Why have discussions about Islamic terrorism turned out like this?

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by Neil Godfrey

I was lamenting the way so many discussions about Islamic terrorism turn out to be not really discussions at all with a friend this morning and he reminded me of a few basics that sometimes slip my mind.

I’m referring to my previous post here. Nick Cohen was not responding to the actual arguments of the other side. He was reading right past the actual words spoken and using them as signals to assess what he believed to be the values, the beliefs, the intentions of the other side of the debate.

The other side is a “regressive left”, they would have us all sympathize with the terrorists and blame the West and limit our freedoms so that no-one offends any Muslim, and anyone who dares criticise the religion of Islam is labelled an Islamophobe. It is not difficult for me to interpret some commenters on Vridar as thinking the same of me on the basis of what I write.

So why are such absurdly false charges made in the first place?

I was reminded of the answer. It is to shut debate down. If the other side is shown (it is believed) to be on the side of the enemy then that settles the matter.

That led me to thinking about my analogy with the study of the rise of Nazism in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s. 

Imagine the research that has been undertaken and published over the years were being expressed at the time, that is, in the 1920s and 30s. Would some people have been offended and accused the authors of “explaining Nazism away” and “effectively supporting Nazism” and of saying we deserved to suffer another world war?

Would they have accused us of being mouthpieces of Hitler and supporting him by quoting him and his writings to explain some contributing reasons for Nazism’s emergence?

There is safety in hindsight. It is safe now to do all of that to explain Nazism without being accused of whitewashing the crimes of Nazism or justifying Hitler’s wars.

(Actually some of what has been understood by historians was indeed understood and expressed by some in Hitler’s own day. It didn’t take an Einstein to grasp the role of the war guilt clause and reparations terms of the Versailles treaty in fomenting a discontent that to a significant degree fuelled Nazism’s rise.)

Yet attempting to understand today’s threatening movement the same way is almost guaranteed to prompt some to accuse us of being justifiers of terrorism.

The arguments, what we say, are ignored. Not completely ignored. The trigger words that evoke judgements of values and motives are latched on to and spur the accusatory responses. Maybe not even the trigger words. Maybe just the general idea — if the idea is not identical to “blaming Islam and the Quran” as the primary and sufficient reason for all the barbarism of ISIS and other terrorism.

And that brings me to another TYT commentary on a recent Gallup Poll: Views of Violence. Look at two of the findings of this Gallup Poll:


MENA = Middle East and North Africa


A couple of people who commented on the TYT site justified the findings that there is much greater support for sometimes (“when necessary”) deliberately targeting civilians by military forces in the US and Canada than there is in MENA countries.

After all, they said, we “have to bomb civilians” in Muslim countries because they support terrorists.

Just like we had to firebomb Germany then firebomb and nuke Japan, just like the commander had to shoot random rounded up civilians in a village to save the lives of his soldiers from further terrorist attacks from among those civilians.

What the attitude depressingly demonstrates is our dehumanization of the other. “They” are just a blanket mass. Muslims, too, are just a monochrome mass. There is no thought or a glimmer of awareness that many of those civilians, even (or especially) those under ISIS rule, have no choice, or that they are forced to choose between evils and whatever is going to be of immediate help in keeping their families alive and reasonably less insecure than they were before ISIS took over.

There is no hint of awareness of what factors are really involved in the rise of today’s extremist Islamists in the West, who these people are (Muslims, aren’t they?), what they are reading (the Quran, isn’t it?) . . . .

What is the wisest way to handle all of this? How to discuss?

I’ve been reading a fair bit about the what our moral systems are and how they may or may not work. Still have a long way to go to understand what I really want to understand.


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Neil Godfrey

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39 thoughts on “Why have discussions about Islamic terrorism turned out like this?”

  1. There seems to be a determination on the part of some Westerners to blame the West for the rise of Islamic terrorism, when it is mostly Muslims killing other Muslims in Pakistan, the Yemen, Nigeria, Kuwait, Bali etc etc.

    One main reason for the rise in extreme Islam is the promulgation of the extreme Islam sect of Wahhabism.

