The false dichotomy of Islamophobia

Ottoman women
Ottoman women

by Massimo Pigliucci

A false dichotomy is a basic type of informal logical fallacy, consisting in framing an issue as if there were only two choices available, while in fact a range of nuanced positions may be on offer upon more careful reflection. While I have argued together with my colleagues Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri that often so-called logical fallacies turn out to be pretty reasonable heuristic strategies [1], there are nonetheless plenty of instances were they do identify truly bad reasoning. I have recently discussed one such case in reference to so-called trigger warnings in the context of college classes [2], but another one is arguably represented by the never ending “debate” about Islamophobia.

It is easy to find stark examples of people defending what appear to be two irreconcilable positions about how to view Islam in a post-9/11 world. For the sake of discussion, I will bypass pundits and other pseudo-intellectuals, and use instead two comedians as representative of the contrasting positions: Jon Stewart [3] and Bill Maher [4].

Before proceeding I must acknowledge that while I’ve liked Stewart for a long time, and followed with pleasure his evolution from being solely a comedian to a savvy social commentator during his run at the Daily Show [5], my appreciation of Maher has slid further and further. I used to like his brusque style back when he was doing his “Politically Incorrect” show, first on Comedy Central, then on ABC [6]. I was aghast when ABC (allegedly) let him go because he had dared to make the truly politically (but clearly correct) statement that the 9/11 hijackers could properly be labelled with a number of negative epithets, but that cowards wasn’t one of them. But then he made his Religulous movie [7], where he slid into crass new atheism-style “criticism” of religion, and finally came out as an anti-vaxxer all the while chastising some of his guests who were “skeptical” of climate change for being anti-science. At the same time, my conscious transition from a youthful predilection for assault rhetoric to a more nuanced (okay, middle aged), if still ironic, discourse also definitely marked a permanent shift in my taste from Maher (a good representative of the first style) to Stewart (an excellent example of the second one).

Back to Islam and Islamophobia. Maher has been repeatedly accused of the latter, while he defends himself as simply having the guts to be politically incorrect and openly criticize a religion that he considers the worst of a bad lot (since he rejects all religions anyway). Stewart, by contrast, has often had guests whose position is that there is nothing inherently wrong with Islam, and that the current undeniable penchant of a number of Islamic societies to harbor large reserves of potentially violent extremists has really nothing to do with religion and everything to do with external circumstances affecting those societies — circumstances that are usually traced back one way or the other to the aftermath of (Western) colonialism.

Notice that part of what interests me in this debate is the contrast on this topic among individuals who all consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, just like in the above mentioned case of trigger warnings. And again as in that other case, I am far less interested in the even more inflammatory, and intellectually much coarser, rhetoric coming from the extreme right, which will accordingly be left out of the current discussion.

Now, broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general are particularly good ideas. In my mind they originate from a combination of false presuppositions (that there are higher beings of a supernatural kind) and a power grab by individuals (i.e., religious leaders) who sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not) end up exploiting the fears and hopes of the people that they are supposed to lead. Even so, I recognize that the religious instinct is pretty much universal among human beings, and not likely to go away any time soon, if ever. I also recognize that religions have done lots of good in the world throughout history, and that it isn’t at all clear whether a world without them would indeed be a better one, as a number of overconfident atheists keeps claiming [8].

What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that religion, any religion (including Islam) is a particularly good idea, but at the same time I also don’t believe that any religion (again, including Islam) is “the motherlode of bad ideas” [9].

But of course we are not talking about religions in general, we are talking post-9/11 Islam. What are we to make of it? While the statistics on international terrorism are complex and can be read in a number of ways [10], there is little doubt even in the mind of sympathetic commentators like CNN’s Fared Zakaria that contemporary Islam does have a problem with violence and oppression (especially of women and gays).

Zakaria (a frequent guest on the Daily Show), however, puts things in the right context when he reminds us that all we need to do is to look at the relatively recent comparative history of Islam and other Abrahamic religions to be convinced that there isn’t anything especially pernicious, in the long run, with the former when compared to the latter [11]. The (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, for instance, was one of the most tolerant places bordering with Europe for centuries, while many (Christian) European countries themselves were busy suppressing or violently expelling religious minorities, including different flavors of Christianity. This, Zakaria rightly concludes, ought to dispel any simplistic idea about one of the Abrahamic faiths being intrinsically worse than the others, selective quotations of the Quran by some modern commentators (on both sides) notwithstanding. (As is well known, the quotation game can easily be played by more than one side, as Jewish and Christian scriptures are full of severely objectionable passages, by modern moral standards.)

It would seem, then, that Maher & co. simply haven’t bothered to study history, and that it is a combination of social, economic and political factors that is creating a special problem for Islam in the contemporary world — just like different circumstances did not lead to the same problem during the Ottoman Empire, and did lead to them in Christian controlled countries for many centuries.

Well, not so fast (and here comes the hopefully more nuanced approach that might save us from simplistic dichotomies). It is also simply unconvincing to argue, as Stewart and a number of his guests have done — that Islam qua religion and idea has nothing at all to do with the above mentioned culture of violence and oppression. If one asks recruits of Al Qaeda or ISIS why they are doing what they are doing they reply with a combination of political motives (get American military bases off their sacred land, for instance) and their own interpretation of what Islam is about and the Quran mandates.

Sure, one can argue that such interpretations are simply mistaken (though it’s hard to adjudicate theological debates, since we can’t ask the alleged divine source), but even so those ideas clearly play an enabling and highly motivating role in the ensuing violence and repression. To deny this is simply not to pay attention to what is plainly in front of our eyes and ears.

The above should clearly  imply that the dichotomy presented to us by the “it’s the mother lode of bad ideas” vs the “it has nothing to do with Islam” crowds is simply mistaken. And it is mistaken for reasons that, again, ought to be familiar to anyone even superficially acquainted with history. We have plenty of examples of how certain combinations of external and internal social circumstances have become fertile ground for extremist ideas, religious or not, and of when bad, or badly interpreted, ideas feed right back into people’s behaviors, giving them a way to rationalize and magnify their thinking and actions.

Take, for instance, the rise of “communist” countries during the 20th century, particularly Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China. Unlike, say, nazism and fascism — which I think truly are irredeemably bad ideas — communism as developed by Marx and Engels [12] is not even close to being in the same ballpark. It may be unworkable, and even undesirable, but it isn’t intrinsically evil. Yet the communist ideal was easily twisted by unscrupulous and power hungry “leaders” like Stalin and Mao (and a number of others), resulting in many decades of entirely non-religious violence and oppression that killed many times more people than contemporary Islam has managed so far. Why? Because millions bought into the ideas that were being presented to them and used them as a justification for what they were doing, even though they were doing it at the least in part because of external social, political and economic circumstances (just remember in what context both the Russian and Chinese revolutions took place [13]).

So, while some people may very well be “Islamophobes” (i.e., they may genuinely harbor an irrational prejudice against Islam), simply pointing out that Islamic ideas play a role in contemporary terrorism and repression does not make one a Islamophobe, and using the label blindly is simply an undemocratic, and unreflective, way of cutting off critical discourse. Then again, those who focus on Islam as uniquely problematic may themselves benefit from dusting off a couple of history books and learn a thing or two about the complex interplay of ideas and socio-political situations in human affairs, before making themselves Paladins of simplistic and highly misleading non-truths.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Scientia Salon, and his latest books are Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press, co-edited with Maarten Boudry) and Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (Basic Books).

[1] The Fake, the Flimsy, and the Fallacious: Demarcating Arguments in Real Life, by M. Boudry, F. Paglieri and M. Pigliucci, Argumentation:1-26, 2015.

[2] The false dichotomy of trigger warnings, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 28 May 2015.

[3] Jon Stewart, Wiki entry.

[4] Bill Maher, Wiki entry.

[5] See: The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Indecision Theory, ed. by J. Holt. I contributed chapter 17, “Evolution, Schmevolution.”

[6] Politically Incorrect, Wiki entry.

[7] Religulous, 2008, IMDB entry.

[8] See: Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?, Rationally Speaking podcast, 8 March 2015.

[9] Sam Harris Defends Assertion That ‘Islam Is the Motherlode of Bad Ideas’, Media ITE, 13 October 2014, commenting on an episode of Bill Maher’s show.

[10] Take a look at the Global Terrorism Database, though this article by the BBC clearly shows a recent, sharp, increase in terrorist attacks, mostly of an extremist Islamic nature.

[11] Let’s be honest, Islam has a problem right now, by F. Zakaria, Washington Post, 9 October 2014.

[12] The Communist Manifesto, by F. Engels and K. Marx, Project Gutenberg.

[13] Russian Revolution, Wiki entry; Chinese Communist Revolution, Wiki entry.


79 thoughts on “The false dichotomy of Islamophobia

  1. I agree mostly about the “Islamophobia” issue. All religions can simply have cafeteria versions of themselves, and probably will whenever times are good. However, when a new generation comes that sees the establishment being weak-sauce cafeteria XYZists and wants to demonstrate it is more pious than those guys, it should logically make a big difference what guidelines they will find in their holy book and what role model the founder figure was. For example, were they a pacifist meditator, a deranged doomsday preacher, a nation-building warlord, or a con artist? It would be a bit silly to assume that this has no influence whatsoever on the precise types of danger posed by the resulting belief system especially when taken to its logical conclusion.

    As for the idea “that often so-called logical fallacies turn out to be pretty reasonable heuristic strategies”, I had assumed that that was the commonly, widely and long accepted theory for where they come from and why we commit them. It seems to be mentioned as a caveat in most cases that people professionally discuss fallacies. Did you ever run into somebody who actually believed that for example the bandwagon fallacy is not a good heuristic in a little group of friendly/familiar humans discussing everyday stuff that doesn’t involve catastrophic risk profiles?


  2. Excellent commentary which should be read by pretty much everyone. The scary thing is that Christianity and other religions managed to get through their “medieval” period of history (with the inquisition, civil wars between sects, etc.) before the advent of WMD technology. It’s different today, when the conflict is not just continent-wide (i.e., Europe) but world-wide, and there are weapons that can destroy cities and/or regions in hours or days.

    Another “false dichotomy” argument in full swing at present is the GUN debate in the US. Both sides seem to cast the other in extremist terms: paranoia about government banning all guns versus unrestrained ownership any – including military grade – weapons. It seems difficult to hear a moderate voice in the debate. I am fond of asking NRA types why, if the 2nd amendment grants rights to civilian ownership of machine guns, does it not also grant rights to own stinger missiles and RPG launchers?

