• Is there trouble with Islam?

    Below is a post which I mostly wrote some time ago, but which I will preface, edit and add to now.

    Before I get stuck in, I want to emphasise how I am a liberal commentator and am happy to be shown where I am wrong; I do not want to level accusations at Islam which are wrong and which have developed out of a biased media caricature of what Islam is. It is  easy to fire from the emotional hip and to rely on emotional social identity theory of ‘us and them’ such that I present an attack on Islam which is either  straw man or unwarranted.

    Moreover, there is an issue here with the while notion of causality, something which I have looked at in the post “Have I ever killed someone?” I will not so much deal with that in huge depth here as I want to look at the two ideas in unison in the next post on this matter.

    A few months back I posted a piece called “I Am Rationally Islamaphobic“. Some time later James Foley was been beheaded by IS over in the Middle East. This was on the back of a 7-year-old son of an Australian jihadi who was sickenly seen to hold up a recently decapitated head with little show of distaste.

    A few weeks before this I was linked a video online which showed indiscriminate assassinations of carloads of people, walkers, seemingly everyday people. It was the worst thing I have ever seen. It shocked me and will stay with me for a long time to come. It was supposedly IS but could well have predated that.

    This stuff is amazingly commonplace:

    A Catholic priest and others beheaded to the cheering of crowds, including children (July 2013).

    Police/army checkpoints and people systematically assassinated etc (Jan 2013).

    3 Syrian truck drivers assassinated for not being Sunni.

    Way worse and more.

    These things are shocking. Seeing actual people die is terrifying. It’s horrible. Our brains do amazing things to differentiate the fake in films from the real in reality. And instantly your brain knows the difference and reacts massively differently to both. In some senses it has made me think twice about glorified action films.14150357671961_700

    The videos in these links are chilling and I advise not watching them (two have been removed, but the articles are really interesting).

    As I wrote in my previous piece:

    Of course, this is a heavily abridged list of atrocities. Most extremist activity of this sort goes on under the radar on a daily basis around the world. If I hear of an ideologically driven atrocity going on in the world then the prior probability is that this atrocity is done, somehow, in the name of Islam. Given that short but representative list of events, it is important to note that in the same time period, no atheist of even Christian has done anything in the name of their worldview to the extent of  any of those massacres or wrongs.

    We can safely say that the prior probability of an atrocity being in the name of Islam is staggeringly high, and, further, that the probability of more such events over the next month is staggeringly high. And this is global. Where there is Islam, there is fundamentalism. Whether it be killing school children in a school in Nigeria or killing school children in a school in Thailand, the same sad tale unfolds.

    I am afraid, not so much for my safety, but for the safety of men, women and children around the globe. I am afraid for people who want to be able to freely declare what they believe or don’t believe. If you have a religion to which many of its adherents ascribe punitive measures toward those who don’t adhere to it and who don’t announce belief in its tenets, then you have a problem.

    I see this kind of anti-intellectual bullying as a set of memetic failsafes which ensure that that particular ideology is preserved. If you are threatened non-belief with death; if you are carrot-dangled heaven as bribery for belief, and thoughtstick-beaten hell as fear for disbelief, then such a belief system will endure.

    We must fight the good fight for freethought across the globe. We must show that these punitive anti-intellectual mechanisms are the ultimate hoodwink. It is not good enough that hordes of people worldwide are simply denied the right to (publicly) critically evaluate.

    Now, I don’t want to  be accused of straw manning Islam here. I know there are many moderates and liberals. But they don’t seem to be doing a very good job of curtailing the actions of the fundamentalists. Which is itself a very odd term, since  fundamentalists take the fundamental tenets of their religion and apply them. Should that not be what all proper adherents do? By admitting that there are a goodly number of moderates and liberals does nothing to eradicate the fact that there are also a goodly number of extremists who are doing very newsworthy things in the same name.

    No, I am not being irrational or bigoted. The evidence speaks for itself. Where there are large congregations of Muslims, there is a higher chance that some of those people will harbour problematic ideologies. Whether it is a misinterpretation of the Qu’ran is irrelevant. The No True Scotsman fallacy will have no traction with me here.

