Political Animal


May 11, 2013 11:16 AM Jihad and the Conditions for Islamic Reform

By Ryan Cooper

This was an interesting exchange between Glenn Greenwald and Bill Maher:

Though I wouldn’t agree with him totally, Greenwald gets at something that frustrates me about attitudes like Maher’s (and Andrew Sullivan, who has been insisting on some kind of unique role for Islam in the Boston marathon bombings).

The case for jihad as some kind of special radicalizing force is rooted in the fact of Islamist terrorism and analysis of the more violent parts of the Koran. I don’t buy this. From my nonbeliever point of view, the major religious traditions have very many potential interpretations, and which ones are dominant depend greatly on the social conditions of the age. Indeed, Razib Khan makes a persuasive case that the content of religious texts is essentially irrelevant: “The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology.”

That may be too strong. But it is surely the case that the social context of a particular religion is enormously influential over which doctrines are expressed in mainstream religious circles and which are forgotten. Who today bothers with Leviticus 19:19, which forbids planting two kinds of seed in the same plot?

In the antebellum south, Biblically-rooted defenses of slavery were common. It’s only within the last half century that a “life begins at conception” view has become evangelical dogma. And suicide is categorically forbidden in Islam.

It does seem that Islam is struggling somewhat with the modern world. Whether that is more due to some inherent doctrinal issue or European colonialism followed by six decades of American meddling and violence preventing the emergence of a modern society is fun to argue about, but basically irrelevant. Muslim theology is up to Muslims. As Noah Millman writes:

There is very, very little that non-Muslims can “encourage” with regard to Muslim interpretation of their sacred texts. We can “encourage” Muslim leaders to silence, jail or kill individuals we consider to be a threat. And by all means, we should ask questions - heck, we should sometimes ask impolite questions if it’s necessary to do so to get real answers. But I think Dreher would be quite offended by the suggestion that the proper role of Muslim leaders is to “encourage” Christians to interpret their own religion in a way that is more congenial to Muslim interests or feelings. Why wouldn’t Muslims feel the same way about Christians “encouraging” them to interpret their holy book the way Christians prefer?

American Christians can never be part of the intra-Muslim theological discussion. What America can do is try to break out of the cycle of violence which has characterized our relationship with the Middle East for the past half century. We keep pursuing our perceived interests, and in the process trampling one country after the next into the dirt and creating yet more pools of angry, brutalized young men.

This isn’t a call to unilaterally disarm; obviously sometimes force is necessary. But even today we seem to be erring far on the side of too much brute force, killing far too many innocent potential allies, which seems likely backfire as it has in the past. There ought to be a way to fight terrorists that doesn’t involve propping up hated dictators or repeatedly laying waste to Muslim countries.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Tony Greco on May 11, 2013 1:18 PM:

    An excellent post

  • JackD on May 11, 2013 1:20 PM:

    The use of drones is the current administration's effort to accomplish what you seek. That, of course, is criticized for its spilling of innocent blood. What ways of fighting terrorists can you imagine that don't involve propping up dictators, or laying waste to Muslim countries?

  • Steve P on May 11, 2013 1:20 PM:

    Maybe Bill can explain the inherent role that atheism plays in such destructive forces as Fascism and Communism--the real world manifestations, not the theories--first.

    Or he can just smirk at the audience again.

  • c u n d gulag on May 11, 2013 1:28 PM:

    Religion is a useful and very effective political tool, and has been from time immemorial.

    And tough times, mean not only that more and more people turn to religion themselves, but that they're often encouraged by their government to do so.
    In WWII, Stalin reopened the Russian Orthodox Churches, and the immediately closed them after.

    The Muslims are being radicalized by their own governments, hoping that they won't turn on them, but will, instead focus blame for their poverty, on Israel and the West.

    Our own Christians here, hating the onslaught of multi-culturalism, are radicalizing themselves.

    Heaven is the most exclusive club of them all, think the believers, because only the truest of true believers will earn their way in - people like, oh, THEMSELVES, for instance. What a koinky-dink!

    Karl Marx is right, yet again.
    Not only that unregulated Capitalism will eventually devour itself, but that 'Religion is the opiate of the masses.'

    Pray on, suckers. Pray on...

    And while you're praying, pray for the Earth to cool down, or you may find out that there's no Heaven a lot earlier than you think.

  • Altoid on May 11, 2013 2:03 PM:

    Religious texts and traditions often give people some of their most important metaphors and analogs for understanding what's happening around them. That's as true of our fanatical readers of Revelation as it might be of anyone in the Muslim world.

    And in some places, like Egypt under Mubarrak, or Poland and East Germany under communism, religious institutions are the only places where political discussion can be carried on. Much of that has to be disguised as religious discussion, like in Europe in the 17th century. Civil institutions in much of the Muslim world have been very weak (until very recently, in some cases) so political issues are discussed in religious terms much more there than here.

    For most people, religious doctrine by itself simply doesn't inspire specific acts. As Ryan says, it's too varied, and as c u points out, Christianity has plenty of inspirations to violence itself.

    I think Maher's really taking the easy way out here, saying that Islam is just like the Catholicism that he's disavowed. In other words, it's no different than any other organized religion because they all nurture violence against unbelievers.