    There are others. It seems a product of our super-loud, screaming media that the voices that get heard are always at the extremes of any argument.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sorry, Massimo, but if you think the Ottoman Empire had a peaceful relationship with Europe, you are talking through your hat. For a long period the Empire made several incursions into Europe, pounded some countries into submission, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia … need I really go further? It even harvested boys from European Christian families, enslaved them, forcibly converted them to Islam, and made them into crack troops which in turn waged war againts their European families. And, of course, these were not the only incursions of Islam into Europe. Sicily was Muslim for centuries, as were parts of Spain and Portugal. Jihadis made it though Hungary and Poland, and it was sometimes touch and go whether they would succeed in subordinating the whole continent to Islam. How come you think they are so innocent? If this constant jihad expressed tolerance, you should ask the Greeks why they fought for independence and got it, or why so much effort was made to stop further incursions of Islam into Europe. And don’t forget all the slaves that were brought back as booty from these adventuring raids into the continent, and how many enslaved Christians were amongst the best troops of the Ottoman Empire

    Then the jihad took a break for a period, because Britian, France, Spain and Italy either colonised or governed Muslim countries for a few generations, as colonies or protectorates. But now Islam is back, with a vengeance. Yes, for awhile, since being stopped at the gates of Vienna, Muslims turned more or less compliant, since, by then, Europe was becoming the dominant power. But that is changing, and Islam has never given up its aim to conquer the world and submit all to Allah.

    You quote Zakaria to this effect:

    “Zakaria (a frequent guest on the Daily Show), however, puts things in the right context when he reminds us that all we need to do is to look at the relatively recent comparative history of Islam and other Abrahamic religions to be convinced that there isn’t anything especially pernicious, in the long run, with the former when compared to the latter ”

    Comparing the religion of Islam and other religions will show that Islam has been in conquering, colonising mode since the beginning, guided by religious commands, quite unlike European colonialism, which benefited from not upsetting the religious settlements of places they came willy-nilly, to rule. The crusades were different, a direct response to Muslim aggression, and slaving expeditions into Europe. But Islam was an imperial power, always based on Muhammad’s commands. Europeans were merchants, not spreading religion, but securing trade routes and supply. But Islam, while it has not held onto all its imperial possessions, was a much more aggressive imperialist, and spreading the religion of Islam was one of its primary objectives. Zakaria is living in a dream world. We are just witnessing the resurgence of jihad after roughly two centuries of quiescence in the face of European power. It is the cornerstone of Islam, wich every Muslim has a duty to support.

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  4. Hi Massimo, I mostly agree with the position you set out.

    Funny enough, some New Atheists seem to have realized how irrelevant they were becoming with their stance that rejection of Islam was the only solution, and are now posing as/with reformers. Funnier still, they don’t admit they were wrong in the first place while continuing to pretend all their critics are arguing militant Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam.

    Not so funny, is that they appear to be cozying up to the right and agreeing to bizarrely authoritarian solutions as if that is required to deal with the issues we are facing. Anyone willing to throw out basic freedoms because a government official says it’s the only way to stay free due to the threat posed by Islam, is in my opinion an Islamophobe (that is holding an irrational fear of Islam, regardless if they are bigots or not).


  5. Enjoyable to read as always, Massimo. I would only add that on Sam Harris he is doing some work with a true great on this subject: Maajid Nawaz They have collaborated on an eBook out in October. I’m hoping Sam’s position as a result of a dialogue with Maajid has become more nuanced like your own.
    Where as those like Stewart etc their positions have not changed – if anything have hardened further especially the politicians.

    A question: do you think we could rank religions to discern which are more benign than others? I personally do not think Islam is that much – if any – worse than Christianity the main difference is today at least christians do not take the bible literally where as that is inherent tenant of Islam

    Anyway there are much more intelligent and knowledgeable people than me to speak on this subject hopefully they will comment!


  6. What “reforms” there have been of Christianity — there are Protestant denominations now that have gay weddings in their churches, and lesbian married pastors could the be presidents of such denominations — have happened from within Christianity itself, not because of “outsiders” critiques. That suggests that reform of islam, if it happens, has to happen from within itself, and what outsiders say has little effect.


  7. Alex,

    “Did you ever run into somebody who actually believed that for example the bandwagon fallacy is not a good heuristic in a little group of friendly/familiar humans discussing everyday stuff that doesn’t involve catastrophic risk profiles?”

    All the times, especially at “skeptic” meetings. I’m sure you can easily find plenty of instances of “this is your fallacy” type of knee-jerk responses all over internet fori.


    “I’m sorry, Massimo, but if you think the Ottoman Empire had a peaceful relationship with Europe, you are talking through your hat”

    I’m not sure where you read that, since it’s not what I wrote. Neither the Ottoman empire nor European nations were peaceful, at pretty much any time during their histories. What I said, and stand by, is that until near the end (say, mind 18th-century) Ottomans were far more tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities within their borders than their Christian counterparts.

    “Then the jihad took a break for a period, because Britain, France, Spain and Italy either colonised or governed Muslim countries for a few generations, as colonies or protectorates”

    Ah, so colonialism was a good thing, after all?

    “The crusades were different, a direct response to Muslim aggression”

    I’d like to know which history book you are using as a reference. The Crusades were an unqualified act of aggression, triggered by the need for riches and internal political stability, which the Pope and various kings thought would be achieved by unifying Christendom against the “infidel.”


    “I’m hoping Sam’s position as a result of a dialogue with Maajid has become more nuanced like your own”

    I hope so, though my past experience with Harris has been that he ain’t the nuanced type. But we’ll see.

    “do you think we could rank religions to discern which are more benign than others?”

    Possibly, though it would be difficult, and it is hard to see what the point would be. For instance, how is one going to meaningfully compare the three Abrahamic faiths with, say, pantheism? Moreover, should we do the comparison by taking what the respective scriptures (which in some cases don’t even exist) say at face value? But then what about all those believers who think they need to be interpreted? And what are we to make of the fact that the interpretations sometimes differ wildly?

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Massimo,

    But “this is your fallacy” is an important thing to point out when somebody argues towards a wrong conclusion. There is no contradiction between accepting that fallacies are decent heuristics for everyday topics with low risk (is that movie good, where can I get a decent haircut, what do you think of Mark?) and holding that they are dangerous pit-falls for topics that are either further removed from everyday stuff and human intuition (evolution, climate, philosophy) and/or involve great risks (climate again, investing your life savings).

    Another way of putting it is simply that you should never rely on heuristics where you really need to get it right!


    That is a bit unexpected. Do you argue that Christianity only ever spread peacefully? Late Roman Emperors did not force everybody to become Christian? The crusades of the German order against Slavonic pagans were a reaction to aggression? Colonial empires “benefited from not upsetting the religious settlements of places they came”? I believe there were once some Aztec and Inca priests who would have been interested in learning more!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A balanced review of a very controversial subject. I guess Massimo felt the need to enlighten the cadres on the left because they have been vigorous in their use of the epithet.

    In our hot political climate any public critic of Islam on philosophical grounds almost certainly will be labeled an islamophobe, meaning bigot. It is sometimes conflated with racism. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has pointed this out: she had left the religion and is now labeled an islamophobe by many in the academy. She was recently disinvited to speak on a university campus.

    Phobia: “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. “he had a phobia about being under water”
    synonyms: fear, irrational fear, obsessive fear, dread, horror, terror, hatred, loathing, detestation, aversion, antipathy, revulsion…”

    However, fear of a religion that houses a large proportion of fanatics is not entirely irrational.


  10. An excellent and (dare I say) important essay. Not much time to comment and, given the quality of the analysis here, not much need.

    I would just like to say something in defense of Sam Harris (everyone’s eyes just flicked up and checked the name at the top). Even before Maajid he did have, in some respects, a nuanced approach to the topic in that he has taken the time to form an empathetic understanding of the appeal of Islam to it’s adherents and fellow travellers.

    I wouldn’t call him, or Dawkins, Islamophobes, not by a long shot. But I have felt from time to time that their fingers stray towards the dog whistle from time to time, perhaps not consciously.


  11. Massimo, I agree with the general gist of what you are saying, but I don’t know that this analogy is all that helpful:

    “Unlike, say, nazism and fascism — which I think truly are irredeemably bad ideas – communism as developed by Marx and Engels is not even close to being in the same ballpark. It may be unworkable, and even undesirable, but it isn’t intrinsically evil. Yet the communist ideal was easily twisted by unscrupulous and power hungry “leaders” like Stalin and Mao (and a number of others), resulting in many decades of entirely non-religious violence and oppression that killed many times more people than contemporary Islam has managed so far.”

    I get the basic point but question the basis and rigour of the analogy. Islam, you seem to be saying, is more like communism (not intrinsically bad but twisted by unscrupulous leaders) than fascism (which was just plain evil from the start). But — leaving aside the value judgements — I would question how useful it is to compare a “revealed” religion with its roots in another era with modern political ideologies.

    Moreover, certain interesting questions may be somewhat obscured and confused by the analogy; for example, about the way religions have interacted with those ideologies. For example, various Islamic intellectuals (including those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood) tried to revive and update Islam by utilizing certain Western ideas (including communism and fascism). In fact, the Nazis had a very good and close relationship with some important Muslim leaders. Likewise, of course, one can discuss the political and social philosophy (and political alliances) of various Christian groups and denominations.

    Islam is not just a bunch of ideas. It is a religion which is and has been for many centuries in competition (if not at war) with Christianity. And these facts are crucial to the way it is perceived in Western countries. Questions not only of religion but also of cultural identity are in play.

    The way the notion of Islamophobia is deployed tends — as you suggest — to further politicize and sharpen these tensions.

    It seems to me that the only viable secular approach is simply to judge the various religions and sects not according to their ‘essential’ goodness or truth, but rather according to how well they have adapted themselves to actual social realities, to what extent they enhance peace and prosperity etc. or to what extent they do the opposite. And the focus should be on the present.

    Islam has a reasonable record in some countries, but overall seems not to have accommodated itself to the requirements of modern life in the way Christianity has.

    And, worse, in Western countries Islamic extremists have appropriated and exploited the special privileges won over many centuries by Christian churches (which long ago made their peace with the secular authorities).