    Would it be more accurate to call me Islamicextremistaphobic? Probably, but that is unnecessary. We don’t special plead every atrocity committed by a Christian in the name of Christianity as being somehow non-Christian, or compartmentalising it to the point of being individualistic. Generalisations are useful. And the generalisation here is that the probability of Muslims committing an atrocity in the name of Allah over the next week is high. Perhaps if we got to hear if other religions did this, we would change our minds, but this information is not forthcoming.

    Am I afraid if Islam? Yes. Can I defend this fear rationally? Yes, I think that I can.

    [EDIT: I want to just make it as clear as possible, particularly for those readers who do not know me or my writing that I do not espouse a sort of bigoted anti-Islam as espoused by, say, the likes of the Daily Mail etc. I am fully cognisant of the reality of a spectrum of views within Islam and that many feel that these extremists should not be and are not representative of Islam as a whole. But this is the issue. If such a text and developed worldview is more probable and disposed to inspire and encourage non-democratic theocracies as well as entrenched and embedded sub-cultures of extremism, then the religion and holy text must be critically evaluated as a whole in this light. If we came across a cult who adherents were predisposed, empirically though examples of real life violence, to worldview derived violence and atrocity, we would come down like a tonne of bricks on such a movement. Just because of the size and historical heritage of the Islamic movement does not make it immune to such a reaction. I am not rationally bigoted toward each and every Muslim whom I might meet. However, I am rightfully dubious, wary, of such a movement. Just as I would have been very cautious in declaring my atheism to an Inquisition period priest in their church, I am just as wary declaring it to an imam in their mosque, just on probability. For a holy book to countenance death to apostates,  whether it be misinterpreted by liberals or extremists, must mean that one must be wary of its more fervent adherents.]

    The Caliphate of the Islamic State is itself a religio-political ideal, a theocracy. Now, one could claim that the things driving such atrocities are lust for power or something else (some might have said a socio-economic cauldron, but since many of the fighters are drafted from comfortable existences outside of the warzones, this seems incoherent). The problem with these sort of approaches is that we get some nebulous idea of what is causing such things. Twenty years ago, people didn’t have more desire for power, inherently as humans, than now, surely? So, if we are in a situation of heightened religious violence, what is causing it? What can we do about it? And is there trouble with Islam: is this religion in some way responsible for this ‘cancerous growth’ of extremism?

    Adding to the list of litanies committed by Islamic State, there are the plethora of other groups, such as al-Nusra who are edging moderates out of Syria to the point of looking like the moderates have lost. What is equally scary is the fact that they are so successfully recruiting children. s a 13-year-old child said to the BBC reporter:

    I like Islamic State because they pursue Sharia and kill infidels, non-Sunnis and those who converted from Islam,” he says.

    “The people killed by Islamic State are American agents. We must behead them as Allah said in the Koran.”

    I ask whether he has disclosed his age to those to whom he talks online.

    “At the start, I didn’t,” he says.

    “But recently I told them – and now they contact me even more, sending me photos and news.”

    But why not simply enjoy his childhood, I ask?

    “I don’t want to go out with friends or have fun. Allah ordered us to work and fight for the next life – for paradise. Before, I went to the park or the seaside.

    “But then I realised I was wrong – and I’ve taken the righteous path.”

    His family now lives in Turkey – so would he launch an attack here, or in Britain for example?

    “Britain should be attacked because it’s in Nato and is against Islamic State,” he says, “but we would kill only those who deserve it. If they ask me to attack Turkey and give me a holy order, I would do it. Soon the West will be finished.”

    What is also startlingly depressing is that, in the wake of the Islamic State making such terrible news, movements like Boko Haram have gone under the radar. But Boko Haram has been committing similar atrocities and is making massive gains, renaming towns as “City of Islam” and suchlike.

    Estimates are that some 15,000 jihadis from 80 countries, 500 or so from the UK, are currently in Syria and Iraq. That is, by my calculation, 1 in 5000 UK Muslims going to fight jihad, and undoubtedly more sympathisers here. As an example of the reasoning for such jihad, see this excerpt from a BBC interview:

    One British man who is still in the UK has told the BBC in an interview that he feels it is his “obligation” to now go to Iraq or Syria.

