Tag Archives: Islam

Motives for Terror

MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

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After the evil and senseless bombing in Boston, there was considerable speculation about the motives of the bombers. Not surprisingly, some folks blamed their preferred demons: some on the left leaped to conclusions involving right-wingers while those on the right leaped to conclusions involving Islam.  As it turns out, the alleged murderers have a connection to Islam.

While some hold the view that there is a strong causal connection between being a Muslim and being a terrorist, the connection obviously cannot be that strong. After all, the vast majority of Muslims do not engage in terrorism. As such, beginning and ending the discussion of the motive for terror with Islam is not adequate.

When it comes to terrorist attacks against the United States, the stock explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom. A common variation on that is that they hate democracy. Another explanation is that they simply hate the United States and other countries.

The explanation that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of our freedom (or democracy) does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as enemies of freedom and democracy, thus presenting them as having evil motives. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as being attacked because of their virtues. Crudely put, the bad guys are attacking us because they hate what is good.

The explanation that the terrorists simply hate the United States and its allies also does two main things. The first is that it casts the terrorists as simply being haters without any justification for their hate. The second is that it casts the United States and its allies as innocent targets. Crudely put, the haters are attacking us because they are haters.

In both of these approaches, the United States and its allies are presented as innocent victims who are being attacked for wicked or irrational reasons. What certainly helps support this narrative is that the terrorists engage in acts that are wicked and certainly seem irrational. After all, the people who are killed and injured are usually just random innocents who simply happen to be in the blast area at the time. Because of this, it is correct to condemn such terrorists as morally wicked on the grounds that they engage in indiscriminate violence. However, the fact that the direct victims of the terrorists are generally innocent victims of wicked deeds does not entail that the terrorists are motivated to attack innocent countries because they hate us, our freedom or our democracy.

One significant source of evidence regarding the motivation of terrorists is the statements terrorists make regarding their own reasons. In the case of the alleged Boston bomber, he claims that he was motivated by the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the case of other terrorists, they have generally claimed they are motivated by the actions of the United States and its allies.

My point here is not to justify the actions of the terrorists. Rather, the point is that the terrorists do not claim to be motivated by the reasons that have been attributed to them. That is, they do not regard themselves as being driven to attack us because they hate our freedom or democracy. They do often claim to hate us, but for rather specific reasons involving our foreign policy. As such, these stock explanations seem to be in error.

It might be countered that the terrorists are lying about their motivations. That is, that they are really driven by a hatred of our freedom or democracy and are just claiming that they are motivated by our foreign policy and associated actions (like invading countries and assassinating people with drones) for some devious reason.

The obvious reply to this is that if terrorists were motivated by a hatred of freedom or democracy, they would presumably attack countries based on their degree of freedom or democracy. Also, a non-stupid terrorist would take into account the ease of attacking a country and what the country could and would do in response. Hitting the United States to strike against freedom or democracy would thus be a poor choice, given our capabilities and how we respond to such attacks (invasions, drone strikes and so on).  To use an analogy, if someone hated athletes, it would not be very sensible to get into a fist fight with a professional mixed martial artist when one could go beat up a marathon runner (who is not also a martial artist).

It might be countered that the United States is the symbol for freedom and democracy, hence the terrorists want to attack the United States even though they know that this will result in retaliation of the sort that many other democratic states cannot or would not engage in.

While this is not impossible, the more plausible explanation is that the terrorists are motivated by their hatred of our foreign policy. After all, invasions, assassinations and such tend to motivate people to engage in violence far more so than some sort of hatred of freedom or democracy.

It might, of course, be wondered why the motivation of terrorists matter. What matters is not why they try to murder people at a marathon but that they try to do such things.

While what they do obviously matters, why they do it also matters. While I obviously believe that terrorism of the sort that took place in Boston is evil, this does not entail that there are no legitimate grievances against the United States and its allies in regards to our foreign policies. To use an analogy, if Bob blows up Sam’s whole family because Sam killed Bob’s son, then Bob has acted wrongly. But this does not prove that Sam acted rightly in killing Bob’s son. In the case of the United States, the fact that we have been attacked by terrorists does not thus make our invasions or drone assassinations right. Now, it might turn out that our actions are right, but we cannot infer that they are just because terrorists do terrible things.

Sorting out what motivates terrorists is also rather useful in trying to prevent terrorism. If we assume they are motivated by their hatred of our freedom or democracy, then we would have to abandon our freedom or democracy to remove their motivation. This is obviously something that should not be done.

However, if some terrorists are motivated by specific aspects of our foreign policy (such as drone strikes that kill civilians), then it seems well worth considering whether we should change these policies. To use an analogy, if someone keeps trying to attack me because I am virtuous, then I obviously should not abandon my virtues just to stop these attacks. But if someone keeps trying to attack me because I keep provoking him, then I should consider whether or not I should be doing those things. It might turn out that I am in the right, but it might turn out that I am in the wrong. If I am in the wrong, then I should change. But if he is in the wrong, then I would be warranted in not changing (but I would need to be honest about why he is attacking me). For example, if he goes after me because I am stealing his newspaper and dumping leaves in his yard, then I should probably stop doing that. As another example, if he is going after me because I run past his house, then he should stop doing that.