  12. The trouble with Islam today is that unlike other religions in the present era, there is a strong streak of theocracy in Islam. Whether it is Iran and the Ayatollah, or the Islamic State, or any of a number of other cases, turning their religion into a system of government seems to be much more popular among Muslims than anyone else. I think Islamophobia is really theocracy-phobia, and that is something that we should object to and fight against whenever necessary. It’s been tried, it fails miserably, and people are right to want to stop it from happening.

    Here in the USA we have a few silly states trying to put up ten commandments plaques, and we object to that strenuously, and stop it in its tracks. It won’t get worse than that here, because we could never agree on which brand of Christianity to adopt, Catholic or Protestant or Evangelical, and any real attempt would fall apart. If only the separation of church and state would start happening in Islamic countries, the whole business of Islamophobia would probably melt away. there is nothing wrong with Islam, they just haven’t figured out how to keep it out of government yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Indeed a false dichotomy. Although I reject (essential parts of)the sacred texts of Islam, having been raised in Muslim countries, I adopted many ways of official Islam (I don’t drink alcohol, etc.)

    It’s difficult to speak of Islam with those who have not read its basic texts, the Qur’an, and the Hadith. Arabic is also difficult: no capital letter, no vowels, no punctuation, and all too many words having all too many meanings.

    However, the violence in the Qur’an is pretty clear:

    The Hadith is way worse. It advocates to kill all Jews, so that the Apocalypse can proceed (such Hadith were incorporated in Hamas’ constitution… As most Israelis know all too well).

    That does not mean Christianity is gentle: it suffers from, and gave rise to, the violence intrinsic to all Abrahamic religions. But Christianity is now potty-trained.

    Religions are everywhere, in space and time. Religion: re-ligare. Any ideology which ties (ligare) the People together again (re). A strong Republic is, de facto, a religion. The success of the Roman Republic, for centuries, was not just secular, but religious (and allowed Rome to be tolerant of all religions which did not require human sacrifices).

    As Islam invaded the world, in many places it mutated, and 100 types of (sometimes vastly) different Islams appeared. Thanks to petrodollars, one variant has come to dominate, Salafism (the way of the old ones).

    The Turks became Muslims in the Eleventh Century. They immediately conquered an enormous area, defeating the Armenian and Roman (Constantinople called itself that way) empires, among others. The Turkish army moved thousands of kilometers. Rome (aka Constantinople) called for help, the First Crusade was launched.

    Similar huge military invasions demonstrate that a basic obedience to Islamist principles makes for miraculous military prowess. The original Islamist invasion conquered the world’s largest empire, in a few decades.

    Being essentially friendly to the military approach, Islam is not friendly to those who leave the army, or (seem to) misinterpret its orders: apostasy is punished by death.

    This is why the Ottoman empire forbade printing. Thus, whereas Rome (aka Constantinople) was at the forefront of civilization for more than a millennium, the Ottoman empire progressively fell-off said forefront.

    As it were, fundamentally an army, the Ottomans were open minded about getting the best help: Hungarian engineers made the giant guns, the largest in the world, which destroyed the immense walls of Constantinople. Indoctrinated Ex-Christian shock troops, bought, or captured as children (Janissaries) conducted the assault.

    Islam was conceived, in part, as a war ideology against Rome and Persia. Muhammad said so himself. He was military astute about it. There is no doubt that the Qur’an was great progress, in many ways, for the female condition, science, etc.

    Islam, just as Christianity, has its good sides. Massively re-interpreted, it can, and has, helped civilization (see the Sufi variants of Islam). Let’s just leave it at that, and outlaw the rest. As with did for Christianism.


  14. Religions are good ideas? Really? It’s good to indoctrinate children into dogmas that are responsible to nobody, and correctable by nobody? In the instance of Islam it is very rarely that a person can leave the religion without some kind of severe penalty for apostasy, whether it be being shunned by family and friends all the way to the various sharia punishments implemented by leadership in ‘moderate states’ such as Saudi Arabia. Dogma as a category needs to be treated in the same nature as fairy tales. Nothing should be so sacred as to not be challenged by reason. And, nobody should be shackled by the chains of Dogma.


  15. Bringing up the Ottomans as a tolerant group? I disagree and I can explain why. Jizya is nothing more than something in place that allows for conquered people to be conquested vassals. So long as they don’t spread their religion or ideology to anyone (including their heirs), they can live and pay taxes. This is humane and useful compared to just killing people, also it is financially useful and what ultimately aided in the spread of Islam. There are many a famous islamic soldier who were children of conquered peoples paying Jizya tax. So, please stop with the Ottoman example. The example is a mechanism of conquest.


  16. Steve: Agree with the theocracy observation, but the religious groups are organizing into theocratic states to mainly counterbalance the Westerners who are seen as invaders. Although the West sells itself as multicultural and religious tolerant, the perception by the other side is that we do have a very powerful ingrained belief system called capitalism. Much of the historical Western advance did involve the church and its missionary work, but the advance of the West was done to acquire natural resources, favorable trade routes, natural resources etc. Scientific and advanced economic development also changed the extended family structure which included shared care for the young and elders, was a natural form of socialism even in this country up until the mid 20th century.

    The social changes is something which Massimo didn’t account for except for our own desire of course to liberate women in these countries from some aspects of Islam which are oppressive. Even in the USA today, women live in religious communities which are not just Islamic, but also Christian and Jewish that are oppressive by our mainstream standards.

    As far as adopting Chrisitianity in the USA, the Religious Right Movement of the 1980’s was a counterbalance to the “Religious Left” which came about by the Civil Rights Movement under the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which was supported not just by minority churches in large Northern cities (the 1963 March was organized in Harlem), but also supported by mainstream Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups.


  17. Wel, Massimo, that’s certainly what you may have intended to say, but that is not what Zakaria says in the quote attributed to him. He says nothing about toleration within borders, but toleration period, and the Ottoman jihad which was prosecuted throughout south-eastern and central Europe seems to prove otherwise. As for the crusades, they were a reasonable, though ill-organised reposte to Islamic incursions into Europe. Don’t forget that Spain, Sicily, Malta and other Mediterranean islands were occupied by Muslims, that Muslims made frequent slaving raids into Europe, and carried off what is estimated to be over a million slaves from Euope at the high point of its jihad. None of this bespeaks toleration at all, but is very similar to Islam’s adventures elsewhere. India comes to mind, where many Hindus were murdered and temples razed. And the Ottoman millet system was scarcely toleration. It was a way of isolating Muslims from unbelievers who, Khomeini reminded us, are, to Muslims, haram, and along with dogs and pigs, are considered unclean for Muslims. Christians and Jews still couldn’t live freely in the Ottoman Empire and were still fenced about with limitations on what they could and could not do. The Christian record with the Jews is, of course, unforgivable, and that Jews did sometimes find refuge in Muslim lands is a very black mark against Christianity, but Muslims were not consistently good company for Jews, who underwent several pogroms at Muslim hands. The fate of the Armeneans should be sign enough that all was not well with the Ottoman toleration for people of other faiths.

    And no, Alex, I did not suggest that Christianity was always spread by non-violent means, but, in general, Christian missions were not conducted by threats from Christians to convert, though tribal leaders in south-central and central Europe, and Scandanavia often forced the issue on their people when thez converted. I am the last person to suggest that Christianity is intrinsically peaceful, but it is less violent than Islam is and was, and far fewer people died for not converting to Christianity than those not converting to Islam.

    In any event, the idea of a false dichotomy between Christianity, Judaism and Islam is not as false as Massimo tries to make it seem. Christianity is in general worse than Judaism, and Islam is worst of all, and if not the mother lode of bad ideas, is certainly the source of a lot more than the other two religions combined, since it holds Christians and Jews doubly at fault: first, for not converting, and second, for having received the Lord’s word and peverting it.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Alex,

    “But “this is your fallacy” is an important thing to point out when somebody argues towards a wrong conclusion.”

    I’ve come around to reject that. As I argue with my colleagues Maarten Boudry and Fabio Paglieri argue (, cited in the main post) too often that results in a lazy “gotcha!” moment, which doesn’t do anything to advance discourse. Far better to address the specifics of why someone is reasoning incorrectly, rather than invoking a generic label of “fallacy” and be done with it.


    “But — leaving aside the value judgements — I would question how useful it is to compare a “revealed” religion with its roots in another era with modern political ideologies”

    As you say, it’s an analogy, not an equivalence, so of course it has limitations. As you put it, I think Islam is *more* like communism than like fascism, but I don’t think the analogy should be pushed further than that. Moreover, I don’t really see a fundamental difference between a comprehensive political ideology and a revealed religion: since I don’t think anything is “revealed,” we are still talking about creations of the human mind, usually with the aim of benefiting (when benign) or controlling (when malignant) other people (and usually ending up doing some of both).

    “It seems to me that the only viable secular approach is simply to judge the various religions and sects not according to their ‘essential’ goodness or truth, but rather according to how well they have adapted themselves to actual social realities”

    Agreed, and by that standard clearly Islam (currently) has a problem, as Zakaria pointed out. But my point was that this isn’t the result of something intrinsic to Islam, it is the product of how the ideology is interacting with the current socio-cultural-economic environment.


    “I think Islamophobia is really theocracy-phobia, and that is something that we should object to and fight against whenever necessary”

    Agreed that theocracy is a really bad idea. But I’d rather not fight *any* battle from the starting point of a phobia. I prefer reasoned discourse.

    “there is nothing wrong with Islam, they just haven’t figured out how to keep it out of government yet”

    Well, I wouldn’t go so far as saying that there’s nothing wrong with it, but yes, a vigorous separation of mosque and state would be an excellent starting point!


    “Religions are good ideas? Really? It’s good to indoctrinate children into dogmas that are responsible to nobody, and correctable by nobody?”

    I’m not aware of having argued that. I’ve said that religions have done some good, which is a simple statement of fact.

    “Dogma as a category needs to be treated in the same nature as fairy tales. Nothing should be so sacred as to not be challenged by reason.”