    According to Wikipedia, this underwent ‘explosive growth’ in the 1970s


    1. Sure. Are you simply not aware of the role the West played in the rise of Wahhabism? Through involvement in setting up Mujahideen to fight a proxy war against Russia in Afghanistan, and through support of, and collusion with Saudi Arabia? Especially as a means to ‘balance’ Shia power in Iran.

      1. And of course the Arab Spring was never permitted to take root in Saudi Arabia, and not because of any love for this regime imposed upon them by non-Arabs.

      1. The issue that discussions are being shutdown and people are being othered is EXACTLY the problem experienced by people pointing out problems with mass muslim immigration and all the fun accompanying problems that come with that (like terrorism, high streetcrime, high dependency on state support for some groups, all kinds of vague rivalries between ethnicities and sects). For decades i might add.

        I remember an immigration discussion shut down in the 90’s, one party had “full is full” as one of their slogans. Besides being ignored on purpose in parliament by all other parties, that slogan got him convicted of racism (no really). The person on the second seat of his party was disabled and got a nice workroom on the attic of parliament, had to be carried up a small set of stairs every day. Tell me more about those great honest debates among equals where nobody gets othered or painted islamophobe. Not much changed in this status quo since.

        I don’t want to insinuate anything, but do you get your information about politics in Europe exclusively through english language sources?

  2. In 2006 (IIRC) Nick Cohen published a book “whats left” decrying the Left’s abandonment of the class struggle and the trade union movement, in order to concentrate on narrowly defined oppression politics centred on the middle east. As it happens I agreed with him at the time.

    Now he’s decrying the Left, in Britain at least for re-igniting such issues as class struggle over M.E concerns, at least in the way he would like to define them.


    1. It is not difficult to see the main reason for his change of position; David Aaronovitch et al likewise. The red diapers have changed to blue & white.

  3. I think we can understand the reasons for Islamic terrorism without entirely excusing them. To be sure there may be some blame on both sides. Colonial exraction of oil resources may have partly caused some problems. Though Arabs also benefited from western science and technology.

    1. When anyone first steps past simple religious dogmas, to discover Ethics, what you experience first is dismay. Dismay that there is so little apparent agreement on what is right.

      It might take some time to see it all. Or to make out any universals. Though human beings are mostly alike in many ways.

      It sounds jejune or infantile. But the Golden Rule can help as a first rough step.

    2. Yes. There can be no question that imperialist/colonialist ventures and puppet regimes have had drastic impacts on the Middle East. And more immediately there is no doubt that ISIS grew out of Zarqawi’s efforts in Iraq which preyed upon the chaos from the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. That simply cannot be denied. ISIS is, following Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq movement, a Sunni reaction to Maliki’s Shia expulsion and discrimination against the Sunnis.

      But whenever such indisputable facts are mentioned some people seem to cry Foul! But what’s done is done. Such information needs to be factored into any understanding and program to deal with the problem. It is not the only problem, however, — no more than the Allied punitive measures against Germany after WW1 were the only factor that produced Nazism. Sure the Allies exacerbated the problems, but “blaming the Allies” would have done very little to stop the rise of Nazism itself.

      We live in the world created by earlier generations and are left to deal with the wide range of background factors that go into the mix from which Islamist violence has emerged.

    3. “I think we can understand the reasons for Islamic terrorism without entirely excusing them.”

      I see no reason why we can’t understand the reasons for it without excusing it to the least degree. Explanation is never per se exculpation.

  4. This is another excellent and thoughtful article, Neil.
    I have an older sister (age 76) who is very depressed. Her old computer became so full of viruses after 10 years that she decided to buy a new computer. After trying to figure out what computer to buy, which took about two years, she finally made a decision. Because I suggested buying the cheapest one ($400) as she only uses it for email and shopping, she decided to get the most expensive ($1400). Since buying it three months ago, she has spent about eight hours a day trying to figure out how to work it. Learning Microsoft 10 has proven entirely too complex for her. She calls up help desks and geek squads all day long and when they say that they can only fix the problem by taking control of her computer, she hangs up on them. She is afraid they want control of her computer to spy on her. The new computer that she dreamed would make her life simpler and better, has only made it more difficult. Her hope is gone. Technology has taken control and makes her life miserable.
    Perhaps, the Romans could not handle the book and thus Christianity took over. Perhaps the Germans could not handle the cinema and radio and the Nazis took over. The Middle East could not handle the Internet and Islamic terrorism took over.
    At the base is still economics, but technology exacerbates the social problems.

  5. Sorry Neil, I didnt see the reference to your last post on Cohen in this post, so I’ve only just gone back and read it.

    You mention gorgeous George Galloway and correctly pin him as a representative of the regressive left, I would also add the union representatives of the LGBT and Feminist societies at goldsmiths college for their recent fuckwittery. So there is something tangible on the left that is for want of a better word “regressive”.

    However, for the past few months I have been seeing the phrase thrown around a little too often by a particular group of people (Dawkins, Coyne, now Cohen etc) who although I respect them in their fields, I don’t think are particularly nuanced when it comes to foreign policy. I get the feeling that they’ve found a stick to beat their opponents with , like my generation of teenagers who would just label everybody “fascist!” because it was a shield against listening to hard inconvenient truths.

    BTW , I have followed G Galloway’s career for years and the bloke absolutely fascinates me. Politically I am probably on exactly the same page of the little red book as him, but there is no denying that he is one of the most self serving political opportunists of the last half century. He’s a Muslim now, I don’t know if you knew that? Thing is, its impossible to tell if he is saying something I agree with because of political conviction or just that it will bolster his standing with his core constituency.

    1. Yes, I loved George Galloway when he first burst on to the scene, but I have been forced to see him in a different light in recent weeks as I have made more of an effort to grasp the state of the Muslim-related questions in the UK. Some of my information comes from http://www.onelawforall.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/SidingWithOpressor_Web.pdf

      I suspect others like Coyne and Harris, however, apply the term “regressive left” well beyond those who directly support Islamism or who brand any sort of criticism of Islamism or Islam as Islamophobia.

      I had heard Galloway was a Muslim but didn’t know what to make of the rumour. How can I confirm this report? I used to think he was being tongue in cheek when he followed any mention of Muhammad with PBUH. He says he believes in God and Judgement Day and threatens punishment in the hereafter with more conviction than an American fundamentalist.

      Supporting Islamism is like supporting Nazism because you are angry with how the Allies treated Germany after WW1.

      I have had to cross him off my list of favourite politicians.

  6. It sometimes seems to me that the problem in the middle East is partly due to the regular violent alternations in US foreign policy, caused by the constant changes from Republican to Democratic administrations. In Republican administrations the US favors military and other support for military and other dictators maintaining secular non Muslim order in the Middle East. But then (all other factors being equalized) support shifts in Democratic administrations. To withdrawing support for foreign dictators and their forcable order (as per Kissinger). Thus allowing military Muslim resurgence.

    This radical inconsistency in US Middle Eastern policy helps maintain the two major warring forces in northern Africa: local secular dictators vs. angry Muslims.

    1. I beg to differ on this one. U.S. foreign policy has not been so variable with respect to support for regimes in the Middle East.

      The current Democratic admin was solidly behind blood-stained dictatorships of Mubarak and now el-Sisi contra the Muslim Brotherhood; everyone loved Saddam while hating Assad for many years, though both were in effect “baathist” admins; everyone loved the Shah of Iran while he was there; and everyone always loves the Saudi regime …..

      Islamic State ultimately grew out of Iraq’s Sunni resurgence against the Shia Muslims catapulted to total power after the 2003 invasion and occupation.

      The Western “lone wolf” and other Islamist terrorists are inspired by a brand of Islamism that is deplored by most Muslims even in the Middle East.

      One can only fantasise now of the democratic Middle East admins (with religion divorced from the state) that might have been had only the West given full support to the Arab Spring movement instead of sitting back nervously and finally tilting the scales in favour of dictators and watching the Islamist hijack the movements.

      1. ‘Islamic State ultimately grew out of Iraq’s Sunni resurgence against the Shia Muslims catapulted to total power after the 2003 invasion and occupation.’

        Why were Muslims so upset that other Muslims were now running Iraq rather than the non-Muslim Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz, who was a Christian?

        1. You are surely not serious, Steven. Is your ignorance of current affairs so complete?

          You did know, surely you knew, that the minority Sunnis were the backbone of Saddam’s power (even you knew of the tribalism factor, etc, surely) and the Baathist party and the majority Shia were mostly excluded, but that this was all reversed after Bremer disbanded the army and Baathist party and Maliki continued the complete removal of Sunnis from representation in the new government.

          Did you follow any of the news subsequent to the invasion?

          Surely you heard of Zarqawi who led Al Qaeda in Iraq and was hell bent on starting a civil war between the Sunnis and Shias after 2003 — did you ever hear of those Shia mosques and neighbourhoods being bombed?

          Did you ever hear of “the surge” that attempted to strike one final decisive blow against Zarqawi and others fomenting this civil strife and terror — coinciding with the Sunni “awakening” at the time?

          And then the follow up with the Sunnis being pushed all the more completely out of any role in Maliki’s Shia government as he took advantage of that surge?

          And of the frustration of the Sunnis being torn by al Qaeda in Iraq, bombing and terrorizing those who did not submit to its thuggery on the one hand and their being pushed out by the Shia on the other — with all the chaos that that existence brought…..

          And how after Zarqawi’s demise the Islamic State of Iraq emerged with even more cowering brutality but at least also with some ability to get the water flowing and electricity running again — and how they were the only option open for the Sunnis who had lost their jobs in the military, the administration, the civil service etc…. and how they at least found some security with ISI —

          And how ISI through other ventures, especially in Syria, transformed into today’s Islamic State — continuing Zarqawi’s hatred and war against the Shia.

          But if you haven’t bothered to keep yourself informed of these elementary fundamentals from the daily news I guess you won’t even bother reading this reply to yet another presumably rhetorical question born of ignorance of those Arab Muslims over there.

            1. Right Steven. Muslims are such a bloodthirsty evil lot, aren’t they. Not like Christians who would never have any blood feuds among themselves. Such evil monsters those Muslims. Right.

              And it’s not as if Zarqawi or Islamic State are any different from the average Muslim anywhere in the world.

              You truly are ignorant and a bigot.

              1. According to your description of what happened, then yes , they are. I was genuinely shocked at the internecine feuding you portrayed.

                Christians did the same during the Thirty Years War.

              2. I guess when you read about these wars you just see two sides as each one big blur, all the same, every person dripping blood. All Muslim. All Arabs. All Orientals.

                And of course all Muslims are alike. And of course all Sunnis are terrorists because they were cowered by such a tiny few with horrific violence; and of course the Shia are such bloody terrorists because they have suffered the most from Al Qaeda and IS terrorism.

                Congratulations for not having the first clue about Islamic terrorism, Steven, and for not having a clue how the ordinary person has fared there.

                Your ignorance really shocks me.

                (If you were prepared to actually discuss these issues instead of dropping in your “gotcha” comments I’d happily believe your ignorance is not wilful.)

              3. For the benefit of a wider readership it might be worth pointing out that Steven’s Thirty Year War comparison is absurd.

                Before 2003 Sunni and Shia intermarried and got along fine at the level of daily intercourse.

                The “internecine” strife Steven pictures has primarily been the result of a handful of terrorists (al Qaeda/Zarqawi and now Islamic State) that did not exist in Iraq prior to 2003.

                Extreme terror has been used first cause chaos and fear between Sunnis and Shia as well as within Sunni areas. Extreme terror worked in cowering large Sunni areas and former Baathists into submission.

                To picture the conflict as warmongering Muslims at each others’ throats is to imagine an appalling falsehood.

                It’s the very black and white thinking that Islamic State’s “ideologues” have publicly expressed that they want to bring about in the world through their terrorism.

  7. We cannot ignore the clerical structures in Muslim communities that defer to their sacred texts as sociopolitical guidelines. The difficulty with these is that Muhammad comes across primarily as a warrior-legislator compared to Jesus more as a pacifist-healer. This contrast does not change the responsibility of Anglo-Israeli policies in provoking hostile reactions among these religious communities.

    1. Like Steven you keep rolling out the same point that fails to acknowledge the difference between Islam and Islamism, between terrorist groups and Muslims as if they are all one community, the ideological writings of Qutb and those of traditional non-Wahhabist Muslim scholars. Both of you persist in blurring any and everything with a Muslim association as just a grey blur and continue to spread the message of the Islamists themselves.