The same would seem to apply to terrorists. If we are engaged in unjust actions that provoke people, then we should stop those actions. If, however, we are acting justly and this provokes people, then we should continue to the degree those actions are warranted and necessary. But we should be honest about why they area attacking us.

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Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims affair

I see that Sam Harris has published a post on the violent responses to what he calls “an unwatchable Internet video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims.'”

There is much in the post to agree with. For a start, I agree that Innocence of Muslims, or the trailer for it, or selection from it, or whatever the hell that was, is (pretty much) unwatchable. I did actually force myself to watch the damn thing (you can find it easily if you really must), but it is atrocious in every possible respect – bigoted, scurrilous, disjointed, and suffering from the most abyssmal production values since Plan 9 from Outer Space (I know I’m not the first to make the comparison, so apologies to whoever was).

Harris dismisses as “obscene” such questions as, “What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book?” I think that’s going too far. It does appear that the film was deliberately created to express hatred for Muslims and to provoke a violent backlash. In the circumstances, we can ask these questions about it, especially when we add in further issues such as (apparently credible) claims of actors being conned into thinking they were involved in a very different project. There is much to discuss about the film itself and the circumstances of its production, even if, at the end of the day we agree with Harris that:

Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.

Yes, that’s right. We do get to express our repudiation of belief systems, including Islam, without being constrained by the power of the state, or so I want to argue (and have done in the past). We can go on to criticise prophets or anyone else. Harris is pretty much correct when he says:

The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance.

Yes, pretty much right. Only “pretty much” because there’s an element of exaggeration to quibble about, the way it’s been worded. The problem is not so much that we can’t “think aloud” on certain topics as that we cannot publish those thoughts widely, once we’ve sorted them out, should we take certain strong stances. But even when the point is expressed in a less rhetorical way, it’s true that an important freedom has been lost, not through the actions of the state but through the willingness of some Muslims to resort to murder in response to what they see as insults to Islam or their prophet.

How should the state and its officials respond – and how should we request that they do so? They may be tempted to suppress some kinds of anti-religious speech and to demonise the speakers as racists and criminals … and in some cases they may even be correct that they are dealing with racists or something very similar. Even leaving aside basic concerns about freedom of speech, however, this response can be counterproductive. If an impression is created that political power is being used to silence opposition to Islam, this will merely add to the resentments against Islam that are already present in Western societies, and which have now been fueled by the violent, in some cases murderous, responses to Innocence of Muslims. More generally, when religious leaders and organisations try to prevent certain speech from being heard or certain images from being seen, this adds to the layers of distrust and resentment. The effect is exacerbated if governments get in on the act, actually assisting to suppress speech and images.

We would all do well to scrutinise ourselves as individuals, and to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, somewhere within our motivations. It is best, however, if the state adopts a strong stance of insisting on freedom of speech. As I say in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, a liberal attitude might permit some ugly speech, and Innocence of Muslims is a very good example, but the long-term effect will be salutary:

…the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind — religious, political, or philosophical — must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.

But will that just make extremist more likely to resort to self-help in the form of violence? I doubt it. As Kenan Malik has argued, a political culture that defends freedom of expression removes some of the resources that extremists draw upon. If we seriously maintain a highly liberal political culture, we make it more difficult for extremists to take, much less justify, violent offence and react with violent action. We deny the extremists the false moral legitimacy that they claim.

Yes, Innocence of Muslims is pretty much as bad as you can imagine it to be, and that is worth discussing – along with whatever fraud may have been involved in the production of the film. We should feel free to say all that, but then move on. It in no way justifies violence, and nor does it justify any withdrawal by the state from a strong emphasis on freedom of speech.

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Some Islam/Islamophobia related posts by Jalees Rehman

Following up my recent post about Islam, Islamophobia, etc., here are some links to posts by US based German Muslim scientist Jalees Rehman. All of these were published over the past year or two. I wasn’t aware of him until he contacted me after seeing my post, but he appears to have similar views on Islamophobia and associated topics, and some other interesting ideas as well. From the little I know of him, he also seems to be a good example of the type of moderate Muslim thinker whose existence is often doubted.

First, a piece on Islamophobia and what he calls Occidentophobia, which commences:

Scapegoating Muslims has long been a convenient tool for promoting a far right political agenda. A recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report carefully outlines anti-Muslim fear-mongering in the United States, with the long-term hope that, by exposing the roots of anti-Muslim hostility, strategies can be developed to overcome such prejudice. However, relatively little attention is paid to “Occidentophobia,” or more appropriately (since it does not constitute a true “phobia”), anti-Western sentiments among Muslims. Is the Muslim anti-Western prejudice due to ignorance, or is it the consequence of a very selective view of Western society?

