The causes of extremism

I'm in the middle of an argument about the cause of Islamic extremism. The way I see the issue is that it is caused by both the doctrine and the environment, while my opponent (whom I refer to as "the apologist") wholly blames the west, absolving the doctrine of Islam of any blame. This blog post is a reply to one of his comments to me, and its overall theme could be said to be the causes of extremism.

Before you read this, go ahead and read my blog posts "Not all [insert group here]" and "An apologist for not all". The former is the original topic about which I wrote, and the latter is my first response to the western apologist for Islam who criticized the former blog post.

Apparently, according to the apologist, I'm still using a straw man by claiming the "not all" argument first of all does not invalidate criticism and second of all is used to shut down the debate, rather than actually arguing. I wrote that the "not all" argument often implies the critic is a bigot; the apologist then wondered why using the argument means he assumes I'm a bigot. The short answer is it doesn't and I never said that; the longer answer is that this is often what is implied, but that doesn't mean it is as such in every case.

He says that those who are victims of such arguments should get that response because they generalize too much (which seems to imply that they're bigots); while I agree now, and did agree in my prior blog post, that some people do make unfair generalizations, just saying "not all" or "you're a bigot" cannot truly be called an argument, but rather an assertion (and the latter is also an ad hominem attack). Generalizations also go both ways: claiming Islam is wholly evil or wholly good are both unfair generalizations.

He said that if the "not all" argument "shuts down their argument completely, then chances are their argument never had substance to begin with." This is where he makes a huge mistake. Islam is taboo to criticize, and many fellow liberals view all Muslims as victims. And they are in many cases right; Muslims are the greatest victim of Islamism and they are also despised as a people by many in the west. We should stand up for them, but this is often taken too far and any suggestion that Islam is part of the problem with Islamism is met with hostility and impressive ignorance, hence why even arguments with substance can be shut down completely.

The apologist then said, "It's just that people don't believe, and rightly so, that Islam is the reason why this terrorism exists to begin with and shouldn't be associated with the average Muslim." Once more, he like many others has conflated an ideology and a people. Islam is not a people; Muslims are not an ideology. He brought up that Christian terrorism also exists, not just Islamic terrorism, which in a way defeats his own argument that terrorism committed in order to promote a certain Islamist version of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, but only western Imperialism and living in a tyranny. If this were true, why are there Christian terrorists? Why do highly educated, middle-class Muslims join ISIS? Because they are indoctrinated by an extreme ideologyan extreme interpretation of a doctrine which allows for extremism to exist because of the already existing dogma. Of course there are reasons other than just the pure doctrine; it may be feeling oppressed (though many people who are oppressed do not turn to extremism) or it may be that one was raised in an extremist home. But if the ideology doesn't exist, one cannot subscribe to it.

He also wrote that I assume people are ignorant of the fact that terrorism is a problem or that they don't think Islam should be criticized, which he says isn't true. First of all, it's quite the straw man to say I'm assuming people are ignorant of the fact that terrorism is a problem; what I said was that Islamic terrorism is a problem that has to do with Islam and that people are unwilling to accept it, like the person with whom I'm arguing. To acknowledge that Islamic extremism has its roots in Islam isn't the same as saying all Muslims are responsible either, as he suggested when he wrote that "this terrorism exists to begin with and shouldn't be associated with the average Muslim."

I'll first say that I don't want all Muslims to apologize or actively take distance from every act of terror committed by someone who shares their religion; we're all responsible for our own actions, after all, not anyone else's. It does worry me, though, that the burning of a book gets a stronger response than terrorism (or a response at all). The second thing I'd like to say here is that I don't want to associate terrorism with the average Muslim, because most Muslims are not terrorists. All I'm saying is that Islam, like Christianity, has dogmatic and horrible doctrine that can with relative ease be turned radicalat least at this point in time, when the Muslim world and Islam have yet to progress as far as the west and Christianity. This doesn't mean all or even close to all Muslims are or ever will be radicalized; it means radicalization is possible.