    We don’t know his real name, or where he comes from in the UK, and during our TV interview his face is covered with a bright red scarf.

    After he says hello, “Ahmed”, as he wants to be known, speaks with purpose. He details why he wants to fight in Iraq or Syria.

    “God has commanded for the Muslims to go and fight jihad”, he says.

    It follows a call from the extremist group ISIS, now calling itself Islamic State (IS), for Muslims to leave their homes and join it in its often brutal battle.

    For Ahmed it is a religious call he cannot ignore: “This thing takes takes precedence over everything else in my life at the moment, this is the biggest thing for a Muslim.

    “To die as a martyr is the promise of paradise, the highest paradise.”

    He only agreed to speak to us if he could cover his face and if we changed his voice. He never removed his scarf, we never caught even a glimpse of what he looked like.

    “God has commanded for the Muslims to go and fight jihad”, he said. I asked why: he had a choice, he didn’t need to go, so why did he?

    Ahmed paused before replying “I have a choice, yes but Islamically this is an obligation.”

    To me, the situation is scary because the heinous crimes of IS are going effectively unpunished and are fuelling further recruitment, rather than universal disgust! The casual contempt of women in the video of bartering for Yazidi slaves, countenanced by Islamic reference, is terrible. I would embed it, but it looks like it has now been removed, but you can read about it here, at the Independent, including this transcription:

    -Today is the slave market day. Today is the day where this verse applies “Except with their wives and the (captives) whom their right hands possess, for (then) they are not to be blamed.”

    -Today is distribution day God willing. Each one takes his share.

    -I swear man I am searching for a girl. I hope I find the one.

    -Today is the day of (female) slaves and we should have our share.

    -Where is my Yazidi girl? Where is my Yazidi girl?

    -Whoever wants to sell his slave, whoever wants to give his slave as a present everyone is free to do what he wants with his share.

    -Where is my Yazidi girl?

    -Whoever wants to sell, I can buy my brothers. Whoever wants to sell his slave I buy. Whoever wants to sell his own slave, I buy her. And if you also give her as a girl, also I take her. Who wants to sell?

    -I want to sell.


    -I pay three banknotes [1 banknote is most probably 100 dollars]. I buy her for a pistol. The price differs if she has blue eyes.

    -I buy her for a Glock.

    -I pay 5 banknotes.

    -It depends on what she looks like.

    -If she is 15-years-old…I have to check her …Check her teeth.

    If she has green eyes…

    If she doesn’t have teeth, why would I want her?

    -Put dentures for her.

    -I don’t want.

    – ON the Yazidis… Can one take 2 slave girls? Does that work?

    -[Voice behind camera] You have a share. What will you do with it?

    -I’ve got a share of Yazidi but I don’t want one.

    -Why? Wait why don’t you want yours?

    -Abu Farouk and I, we do not want any.

    -[Asks boy] Do you want a Yazidi slave? [boy nods] Can you handles her?

    And on and on and on and on.

    Why do I mention this all? Well, I am interested in the causality of this all. Whilst I do not want to stir up anti-Islamic hatred here or anywhere, I also do not want to needlessly ignore problems where they exist. I take it we all, readers here, want this horror to stop. So is this just men with a lust for power and control? Is that what drives jihadis from the UK and elsewhere to these foreign countries? Well, no, because there are countless such causes involving power struggles around the world to which men from the UK do not go and support (certainly on this scale). You only have to look at the glossy magazine that IS produce to realise that this really is religiously inspired (you can see this here, but there should be warnings because many of the images are disturbing). If we are talking about proximal necessary causality, and do not wish to regress to the Big Bang, then we should probably admit that Islam is largely to blame. More on the philosophy of that in the next post. But for the time being, suffice it to say that if we removed Islam from the causal soup influencing these young men, such atrocities in the region would unlikely now be occurring.

