Saturday, May 9, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 4: The Cause of Terrorism in the Middle East

In the previous post of this series, I wrote that one problem with an Islamophobic response to terrorism is that it makes demonizing a group of people the focus of discussion, rather than the real causes of terrorism. As a next step it seems reasonable to offer up what I believe the real causes of terrorism are and, if I believe Islam isn’t the root cause, explain why so much of it seems to spring from the Middle East.

To locate the real causes of terrorism, we first need to revisit what it is. The word ‘terrorism’ is thrown around far too freely in today’s emotionally charged political outbursts. It’s almost reached a point where any violent criminal is labeled a terrorist. This only feeds the hysteria around terrorism and makes it more difficult for people to think about it rationally. So, paraphrasing the FBI definition, terrorism is:
1. A violent act which is both dangerous to human life and breaks the law, and
2. Is committed with the following objectives: a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or c) to affect the conduct of a government

An act of terrorism is therefore a violent, criminal act that is undertaken for purposes of forcing a group of people or a government to act in a certain way, often towards a political end desired by the terrorist. Applying this definition to several high-profile events helps clarify what is and is not terrorism:
The Unabomber: A campaign of murder and violence to disrupt technological development for reasons outlined in a manifesto. Meets both parts of the FBI definition; it’s terrorism.
The Boston Marathon bombing: Some suggest an Islamic group was behind this but, even if one was, no one – not even the perpetrators – cited a political motivation for the bombing. As a result, it doesn’t meet the second part of the FBI definition. It’s a hideous act of violence, but it is not terrorism.
9/11: This disaster was part of an ongoing effort by al-Qaeda to strike fear into the US and coerce us into changing our foreign policy. That fact – not the depravity of the plotters or the death toll – is what makes this terrorism.
The Fort Hood shooting: This shooting was not committed as part of a political agenda. Therefore, while it’s a national tragedy it is not terrorism.
The Parliament Hill shootings: The shooter left a videotape explaining that he committed these crimes to protest Canada’s Middle East policy. Again, it’s the violence paired with a clear political motive that makes this terrorism.

Note that even the few examples of terrorism listed above were not all committed by Muslims, nor was religion even the primary motive. Politics, and in the case of the Parliament Hill shootings, mental illness were the main issues. So even from these few cases, it’s clear that to broadly cite religion as the motive for terrorism - which is what Islamophobes do – is totally incorrect.

The fact is that different terrorists are formed by different forces, and then propelled in different directions by their objectives. Most often terrorists are formed by a combination of toxic forces: religious zealotry, political extremism, mental illness, racial/ethnic intolerance, alienation, support for tyranny, etc. These individual beliefs – not an ethnic background or religion – are what fuel the decision to trade passionate activism and protest for bombs and guns. This further clarifies why it is ridiculous to dump any act of terrorism at the doorstep of a religious group and why the term ‘Islamic terrorism’ is idiotic (see also the discussion in the prior post of this series).

So we’ve broadly established the motivations for terrorism and identified that there is no single explanation as to what causes it. However, this does nothing to explain why most of today’s terrorists are Muslims. Why isn’t there an African version of al-Qaeda? Why don’t Christians engage in terrorism? The answers are that there is and they do. Boko Haram takes Islamic State as its role model in Nigeria, and Christians bomb abortion clinics in the US. However, one would (rightly) counter that despite these examples there is no denying the majority of today’s terrorism is hatched by Muslims. Why is this?

To start, let’s review some of the worst examples of religious-based terror, holy wars, and violence:
The Roman Empire – State religion persecuted and killed Christians
The Inquisition – The Catholic Church tortured and killed ‘heretics’
The Crusades – The Catholic Church waged holy wars against Muslims
Nazi Germany – An atheist state devised an ‘ultimate solution’ for Jews
The Soviet Union – An atheist state persecuted people of all religions
Islamic State – Muslim jihadists kill those who resist their brand of Islam
All of these examples have many causes beyond religion. Also, as with the recent acts of terrorism outlined previously, no one religion is behind them all. What they do share is that they were enabled by a particular religion (or anti-religion) being enshrined within government.

Similarly, the Middle East is made up of countries where one form of religion imposes itself on all via government authority. I would suggest that it is not religion itself, but the institutionalization of religion in government (i.e., theocracy) that explains the disproportionately high frequency of terrorism enacted by Muslims. This also explains why there are relatively few acts of terrorism enacted by today’s Christians; there are no Christian theocracies. That said, we have crystal clear hints of what Christian theocracy would look like today based on the death penalty laws enacted against homosexuals in several African countries thanks to the influence of Christian evangelists.

The Spanish Inquisition
Proof that Christian theocracy is just as capable of depravity as Muslim theocracy can be found in history. The Inquisition, the Wars of Religion in Europe, and the Crusades demonstrate how - when enshrined in government - Christianity engages in holy wars and violence with a rabid blood lust that makes jihadists of the Islamic State look half-hearted by comparison. Christian versions of jihad and terrorism were so bad that people fled by the thousands from Europe to the New World. Once here, they founded a country that explicitly kept religion out of government in order to prevent a Christian theocracy from occurring in the US (a founding principle today’s Christian extremists and ultra-conservatives eagerly work to destroy).

In the end, I’m not positioning theocracy as the sole cause of terrorism, in the Middle East or elsewhere. It’s also most likely true that theocracy, mixed with inequitable social structures, political tyranny, racial prejudice and other toxic forces are the roots of terrorism. However, it does seem likely that theocracy helps explain why today’s terrorism seems to take root more easily in the Muslim World.


Part 5 of this Five-Part Post (“Implications for the United States”) will be added soon.

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