About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Time to talk about Islamophobia

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is almost no way I’m not going to get in trouble with this one, and my name isn’t even Carlos Danger! But I’ve been asked several times by readers to comment on accusations of “Islamophobia” aimed at prominent New Atheists (henceforth, NA) — particularly Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — and it seems time to get down to work.

A few prelims, though. First, this isn’t my attempt at sitting, Q-like, in judgment of the whole shebang, rendering the final verdict on the matter. Yes, I will provide my (solicited, in this case) opinion, but that’s all it is, an opinion. Second, the reason I have not touched on this before is twofold: on the one hand, I’ve logged a substantial number of posts critical of several New Atheists, and there is only so much one can criticize the same people before getting annoying rather than constructive. On the other hand, for a while now I’ve been busier with matters of science, philosophy and epistemology than with political ones, as testified to by the significantly lower frequency of posts on political issues at RS. Third, this cannot and will not be a comprehensive examination either of Islamophobia as a concept or even just of what Dawkins, Harris, etc. have written about Islam. Instead, I will focus on what seem to be some of the most aggressive accusations to the NA in this regard, those made in two posts over at  Salon, by Nathan Lean. I wanted to get an idea of what the criticism was based on, both in terms of evidence and in terms of arguments. In other words, lower your expectations a bit, and let’s see where we can get with some reasoned discourse.

The first article by Lean was published on 30 March 2013, and was sparked by a series of tweets posted by Dawkins. Lean doesn’t start out too well. He accuses NA’s of sharing an “unholier-than-thou worldview” and of having “built lucrative empires” with their works. Not only can this sort of generic accusation be easily aimed — which much more reason — at a number of writers on the religious side of things, but it is irrelevant. The better-than-thou attitude may be irritating, but most certainly not uncommon among writers and commentators (including Lean himself); as for making money out of one’s books, as an author myself I seriously don’t see the problem, as long as one does it out of honest toil, as opposed to say plagiarism.

Lean proceeds with the suggestion that the whole NA phenomenon is the result of the 9/11 attacks, and particularly of the (surprising, even astonishing, in my mind) revival of the religious American fervors that followed them. He’s probably right, though again the identification of the causes of a social phenomenon is no indictment of said phenomenon.

And here comes the first incriminating quote, according to Lean, uttered by Dawkins a few days after 9/11: “Those people [the terrorists] were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards ... On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from. It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East, which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” Well, I think Dawkins got it partially right here. I say partially because I think religion is better thought of as a symptom, as well as a reinforcer, of these kinds of events, more than anything like a root cause. Regardless, religious fanaticism certainly had a lot to do with 9/11, together of course with a number of other causes that ought to be more deeply troubling for Americans: their military presence in Arab countries, their interference with said countries internal policies (often, though not always, not in the best interest of the people of those countries), their manipulation of Middle Eastern dictators, and of course their abysmal and willful failure to broker a fair peace in Israel-Palestine.

Lean also chastises Hitchens for mocking Muslims with the very title of his book, God is Not Great (because Muslims recite “God is great” during their prayers). So what? Atheists have always mocked religion, and for darn good reasons. And the best refrain to mockery is counter-mockery, not indignation. The latter only makes the receiver of the mockery look even more silly than he did before. But of course a number of religious fundamentalists are not exactly known for their sense of humor. Indeed, humor and sarcasm have always been among the most terrifying enemies of every strict religion. (btw, for the rest of this post it should be assumed that when I say “religion” I mean the fundamentalist, intransigent variety of the Abrahamic flavor, not religions or religious people in general. Please keep this in mind, it’s an important distinction.)

Now it’s Harris’ turn. He is quoted from Letter to a Christian Nation: “The idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists’ is a fantasy, and is now a particularly dangerous fantasy for Muslims to indulge.” That’s where things get complicated. Taken at face value, Harris is spectacularly wrong: terrorist attacks by Muslims do represent a small fraction of what’s going on in the Islamic world. But it is true that by far the larger number of terrorist attacks in recent years has been carried out in the name of Islam (of course, it depends on what one means by terrorism: include government actions, like the US war in Iraq, and we are talking about a completely different ball game). I don’t think that’s because Islam is an inherently more violent religion than Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians, after all, have been responsible for their share of massacres, genocides and ethnic cleansing throughout history. It’s just that in this particular historical moment they are violently affecting through terrorism far fewer people in far fewer areas of the world. (The last few lines, of course, represent my interpretation of what is essentially an empirical question. I will be happy to be corrected if I got the facts wrong.)

And now we are back to Dawkins’ twitter “rant” about the Quran: “Haven’t read Koran so couldn’t quote chapter and verse like I can for Bible. But [I] often say Islam [is the] greatest force for evil today.” Well, that’s just shabby, Dick. First off, criticizing books that one hasn’t read (or at least hasn’t read serious secondary sources about those books) is simply unacceptable for a major public intellectual. Second, here we go again with “greatest” and “evil.” Once more, fundamentalist adherence to Islam (and of course by far not all Muslims are fundamentalists) is likely one of the causal factors in a number of acts of violence in recent history, but to talk about it as the cause of it is unbelievably naive. (See partial list of other causes above; to which we should of course add lack of education and health care, major variables related to the success of religious fundamentalism.)

Another “incriminating” tweet from Dawkins: “Islam is comforting? Tell that to a woman, dressed in a bin bag [trash bag], her testimony worth half a man’s and needing 4 male witnesses to prove rape.” Lean thinks this sort of reasoning is ludicrous, but I think he is just as much off the mark as Dawkins, only in the opposite direction. Yes, Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that some Muslim women truly do find wearing a burka comforting, and even a sign of respect. But Lean seems to ignore that that’s not really a sign of respect: it is a blatant sign of male oppression, and said women have simply been indoctrinated, sometimes violently, into a particular worldview. I’ll call this particular skirmish a draw.

More evidence: “Dawkins’ quest to ‘liberate’ Muslim women and smack them with a big ol’ heaping dose of George W. Bush freedom caused him to go berserk over news that a University College of London debate, hosted by an Islamic group, offered a separate seating option for conservative, practicing Muslims.” To begin with, to accuse Dawkins (unlike, say, Hitchens) of endorsing W.’s foreign policy is highly disingenuous. Second, Lean goes on to point out that at a recent event (a concert by Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman) at the newly minted Barclays Center in Brooklyn the organizers offered separate gender seatings (as an option) to cater to the local Orthodox Jewish population. So why pick on the Muslims? Islamophobia! Setting aside the fact that Dawkins probably didn’t know about the latter event, how on earth is this “see? they do it too!” reasoning compelling at all? Dawkins was criticizing a British institution, qua British intellectual. Someone else in New York ought to have done the same in the case of the Barclays Center event (yes, I know, I missed that boat, wasn’t paying enough attention). And notice that just because the separate gender seating was facultative it doesn’t make the whole idea right to begin with, contra what is implied by Lean. (And of course it is worse in countries where this sort of thing is in fact mandatory, legal, and almost universally enforced. None of those countries can be found in the Western hemisphere, and not by chance...)

Lean is on better ground where he mentions that Dawkins has apparently praised right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician known for saying that he hates Islam and that the Quran should be banned in the Netherlands. Dawkins is also alleged to have praised the short film Fitna, produced by Wilders, which draws a strong parallel between the Nazis (oh no, the Nazis!) and Muslims. Bad move indeed, Professor Dawkins.

And back to Harris (I know, this is causing you a headache from swirling around too much, but I’m following Lean almost paragraph by paragraph). Lean disapprovingly quotes Harris (in The End Of Faith) as writing: “The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that the Nazis never contemplated and that, more to the point, no Muslim society would contemplate today.” Well, that strikes me as just about right on Harris’ part. Then again, it’s lowering the bar for Israel a bit too much to un-ironically say that the Israeli military is not quite as bad as the Nazis, no?

Finally (as far as the first essay is concerned) Lean impugns the very motives of the NA: “That’s not rational or enlightening or ‘free thinking’ or even intelligent. That’s opportunism. If atheism writ large was a tough sell to skeptics, the ‘New Atheism,’ Muslim-bashing atheism, must be like selling Bibles to believers.” I hardly think this is fair. I have no reason (nor, I suspect, does Lean) to think that the only, or even major motive for Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens and others to write what they write is to make money. It seems to me that they really do believe what they are saying. Which of course doesn’t automatically mean that it is intelligent or particularly informative.

Now to Lean’s second article, published on 10 August 2013. This time the focus is squarely on Dawkins, and again the occasion is offered by a tweet: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Yeah, that’s vintage Dawkins all right. But factually he is, of course, correct. And while one may not appreciate the sarcasm, there seemed to me little to criticize here, especially in terms of Islamophobia (since the number of Christian and Jewish Nobel winners is pretty high, I think, making picking on Islam fair.)

