beliefs. While others may be motivated and influenced by other factors in their lives, for Muslims, the religious aspect of their lives is supreme. This notion is not only wrong, but also has the potential to motivate bigotry against Muslims. If one believes that Muslims are motivated solely or even primarily by their religion and that religion is particularly dangerous, then Muslims, therefore, must be particularly dangerous.
This tendency to view is Islam as the center of debates that involve Muslims is, of course, nothing new. Last year we were treated to the sight of Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, Michael Steele and Nicholas Kristof arguing on Bill Maher’s HBO show about the extent to which Islam is responsible for the Islamic State group in particular and the current unrest in the Middle East in general. If anything is more absurd than the fact that those assorted figures were having that conversation, it is the fact that their conversation was being framed around Islam in the first place. Although this absurdity may not be clear right away, after taking a step back it becomes obvious. Representatives of the entertainment, political, intellectual and media elite in the United States are not discussing how, over the last 15 years, the United States has all but obliterated at least one Middle Eastern country (Iraq), occupied another (Afghanistan), done everything in its power to prevent the establishment of yet another (Palestine), and propped up brutal monarchs and dictators in countless more (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, to name a few). Instead, they chose to discuss what should be done about the religion that a majority of the people in this region happen to follow.
By way of comparison, imagine watching panel members on a Chinese talk show discuss to what extent the Buddhist faith was responsible for resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. Any outside observer would immediately realize that Buddhism was beside the point. Although, the Dalai Lama and other symbols of their faith may be rally points for many in Tibet, the prime reason for any unrest is, of course, the Chinese occupation. In the same way, although Islam certainly plays a big role in the Islamic State group and other Muslim militant organizations, the religion should not be the center of the conversation, particularly when discussing how Washington should react to these terror groups, whose presence are a direct result of U.S. foreign policy. Changing religious sentiments is not an effective strategy in the United States and other Western countries’ efforts against terrorism. However, changing policies that continue to create fertile ground for religious extremism to take hold is.
Harris, a New Atheist, said on Maher’s show that, “We have to be able to criticize bad ideas, and Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” In defense of that statement, Harris wrote,
[I]magine that the year is 1970, and I said: ‘Communism is the Mother lode of bad ideas.’ How reasonable would it be to attack me as a ‘racist’ or as someone who harbors an irrational hatred of Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, etc. This is precisely the situation I am in. My criticism of Islam is a criticism of beliefs and their consequences — but my fellow liberals reflexively view it as an expression of intolerance toward people.
Harris misses the point here. Most of those who critique the New Atheist and neoconservative stance on Islam do not do so because they think Islam or any other belief system should not be criticized. Rather they do so because such criticism is, at best, tangential when considering the wider role that U.S. and Western policies have played in the region, and is, at worst, dangerous when used to justify violence inflicted on the Muslim world.
Harris’ comparison between criticism of communism and Islam is telling for another reason. Many people during the Cold War labeled communism the “the Mother lode of bad ideas” and that label was used to create the fear needed to justify horrendous acts committed by the United States and regional allies from Central and South America to South East Asia and violently repress resistance movements that threatened Western dominance. In the same way, today, the U.S. has used fear of Islam to prop up oppressive dictators like Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, and its present leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi; support Israel’s brutal occupation and periodic massacres of Palestinians; and justify its barbaric response to insurgent activities in Iraq. The choice of emphasizing religion over these other factors is all the more unfortunate because the role that Washington and its allies play in the region is something that Americans can actually influence.
In the case of the Islamic State group’s horrific rampage through Iraq and Syria, many analysts have emphasized how important the role of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was in the group’s success. In an interview with The Guardian, a senior commander with the Islamic State group said, “If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. … It made us all. It built our ideology.” Combine this with the tacit U.S. support for supposed moderate opposition groups fighting President Bashar Assad in Syria and it becomes easy to see how integral the U.S. has been in creating the right conditions for the Islamic State group to grow. These mistakes serve both as a lesson that has been ignored for too long about how interventions can have unintended consequences and as a reminder of the West’s responsibility for what is taking place in the region.
This mistaken overemphasis on the role of religion in Middle East conflicts was highlighted in an essay published in the Wall Street Journal by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in March called “Why Islam Needs a Reformation.” In the essay, Ali lays the blame for the violence gripping much of the Muslim world at the feet of “otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims” who “are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.” The essay ignores the fact that many of these moderate Muslims are leading the military fight against the Islamic State group without necessarily renouncing any theological beliefs. Ali argues that five areas of Islamic scripture require amendments. The particulars of these proposed amendments are not significant. Rather what is important for Ali is the need to repudiate certain religious doctrines. This position assumes it is belief alone that creates the conditions for violence in the Muslim world and not other relevant structural factors. Whatever the relevance of these religious doctrines may be, most readers of the Wall Street Journal would be much more able to influence structural factors through U.S. foreign policy than they would be to change the personal beliefs of Muslims.
This narrow focus on the role of religious beliefs versus other factors is also found in analysis of domestic terrorism. Much of the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused on a note he wrote on the inside of a boat while evading capture, explicitly stating why he and his brother Tamerlan chose to set off a homemade bomb, which killed three marathon spectators, including an 8-year-old child. In the note, which had some words lost from bullet holes, Tsarnaev wrote,
The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a M[hole] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all, well at least that’s how Muhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [hole] ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/awa [hole] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [hole] it is allowed. All credit goes to [hole].
From this passage it is clear that Tsarnaev’s motivation to commit his horrible crime was not simply a matter of “I am a Muslim and you are infidels therefore you must die,” but rather a sense of identification with the thousands of Muslims who have been killed in U.S. military operations over the past 15 years and anger that no one has been punished for those killings.
Tsarnaev’s words contain many religious elements, which should be discussed, however, not without discussion of the political elements, as happened in a conversation between Harris and Ali last year, when Harris said,
Everyone reports that the brothers were motivated by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the implication being that U.S. foreign policy is to blame. And yet, as you point out, the only plausible reason that a Chechen American would murder innocent people in protest over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be that he accepted the Islamic doctrine of jihad. Islam is under attack. The infidels have invaded Muslim lands — these grievances are not political. They are religious.
This reading of Tsarnaev’s motivations fails to account for the explicit statement that he made when he wrote that his anger comes from the unpunished killing of innocent civilians by the United States government, rather than a vague anger over infidels invading Muslim lands.
There is nothing wrong with Harris and Ali discussing the religious elements of Tsarnaev’s motivations, but to do so at the expense of the political context surrounding his actions evades any opportunity to discuss how U.S. invasions and occupations have contributed to violent sentiments and how these sentiments can be mitigated.
There are many more examples of religious fears taking precedence over more substantive matters. For example, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders has referred to the refugee crisis gripping Europe as an “Islamic invasion.” In the United States, fears about making deals with a Muslim country have been used to rally support against the Iran nuclear deal. In all these cases, the overemphasis on Islam serves to stoke irrational fears and prevent dealing with what actually matters, such as the worsening crisis of refugees dying on their way to Europe or the need for better relations between the West and Iran. Religious beliefs matter, certainly. However, to make changing beliefs rather than policies a focus of relations with the Muslim World is not a likely road to success for the United States and other Western countries.