Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Liberalism Is Not Working, And Jonathan Chait Doesn't Understand Marxism

Jonathan Chait and Karl Marx (Chait photo credit MSNBC, taken from Salon. Marx taken from
Note: See Update Below

Over a year ago, I wrote a response to a piece by Jonathon Chait called "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say." While there were some examples of "political correctness" that I thought Chait unfairly treated as unreasonable or oversensitive when they were anything but, the biggest issue I had with the article--in fact, what really made me decide to respond to it--was his awful, horrifically inaccurate, pseudo-historical account of how the worst examples of "political correctness"--censorship, self-righteousness, disregard for the rights of others--are supposedly representative of the far-left as it has existed through history. I won't rehash my argument here, but suffice it to say, Chait's account of leftism throughout history was shamefully wrong. And now, he's treated us with an article called "Reminder: Liberalism Is Working, and Marxism Has Always Failed." The contents are, not surprisingly, unimpressive.

For those who might wonder: I'm not a Marxist. I would never apply a label to myself that contains another person's name right in it--as Noam Chomsky says, that sort of thing belongs in the realm of organized religion, not in any sort of scientific field (and politics is a sort of science, when you get down to it). But even that aside, I have my disagreements and my issues with Marx's ideas. So my problem here is not that Chait criticizes Marx or Marxism--it's that his criticism is hackish drivel, the sort of thing that could have been spat up by a paid propagandist. Which, in a certain sense, is what Chait is. But let's get to the substance, shall we?
Yesterday, President Obama visited Cuba at a moment when his presidency is at an apogee, and international communism is mired in a long, terminal decline. Obama has revived the liberal project, implementing center-left reforms to end the Great Recession, reduce carbon emissions, regulate financial markets, and expand access to health insurance (health care notably having long been perhaps Cuba’s only conceivable advantage relative to the U.S.). Yet, in the United States, liberalism faces greater pressure from the left than at any time since the 1960s, when a domestic liberal presidency was destroyed by the Vietnam War.
We are already dancing the realm of falsehoods. Obama hasn't governed from the center-left, in any meaningful sense of that term. Bernie Sanders is center-left. Obama is center-right--to the right of Nixon, who was hardly any sort of leftist. But Chait's claims of what Obama's reforms, center-left or not, have accomplished is misleading in more important ways.

The recession, technically speaking, has indeed ended. But its effects are still being felt, as many people remain unemployed or underemployed, and wage growth remains slow. The Great Recession has not ended in the way that the Depression had by the time the US had immersed itself in World War II--it's left a scar that has yet to heal. And probably won't before the next recession hits, for that matter.

Obama's regulation of financial markets is another fleeting fantasy--the biggest banks are bigger than ever, and Dodd-Frank is a toothless joke of a reform bill that no one takes seriously. If this is the bold, effective center-left reform Chait has in mind, he's totally delusional. But then, we knew that.

While, again, Obama has put into place limits on carbon emissions, he's also pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would allow companies to sue any participating country for any environmental law that cuts into their profits. For that reason, a slew of environmental groups have condemned it.

And as for health insurance, Chait fails to note the tens of millions who remain uninsured or under-insured. That casts some doubt onto the idea that the US is really at the point that it can boast of having a better healthcare system than Cuba, where everyone has insurance and access to the treatment they need.

So, along with an inaccurate description of Obama as "center-left," Chait has thrown in a series of technically true but incredibly misleading statements that ignore the serious failings of the president's supposed accomplishments. But then again he wouldn't be much of a Democratic Party mouthpiece if he mentioned those.
While socialism remains highly unpopular among the public as a whole, Americans under the age of 30 — who have few or no memories of communism — respond to it favorably. The Bernie Sanders campaign has introduced once-verboten questions about the market system into Democratic Party politics — a challenge Hillary Clinton has beaten back by relying on the residual loyalties of her base rather than mounting a frontal ideological challenge. Meanwhile, Jacobin magazine has given long-marginalized Marxist ideas new force among progressive intellectuals. It seems impossible at the current moment to imagine Marxists exercising power at the national level. But it also seemed impossible to imagine New Deal–hating conservatives — then just a faction within a party — exercising national-scale power after their standard-bearer was routed in the 1964 elections. Yet, a mere 16 years later, their time had arrived. So, on the theory that it’s never too early to start planning the counterrevolution, it is worth reiterating that Marxism is terrible.
Given that Marxists are not at all a presence in high-level US politics (is there a single Marxist senator or congressman?) and New Deal-hating conservatives were, the comparison seems dubious. But we won't linger on that. Let's look at Chait's doubtlessly brilliant arguments against Marxism.
Sanders’s success does not reflect any Marxist tendency. It does, however, reflect a generalized hunger for radical solutions, discontent with the Obama administration’s pace of progress, and a generational weakening of the Democratic Party’s identification with liberalism over socialism.
Sanders's solutions are far from radical--they're the sort of center-left reforms Chait wrongly thinks Obama has enacted. His politics would be completely mainstream in any number of European countries.
It has never been exactly clear what Sanders means when he calls himself “socialist.” Years ago, he supported the Socialist Workers Party, a Marxist group that favored the nationalization of industry. Today he endorses a “revolution” in metaphorical rather than literal terms, and holds up Denmark as the closest thing to a real-world model for his ideas. But, while “socialism” has meant different things throughout history, Denmark is not really a socialist economy. As Jonathan Cohn explained, it combines generous welfare benefits and high-quality public infrastructure with highly flexible labor markets — an amped-up version of what left-wing critics derisively call “neoliberalism.” While Denmark’s success suggests that a modern economy can afford to fund more generous social benefits, it does not reveal an alternative to the market system.
Neoliberalism is an ideology opposed to social welfare programs and corporate regulation, so any ideology or system that values these and promotes them is by definition against neoliberalism. But otherwise, Chait is correct here--Denmark still operates as a market economy. Nor would any Marxist think of Denmark as representing their final goals for society, of course.
It is on politics, not economics, where the influence of Marxist ideas has been most keenly felt. Enough time has passed since the demise of the Soviet Union to allow Marxist models to thrive without answering for communist regimes. In his fascinating profile of Jacobin, Dylan Matthews notes, “The magazine is not going to defend Stalin's collectivizations or Mao's Great Leap Forward or really any other aspect of ‘actually existing communism.’” But the fact that every communist country in world history quickly turned into a repressive nightmare is kind of important.
It is a fact worth looking into that every Communist country has been a repressive dictatorship--"nightmare" is a subjective term that conveniently ignores that a number of these countries certainly look better under Communism than they did under their previous system--if Chait wants to know about a "repressive nightmare," he can just research the Batista regime that Castro replaced.

But the reason that Communist countries have been dictatorships is ultimately pretty straightforward. The first country to turn Communist was, of course, Russia, under Lenin. Lenin promoted new ideas far from Marx's original thoughts--"professional revolutionaries," and a ruling elite that serves as the vanguard of the revolution. These modifications were condemned early on as dictatorial by orthodox Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, who were harsh critics of the resulting USSR. But Lenin's success seemed to lend a certain credibility to Marxism-Leninism, which is why all your favorite Marxist revolutionaries--Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh--subscribed to it.

There are ways in which one can argue Marx's ideas lent themselves a little too easily to authoritarianism--the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat" was a poor choice of words, in retrospect--but the real culprit when it comes to the authoritarianism of Communist countries is Lenin, not Marx.

Chait, not surprisingly, has a different explanation.
Many Marxist theorists have long attempted to rescue their theory from its real-world adherents by attributing its failures to idiosyncratic personal flaws of the leaders who took power (Lenin, Stalin, Mao … ). But the same patterns have replicated themselves in enough governments under enough leaders to make it perfectly obvious that the flaw rests in the theory itself. Marxist governments trample on individual rights because Marxist theory does not care about individual rights. Marxism is a theory of class justice. The only political rights it respects are those exercised by members of the oppressed class, with different left-wing ideological strands defining those classes in economic, racial, or gender terms, or sometimes all at once. Unlike liberalism, which sees rights as a positive-sum good that can expand or contract for society as a whole, Marxists (and other left-wing critics of liberalism) think of political rights as a zero-sum conflict. Either they are exercised on behalf of oppression or against it. Any Marxist government immediately sets about snuffing out the political rights of parties or ideas deemed reactionary (a category that also inevitably expands to describe any challenge to the powers that be). Repression is woven into Marxism’s ideological fabric.
At this point, even Chait's characterization of Marxist governments is questionable. Did Salvador Allende, democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, really "[set] about snuffing out the political rights of parties or ideas deemed reactionary" and "trample on individual rights?"