So on what bases, other than an accusation of superfluous sarcasm, does Lean criticize Dawkins? He begins by saying “Yes, the truth is that Muslims have received fewer Nobel Prizes than the sophisticated academic specialists at Trinity. But who in the hell cares apart from people like Dawkins.” Well, I would hope that Muslims cared. Assuming for a moment that the number of awarded Nobels in, say, science is a rough reflection of actual contributions to science (it is), then a society or societies whose recognized contributions are disproportionately less than their share of the world’s population ought to be worried. Of course, not all is well in Dawkins’ quarters either. I’m sure he meant to suggest that it is, again, religion that is responsible for this; and I again maintain that religion is more likely a co-causal factor as well as a symptom of the state of things, not the root cause. Investment in scientific research, level of and access to education, and so on, are also very much at the top of the list of explanations.

Lean: “there’s a difference between problematizing a religion’s tenets and persecuting its adherents.” Here perhaps we are simply using different dictionaries, since I don’t see how sarcastic tweets in any way constitute “persecution.” Persecution, rather, is what a number of Islamic countries do to their own freethinking citizens. (Of course they are not alone: see, just for a case recently in the news, Russia’s crackdown on gays and lesbians.)

Lean goes on to bring up again the University College debate (he must not have that many examples of Dawkinsian bigotry after all), and then moves to point out that Dawkins uses far too broad a brush when he talks of “Muslims” or “Islam” indiscriminately. This is definitely true, as the target should be more narrowly defined (say, Islamic fundamentalism), and the NA’s haven’t exactly made their mark in the Subtlety and Nuances department.

And then Lean slides into politically correct innuendos like this: “Sure, the Nobel Prize is an honorable recognition like no other. But it’s not insignificant that in Dawkins’s haste to come up with something cheeky to say about Muslims, he would use an accolade created by a Swedish philanthropist and awarded by an all-white committee of Scandinavians as a measuring stick for Muslim contributions in the world.” No, sorry, no go. This is sloppy to a vertiginous degree. First off, Lean is committing the genetic fallacy, criticizing X because of the origin of X (in this case the Nobel prize because it was established by a white dude and is awarded by other white dudes). The Nobels in science are always pretty much on target, and it is to the shame of Muslim countries that their scientists don’t have proportional entries in that roster. Second, Lean proceeds by pointing out that six Muslims have been awarded the Nobel for peace, notoriously the most politicized and questionable of the awards. Indeed, in the previous paragraph Lean himself had pointed out that Obama had been preemptively given the peace prize, going on to authorize drone strikes and secret surveillance operations on his own people. Finally, Lean reaches the absolute lowest point of his article when he says: “Muslim Nobel Prizes to date: 10. Dawkins Nobel Prizes to date: zero. That too, is a ‘fact,’ Mr. Dawkins.” Yes, and that is an irrelevant and childish comment to make, especially for someone who’s been ranting all along  — for months — about the responsibilities of public intellectuals, a group to which surely a journalist writing for Salon belongs, or would like to belong.

So where does all of this leave us? Hard to keep score, given the bizarreness of comments on both sides. I’m pretty sure Dawkins and other NA’s are in fact guilty of over-focusing on Islam. Then again, there are somewhat good reasons to do so provided by recent history, given that the Christian Crusades and Inquisition have been over for a while. Dawkins & co. are also overly sarcastic, certainly not subtle, and they do seem to use far too wide a brush to paint their nemeses. But it’s not like one reads writings such as Lean’s and finds shiny examples of restraint, subtle humor and focused targeting. The obvious casualty of all this is serious criticism, of both Muslims and New Atheists.

134 comments:

  1. I thought this was a wonderful reflection on the state of the conflict. I will point out that while the bible and other Hebrew texts are brutal, the Quran is still worse. That's not to say anything about the actual adherents to the religions, but it does provide a more dangerous baseline than in many other religions.

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  3. "First off, criticizing books that one hasn’t read ... is simply unacceptable for a major public intellectual."

    But Dawkins's tweet didn't criticise the book (the Koran) it criticised the religion (Islam) based on the results of that religion. I see nothing wrong with that. It would seem fair to criticise Soviet Communism based on its results without needing to have read Marx.

    "Second, here we go again with “greatest” and “evil.” Once more, fundamentalist adherence to Islam ... is likely one of the causal factors in a number of acts of violence in recent history, but to talk about it as the cause of it is unbelievably naive."

    OK, but by "evil" Dawkins was not commenting narrowly on terrorist acts, but on the whole effect of the religion on the world. For example he calls the Catholic Church the 2nd most evil religion.

    "Investment in scientific research, level of and access to education, and so on, are also very much at the top of the list of explanations."

    True, but surely the attitude to science and education is heavily influenced by the religion, and it is exactly that influence which Dawkins is criticising. As he says, real education is not about believing that all the answers are in one ancient book.

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    2. I'm always amazed at the attempts to interpret any influence of religion in terms of "underlying" influences, thus denying that religion can cause or motivate anything.

      Lots of ideologies (Islam, communism, liberal democracy, free-market ideas, etc) can be highly influential and are fair game for analysis and criticism.

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    4. @Peter

      I think the larger point is that religion *itself* is a major factor in determining much of human behaviour. There may not be any significant underlying influences beyond baseline human psychology.

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    6. Hi Peter,

      Yes, there are bad people everywhere, including bad atheists. Bad people in positions of power will use all the means at their disposal to impose their will on others, and atheists are no exception to this.

      However, religion gives them the tools to do this much more readily than skepticism. The more fundamentalist the religion, the more this is so.

      Religion teaches obedience to authority, faith-based belief, adherence to dogma, hatred of infidels, and the attitude that anything is permitted as long as you think that God is on your side. For many religious authorities, ignorance is practically a virtue.

      (Not all of this applies to all religions, particularly the more modern liberal ones, but I do think it describes the more fundamentalist congregations. Much of it may not apply to your own modern Catholic church, but I think it is true of the Catholic church of a few centuries ago.)

      Skepticism on the other hand teaches that we should question, argue, seek evidence, educate ourselves. Authorities are to be trusted only insofar as they can back up their arguments with facts. This makes it more difficult to manipulate people, and this is a good thing in my view.

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    8. Your parable boils down to an unsupported assertion that attacks on religion are willful attribution error. If the taxi drivers' propaganda were obvious nonsense, what difference would that make to Disagreeable's argument? Disagreeable makes a case, and you haven't responded to it.

      The taxi drivers' position on bus companies is wrong because bus companies are not special. Disagreeable pointed to attributes which distinguish religion as an institution. Do you agree with Disagreeable's (cough) position or not?

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    1. So atheists should just shut their yaps and go sit nicely in the back of the room? I don't like that one bit!

      Atheists, because they are unchained from any kind of fundamentalism (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, etc.), are the fairest group of all. That's all people need to understand.

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    3. Just calling Dawkins a "bigot" multiple times is not "thoughtful, insightful discussion and commentary".

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    4. I found Peter's OP and Phillip's reply to be both somewhat amusing.

      Peter's, because he uses survey data that atheists ordinarily employ as victimization porn, in order to accuse Dawkin's "bigotry" of *causing* the "bigotry" of the population against atheists. (As if Survey Joe from Kansas would just *love* atheists, if they'd only stop making such bigoted tweets!)

      Phillip's, for its shining & untroubled ideological purity.

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    7. @Peter

      Before Dawkins and the new atheists, religion was given a great deal of reverence and respect. From an atheist point of view, this has not been very successful. It has resulted in a culture where we expect religious views to be uniquely immune to criticism. Blasphemy is technically illegal in my home country of Ireland, which I think is a ridiculous state of affairs.

      As such, I think Dawkins has done a lot for the atheist movement. By being so uncompromising and forthright in his views, he and others have blazed a trail which I think has enabled the rest of us to be more outspoken about what we believe. Criticism of religion is not the taboo it once was.

      This is why, although I too value calm, polite and thoughtful discourse, I do not hesitate to state my position that religion is irrational.

      But while I hate religion and what it has done to the world. I don't hate the religious, so please don't take any of this as an attack on you personally.

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    9. Peter DO Smith: "Is there a defence [of Dawkins's tweet] you can make on the grounds of public good? Of reasonableness? Of decency? Of tolerance?"

      Sure, yes I'll defend the tweet. All influential idea systems should be subject to critical scrutiny; subjecting them to it is a public good. Dawkins's questioning of whether Islam is conducive to science and education is "a public good", it was "reasonable" and "decent", and yes it was "tolerant". (Most religious people, by the way, don't know the difference between "tolerant" and "respectful".)

      Google "calm reflections on a storm in a teacup" for Dawkins's own defence of the tweet.

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    10. Peter, no, I am not especially skeptical of the methodology of the study. It's quite plausible to me that those are the numbers.

      By "Survey Joe from Kansas" I don't mean to imply extreme ignorance, only a typical person "on the Clapham omnibus" with median household income and IQ 100, who reads the local paper for sports & celebrities and only occasionally for politics.

      Such a person's attitudes to both Muslims and atheists are probably based mostly on vague impressions from media & peers. However, their negative attitudes to Muslims will be tempered by widespread anti-Islamophobia messages ("We must not blame all Muslims for the actions of a tiny majority that doesn't represent..." etc.). Even George W Bush said lots of stuff like that after 9/11.

