Friday, November 28, 2008

Peaceloving religion of Islam once again triggers mass murder

Fair enough, I am an atheist, so you'd probably expect me to pounce on the carnage currently going on in India. In case you've lived in a cave or had no access to the world for some other reason: a bunch of Islamic militants have, among other things, attacked tourists at hotel pools in India's largest city, Mumbai; in reportedly selfless acts of Islamic martyrdom they also threw hand grenades into crowds of passengers waiting to board their trains in the city's main railway station. These brave warriors even succeeded in murdering a bunch of Jewish people in a synagoge.

I can see already the voices saying that we should not confuse that wonderful peaceloving ideology of Islam with these murders. After all, there's another billion of Muslims who just don't do these things. Indeed, Muslim organisations the world all over have quickly condemned these attacks - as they well should have.

My problem with this analysis is that it is both correct, and clearly seriously flawed. At this point in time we have substantial numbers of Muslims thinking nothing of killing unarmed tourists, train passengers, cartoonists, office workers in the world trade center, commuters on trains in Spain and the UK, as well as fellow Muslims, all in the name of Islam. Well, here's my problem, IF that religion was as peaceloving as its adherents routinely claim it is, how come it routinely motivates quite some of its followers to commit mass murder of innocents? How can it be explained, if the ideology of Islam really has nothing at all to do with the continuing carnages the world all over, that not similar carnages are being committed in the name of the unitarian church or the metropolitan community church or in the name of atheism?

If Islam is being misused here by fanatics, one would surely expect that atheism or humanism would also be misused by fanatics to kill - say - religionists. Yet, this never seems to have happened, at least to my knowledge. Naturally, this makes me wonder whether the obvious correlation between Islamic faith and a growing number of crimes against humanity might actually be more than just a coincidence.

In case you're in doubt about the militants' honorable motives: reportedly they carried out the attacks in order to stop further Hindu violence against Muslims in India. I think we can be confident that they have successfully achieved the opposite. No doubt, innocent Muslims will suffer at the hands of vengeful Hindus, and so the inter-religious violence will happily continue, only briefly interrupted by on-and-off random killings of tourists at their hotel pools.

I just saw the other week the movie RELIGULOUS with Bill Maher. I thought it showed quite nicely how monotheism breeds intolerance and hatred. The current outpouring of Islamic barbarism is not that dissimilar to the barbarism committed by Christians during the crusades. The only surprising thing really is that this is happening in the 21st century. Even more surprising that there still seem to be people who think religion got nothing to do with it. Religions are at the heart of the problem. The sooner we get over them , the better we will be for it


  1. I saw religulous too ;-)

    It is a very,very funny movie, though one whose implicit arguments use a lot of rhetorical "cheats" (keeping in mind that rhetorically fishy moves can be especially persuasive, even when fallacious, in a medium like film, even more than sophistry in spoken or written argument).

    So what is your point here, given that you recognize that not all, indeed most Moslems do not advocate violence in general and this sort of horror in particular?

    Demonstrating that some factor (e.g. in this case, having a certain belief)plays some causal role is not sufficient to isolate it as the morally salient cause (i.e. the thing we should focus our blame on). If it were, then we could blame mugging victims for having money in their pockets.

    Why stop at religion? Maybe the problem is being attached to any belief system. Attachment to beliefs is a common factor among people who commit violence. It's also a common factor amongst people who suffer from their own righteous indignation (whether or not they ever take it out on anyone else).

    Does this mean that we should give up attachment to all beliefs?

    Buddhism would suggest that would be a good idea. I just wondered whether you really want to go all the way down that road. If not, maybe we need a more nuanced analysis of violence than simply blaming religious or ethnic affiliation.

  2. Well Jackie, I have never conflated ethnic affiliation and religious preference (as a current Senate statement on Islamophobia at Queen's does). The reason why I stopped at monotheistic religion is that they're unique in motivating people to commit murder of innocents. My point remains, there are no atheists mass murderers who kill because they are atheists (ie where atheism is the motivating force). The same cannot be said for the attackers in India, Britain, USA, Indonesia and the list is endless.

  3. Hi Udo,

    My point about non-monotheisms causing violence was that (and admittedly I did not spell this out) people can be attached to an ideology in a way that we might describe as "religious" (with respect to the totalizing role the ideology plays in their lives and the extremes they are willing to go to defend it) without said ideology having anything to do with a belief in the divine.

    The kind of ideologies I have in mind include almost every nationalism. Nationalism factors heavily in war, in motivating it in the first place and then in fuelling the patriotic fervour that helps to sustain it. WWI for example was such a war that had nothing to do with religion. The dirty wars in Latin America had and have nothing to do with religion. And then there are various kinds of internationalisms (the Stalinist Soviet Union on the one hand, and the violence connected to the neoliberal globalization of capital on the other hand). Then there are the civil wars like the French Revolution, and the Terror that followed; the American Revolution; the American civil war; the Spanish Civil War etc.).