    Imho, the statement he made, which is so similar to what the kill-'em-all crowd says, is only defensible when it's understood that way.

  • nemisten on May 11, 2013 2:24 PM:

    "Whether that is more due to some inherent doctrinal issue or European colonialism followed by six decades of American meddling and violence preventing the emergence of a modern society is fun to argue about, but basically irrelevant."

    Irrelevant? Sorry, but I strongly disagree. Unless and until Americans (and Europeans) understand that their exploitive policies are largely responsible for the economic conditions in much of the Islamic world, little will change. Overwhelming evidence shows religion fades with education and economic prosperity (e.g. Japan, Western Europe, Blue-state US, etc). Exploitation will reap consequences ad infinitum.

  • Mimikatz on May 11, 2013 3:58 PM:

    Just about all of these points have value. Many people in unsettling times turn to fundamentalist interpretations of their religion, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist (just look at Sri Lanka) or Hindu or animist. Governments exploit religious faith and religious divisions. There is often a power and economic aspect to religious conflict. Religiously based conflicts have been among the most vicious all over the world. Just Google " Simon de Montfort Albigensian heresy" for starters, or any aspect of the religious wars in Europe after Protestantism got going. There is nothing unique about Islam in this regard.

    That said, it is also true that while at one point Islamic countries were the most scientifically advanced, after the Mongol invasions and the European rediscovery of the knowledge amassed by the Greeks, Romans and Arab scholars, science found a more hospitable home in Europe and then the areas settled by Europeans. And oil has been a curse more than a blessing for those countries who have it, many of whom are predominantly Muslim. And the US has gone blundering into countries with no knowledge or interest in local politics, religion or culture for the past century. When it was Europe we could get by on some common culture, but look at the Philippines, Central America, Vietnam, the Middle East, over and over the same mistakes. Now we have enemies who have the technology to do us real harm, so it really matters that we get it right. That means get out of Islamic countries, stop the drones and torture and secret prisons, go back to soft power, stop consorting with dictators, secure our borders and try to be a force for good

  • Scott K on May 11, 2013 5:24 PM:

    I agree that Islam really doesn't deserve to be singled out as being somehow uniquely susceptible to extremism. It just so happens that the socio-economic forces leading to the less stable parts of the world today are focused on a part of the world that is predominantly Muslim. It is for that reason that I feel that I must single out this quote, "It does seem that Islam is struggling somewhat with the modern world," as being somewhat ignorant. This quote would be a valid observation only if you focus on the specific Muslim-majority areas of the world that tend to attract the most discussion about Islamic extremists (and also happen to be home to a lot of repressive governments, power struggles, and the like). Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and several former USSR nations are all also majority Muslim, and combined they represent a population of Muslims that approaches (if not exceeds) the population residing in the Middle East and northeast Africa. Yet if you visit those countries (and I have visited a few recently), it is very clear that the society is fundamentally secular and while those countries still have some way to go before becoming fully modernized and enjoying a standard of living comparable to Americans and Europeans, they are moving in that direction. You see signs that the people are predominantly Muslim, from the calls to prayer to the prayer rooms to the hijabs worn by a sizable number (but not all) females, and so on. But you do not get the sense that government or the society in general is cast around Islamism in particular. In essence, Islam exists in these societies in much the same way as mainstream Christianity exists in America and Europe, as something that many people practice, but without expecting that everyone else would follow their particular interpretation. It is not Islam that is struggling with the modern world, it is particular adherents with an inflexible perspective of how their society should be. The same is true of Christianity and other religions, even today.

  • cld on May 11, 2013 7:43 PM:

    ' “The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology.” '

    Well, what if it's about the 'psychological intuition and social identification' of right-wing psychos and sociopaths?

  • cld on May 12, 2013 1:43 PM:

    Doesn't the example of Chinese Gordon belie the argument? If he were here today he'd still be fighting the Mahdi at Khartoum, but he wouldn't be fighting in China.

  • Rick B on May 12, 2013 2:29 PM:

    I skipped over Asia because the comment was already too long. My point with the Mahdi is that Islam changed it's doctrine in order to deal with the incursions from the west. Islam (in the Middle East in particular) is still making such changes, but the problem they face is that the western industrial machine demands the oil so many Islamic nations are sitting on. As nations they have not dealt with the modernization that the west is forcing on them from the position of their own cultures.

    India and China are different in that they have both repelled western political domination and now deal with modernization (which is being forced on them by trade and modern communications) through their own political structures.

    This is also a set of quick and dirty over generalizations, something I will freely admit and blame in part on the nature of the comment media.

    One more point, though, is that both Christianity and Islam became world religions as part of the military expansion or protection of empires. Islam was in fact a reaction against the religion of Rome - and I think Shiite Islam was the Persian effort to avoid conquest by the Arabs with their Sunni Islam. In all those cases the nature of the religious structure and theology was dictated by the needs of political needs for legitimacy after conquest or to avoid conquest.

    Islam and Christianity are really siblings which have grown up around the Mediterranean as the political winds blew through. The religions are reactions rather than causes.