    Does that apply to reason itself? Just messing around…

    “Bringing up the Ottomans as a tolerant group? I disagree and I can explain why”

    It amazes me at how people simply don’t read what I write, then go on and criticize it. That statement was, I thought, amply qualified. But no, now all I said was that the Ottomans were tolerant. Tolerance is a matter of degree, and compared to their Christian counterparts of the time the Ottomans were tolerant. Again, a matter of historical record. By today’s (Western) standard they wouldn’t be.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Massimo,

    … those who focus on Islam as uniquely problematic may themselves benefit from dusting off a couple of history books …

    Those New Atheists who are saying that Islam is uniquely problematic are really saying that it is the most problematic in the world today. It’s not much of a defence of Islam to say that a thousand years ago Christianity was just as bad. Yes it was, and the New Atheists would concur (indeed criticising Christianity is their day job!). But, de facto, Christianity has nowadays been largely tamed by secular notions of Church–State separation.

    Sam Harris has clarified his statement:

    “I uttered this now infamous line “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — as I’ve said before, I slightly misspoke there; I should have said it is a motherlode of bad ideas; it’s not the only motherlode of bad ideas, but it’s the one that concerns me most at this moment in history”.

    Given that he was speaking live that’s a reasonable clarification to make, and the charitable reading is to accept it. (I often think that 90% of criticisms of New Atheists turn on taking the least charitable interpretation.)

    Further, on that interpretation he is entirely right. I join him in saying that Islam is the most problematic mother lode of bad ideas in the world today.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book Heretic lists and discusses the bad ideas which are at the core of current Islam, and requests their over-turning.

    Of course Ayaan also gets called a “racist Islamophobe”, which shows that the main aim of the term is an attempt to shut people up and disallow criticism of Islam.

    (Indeed, most criticism of New Atheists results from the meme that only the most gentle, nuanced and forelock-tugging criticism is allowed regarding any religion. I might be exaggerating a tad.)

    Hi dbholmes,

    … some New Atheists seem … they don’t admit they were wrong … they appear to be cozying up to the right and agreeing to bizarrely authoritarian solutions …

    On the topic of criticisms of New Atheists, your post exemplifies the genre in (1) not saying who you mean — there is actually a wide diversity of people and opinion under the vague “New Atheist” label; (2) not actually quoting them, and (3) attributing to them extreme positions, but without justifying that by naming and quoting. There’s big differences here between say, Harris or Dennett or Dawkins or, say, Coyne.

    Idle speculation: I wonder whether Islamic-world extremism is partly a reaction to the greater success of the secular West. In terms of economy and technology they are vastly behind, whilst there are almost no leading universities in the Islamic world (cf. ~1000 years ago when they led the world). This must by damaging to the ego of those who see Islam as the supreme model for humanity, and the reaction to that might be extremism and a rejection of all things Western.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Steve Gerrard: “If only the separation of church and state would start happening in Islamic countries, the whole business of Islamophobia would probably melt away. there is nothing wrong with Islam, they just haven’t figured out how to keep it out of government yet.”

    The Republican Platform — — is basically a Christian Right political document in its positions on economics, social policies, government, military, and foreign affairs. The dramatic increase in laws since 2010 limiting abortion rights, as well as the new increase in “religious freedom” laws, are the result of Republican legislatures.

    So “the separation of church and state” is not happening in the US all that well, so it is difficult for us to “preach” this to other places. In fact, there forces here that are merging them — as will be made apparent in the upcoming Republican presidential primary debates.


  21. Massimo,
    Myths are the explanatory narratives we create that shape the facts to fit our worldview.

    What you have done is point out, in effect, that there can be more than two myths when considering the Islam phenomenon. I applaud your more nuanced understanding. Where I am critical is both of these myths are based on a Western worldview.

    I needed to live and work in China to understand how different worldviews can be. What was fascinating was that, in order to makes sense of their worldview I was forced to examine my own worldview objectively, through their eyes. That taught me a great deal. With that understanding, present Chinese conduct makes perfect sense to me. I might not approve of it but I can see it is a rational response to their situation. In the same way we need to change perspective and consider the Islamic worldview, through their eyes. We may, to our surprise, find that it makes sense, given their situation. One of my senior staff, a devout Muslim, made this point persuasively to me.

    While I approve of your more nuanced approach, evidenced by your well written essay, I wish you had considered the Islamic worldview, rather than the myths derived from a Western worldview. In reply you might point out that your goal was simply to draw attention to the fact that more than two understandings were possible, or perhaps that you are limited by the format of a short form essay. And that makes sense.


  22. I’ve struggled with this issue as well. There are huge numbers of Muslims and I think its obviously wrong to paint them all based on a minority of extremists.

    I also like the idea of freedom of religion and am loath to discriminate based on it. In the same token unlike race gender age orientation etc., religion usually involves a decision. So I will just say it is not exactly clear that discriminating based on religion is as irrational those other forms of discrimination. Heavens Gate?

    I am somewhat of a history buff with a particular interest in WW2, and the various conflicts between Christians and Muslims. When I first started reading the history I tended to read it in terms of points for Christians and points for Muslims. But eventually that tended to fade and I started to read it just because it was interesting.

    Just as an aside, I always wondered how someone who grew up in Europe could possibly cover history. I mean in the US we cover our history pretty well because it only covers a few centuries. But how much time would you need to spend if you grew up in Rome just to cover your own history? And then you have the history of the rest of the world!

    But anyway my concerns with Islam tends to center around 2 points of data.

    1) The US and Western Europe have proven in modern society that they will not attack and conquer others even if they have the power. That’s not really the case with Muslim states.

    2) Muslim states seem to be way over represented in countries that abuse people rights. It seems that when Islamic people do take over a country it does not bode well for human rights.

    I give the wikipedia quote not because I agree with everything it says but because (as usual) it is a decent to find links that can help one form their own opinion.

    Is this caused by poverty? Possibly, in part, but its not clear that the poverty has nothing to do with Islam and its influence on the culture.

    In the end it does seem to me that Islam has a problem that Muslims need to address from within. Just like, I would add, Christians have problems that they need to address and can’t expect non-Christians to just accept.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. “What I said, and stand by, is that until near the end (say, mind 18th-century) Ottomans were far more tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities within their borders than their Christian counterparts.”

    I’m not sure what time period you are referring to. Do you mean just in the mid 18th century there were a few decades where they were more tolerant? (that might be the case but if so for an empire that lasted so long to only have a few decades where it was arguably more tolerant than a few Christian countries is not saying much.) Or do you mean they were more tolerant for that time until the ottoman empire ended? If you are saying that then how do you account for their treatment of the Armenian Christians?


  24. Very good essay, it is important to keep a balanced view on these topics. 🙂

    Steve Gerrard,

    there is nothing wrong with Islam, they just haven’t figured out how to keep it out of government yet.

    It is a curious thing to note that Libya and Egypt *did* have secular governments, in the times of Gaddafi and Mubarak. I remember that back then some people (sorry, I don’t have any references handy) argued that a dictatorship in those countries was the only way to *keep* the government secular, and that otherwise Islamist extremist governments would rise to power.

    But of course nobody in the West took these warnings seriously. And after the “democratic” revolutions (heavily supported by the Western countries, even using brute force), the dictatorships were overthrown. It is tempting to interpret the subsequent events as a consequence of mixing democracy with extreme interpretations of Islam.

    I’ll refrain from drawing any conclusions, though. 😉


  25. Joe, I’m talking about much of the history of the Ottoman empire, not the very end. Just as in the case of the ancient Romans, “tolerance” is a relative term, and it tends to go out the window in times of crisis.

    I would also like to note like few if any commenters have noted my claim that – contra mainstream liberal leftism – I do hold Islam partially responsible for the current state of affairs. Instead, many comments have focused on the other side of the argument, that Islam isn’t inherently evil or significantly worse than other religions.


  26. Putasso,
    Religions are good ideas? Really? It’s good to indoctrinate children into dogmas that are responsible to nobody, and correctable by nobody?

    It is the parent’s duty to educate their children, to guide them along the path to adulthood and to give them moral instruction. The Church provides us with an excellent programme that assists us to perform this duty. We educate our children to become responsible and morally sensitive citizens. To call that indoctrination is just plainly and factually wrong and shows an ignorance of what indoctrination really is.

    But it doesn’t matter. You may exclaim, protest, expostulate, expectorate and pontificate to your heart’s content but it will not make one iota of difference(other than raising your blood pressure). The state will never take away from us the right, indeed the duty, to educate our children. One reason is that we do such a good job of it. Catholic schools are consistently top ranked.

    …[fallacy labelling]…too often that results in a lazy “gotcha!” moment, which doesn’t do anything to advance discourse. Far better to address the specifics of why someone is reasoning incorrectly, rather than invoking a generic label of “fallacy”

    I am so glad you made this point. It is hard to say anything these days without someone pulling out their fallacy gun and firing of a fusillade of fallacy labels. Of late it has become popular to settle differences with the accusation that the matter has been badly framed, as if this was some magical trump card. Quite why and how the matter is badly framed is never explained, presumably because they are too busy reloading their fallacy gun with fresh fallacy labels.

    As you said, it is “Far better to address the specifics of why someone is reasoning incorrectly, rather than invoking a generic label of “fallacy”“.


  27. The 20 year effort of Leopold II of Belgium to bring civilization and Christianity to the Congo (and exploit its natural resources) resulted in the genocidal death of 10 million of its inhabitants, and mutilation of at least as many: apparently removal of a hand was a common enforcement of the slave labor the natives were impressed into. ( .) I suppose one could call this ancient history – it was all of 110 years ago. By gosh, we Westerners have improved since then, hey?
    10 million; that’s 4 million more than perished in the Holocaust; 9 million more than suffered by the Armenians. But we’re talking about people with considerably more melanin in their skin than that of Europeans, so, do we care? I would hope so; but apparently not. I see little efforts to memorialize the Congo genocide, or to try to determine what lessons can be learned from it. Narrations of genocide and oppression only get told when immediate political interests are at stake; and, unfortunately, most Americans have very little interest in Sub-Sahara Africa, since no nation there has so firmly established its nationhood to the point of achieving economic, political or military power. And Western governments like it that way – less competition in the global market.

    The telescoped ‘history’ that Eric presents here is a symptom of the illness that is digital media – the circulation of mutated and eviscerated information weighted for political purposes. One would think that the Ottoman Empire was simply a monolithic expression of a unified Islam, pretty much the same from beginning to end, and having importance only to the extent it terrorized Christian Europe. Never mind the centuries of change, internal conflict, sectarian rivalry between differing interpretations of Islam, economic development, political negotiation internal and external – etc., etc. In fact, the utter lack of informed nuance or consideration of details, and of historical narrativity accounting for these, leaves one with no grounded understanding of the complex phenomena we can possibly know as ‘the Ottoman Empire.’ ( .)

    Eric’s comments are something of a microcosm of the real problem that Massimo’s discussion only begins to reveal. People want to engage a discussion on a series of events and political crises seen through a prism that simplifies extraordinarily complex and difficult problems of history, culture, and global and regional politics.

    Many Islamic-dominant states are artificial creations of the 20th century, borders set by European overseers following the First World Ward. For instance, there was no Iraq until the 1920s; how could we possibly imagine that a collection of tribes, differing ethnic identities, and opposed religious sects would somehow gel into a modern state because ‘hey, we said so!’ (which is what the Bush II ‘argument’ always amounted to)?

    We don’t see these peoples as they really are; we don’t see their histories as what really happened. Without accounting for this, we are merely stirring a stew of gut-feelings and suspicions.

    Liked by 4 people

  28. Hi Massimo,

    … few if any commenters have noted my claim that — contra mainstream liberal leftism — I do hold Islam partially responsible for the current state of affairs.

    Noted, but nolo contendere!

    The excusing of Islam by “the left” is remarkable, but then the “left” always did have a soft spot for fascism, if that fascism was nominally on behalf of “the underdogs”. Nick Cohen is a writer particularly good on this: E.g.: The Great Betrayal: How Liberals Appease Islam.

    While on the topic of Sam Harris quotes, labnut quoted Harris’s other infamous statement on the previous thread:

    “Some beliefs are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

    In the context of the entire paragraph, one can see that Harris is discussing people who are inspired “to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others”, and who are “beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion”, about which he says that “if they cannot be captured” (note that bit) then “otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense”.

    Now, one can argue about the ethics of that, but it is a mainstream opinion. Indeed, it is exactly what the government of the US has implemented using drone strikes against many with an extremist ideology in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Yemen and elsewhere. And, for all labnut’s attempts to paint it as a consequence of amoral atheism, it is an opinion held and implemented by many Christians (since 7 out of 10 Americans support drone strikes against known members of Al-Qaeda or ISIS, and 8 out of 10 Americans are Christians).

    I disagree with Sam Harris on a lot (I disagree with his moral realism in The Moral Landscape and with his incompatibilist stance in Free Will, and some of his statements about spirituality, and other stuff), so I’m not particularly a fan of Harris, but the way to argue with intellectual honesty is to take a charitable and in-context reading of a writer’s intent.


  29. Hi Coel, hmmm. I thought I was just writing a brief reply for once, not typifying a genre. If you had questions you (or anyone else) could ask. I didn’t appreciate the fact that you appeared to imply I was lying, but was mollified by the fact that you proceeded this list of terrible deeds…

    (1) not saying who you mean… (2) not actually quoting them, and (3) attributing to them extreme positions, but without justifying that by naming and quoting.

    … with this statement…

    Indeed, most criticism of New Atheists results from the meme that only the most gentle, nuanced and forelock-tugging criticism is allowed regarding any religion.

    I could say more, but it sort of speaks for itself.

    Regarding your quandry of who I was speaking about, you happened to discuss one right in your post. Ali has clearly changed her stance from rejection being the only solution, to reformation. Another has also been mentioned within the thread: Harris, who has now decided that the solution is not rejection of Islam but reformation, teaming up with Maajid Nawaz (who I largely like) on that project. Dawkins has supported their new course/work, at least in his twitter feed, and is recently calling for a feminist movement within Islam.

    I’m surprised you were not aware that Maajid helped write PM cameron’s latest speech regarding Islamist terrorism. Oh yeah quotes. Here’s one from Maajid’s twitter feed (Jul 19): “PM Cameron ‪@Number10gov‬ gives major policy-defining speech on extremism tomorrow. I helped with it. It’s significant.”

    While I would applaud the parts that I assumed he helped with, once Cameron’s speech ( roved into policy he included the same old authoritarian, let’s give up freedom for safety programs he’s been wanting forever. And indeed expanding this tradeoff to this bizarre degree…

    We need to put out of action the key extremist influencers who are careful to operate just inside the law, but who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for…So as part of our Extremism Bill, we are going to introduce new narrowly targeted powers to enable us to deal with these facilitators and cult leaders, and stop them peddling their hatred. And we will also work to strengthen Ofcom’s role to enable us to take action against foreign channels that broadcast hate preachers and extremist content.

    Ali and Harris have been supporting Maajid publicly for a while. Yet for supposed liberals (and this includes Maajid), not one of them criticized Cameron’s policy statements.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. I also wanted to object to Eric’s imprecise use of the word ‘jihad,’ , and his misrepresentation of the problem of slavery in the Middle Ages; the Muslims didn’t really have to invade European countries to acquire slaves, the Europeans were quite willing to sell them some – .

    (I confess I’m a little embarrassed that, having blasted digital media as a suspect source of information, here I am referencing a digital media source for information; but here I m posting a comment on a digital media discussion, so what’s a fella to do?)

    The Wikipedia article on jihad also has some discussion of the origins of contemporary Islamism, about which most of us (including myself) have little knowledge or understanding. But this is exactly the problem I brought up in my first comment. Islamism is actually a recent phenomenon, and a response to the historical trends of the previous two centuries – yes, including European colonization and American economic domination globally, which has the inevitable side-effect of introducing Western ideas and cultural formations to societies wherein many people find such ideas and formations offensive and threatening. As instance, as a liberal American, my own perspective is that the women of Saudi Arabia should be allowed far greater freedom and opportunity than that state currently allows; but even many women of Saudi Arabia might find such a suggestion insulting, and a threat to an accepted, long-stable way of life that permits them certain social securities and religiously enforced approval.

    This goes to remarks I made on the thread on moral realism. Religion provides the comfort of a closed society with predictable behaviors and responses, replete with satisfying rewards (as well as negative-reinforcement for unacceptable behavior). For complex historical reasons (some political, some economic), most Western cultures have opened into pluralistic formations embracing a wide variety of possible (sometimes conflicting) cultural behavior and interaction. We should remember that most Islam-dominant states are still effectively closed societies. We should not be surprised that there would be responses, organized and not, resistant to encroaching globalization with its threats of potential pluralization.

    Combine this with the tribalism, ethnic differences, and sectarian conflicts noted in my previous comment, and we can see how truly difficult the problem is that confronts us.

    There *are* problems inherent in Islam, from the perspective of those with Western education and sharing Western values. But in the process of unraveling those, we must also somehow come to terms with an entirely different world-view – not just as it is Islamic, but as it is a closed, religiously dominated culture, the like of which we only glimpse in the regressive Christian fundamentalist subculture with which we deal with here.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Trying to be appeasing towards Islam, will not be helpful. Historically Islam started as a military power, fueled with religious fanaticism. Islam knows two states of existence, one is war against the non Muslims, the other is temporary cease-fire until the opportunity will come to start again the war. Sence Europe emerged as a leading military and economic power in middle of eighteen century, the leading Muslim empire, the Ottoman empire changed it aggressive policy towards Europe, and after a century of bloody uprisings, it had even give up its holdings on the Balkans for independent Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. Remember Lord Byron, the poet? What was he up to in the Balkans. Trying to defend the Greeks from being slathered by the Ottomans, who before slathered the Serbs and then the Bulgarians, in the name of Islam. Other differentiation Islam makes is, between dar al Islam, and dar al harb. In dar al Islam, where Islam law is imposed and dar al harb, all the other countries that continuous war has to be fought against them. In this war a temporary10 year truce can be used if the Muslims are in disadvantage.
    I’m not expert on Islam law, but I know that against Muslim converts to different faith stands death punishment according to the Islam law. Historically the Muslim world tolerated the other monotheistic religions followers, even if with discriminating them. But not anymore. In Modern Turkey the non Muslims are less than 2%. The same will be pretty soon in Lebanon, Syrian, Pakistan and Iraq. Just to remain you, saint Paul started spreading christianity in modern Syria. Today the ISIS or el-nusra or the salaphy or the Taliban or Assad or God knows which Muslim military organization is doing ethnic cleansing in these places. The oldest Christian communities, like the Assyrians, who still speak and pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, are destroyed in front of our eyes. A lot was written about the physical destruction the Muslim militants cause to the ancient cultural heritage, that belongs to all humanity. What about the destruction of living cultural heritage? Shouldn’t we care about it too?
    Evidently Islam is not very helpful in creating modern, well functioning society and political system. You can’t blame the colonization for it 60 years after it was dismantled.
    Islam is not only bad to humanity, if tolerated it paves the road towards Armageddon.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. First, per Alex, and the response by Massimo, I present Fallacy Man! And more Fallacy Man!

    Eric, on the previous essay, in response to Labnut I mentioned cannibalism in the First Crusade. Actually, that was just the first crusade to get an official number. Charlemagne was crusading against Saxons 300 years earlier. Teutonic Knights were crusading against Lithuanians 300 years later. More here:

    Liam, and Christianity doesn’t have such fanatics, like here in America? Eric Rudolph, the anti-abortion activist who bombed the Atlanta Olympics? David Koresh? And, the eventual lineage from him to Tim McVeigh? Scott Roeder, the anti-abortion activist who killed George Tiller?

    Mark English, competition cuts both ways. As in “Christianism,” competitive cultural Christianity practiced by non-Christians such as sociologist Rodney Stark, who’s some sort of secularist, or the Jewish Bernard Lewis. (I don’t know what beliefs Samuel Huntington has.)

    Steve Gerrard Turkey and Indonesia are both secular Muslim-majority democracies. Pakistan is a secular, Muslim-majority … “something” that’s semi-democratic, at least. Indonesia has 255 million and Pakistan 190 million. At 87 percent Muslim in Indonesia and 95 percent in Pakistan, at least nominally, that’s 400 million Muslims in those two countries alone. Turkey has nearly 80 million more, at 98 percent Muslim. Bangladesh, at 155 million, is also a secular Muslim-majority country, at 87 percent, for 135 million more.

    There, we’re now at 615 million Muslims. Most of the ethnically Turkic “-stans” of Central Asia also are non-theocratic states, for about 60 million more, or 675 million total.

    Many of these countries are not democratic, or at least not fully democratic. However, none of them are theocratic. Or even close. That 675 million is nearly 45 percent of the 1.6 billion estimated world Muslim population, and I’ve not counted the secular Morocco, Algeria or Egypt, nor the Muslim portion of India’s population, itself about 175 million.

    In other words, more than half the world’s Islamic population lives under non-theocratic governments. That’s a bit of a note even to Massimo: Many Muslim-majority countries already do keep it out of state.

    Patrice Not all Muslims agree on what constitutes hadith, nor on how literally to interpret them. Nor is the exact reason for why Muslim printing by press in the Ottoman empire was delayed clear, as this link shows:

    And, your etymology of the origin of “religion” is not the only postulated one. Cicero himself connected it to the word “legere,” i.e., “to read.” In any case, etymology, especially when obscure, shines but a partial light, and sometimes that light hides away other things.


    Finally, at the risk of being accused of rolling lit dynamite into this discussion — many Americans’ views of Islam are colored by being seen partially through the eyes of a small eastern Mediterranean country, sometimes for worse, as well as sometimes for better.

    Otherwise, EJ is right that Islamism is in fair degree a reaction to colonialism.

    Liked by 3 people

  33. Hi Coel, as if the irony could not get any stronger, after your charges about my writing habits in a brief reply you write…

    The excusing of Islam by “the left” is remarkable, but then the “left” always did have a soft spot for fascism, if that fascism was nominally on behalf of “the underdogs”. Nick Cohen is a writer particularly good on this: E.g.: The Great Betrayal: How Liberals Appease Islam.

    Not only have you repeated the same behavior you criticized me for, but then link to an article which contains no names, or quotes (save perhaps one) while attributing all sorts of extreme problems to liberals. And you claim he is a good writer?

    For the record, I am liberal and have been critical of all religions, abrahamic religions in particular, and especially militant strains of Islam, before the New Atheists ever existed and Sam Harris had his epiphany. Not in the same fashion/tone, but not some wilting-lily either, especially against militants and theocratic movements (which in the 80s were definitely Christian).

    I am tired of this new meme critical of “the left”, as if people not in agreement with certain (levels of acerbic) criticism or (draconian) policies are somehow the ones holding back progress against terrorism. If you want a quote look at the very article you linked to, blaming the left for not acting (how?) and so bringing on/necessitating right wing measures. This is needless self-flagellation at best (assuming the critics are actually liberal).

    Earlier you criticized nuance, but that sort of thing is necessary because this is a complicated issue. Part of it will require a reformation within Islam (and Islamic nations). Not sure what role members of “the left” who exist in neither community are supposed to do about that part. Don’t publicly disagree with Harris and co? Cameron’s policies?

    Militant Islam is not Tinkerbell and it will not be reduced and removed if enough people just say “boo”. Its recent rise was without question a result of ill-thought out policies based on black-white thinking, which militants took advantage of, and more of the same is not going to help.

    Perhaps the problem is that up until now these critics of “the left” have not themselves offered any viable solutions beyond what amounts to name-calling and the bizarre notion people in Islam should/would just leave it. Having failed in that approach, it became useful to look for scapegoats among their critics on the left for why it failed.

    Not saying there aren’t cowards, appeasers, or just mistaken people on the left. But it is wrong to paint “the left” with that brush.

    Liked by 3 people

  34. Socratic Gadfly, I never once suggested that Europeans were not a warlike people. The history of Europe would prove that false in a trice. What I would suggest is that Christianity itself does not provide a basis for such violence. The first Christians were pacifists, and serving in the army was condemned. Once Constantine adopted the Christian movment as a way of cementing the unity of the Empire, much of these early beliefs were unfortunately abandoned; but there is simply no basis in Christian doctrine for acts of violence either to convert unbelievers or to kill doctors who offer abortion services. Even the lamentable Christian teaching about the Jews and Judaism, did not condone the murder of Jews, for, if we take Augustine as a source (and he did have a predominating influence from the fourth century onward), it was God’s intention to make of the Jews and example of unfaithfulness, so that they would wander aimlessly, belonging nowhere, and nowhere flourishing. It is not a very humane doctrine, but there is nothing in Christian doctrine that prescribes the killing of anyone, and certainly not in order to force them to covert (though this is spelled out in detail in the founding documents of Islam). If you can find some basis for such acts in Christian doctrine itself, I would be glad to stand corrected. However, Islam requires fighting on behalf of Allah for the coversion of the unbelievers, and their aim does not stop short of the entire world. Only then, when everything is subject to Allah and his law, will there be peace in the world, and of course, societies will then be perfect in brotherhood and equality as well.

    Listen to some of the experts speak, Bernard Lewis, Ibn Warraq, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. They know, some of them from experience, that Islam is at its very root an intolerant and violent religion. It is absurd to speak of Islam as tolerant, though there were times of relative peace and tolerance in the Islamic world (though not, as is often claimed, in Andalusia), there was never a time, not even in the Ottoman Empire, when unbelievers could be said to be equal in all respects to their Muslim neighbours. The very fact that the Jannissaries were composed of Christian slaves, taken from their homes at an early age, forcibly converted to Islam, and made to fight Muslim’s battles should be enough to suggest that the imagined tolerance of the Ottomans was limited in scope and, and not very deeply held. The toubles in the Balkans are precisely the result of the subjugation that Christian Slavs and others suffered at the hands of Ottoman officials and Muslim neighbours. It is silly to suppose that this was an expression of Ottoman toleration, which Massimo has supported as characteristic of Ottoman society. The Armenean genocide, that the Turks still refuse to acknowledge, was a deliberate attempt to wipe out at least a large part of Armenia and its people. No one can reasonably suggest that it took place because of a contemporary crisis. It was planned and executed as a deliberate pogrom by the highest authorities in the Ottoman Empire, and was accompanied by almost unbelievable ferocity and cruelty. Islam has bloody borders, and we are beginning to see a resurgence of Islamic jihad now, and we will find that the bloody borders of Islam may drive a wedge through Western countries where Muslims are a significant minority. It would be foolish to suppose otherwise, given the explicit teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

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  35. Massimo,

    I am not sure the two can be separated; if you are dealing with an audience that knows what fallacies are, mentioning its name and where they it was used might be all that is needed, especially in a context where paper length dissections of why someone is reasoning incorrectly are impossible or inappropriate. In a comment stream on the internet, for example.

    My real life problem is that many poor reasoners I have to deal with professionally do not even know what a fallacy is or why, for example, basing one’s argument on the fallacy of composition is in any way problematic at all; they often seem to think fallacy means “stuff I disagree with”. So I have these exchanges where I write, look, your conclusion doesn’t follow because so and so, and they come back with a verbatim repetition of their original mistake and finish with no, your position is a fallacy because I still think you are wrong, so there. The problem might be that they have been trained to examine evidence but not to examine reasoning for its correctness. (But I should shut up about this now because it is not the topic of the post.)


    We will just have to disagree in our interpretation of history. You will note that with the exception of some Bosnians the whole Balkans never converted to Islam despite being occupied by the Ottoman empire for several centuries. It would seem then that the number of people who were killed because they did not convert must necessarily have been very low, otherwise the Balkans would be either Muslim or depopulated. On the other hand, the Spanish forced every part of Latin America they could reach to convert or die. Even accounting for deaths from diseases, the catastrophic cultural genocides committed by European conquerors across the two Americas alone overshadow anything that was ever done in the name of Islam through all its history.

    I’d still say that all else being equal Islam probably has an easier time justifying conquest, violence and theocracy directly from scripture and role models than most other religions, but the Ottoman empire of all things was considerably more benign across most of its history than contemporary Christianity. Everything bad they did (e.g. enslaving people) Christians did too, but more so and plus additional atrocities!

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  36. I very much agree with the OP. Personally, this was the general opinion I formed when I watched the Cenk Uygur-Reza Aslan-Sam Harris discussions a year ago or so. Cenk Uygur, who more or less advocated for this position, seemed to have the only coherent opinion. This dialogue was one of the first dialogues where I started to dislike Sam Harris (probably because watching him try to use rhetoric to get out of clear flip-flopping for 3 hours is pretty eye-opening; still, Aslan manages to be less coherent and more intellectual bankrupt than Harris). Anyways, I personally think the debate is rather pointless at some level. It’s beyond dispute that the serious negative aspect of religious texts is that they don’t contain wholly peaceful, loving sermons, but they also include a lot of violent and vitriolic portions, too. And this will cause people to act out what they read, if they are fanatic enough. But it’s also beyond dispute that Western colonialism has played a heavy role in the disruptions to middle-eastern societies and culture that has lead to a lot of promulgation of radical Islamic ideologies. And in fact when you took away a lot of the important technology and structure for a predominantly Christian society to function, I think everyone would be surprised if there wasn’t a massive resurgence of religious extremism and many barbaric acts being done –not simply because they’re Christian, but when infrastructure and society have serious problems, the whole culture suffers for generations.

    So to my mind, the question isn’t “How do fix the problems caused by radical Islam?” or “How do we undo the damage of Western colonialism?” It’s not an either-or, they’re both contributing elements to the problems faced in the middle-east.

    Eric: “And no, Alex, I did not suggest that Christianity was always spread by non-violent means, but, in general, Christian missions were not conducted by threats from Christians to convert”

    You may consider reading the history of the Christian church from about 200 AD through the Holy Roman Empire. You seem to have a serious misunderstandings regarding early of Christian history.

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  37. There is just that feeling I have that if we, speaking as a paid up member of the West, want to finance and encourage theocratic fundamentalists to crush any sort of liberalism and feminism in a Muslim country when it suits our purposes, destabilise regimes which are relatively moderate and prop up theocratic dictatorships which impose extreme oppression on women, then can we really sit back and tut-tut about the very theocracy and oppression of women that we are helping to foment?

    Are we really entitled to say “Hey, you know what? Islam needs a feminist revolution.”?

    I mean besides the one we are doing nothing to aid and seem to be doing our best to crush?

    In answer to “how can we help?”, maybe speak out against the huge amount of money that is always flowing from the West to that crushes feminist revolution when it happens, or destabilised regimes where this might happen.

    Maybe at least acknowledge the many groups who are fighting for just such a revolution and recognise that the hurdles put in their place are not just be other Muslims.

    There are three Muslim countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia who have elected female Presidents. So we have, on one hand, the horrendous oppression and crimes against women, and on the other we have people who want to embrace modernism.

    The problem, I see, is that people do not want to recognise that in order to counter the extremism, theocracy and the oppression of women in Islam we need to make common cause with those Muslims who also want to counter this. At the very least we need to recognise them, not marginalise them or worse – claim that they are as dangerous as the extremists.

    Shortly after 9/11, there was a letter to the editor of one of national dailies here from a Muslim that said quite a bit, (and I paraphrase) “Of course I am against terrorism and extremism but if I wear a suit and say sensible and moderate things I am invisible. Were I to put on a white robe and spout extremist drivel then I would be on the front page of your newspaper”.

    And here is another problem. Whenever someone says “let’s make common cause with the moderate Muslims who largely share our ideals” the usual suspects consistently hear it as “let’s support every version of Islam, including extremist Islamists”.

    That is a hearing problem that needs to be addressed before we can make progress.

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  38. Eric McDonald:

    I’ve visited your blog; I find the writing there relatively intelligent. So I just wonder why you write so reductively, and so disingenuously here.

    You answer charges of poorly informed ‘history’ lacking nuance, with – poorly informed ‘history’ lacking nuance. Some surprise.

    “Listen to some of the experts speak” – as bald a fallacy of appeal to authority as one could wish.

    If a Wikipedia article can show greater grasp of the complexity and subtlety and details of history than you demonstrate here, your sources are suspect.

    “And Bernard Lewis says, ‘I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.'” – See .

    This is your expert? – a chum of Wyoming gangsta “Darth Vader” Cheney; no-colonialism apologist? PNAC sycophant? Participant theoretical architect of the worst disaster in the history American foreign policy? I’ll avoid saying something impolite….

    See Said’s remarks on Huntington’s reliance on Lewis, and the weakness of the whole ‘clash of civilizations’ notion that you’re peddling: – expert vs. expert! The whole problem with rhetorical deference to ‘experts’ – ‘I trump your Zakaria with my Lewis.’ – ‘I’ll raise with Said and Wikipedia’ – etc., etc.

    I guess the wisest thing here would be simply to respond – “no.”

    All Abrahamic religions have texts inciting violence, both locally and globally, against perceived heretics and unbelievers. The problem has to do with cultural evolution. Islam has been particularly resistant to such evolution, but it does offer a wide variety of interpretations within differing cultural formations in differing societies. Unfortunately, this has included extreme and violent formations that are difficult to contain within the inner fragmentation of the given societies, partly because they are the result of artificial and imposed structures. There’s no denying that – “You can’t blame the colonization for it 60 years after it was dismantled,” writes EugenR – what?! the effects of colonization are to disappear in 60 years?!

    But there was the brief colonization of Iraq by the United States, and that was only 12 years ago; admittedly temporary, but not without residual effect, as the rise of ISIS demonstrates. Still: ‘hey, Iraqis, forgive and forget, huh! You’re a modern democracy now’ – so says Darth Cheney.

    But even to admit some of what you argue – what are we to do about it? – more war? interminable war? Conquest, occupation, commitment of the wealth of the nation to suppression of the Muslim? torture? assassination? murdering dozens of women and children and elderly, because some one or two fanatics live among them? – Oh, the civilized, gracious, peace-loving, Christian West!

    Islam currently needs reform – but reform comes from within. I don’t know the best strategy for supporting this from the outside – but I know that ‘hitting Muslims “between the eyes with a big stick”‘ is an act of desperation on the part of a civilization itself possibly failing. If so – we’ve lost before beginning.

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  39. Coel,

    You object to labnut’s use of a Harris quote and try to provide context. Well I did what no man should have to do and read The End of Faith, and I agree that quotes should be taken in context. However I want to further claim that the context in which the quote was written magnifies rather than mitigates the obvious stupidity of Harris’s statement. Let’s have a look shall we? (And if people are incredulous, there is a serious, and relevant!, point to this. Deep breath.)

    The quote:
    “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.” (TEOF p52 note labnut got it slightly wrong but I corrected it, “proposition” not “belief, missing an “even”).
    Now here is the point. The idea is not that someone is trying to force their belief on others, or demonstrably intends to do harm to another on the basis of this belief; this person is, conversationally, being killed merely for *believing* what they do. This is no slender point. This is a vital point in any civil society. Neo-nazi’s, Westboro and other appalling groups are permitted under the law to say, not to mention believe, whatever they choose. If they attempt to break the laws or plan harm on the basis of these beliefs they are guilty of criminal conspiracy, but not before. At this point you seem willing to carefully misquote him. You say Harris only condemns to death those who, in addition to having these beliefs also meet further conditions. You continue, quoting Harris, that the statement applies only to those “inspired [Harris] ‘to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others’, and who are ‘beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion’, about which he says that ‘if they cannot be captured’ (note that bit) then ‘otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense’.” That is incorrect.

    I will let Harris speak for himself: ” Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”
    There it is. It is not they we are justified in killing those who have these beliefs and further intend to do harm on this basis, and will not be persuaded otherwise and we must suffer harm or defend ourselves. Such a statement would be, as you state, uncontroversial. Harris is instead saying that just *having* these beliefs in and of itself, once again, “place[s] their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.” If they have certain beliefs they must be guilty of intending harm to us. If they have these beliefs they cannot be reasoned with. If they have these beliefs we must defend ourselves! (Note what “self-defense” amounts to here. Those guys down the street have some of those beliefs, the ones that inevitably erupt in to violence! I have to defend myself before they get me.)

    (cont below.)

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  40. Am I over-reading? Well, Harris continues *immediately* after the last quote: “This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” Yes you may say Harris means merely *radical* Islam, even though he manages to say “Muslim”, no descriptor, in the next sentence and leaves what “ideas” with which we are supposedly at war suggestively vague. You also mention that he limits killing to those who “cannot be captured”. Well what if they can be? Are they to be imprisoned (merely for believing something)? Interned? But no matter because it gets worse.

    Harris writes that “Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene…[Harris considers a society which proliferates disease because it disbelieves in germ theory] Do we ‘tolerate’ [why the scare quotes?] these beliefs? Not if they put our health in jeopardy.” Within two sentences Harris has mentioned “Many Muslims” again and again without limiting himself to radical or extremist varieties. A few lines down: “Should Muslims really be free to believe that the Creator of the universe is concerned about hemlines?” (TEOF 46) (Just consider the statement “Should Jews be allowed to think the Creator of the universe cares about eating shellfish?”) This is the kind of “self-defense” we are talking about. We have to “defend” ourselves from people having beliefs. I mean, they must be up to something…You know the type. Until they are found out all decent people are “in jeopardy.”And note the rhetoric here. An idea like a contagion, spreading through society and causing havoc. I remember a countryman of mine energetically using similar metaphors at certain public hearings.

    (cont. below.)

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  41. Coel (final),
    But the stupidest, most offensive quote had to be relegated to an endnote, the mother-load if you will. Considering again the disease proliferating society, Harris blandly states “There is little doubt that we would ultimately quarantine, invade or otherwise subjugate such a society.” (TEOF 233) Remember, in the metaphor, these spreading diseases represent ideas. So in the case of any country sufficiently filled with believers in certain ideas (you know the ones I mean), it would be necessary to invade them to keep their ideas, or at least the effects of their ideas, from spreading.
    Well I am happy to state that this is Islamophobia in the purest sense. It played on American’s somewhat understandable fear (phobia) of their many poorly understood and, until recently, little noticed neighbors who had a religion in common with terrible actors. Harris’s rhetoric implied that Muslims, or those Muslims who were “serious” about their religion, were inclined to plot against the infidels. Whatever legitimate criticisms there are of Islam, and they are legion, this is not one. It is in fact ludicrous and dangerous. The really disturbing thing about this is how easily Harris abdicates the logic of liberal democracy. Harms, what picks my pocket or breaks my leg, are to be punished. Ideas are to be debated. The line between the two is vital. So then this kind of nonsense slows the conversation in two ways. It slows debate by obscuring what Islam is and what Muslims believe and tries on the other hand to sidestep debate altogether. Harris also routinely falls on one side of the false dichotomy of Islamophobia, as was very effectively exposed by Reza Aslan in their public debate, by seeing Muslim’s actions as motivated purely by their religion. All this. All the above text, is a waste of time that could have been spent talking seriously about what Muslims really *do* believe. It’s not completely deranged on the Harris side, or totally inert on the Aslan side. We have to talk about the points in between, which was the whole point of the piece. (Told you I’d get there!)

    Lastly you write: “(Indeed, most criticism of New Atheists results from the meme that only the most gentle, nuanced and forelock-tugging criticism is allowed regarding any religion. I might be exaggerating a tad.)”
    I notice New Atheists say this, the way soccer players spontaneously flop on their back, whenever their bankrupt ideas are challenged by people who know what they are doing. It’s their way of demanding “only the most gentle, nuanced and forelock-tugging criticism”. I might be exaggerating a tad. (No I’m not.)

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  42. Sure, if by moderate you mean treating people slightly worse than Niccolo Machiavelli suggested himself when it came to vassals. He suggested people keep taxes the same for the sake of keeping people pacified. Jizya was an increased tax… “Moderate Ottomans” let you convert to Islam, die, or keep your life but lose all influence and power, while paying a higher tax. If you want to go deeper you can see for yourselves the history of children of conquested peoples, who often were shipped off at early ages and subjected to the Dogma of Islam, becoming soldiers who continued to spread the dogma. That, is a reality that people don’t want to talk about. Until “moderate” Islam such as in Saudi Arabia offer reasonable opportunity to leave the faith without punishment, until I start seeing women treated better by the masses, I don’t see why I should be supportive of that faith. Rather, people should bad mouth it at every opportunity until it changes. That’s how things become unpopular and change.


  43. David Oettinger, you have masterfully deconstructed Sam Harris outrageous advocacy of killing for belief. Thanks for doing this. Sam Harris writes fluently with a good command of English language. He is in complete control of his words and, when he carefully chooses certain words, it is fair to assume he means what he has said. Considering that he could easily have worded the matter differently(and if we discount his disclaimer that he does not possess free will), I think it is right that he should be held to account for those words.

    Sam Harris’ words are a very serious matter because what he advocates has already been done on a large scale. Great numbers of people have been killed under atheist regimes for their beliefs. Right now the atheist regime in China has embarked on a renewed campaign to restrict religion. This is a serious and dangerous matter. It is deeply irresponsible to say anything that might be construed as encouraging, supporting or justifying that atheist regime in its cruel conduct.

    Underlying the discussion is the assumption that religion has been the cause of so much war. But is that really true? Has anybody checked the facts? Considering that the largest slaughter in recorded human history was conducted by atheists under communism, it should make us pause before making the glib accusation that religion is the cause of so much wrong.

