As Donald Trump continues his ascension to the pinnacle of power in the United States, the question of what will happen to Muslims (and others) is still unanswered. As we have a president-elect who has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., and who wants to create a Muslim registry, the question of violence committed in the name of Islam becomes an important question for those of us willing to fight for the rights of all to be able to answer correctly. Unfortunately, the conversation in the United States, at least at the popular level, has tended to be highly clichéd: Islam is a religion of terror, say Trump supporters, while those of a more liberal or democratic hue say Islam is a religion of peace.
Anyone who is able to look at the world and form clear thoughts should be able to see that the planet’s billion or so Muslims are not inherently violent, at least not more so than other humans. The vast majority live in peace, very often with Christian or Jewish neighbors. Still, while “Islam is a religion of peace” is a nice thing to say, and is usually said by the well meaning, the statement falls short. First, there are clearly Muslims, even if a tiny minority, who don’t believe it. Who are non-believers like me to disagree with them? I don’t have any moral standing to say to these people, “You are not truly good Muslims.” My doing so would be akin to a rabbi showing up at a conservative Southern Baptist Church and telling the congregants that they’re bad Christians because they don’t follow the faith as laid down by the world’s billion Catholics.
Further, there is no such thing as a religion of peace. All of the world’s major religions (and perhaps all of the world’s small cults) have blood on their hands: Judaism is invoked as a reason to build settlements; Indian Hindus, including the current prime minister of India, have had a hand in massacring Muslims, as have Burmese Buddhists; Japan’s Shinto faith helped to justify that nation’s atrocities in China and Korea; and Catholics packed shrapnel into pipe bombs to kill as many civilians as possible in London shopping malls. The list goes on, though each of these faiths also has its share of peacemakers and justice lovers as well. While all of them have a majority of faithful adherents who are good people, none has earned the moniker “religion of peace.”
Islam, just like all the other religions, has faithful members who, because of their religious beliefs, kill innocents. The reverse is true as well: like those of other faiths, Muslims have have given their lives to help others, Muslim or not. Still, the question arises: why does it seem that the majority of religious inspired violence involves a radical version of Islamism (political Islam, a relatively recent invention)? I would argue that there are two reasons, each of which only applies in certain parts of the world, and neither of which can be found in the Koran or the Hadiths.
The first reason involves sections of the Muslim world, most especially the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as well as parts of South Asia. There is true butchery carried out in these regions most of it committed by those professing to be Muslim. Famous examples are ISIL and al-Qaeda, but there are other groups as well: al Shabaab in and around Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, etc. Looking at this section of the world – which represents a huge swath of humanity, as well as a sizable portion of the world’s Muslims – it becomes easy to see how it is that many observers would take from a superficial glance that Islam is the cause of the trouble. But these observers are mistaken; Islam isn’t a cause, but a confounding variable. A more rational answer comes when we step back from viewing Islam as the area’s common feature, and instead focus elsewhere. The more important unifying feature is the region’s lack of strong institutions, the most important of which is the state.
No area wrought by Islamist violence has a strong state. According to Max Weber widely accepted definition, a modern state is bureaucratic (meaning that its servants are selected based on qualifications, not familial relationships), and it maintains a monopoly of legitimate violence. All violence should flow from the state for reasons accepted as legitimate; any other should be met with strong sanction. But as Samuel Huntington illustrated in his Political Order in Changing Societies, arguing against those who believe that economic development causes a society and its state to become more orderly and modern, the process of economic development causes societies to become more and more disordered, i.e. it starts a process of political decay. Without a state that is able to really impose order and act as the sole arbiter of force, violence stays common and decentralized.
States did not simply spring into being; they arose out of war, as sociologist Charles Tilly noted first in his “War and State Making as Organized Crime”: before states existed, groups plundered and took territory; after they took the territory, they had to govern it; they “taxed” those they’d plundered in exchange for protection from others: the plunderers/governors plundered more land, and so on, until they eventually formed a standing army, and a modern state with bureaucratic institutions was born. (Note: this is an extremely vulgarized explanation of Tilly’s argument; I highly encourage you to read the full article, linked above.) The violence and plunder, then, is a sort of “default” in human history, or at least human history post-hunter-gatherer society, and much of the violence we are seeing in MENA and elsewhere without strong institutions is of the same variety that produced, quite by accident, the states that later democratized and became the modern Western democracies we now know. This is the process by which states rose in Europe. These “pristine” states were letter recreated through settler colonies in the Americas (especially North America). The rest of the world, however, was colonized before modern states could be built (or, was colonized after modern states had been built and had then collapsed, as in China). The “states” left after decolonization looked like pristine states – with capitals, parliaments, armies, and such – but they never gained the legitimacy (that is, the acceptance by the people they supposedly ruled over) that the European states had been able to build due to their centuries of development. (Of course, due to historical factors too detailed to go into here, modern states with strong institutions did arise other places – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, to name a few – but suffice it to say that these were exceptions that can be easily explained based on historical facts.
ISIL is a perfect illustration of the problem: this group even call itself the Islamic State, and they’ve succeeded at building a proto-state in regions that they have conquered. They use the progressively more extreme and perverted version of the faith to encourage their followers to ever more cruel, yet effective, ends. Social psychology’s group polarization theory offers some explanation for how ISIS has been able to become so extreme in its violence, far more explanation than can be found reading the Koran. Also adding to the mix is the fact that a portion of ISIS’s leadership is composed of ex-Baathists, ousted from Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion, which, due to de-Baathification, destroyed what little institutional stability there was in Iraq to begin with).