    Of course, any Muslim could pull the No True Scotsman. I get that. We can argue whether a moderate who exegetically interprets the uncomfortable verses out of the Qu’ran could claim that these radicalists, these fundamentalists, are not really true Muslims, reflecting Muhammad. But they are fundamentalists who are following the fundamental tenets of their religion, no? After all, Muhammad had a dodgy track record. I need not, particularly, reel off the verses of the Qu’ran which definitely do call for the death of infidels and suchlike. To me, this exegetical issue is evident in the difference between Islam and Christianity. Reinterpreting Islam to cohere with a progressive modern society is a stretch since the holy book is the direct word of God, as opposed to the merely inspired word of God written down by humans, as is the case with the Bible. And this gives force to the Islamists who feel they are enacting the actual word of God. Christians are less likely to do that, less likely to enact the terrible passages of the Old Testament since they are exegetically erased in their modern relevance on account of the ‘context’ card.



    It is much more difficult for Islam and Muslims to do this.

    So back to the main thrust of this article. Is Islam and are Muslims at fault for the current crisis in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world? Does the religion need to reform its way out of this scenario?

    Well, at most we can say some Muslims and a type of Islam, but that is, in my opinion, what is often meant by “Muslims” and “Islam”. If you think that when we attack Christianity, given that there are 42,000 different denominations thereof, we are always using the word as a shorthand for “this type(s) of Christianity” since there will always be a mode of Christianity which isn’t homophobic, right-wing, pro-slavery or whatever. When we generalise, we do so to be pragmatic, otherwise every term we ever use to be pragmatic would have to be utterly and accurately specific such that we would end up having to physically name every single “Muslim” we are referring to. You wouldn’t have generalised sets of things, but collections of named individuals which fully represent a set. This would make conversations impossible. You could never again refer to politicians, criminals, sports people, men, women, children, unemployed, employed etc. in generalised terms.

    Let’s take this further. Do these people who are committing such atrocities do so as being representative of Islam and as having Islam, or their idea of Islam, as defining their actions? Well, to answer the latter question, whilst politics and poverty and any number of other variables may be at play, the core idea is religious. Read the magazine. Listen to their words. See the Sharia laws and organisation of the communities which they set up in their wake. See the justification for their actions. Listen to the reasons as to why the jihadis go abroad to do these horrible things. Yes, the motivation is definitely at least mainly religious.

    Attacking foreign policy is, to me, simply a post hoc rationalisation to try to justify such actions to non-Muslims to seem rational and justified in any kind of objective sense. I cannot over-emphasise this enough. Foreign policy is a poor excuse. Go out and democratically vote. become a peaceful political activist. Such reasoning only thinly veils what are religious motivations, which themselves may well represent a very complex set of in-group / out-group social identity psychologies.

    Perhaps we could say social identity theory is at root, that such people are only looking to stamp their in-group identity on the world. But that identity itself is religious. Religion represents their in-group. If the Qu’ran had been a properly peaceful book, more like the New Testament (and utterly ignoring the Old) then Muslims would have a very different social and political identity, so I don’t buy that as being at fault as opposed to the religion itself. The identity and the religion are integrated. That identity is wrong by point of fact that no morally good agent should want to fight for that identity, should want to be in that group, should want to offer themselves to that set of moral obligations.

    We come back to admitting that religion is at causal play here, in some necessary fashion, within these agents, as opposed to, say, me. I am not a jihadi committing atrocities because I do not have Islam as a contributory causal component.

    But there are plenty of moderates, right? Plenty of non-jihadi Muslims.

    Yes, but as I have said before and linked above, these Muslims are, in fact, not acting upon the fundamental tenets of their religion. They are, in fact, the non-true Scotsmen. Liberal and moderates have interpreted their way out of the texts such that Islam can cohere with core societal values that they hold.

    Great. I applaud that. Unfortunately, I think they have less religious warrant for this than their radical counterparts.

    Now, I am no Qu’ranic exegete, and this could get me into trouble. But I refer you, again (as in a previous post) to this online comment/article:

    There is always the plight of context argument with Islam’s holy text Quran. The apologetic version is “Quran cannot be interpreted and understood except with its context.” This paraphrasing is constantly adduced by Islamic apologists whenever any argument against the violent verses within the text is raised.