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  5. Nice piece – comes across as pretty fair and balanced to me. On the Nazi question, I'm not an expert, but I understand that there were close links between the Nazis and Muslim leaders associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

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  6. In the US national tradition formed by African slavery, the justificatory apologia made heavy use of racial essentialism. With the continued rise of the prestige of science and technology, a scientific racism emerged. In this school of thought, the heritability of race were customarily merged with what can be presented by itself as a mere scientific hypothesis, genetic determinism.

    AS a result, notions about "one drop of tar" or "Aryans" are associated with Klan/Nazi style of racism. But when a Dawkins or a Coyne dismiss the entire notion of Islamophobia as nonsense because they Islam is not a race, they are implicitly resorting to this common understanding. But these are not the only common notions of "race," which like so many other big little words did not immediately take on only the newest meaning, all others erased from memory.

    "Race" means, especially in other cultures less dominated by a tradition of racialist ideas, notions we might think of as tribe, ethnicity, folk, nation even. In these less "scientific" formulations, which even a US national could absorb from steeping themselves in the Old Testament, a phrase like "one God, one people, one country," can exemplify I think common but powerful feelings.

    So, is it not possible that, beyond an unbeliever of Christian origin unconsciously discriminating against the follies and crimes of believers of a tradition hostile to their old one, that religious critique can easily agitate hatreds, fears and resentments that in any other context would be simply acknowledged to be "racist?" Is it not possible that some of these practitioners are trading on the equivocal meanings of "race?"

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    1. I found this a *bit* hard to follow so forgive me if I butcher your point.

      I think what you're saying is that on a looser definition of "race", it includes things like culture & religion, and that therefore in criticizing Islamic culture & religion, Dawkins et al are in some sense being racists.

      The trouble with this is that you are trying to smuggle the bad connotations of "racism", which it acquired largely from ideologies that focused on "blood as destiny" etc., into a new & more expansive definition of the term. Basically, you're playing with words.

      It doesn't matter if you, personally, use the syllables "ray-sist" to refer to a subset of human activity that includes religious and cultural criticism.

      It matters whether religious and cultural criticism are good or bad.

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  7. Good post! Hard to both include enough nuance and not let the nuance block one's vision of the obvious. Dawkins is good at the latter but not the former; this post does a decent job of both.

    One bright idea that seems to be rarely implemented by Westerners is to actually consider what secularists in majority-Muslim countries think.

    For example, see Pervez Hoodbhoy's writings on Islam & science.

    Typically you find a willingness to criticize the West for some actions, but also a notable absence of the runaway feedback loops of political correctness we see in e.g. Mr Lean's articles. These loops are basically a Western phenomenon. The secularists of Lebanon have better things to do than wring their hands about cultural insensitivity in a tweet by Richard Dawkins.

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  8. Massimo,

    Your article was certainly (as you say) not comprehensive. I think you are unaware of some of Dawkins's more lunatic statements.

    You could, for example, have dealt with some Dawkins tweets that are straight from the tin-foil hat brigade:

    * That a cabal of Muslims are plotting to take over the White House

    * That Sharia Law is coming to the U.K.

    * That it is useless to report a crime commited by a Muslim in the U.K. because the police can't take action out of fear of being labeled Islamophobic.

    * That Islam has made no positive contributions to the world.

    Lean is cited for making overly broad "generic accusations" but Dawkins is not an Islamophobe for making the patently absurd claim that absolutely NO positive contributions came from Islam and that it is the "greatest force for evil today"?

    You call Dawkins "partially" right for attributing violence to religion. I keep begging you to read Robert Pape's book, "Dying to Win". It contains the most valid scientific study of the question of suicide bombing. It finds that religion is involved only in the sense that a DIFFERENCE of religion between the occupier and the occupied is a contributing factor. This occurs IN SPITE OF the teachings of most religions -- which proclaim non-violence, not BECAUSE of it.

    You write that Jews and Christians "are violently affecting through terrorism far fewer people in far fewer areas". But, as you note, this depends on your definition of terrorism. When Israel bombs Lebanon or strafes an apartment building with helicopter gunfire, it is not considered terrorism. When the US sends speedboats to strafe Hotels in Cuba, it is not considered terrorism, when the US send drones to kill thousands, or invades Iraq it is not considered terrorism.

    And also, you miss the point: assuming (as the NAs do) that numerous terrorist attacks by Muslims proves that Islam fosters violence is like saying that the last 9 out of ten people arrested for theft were wearing blue jeans -- so that proves that wearing blue jeans causes theft. The US is currently committing acts of war in several Muslim countries. It is only natural that the people involved in retaliation will be Muslims. And, as they don't spend half a trillion on weapons each year (as does the United States) then their weapon of choice will tend to be the basket-bomb.

    Also, you write, "Persecution, rather, is what a number of Islamic countries do to their own freethinking citizens." You have the nerve to write that at a time when Bradley Manning has just been tossed in jail and Snowden is on the run? I think the Jews will tell you that they have been persecuted by the Christians a bit.

    Also, regarding the Nobel Prize: would you say that there would be "little to criticize here" if someone who continually criticized blacks and implied that they were inferior noted that black people have fewer Nobel Prizes than whites? Or would you simply say, "that's factually correct"? Because, I would call that person a racist, as I would call Dawkins Islamophobic.

    Please read Robert Pape's book, "Dying to Win".


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    1. "some Dawkins tweets that are straight from the tin-foil hat brigade"

      Any chance of some cites or actual quotes for these?

      By the way, Sharia law is already in operation in the UK (google it).

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    2. In almost every nation where there is a proportionally significant population of Muslims, we observe armed conflict or significant social disorder between Muslims and non-Musilims: Russia, China, the Philippines, India, the UK, France, Germany, Israel, Thailand, and Australia. Review predominantly Muslims nations and almost to a country we observe massive human rights violations and barbaric legal and social practices. Pointing out that the majority of Muslims are in fact peaceful people does not obviate the point being made here: Dawkins aside, Islam looks very much like a danger that must be met.

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  9. Nice post, Massimo.

    I'd probably be a little bit more sympathetic to Dawkins and Harris than you were, but on the whole I thought you were pretty even-handed.

    In particular, I imagine that Dawkins is not ignorant about the Koran. He may not have read it, but he has surely talked to experts and read books by experts and is probably reasonably knowledgeable about the character of the content.

    I also think that Harris is potentially correct when he says that Islam is not a peaceful religion hijacked by extremists. I'm speaking hypothetically here because I'm not an expert, but what if the doctrine of Islam is particularly violent and intolerant (more so than Christianity, for example)? In that case, it might be that most muslims are peaceful in spite of their warlike religion simply because they are well-adjusted members of society who have learned to effectively ignore the more problematic parts of the Koran.

    This is certainly true of most Christians, who don't pay too much attention to the Jewish nationalism, genocide, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny and slavery in the Bible. What if the Koran is even worse than the bible? What if islamic orthodoxy is even more objectionable than evangelical Christianity?

    In that case it would seem to me that Harris has a point, and if so, it may go some way to explaining why Islamic terrorism is more of a problem than Christian terrorism at this point in history.

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    1. I think you are operating under a false dichotomy. It's perfectly possible that both Islam and Christianity are violent religions. Their theologies and the history of both would answer in the affirmative.

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    2. Hi Pyrrhus

      I don't disagree with you regarding Christianity, but Sam Harris in particular is very vocal in his highlighting of Islam as a particular threat. If they are both equally violent, then he's being irrationally Islamophobic.

      http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/

      I don't think he is being unfair, or at least I suspect that he may have a point.

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    3. I think that today Islam is more of a problem than Christianity is, at a balance. Not necessarily true everywhere, but if we weight them globally, I think so.

      If you familiarize yourself with Islamic texts and Islamic theology (that is, interpret those texts as Islamic theologians do, not as well-meaning Westerner would), it is blatantly obvious that Islam is not a religion of peace.

      It is, for example, the view of all mainstream Islamic denominations (both Sunni and Shia) that male apostates should be executed. About female apostates they seem more divided, some schools of thought favoring execution, others favoring inprisonment for life. There is absolutely no redeeming aspect of this. That Christians have behaved similarly in the past is completely irrelevant to the evil of this practice in Islam. It's simply a Tu quoque.

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  10. Massimo,

    You wrote (quoting Harris): “The Israelis have shown a degree of restraint in their use of violence that ... no Muslim society would contemplate today.”

    In commenting on that you wrote, "Well, that strikes me as just about right...".

    Sabra Shatila? Multiple bombing of Lebanon? Operation Cast Lead?

    When has a Muslim country bombed someone as mercilessly as Israel has bombed Lebanon?

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    1. "When has a Muslim country bombed someone as mercilessly as Israel has bombed Lebanon?"

      You are not serious, are you? Take a look at when the daddy of Bashar a-Assad supressed an uprising: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_massacre

      Killed more people than the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict has (not counting the wars between Israel and its neighbouring countries here).

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    2. The victims of the Hama massacre were the Muslim Brotherhood!

      And why would we NOT count wars between Israel and neighboring countries?

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    3. Tom, D.