As I wrote, of course there are reasons other than the pure doctrine, too, including western Imperialism. I've said this again and again, that both external and internal factors cause extremism in ideologies like Islam. And yet all this apologist hears is "Islam is evil" and then he feels the need to instead lay all the blame on the west. He keeps arguing that it is the west that causes Islamic extremism, and I never said we don't contribute to the problem. What I'm saying is that it's quite the willful ignorance to say Islamic terrorism and Islamism (the political application of Islam) have nothing at all to do with the doctrine of Islam, which is quite different than saying it has something to do with Muslims as a people.

The apologist said he "never compared religion to race," which I said he did in my last blog post. He only used a racial stereotype as an example of when to use the "not all" argument appropriately. But again, "not all" is not actually an argument, but an assertion that should be backed up by arguments. It's also not a valid comparison, because race is not an ideology or a doctrine. Peoples and ideologies are two completely different things.

He wrote that "it's fair to say that the Abrahamic religions are filled with archaic morals, but to say that it's a significant cause of extremism is simply nonsense." He rationalized this peculiar statement by saying extremism would still exist because people hate America, wish to spread their crazy and dogmatic beliefs, and murder countless people. He said people don't need religion to do that and the Cold War is evidence of this. He wrote that "people will cling to an ideal if it suits their needs or what they want to believe, regardless of whether or not a deity is involved."

If anything is nonsense, it is his argument. Why is it wrong to say an ideology is a significant part of why an extremist version of that same ideology exists? Extremism would, indeed, exist even without Islam, but Islamic extremism would not exist without Islam. If the Islamic faith was taken out of the Islamic extremists, would they still murder the Muslims they think practice Islam incorrectly? Would they still murder those who have the wrong faith? Would blasphemy be punished? Of course not. It's also ironic that he writes extremism will exist because people want to spread their dogmatic beliefs, which is to say that the ideology does matter; if anything is dogmatic, it is religion, which is why religious extremism comes fairly easily.

I don't buy that people only "cling to an ideal if it suits their needs" or that they believe what they want to believe. How we view what is moral depends on the environment in which we were raised, and religions are part of this environment. Religion isn't the only factor that shapes a person's ideals, so if the religion conflicts with other convictions, rationalizations will be used. But religion does affect people and how they think. In addition, belief is not a choice; one cannot one day choose to believe two plus two equals five.

The apologist wrote that people don't need religion to turn to extremism and that the Cold War proves this. He makes a common mistake, which is to separate religious and secular ideologies. Yes, extremism can occur without religion; there have been plenty of secular ideologies that turned extreme, like communism, and there have been secular terrorists. But their extremism was also ideologically motivated. It's quite the odd argument to say that because one ideology without gods caused extremism, one with gods cannot do the same. This argument can only exist because religion has become protected and idealized, even by those who are irreligious.

Extremism can come in many forms, but it is ideological by its very nature. Without a certain worldview, it is tough to gather tens of thousands of people to join one's cause. Hate for the west does contribute, I think; I've never said otherwise. But I don't think it explains every aspect of Islamic extremism, nor is hate of the west a sufficient explanation for why Muslims join extremist groups. Those who recruit Muslims to extremist groups do exploit discontent, but they also exploit Muslims' faith to convince them of a certain interpretation of Islamic doctrine; it would be hard to convince someone who doesn't believe in the Islamic faith to subscribe to Islamic extremism.

The apologist wrote that if someone converts to Islam, it doesn't automatically make them an insane radical who goes around murdering anyone who doesn't have the same ideals. This is another nonsense argument, because I never said anything remotely like this. In fact, I've said most Muslims aren't terrorists. But the Islamic faith enables Islamic extremism; it's the same with every other ideology, except not all ideologies are radicalized as easily. Why not all ideologies are radicalized as easily is because of two groups of factors: internal and external ones. The ideology itself matters, depending on what it says (what the Quran says, for example), but the environment in which one lives is also important, of course; this is basically nature versus nurture, what the nature of the doctrine is and how those who subscribe to it are nurtured. As I wrote in my last blog post, people tend to be too one-sided and simply choose to blame either the ideology or the environment.