And a couple of other pieces, both from the Huffington Post:

On why “Islamophobia” is (in Rehman’s opinion) a misnomer.

And a recent piece on appreciating atheist thought from a Muslim perpective.

These are thoughtful articles and merit a reflective audience. I encourage you to have a look and see what you think.

Islam, racists, and legitimate debate

A version of this post was published as “Islam and ‘Islamophobia’ – a little manifesto” on my personal blog, over a year ago now. You can look up the earlier version if you’re interested in the changes, which are intended, in part, to produce some extra clarity, but especially to develop some thoughts at the end. Both versions are based on a longer discussion of related issues that was eventually published earlier this year in my book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

First, I acknowledge that it doesn’t settle all the questions about criticism of Islam to point out that Islam is a belief system, or a set of overlapping belief systems, rather than a category based on ancestry or so-called “racial” characteristics. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But if we simply think of Islam as a “race” and treat criticism of it as racism, we can go very wrong.

Let’s accept – as I think we should – that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a kind quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. It is not coincidental that much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right, such as the Front National in France and the British National Party in the UK. These organisations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism – combined with what they portray as a defence of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered “Christian identity”. They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change.

Once that’s noted, an obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share the values of the extreme right is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam have (sometimes) gained a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. E.g., these figures have sometimes attacked such practices as forced marriages, honour-killings, female genital mutilation, and highly conservative apparel for women such as the burqa and the chador.

At the same time, many Muslims in Western countries continue to suffer from suspicion, cultural and personal misunderstanding, discrimination, and outright intolerance that sometimes rises to the level of harassment and violence. The extreme right exploits and encourages an environment where all this is possible. In the circumstances, it is unsurprising when a phenomenon such as Islamophobia is identified by academics, political commentators, and public intellectuals… and steps are taken to combat it.

This situation creates a complex set of advantages, disadvantages, and risks. The extreme right benefits from the availability of politically respectable criticisms of Islamic thought and associated cultural practices. As this goes on, there is a risk that the word “Islamophobia” – or, as we are now seeing, even the more dramatic word “racism” – will be used to vilify, demonize, and intimidate individuals whose hostility to Islam is genuinely based on what they perceive as its faults. In particular, we should remember that Islam contains ideas, and in a liberal democracy ideas are fair targets for criticism or repudiation. Religious doctrines influence the social and political attitudes of their adherents in ways that merit public comment (favorable or otherwise), and many religious leaders and organizations exert immense power or influence. It is in the public interest that all this be subjected to monitoring and criticism.

Even attacks on Islam that are made opportunistically – motivated by something like racist thinking, or by extreme kinds of national or cultural supremacism – cannot be dismissed out of hand as worthless. To be clearer, attacks on Islam that are opportunistic and ill-motivated may repeat critiques that originally had merit, and still have merit in themselves.

After all, there are reasons why extreme-right organizations have borrowed arguments based on feminism, secularism, etc. These arguments are useful precisely because they have an intellectual and emotional appeal independent of their convenience to opportunists. Regardless of who uses these arguments, they plausibly apply to certain elements of Islam, or at least to attitudes and practices associated with it. Whether or not they are put in good faith by organizations such as the BNP – and I take it they are not – nothing precludes them also being put sincerely, and perhaps cogently, by others who are genuinely passionate about the issues.

Thus, there are legitimate reasons for some people who are not racists, cultural supremacists, or anything of the sort, to criticize Islam, or certain forms of Islam, especially heavily political varieties, or to express hostility towards it. People can legitimately disapprove of various doctrines, canons of conduct, associated cultural practices, and so on, and of the power wielded by Islamic leaders and organisational structures. Accordingly, expressions of disapproval or repudiation cannot simply be dismissed, a priori, with the assumption that they must be racially motivated. Such dismissals are, moreover, all-too-convenient for those who wish to stifle genuine criticism of Islam.

A number of lessons can be drawn from all this. One is that opponents of Islam, or some of its forms, cannot reasonably be expected to keep quiet when accused of racism or the quasi-racism of “Islamophobia.” When these accusations are misdirected, they are likely to inflame passions even further, though they may also intimidate some individuals into silence. This suggests that we should understand that quasi-racism does not underlie all attacks on Islam. Quite the contrary. In particular, it would be wise, and only fair, to avoid painting individual critics of Islam as members, or dupes, of the extreme right without additional evidence.

There is also a lesson for critics of Islam, and associated practices, who do not identify with the extreme right. For a start, they need to understand the situation, including the extreme right’s co-option of mainstream issues and arguments. This may lead to greater patience with opponents who make the charge of Islamophobia, though it hardly makes the charge more palatable (and I must say that I find it difficult to maintain my patience when I see people who are palpably not racists being maligned).

At a more practical level, opponents of Islam who do not wish to be seen as the extreme-right’s sympathizers or dupes would be well-advised to take care in the impression that they convey. Where practical, they should explain their positions with as much nuance as possible, distance themselves from extreme-right figures making similar arguments, and avoid sharing platforms with them.

But usually these people do take some care. When they do so it would be good for debate on these sensitive issues if their disclaimers were presumed to be in good faith. Furthermore, there are limits. The words “where practical” are important, because what is practical in, say, a philosophical essay may not be practical in a satirical cartoon, or even in a polemical book aimed at a popular audience.

I’m a philosopher, so unsurprisingly I prefer to read material that is written in a reasonably civil, thoughtful way, but even if you try to do this you don’t have to walk on eggshells or adopt a defensive, hedged tone that makes you sound boring and bland. If you do end up saying some things that are false, or exaggerated, or unfairly snarky, or in need of qualification, other people can, quite properly, pick you up on it. That is all part of the back-and-forth of discussion in the public square.

But neither you nor those other people should be trying to bully ideas about important, yet difficult, topics off the table (to use a phrase that I picked up from Jean Kazez). It’s one thing to be clear and forthright, or even to use devices such as satire or ad absurdum arguments: you might be able to show that an opponent is logically committed to something untenable and even crazy-sounding unless she modifies her view. But trashing an opponent’s reputation, such as by falsely labeling him or her as a racist, is an unfair, intimidating, and fundamentally anti-intellectual tactic. This really shouldn’t have to be said, but increasingly I think it does have to be said .. said and repeated.

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Secularism, priorities, Islam, and Waleed Aly

What follows here after some introductory paragraphs repeats almost verbatim a post that I published over on my personal blog back in 2007. Now, my thinking has moved on a little bit since then, and you will see a slightly different formulation and emphasis in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State: I am less enthusiastic, for example, about the word “religionist” than I once was, and I would no longer be so quick to dismiss the word “Islamophobia” as merely stupid (I discuss the issue of “Islamophobia” in the book). But what I have to say in the 2007 post, responding to some views of Australian moderate/liberal (I guess) Muslim author Waleed Aly, still strikes me as about right and as fairly clear. Aly questions why we should want a separation of church (or mosque) and state, and is sceptical that there is any basis for such a principle in modern democracies. Should we agree with him?

In developing his views, Aly uses arguments that should, I think, cause us concern. But reflection on this also raises more general questions about the priorities and motivations of secularists. In researching Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, I was struck by how many supporters of a church/state separation do not share my suspicion of using state power to enforce religious morality. For me, this is a priority – indeed, a higher priority than some other concerns that perhaps are clearer examples of church/state entanglement but are less oppressive (I have in mind, for example, the established churches of Europe). For some of us, at least, the greatest fear in contemporary circumstances is not that we will be required to put up with or take part in religious ceremonies and the like; rather, it is that politicians who are able to command electoral support will bring their religions’ doctrines, particularly those doctrines relating to canons of conduct, to the table of ordinary politics, and attempt to impose them on an unwilling minority.

These issues are always important, and my return to them is provoked by, among other things, the appointment of a new Executive Director at the Secular Coalition for America – a person whose priorities might be rather different from mine, judged by her interviews so far. So permit me to return to this via my reflections on Aly’s sceptical rejection of a separation between religious doctrine and government…

In People Like Us, Waleed Aly spends a whole chapter attacking the idea of a separation of Church and State, and defending Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with secularism. He argues that the separation of Church and State makes no sense from a Muslim perspective, because Islam (or at least Sunni Islam) has no established hierarchy that could be called its “church” and no official doctrine that it could impose through the powers of the state. He is scathing about secularists in a way that I find disquieting.

He describes an occasion when he spoke on a panel and was subsequently asked by a number of audience members who pressed him on his attitude to the separation of Church and State. He found the whole idea confusing, thinking it sufficient that if a politician brings specifically religious moral attitudes that are out of touch with the mainstream, then he or she will be electorally punished. In other words, democracy is the cure for any untoward imposition of religious doctrine and morality through state power.

Of course, audience members found this unreassuring, and it’s no wonder that a number of them kept pursuing the issue (evidently with mounting frustration at his seeming obtuseness). Later, Aly spoke to one of his interlocutors but evidently still gave her no real reassurance.

What is surprising is that Aly never mentions Locke or Mill in his discussion of all this, and never discusses the principles on which a liberal state – such as Australia – stands. He imagines that the phrase “separation of Church and State” is all about struggles between kings and popes – issues that are of no interest to anyone in the contemporary context. He genuinely seems to have no understanding of what is really at stake in this discussion.

The question is not about kings and popes (though it is certainly relevant to the temporal ambitions of the current pope). It is about how religionists of any stripe can reassure the rest of us that they will not use the coercive power of the state to impose their contentious (and, let’s face it, usually miserable) moral doctrines, should they come to command an electoral majority. We are concerned about the tyranny of the majority, not about the attempts of a minority to bring others into line … for which political hubris the remedy would, indeed, be an electoral one.