Chait's claim that Marxism doesn't care about individual rights is, once again, wrong. Marx himself wrote a work defending freedom of the press, and Rosa Luxemburg, for instance, vehemently defended "general elections...freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly...[and] the free battle of opinions." She also stated that "Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters." Does that line up with Chait's picture of Marxism?

Marx did critique the prevailing idea of individual rights, but that wasn't because he preferred tyranny, it was because he thought the standard idea of liberal rights emphasized separating and protecting people from one another, whereas he believed the greatest freedom came from people interacting and cooperating with one another, not existing in an isolated fashion. He did, however, note that "Political emancipation [i.e. ensuring individual rights] is, of course, a big step forward."

Moving on in Chait's piece:
Political correctness borrows its illiberal model of political discourse from Marxism, and it has mostly played itself out on university campuses and other enclaves where the left is able to impose political hegemony. (This is why some liberals who don’t agree with political correctness, but also don’t want to criticize it, dismiss it as nothing more than harmless college prankery.) Just this week, Emory University’s president promised to use security cameras to track down and prosecute students who wrote “Trump” in chalk — chalking being a normally acceptable medium for sloganeering — after student activists pronounced the word a threat to their safety.
I've already addressed Chait's arguments about the association between political correctness and the far left, so I won't rehash that. The example he cites at Emory University does seem, from what I've heard about it, to be a silly instance of political correctness, so I won't disagree with Chait on that.
Of course, since students can easily access hurtful campaign news with more modern communication tools than chalk, the application of p.c. logic to the presidential campaign requires action beyond the walls of the ivory tower. Trump’s campaign has given the illiberal left the chance to import its methods to the broader stage of a presidential campaign. Left-wing groups have set out to prevent Trump from delivering public speeches. The tactic first appeared just over a week ago in Chicago, where several hundred University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members signed a letter asking the university to cancel Trump’s speech, and a demonstration planned to, in its words, “#‎SHUTITDOWN.” There is some dispute as to whether the demonstrators caused Trump to cancel his speech, or whether he used them as a pretext. What is indisputable is that a faction of the left has made shutting down Trump rallies its goal. A version of the tactic reappeared in Arizona, where activists blocked highway access to a Trump rally, though police managed to clear them. Sanders, to his credit, has decried such efforts, but influential left-wing intellectuals have defended the practice in essays with headlines like “How the people of Chicago silenced Donald Trump.”
While I disagree with the petition (I don't want to empower the people running a public university to decide which candidates they will allow to use their facility based on ideology), shutting down Trump's rallies through protests is not anti-free speech. Trump is running for president, and he could win--and he would be an awful president. Furthermore, the movement he's created has led to people being hurt by Trump supporters--which Trump has never really disavowed. Trump is not the only candidate I would like to see encounter this degree of protest, but he certainly deserves it, and if it takes disruptive protests and blocked highways to keep Trump from becoming president, it's entirely worth it.
The efforts to shut down Trump reflect the growing influence of Marxian politics, and these ideas merit study. A Jacobin column defends “impair[ing] the circulation of Trump’s hate-filled message.” What about free speech? Well:

Free speech, while an indispensable principle of democracy, is not an abstract value. It is carried out in the context of power disparities, and has real effects on peoples’ lives. We can defend freedom of speech — particularly from state crackdowns — while also resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.
Free speech is for people on the wrong end of “power disparities” — which is to say, the oppressed and their allies, or, put more bluntly, the left. Free speech is not for a candidate who “scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed.” Importantly, this principle denies the right of free speech not only to Trump but also to the entire Republican Party (whose analysis of poverty, crime, terrorism, and so on constitutes scapegoating of the oppressed) but also large segments of the Democratic Party as well. It is highly unlikely that the illiberal left gets its hands on the machinery of the federal government within our lifetimes, but if it does, repression would be a foregone conclusion.
This is a wildly inaccurate summary of the article, which explicitly opposes state censorship, including in the excerpt Chait quotes. In case that example wasn't clear enough, here's another quote from the article:
If anything, the protesters who nonviolently shut down Donald Trump should be heralded as guardians of democracy. They did not call for the state to prevent Trump from speaking, and rightly so.
And yet Chait goes on to fantasize that the "illiberal left" would engage in harsh repression of dissent if they got their hands on "the machinery of the federal government."
In the meantime, obviously, Trump poses a far more dire danger than his would-be censors. But it is important not to succumb to the panic that the far left is inculcating around Trump. Trump would threaten American democracy if elected, but all evidence suggests his election is highly unlikely. Trump is disliked by a massive, landslide majority. A majority actually fears him. There is no strategic reason to believe that preventing Trump’s election requires direct confrontation or anything other than normal campaigning.
"Highly unlikely?" According to RealClearPolitics, Clinton leads, on average, by 11.2 percent. That's a decent margin, but it could easily change--Michael Dukakis led George H. W. Bush by seventeen percent in a poll released after the Democratic National Convention in 1988, and went on to get trounced in the election. Toward the beginning of this month, Clinton's lead was only three percent, and there's no reason it couldn't decrease again. Chait ignores that Clinton, too, is widely disliked and has seen her unfavorable ratings continually increase. Plus, she is not a good campaigner--while Sanders's spirited and energetic campaign helps explain his rise in the polls, undoubtedly he's been able to gain ground because Clinton has failed to convince people that she, like Sanders, is serious about change. It's hardly impossible for Trump to win the election, particularly if we have an economic downturn or terrorist attack, neither of which is impossible.
In fact, there is more reason to believe that confrontation helps Trump than to believe the opposite. A poll found the Chicago conflagration made Republican voters, on net, more rather than less likely to support Trump. A reporter I know on the trail met two voters who told him they switched from John Kasich to Trump in response to Trump canceling his speech. That reporter also conveyed the same impression described by Seth Stevenson: Trump’s barking ejections of protesters at his rallies are their emotional apex, the one point in the generally rambly and often boring soliloquies where Trump can demonstrate the atavistic qualities of command. It stands to reason that supplying evidence for Trump’s claim to be the victim of political correctness helps rather than hinders him.
The protests may help rally Republican primary voters behind Trump, but he needs Independents to win the general election, and people who are looking for a president that would unite the country are not likely to back someone whose rallies are widely protested. Protests can help bring attention to issues, and if voters fully realize how damaging Trump's rhetoric about Muslims and immigrants is, many will be reluctant to support him.
But the efforts to shut down Trump are not the product of calculation — or, at least, not a calculation to prevent Trump’s election. The justifiable fear Trump engenders provides the far left, which has no immediate prospects of enacting its program democratically, with the thrilling opportunity to bring the struggle from the ballot box to the streets. “Sometimes a combative scrum — not the marketplace of ideas — is the face of democracy,” exults Jacobin. “Severe threats to equality often push people to act militantly, marshaling their own speech to ward off their authoritarian foes.” It even admits that blocking Trump by electing his major-party opponent is not the point, urging on “a fight for real democracy — not just trusting [the] candidate who supports the very neoliberal policies that helped birth Trump.” Matthews may credit Jacobin with “winning the war of ideas on the left,” but Jacobin’s notion of winning this war seems to be a bit more literal.
One wonders how Chait knows that the protestors are not calculating how to stop Trump's election--is he a mind-reader, perhaps? And Chait seems to clutch his pearls at the idea of any sort of fight that involves the masses, but that's how change happens; the Civil Rights movement involved disruptive protests, and riots, in fact, which went much further than what we've seen against Trump. Like many mainstream liberals, Chait doesn't understand that when institutions are failing the people, the means to correct course are often messy and unruly, and always have been. His reaction is reminiscent of the "white moderate" Martin Luther King addressed in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Nor do realistic advocates of social and economic equality have any reason to share or accept the left’s desperation. The popular, sitting liberal president has enacted the most important egalitarian social reforms in half a century, including higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes on the poor, and significant new income transfers to poor and working-class Americans through health-care reform and other measures.
Is that so? Funny, then, that we haven't seen some steep decrease in income inequality--in fact, it's gotten worse under Obama. Clearly, Chait's liberalism is not enough to correct the nation's course.
All of this has happened without the alliance with white supremacy that compromised the New Deal, or the disastrous war that accompanied the Great Society. The case for democratic, pluralistic, incremental, market-friendly governance rooted in empiricism — i.e., liberalism — has never been stronger than now. What an odd time to abandon a successful program for an ideology that has failed everywhere it has been tried.
Chait is truly out of touch to think the liberal program is successful at this point. After almost two terms of Obama, including two years where he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, we still have a serious problem with income inequality that does not seem to be getting better, despite Chait's rosy assessment. Further, Obama is currently pushing a massive trade deal that would empower corporations to challenge environmental laws and labor laws by suing countries that enact them and taking them to court in front of a panel of unaccountable appointees. This is part of the great liberal program that's going to save us?