    So let’s turn to the facts. Fortunately there has been excellent historical research to cast light on the matter.

    1. The three volume Encyclopaedia of Wars by Charles Philips and David Axelrod lists 1,763 wars in recorded history. Only 123 are classified as religious wars, or 7.0% ( I have this book, by the way, and I recommend that every war mongering atheist should buy a copy of this masterful piece of historical research.

    2. The five volumes The Encyclopedia of War, edited by Gordon Martel, concludes that 6% of the wars listed in their encyclopedia can be labelled religious wars

    3. The BBC did a thorough war audit (GOD AND WAR: AN AUDIT & AN EXPLORATION and they concluded(pg 13)
    a) 4 out 41 (10%) major wars before the 20th Century had a significant religious component.
    b) 3 out 32 (10%) wars in the 20th Century had a minor religious component.

    Thus three independent sources have reached similar conclusions, religion causes less than 10% of wars.

    Turning now to the main subject of this post. Robert Pape, in a highly cited paper(1,139 citations) (The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, examined 188 acts of suicide terrorism and concluded that religion does not explain their behaviour.

    He concludes instead ‘suicide terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concession‘.

    Read the literature and you will see this is a contentious subject and other researchers have reached different conclusions. As I said, in my first comment, we need to understand their worldview before we can properly understand their behaviour. No one, it seems, wants to understand their worldview.


  44. Devsirme, or blood tax is what was used by the Ottomans. Which is also known as a blood tax. This is the collection of children, which were then displaced and converted to Islam, and from the time they were children trained to be soldiers and guards for the Islamic Nobility. So, perhaps a matter of what historical dialogue is followed? Ottomans were moderate just like so many Islamic States are moderate today, to include Saudi Arabia and Iran.


  45. Islamists are enemies of democracy, they want to be dictators, get all the milk, honey, virgins with “deep dark eyes”, that the Qur’an promised.

    “O YE WHO BELIEVE! Obey Allah, and obey the messenger and OBEY THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE IN POWER.” (Qur’an’s fascist principle, Shura 4; verse 59).

    In other words, obey authority as a matter of religion. This makes the Qur’an intrinsically hostile to democracy. Just as plutocracy is. Both are ideologies to justify the rule of a few.

    @ Socrates Gadfly:
    Religion is clearly what binds people together again, etymology or not.

    The allusion that we criticize Islam because we are all pro-Israel, rest assured, not correct. I am neither a Jew, nor Israeli.

    You also claim that not all Muslims agree on what a Hadith is. However, the ones about killing all the Jews come from the greatest authorities, Al Bukhairi and Al Islam.

    I have studied Islam for decades, nota bene.

    Have a look again at Hadith 41;685: …”Allah’s Messenger… : The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will FIGHT against the Jews and the Muslims would KILL them…”

    The “last hour” is the Day of Judgment (as found already in the Bible). When …”Allah will admit those who believe and do righteous deeds to gardens beneath which rivers flow. They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearl, and their garments therein will be silk.” (Qur’an S22; v23)… others will meet a “painful punishment.”

    Proposing that everybody good will be rewarded and the miscreants punished only after the Jews will be killed seems to me to be hate speech. From Allah’s Messenger, that is, Muhammad (supposing it was faithfully related by Sahih Al Muslim). It is to be feared that, left to be literally interpreted, this statement will bring many a Jihadist, to conclude it is a religious duty to kill the Jews.

    Can the statement be mitigated? Sunni Islam has no professional priests (supposedly).

    This is not about racism. It’s not directed against people. It’s directed against an ideology which subjugates people. Murderous, self-destructive ideologies which subjugate people are legions in human history. Recently, Stalinism, Khmer Rouge, Nazism, come to mind. Even the Aztec religion is an example.

    When an ideology orders to kill some categories of people, as the Qur’an clearly does, it should be carefully examine to find out whether such lethal orders are justified. If not, maybe the ideology ought to be kept away from young people, at the very least. This is even worse when said ideology claims to be a religion, something which binds people, and deserve respect.

    Qur’an Sura 9, verse 5:

    “Then, when the sacred months have passed,
    slay the Pagans wherever you find them,
    and seize them, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush.
    But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free.
    Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful”

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  46. As to the comment “… but if you think the Ottoman Empire had a peaceful relationship with Europe, you are talking through your hat.”
    At the helm of an expanding empire, Suleiman personally instituted legislative changes relating to society, education, taxation, and criminal law. His canonical law (or the Kanuns) fixed the form of the empire for centuries after his death. He was a great legislator, standing out in the eyes of his people as a high-minded sovereign and a magnanimous exponent of justice. Following the good example of his predecessor, Sultan Beyazit II, who dispatched the Ottoman Navy to bring the Jews safely to Ottoman lands after their expulsion by the joint Christian Monarchs of Spain (Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon) in 1492, Suleiman I played an important role in protecting the Jewish subjects of his empire for centuries to come, and, as the first ruler, who denounced the “blood libel” against the Jews.
    The literary historian E. J. W. Gibb observed that “at no time, even in Turkey, was greater encouragement given to poetry than during the reign of this Sultan.”
    Specifically in Hungary, no one was forced to convert to Islam. In fact Hungary, just by the Ottoman rule was saved from the mad religious wars, tearing the rest of Europe to pieces, for 150 years. The Unitarian religion, born in Hungary, was the fruit of this tolerance.
    The Empire was interested in tax-paying subjects and not in bloody theological debates … that’s why.
    Intriguingly enough, in the hindsight the Hungarians refer to their Ottoman occupation, one of many occupations, as the only one that was fair and beneficent, despite the fact that they fought each other like devils …
    So, this is what it took. The sword of an ‘infidel’ …


  47. In my previous comment I noted that less than 10% of wars were caused by religion. The Swiss historian Jean-Jacques Babel has estimated that the 5,500 or so years of recorded history have witnessed a meager total of 292 years of peace.

    In fact, anyone who has read even a smattering of history will know that our historical account is one long record of nearly continuous warfare. As Jean-Jacques Babel has estimated, only five percent of our history was free of war. It is hard not to conclude that we are an innately warlike species. For atheists to start blaming religion for this is just plain self serving nonsense.

    But it is more complicated than that. We are a highly social species and the moment that three or more people live together there is an inevitable conflict over access to resources, whether they be material, sexual, status, privilege or otherwise. We clothe this conflict over access to resources in many ways and we also explain/justify this conflict in many ways. We form groups to give us advantages in these conflicts and the existence of groupings provokes even more conflict.

    It is facile and misleading then to take the way we group, clothe or justify these conflicts as being the real explanation. It is always, fundamentally, a conflict over access to resources. Conflict is dangerous, painful and causes great loss. Unsurprisingly then, leaders resort to many devices to motivate their followers to endure the dangers of conflict. Leaders are adept at turning every available motivational strategy to their advantage. Once again, it is facile to take the motivational strategies as being the causes of conflict.

    Happily, we are slowly learning to substitute physical conflict with symbolic conflict. This is the adversary system that is at the basis of law, our parliamentary system and the way the media operates. We have constructed arenas for this symbolic conflict with impartial referees/judges/arbiters. We call these arenas law courts, parliaments, etc.

    In the West we are the lucky ones to first arrive at this process for settling differences through the symbolic conflict of the adversary system. Being the first gives us the one time advantage to gloatingly claim superiority and it is this that lies at the root of Islamophobia. This is a very dangerous thing to do. First, we are still frighteningly ready to settle conflicts with force and thereby legitimise force by others. Second, our actions undermine the moral force of our claims. Thirdly, our criticisms provoke a counter reaction. In their counter-reaction they turn to their motivational strategy(Islam) and it becomes a source of comfort and identity. When we attack their motivational strategy we provoke them to retreat into it and strengthen it.

    They have real concerns and real grievances. We have to attend to these and not bully them physically, culturally or ideologically. Our leadership must be one of example and not coercion. Our example must be given the moral force of sincerity and consistency. Leading by example is a process of change that is slower than we would like but it results in durable change. The Middle East is replete with examples of unstable change arrived at by coercion.


  48. Morning David Ottlinger,

    You are misreading Harris. He utters the infamous words: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”, to which the obvious question is which propositions? The paragraph then explains which propositions.

    The propositions are ones SUCH THAT the believer is “inspired” to “commit acts of extraordinary violence”. If (Harris says) people believing THOSE propositions cannot be captured, then people “may be justified in killing them”.

    Which is exactly what US drone strikes do, with popular support.

    You — as I see it — twist this. You suggest that the answer to “which propositions?” is not in that paragraph. (You presumably think that Harris means “being a Muslim”). Thus you interpret the paragraph, not as answering “which propositions?”, but as talking about the consequences of those undefined propositions:

    Thus: “If they have certain beliefs THEN they must be guilty of intending harm to us. If they have these beliefs THEN they cannot be reasoned with.”

    That is simply not what Harris said.

    If there is any doubt about the intent, here is Harris’s later commentary:

    Why would it be ethical to drop a bomb on the leaders of ISIS at this moment? Because of all the harm they’ve caused? No. Killing them will do nothing to alleviate that harm. It would be ethical to kill these men — once again, only if we couldn’t capture them — because of all the death and suffering they intend to cause in the future. Why do they intend this? Because of what they believe about infidels, apostates, women, paradise, prophecy, America, and so forth. [emphasis in original]

    Whether or not you agree with those ethics, it is a normal and mainstream opinion.

    Hi dbholmes,

    I didn’t appreciate the fact that you appeared to imply I was lying,

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were lying, I merely thought that your comments on New Atheists were unfair. Of course New Atheists would welcome a reformed and moderate Islam, and they’ve long supported reformers in the Islamic world!

    You defend your accusation: “… agreeing to bizarrely authoritarian solutions …”, by citing Cameron’s speech. (And yes, I was aware of Maajid Nawaz’s role in it, and had mentioned that in my blog post about it.)

    That speech is rather short on specific policy details. Indeed, the only specific new policy is enabling parents to cancel the passports of children they suspect might run off to join ISIS. Does that strike anyone as “bizarrely authoritarian”? (Note that the bit you quoted gives no actual details of intended measures.)

    So your complaint is that New Atheists Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris “have been publicly supporting” the Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz (a Muslim, not a NA), who had a role in a speech by Cameron (a Christian, not a NA), in which Cameron announced “authoritarian” measures such as helping parents stop teenagers running off to ISIS. Right? Really?

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