Thus, Islam isn’t the reason for the violence, but the mask placed over it as justification. Islam can, and certainly has been, quite comfortable with modernity. In his Being Arab, Samir Kassir, the former Lebanese Communist leader murdered by Syria’s Baathist dictatorship, made much of the fact that the Arab world, for centuries mostly Islamic, was a stronghold of modernity by the 1930s. Cairo was a hotbed of the women’s rights movement at that time, and was only behind Hollywood and Bollywood in film production. This changed in part with the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, long the most backward and fundamentalist section of the Arab world. Using oil money, the Saudi kingdom exported their version of Islam, as Kassir noted, around the Arab world. The destruction of colonial institutions (often by the colonizers themselves); constant interference by the world’s two hegemons during the Cold War; the chaos of the Iraq War; and, eventually, even the Arab Spring led to the disintegration of what little institutions there were. (It is worth adding that, with the fall of the Soviet Union; the co-optation of “secularism” by highly repressive regimes in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and elsewhere; and brutal repression from monarchical governments, the secular left movements were crushed or delegitimized as well, and could no longer provide a vehicle to channel violence and build institutions). Thus, when the inevitable violence began, it was draped in, and bolstered by, Islam, the religion that happened to be prevailing in the area.
Again: Islam has been able to deal well with modernity. All one has to do is to look to the Somali population of Lewiston, Maine, to see this. (Based on my own anecdotal evidence) this is a community that is extremely devout, and at the same time has helped to revitalize and modernize an old, formerly dying, mill city. Jump across the world, to the majority Muslim sections of Europe – the land where the state was born – and you find relatively peaceful people. For 70 years, Muslims, Christians, and atheists lived at peace in Yugoslavia, and conflicts arose only when, as could be imagined, the federal state itself collapsed. Further, none of these conflicts were primarily religious; instead they were ethnic and national: Bosnian vs. Croatian vs. Serbian, for example. In Albania, probably a Muslim majority nation (though poll results are widely disparate), there has been no widespread terror or disturbances. The difference between Albania and MENA obviously isn’t religious; instead, the difference is the state. After the “communist” regime was overthrown in 1989, the state was transformed, but not destroyed; the bureaucracy continued to function.
All of the explanation above answers the question of violence is Muslim sections of the developing world. But what of the terrorist attacks that have been happening in the West, so-called “homegrown terrorists”? Obviously, America has a strong bureaucracy, as do the European states that have experienced violence. While some incidents have been committed by refugees from areas experiencing violence, many of the acts have been committed by those born in the U.S. or in EU states. The explanation for these terrorists is much simpler: they are misfits, social outcasts, who have become violent.
The western world has a long history of violent social outcasts, which we periodically forget. In the 1960s, young westerners joined groups like the Baader-Meinhoff clique (Red Brigade) or the Japanese Red Army or the Weathermen or the Communist Party USA/Provisional (no relation to the CPUSA), which blew up a townhouse in Greenwich Village. These groups all committed terror, as did the Symbionese Liberation Army. At that time, the menace that the West feared was communism, but the official Communist Parties (CPUSA, Japanese Communist Party, DKP, etc.) didn’t advocate a violent revolution, so the more outcast, prone to violence members of society joined or created groups that called themselves communist, but which practiced terror.
As the “communist” terror groups receded, we began to see lone wolf acts of violence. School shootings started in the 1980s, and the trend has continued, with the Newtown massacre of elementary school-aged children being one of the most horrific of the incidents. These instances, perpetuated generally by young males who were isolated from society and (since it came into being) on the internet are the milieu out of which American “homegrown Islamist radicals” emerge. The brothers who bombed the Boston marathon are not different than the friends who killed high school kids in Columbine. The latter were nihilists, and so were the former. They slapped the label of “Islamic radical,” now one of America’s worst fears, on themselves to seem even more outré, or to emphasize how much they hate the society they were isolated from. This is the case too with the Orlando massacre perpetrator and other “lone wolves.”
The West, and America especially, has a problem with isolated people who become violent, often after immersing themselves in negative, anti-social material. Years ago, it was an extreme variant of the communist movement; now it is an extreme variant of Islam, in short, anything that terrifies Americans. Now, thanks to ISIL, al-Qaeda, and other groupings, there is a whole world of nihilistic death-cult ideology for these people to immerse themselves in.
It is good for Muslims to stand up and speak out against violent acts committed in their name (everyone should speak out against violent acts committed in their name), and by and large they are doing this. While everyone knows, and I’ve argued above, no religion can truly be called a “religion of peace,” when Muslims argue that theirs is, they are arguing for their, peaceful, interpretation of Islam over that of the fanatical sects, including the ideology of death perpetuated by ISIL and others of that ilk. The same is the case with Catholics and other Christians who argue that, for example, the Westborough Baptist Church members are not real Christians.
The real solution to these problems, however, is twofold: in the West, we have to fight against the isolation and conditions – which includes the easy availability of guns – that lead some people to commit acts of terror, and disrupt their online networks. Further, we have to somehow reverse the atomization of our society (as described in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, without mentioning terror). This can be done in part through online security, watching out for our neighbors, better mental health, better counseling, and so on. Reversing atomization, though, will be harder and requires creativity. In other parts of the world, fighting and killing violent extremists is part of the solution, but only part. The other, harder, part is to build the institutions that can provide political order and monopolize violence.
These are gargantuan tasks, and they won’t be won in the battle of ideas. And they certainly won’t be accomplished by Trump-like policies of hate against a whole section of the world’s population.
Image by Edward Muslak under a Creative Commons copyright.