    We shouldn't forget colonialist regimes that have committed and continue to commit all sorts of atrocities and systematic injustices in the name of "civilizing" the "savage" or the "backward". Typically the "civilizing" process involves brutal efforts to "cleanse" the "uncivilized" and free them from their "primitive" beliefs. Sometimes these beliefs are meant to be replaced by what is taken to be a more advanced religion (e.g. British protestant missionizing in India and it's many other conquests; French and Spanish and Catholic missionizing in the Americas etc). Sometimes it is an avowedly atheist ideology that requires the liquidation of those whose resistance is based in their attachment to religious traditions (e.g.Chinese communist repression of Tibetan Buddhism, Soviet repression of Jews and Mennonites etc). Sometimes an atheist regime represses and terroizes those who are regarded as ideologically unorthodox for wholly non-religious reasons (e.g. the case of the cultural revolution in communist China). I am no historian and these are examples I come up with just off the top of my head. I think we could find many more if we just put our minds to it.

    I freely admit that individuals and groups of individuals kill and commit injustices in the name of religion. We can find examples of this for almost all, or perhaps even all religions. My point is simply that religious ideologies (those which involve some sort of belief in something transcendent or divine) do not have a monopoly on this sort of violence.

    I have another question for you. If it is the consequences of belief that we should be concerned about, why not take into account the good that religious commitment, belief and practice brings to the lives of many individuals and brings to the lives of others through the work of those whose religious commitments either motivate or support them in their work for justice and peace? Various non-religious ideologies motivate people for the good as well, but I don't think this is grounds for discounting the good consequences that religious belief often does have.

    I think that blaming religion in general, or monotheism, or even specific monotheisms in sweeping ways is far too simplistic and misleading. And the consequences of this, I fear are potentially dangerous as well. In some cases I think the harms caused are clear already.

    I am not sure what you mean about the University Senate statement conflating religion and ethnicity. I shall have a look at its wording.

    I do know that for some people identifying as Jewish or Muslim or or Sikh or Hindu or even Christian has a great deal to do with identifying and being proud of their family or the traditions of their community of origin which not unusually do overlap with ethnicity. It is not unusual for people to do this when they live in a country in which their ethnic or racialized identity makes them the target of discrimination, abuse or violence. Some of these people consciously affirm, on religious grounds, the religion with which they are associated. Some others simply refuse to reject it for reasons of cultural pride.

    Some times people who target individuals or groups identified religiously do so for reasons that look more like racism than critique of religion. For example, the meeting and prayer space of the Queen's Muslim Students Association has been broken in to multiple times this past term with accompanying threatening graffiti. For instance, a sign that said "Queen's Muslim Students Association" had the words "should die" written in beside the word "Muslim."

    Now, it could be that the person(s) who wrote that graffiti was religiously motivated and had deep objections to Muslim theology. I suspect it had more to do with the fact that abusing people who refuse to be "like us" is tolerated and even encouraged in a climate in which Islam is equated with terrorism and those who are not sufficiently like "us" not only often don't look like "us" they also dress differently (e.g. wear hijab or turbans or tonsures), have different holidays, eat differently (keep kosher or halal, or eat no meat at all). This seems to upset some people so much that they respond to it with verbal abuse,and violence against person and property.

    In different places and times intolerance of this rather than that type of difference is more publicly accepted. Post 9/11, Muslim bashing has become increasingly tolerated and sometimes even encouraged. Some instances of this in Kingston and at Queen's this past term have shown that it doesn't matter whether the target is actually Muslim either. There have been various publicly reported instances of people being verbally assaulted because they were thought to be Muslim, on account of the way they were racially identified by the assailant.

    These sorts of incidents are part of the context that has generated public statements of opposition to Islamophobia.



    p.s. sorry for the length of this comment. Maybe I will get my own blog. In the meantime, thanks for letting me express myself here.

  4. As an Irishman from the Republic who lived in Britain at the height of the I.R.A. bombing campaign I put up with abuse; mainly verbal but on one occasion physical.
    From this perspective I can relate to what it must be like for Muslims.
    So yes, other ideologies such as Nationalism can be just as noxious as any religion. Humans can find myriad ways to treat each other badly. There is a difference between having some understanding of what drives people and making excuses for wicked actions. That goes for all sides of any conflict. I had some sympathy for the aims of the Republicans yet abhorred their methods. In fact the experience led me to move beyond a sense of identity that was narrow to one that is more inclusive and humanistic.
    I think that religion is so suspect precisely because of how it can divide the world into believer and infidel and derail reason. The only thing that has softened Christianity has been the challenge from freethinking people over the last few centuries.
    To spout platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace willfully ignores the belligerent aspect of it.
    As an atheist I resist the impositions of people of faith and do feel they act with a sense of privilege akin to what feminists and gay people struggle against.
    Why isn't doing away with religious privilege and its unquestioned conviction of moral superiority as desirable as jettisoning Patriarchy. Just because some of the greatest inventors and engineers might have been chauvinists is no reason to not try to create a better and more egalitarian system. So with religion. Once it was the only game in town. It is no surprise there were some positive aspects to it. That is no cause not to relegate it to the history books if possible. Or at the very least keep it in private. Rather like kinky sex or BDSM. If you're a consensual adult and you get off on imaginary friends that's fine. We can draw the line when you start importuning others.

  5. For an example of a self-described faithful Muslim who is also critical of problems within Islam as a movement without rejecting Islam, see David Frost's interview with Irshad Manji on youtube at