    But the way Islam justifies the divine origin of Quran automatically exclude it from the use of historical method of exegesis. There is this dilemma for Muslims to face. The text in fact is contextual as understood by Muslim explanation of its historical formation. But it is not a version of facts Muslims want to subscribe when they are fomented to believe in the interminable status of the text. Quran is meant for the whole of humanity is the undisputed Muslim belief. The belief proceeds on as the book is pertinent to the end of times.

    Is not it implausible to believe in the infinite relevance of Quran and at the same time rise objections to critiques by embarking a context smoke screen? Should not Muslims give up the context excuse if they want to use Quran as a text which’s relevance is distended to the end of times?

    There is only an affirmative answer to these questions….

    Let us come back to the Quran. Allah spoke to a seventh century Arab in the latter’s language. And all what he said to this prophet is recorded to fructify a Quran. To sum it up, Allah sent his last message to this same prophet then stopped speaking downright. Because god sent his last message and promised to preserve it forever, he will not speak any more until the day of resurrection. He will not send any prophet, since sending a prophet will stir him up again. This is the end. God sent his final messenger, and even though he did not favor immortality to the messenger, he blessed the message with immortality.

    So, Quran, Islam’s holy text is not a pushover. It is the ultimate message of god. There is nothing to add or subtract in it. All of its components are divine, equally divine. All are applied to all and all.

    In conclusion, if there is a command in Quran, there is no need to look for its historical context since humanity from the formation of Quran to the end of times are living in the context of the text. It is the Muslim belief. God, Gabriel, Muhammad, three key figures formed Quran have infinite relevance, so the making (Quran) too necessarily possess the quality of being interminably relevant. If this is the common Muslim belief pertaining to Quran, there is no room for a context excuse in its case.

    Thus, the context excuse in the case of Quran is flawed in its fundamentals.

    Which is to say that moderates and liberals have no epistemic right to draw the moderate or liberal context card. These proclamations of God are immutable and timeless.

    And I would agree. It’s just that it never happened and that that God, like all of the others, is nonsense.

    But this nonsense is driving hatred, moral and political upheaval, violence, poverty, inequality and subjugation throughout much of the world. And it has not insignificant support throughout the rest of the world. (eg “The ‘Explosive Growth’ of Jihadism in the Netherlands”, or The Economist looking at French Jihadism, etc).

    As you can see from some of these horrifying pictures, children are being recruited, and all around them are religious quotes, slogans, chants and justifications.



    These pictures aren’t for emotional appeal to get you to agree with my point, this is reality. This  is what is going on on a massive scale, and every child you see in these pictures is at the very least de-sensitised, and at most an active jihadi.

    This is the world as it is changing and in which we live. Yes, this has always happened to some degree, and yes, the West may have contributed in some fashion to exacerbating the problem in its actions over the last 100 years. But that has been and gone. Now is now.

    It is time to rediscover our humanity.

    And it lies in humanism and its values, and not in this type of religion. No, not at all.

    So, what’s my point?

    Well, it’s about time Islam had a reformation. It wouldn’t be epistemically warranted, as far as the religion itself is concerned, but it would be bloody useful. Outsiders can’t tell Muslims what to do with their religion, it will only entrench fervent believer. No, big movements need to come from the inside.

    I will leave you with this concise quote from a commenter on facebook:

    “The existence of some who identify as believers of a particular religion but do not exhibit the worst of that religion is not evidence that the religion itself is not worthy of serious criticism.”

    [UPDATE: Some people have reacted to this piece in claiming the West is responsible in its actions over the years – see my above comments about foreign policy; or that nationalist tendencies are, but that this is just an extreme type of nationalism (eg the No True Nationalist fallacy). So it is sadly apt that Boko Haram today have had a suicide bomber kill 47 students at a school assembly. That has nothing to do, really, with nationalism or western foreign policy, but a dominionist, religionist jihadi worldview. Which is my point.]

    Category: AtheismFeaturedHumanismIslamMoralityPhilosophy of Religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce