All this Muslim business

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by Neil Godfrey

Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and no doubt many other atheists have landed especially hard blows against the Muslim religion recently, prompted specifically by the recent wave of deadly protests over the trailer for the film Innocence of Muslims. So here are my two bits.

Sam Harris dismisses the idea that murderous violence of Muslim rioters should be ultimately blamed upon Western foreign policies (a euphemism for invasion, occupation, exploitation, support for violent overthrow of some dictators and democratically elected governments alike, and support for the violent entrenchment of other dictators among the Muslim states of the Middle East).

Sam Harris has countered that if it were not for the particular religious teachings of the Muslim religion then Muslims would not react with blood-lust against makers and facilitators of a satirical movie mocking their religion. Christians don’t react the same way when someone insults their faith. So it is clear that there is something more rotten in the state of Islam than in other religious faiths.

One of the problems (there are several) I have with this argument is that the Muslim violence we have been experiencing has not been with us until quite recent times. Violence and terrorism used to come from anarchists and secular political movements in Europe and the Middle East. The pioneer suicide bombers (in Lebanon in the 1980s) included Christians and Socialists (See Dying to Win by Richard Pape). The current wave of Muslim violence is not one of history’s constants but is a new thing.

Presumably Sam Harris’s complaint is that a more civilized religion would not see its adherents so seethe in response to whatever geopolitical shifts or Western policy intrusions into the Middle East have occurred in recent times, so that when an insulting work raises its head, devotees of more benign faiths would still manage to behave themselves.

But that just leads to the next question: Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule? And another question: How do we explain the quiet of the Muslims for so long until quite recent times? Did no one ever publish a blasphemous or satirical cartoon or work until recent times? Or did Muslim communities generally ignore anything like that however offended they may have personally been?

What has happened, it seems so clear to me, is that the earlier popular political movements among Muslim nations (not only Arabs — Iranians have been key targets, too) have been snuffed out by Western backed dictators. With the demise of socialist movements the void has been filled by religious leaders. Not unlike the replacement of the union and workers’ movements in the United States in the nineteenth century by the churches — the one major remaining meeting and sharing point many people had after the bloody suppression of popular secular political protest by business magnates.

To focus on Muslim outrage over films and cartoons is to focus on the symptoms of an issue that is far more sinister. Western media count the number killed by the rioters. The numbers of Muslims killed by Western powers or Western backed powers during the same period do not reach our consciousness.

No, this is not an “anti-Western” or “anti-American” snipe. The U.S. is behaving pretty much the same way as any other imperial power in history has behaved. (And each such power has similarly believed in its own “exceptionalism”, in the goodness of its motives, when it acts in the affairs of other nations or kingdoms. Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was to put an end to Czech terrorism; Rome’s empire, like Britain’s, was the burden it “unintentionally” acquired from unselfishly trying to bring peace to others.)

Against such power interests it would seem futile to even speak. Except for the fact that those who are aware of what is happening and the part they themselves play in it will always feel a personal outrage at what is being done to others in their name and feel compelled to do something if at all possible, even if only to do their bit to raise awareness among others.

But there are many Muslim leaders who are condemning the recent violence, too. (I heard that planned repeat demonstrations in Sydney — violence erupted in the first one — were called off as a result of pressure from moderate Muslim leaders.)

Condemning the Muslim religion as worse than the others is not helpful at a time like this. It can only exacerbate the tensions and make it more difficult for the Muslim majority leaders to influence their volatile minorities.

This is a critical moment in history for Muslim peoples. In past history Christians have had their critical moments, too — and acted just as murderously. Salem, persecutions, lynch mobs, wars, ethnic cleansings. But historians rarely put these outbreaks down to the virulent nature of the Christian religion — despite the many perpetrators of this violence claiming to act in the name of their religious beliefs. It is clear in hindsight that something far deeper than the mere belief systems of the Christian religion was involved. Other events and developments led many to seize upon cruel passages in the Bible to justify their blood actions. That Christianity itself has been pro-slavery and anti-slavery, anti-feminist and pro-feminist, and such, tells us that religions are not self-contained bubbles in the world but are constantly being fed by wider social and political issues.

To focus the blame of recent violence upon the Muslim faith is, I think, black and white, simplistic and unhelpful thinking.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “All this Muslim business”

  1. And equally, to propound that the Islam faith has no part in this is rather simplistic also. I’m not saying you have done so, but I seem to be getting an impression in that direction. Have you viewed this?


    I’m having trouble seeing the geopolitical aspects here. Fatwas? Stonings? At least least at this point in time I have a lot of trouble not seeing Islam as worse than Christianity.

    I would prefer being a ‘yes man’ here, but am not quite able to 100% do so on this particular post. Generally enjoy following you about as you expose me to much arcane thinking I would never find for myself.
    Rarely comment here, as the scholarship and erudition of you and most of your commentators is for the most part more knowledgeable than I am.

    1. The scene reminds me very much of what I witnessed on the University of Queensland campus back in the time of the Vietnam protests — the disruption of meetings, the preventing of others from speaking freely in public, the physical violence (although then the police themselves were sometimes the targets unlike in the scenario here.) It also reminds me of Christian attempts to disrupt a blasphemous movie.

      The Muslim issue is certainly complex one, but one value of studying history, I think, is that one does learn to try to understand events like this “holistically”. Christians have had their dark days, too, and in those times surely there were some who thought Christianity must be the worst religion of all.

      Geopolitics is another euphemism, by the way. Think humiliation and worse. (Discussed as aspect of this in an earlier post.)

      The radical-political extremist Islam that has arisen in the place of the secular popular political forces that were snuffed out is not to anyone’s liking. It is a counterpart to the extremist violent secular political wings of movements that once otherwise attracted a lot of popular sympathy. If we are going to get along it is surely necessary to know each other, and simplistically reducing a diverse group of people to a common denominator — whether it be religion or race — is never helpful.

  2. ” Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule?”

    Do you have any data to suggest that the majority of Muslims are “embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule”? Because all the data that I have ever seen suggests that – depending on where you look – smallish to large minorities and up to small majorities actually support the violence. And everyone else I have read on the topic agrees that the majority of Muslims are silent on the topic most or all of the time.

    See the second reply to comment number 9 on this thread: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/what-is-islamophobia/#comments
    These are British Muslims, for heaven’s sake.

    1. I can point to many news stories, documentaries, Muslim activities, but the most rigorous data, I suppose, can be found in respected research polls:

      Most Muslims reject extremism; and most Muslim immigrants want to assimilate with West: http://www.people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/
      also http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

      Comparatively few Muslims support Al Qaeda and Taliban: http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/07/10/most-muslims-want-democracy-personal-freedoms-and-islam-in-political-life/

      Most Muslims do not believe Arabs were responsible for 9/11 attacks: http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/07/21/muslim-western-tensions-persist/
      Muslims tend to think Judaism is the religion most prone to violence:

      Unemployment, of most concern to non-Muslims is likewise of top concern to Muslims: http://www.pewglobal.org/2006/07/06/muslims-in-europe-economic-worries-top-concerns-about-religious-and-cultural-identity/

  3. And these same Pew Global research polls show the following:

    Percentage of those [Muslims] interviewed who say that suicide bombing against civilian targets is “Never Justified”:

    Jordan (2005) 11%

    Lebanon (2002) 12%

    Pakistan (2004) 35%

    Indonesia (2002) 54%

    Turkey (2002) 64%

    Morocco (2004) 38%

    And this is for suicide bombing in defense of Islam against civilians. The numbers of those who would support violence against those they have a specific grievance against would be expected to be much higher!

    Consider British(!) Muslims:

    NOP Research: 78% of British Muslims support punishing the publishers of Muhammad cartoons
    NOP Research: 68% of British Muslims support the arrest and prosecution of anyone who insults Islam
    Policy Exchange: One third of British Muslims believe anyone who leaves Islam should be killed

    Populous poll: 11% of British Muslims believe there are ” circumstances under which you think that suicide bombings can ever be justified in the UK against government buildings/workers”.

    That ” the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule” is not easily defensible, I think.

    1. The figures you have selected are misleading, are they not, if you fail to show other figures in the same poll that show the situation is not so black and white as you suggest.

      On the NOP poll from 2006 that you cite, you fail to point out that the same poll shows most British Muslims would prefer to live under British Law than Sharia Law. Now that makes any conclusion you might draw from your single figure not quite so simple. So I am reminded of Christians who personally believe their should be laws against blasphemous shows and offensive anti-Christian attacks etc but who nonetheless believe in abiding by the laws of the land.

      As for your figures on Muslims who say suicide bombing against civilian targets, they are not the ones I read in the PEW polls (2011) that I linked to.

      Rather, for 2011:

      Jordan — 55%
      Lebanon — 39%
      Pakistan — 80% — same as U.S. Muslims — looks like a healthy majority to me.
      Indonesia — 77%

      Lebanon is different, likewise Jordan. Lebanon was where suicide bombing was born — it was in direct response to resisting an enemy occupying power and massacres of women and children in refugee camps. Suicide bombers included Christians and Socialists as well as Muslims. (As far as I am aware, most suicide bombings have been said to be related to occupation by foreign powers or ethnic cleansing/population displacement situation.)

      I think one of the most telling of statistics is that the majority of Muslims appear to refuse to believe Muslims carried out 9/11 attacks. Of course I disagree with them, but it is surely significant that most Muslims cannot believe it of their fellow-religionists.

      Your inference that if people would justify an action to defend their religion they would be more likely to justify the same act for a personal grievance does not follow at all. I would suggest the opposite — and the full range of figures pointing to attitudes on fitting in with Western society etc supports this.

  4. Agreed. One addition, that applies to many situations oc “why just recently”. The thing that changed dramatically is media. The YouTube video was seen by millions on the first day and spread by email and phones from there.

  5. “Pakistan — 80% — same as U.S. Muslims — looks like a healthy majority to me.”

    You have made my point for me. When we get to the point where 20% of the American Christian population believes suicide bombing is justified to defend Christianity perhaps you will recognize that as a problem?

    The fact is that in many places around the world – including modern secular Western societies – Muslim communities are more sympathetic to extremism ,ie they are more radicalized than Christian/Jewish communities. Which means we can not extrapolate our own subjective experiences/understanding of Christian and Jewish mindsets to those of Muslim communities, as I believe you did when you said ” Why do the majority of Muslims not react so violently but have instead been embarrassed by the violence and have loudly urged their brothers and sisters to simply ignore the ridicule?”. The reason that Muslim extremism is not repudiated by large majorities of Muslims is because large minorities to outright majorities of Muslims are sympathetic to them.

    1. Roger, you have just seen the evidence that large majorities of Muslims do indeed reject extremist violence but are rationalizing a contrary conclusion. I don’t know what media you listen to but I am constantly hearing and reading of Muslim authorities and spokespeople repudiating the current violence and expressing shame and embarrassment. But I do try to extend my news sources to a wide range — I certainly don’t rely on the singular view of media dominated by half a dozen companies and that have have a track record of whipping up popular support for wars against Muslim countries.

      I don’t know if 20% of Christians and Jews think that suicide bombming can be ever be justified in some circumstances (you rephrased the question being answered for some reason), but I agree that I would be surprised if that many did. After all, they are the dominant world powers and have the means to drop their bombs without any need for them to be delivered by a would-be “martyr” — as they do on a regular basis. Suicide bombing is the weapon of the powerless. I would recommend some academic status research on the phenomenon. I mentioned one such volume earlier and another that explains what is going on in the minds of many of those who have been responsible for these attacks. It’s a horrific thing we all want to see end so we owe it to ourselves to understand exactly what it’s all about lest we find ourselves supporting the very things that have till now exacerbated the problem.

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