5 Remarks on Religion, Violence and Extremism

After last week’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris, people were quick (too quick for my taste) to debate the implications for how “the West” should view a) Islam and b) Muslim immigrants. Some regard it as self-evident that a religion used to justify the murder of innocents must face intense criticism and scrutiny. Others believe it to be obvious that the attackers abused a faith that millions of people practice peacefully to justify their own morally depraved agenda. Again others go one step further and draw consequences for migration policies, particularly those concerning the current Syrian/Middle East refugee crisis. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

1. There are problems with managing a huge influx of refugees, but if you are looking for a reason to advocate restrictive asylum policies, the Paris attacks don’t seem to be a particularly good one: Yes, one of the people involved had a fake Syrian passport and entered Europe via Greece as a refugee. But most others did not, and a huge organization (ISIS) was apparently behind the terror attack. It seems implausible (which in this context should be taken as a polite expression for: “bugfuckingly insane”) to argue that it depended on one single person whether or not the attack would have happened or not. If you object that letting in a large number of Muslims is going to increase your country’s risk of domestic terrorism nevertheless, I refer you here for a response (tailored to the US situation, but a lot of it applies to other nations, too). My point in this post is that I don’t think recent events should significantly influence your view of the issue: On rational grounds, you should assess the risk of more terrorism due to acceptance of refugees the same way you did one day before the Paris attacks. (Sadly, for some who exploit the tragedy for political gain, that may actually already be the case.)

2. There is a human tendency to identify with groups one belongs to to the point that one sees attacks on that groups basic characteristics or philosophy as attacks on oneself – and then reflexively dismisses every criticism of it, even if it is justified. If you think about all “tribes” you are a member of (nationality, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, profession, social class, religion, subculture…), I am sure you can find at least one to which you have a strong enough allegiance to react in that manner. Moreover, many, many people are attacking the Islamic religion only to hide a thinly-veiled contempt for people from Muslim or Middle-Eastern countries. For these reasons, it is completely understandable if many Muslims resent people who want to “make this about Islam”, or express worries about Islamist rejection of, say, religious freedom, homsexuality, legal equality for women etc., and that many well-meaning non-Muslims join them in claiming these are just abuses or perversions of their religion.

3. On the other hand, it is conceivable that some features of contemporary Islam have a negative impact on our society, just as medieval Christianity might have had a negative impact on the society of that time, or communism on Soviet Russia. I don’t see a good solution to the problem that honest discussion of such matters will inadvertently contribute to some ethnicities’ experience of discrimination and prejudice, and that some actual racist propagandists will manage to ride on its coattails. (I admit that I myself have lost track of the necessary distinction here at times in the past, and defended people I probably shouldn’t have defended.) The only thing that can be done about it is to acknowledge the difficulty.

(I should also clarify that in commenting on how harmful some religions might or might not be, I am of course not demonstrating that they are not true, so if you are a follower of any of them, I don’t expect such an argument to convince you that you should abandon them.)

4. Many of the usual well-meaning, well-educated, liberal-minded suspects are currently circulating a 2014 video of American Muslim sociologist and religious scholar Reza Aslan where he purportedly sets straight those who believe there is a connection between his religion and repressive practices, extremism or violence. He makes some good points, but also several very, very dubious ones. While I am not qualified to comment on many of the details of what he says (I refer you here for a dissection of his factual claims instead), I think this quote is a good summary of how many people defend Islam – and religion in general – against the charge of inciting violence:Read More »