      What you say we cannot ignore is the message the Islamists want you to spread and that is dividing Western society and doing the propaganda work of Islamic State.

      Nor is this an “overly nuanced” point. Extremists and Muslims have as much in common as the Christian Identity movement had/has with Christianity.

      1. Sorry for adding this so late. Not sure if it’s productive, i try, but i’m happy to go back to lurking mostly.

        While i usually make the islamism/islam distinction, many people do not, because they see no reason to absolve non-islamist muslims of complicity, just like many non-religious people really don’t care to get into the details of which particular christian sect is non fundy. The reasoning behind that isn’t lingering prejudice or racism as some simpletons like to yell at every single oppertunity, it’s ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities’. So, better to limit exposure to people that publicly commit themselves to absurdities, remember, in europe, these are mostly secular societies where a lot of people consider public expression of religion to be weird at best.

        If people blur this line a lot, you might want to check how western-european governments communicated and approached immigrants from muslim countries for decades, they were always presented as a single community of 100% muslims, always spoken to through their muslim identity, referred to “their” imam when they had questions for the city council. And still, even now, refugees complaining about being harassed by other refugees in asylum centres are told “well there’s muslims here”, no freedom or basic human rights for you, you’re supposed to be muslim. A nice example of insidious regressive left racism btw (i’ll find you the article link if interested, you seemed incredulous about the existence of the regressive left before).

        So, if western-european citizens make this (arguable) mistake a lot, that’s because of decades of complete mismanagement of immigration, accompanying challenges, and completely disinterested politicians, except when they could all get together and make fun of those “xenofobic racists” warning them for the consequences down the road. The citizens have been sold the story that everyone from muslim countries is a muslim, and that islam is a monolithic entity for decades, so chastising people for that is really not productive, and hardly the indicator of racism that some people think it is. It’s a reflection of what they’ve seen from the government for decades.

        Communities have responsibilities to themselves and the larger society, when a group doesn’t meet those responsibilities (or at least seen as not meeting them), people will dislike your group, and that dislike will affect individuals and the group. That’s what is going on right now, right or wrong, better or worse. Attempts to steer discussions towards islamophobia, racism or religion bashing are all just unproductive distractions, and prolonging suffering of muslim- and non-muslim immigrants, and the exisiting population alike.

        Just look at the organized (according to finnish police reports) pan-european sexual assault spree during newyear which has given us the word “rapetunnel”, it’s the direct result of pushing already failing policies to their extreme limits combined with the wishful thinking of Merkel. The local government even tried to keep the ‘incident’ quiet, and later resorted to outright lying to the public when asked about the perpetrators in front of tv cameras. Unfortunately for her, her signature is on the report made earlier that contains that information. Citizens are now obviously wondering what else has been kept quiet, and their confidence in the sitting government is taking a nosedive. It’s a giant mess, with lots of blame to go around and lots of distrust going around.

        1. Numerous factors have fed into this “giant mess” (social reality) aka “challenges” (political rhetoric), not only those here indicated. In the end, detailed knowledge and genuine honesty, especially about culture-clash, will be required to mitigate these problems, if not solve them altogether. The problems are likely to be complicated in western nations by further continual mass immigration from poor regions with high reproductive rates.

        2. Extremist Islamist groups were not in existence among Muslims migrating to the West until recent decades so your historical outline of the generalisation of Muslims is misinformed.

          And most Western extremist Muslims are not immigrants but born in the West and feeling an acute sense of displacement, being neither Westerner nor of the culture and religion of their parents. (I am not saying all second generation Muslims feel this way nor am I saying that all of those who do turn to extremism. Most don’t.)

          Ignorance is the seed-bed of prejudice and what you describe is public ignorance. Public information programs are the best antidote to ignorance.

          The attitude that says that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities is a catchy slogan but also an oversimplification and ill-informed assessment of Islamist terrorism. People don’t need to believe absurdities to commit atrocities. And absurdities can also turn people into self-sacrificial pacifist martyrs and saints and willing to face jail and execution rather than commit any act of violence — even in self-defence.

          Barbarism is found across the board and there is a lot of research into explaining why it happens. Unfortunately when it comes to terrorism some people ridicule and misrepresent that research.

