Islam, Violence and the Science of Bigotry
Over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent that Muslims are receiving the kind of treatment once reserved for blacks, Jews and Irish – dehumanized groups that were also the victims of racial and ethnic prejudice and violence. Anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many as normal and uncontroversial, as the patronising, superficial way Islam is discussed in powerful and far reaching quarters make the world a less tolerant place for believers.
“We have to be able to criticize bad ideas and Islam is the motherload of bad ideas,” said Neo-Atheist Sam Harris in a heated TV discussion with actor Ben Affleck. Not to be outdone, controversial host Bill Maher was quick to echo the sentiment,“It’s the only religion that acts like the Mafia.”
The trio, appearing on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, collided while debating whether large numbers of the Muslim population are inherently violent with an oppressive and backward outlook to life.
Seeking an explanation, Affleck then asked the panelists: “What is your answer? Is it just to condemn Islam? We’ve killed more Muslims than they have killed us by an awful lot. Yet somehow we are exempt from these things. Because they are not really a reflection of what we believe in.”
He then added sarcastically: “It was by accident, that’s how we invaded Iraq. I am explicitly telling you that I disagree with what you think.”But Maher disparagingly tells the actor: “We are obviously not convincing anyone here.”
While Maher might be the loudest and most frank in his bigotry towards Muslims, the inclusion of academics such as Sam Harris points to a subtler, more pervasive and far more dangerous ‘anti-Islam’ that has crept into mainstream coverage. This is the type of Islamophobia that presents itself as a critical and candid study of ‘Islamic Extremism’, but in the process does just what Maher does; it assumes that the violent actions of reactionary movements are the default position of all Muslims and that they share inherent traits making them worse than other human beings. Sam Harris’ methodology is an attempt to employ ‘science’ and the charade of objectivity to legitimise contempt towards other communities. Prompting memories of ‘scientific racism’ and Nazi Eugenics, a forced sterilisation program engineered by the Nazis to improve the Germanic “master race”, that sought to justify its abhorrent policy with reference to Charles Darwin’s magnum opus: “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”.
Far from voicing criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion, Harris has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening, requiring specific policies above and beyond those required for other groups. “While the other major world religions have been fertile sources of intolerance, it is clear that the doctrine of Islam poses unique problems for the emergence of a global civilization.” He has insisted that there are unique dangers from Muslims possessing nuclear weapons, as opposed to nice Western secularists (the only ones to ever use them) or those kind Israeli Zionists: “It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of devout Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence.” In his 2005 “End of Faith”, he claimed that “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thorough going cult of death.”
Such conclusions are nothing short of a sustained demonisation campaign particularly at a time the Western world has been engaged in more than a decade long splurge of violence, aggression and abuses against Muslims.
More significantly, Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily, if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture (“there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like ‘water-boarding’ may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary“); to steadfast support of Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim adversaries (“In their analyses of US and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder non-combatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so…there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah“); to Muslim profiling (“We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it“); to state violence (“On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that ‘liberals are soft on terrorism.’ It is, and they are“). He argued for extrajudicial killing of Muslim suspects like in the CIA drone programme (“some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them“); and even advocated nuclear first strike in the advent of an “Islamist nation” acquiring nuclear weapons capability (“the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe“).
A climate of bigotry has allowed standards to be applied to Muslims that could not be applied under conventional circumstances. Those who advocate these measures (torture, extrajudicial killing, profiling, nuclear first strike etc) effectively claim that, unlike the West, it is the political beliefs of Muslims in Sharia law – namely cutting the hand of the thief, the beliefs regarding women and apostasy laws – that lead to the problems and instability that exists in Muslim lands. A shallow judgement is made connecting progress in the West with its secular values and regress in the Muslim world with Islamic values. However, a more insightful analysis demonstrates otherwise.
Rather than its adherence to abstract ideals, much of the accumulation of wealth and material progress in the Western hemisphere is a consequence of centuries of colonialism, genocide and a massive exploitation of slave labour.
This was summarised by Samuel P Huntington when he said:
“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence, Westerners often forget this fact, but non-Westerners never do”
On the other hand, the challenges Muslims withstand are a relatively modern phenomena. Far from an outcome of what liberals assume are primitive values adopted from Islam, the volatility in Muslim lands are in fact the aftermath of post-colonial brutality and proxy wars sanctioned by the leading states to this day.
In his book, A Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin, Professor and expert on Economic History at the University of Chicago explained how the current situation in the Muslim world came about:
“Massive amounts of wealth of the old Ottoman Empire were now claimed by the victors. But one must remember that the Islamic empire had tried for centuries to conquer Christian Europe and the power brokers deciding the fate of those defeated people were naturally determined that these countries should never be able organise and threaten Western interests again. With centuries of mercantilist experience, Britain and France created small, unstable states whose rulers needed their support to stay in power. The development and trade of these states were controlled and they were meant never again to be a threat to the West. These external powers then made contracts with their puppets to buy Arab resources cheaply, making the feudal elite enormously wealthy while leaving most citizens in poverty.”