And, of course, Chait doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to Marx's ideas. There are certainly countries where socialist reforms that go far beyond what American liberalism endorses have had a positive impact, such as in Latin American countries. Even the most purist form of socialism has had its shining moments of success in Catalonia during the Spanish revolution, where it lasted until it was crushed out by force.

Marx's ideas are certainly flawed in places, and his predictions have often failed to come true. But in terms of moving toward public ownership of the means of production, he was absolutely onto something, whether Chait likes it or not--and Chait's beloved liberalism is not working, at least not for much of the population. We need at least some steps in the direction Marx was talking about, even if it's just a few baby steps like Sanders proposes (i.e. moving toward social democracy as exists in some European countries). Otherwise, someone like Trump--or someone much worse, even--might be inevitable--someone who could kill not just liberalism, but democracy and the idea of rights themselves.

Update--I have revised my opinion on protests that aim to shut down Trump rallies; I now agree with Chait that these are both ineffectual and problematic from a free speech perspective. However, his critique of Marxism is still without merit, and his attempt to associate protests motivated by backlash to Trump's own anti-free speech tendencies and racism with Marxism is baseless. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Discussion On Islam and Extremism

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow blogger name Damo, about a topic I've written about a few times before: Islamic extremism. Damo and I represent essentially the two sides of the prominent controversy over Islam: I argue that Islamic extremism does not reflect some way in which Islam is fundamentally different from other religions, whereas he argues that it does. I believe this is an important discussion to have, and I was glad we were both able to keep it civil and, I believe, present our respective sides in an effective and well-though-out fashion. Below is our full conversation (also available on Damo's blog).

Damo: Hi...Could you start by telling me a little about yourself and give a brief outline on what you see as the motivation behind the behaviour of Islamic extremists.

Me: I’m a college student who’s interested in politics and current events, which I blog about. I’ve followed both sides of the debate over Islam for a while now, so my opinions are based on the arguments I find most convincing.

When it comes to Islamic extremists, I think their motivations vary. With attacks like 9/11, anger at western foreign policy is what I’d say the major motivation is. When it comes to a group like ISIS, I think there’s a certain appeal that’s similar to a street gang’s appeal in the inner city: people are attracted to violence and being part of a group because of bad social conditions (poverty, dictatorship, etc.). Certainly they use an interpretation of Islam to justify their acts, but I think the interpretation attracts people based not on authenticity but on the life it offers.

Damo: I don’t deny that foreign policy, poverty and dictatorships play a role in the Islamist/Jihadist cause. I do however maintain that these grievances are often viewed through a religious lens and that the primary concern of Jihadists is what they believe Islam commands. So whereas I think you would say that Islam is an excuse or justification for violence, I would say that in many cases it is the root cause.

If poverty and dictatorships where enough to create this mind-set, how do we explain the many physicians, scientists and engineers who have become Jihadists? How do we explain the thousands of western Muslims who have decided to abandon their lives of relative comfort and emigrate to a country they probably couldn’t point to on a map, to participate in the most sickening atrocities it’s possible to imagine? A landmark study in 2003 conducted by Dr Marc Sageman, as reported in the New York Post, found that “two-thirds of al Qaeda’s members had a university education” and that “the vast majority of terrorists came from solid, middle-class backgrounds and their leadership hailed from the upper middle class.”

For the most part, these are not poverty stricken people whose desperate last resort against persecution is terrorism. These are people that fundamentally believe in the superiority of Islam, Sharia and Muslims, who view women as unequal, who believe in murdering adulterers and homosexuals and who aspire to create an Islamic theocracy by any means necessary.

Me: You’re correct that many jihadis have an education and are not themselves poor. With the westerners who have joined ISIS, I suspect that for many feelings of social isolation and a desire to be part some sort of cause.

In any case, a worldwide survey of Muslims by Gallup found that radical Muslims (who approved of 9/11) cited political rather than religious reasons. While certainly some kind of tribal mentality comes into play when well-educated Muslims become jihadists (as they see themselves as responding to grievances suffered by other Muslims), I think that mentality has more to do with human nature than anything in particular about Islam.

You’re right that many jihadis do want theocracy, but we can still only explain that by looking at social circumstances. Obviously not all Muslims interpret Islam in the way jihadists do; what explains the difference? In my view, it often comes down to the social circumstances of the jihadists and their own personal desires and grievances.

Damo: I see, so your view is that social isolation and a desire for a cause explains a compulsion among some number of Muslims to behead non-Muslims, to hurl gays from rooftops and stone adulterers to death. What role (if any) do you think is played by Islamic doctrine and Islamic jurisprudence in this behaviour in it’s condemnation of non-Muslims, gays and apostates in the first place? In other words; do you think there’s any connection between the way groups such as ISIS act towards apostates, for example, and what the Quran, Hadith and Islamic Law say about apostates? Again, you are right to say that there are often political grievances at play but let’s not forget that religion and politics tend not to be separable in Islam the way that they are in other religions. For that reason, I take issue with describing many of these issues as purely ‘political’.


Lee Rigby’s killing is often described as politically motivated on account of his killer’s diatribe against the bombing of Muslim lands by the West. However, describing this as politically motivated is superficial and ignores the explicitly religious underpinnings. It ignores the multiple times that Muslims, Allah, Mohammed, Sharia and the Quran were mentioned in the killers short monologue. It ignores that Adebolajo had described himself as a “soldier of Allah” and had stated his intent to martyr himself. It ignores the fact that there is only one factor that would cause a British born Nigerian to identify Iraq and Afghanistan as “our lands” and it ignores the following quote from Adebolajo:
We are forced by the Quran in Surah At-Tawbah and in many many ayat throughout the Quran that we must fight them as they fight us.”
This is a person who believes he is connected to Muslims around the world by the Ummah and as such will instinctively take the side of his Muslim brothers in any and every conflict and without any consideration given to the atrocities and abuses they routinely commit as further illustrated by this quote:
So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands?”
Of course not all Muslims interpret their religion this way because I would suggest that Muslims are just as capable of ignoring or reinterpreting specific religious doctrines as followers of the other Abrahmic faiths do. Unfortunately though, this scriptural cherry-picking is rather more difficult in Islam as it has not gone through a reformation the way Judaism and Christianity have and the Quran is claimed to be the infallible, unalterable word of God rather merely a product of divine inspiration.

Me: Groups like ISIS certainly turn to Islamic scripture when it comes to who they target and kill. However, it’s important to note that jihadi groups by no means follow some purist interpretation of Islamic scripture; for instance, many have engaged in suicide bombing though suicide is considered forbidden in Islam, as in the other Abrahamic faiths. ISIS itself has been accused of violating Islamic law by a number of Muslim scholars who wrote an open letter to its leader. ISIS does have a religious motivation for targeting gays, but the reason they do so is not because they interpreted Islamic scripture in the most honest way possible, but rather because they interpreted Islam in the most violent way possible. As for moderate Muslims, there are varying interpretations of what Islamic scripture means when it refers to apostates and unbelievers, so I don’t think Islam is any more inherently problematic than Christianity or Judaism.

Damo: Unless I’m misunderstanding something here, it seems that your argument has shifted somewhat. It appears that rather than maintaining that Islam is a pretence or an excuse for political grievances, you are now acknowledging religious motivation for the acts of Islamic radicals like ISIS, but you merely dispute that they have the correct understanding of Islam.

Suicide is indeed forbidden Islam, but that’s a different action than what Islamists refer to as Istishhad, a concept for which the Quran and Hadith promise vast rewards. Jihadists refer to these acts as “Martyrdom Operations” rather than the pejorative term “Suicide Attacks” as the whole point is to die in the act of killing infidels which they view as a homicidal, not suicidal act.
Whether or not these people have the correct understanding of Islam is not for me to say. My only point is to show that their understanding of Islam is the primary motivation for their behaviours and agendas and they reiterate this vocally at every turn. The below quotes are from failed suicide bombers interviewed for Pierre Rehov’s documentary Suicide Killers:
“Those who blow themselves up get a good bonus from God. They marry seventy-two virgins. When I put on a belt I was not afraid, on the contrary. I was excited. I felt I was the most powerful person on earth. I really did want to be a martyr.”
“Our final goal is to kill the enemies of Islam. All the enemies of Islam. Killing them all is a holy act.”
When a Muslim carries out an act which could be directly attributed to multiple commands in the Quran, which is justified by the Hadith and the life of Muhammed, which is argued by Islamists as being Islamically justified and for which the perpetrator himself cites explicitly religious motivation, I do often wonder what more evidence would be required to convince people of the religious nature of the act. And I note that this dismissal of a religious motivation is never adopted when that act is something essentially unproblematic such as abstinence from pork products or praying towards Mecca.

It’s a little concerning that you would highlight the vagueness and ambiguity of Islam in defining apostates – people who it also seems to suggest have committed a crime worthy of death – as an indication that Islam is no more problematic than Christianity or Judaism.

Me: My stance hasn’t shifted, although perhaps I haven’t always been totally clear. If not, I apologize for that. While I don’t deny that Islamic extremists subscribe to interpretations of Islam that justify violence and cruelty, I think these interpretations come not from some good faith attempt to figure out what Islam’s texts really promote, but rather they come from a desire to find a religious justification for violence of an often political nature. When it comes to ISIS targeting gays, for instance, I suspect that the idea that homosexuality is part of “Western values” leads them to find an interpretation of Islam that endorsed killing gays.

You make an interesting point about non-problematic religious practices. I would say these are engaged in as part of a way to make life meaningful; people feel that they are committing themselves to something when they have to make sacrifices for it. While the specific ideas for what sacrifices to make (not eating pork, Hajj, etc) certainly come from Islamic scripture, the fundamental desire for some kind of sacrifice is largely part of being human. Similarly, while extremists may get their ideas for who to target from Islamic scripture (based on their personal interpretation of it), their fundamental desire for violence comes from social circumstances.

As for apostates, perhaps it will be less concerning if I elaborate. Many Muslims argue apostasy was about turning against Islam in its early days and siding with those persecuting Muslims (similar to treason), and so people who simply convert from Islam should by no means be put to death.

While I certainly won’t argue that there are parts of Islamic scripture that certainly contain violence and what I would call barbarism, I don’t see this as fundamentally any different than Christianity or Judaism, and I don’t think that Islam’s scriptures are uniquely illiberal
Ultimately, I think violence and terrorism can be directed by religious texts, but I do not think the motivation itself can come simply from a text.

Damo: Ok thanks for the clarification. So I assume, using your explanation that we should essentially view the 61% of British Muslims that want homosexuality punished as a crime, to be bad faith actors that are deliberately misinterpreting their religion due to a distaste for western values brought about as a result of our foreign policy? Similarly this rather charitable interpretation would also include the 83% of Pakistanis that support stoning adulterers to death as well as the 1 in 5 Muslims in Austria who believe that apostasy should be a capital offense?

We are talking about hundreds of millions of Muslims that you seem to suggest are intentionally misrepresenting ‘true’ Islam to fit their preconceived ideas about how homosexuals and apostates are representative of the West. At what point do we simply accept that these people believe exactly what they claim to believe? How much more demonstrable of their beliefs do they have to be before we do so? And how does a deliberate misrepresentation of the doctrine of martyrdom serve the interests of the suicide bomber who is now obligated to kill himself as a result of this supposed wishful thinking?

I know the internal debate in Islam about the definition of apostasy, but there are also debates about what constitutes “turning against Islam” and “persecution” of Muslims. We are talking about a vague and interpretable text which is the supposedly inerrant word of the creator of the universe, and this ambiguity is a very real problem which rather predictably results in the deaths of people whose only crime was exercising a sceptical approach to the faith they were indoctrinated into. The legal systems of 23 Muslim-majority countries consider apostasy a criminal act and since Islam’s inception there has never been a system of Sharia in which capital punishment was not mandated for apostates. All four major schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence mandate the death penalty for apostates. I would suggest this indicates something of a difference between Islam and its comparative religions, if not necessarily scripturally then certainly in the way Islam is viewed and practiced by many of its followers.

If you don’t mind me saying it appears that you seem to doubt that Muslims actually believe their religion to be true and simply use it as an outlet for natural human instincts and for registering disappointment with societal and political situations. Would that be accurate?

Me: I should first clarify that when I’ve been talking about Islamic extremists I’ve only been talking about violent jihadis so far (eg ISIS, al-Qaeda). If you want to talk about Muslims who aren’t jihadists but support the death penalty for gays or apostates, that’s a slightly different issue from my standpoint. I wouldn’t say that these people support what they do because of hatred toward the west, but rather I’d say it has to do with the political and economic history of their countries of origin; you mention British Muslims, for instance, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants raised in households run by immigrants and living in communities of immigrants.

If we look at the history of Muslim countries worldwide, it’s no surprise that many aren’t terribly advanced; we often find histories of colonialism, violence, dictatorship, etc. If you compare the Christian countries of Africa with the Muslim countries (given that they have similar backgrounds), you find the Christian countries are pretty similar in their societal attitudes and practices.
In terms of violence occurring throughout Islam’s history, I would say that is accurate; it is also true of Christianity and Judaism.

Your understanding of my view of what Muslims believe and how they use their religion is a little off, but on the right track. I don’t doubt that Muslims, including extremists and ultraconservatives, sincerely believe in the tenets of their religion; I simply think the reasons they believe in their specific interpretation of their religion have to do with political and economic factors. Many don’t recognize this; it’s what I would consider something that happens on an unconscious level.

Damo: That’s actually quite an interesting point and one which I’d not previously considered. I suppose it could well be true that socio-economic and political factors unconsciously influence the interpretation of Islam that different Muslims subscribe to. However the major variable here is the religion itself. I think your explanation relies to some extent on the assumption that Islam is essentially a peaceful religion that is being misrepresented, albeit unconsciously, by Muslims who believe their interests are served by understanding it as a violent, intolerant ideology. I think this may be an assumption too far.

Your point about illiberal attitudes held by large numbers of British Muslims being due to a kind of historical cultural baggage is one which I would largely accept. However, I would not divorce Islam from that culture the way you seem to. Islam is not only an intrinsic part of many of these cultures, but also the dominant part.

If socio-economic factors were enough to explain Islamism, why don’t we see an influx of radicalism and religious intolerance from the Ahmadi Muslim community who not only suffer the same socio-political climate as many orthodox Muslims but are also relentlessly persecuted and enthusiastically murdered by them? I’d suggest the difference in behaviour is the result of a difference in what behaviour each group believes Islam deems permissible. I’m afraid your explanation still doesn’t do much to dissuade me that the primary motivation of Jihadists and Islamists is their understanding of Islam and their devotion to a Prophet they believe to be the perfect role model of behaviour. To caricature Muhammad or publically criticise Islam in a book, film or magazine in virtually any country in the world today is to put your life in serious jeopardy. This represents an attack on free expression unrivalled by any other religious group and in accord with an understanding of what Islam mandates regarding idolatry, aniconism and blasphemy.

Me: I wouldn’t really call Islam a fundamentally peaceful religion; while there are definitely Muslims who interpret Islam in such a way as to lead a peaceful life, I don’t think that the scriptures and historical practice of Islam itself focus on peace or nonviolence as a primary value. I don’t disagree with people who say that there are things in the Qur’an which are quite violent, I just don’t think that separates the Qur’an from the Bible or Torah.

As for your statement about Islam being intertwined with culture, I very much agree with that; I don’t think that the culture of British Muslims or any other Muslims is separate from Islam, but I would say it’s a relationship that works both ways; while their culture may often be influenced by Islamic ideas and scriptures, their culture also influences their interpretation of those scriptures and of Islam itself.
Your example of the Ahmadi Muslims is interesting, but I think it actually illustrates a point I’m trying to make. The Ahmadi Muslims believe in the Qur’an and the Hadith as do other Muslims, including violent jihadis, but clearly they interpret them differently and thus there is a different result. Why is that the case? I wouldn’t be able to say, but I imagine one might find an explanation by looking at the history of the Ahmadis.

Let’s look at it this way: going back several hundred years, we had, in Europe, a sort of Christianity that was very different than what exists at least in western Europe today: it was much more violent and fundamentalist. Surely, people were bringing up their children to believe in this religion, so how is it that western Europe is so different today in terms of its religion? I think that the explanation is because of the economic, political, and scientific shifts that have happened. So, in cases where we have violent and fundamentalist versions of Islam, I think there must be a similar explanation in terms of the economic and political situation and history of the regions, and often I think we can find it.

Would these regions look different (not necessarily better, but different) if they had never been introduced to Islam, but rather some other religion or no religion at all? Certainly. But the reason they are so backward is not ultimately because that is what Islam requires, but rather because of their situations and histories.

Damo: Arguably the central theme of the Quran is a hatred and distrust of unbelievers. This is not true of The Bible or the Torah. The violence in the Quran is proscriptive whereas the violence in the Bible is largely descriptive. There is no Quranic equivalent of the New Testament. There is no Quranic equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. There has been no reformation towards a more moderate understanding within mainstream Islam the way there has been within Christianity and Judaism, and those that attempt to orchestrate one are labelled ‘Uncle Toms’, ‘porch-monkeys’ and ‘lapdogs’ by thinly veiled bigots, both Muslim and Non-Muslim alike. Please don’t take this as a defence of Christianity or Judaism. I think all three Abrahamic religions are dangerous and divisive nonsense, but specific differences within these religions matter a great deal and should not be dismissed as unimportant.

I agree with your statement regarding Islam being virtually inseparable from culture in many instances and it being a two-way street of influence, but we have to acknowledge the religious imperative of wealthy, educated, privileged Muslims who have been born and raised in secular, tolerant, pluralistic, democratic societies, enthusiastically abandoning lives of relative comfort to live under a severe 7th century theocracy. They are not victims of poverty. They are not uneducated. They are not mired in social hardships. In many cases they are converts to Islam and are also therefore not affected by this sense of cultural baggage you mentioned previously.

Ahmadi’s believe essentially the same doctrine as other Sunni Muslims but the difference in behaviour lies in a specific addition which is their belief in a Messiah whose purpose was to end religious war and to enjoin love and peace among all people. This one difference in belief makes all the difference in the behaviour its followers – people that suffered identical socio-economic climates as other Sunni Muslims from the same regions as well as considerable levels of violence, persecution and intolerance towards them.

I believe that the moderation of Christianity in Western Europe can be easily explained almost exclusively by the occurrence the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. Secularism is and was a guarantee of removing the influence of fundamentalist religion over political power. This is not the case with Islam where we have entire countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan governed by the precepts of an explicitly political religion. Again, this Enlightenment needs to take place within the Islamic world but any attempts to do so are currently being resisted on all sides as an inherently racist project.

Me: I don’t know that the Enlightenment and scientific revolution can entirely explain the secularization of Western societies, though you can argue it got the ball rolling, so to speak. I certainly agree some kind of Enlightenment is needed with countries like Pakistan, Iran, and particularly Saudi Arabia (in my view, the worst theocracy on earth and one of the worst human rights violators). However, Islam and secularism have been introduced to each other before; while it’s looking increasingly bad now, Turkey has historically been pretty secularist while overwhelmingly Muslim, and Iran’s prime minister was a secularist democratic socialist before he was deposed and replaced with the western-backed Shah. So it’s not as if secularism has never occurred in Muslim societies.

I don’t agree that all reformers are viewed as native informants; Malala Yousafzai is certainly promoting values that should be widely embraced and has received praise from leftists. The reformers you were referring (I assume people like Maajid Nawaz and Asra Nomani) have been attacked more for their views on foreign policy and the policies they’ve endorsed for Western governments to take toward their own Muslim populations. I think it’s widely agreed some kind of transformation is needed in many Muslim societies.

Damo: When you say you don’t see Islam as being any worse that Christianity or Judaism do you mean scripturally or in practice? Do you think that Islamic doctrines related to jihad and martyrdom have any analogous principles in Christianity as far as scriptural encouragement and associated real-world consequences?

When I speak of reformers I’m talking about people who are attempting to bring about a reformation of Islam and the way that it is interpreted. Malala Yousafzai is an incredibly courageous and humbling person doing vital and commendable work, but she is not engaged in a project of Islamic reform. Transformation is not just required in some Muslim societies, the religion itself and the approach to understanding it needs to be reformed. I can’t think of a single person attempting to undertake this important and difficult work, or indeed supporters of this project, who aren’t routinely labelled House Muslims, Zionist shills, neo-cons or otherwise dismissed as having a racist agenda. Can you? Either, all Muslim reformers and their supporters really have a racist/bigoted/Islamophobic agenda, or there is smear campaign against these people by those who resist their work out of either stupidity or malice. And when those leading the charge of opposing these people and their work are spiteful liars and laughable hypocrites such as CJ Werleman, Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, Chris Hedges, Mo Ansar et al, I can hazard a guess as to which one of those assumptions is more accurate.
We have a global problem with the number of Muslims who believe things that are completely incompatible with modern Western democracy. Whether or not they are inspired to think this way by foreign policy, gang mentality, cultural baggage or socio-economic issues; the fact is that 237 million Muslims want those who leave Islam to be killed. 281 million Muslims want Sharia as the law of the land and support whippings and amputations. 289 million Muslims agree with stoning adulterers to death. Other than a project of attempted global Islamic reformation, how do you think these views and their behavioural implications should be challenged?

Me: When I say I don’t see Islam as being worse than Christianity or Judaism, I mean both scripturally and in practice. The worst war crime of the 21st century so far (the US-UK invasion of Iraq) was done using Christianity as an explicit justification (by Bush). Hardliners in Israel often use scriptural justification for denying the Palestinians a state and expanding settlements. There are plenty of examples of doctrines in the Bible that encourage violence (including in the New Testament) and a number of saints are martyrs, so it isn’t hard for Christians to find justification for violence and martyrdom.

There are of course plenty of people who promote a nonviolent understanding of Islam without being attacked by the left. I would still say Malala is one of them, as she promotes the idea that Islam is compatible with, and even encourages, women’s education, civil rights, etc. There’s also, for example, Mubin Shaikh, who Werleman has praised.

One of the best approaches I think the West could take in dealing with the doctrines you mentioned is to stop supporting their spread. Currently, we consider Saudi Arabia a close ally despite the fact that it is the worst theocracy on earth and a state that is eager to spread its Wahhabi ideology as widely as possible. Western foreign policy like drone strikes, invasions, and supporting dictators in Muslim countries also only helps radicalize more Muslims. While this approach wouldn’t cure the damage that has already been done (or eliminate all promotion Islamic fundamentalism, of course), I take a dubious stance toward any civilizing missions, given how poorly those have worked out previously.

Damo: Bush is certainly a religious nutcase and born-again buffoon who is said to have made some incredibly moronic statements with reference to God telling him to remove Saddam but I think it’s a serious stretch to imply that the Iraq War was motivated by Christian belief. I’m pretty sure the UK, Australia, Poland, the Kurds and the 35 other countries which formed the coalition forces were not involved due to their understanding of Christian scripture and a belief to be acting under the instruction of God. The United States is a country with secularism mandated by its constitution. I don’t see how this is in any way equivalent to the actions of Islamic Jihadis whose long term goal is the imposition of a global fascistic theocracy. You’re correct regarding fundamentalist Israelis but again I don’t see that as being at all comparable to a worldwide jihadist movement intent on global domination carrying out 164 deadly attacks last month alone in 26 different countries.

I also have serious trouble with your comparison between the martyrdom of Christian saints and the concept of the Shaheed in Islam. I suspect that the difference between someone being put to death (Christianity) and somebody being celebrated for dying in the act of jihad and the military expansion of Islam is what does it for me. As Sam Harris has pointed out:
“There’s a difference between being fed to lions… and having a doctrine of holy war which tells you that it’s incumbent on every Muslim man to fight in defence of the faith and that there’s no other certain way to get into paradise.”
I also suspect that difference manifests itself in the modern world by the difference in the proclivity of Christian Palestinians (for example) and Christian Pakistanis to run into crowded synagogues and mosques and blow themselves to pieces. Islam simply fetishizes dying for God in a way that Christianity & Judaism don’t. Islam is the only Abrahamic faith which holds up a violent conqueror, warlord, beheader and taker of child brides as the perfect role model for behaviour. Again, I am no friend of Christianity but this is an extremely consequential difference that should be acknowledged.

I completely agree that Saudi Arabia is the most nauseating theocracy on the planet and that our governments’ alliance with them is a moral disgrace. However, it seems to me that the understanding of Islamic law that they enforce on the populous of that society has little to do with their suffering at the hands of Western foreign policy. Rather it is a direct implementation of religious law dictated by the Quran. There’s a reason thieves have their hands cut off and the reason is that it’s the punishment mandated by Allah in verse 5:38 of the Quran. It is not the West that is radicalising Saudi Arabia. And I wonder what alternative could be offered in responding to the actions of terrorist organisations if we abstain from using drone strikes. In other words, what would have been a more effective and less radicalising approach to killing Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi (for example) than using the most precise military technology at our disposal?

Me: I don’t mean to say that the goals of Bush or religious Zionists are necessarily comparable to the goals of violent jihadists, just that the violence is (and, similarly, is totally unjustified). There were certainly other motives than religion that motivated the invasion of Iraq, but we know that the head of the US (the country leading the invasion, in effect) viewed religion as a justification. Similarly, the 9/11 attacks had more motives than just religion, but it would be entirely fair to view them as religious violence.

Harris is mistaken if he believes that martyrdom is the only sure way to get to paradise in Islam; good deeds, faith in God, etc. are also viewed as sufficient. In terms of the veneration of Muhammad, it’s important to remember the emphasis Judaism and Christianity put on Moses, a figure whose atrocities (as described in the Old Testament) are easily worse than many acts ascribed to Muhammad.
You’re correct that Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalism does not stem from western foreign policy. By no means is that the only factor that can lead to religious extremism. My point was that the West has backed them and enabled them to spread their Wahhabi ideology, which is an important factor in how radical Islam became such a problem in the Middle East. As for drone strikes, I did not so much have in mind those against known terrorists (though those too raise questions about due process and civilian casualties) as much as “signature strikes,” which target groups of people basically for looking suspicious.

Damo: So I think we’re reaching more of an area of disagreement here now. I think it’s a serious stretch to describe the 2003 intervention in Iraq as ‘religious violence’ or to compare it in any way to the attacks of 9/11. The jihadists on 9/11 used civilians to kill civilians by hijacking commercial airliners and deliberately using them to inflict as many casualties among innocent people as possible.

The motivations and justifications of the hijackers and the architects of this atrocity alternate between explicitly religious, and political grievances viewed through a religious lens. Bin Laden was an opponent of American secularism. He was a supporter of killing people for not following certain religious beliefs. His agenda, and the agenda of every jihadist organisation, is a global theocratic state governed by Islam. He was an opponent of the American involvement in the liberation of (Catholic) East Timor from (Muslim) Indonesian occupation. He was an opponent of American military’s defence of Saudi Arabia in the 90’s on the grounds that the proximity of non-Muslim forces to Muslim holy sites was an offence to Islam and that the Saudi government’s invitation to the U.S was a “violation of Islamic law”. He was an opponent of American support for Israel on the grounds of a religiously inspired anti-Semitism and a revulsion for Jews occupying a land he deemed to be designated to Muslims by God. These are the reasons for the 9/11 attacks and anyone calling them political is missing the overtly religious nature of these complaints.

I’ve mentioned the differing agendas in these two acts because I believe intentions are morally significant. It matters on some crucial level whether or not you intend to kill civilians or whether you take measures to avoid killing civilians. It matters whether you intend to attempt a liberation of a terrorised people from the tyranny of a vicious psychopath or whether you intend to engineer the circumstances that will foist an even more fascistic, oppressive form of governance upon the world as a whole. To imply that these religious motivations are comparable to the motivations of either the U.S or the 39 other countries that made up the coalition forces in Iraq (including Kurdish Muslims) would be a bit much. And to state that it is an example of religious violence inspired by Christianity on account of Bush’s moronic statement about God talking to him, is to fail to recognise night and day differences in the motive and agenda of each group and their acts.

I think we’re splitting hairs a little bit regarding martyrdom being the only sure way to get to paradise. Admittance to heaven (Jannah) in Islam operates essentially on a points system. A way of bypassing this and guaranteeing a place ‘in the garden’ and enjoying the vast rewards bestowed only upon martyrs is to “slay and be slain” in fighting for the cause of Allah. I repeat, Islam simply fetishizes dying for God in way that Christianity & Judaism do not and the consequences of this difference are significant in the real world.

Of course Moses is held in high regard in Christianity and Judaism. That’s not the same thing as Muhammed being revered as a perfect human being and role model whose behaviour should be emulated. This is a difference that cries out to be acknowledged. Do we have a global problem of Christians emulating the behaviour of Moses in the Old Testament? I’d suggest not. Furthermore, considering that Moses is also revered as a prophet in Islam, it doesn’t make much sense to offer him as an example of Christianity and Judaism’s moral equivalence with Islam. Islam venerates Muhammed and Moses. However, I take your point that there are many instances in which Christian scripture is at least as morally dubious (if not more so) than Islamic scripture. The difference again, is in the specific doctrines of Jihad and Martyrdom and the willingness of Christians to disregard much of their religion’s immoral texts – a willingness that is significantly less forthcoming among the global Muslim community. Ergo, I view Islam as a bigger real-world threat and more deserving of scrutiny and contempt at this period in history than I do Judaism or Christianity.

Again, I completely agree that western support for Saudi Arabia is a moral disgrace and likewise I agree that there are many valid criticisms one could make of western foreign policy. However I think any potential solutions to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are obliged to address the doctrines of Jihad and Martyrdom within Islam. Again, I offer the example of Palestinian and Pakistani Christians who suffer the same political and socioeconomic conditions as their Muslim counterparts yet do not have a seemingly limitless supply of people eager to blow themselves to pieces in crowds of innocent civilians.

Me: Intentions are certainly morally significant; I don’t think anyone disputes that. However, we have to examine the real intentions behind the Iraq War. Invading and occupying Iraq (illegally) meant killing anyone who (justifiably) attempts to resist this occupation. The motives of the invasion had little to do, I believe, with any humanitarian impulse toward the Iraqi people and much to do with a hatred of Saddam Hussein, who was no doubt a brutal tyrant, but who the Bush administration proved willing to destroy a country in order to eliminate. The invasion and occupation did involve killing people deliberately, including people who were justifiably trying to resist an illegal occupation of their country. It’s hard to spin that as “good intentions,” or anything other than, well, murder. Certainly there was more than religion at play here (particularly for the other countries involved), but it is clear that Bush viewed religion as part of his justification.

You may well be right that Islam places a greater emphasis on martyrdom than Christianity or Judaism; however, I think this is of limited significance. Extremist Christians and Jews seem to have no problem finding ways to justify violence, and violence is what we are really concerned about, not martyrdom.

As for Moses, you’re right, of course, that he is a prophet in Islam too. My point was merely that Muhammad is by no means a uniquely violent or problematic figure among the Abrahamic religions. As for people emulating him, we certainly do have extremists in Israel, including in the government, who show a total disregard for Palestinian lives because they believe they are entitled to their Holy Land, by divine decree.

If we take your point about Jews and Christians (I think you mentioned Christians in particular) being willing to overlook the parts of their scripture that are problematic, and assume, for the sake of argument, that the issue is that Muslims are less likely to do the same, we still have to ask why that would be. The fact the religions are different doesn’t really explain it, since we’re trying to figure out why one group seems to interpret its religion more liberally on the whole (again, assuming your point for the sake of argument), and I don’t think the Bible has any sort of disclaimer noting that its adherents can feel free to ignore the parts they don’t like. Furthermore, we know that there are plenty of Muslims who don’t adhere to problematic religious doctrines. I suggest the reason behind why a person is able to ignore the problematic doctrines in their religion has a lot to do with the surrounding culture they’re raised in, their socioeconomic circumstances, etc. While culture is certainly influenced by religion, it is also influenced by many other things, as we have to acknowledge that the culture of say, Saudi Arabia is pretty different from the culture of Albania or Turkey, for instance, despite the fact that they all adhere to the same religion.

Damo: We could argue about the intentions of the Bush administration and the intentions of coalition forces in Iraq all day long but I doubt we will ever get to the point where we can draw an accurate parallel between these intentions and the intentions and actions of ISIS (or other jihadist groups for that matter.) Bush and Blair’s agenda was not to install a fascistic theocracy over the people of Iraq in which the dictates of one religion are enforced at gunpoint upon the whole of society and where any transgressions against religious law are met with death. This is the agenda of ISIS and every other jihadist group in the world. This is a clear moral distinction that I think should be acknowledged.

There is only one religion in the world that makes credible threats of death against anyone who satirizes, criticizes or lampoons its prophet. Free speech on this issue is dead and it has been killed by people claiming the right to enforce Islamic law on free society. To publicly criticize Islam anywhere in the world today is to put one’s life in serious danger and to surrender oneself to excruciating security provisions. No other religion is acting like this on the world stage and this is another massive distinction that you seem to be going out of your way to avoid acknowledging.
Concern about “violence” is simply far too vague. It’s not only a concern about violence, it’s a concern about supremacism, fascism, human rights violations, persecution of minorities, theocracy, inequality, illiberalism and global terrorism. Islam is currently the primary offender by far and the Islamists and Jihadists reiterate their religious imperatives at every turn.
“This war is fundamentally religious” – Osama Bin Laden
“I and thousands like me have forsaken everything for what we believe in. Our driving motivation does not come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer. Our religion is Islam.” Mohammed Siddique Khan (7/7 bomber)
Judaism and Christianity are older religions than Islam and have undergone reformations which Islam has not. Christianity and Judaism have suffered a long and relentless collision with secularism in a way that Islam has not. Again, blaming culture and socioeconomic opportunity ignores the fact that the majority of jihadists are middle-class and educated. The first British suicide bomber in Syria was from my home town, where he was raised and spent the majority of his life. 2 of the 5 Muslims convicted of plotting to detonate fertilizer bombs in Bluewater Shopping Centre, the Ministry of Sound night club and in British Synagogues were also from my home town. We know what kind of Islam Mr Bin Laden would be following if he were born into a millionaire family – because he was born into a millionaire family. We know that Mohammed Atta would still have flown a plane into the World Trade centre even if he was educated at a western university because he was educated at a western university. Again, if lack education and socioeconomic opportunity affect ones likelihood to become a jihadist then it is only to reduce that likelihood, not to increase it.

It appears that I’m re-treading the same ground here so I think maybe we could start thinking about wrapping this up now if you agree? Happy to give you the last word.

Me: Sure, I’m ready to wrap things up here if you are. I appreciate you giving me the last word. I’ll just offer my response to what you’ve said and if you want to respond you’re, of course, free to, but if not it will stand as my last word.

Ultimately, while of course Bush and Blair’s goals in invading Iraq were far less deranged than those of ISIS, they were not valid reasons for the war, either. Bush’s motivation (I don’t think Blair would have ever gone to war against Iraq if Bush hadn’t) was a desire to protect US interests and a hatred of Saddam Hussein (probably given that Hussein tried to kill his father). He viewed Hussein as being some sort of figure of Biblical evil (this can be seen through his weird references to “Gog and Magog” when he tried to persuade the President of France to join the coalition). While his goal wasn’t theocracy, these are clearly not valid reasons to illegally invade and occupy a country, imprisoning or killing anyone who (legitimately) resists occupation. He viewed religion as a motivation for this. Again, the violence and destruction of the occupation was not accidental; while certainly civilians were unintentionally killed, part of an occupation means capturing or killing anyone who attempts to resist the occupation, and when the occupation is not justifiable, killing those who resist is flat-out murder. Thus, Bush was willing to engage in mass murder for religious reasons.

With all due respect, I have to feel you’re being a bit hyperbolic in terms of the dangers of publicly criticizing Islam. I testify to the fact that, in the US, criticism of Islam and Muslims (including of the stripe that I’m guessing you would probably agree with me is totally repugnant and bigoted) is a dime a dozen, and I can’t think of any Americans who have been killed because they were a prominent critic of Islam. Furthermore, there are plenty of instances of Christian terrorists killing people who never did anything to them (abortion doctors, gays, Jews, etc).

That’s not to say you don’t have any point whatsoever. I would imagine that drawing a crude picture of Muhammad does put your safety in more danger than drawing a crude picture of Jesus. However, that is only one aspect of the religions. The fact that there are fewer Christians willing to kill people who draw disrespectful pictures of Jesus than there are Muslims who would kill you for drawing a disrespectful picture of Muhammad (assuming that that’s true) doesn’t prove that, on the whole, Islam is a worse or more damaging religion. There is a significant population of Evangelicals in the US who, using their religion partly as justification, take an extremely callous attitude when it comes to foreign policy and readily endorse international aggression and terrorism. Currently, many of them have lined up to support Ted Cruz, who has endorsed the idea of carpet-bombing Syria, as you may have heard. I don’t know of a Muslim country that poses the sort of threat to world peace the US does, particularly when its Evangelicals come into power (as they did with Bush and would do if, God forbid, Cruz were elected president).

One of the things I think it’s easy to do in conversations like this is to conflate two separate things: (1) how bad or good a religion is in terms of its tenets, holy texts, etc. and (2) how bad or a good a religion is in terms of its impact on the world today and the attitudes of its followers in comparison to those of other religions’ followers. Part of the reason I’m not a fan of commentators like Sam Harris is because I think that they put aside the differences between these two issues, or insist that, for any religion, (2) is more or less entirely determined by (1). That’s simply false; otherwise, how would we explain the radical differences in the actions of Martin Luther King and George W. Bush, despite the fact that both were devout Christians and used religion to justify their actions?

I’ll lastly address your point about jihadists. You are right–many are wealthy or upper-middle class. However, jihadists are a curious case because they are often not really devoutly religious in any normal sense of the word. Prisoners of ISIS have said that there was little discussion of the Qur’an, for instance, and people who have joined ISIS have been found to have, right beforehand, purchases books such as “Islam for Dummies” and “The Qur’an for Dummies.” Similarly, the 9/11 hijackers went to strip clubs before their attack. These are people who for whatever reason are attracted to the idea of having a cause to die for, being a part of something bigger, etc., and they use a cherry-picked version of Islam to serve their purposes. As you might remember, Osama bin Laden was found to have pornography stashed at the compound where he was killed. These are not devout Muslims in any normal sense of the word; they certainly use Islam to justify their actions, but they use it to justify the actions they WANT to engage in (murder, mayhem, terrorism). Let me address the issue of (2) first. I think Christianity is a much bigger threat to the world today than is Islam, because of the power the US holds and the influence of extremist Christian doctrines in the US. The US has engaged in heinous actions over and over, using Christianity as its justification (Reagan also did so, justifying his policies as part of a fight against godless communism). Of course, it’s not really fair to blame all of Christianity for these sorts of things, just as it’s not fair to blame all Islam for the bad actions done in the name of Islam (of which there are plenty, and which certainly go far beyond jihadism, as we can both agree).

Now let’s look in terms of (1). I’ll admit I’m not extremely familiar with Islamic scripture, though I am familiar with a lot of the bits of it that are used to argue that Islam is a horrible, violent religion. While there are certainly parts of Islamic scripture that I would readily call barbaric, I think at times verses are misconstrued or taken out of context. For instance, it’s often overlooked that “disbelievers” does not simply mean non-Muslims, but refers to polytheists who had actively persecuted Muslims. From what I do know of Christian scripture, there’s plenty there that I would call barbaric and reprehensible. This goes from the obvious and extreme violence in the Old Testament into the New Testament, where Paul deems people who lack “natural attraction” and those who disobey their parents as worthy of death. So I would not say Islam is uniquely bad in regards to its core doctrines and scriptures.
Damo writes a blog that can be found at He can be found on Twitter at @concretemilk.

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Refresher Course on How Bad George W. Bush Was

With Donald Trump as the current front-runner, there seems to be an understandable impulse, as I've discussed before, to see him as an unprecedented danger. The idea of a President Trump has good reason to be terrifying, as there are few ways he could be less qualified to hold the office. He's a power-hungry madman with the vocabulary of a twelve-year-old who gets D's in most of his classes, and the self-discipline of a pig that's high on crack. It's easy to see why people would think that Trump as president would be the worst thing our country has ever seen.

But I think to maintain that idea--or at least to think he would be far and away our worst president--requires either irresponsible ignorance or a bad case of amnesia. The latter is forgivable. It's been seven years since George W. Bush left office, and a lot has happened since then. We've definitely seen Republicans that make some of his ideas look moderate, even liberal, in comparison, and his gaffe-prone clownishness doesn't have the same pathological vibe to it that the sheer insanity we've heard from Republicans in the years since does.
Bush (taken from Blacklised News)

But don't let that fool you. Bush was an absolute disaster of a president, and that's the nice way to put it. Before you get yourself into a frenzy about how Trump would be the American Hitler, and how even Bush looks good in comparison, you need to keep in mind what Bush really was. I won't cover every bad thing in his presidency--it would take a whole book to do that justice, and some have been written--but I want to go through his presidency from beginning to end and bring back to memory some of the highlights, or lowlights perhaps, of his reign.