      1948 Arab-Israeli War, 1967 Six-Day War, the War of Attrition (1967 - 1970, and 1973 Yom Kippur. Each was instigated by Muslim nations.

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    4. Not true:

      "In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him."

      -- Menachem Begin

      But this is not the place to debate the long and complex history of Israel. I don't want to get distracted by this side issue.

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    5. Tom D.,

      It is not a side issue at all -- in fact, it goes right to the central point: Due to Muslim theocratic nonsense (Jews can live in peace in the area only insofar as they submit to Muslim authority) Israel has been on the defensive ever since its inception. And the Begin quote is off the mark: Both Israeli and Western military experts conclude the Egyptian build up presented a viable threat that justified military action.

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    6. "The victims of the Hama massacre were the Muslim Brotherhood!"

      Uhh, yeah? While the Brotherhood has a repulsive ideology, it is their right to express it, and it is wrong to massacre them. Should be obvious.

      "And why would we NOT count wars between Israel and neighboring countries?"

      These are rather separate conflicts (no, the Arab countries are NOT friends of the Palestinians).

      If you think Israel is the source of the problems of the Middle East, you have a very shallow understanding of the region.

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    7. Israel is a country like any other. To suggest that they have some special "purity of arms" that others don't possess is unwarranted -- and that is the garbage that Harris is trying to sell.

      Israeli armed forces have been involved in many cruel and vicious incidents. The Hama massacre cited resulted in about 20,000 (Muslim) dead. The the 1978 Israeli attack on Lebanon killed about 19,000 alone -- and that is only one of Israel's many invasions and bombings of Lebanon. I don't call that record one of "restraint".

      Now, cite an instance in which the country of Malaysia killed 19,000 in a military attack -- remember Harris said that NO Muslim country (no exceptions!) shows the type of restraint in violence that Israel does -- so that would include Malaysia. And such nonsense strikes Massimo as "about right".

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    8. Tom D.

      I don't care to conjecture about the causes of your pathological avoidance of accepting the straightforward, but the wars listed above were instigated by Muslims and the majority of the armed conflict has its most direct cause in Islamic instigation. Of course Israel has dirtied its hands, but the scales are not balanced here. Israel legally protects gender equality and it by far has the most liberal protections for sexual and religious minorities. The Israeli judicial system does not stone to death adulterers, permit honor killings, or allows husbands to physically punish their wives. The same cannot be said for Muslim nations.

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    9. Tom D.

      your knowledge of the Israeli-Arab conflict is obviously very limited. Hama massacre was carried out by the Syrian regime, not the Israelis. Sabra and Shatila massacre was carried out by Christian Lebanese, not the Israelis. Get your facts right before spreading your ignorance. And btw, yes, Israel bombarded Lebanon many times, maybe because Lebanon never stopped firing rockets on Israeli towns? It happened again just yesterday. As usual, the Lebanese fire rockets on Israelis, then when Israel retaliates they go crying

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  11. "Lean proceeds with the suggestion that the whole NA phenomenon is the result of the 9/11 attacks, and particularly of the (surprising, even astonishing, in my mind) revival of the religious American fervors that followed them. He’s probably right, though again the identification of the causes of a social phenomenon is no indictment of said phenomenon."

    Indeed, new atheism is a result of 9/11. Harris wrote The End of Faith as a reply to that, and Dawkins has stated that 9/11 led him to think that we, as a society, need to be less accommodating to religion.

    "I’m pretty sure Dawkins and other NA’s are in fact guilty of over-focusing on Islam."

    I completely disagree. For most of his writings on religion Dawkins has focused on Christianity whenever a particular religion is mentioned (mostly he focuses on theism in general and the idea of faith). It's actually pretty recently that he has started to criticize Islam in a more direct way.

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  12. I'll never forget the time Dawkins was on msnbc (on a show hosted by Chris Hayes) before the 2012 US election. He talked about Romney and how "crazy" Mormonism was, and that was reason enough not to vote for him, which made the host and others on the panel a little uncomfortable. (I'm not sure exactly why.) Someone countered Dawkins saying that Obama goes (sometimes) to a (liberal Protestant) church, but Dawkins (correctly) pointed out it wasn't the same at all.

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  13. Ian was amused and so am I when individuals try to claim that religion's influence is always positive or maybe it is just that religion has no influence at all. No matter which evil associated with religious believers - child rape and coverup, teaching bad science, suicide bombings, genital mutilation and suppression of female rights, etc. - it is never ever the fault of religion qua religion- it is the fault of politics and quests for power. As if religions don't do politics and desire power.

    It is the falsehood that any ideology - including religion - is true and others are false that contributes to the oppression of those outside. As soon as religions claim that they do not have the absolute truth, that other religions are equally likely to be true - perhaps they can viewed as being about peace.

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  14. Massimo,

    RE: my comment about your not dealing with some Dawkins tweets "straight from the tin-foil hat brigade":

    likewise with Sam Harris. You didn't deal with Harris aligning himself with European Nazis, or saying that anyone who even LOOKS Muslim should be profiled, or suggesting that it would be acceptable to kill people for their beliefs.

    In short, you seem to sit on the fence setting up a straw man of Lean's comments -- noting that Lean made errors and using those errors to exonerate the NAs without dealing with the long record of people like Dawkins making the most outrageous remarks and even gleefully re-tweeting a notice about rednecks in Idaho selling pork laced bullets for shooting Muslims.

    Then you wonder IF Dawkins is Islamophobic?

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    1. Tom, the pork-laced bullet tweet was fairly clearly Dawkins ridiculing those making the bullets, and so was not "Islamophobic".

      Can you give actual examples of "tin foil hat" tweets by Dawkins?

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    2. Tom,
      Are you implying that Islam is completely harmless - that it doesn't have anything to do with the appalling lack of women's rights in most Islam-majority countries?

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    3. Most of Tom's insinuations about these people are misleading at best, which is not to say the NA's don't deserve lots of criticism.

      For example Sam Harris "aligned himself with European fascists" in this passage:

      >While liberals should be the ones pointing the way beyond this Iron Age madness, they are rendering themselves increasingly irrelevant. Being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t.

      >The same failure of liberalism is evident in Western Europe, where the dogma of multiculturalism has left a secular Europe very slow to address the looming problem of religious extremism among its immigrants. The people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.

      >To say that this does not bode well for liberalism is an understatement: It does not bode well for the future of civilization.

      This is pretty much a textbook uncharitable reading.

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    4. coelsblog~

      There was NO indication that Dawkins was ridiculing the pork laced bullets.
      Given his record of making the most vicious comments with regard to Muslims, there is every reason to believe that he thinks it is a good idea, or "cute" or "funny". It is disgusting, and the tweet on this subject lacked any mark of opprobium that any decent person would put upon such a vile story.

      I have already listed the "tin foil hat" tweets: White House plot, Sharia Law in the UK, Police unable to arrest Muslim criminals, and Islam has made zero contributions to the world.

      Michael Fugate~

      The question isn't whether Islam is completely harmless. The question is whether adhering to the tenets of Islam results in violence as the NAs claim. Pape's scientific study indicates that it does not. There has been no evidence presented here to the contrary, so I think we are obliged to accept Pape's finding unless someone can provide better scientific evidence to the contrary.

      Massimo speaks as if the religion-violence link is a given fact, but there is no more evidence of this that that the soul weighs 21 grams. The fact that many Muslims engage in violence is no more enlightening than saying that many thieves wear bluejeans, so it proves that bluejeans cause theft.

      Ian ~

      What specifically have I said that is misleading?

      When Harris says that the people who speak the most sensibly about the Muslims are the fascists I take him at his word. Call me crazy, but when someone says the fascists speak the most sensibly on a topic, I call that an alignment with fascists. Also, keep in mind that Harris made this pro-fascist statement in the context of his having a record of making numerous disparaging remarks regarding Muslims, and saying that people may be killed for their beliefs - and the people he's talking about killing "twern't Mormons".

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    5. Tom:

      "There was NO indication that Dawkins was ridiculing the pork laced bullets."

      Yes there was, he began with the words: "Religio ad absurdum".

      "I have already listed the "tin foil hat" tweets".

      Yes, but you've given no *quotes*, so I suspect that they don't say what you are claiming they do.

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    6. Pape's study has been criticized for having no control group; most occupations don't generate suicide terrorist attacks. He only included countries that were occupied and produced terror - 80% of occupied countries haven't produced terror.

      Also, suicide bombing is not the only violence stemming from Muslim countries. This is not to say that violence is not coming from non-Muslim countries - we are talking about Islam and violence.

      So your claim is that there is nothing in Islam that an individual could interpret to encourage violence against others? Really? The death threats against Salman Rushdie were entirely political? Those against the Mohammed cartoonists? The women forced into prostitution by Muslims in Rochdale? The violence against gays near Muslim neighborhoods?

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    7. Michael Fugate ~

      You are interpreting my remarks as a bizarre absolute.
      I never claimed that Islam (or any other philosophy for that matter) causes absolutely no harm.

      Pape, at least, HAS a scientific study to criticize. Dawkins and the NAs have none. The NAs pull their information out of their hind quarters.