  8. No, I have already said e.g. that what is called “terrorism” (as distinguished from defensive war) is not justified by the Qur’an. Some clerics have issued fatwas against it, and most Muslims do not endorse it. My point is not to merge “Islam” and “Islamism” as a single entity, but to distinguish between the content and tone of the Qur’an and those of the Gospels. It is easier for violent jihadists to quote many of their soldier Prophet’s alleged utterances to support violent activities than for churchmen to quote a few of their peacemaker Christ’s to support military actions. Sorry if you see this as either irrelevant or propaganda for “Daesh”.

    1. But such a literary comparison is irrelevant to the problem of terrorism. The writings of relevance to the terrorists are works like The Management of Savagery.

      Your cracked record comparison comment really does cry out to be explained as a form of Muslim-bashing, of pronouncing Muslims as inferior to/more barbaic than Christians — whether you realize it or not. And yes you are indeed carrying the very message of the extremists right from the pages of The Management of Savagery when you make that comparison.

      What is of relevance is the writings followed by the extremists.

      I understand that in the UK you and Steven probably have far more exposure to the unsavoury and scarcely integrated Wahhabist communities and it appears you judge all Muslims to be like those.

  9. What I “realize” among other things is that the Muslim and Christian religions are both mistaken, whether “equally” so or not. Ditto, Judaism, so is that Jew-bashing? You say I “judge all Muslims to be like” the “scarcely integrated Wahhabist communities” although I have never suggested anything of the kind.

    The current persecution of Christians in various parts of the world brings me no pleasure, although I am no more a fan of the guilt-ridden sentimentality of many western ecclesiastics than I am of Christian Zionists with an appetite for violence.

    I have supplied a list of various books I have read, but have yet to obtain the “The Management of Savagery”.

    The kindest response to your accusation of my “cracked record” pronouncement that “Muslims” are “inferior” is that we are talking past each other.

  10. I have since perused the on-line translation of “Management of Savagery” which at intervals quotes the founder of Islam, and looked also at comments on the Counter Jihad Report. I see no reason to retract anything I have said, though I am quite willing to do so if sufficiently persuaded without imaginative slurs against my supposedly malign motives.

    1. Exchanges would be healthier if you did not adopt the victim posture. We can exchange views frankly without stepping into the victim’s shoes.

      To constantly bring up the comparison of the Quran with the Gospels/Bible every time terrorism is the topic here is indirectly smearing by association all Muslims with terrorism. You are very sensitive about using particular names that cast aspersions but you do the same thing in your own way.

      Of course Management of Savagery quotes the Quran. It also quotes George Bush — and with full approval. And a range of scholars, too.

      Your comments would be more constructive if you actually focused on the literature that is informing and the hot topics of discussion among the terrorists. Start with Management of Savagery, then look at Alwaki’s work, and Qutb and others. Study their own Mein Kampfs if you want to understand them. And also study the research that informs us about the extent to which such literature is influential with different sectors, individuals, groups.

      At present you are doing the equivalent of showing how bad the Bible is because of the use to which the Christian Identity movement puts it. Such a procedure would be in effect a slur against all who base their religion on the Bible. I don’t think that would be fair.

  11. I don’t think, and have never said, that all or most Muslims are “barbaric” at all or “more barbaric” than Christians, Jews, Buddhists or atheists. I had Muslim friends in London and in Norwich. I have read Qutb’s “Milestones” and about him; there are interesting resonances with European fascist views (e.g. Bardeche) and you probably saw recent reports of an ISIS statement about Judeo-Masonry, which would have been so familiar to some elderly supporters of the Front National that, for a moment, I wondered if it was a Zionist fake to encourage aliyah from France. I just think it is easier for “terrorists” to (mis)use the Holy Qur’an than for Christians to quote the Gospels to support violence; a posture not of a “victim” but a realist. Happy New Year!

  12. Anon., David, Neil, Steven; between RC’s, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Anabaptists I cannot put a cigarette paper. These four groups argue furiously with one another over differences that are invisible to the outsider. Likewise you four. You may have abandoned, Anon. excepted, xtianity but some of it’s concepts are useful. Charity for one. Leave the noxious squabbling out; you are all better than this.

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