Of course, it does not matter whether or not what is being imposed comes from a literal “church”. The fear is that politicians who are able, somehow, to command an electoral majority will bring their religions’ doctrines to the table and attempt to impose their doctrines on an unwilling minority. This is something that we have good reason to fear. Islam, of course, is a minority religion in Australia, but it may well become more popular in the future and meanwhile there could easily be cases of Muslims entering into alliances over particular issues with other religionists. Aly’s interlocutors obviously wanted to be reassured about all that, and Aly failed to say anything helpful.

Unfortunately, the impression has been created by many Muslim leaders that Islam seeks to control all aspects of individuals’ lives and does not shrink from using secular power to achieve its aim. We are all well aware of extreme examples in recent history, such as Afghanistan under the benighted Taliban regime. Until that fear is laid to rest, it is quite rational for the rest of us to fear Islam’s political ambitions – which is one reason why the word “Islamophobia” is so stupid. A phobia is an irrational fear, but secular Westerners actually have perfectly rational reasons to be at least wary of Islam, as Aly himself fully appreciates and acknowledges.

It’s true, of course, that religionists – Muslims; Christians; Hindus; fire worshippers; devotees of Thor, Aphrodite, Baal, or Quetzalcoatl; or whatever – often feel that their religious identity is something “given” rather than chosen, and somehow essential to them. It is not possible for them simply to leave it behind like checked-in luggage when they enter the public sphere.

Fine. That’s understandable, but it raises the bleak possibility that they will use the public sphere as a means by which to impose religious doctrines, or specifically religious morality. Some may even see nothing wrong with this – and those are the people whom we have every cause to fear. If the Quetzalcoatlists or the Thorians take this stance, then they stand outside of the Enlightenment compromise … and just as they can give no guarantee of tolerating the rest of us if they come to wield the coercive power of the state, they have no claim to toleration by us. If that is their attitude, they are outside the Lockean circle, beyond the pale of liberal tolerance.

However, it’s way, way, premature to conclude that Islam falls into such a category. As I’ve written in earlier posts, Locke thought that atheism and Roman Catholicism were beyond the pale, but this has turned out not to be true – atheists can be peaceful and honest citizens as much as anyone, and while the current Catholic leadership appears less and less interested in the Lockean concept as it is understood today, and more and more inclined to impose its views by force of law where it can, Catholics have also made good citizens. The expansion of the circle of liberal tolerance to include a wide range of religious and non-religious worldviews has been a great success story in Western history. There is every reason to think that almost any religious sect can come to value the political benefits of voluntarily joining the circle.

So what should Waleed Aly have said?

Well, he could have said something like this:

“I cannot guarantee that I’ll come to the political table setting aside my identity as a Muslim. But I can guarantee you this much: from within my understanding of Islam, I accept the political values of individual liberty and religious tolerance. I do not make the Christian distinction between Church and State, but I realise that what you are really concerned about is whether I understand that I am living in a liberal society and whether I accept the distinction between sin and crime. Yes, I do understand and accept those things. From within my own view of the world, I can see the necessity for tolerance of all views that advocate reciprocal tolerance. I also accept the political need for something like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle (we can discuss the details of the ‘something like’, but I am not using weasel words). I can say unequivocally that it would not be my intention to prohibit behaviour merely on the ground that it is theologically wrong in my understanding of Islam. I will look for clear secular harm before I invoke the might of the state in an attempt to restrict liberty. I will not invoke the superiority of a way of life that is favoured by Islam, and I will respect the right of others to pursue their own conceptions of the good, however foreign to Islam’s values. Nothing in my understanding of Islam prevents me acting in accordance with those liberal political values, knowing that I live in a liberal country.”

I have hopes that Aly could give that undertaking – or something very like it – sincerely. Elsewhere in his book, he shows that he does value religious tolerance and does understand the distinction between the theological notion of sin and the secular political notion of crime. Many liberal Muslims, perhaps most, could probably give such an undertaking – perhaps with more sincerity than some Christians.

That is what we need from religionists when they enter the public sphere. When Aly was grilled by the audience at his panel session, that is all he need have said.

It would be reassurance enough.

Polygamy

Poly
Image via Wikipedia

While I was driving home from work today, the DJ on the radio mentioned the reality show about polygamy. Since I needed a blog topic, this was clearly a sign from God.

While polygamy is illegal many places, there is still the question of whether it is morally acceptable or not. While I am not a scholar of the ethics of polygamy, the main arguments against the practice on moral grounds tend to be aimed not at polygamy itself. Rather, the main moral arguments seem to be against various ills that are often associated with polygamy, such as the oppression of women.

However, it is important to distinguish between the ethics of polygamy itself (that is, having multiples spouses) and the ethics of specific manifestations of polygamy (such as cases involving underage brides or when the spouses are ignorant of the polygamy).

I am, obviously enough, morally opposed to forced marriages and marriages involving those who are most likely incapable of informed consent (that is, underage brides). It is easy enough to argue that it is wrong to force people to marry or to get “consent” from people who are actually not capable of providing true, informed consent.  I am also, obviously enough, opposed to “secret” polygamy-cases in which a person marries multiple people who are unaware of the polygamy. However, the challenging part is to argue about polygamy itself.