      You are correct that suicide bombing is not the only form of violence. But it has been shown to be the most effective type, and the type most in mind after the 9/11 attacks (most suicide bombing are done by secularists).

      As to other forms of terrorism, a Europol study finds that from 2007 to 2009, over 99% of the terror attacks committed in Europe were by non-Muslims. The FBI reports that only 6% of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005 were carried out by Islamic extremists. The remaining 94% were from other groups.

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  15. I would disagree on one thing, Massimo. I'm harsher than you on Dawkins' "no Nobels" Tweet, because it's historic cherry-picking. If Nobel Prizes had started in the 12th century, around 1220, after a century-plus of awards, a Muslim could have written the same and worse about Christian prize deficiency.

    If the Nobels had started a century or two before that, even, a Muslim could have said: "Dear Christians, we have this thing called a university."

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    1. However, we are no longer in 10th century Baghdad. Islam has in large measure stultified intellectual progress in the Arab world for the last 400 years (or so).

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    2. You're basically claiming that Islam was only founded four hundred years ago. This is nonsense. It's like those people who swear that Islam compels its believers to wage jihad against Jews while ignoring all those centuries when Jews weren't being slaughtered. I don't know what point you think you're making, but it's not showing what you think it does.

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    3. Thus we grab the conclusion from our premise.

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    4. Gadfly ~

      Dawkins's reasoning on the Nobel Prize awards is silly on a number of counts.

      Would you condemn women or blacks for being under-represented in the awards? I thought we were done with this type of nonsense after the "Bell Curve" book was rightly panned.

      As Leads points out, things like "education, poverty, unemployment, economic malaise, corruption and state-dominated institutions — are serious obstacles for advancement." Not to mention colonial oppression by Western powers.

      And it is arrogant in the first place to assume that the sine qua non of "worthiness" is scientific accomplishment. It assumes a devotion to materialism in which others may not wish to participate. Others may believe that the examination deeper questions concerning the meaning of life may be more important than devoting one's life to the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. To reject the worthiness of a people for making a non-Western style choice is self-centered prejudicial arrogance.

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    5. Gadfly:

      "Dawkins'"no Nobels" Tweet [is] historic cherry-picking. If Nobel Prizes had started in the 12th century ..."

      Are you aware that the tweet contained: "They did great things in the Middle Ages, though"?

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    6. S Johnson,

      That is not what I am 'basically' claiming. I am claiming that Islam has for the last 400 years (or so) stunted intellectual (scientific, artistic, political, ethical) growth in the Arab world. Why this is so is an open debate, but I would wager there are deep conceptual impediments in Islam that prevent Muslims from getting with a civilized view of the world.

      In all likelihood the fact that Islam is inextricably political has something to do with the fact that there has been no Muslim equivalent to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, via which the Christian West divorced the intellectual life from the binds of religion.

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    7. S Johnson,

      Also, allow me to add that Muslims only began to initiate hostilities towards Palestinian Jews and Arab Christians after the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel.

      For the previous 1,300 years, Jews and Christians lived under Islamic political authority and were third-class citizens under Ottoman rule: Jews and Christians could practice their religion in peace if and only if they submitted to Islamic authority and paid special taxes. Muslims today insist that Jews and Christians everywhere but especially in the Middle East should have remained under Muslim political authority. I see this as the prime motivation for Muslim hostilities towards Jews and Christians in the region.

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    8. Coels, yes, I'm aware of that. I thought it made the need for Dawkins' tweet nugatory.

      Cian: I think "third-class citizens" is overstating it. Four hundred years ago, Jews certainly preferred living in Muslim states to Christian ones.

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  16. "I think religion is better thought of as a symptom, as well as a reinforcer, of these kinds of events, more than anything like a root cause."

    This video speaks otherwise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qcqFWr6h4qc#at=423

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  17. "I don’t think that’s because Islam is an inherently more violent religion than Judaism and Christianity. Jews and Christians, after all, have been responsible for their share of massacres, genocides and ethnic cleansing throughout history. It’s just that in this particular historical moment they are violently affecting through terrorism far fewer people in far fewer areas of the world. (The last few lines, of course, represent my interpretation of what is essentially an empirical question. I will be happy to be corrected if I got the facts wrong.)"

    I think that when NA's say something like this, they refer to the way religions manage and interpret their corresponding messages currently. Nowadays the Vatican doesn't vouch for terrorism and violence, but several representants of today's mainstream Islam vouch for stuff like death for apostates, for women to dare show their body naked in public, for cartoonists that dare to depict Muhammad...

    For more examples of Islam being more stupid and dangerous than , say, christianity:

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/31/world/meast/saudi-blogger-sentenced/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/pakistani-christians-fearing-backlash-flee-community-after-girl-accused-of-blasphemy/2012/08/20/d3b23c9a-eae3-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html

    Not even the wackiest of catholic priests (in Mexico, my country, they abound)would demand the execution of anyone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9kAVlnGMTU

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  18. To ianpollock, the broader meaning of race is the older usage. The later definition of race as genetic determinism is the later usage. I am not "trying to smuggle" unpleasant wider connotations into the term. It is others who are using the narrow definition as wordplay to escape an embarrassing wider context. Jerry Coyne for one (and according to him Richard Dawkins as well) claim that Islamophobia is nonsense because Islam is a religion not a "race," in the genetic sense.

    I am old enough when it was felt necessary to preface condemnations of bigotry as "racial" bigotry. The old sense of the word meant what we now would have to specify as "religious" bigotry. Racism is merely a synonym of bigotry. QED. (That really is an example of wordplay!)

    To Peter DO Smith: Criticisms of culture are legitimate? My problem is I don't see how that's different from criticism of national characters, which takes us right back to racism in its older sense. I'm not at all sure that such criticism is valid even in principle.

    But you do agree with me that such criticisms must take place in a real world context, which is gratifying. Could I further suggest that the most important context is the local situation of the speaker? For example, if I were to suggest a law that denies first amendment protections to churches when they practice psychological counseling, some might advocate it as an attack on Scientology. If at the same time, these people were to omit from such a laws brief Christian counseling and twelve-step programs, then, even though the individual criticisms of Scientology's counseling programs are valid, it would still be blatant religious bigotry to such a thing.

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  19. I'm sorry. You guys seem like a bunch of homers, arguing for your favorite teams and players on Sundays. This is a case where the only distinction to draw on is who argues his points with greater command of rhetoric.

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    2. As Massimo concludes, "But it’s not like one reads . . . and finds shiny examples of restraint, subtle humor and focused targeting. The obvious casualty of all this is serious criticism, of both Muslims and New Atheists."

      And your, "That is because the question has been phrased in the wrong way."

      Well, yes, if one has not got caught up in the hysteria and fanaticism that seems self-perpetuating, one wants to walk away with the suspicion that both sides have lost their footing.

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    4. Well, that is sorta Massimo's position: "The obvious casualty of all this is serious criticism." And I agree with him. And I agree with you that perhaps "the question has been phrased in the wrong way."

      But because I don't particularly have a dog in the fight and don't choose to participate in this match, doesn't mean I won't in a different one. If this means I don't have anything "useful to contribute," so be it.

      You might say the same of Dawkins and Lean, for example. I don't have to engage in polemics when it only belabors the point of whether either side has engaged in a productive discourse to this point.

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    5. Thomas Jones,

      Quite frankly, I am dissapointed in Massimo’s article.

      It seems to me to evade the question of whether NAs such as Dawkins are Islamophobic, and instead sets up a straw man of Lean vs. the NAs. The Article concludes that they BOTH made errors and . . . well, well, no real conclusion can be made.

      This is total nonsense. Dawkins and the others have a LONG record of making the most silly statements regarding Islam and Muslims – on par with “the soul weighs 21 grams”, but Massimo, for some reason, is reluctant to call them on it.

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    6. Tom D., well you know I thought just the same thing, but he seems to me at the outset to have explained what he intended and that's his prerogative: "A few prelims, though. First, this isn’t my attempt at sitting, Q-like, in judgment of the whole shebang, rendering the final verdict on the matter. Yes, I will provide my (solicited, in this case) opinion, but that’s all it is, an opinion. Second, the reason I have not touched on this before is twofold: on the one hand, I’ve logged a substantial number of posts critical of several New Atheists, and there is only so much one can criticize the same people before getting annoying rather than constructive."

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    8. @Thomas Jones

      I've thought about what you wrote, and I suppose that you have a point. It certainly is Massimo's prerogative to NOT comment on a particular case. I'm guessing that to call Dawkins an Islamophobe is a much more personal attack than to disagree with him over some arcane point in philosophy -- it might be awkward for Massimo to run into Dawkins at a conference after calling him an Islamophobe.

      Still, I can't help noting that Massimo OFTEN sits "Q-like" and judges statements made by various people to be "nonsense on stilts". In the present case, there is Pape's scientific study on one side, and the NA's prejudice on the other -- NAs have NO evidence to back up their often made claim that studying the Koran leads to violence. I wouldn't think it would take a lot of guts on Massimo's part to point out a lack of evidence -- any more than it would be awkward to ask someone who claims to know that the soul weighs 21 grams how he happens to know that particular "fact".