The colonial legacy is not simply a relic of the past but responsible for much of what is taking place today. In 2009, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and his wife as ‘family friends’. The US rewarded his regime and his arguably more ruthless successor Sisi handsomely with billions to sustain them. In 2011, when informed of Hafez Al Assad’s crime of butchering 25,000 people during an uprising against the Syrian regime, Clinton noted that the son, Bashar, was now in power and he was a “different leader” and a “reformer”. Confident of American support, Bashar’s regime went on to oversee the slaughter of 200,000 people with the death toll still rising. Perhaps this confidence was born from the intimate relationship the US enjoyed with Syria following 9/11; Syria was a favourite destination for the US ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. Here, terror suspects were abducted and transferred to secret prisons where “interrogations” (torture or simply making people disappear) could be conducted without the bureaucracy of trials and evidence.
Horrendous crimes of the secular Western states are masked by ideological language. Euphemisms make the inconceivable sound palatable. Millions of deaths of Iraqi citizens are justified in the name of “liberal interventionism”. Bombing a group of unknown individuals in the tribal borders of Pakistan will be referred to as “servicing the target”. States where Muslim populations are mercilessly repressed by Western-backed despots are referred to as “stable” states. Daily Israeli acts of war committed against Gaza are referred as “peace-time”. The reality on the ground does not reflect the language in political discourse.
To detach Western interference from the crisis that exists in the Muslim world would be ignorant at best. However, when advocated by self-styled political experts, one is more inclined to feel this error of judgement is a deliberate ploy designed to sidestep inconvenient truths that do not fit narratives against Islam and Muslims. A narrative that attempts to place the sole blame of the current plight of the Muslim world on Islam while completely ignoring that the Middle East is a post-colonial construction.
For neoliberals it seems that turning a blind eye to colonial blowback isn’t enough – with claims of “Jihadi extremism” being the most pressing issue to the stability of the modern world, the Maher and Harris contribution went on to popularising the claim that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but (nearly) all terrorists are Muslims.” Despite this idea becoming self-evident in some circles, it is simply not factual. Official FBI records show that only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005 were carried out by Islamic extremists. The remaining 94% were from other groups (42% from Latinos, 24% from extreme left wing groups, 7% from extremist Jews, 5% from communists, and 16% from all other groups).
For Europe, Europol publishes an annual report entitled EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. On their official website, the reports from 2006 to 2012 are accessible and the results are profound.
An overwhelming 99.6% of terrorist attacks in Europe were by non-Muslim groups; 84.8% of attacks were from separatist groups completely unrelated to Islam. Leftist groups accounted for over sixteen times as much terrorism as radical Islamic groups. Only a measly 0.4% of terrorist attacks from 2006 to 2012 could be attributed to Muslims.
Sensationalising and selective reporting have certainly skewed perceptions. Violence is not a monopoly of the Muslims but a consistent response from those who have been politically subjugated – suicide bombing was a popular tactic of Sri Lanka’s communist Tamil Tigers long before it became by-words for Islamic terrorism. The Buddhist insurgents of Tibet are accused of orchestrating the unrest and violence in parts of China; in 2008 the Ministry of Public Security spokesperson claimed searches of monasteries in the Tibetan capital had turned up a large cache of weapons, including 176 guns and 7,725 pounds of explosives. With innumerable such examples across the world, it raises the question as to why undue focus is given to Islam and why violent reactions are stripped from the political context? Such an approach only deflects criticism from Western policies that fuels acts of violence, blaming the reaction while absolving oneself of the cause.
With the zeal to impose (through wars and aggressive policies) liberal values on Muslims at its peak, neoliberal cheerleaders are absolutely convinced of furthering a disruptive reform that is on a historically unprecedented scale. It is a reform that wants to see an entire world discarded, with no remnants of its natural heritage, including its social and political institutions.
The rule of law, justice and security are all hopes and aspirations of Muslims that were demonstrated successfully via Islamic governance, under the legitimate Caliphate for over a millennium. Holding differing ideals to a self-righteous Eurocentric worldview to achieve this has never been an obstacle to remarkable progress and stability. In his book “The Spirit of World Politics”, this realisation led Professor Hocking of Harvard University to admit:
“Islamic lands will not progress by merely imitating Western arrangements and values. Can Islam produce fresh thinking, independent laws and relevant statutes to fit the new needs raised by modern society? Yes! – and more! Islam offers humanity greater possibilities for advance than others can. Its lack is not ability – but the will to use it. In reality the Shariah contains all the ingredients needed.”
Unfortunately, the ideological and agenda-driven nature of Capitalist states means that a sincere and detailed examination within powerful, far reaching circles in the West has become a bleak prospect. Today’s neoliberals have formed superficial arguments that make causal links between Islamic values and the state of the Muslim world. The use of haphazard narratives only justifies violence against Muslims, where science and authority figures are used as tools of propaganda. The challenge is to refocus the discussion in its appropriate place, where correlation (when things happen together or in sequence) is not confused for causation (where one thing actually causes the other to happen). Far from being an independent entity, the mass media is generally an extension of the government apparatus. While imperialism persists in Muslim lands, the intellectual war of ideas merely represents a culmination of a long and violent campaign carried out by the West.
Wasif Abu Yusuf