One stock and obvious approach is to argue that polygamy is a form of cheating and hence inherits its immorality from this immoral act. However, polygamy seems to be different from the usual sorts of cheating. First, there is no deception since the spouses are all aware of each other. Second, the spouses are not straying outside the relationship since they are all in the relationship. As such, there is no breach of agreement or violation of relationship rights. It also would not seem to be adultery, since no one is having sex with someone s/he is not married to. As such, polygamy does not seem to be cheating.

Of course, it can be argued that polygamy is wrong because a person is morally entitled to only one spouse at a time. However, that is the question at hand. To conclude that polygamy is immoral because people are morally limited to one spouse seems to beg the question. What must be shown, obviously enough, is that the moral limit is one spouse per person. This could be done by arguing that this is inherently the case or perhaps it could be done by arguing that the consequences of polygamy will always be bad enough to outweigh the good (that, for example, a spouse or spouses will be ignored or exploited). Or perhaps some other means of argumentation can be employed.

So, the challenge is this: come up with an argument for the claim that a person is morally limited to one spouse. Religious arguments, of course, need to be converted to moral arguments.

Bonus points if you can prove that the moral limit is zero spouses.

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Burning Books & Building Mosques

Front of the Quran
Image via Wikipedia

9/11 marks the anniversary of the most destructive terrorist attack on America.  While this date is often marked with solemn events in memory of the dead, a pastor in my adopted state of Florida (I’m from Maine) has planned to hold a Quaran burning on this day. Oddly enough, he has also claimed that only the radicals would be against burning the Quran.

Government and military officials in the United States have tried to encourage the pastor to cancel his event. The main reasons are that this action will harm America’s relationship with Muslims and that it will put American forces in danger. Of course, the officials do agree that the pastor has the right to take this action on the basis of the right to free expression.

Not surprisingly, the people who are opposed to the mosque that is supposed to be constructed near ground zero were quick to argue that the two situations are analogous. The gist of the analogy is that while people have a right to build a mosque near ground zero (just as they have a right to burn the Quran), they should not do so (just as people should not burn the Quran).  This does have a certain appeal. After all, if the fact that burning the Quran will antagonize Muslims means that it should not be burned, then it would seem to also be the case that the mosque should not be built because it will antagonize people. Some might even go so far as to say that the mosque should not be built so as to avoid violence against Muslims (just as the Quran should not be burned to avoid an increase in violence against American soldiers).

Perhaps the two situations are analogous and both fall under a single principle: actions should not be taken that will damage relations and lead to increased violence. In the case of burning the Quran, this would certainly seem to damage relations with Muslims and also incite some Muslims to seek vengeance by attacking people (most likely those who have no significant connection to those burning the books). In the case of the mosque, its construction will damage relations between some Americans and Muslims and might well lead to violence against Muslims. As such, if the Quran should not be burned, then the mosque should not be built near ground zero (and vice versa).

Of course, accepting a principle that we should be, in effect, hostage to those who are willing to engage in violence in response to what they do not like does not seem very appealing (whether the violence is in response to a book burning or a mosque building).

However, perhaps the two situations are different in a key way that breaks the analogy. In both cases, people are (or will be) very angry. In both cases, people wish to act on the basis of established freedoms (religion in one case, expression in the other). However, there seems to be an important distinction between building a mosque and burning the Quran. To be specific, building the mosque does not seem to be intended as an insult against the victims of 9/11 (some of whom were Muslim). After all, the Pentagon has a non-denominational chapel (dedicated to those killed at the Pentagon and on the plane that hit it) where Muslims hold prayer services and this was never taken as an insult. As such, it seems odd to take the mosque as an intentional insult against those who feel insulted. In contrast, burning the Quran as part of a 9/11 event can really only be taken as an insult and an attack on the faith. It would also be especially insulting to the Muslims who were murdered in the attack.

It might be replied that the builders of the mosque secretly intend to insult those who are insulted by its construction. However, this claim would seem to be based on equally secret evidence. Obviously enough, the fact that some people feel insulted by it hardly counts as evidence for such an intention on the part of those who plan to build the mosque. Until evidence of such intent is forthcoming, it seems reasonable to accept that the builders did not intend to insult anyone.

There is also the question of who the mosque is supposed to be insulting. After all, it probably cannot be an insult against the Muslims who were murdered by their fellow Muslims. It also cannot be an insult against the victims who believed in freedom of religion. Overall, it seems mainly to be an insult against those who see themselves as insulted by it. However, they seem to have little right to be insulted by this mosque.

Thus, there seems to be a possible relevant difference between the two situations. In the case of the mosque, those behind the project seem to have no intent to insult anyone and these seems to be no clearly defined victim of the alleged insult, other than those who see themselves as insulted. In the case of the book burning, that seems to involve a clear intent to attack the faith and it seems reasonable for people to consider such an action as an insult and an attack. This does not, however, mean that they would be justified in responding with violence.