      But the religion-violence causative link theory of the NAs that plays to popular prejudice seem to get a pass, with no evidence being necessary -- other than "well, EVERYONE knows...it's GOTTA be some kind of co-factor...". Pape's scientific study to the contrary is simply ignored.

      Also, Massimo's statement that he has often criticized the NAs in the past seems to me to be a non-sequitur. Why should that matter? If I criticize someone for believing in ghosts, then criticize him for believing in fairies... should I hold off on criticizing him for believing in leprechauns because I already criticized him twice? I think it odd that Massimo should count the number of times he has criticized rather than consider whether or not the particular criticism of the moment is justified or not. If Dawkins is wrong a hundred times he should be criticized one hundred times. It is courteous on the part of Massimo to not want to be "annoying", but we are talking about serious prejudice here that can result in people being physically assaulted and wars being initiated -- the NAs hardly have delicate sensibilities, having savagely attacked opponents in the past with the most vicious and personal attacks ("who would care if Massimo died?" -- he's not a member of the ├╝bermenschen like Hitchens).

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  20. Nice post. One interesting way forward would be to measure the level of education versus the level of fundamentalism. I suspect the two are inversely related. The world starting in 4004 BC at 8 am is not compatible with education, whereas cultural traditions are. perhaps somewhat ironically, given the above, is an Arab saying that goes something along the lines of "educate a woman and you educate a whole family".

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  22. By the way, as Massimo sits around wondering whether or not a person who tweets about pork coated bullets for shooting Muslims is Islamophobic or not, keep in mind that Richard Dawkins has denied that such a thing as "Islamophobia" even exists!

    Dawkins has claimed that "Islamophobia" is just a word dreamt up to prevent people from criticizing Islam. Mind you, he has NOT claimed that the term is SOMETIME used to prevent criticism, but that the term itself has no validity – there is no such thing except in the minds of people who don’t want Islam criticized.

    Dawkins really demonstrates his ignorance here, as “Islamophobia” is a legitimate term recognized by many scholars and respected organizations.

    Wikipedia reports that, at the "Stockholm International Forum on Combating Intolerance", attended by UN Secretary General Kofia Annan, High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Secretary General Jan Kubis, and representatives of the European Union and Council of Europe, a declaration was adopted to combat "genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, and to combat all forms of racial discrimination and intolerance related to it."

    The term “Islamophobia” has also been adopted by the British Runnymede Trust, and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

    In addition, there have been several well-documented cases of people who were attacked and severely injured simply because they were Muslim – probably by the type of people that Sam Harris thinks “speak the most sensibly” about Muslims.

    According to Dawkins, “Islamophobia” does not exist, and cabals of Muslims plotting to take over the White House DO exist.

    P.S. Do not write to tell me cases where Dawkins has acknowledged the term “Islamophobia”.

    I say that Dawkins is a loon – not that he is consistent. He often contradicts himself and briefly comes back down to reality after having made broad, sweeping, all-inclusive, no exception statements.

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  23. Very good, Massimo.

    So good that I will even concede that religion is not a root cause for terrorism or war, although I keep thinking that it is at least a permanent collateral root-cause, just waiting for a companion root-cause to come to its finalities.

    But I cannot concede that irony and sarcasm aren't forms of persecutions, mainly because in general both are made on assumptions that - at least seem to - proceed and their victims are unable either of amending what they are blamed for or even of recognizing it as a fault (or as deserving to be addressed that way). Maybe it would suit here a good analysis on what are sarcasm and irony.

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  24. It is right and proper to be scared of Islam. It's obviously the cause of lot of violence that's happening around the world right now. Islam is just doesn't have a place in the modern world, unless it learns to behave, like Christianity did.

    The New Atheists are only guilty of blowing it out of proportion.

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    1. They don't blow it out of proportion, they just point the obvious: people downplay the role of Islam in terrorist acts, fearing to be labeled "islamophobics". And by doing that, they get labeled as islamophobics themselves.

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  25. I take it that the core criticism against Islam is that by its very conceptual constitution (and it is precisely for this reason Islam has not experienced a Reformation and Englightenment) the overwhelming majority of Muslims have, what John Rawls would call, an unreasonable conception of the good. Review a recent and massive Pew Research survey of Muslim opinions on a plethora of issues. The findings comport with the lion's share of the criticisms expressed in this post: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/

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  26. Sorry, guys, this is just to correct the first phrase of my above comment, so that you don't start thinking I'm completely crazy (I agree if you say I'm partly :))

    So, instead of "So good that I will even concede that religion is not a root cause for terrorism or war, although I keep thinking that it is at least a permanent collateral root-cause, just waiting for a companion root-cause to come to its finalities.", read, please "So good that I will even concede that religion is not the root cause for terrorism or war, although I keep thinking that it is at least a permanent collateral root-cause, just waiting for a companion root-cause to come to its finalities."


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    2. Peter,

      I think I agree that killing - let us put this way - is the most likely cause for war (although saying so I'm sure I'm somewhat fallaciously saying the same as 'killing - or warring - is the most likely cause for killing - or warring). And I believe that in the class of the stimuli you mentioned above, for sure you'll find religion. I believe that hostility exists as a last resource in survival: the problem is the understanding of what - at least among us humans - is intended to survive: I mean that we use hostility in cases in which survival is not so obviously assumed (when it doesn't seem that the life of the individual is at stake) and so, as a way to organize my thoughts, I believe we conceive ourselves as composed of countless parts that, naturally, need to exist - or survive - in order to keep the whole - each individual - complete, and so, we have the moral survival that comes to play the role of one of those stimuli for hostility (or killing, or war). Religion enters the stimuli room by the moral door, although I see it's versatile enough to play amongst the general survival stimuli as well: when the religious individual believes, for instance, that he/she would be punished with death - or worse (the hell?) - by not following commands to kill who jeopardizes his/her religious tenets.

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  27. Tom,

    I'm getting a bit tired of your relentless implication that I am an Islamophobe myself because I don't criticize Dawkins and Harris has vehemently as it would be pleasing to you. I have criticized them, but I also think the accusation of Islamophobia is too easy and far too blanketing of different positions, even among the NA's themselves. Moreover, I simply don't have the time, or the inclination, frankly, to police every single statement made by the NA's so that I can criticize them to your satisfaction. Seems to me you are doing a pretty thorough job of it yourself. Tiresomely so, in fact.

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  28. Massimo,

    If I am being persistent, it is because I am just trying to get you to admit the obvious: Dawkins is an Islamophobe.

    I have never said that you are an Islamophobe, or intended to imply such.

    I simply can't understand why you choose to focus heat at me instead of at people who align themselves with Nazis, or at people who tweet about shooting Muslims with pork laced bullets.

    What have I done, other than to point out the NA's prejudice and your reluctance to criticize it?

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  29. It seems the class New Atheists (NA) have a number of people assigned to it, including Daniel Dennett, and Victor Stenger. (Stenger's Google group is "Atoms and the Void" and has a column in The Huffington Post. I hosted a talk by him once.) They seem pretty reasonable to me, maybe more so than others in NA.

    My point is that the NA has people in it that might say dumb things, but I don't think all in NA are the same. The attack on NA as a class seems like the attack that some allege is being waged by some in NA on Muslims as a class.

    Since I am a coder, I should be called a GNU* Atheist, I guess.

    * http://www.gnu.org/

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    2. BTW, there's a fascinating 4min talk by Richard Stallman on "How GNU Was Named": gnu.org/pronunciation

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  30. Have you sent this piece to Sam Harris for his chance (if he does) to reply?

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  31. What About getting Dawkin's reply?

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    1. sketchanything,

      that's not usually the way it works among authors / bloggers. I assume Dawkins, Harris etc. do what I do: set up a google alert with their name and see what gets published about them. The choice is theirs whether to respond or not. I suspect they are simply not interested in this case.

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    2. Fair enough I suppose. I've youtubed many similar responses to their detractors. Yet as Lawrence Krauss likes to point out...ridicule of an idea gets people thinking. Comedians do it all the time. Why should religion get any special treatment?

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  32. This from a follower on G+, apparently Christians are still ahead of the terror game, in terms of sheer numbers of casualties (though it seems to me that there is a difference btw a worldwide phenomenon, such as Islamic fundamentalism, and a concentrated episode in one country):

    The scholar Juan Cole has pointed out that at this historical moment, to date, Muslims have not committed the most violent terrorism in the world. Uganda's LRA a Christian cult, with the backing of the US, has offed 6 million people in the DRC and forcefully displaced two million. So at the moment, Christianity is the biggest terrorist threat and has not been causing less violence than their Muslim brothers and sisters.

    http://www.juancole.com/2013/04/terrorism-other-religions.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+juancole%2Fymbn+%28Informed+Comment%29

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    3. Hi Peter,

      >These were explicitly atheist regimes<

      True.

      And this goes to show that the battle atheists like myself focus on is not so much against religion but against faith-based dogmatic authoritarian worldviews. Religion is perhaps the most commonly encountered incarnation of this kind of phenomenon for most of us, but it's not the only one.