The person with whom I'm arguing said we should blame extremism and not the religion itself, and that extremism will exist regardless of religion. Yes, extremism would exist without the religion, but as I've said before, Islamic extremism wouldn't exist without Islam. He said the way to fix issues in the Middle East is to address what causes extremism, such as stability and corruption. I say the way to solve the issue with Islamic extremism is to bring about reform in the Muslim world and Islam. The religion and its archaic, fundamentalist laws do rule in most places in the Middle East, to varying degrees; the interpretation of the faith must change, which is something that is difficult but is happening, as there are liberal Muslims.

However, I do agree with the apologist when he says the way to solve the issues in the Middle East is to help stabilize the region; both internal and external factors matter, and so the framework within which one construes the doctrine is important. While some Muslims who live middle-class lives in the west join ISIS (even westerners who have converted), western, secular culture breeds liberal values, although change is slow and conservatism lurks behind every corner. What I mean is that it is much more likely for a Muslim who lives in the west to be liberal than one who lives in the Middle East, because they don't live in an environment in which extremism can survive as easily. On this, I think the apologist and I agree, as his whole argument is that only one's environment matters.

To help solve the issues in the Middle East, the west should also make some policy changes; murdering innocents with drone strikes certainly does not help, after all. I agree with the apologist on all of this, but I disagree that the doctrine of Islam has nothing to do with Islamism, which is the ideological or political version of the doctrine.

The apologist ended his argument by saying he dislikes that I called Islam barbaric, while saying Christianity "somehow progressed out of that." He said there are still plenty of extremist Christians out there and asked how groups like the Lord's Resistance Army and Westboro Baptist Church are less barbaric than Islam. He wrote that western nations are doing better for the most part, but "that isn't because of or in any way related to Christianity 'moving beyond barbarianism.'"

First of all, he said himself that "Abrahamic religions are filled with archaic morals." They are, and that is a fact. If Christianity and Islam were practiced as they originally were intended to be practiced, no sane-minded person alive today would call them anything other than barbaric. It is also a fact that religions have been reformed throughout history, hence why there are so many denominations of, for example, Christianity, with varying degrees of conservatism. This means that religions aren't magical worldviews that are perfect from conception; they need to progress as society progresses around them.

His arguing that Christianity also causes extremism is ironic, as this suggests religions can cause extremism; Christians are the oppressive majority in the United States and they lead relatively good lives, yet there have been Christian terrorists. However, it is true that Christianity has in large part progressed out of its barbaric phase. It can still cause extremism, but living within a progressive, secular framework and being educated means it is much harder. More to the point, Jews and Christians have abandoned the more barbaric elements of Judaism and Christianity, which have thus been reformed; one doesn't find many Jewish terrorists who kill in the name of Judaism, even though the Old Testament is arguably one of the most barbaric religious texts.

Islam hasn't really progressed from its barbaric phase yet; maybe it could have if the west hadn't screwed up the Middle East, but it's true that it hasn't. That doesn't mean all Muslims are barbaric or that Islam is forever incompatible with modern life. It doesn't even mean Islam is incompatible with modern life now, because there are plenty of Muslims who embrace secularism. However, extremism is simply more common and more extreme in Islam than it is in Christianity and Judaism, at this point in history. There are many fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, and through rational thought and argumentation, these must be reformed. The debate is for everyone to partake in, but Muslims are the ones who will bring about the change, which is why it is important to support prominent, progressive Muslims like Maajid Nawaz.

I disagree that the west doing better than the Middle East isn't related to the progress of Christianity. The religion had to be reformed and lose its political power for the west to become the place it is today. If the church still had the power it once did, the west would look very different, indeed; many political problems in the United States are still related to Christianity, like the opposition to equality for LGBT. It required people to question their religion for Christianity to progress; it required people to question the role of religion in politics for the west to progress.

Rational thought and other elements of culture influence religions, but religions also influence rational thought and other elements of culture. As the Middle East progresses, so will Islam, and as Islam progresses, so will the Middle East. The bottom line is that Muslims who question their religion and especially its role in politics need to be heard.