To use another analogy, the mosque situation seems to be like a case in which someone is rationally talking about a subject that some might take issue with (such as arguing for or against same sex marriage) and the Quran burning situation seems to be like a white person repeatedly saying the N-word to African Americans. While both are covered by the freedom expression, it is unreasonable to take offense with the first situation but quite reasonable to take offense in the second. It also seems reasonable to think that people should not say racist things, even though they have the right to do so.

If this line of reasoning is plausible, then the mosque should be allowed while the Pastor should not engage in his book burning (despite having the right to do so).

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Defining a Belief System

Cults and new religious movements in literatur...
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One rather interesting problem is determining who or what determines the true tenets of a belief system. While this is an important matter in many fields, it seems especially important in regards to religion. To use a current situation, there is considerable debate over the true nature of Islam.

When Muslims commit acts of terror, moderate Muslims and others often argue that these acts of terror do not represent the true tenets of Islam. However, there are those who refuse to accept this defense and instead claim that such acts are perfectly in accord with the true tenets of Islam.

While some people make this claim without grounding it in reasons, noted atheist Sam Harris makes a case for his view.  As he sees it:

The first thing that all honest students of Islam must admit is that it is not absolutely clear where members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, and other Muslim terrorist groups have misconstrued their religious obligations. If they are “extremists” who have deformed an ancient faith into a death cult, they haven’t deformed it by much. When one reads the Koran and the hadith, and consults the opinions of Muslim jurists over the centuries, one discovers that killing apostates, treating women like livestock, and waging jihad—not merely as an inner, spiritual struggle but as holy war against infidels—are practices that are central to the faith. Granted, one path out of this madness might be for mainstream Muslims to simply pretend that this isn’t so—and by this pretense persuade the next generation that the “true” Islam is peaceful, tolerant of difference, egalitarian, and fully compatible with a global civil society. But the holy books remain forever to be consulted, and no one will dare to edit them. Consequently, the most barbarous and divisive passages in these texts will remain forever open to being given their most plausible interpretations.

While Harris makes a clear case, some analysis of his argument is well worth the effort.  His view is quite clear: the alleged extremists are, in fact, acting in accord with the tenets of Islam. As evidence, Harris notes that the Koran, hadith and Muslim jurists clearly support the “extremist” views.

This seems to be quite correct. However, it is hardly unique to Islam to have wicked tenets. For example, most modern liberal democracies have had rather horrible laws on their books in the past. To use an obvious example, slavery was once legal in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even today there are laws that seem to be morally incorrect.

He does concede that mainstream Muslims could solve this problem by ignoring these true tenets of Islam and then deceiving the next generation into accepting mainstream Islam as the true version.

This certainly seems appealing. After all, one might argue, a system of beliefs need not be eternally fixed in place, unchanging and never evolving. Just as , for example, the United States abandoned its acceptance of slavery and racism, Islam can also change.

Harris, however, sees this as an impossibility. He claims that the holy books will remain forever and forever unedited. Thus, he contends, the passages in question will always be available and the opportunity will always be present to give them “their most plausible interpretations.”

This, then, is presumably the critical distinction between other belief systems (like the legal system of the United States) and Islam. That is, Islam can never change its tenets and the worst practices in these tenets define the faith. To use an analogy, this would be as if a country could never removes evil laws from its books and no matter what was done, those laws could always be interpreted and acted on. Further, those acting on the most plausible interpretations of those laws would be acting in accord with the true tenets of the law.

In regards to the first part of the claim, it is not clear that Islam cannot change. One avenue for change is that, as Harris himself concedes, the passages are interpreted. While he regards the most plausible interpretations to be the ones that are the worst, these are not the only interpretations. In principle, there seems to be no reason why the more moderate interpretations cannot be regarded as the correct ones. Of course, that is a rather critical matter: what is the correct interpretation (and who decides)? In the case of law, the correct interpretation is set by the relevant authorities. If religion functions the same way, then the religious authorities could thus legitimately rule in favor of the more moderate interpretations and could even rule that certain tenets no longer apply. But perhaps religion is more of a democratic system in that its tenets are set by the majority of believers. If so, if the majority of Muslims are moderate and interpret their faith moderately, then this would be the correct interpretation. In any case, one might wonder why an atheist who is clearly hostile to religion has the authority to rule on the true tenets of a faith. A more cynical person than I might suggest that he sees the worst as the most plausible interpretations because of his view of religion and not on the basis, say, of more objective evidence. Since that would be mostly just criticizing the person and not the argument, I would never entertain such a view. That said, a due consideration of bias might be legitimate in this situation.

In regards to the second part of the claim, it is an interesting matter as to whether the worst tenets of a belief system define that belief system or not.  It is also interesting to consider whether or not a member of a belief system must accept all the beliefs of that system.