      For me, the cults of personality we see in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and the North Korea of today have a lot of common with religion, and it is these common attributes which I really oppose.

      I oppose the silencing of dissent, the automatic acceptance of moral decrees from on high, the worship of individuals or deities and the belief that the in-group is more special or holy than the out-group.

      What I advocate is not simply atheism, but skepticism, humanism and open disagreement, with belief based on evidence and reason.

      For this reason, though I dislike religion, those regimes are even worse than most of today's religions, and their adherents just as irrational in my eyes.

      I think most of today's Western atheists would also subscribe to these views, so the comparison to the atheistic regimes you mentioned is not really fair.

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    6. Hi Peter,

      >Atheist Russia and atheist China represent two huge social experiments with the wholesale introduction of atheism.<

      I do enjoy engaging with you, but I must emphatically disagree. These comments are probably every bit as offensive to me as anything I have ever said to you about the irrationality of religion.

      That said, if I can dish it out I ought to be able to take it, so I'll attempt to explain why I disagree.

      These were not experiments with the wholesale introduction of atheism, they were experiments with the wholesale introduction of authoritarian, totalitarian, nationalist dogmas, placing the state and certain statesmen in the position of God.

      These societies are absolutely nothing like the democratic secular humanist vision that the New Atheists promote. They do not express the values I have identified (anything but!) and they should certainly not be construed as synonymous with atheism even if they do have atheism as one minor aspect of their dogma.

      >Do you see the profound difference between your statement and mine?<

      Yes, you're missing skepticism and rationality. I would consider "humanism" (by which I mean secular humanism) to include all the values you mention. After all, it's no use caring for people if you don't have the tools to assess how best to help them. I perhaps didn't emphasise humanism enough, but only because many of these values are pretty common in all value systems and so not particular to my worldview.

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    7. ...


      >I would never return to the harsh, nihilistic ugliness that characterises today's atheists.<

      I think that's a misunderstanding of today's atheists. We feel love, compassion and joy just as deeply as you do. Some of us may deny that there's objective beauty, morality and meaning in life, but why the need for objectivity? Subjective values are good enough to make me contented, compassionate and moral. Why is it so important to you that your values have an external source?

      >Harris claimed it was permissible to kill people for their beliefs, Dawkins claimed that infanticide was permissible, Hitchens was comfortable with torture.<

      There are no authority figures in atheism. I can disagree with some of what these guys say even while I agree with other statements. In any case, without knowing the specific context of these statements I'm not in a position to comment (although I would disagree with Hitchens on many points so I suspect I'm with you on this one).

      >We know the result, we have seen it in atheist Russia and atheist China.<

      Again, this is nonsense. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens never sought anything like such a society and would recoil in horror at the prospect. In fact, Hitchens once compared the idea of heaven to North Korea in order to illustrate the true horror of the idea of unquestioning obedience to any authority.

      The disasters in China and Russia resulted from faith in Marxist-Leninist dogma and the whims of opportunistic psychopaths. Needless to say, not all atheists are psychopaths, and the values promoted by New Atheists are directly opposed to authoritarian dogma.

      >Atheism is devoid of moral content<

      True. But secular humanism isn't. There's much more to what the New Atheists are promoting than mere disbelief in God.

      >witness Russia and China.<

      And witness free democratic secular societies where religiosity is low and atheism the norm. Look at Scandinavian countries. That's the kind of society the New Atheists want.

      As much as we detest religion, we would never make it illegal because the cost to liberty would be unconscionable. Religion is best fought with argument and irreverence, not the state. As such, the idea of an "atheist state" is not relevant to any arguments against New Atheism. Even less relevant is any comparison to totalitarian states.

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    8. Hi Peter,

      I don't know if you're still tracking this thread but I've turned this into a blog post. Comments welcome.

      Communism is not Atheism

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  33. This "analysis" by Juan Cole is incredibly sloppy. It's an (uncited) tally of all major killings committed by all Christians for any reason, not of those motivated (or co-motivated) by religious beliefs. It includes all the fatalities from WW2, when at least ten million of those were of Chinese military and civilians killed by Japanese forces. It doesnt include the Armenian genocide either, but Cole is unperturbed as it "would not change his original points". Which apparently is too get as high a ratio of Christian to Islamic killings as possible.

    I have no idea where you got the 6 million figure for the LRA from, but the State department says they have committed attacks "resulting in well over 5,000 deaths and considerably more wounded and kidnapped.", and that 465,000 people were displaced by them. Still horrible, but well shy of six million.

    http://www.nctc.gov/site/pdfs/ct_calendar_2013.pdf
    http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/03/186734.htm

    Compare with the findings of the National Counter-Terrorism Center which pegged the amount of terrorism fatalities caused by Sunni extremism at 70% of total terrorism deaths for 2011. If we assumed all of perpetrators fo the "other" groups were motivated by Christianity (no religious group other than Sunni extremists merited their category) they would account for 1.3% of deaths due to terrorism. Apparently Muslims are far ahead in the terror game.

    (http://www.webcitation.org/query?url=http://www.nctc.gov/docs/2011_NCTC_Annual_Report_Final.pdf&date=2012-08-04)

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    1. George,

      ah, the beauty of fact checking... Thanks for the comment.

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    2. Well, the statistical treatment of ethics. Does it result?

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    4. No, Peter, I meant that George's comment above seems to deal with statistics in order to establish something like ethical concepts. And I'm uncertain if this works in constituting ethics. From the other side, if we agree with the idea that a moral is ethics made possible, perhaps statistics can play a role in this - moral - context. But just because we're still unable either to strictly apply the ethical concepts - if already there is some - to our daily life or even to conceive something more embracing than provisional and mutually conflicting moral systems.

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  34. I don't know if New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris over-focus on Islam. You're right that in the past, Judaism and Christianity have had their share of problems, and now it seems to be Islam's "turn". But that doesn't mean that Islam is not the worst offender right now, and for that it deserves more criticism. Of course it could be I'm mistaken about that, but this much seems to be clear: Islam takes itself way, way too seriously, and that in itself is perhaps its biggest problem.

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  35. I really can't see why evangelical religions like Christianity and Islam should be treated any differently than a club, political party or even a sports fan. Can one be labeled a republicanophobe? or a ManUophobe?

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    2. -phobe suff.
      One that fears or is averse to a specified thing: ailurophobe.

      Yesterday someone said to me that he hates the automation of things that's going on today. I said to him You're a robophobe.

      Isamophobia (hatred or fear of Muslims or of their politics or culture) is tricky (because of the connective "or"). Can one hate the religion (Islam) but love the believer? (Is that like hate the sin but love the sinner?)

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    3. Hi Peter,

      >Phobic behaviour is bad. Full Stop.<

      I'd agree if it's irrational, which by some definitions it is. However if it's a rational aversion or distaste, then it's not so simple.

      I do have a strong distaste for all religions (although less so for less authoritarian ones such as Buddhism), but I like and admire many religious people. I'm not sure this is at all the same as "football-clubophobia", for instance.

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    4. Yes, as oft heard as it is, Islamophobia is an impossibility because phobias are largely irrational.

      Whoever coined the word Islamofascism did the world a favor; it is indeed one of the most potent signifiers ever invented, squeezing quite a bit of TNT into every letter -- which exactly describes that fascistic tendencies of Islam, which at its extreme wants to blow everything up.

      And the statistical sample space for that extreme is not a purely long-tail phenomenon.

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  36. If all phobic behavior is bad.... Let's look at your praise, Peter, of the pope and his comments on Islam. Does he really respect Islam or, given the chance, would he not convert every last one of them to Catholicism? Bergoglio's comment is just empty rhetoric unless he is willing to rescind Ratzinger's move to divide the Anglican community by offering positions to priests who cannot abide being under a gay or female (irrational hatred of gays and women run rampant through religion). Will he adopt a Daniel Berrigan/Thich Nhat Hanh "The Raft is not the Shore" view of religion, fess up that Catholics do not hold the truth or even know the truth (which of course they don't) and there is no need to convert to Catholicism to have a chance at heaven? Why divide communities over something that may well not be true?

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  37. @George,

    I think your fact checking may need some fact checking.

    You write that Juan Cole included stats that were not motivated by religious beliefs. How do we know that ANY of the killings in ANYBODY'S stats were motivated by religious beliefs? Juan Cole was noting deaths by nations that are primarily Christian, he never claimed causation.

    Cole noted, "this massive carnage did not occur because European Christians are worse than or different from other human beings, but because they were the first to industrialize war and pursue a national model".

    Also Cole was comparing a tally of about 2 million killed by Muslims to 60 million killed in WWII alone -- so the deduction of the 10 million you mention would not alter the stats much: 2M to 50M.

    >but Cole is unperturbed as it "would not change his original points". <
    Cole is correct -- it DOESN'T change his stats significantly.

    The 70% figure (by NTCT) is given by a US government agency -- they have a "dog in the fight" and cannot be counted on to be non-biased.

    For example, "lumped into the NCTC's definition of Sunni extremists, [are] the Taliban of both Afghanistan and Pakistan".