Suppose that the worst beliefs define  belief system, that believers must accept all the tenets of their belief system and the the laws (and interpretations of them) of a nation define the belief system of the citizens (just as the religious tenets are supposed to define the belief system of a religion). This would seem to entail that the belief system of Americans is a rather evil one. After all, there are laws on the books that seem to be rather immoral and there are many that seem unjust and unfair. No matter that some people oppose these laws and associated practices-by being Americans they must accept that they are defined by the very worst aspects of their system of belief. Even if an American claims to oppose a specific law she regards as wicked, by Harris’ logic  it would seem that she cannot. As an American, she must accept it as a true tenet. This seems rather absurd. The same seems true of the claims that a member of a religious faith must accept all the tenets of the faith and that the faith is defined by its worst elements.

Naturally, this does not just apply to Islam, but other belief systems as well.

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No Such Thing as Islamophobia?

Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock

A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.

One recent example of such an argument  is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:

There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.

In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because  people should dislike Islam for its tenets.

One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).

One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of.  For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia.  As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).

But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.

Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.

In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because  one knew that Oswald was  a Marine and  Timothy McVeigh was in the Army.  As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.

Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.

Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?

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NYC Mosque & Collective Responsibility

Islam

The plan to construct a mosque in New York City has generated considerable controversy. The main cause of the concern is that the proposed mosque will be located near ground zero. Not surprisingly, many people consider this to be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

One argument used against allowing the mosque in the area is based on the view that the attack was an Islamic attack. To allow an Islamic building in the area would be a grave offense against those killed during the attack and their families. As such, the Mosque should not be allowed in the area.

This argument rests, obviously enough, on the assumption of collective guilt. To be specific, the assumption is that all of Islam is responsible for the attack because the attackers were followers of Islam.  Of course, there is matter of justifying this assumption.

One principle that would justify this assumption is that an attack conducted by believers in X is an X attack. In the case of 9/11, since the attackers believed in Islam, this made the attack an Islamic attack. More generally, this would be the principle that any misdeed by a believer in X would be the responsibility of all others who believe in X.

While people who dislike Islam might find initially find this appealing, a little consideration reveals that the principle applies to all systems of belief.  For example, this principle would entail that the sexual molestation conducted by Catholic priests was a Christian attack on children. From this it could be argued that Christian buildings  should not be allowed anywhere near children (such as schools). Presumably children should also not be allowed anywhere near Christian buildings.

One might be tempted to say that the actions of Catholics only spreads the guilt to Catholics. However, if the actions of Sunni Muslims spreads the guilt to all of Islam, then the same sort of spreading should apply to Christianity as well.

This argument is not limited to religions. In fact, it can also be applied to atheists as well. The principle would seem to entail that all atheists are responsible for the actions of other atheists because of their shared belied system. For example, this would make all atheists guilty of Stalin’s misdeeds.

This does seem to show the absurdity of this principle.  After all, this sort of association hardly seems sufficient to transfer guilt. What is needed, it might be argued, is a stronger connection.

One such principle is that if people conduct an attack in the name of  belief system X, then this is an X attack. That is, making such an attack in the name of a belief system connects all believers in X to that action.

As with the previous principle, a little consideration reveals problems. Consider, for example, those who have killed abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. By this principle, this would be a Christian attack on doctors and would thus justify not allowing any Christian structures near doctors. There are, of course, a multitude of historical examples of people committing terrible misdeeds in the name of Christianity (such as the Inquisition and the treatment of alleged heretics).

This seems sufficient to show the absurdity of such collective guilt. After all, it seems unwarranted to claim that an entire faith must bear responsibility simply because something bad was done by someone who claimed to be acting in the name of that faith. As such, it would seem that an even stronger connection is needed for guilt to be spread.

A possible principle is that if people conduct an attack in accord with the principles of belief system X, then this is an X attack. This does have considerable appeal. For example, if members of the Klan were motivated to attack black people on the basis of principles of racism, this would be a racist attack. However, it would still seem unwarranted to extend the responsibility to all racists. After all, it would be odd to say that black racists were responsible for such an attack merely because they also happened to be racists.

While the notion of collective guilt does not seem to be supported by this principle, it does seem to provide grounds for the sort of exclusion being considered. To be specific, if the attack on 9/11 was based on the principles of Islam, then it would seem acceptable to prevent a mosque from being built in the area.  After all, building a structure near ground zero dedicated to the principles that caused the attack would seem to be unacceptable.

This raises the obvious question: was the attack caused by principles of Islam in a way that makes Islam responsible in a meaningful way?

Obviously, similar sorts of questions can be asked of other faiths. For example, the ownership of slaves was once justified on the basis of biblical principles. That is, Christianity was used to justify slavery. By this principle, Christianity would be responsible for the slavery it helped justify  and Christian structures should be kept away from those descended from slaves.  Naturally, modern Christians tend to argue that Christianity was misused to justify slavery or that changes over time rendered those principles invalid. Obviously, if Christians can avail themselves of such replies, so too can the followers of Islam.

Naturally, people tend to take the view that their own faith is not responsible for past misdeeds based on interpretations of its principle. This view is generally not extended to other faiths, of course. The failures of one’s own faith are but mistakes. The failures of other faiths are, of course, inherent to those faiths.

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