    So, you have a major war going on in Afghanistan, and I'm guessing that deaths caused by the Taliban are listed as "terrorism" while deaths caused by the good Christians of the US are not -- according to NCTC.

    Even the NCTC finds that the number of terror attacks was 56% for Muslims (Pape found that suicide attacks were less than 50% for Muslims). That is not at all high, given that the world's major superpower is currently engaging in military action in several Muslim countries. If the US went around attacking Ireland and throwing the Irish in Abu Ghraib style prisons where they are stripped naked and tortured -- you might find that the number of IRA style bombers might rise.

    Also, you wrote that the NCTC,
    >pegged the amount of terrorism fatalities caused by Sunni extremism at 70%<

    Not quite. The NCTC said 70% was caused by people who are Sunni extremists -- NOT that extremism itself is the cause.

    Even if we DO find that 70% of terrorism is caused by people who are Muslims, it does not show causation anymore than noting that 9 out of 10 people arrested for theft wear bluejeans proves that wearing bluejeans causes theft.


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    1. That's a poor argument.

      Many Muslim terrorist incidents are performed by people who cite their religion as the cause.

      No one yells "Blue jeans!" but "Allah akbar!" is heard quite a bit more.

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    2. Quite the contrary. Most of the terrorists apprehended cite military reasons, not religion. See a list here:

      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/apr/24/boston-terrorism-motives-us-violence

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    3. There are several strands to separate out.

      I'm not opposed to the notion of a lower U.S. profile and admitting that Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us and the world far more than they have helped. It's also plausible that America is too fear-based, and tends to connect too many dots and overreact to terror. (The D.C. snipers come to mind.) The media helps foment ridiculous overreactions. Perhaps a law-enforcement approach remains the best way to fight terror.

      But Greenwald remains hugely disingenuous here.

      First, far more Muslims kill fellow Muslims per year than American interlopers. Muslim extremists murder Muslims every day. Arabs die at far higher rates from Islamists than they do from the U.S. -- a laughable comparison to even have to make.

      Second, Islam is uniquely violent of all current global faiths, and its treatment of women, gays, ethnic minorities -- not to mention its routine ratification of suicide bombing and jihad -- exist very well, thank you, with or without Western military involvement.

      The notion that our Saudi bases were so invasive as to induce 9/11 is ridiculous. Clearly Al Qaeda cited a melodramatic litany of Western provocations before committing mass murder.

      I find the esteem that Greenwald has for ferreting out the anti-American motives of the Boston bombers execrable. These Islamists who regularly praised Al Qaeda do not represent political dissidents or activists but merely cite Western military sins to justify their own barbarism.

      There is an intelligible difference between indirect civilian losses in a war -- however horrendous and however ill-conceived the war might be -- waged by a democracy to overturn a gratuitous tyranny -- and the rote, peace-time indiscriminate slaughter of unguarded civilians. That our military has the occasional monster does not gainsay the far higher percentage of Muslims who are warped by their very own faith.

      "As the attackers themselves make as clear as they can, it's not religious fanaticism but rather political grievance that motivates these attacks." No, what really happens is that Islam provides the intellectual scaffolding and the populist sheen (think Rolling Stone) for glamorizing thugs who prey purely on innocent civilians, radicalizing and supplying nihilistic, out-sized rage. Said murderers then cite a U.S. crime somewhere else, and all is to be forgiven...

      The distance between the moral cosmos of invading Iraq to topple a mass-murderer -- whatever you think of that decision -- and the moral cosmos of the Boston bombers is vast. The first was a hard-headed call that even some Wilsonian human-rights types favored for deposing a genocidal thug; the latter was a capricious aim to become famous and immortal through ritualized mass murder.

      Greenwald would have Sam Harris and other Westerners be silent in criticizing Islam until there is no longer what the Left construes as a Western military crime to catalog or name. But no conversation gets anywhere if the standard is nobody with motes in their eye may talk.

      The reason Greenwald practices rank hypocrisy vis-a-vis Islam is because, while on the one hand, Greenwald fights to disclose NSA leaks and challenge the U.S. policies on fighting Islamist terror on free speech grounds -- on the other, he will never be seen posting the Danish cartoons on his blog to show solidarity with the principle of free speech being so routinely suppressed around the world -- particularly within Islamic countries.

      It's deafening that he cites free speech to endless attack the lone "imperial power" yet cannot find the spine to denounce speech suppression by a group that might target his own life were he to so remonstrate. (Nine hour detention for a boyfriend hardly counts, given what secrets are routinely being divulged.)

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  38. By the way, please read a commentary on the NCTC by "loon watch" here:
    http://www.loonwatch.com/tag/annual-terrorism-report/

    LW finds that, according to the definition of "terrorism" used by NCTC,
    >the United States or its military cannot commit acts of terrorism. An act becomes terrorism based not on the action but on who commits this action.<

    Also,
    >If an American soldier guns down 16 Afghan villagers (including three women and nine children), that’s not terrorism. Meanwhile, the NCTC counted Major Nidal Hasan’s shooting spree against U.S. soldiers on a military base as an act of terrorism. This, in a nutshell, summarizes the American government’s mentality.<

    Also,
    >[Gareth] Porter estimated that in reality U.S. Night Raids Killed Over 1,500 Afghan Civilians in Ten Months in 2010 and 2011, far outstripping the meager 17 civilians killed by Muslim terrorists as reported by the NCTC.

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  39. While I generally applaud such a middle-ground, polite sensibility, I think this article still gets the debate about Islam wrong. It is not 50/50 but more like 80/20 against. (Moral equivalence is a rather facile pose to adopt in all such disputes.)

    What this author and too few acknowledge is that Sam Harris, Dawkins, and too few others regularly assume risks for their own lives -- and for the lives of their families -- by speaking out forthrightly about Islam. Yes, at times they focus not enough on the moderate middle, but this is because they are placing down a courageous bookend at a time when a pall of collapsing speech rights is falling across the Western world.

    It cannot be repeated enough -- even if it sounds philistine to make so obvious and repetitive a point -- that there can be no "Book of Islam" on Broadway because of legitimate fears of beheading and bombing.

    Broadly urged tolerance for Islam is often nothing more than cowardly capitulation to not confronting its encroachments in law (honor killings, terroristic threatening, mutilation of women, acid attacks, etc).

    What is most infuriating to me is that liberals -- who normally endorse equality for women, gays, and religious minorities -- go studiously quiet when asked to condemn the most egregious violations of all these groups by Muslims. Russia has nothing on the Middle East for maltreating gays -- and the dominant meme that causes this is, yes, Islam.

    There is a concomitant silence among moderate Muslims because of the same fears of bombing and beheading -- or, I should say, even greater fears -- since apostasy is punished all too often.

    I find myself heartened when I see men of courage like Sam Harris and Hitchens (who has now left us) daring to make bold, liberal statements of humanity in the face of an essentially totalitarian creed.

    Yes of course there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who live good lives and humbly use Islam in a piecemeal way to integrate their lives, making no trouble for anyone.

    But everyone tacitly understands that the problem with Islam remains huge -- that it is the largest meme-plex on earth that poses a continued threat to civil order (Egypt, the Middle East, terrorism the world over, suicide bombing).

    America may or may not have been right to go into Iraq -- but it is manifestly clear that we did not go into Iraq to kill Muslims. As Sam Harris has argued, you can agree with everything Noam Chomsky says about American foreign policy and still grasp that Islam sets back many millions of people right from the outset.

    What I admire are the people who have the courage -- in this time of cowardice when even Yale University Press capitulates and does not publish the Danish cartoons -- to actually defend speech rights against the creeping authoritarianism of a totalistic creed.

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  40. I'd also say what rank nonsense Glenn Greenwald and others indulge that a vigorous critique of Islam smacks of racism.

    I'd be first to indict Mormonism as being a far stupider, more repugnant intellectual backwater than Islam -- as lily white as Mormonism can be, it does not suborn violence at the same rates.

    It is so manifestly obvious that public intellectuals like Sam Harris have more integrity in saying something quite brave at this moment in our global evolution that the divisive snickering of a Greenwald.

    Greenwald would simply shutdown the cross-cultural conversation by saying that no one should ever critique the Other -- as if somehow a sane conversation can be had without the mutual capacity to criticize.

    I'd invite Greenwald and his gay partner to move to one of the averagely tolerant Islamic countries in the Middle East -- and then decide if he still finds criticism of Islam to be necessarily racist.

    Why did the Boston bombers inspire such antipathy as to their motives? Hint: It wasn't their espousal of a race-based creed.

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    1. "Mormonism ... a far stupider, more repugnant intellectual backwater than Islam"

      I don't think so. Mormonism is more materialist (in the philosophical sense) than Islam (or Catholicism, for that matter). Its God has a human-like body, as does Jesus. (The Holy Ghost is iffy on that matter). Its God has real limitations, not the Platonist omni-everything of Catholic and Reformed theology.

      In the sense of being down-to-earth, Mormonism beats Islam, Catholicism, and Reformed Protestantism any day.

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  41. Speaking of crazy inspired by religion....
    http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/aug/21/virginity-tests-female-students-indonesia

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