As we know, Bush took office in January of 2001, after a closely contested election where he lost the popular vote but was handed the presidency on a silver platter by five conservative Supreme Court Justices. Not long after the new president had taken office, he began to receive information about the threat posed by that Saudi rogue who had been behind the embassy bombings, Osama bin Laden. Kurt Eichenwald writes:
By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
Bush and his puppet-master vice president Dick Cheney were not interested. They were more focused on the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had supposedly tried to kill Poppa Bush. Bin Laden, Bush's neoconservative administration believed, was just trying to distract the US; Saddam was the real threat.

Intelligence agencies saw through this idea as war-hungry gobbledygook it was:
“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.
The administration was uninterested, and the pattern continued, climaxing with the infamous "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" brief barely more than a month before the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration took no meaningful action as they continued to be frantically warned about impending threats. Years later, the head of the 9/11 commission, a Republican appointed by Bush, would say the attacks were preventable and that people in the government had failed to do their job properly, seeming to implicitly point a finger at the Bush administration.

We don't have too much time to linger on this point, but suffice it to say that within the first year, Bush failed dramatically to take account of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Had he, perhaps the 9/11 attacks wouldn't have happened; that seems to be the view of the chair of the committee he appointed. Before the first year of Bush's term had ended, 3,000 Americans had died because his administration was obsessively focused on Iraq.

Bush's response to 9/11 was hardly better--and I'm not even referring to the Iraq War. Not yet. Shortly after the attack, the US began to bomb Afghanistan. The bombings may have looked like a strong response, but they created widespread destruction, and were carried out in an unyielding, chillingly coldblooded fashion. When the Taliban offered to turn over bin Laden in exchange for an end to the bombing campaign and evidence that he was behind the September 11 attacks, the US paid no heed.

Because Afghanistan was (and is) a poor country, and aid workers were reluctant to venture into areas where they might be blown to bits, UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson called for a pause in the bombing, warning that continuing it could result in millions of deaths from starvation. No pause happened. While we don't know the death toll with any precision, Jonathon Steele of the Guardian wrote that "As many as 20,000 Afghans may have lost their lives as an indirect consequence of the US intervention." He wrote that in May of 2002.

On the domestic front, within a couple months of the terrorist attacks, Bush signed the PATRIOT Act, which I believe we all know pretty well. This gave the government new abilities to spy on the populace, theoretically to prevent terrorism. It would often be used in ways that went far beyond the prevention of terrorism.

The law would later be used, for instance, to prevent the Humanitarian Law Project from teaching a couple of groups on the State Department's terrorist list how to nonviolently resolve conflicts, as this was considered a form of "material support" for these groups. Noam Chomsky referred to this as "the first major attack on freedom of speech in the United States since the notorious Smith Act back around 1940."

The Bush administration quickly revealed itself to be either dishonest or grossly incompetent (though we could gather that much from its handling of the earlier mentioned briefs) after 9/11. Said Condoleezza Rice, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would...try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane[.]" In fact, the threat of suicide hijackings had been known for some time.

Of course, amidst all of this, the Bush administration had not forgotten their foreordained enemy Saddam Hussein, who Bush viewed as a figure of Biblical evil. Accordingly, the administration launched a campaign of misinformation and propaganda to scare the public into supporting a war of aggression against Iraq. Jon Schwarz of The Intercept lists a few instances of deception (hyperlinks his):
  • Former Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off the push for war in August 2002 by claiming: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” Cheney’s speech had not been vetted by the CIA, and John McLaughlin, the CIA’s deputy director, shortly afterward told Congress that the likelihood of Iraq initiating a WMD attack “would be low.” Another CIA official later recalled that the agency’s reaction to Cheney’s speech was, “Where is he getting this stuff from?”
  • The Bush administration said that aluminum tubes Iraq had tried to import were “only really suited for nuclear weapons programs” — even as Bush himself was being told the State Department and Energy Department believed (correctly, of course) they were intended to be used as conventional rockets. 
  • Bush declared in his 2003 State of the Union address that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” even though his administration had been repeatedly warned this was dubious (and it turned out to originate with crudely forged documents). 
  • Colin Powell doctored intercepted Iraqi communications for his U.N. presentation to make them appear more alarming.
The administration and the press also successfully bamboozled the people into thinking Saddam was linked to 9/11, somehow, despite the incoherence of the idea that a secularist dictator was coordinating with an Islamic fundamentalist group.

It's hard to overstate how horrific the ensuing war was. It was, and is, the worst crime of the century thus far; it turned a country where Sunnis and Shias intermarried into a country so sectarian that Sunnis were drawn to a fanatical gang of thugs like ISIS.

It's hard to know how many people died as a result of the (totally unnecessary) war. More conservative estimates--naturally, the ones that are more acceptable to report--have put the toll at around one hundred thousand, a bloodcurdling enough number. But those numbers have faced criticism for being too low. One survey, done by the British group ORB, put the total number of war casualties at 1.2 million.

I would be remiss, of course, if I failed to mention the massive amount of torture the US performed during this same period of time, under Bush. While Bush may have been misled by the CIA, given that he was in charge of the country, that hardly stands as a good excuse, and merely shows the danger of electing someone so grossly unqualified for the office. The torture went far beyond waterboarding at Guantanamo, as the recent torture report revealed.

It should also be noted that indefinite detention without charge went far beyond Guantanamo. Michael Haas writes:
The Bush administration decided to use six main detention facilities--two in Afghanistan, three in Iraq, and the one at Guantanamo Bay. Estimates of those held in American-run prisons in Afghanistan range from 1,300 to 2,000. Journalist Nir Rosen estimated in March 2008 that some 24,000 were being held in American-run prisons in Iraq without charges. [Bolding mine.] Together with the 274 at Guantanamo, the total worldwide was about 27,000 during mid-2008.
In addition, there have been at least eleven secret prisons run by the CIA. As of August 25, 2006, some 14,000 persons were being held secretly in detentions worldwide, though 14 were sent to Guantanamo in 2007.
Bush's VP Dick Cheney
(taken from Celebrity Net Worth)
Back in the United States, in 2005, another disaster struck--Hurricane Katrina. Unlike 9/11, Bush could hardly be blamed for failing to take measures to prevent the hurricane, but his response was yet another major failure in leadership. His response was inexcusably delayed, as he failed to cut short his vacation despite the catastrophe that had struck. The actions of Bush and his aides were panned by a later report done by Congressional Republicans, which, according to a Washington Post article, laid "primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council, according to a 60-page summary of the document obtained by The Washington Post."

Bush's leadership was hardly any better when the economy began to turn sour toward the end of his years in office. While the blame that can be put on him for the recession is less than a lot of Democrats would like to think--the policies that led to it went back to Clinton, Reagan, and even Carter--Bush had certainly not done much to change direction, and his pointless tax cuts and pointless war had not left the government in a good place to deal with a failing economy.

When Lehman Brothers was clearly in trouble, Bush was faced with a decision about what to do. As usual, he made the wrong one. James Mann writes:
Bush and [Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson made the decision to let Lehman Brothers fail. On Monday, September 15, 2008, the firm declared bankruptcy.
After Lehman's bankruptcy, as Bush put it, "all hell broke loose." Credit immediately froze up as Wall Street firms refused to lend to one another or to Main Street businesses. Other major financial institutions were thrown into jeopardy as short-sellers drove stock prices down. On the day the bankruptcy was announced, the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 500 points.
When Bush didn't fail to do anything to address the crisis, the actions he did take were often hardly praiseworthy, as with the wasteful TARP bailout that gave no-strings-attached money to irresponsible financial institutions while neglecting troubled homeowners. Neil Barofsky, who served as the Special Inspector General of the program, was ultimately so disenchanted he wrote an entire book attacking TARP. The Daily Beast quotes him as saying that "we've fixed nothing. Nothing."

Not at all surprisingly, this all caught up to Bush, leading to John McCain's decisive loss in 2008 (after mostly running on continuing Bush's policies), and a 22% approval rating for the man himself when he left office. Bush doesn't seem to have been any sort of evil man, but he was horribly unprepared for the position he got elected to--a rich frat boy with no real understanding of the world, and a hollow-eyed soul-eater as his vice president.

Obviously, it's not as if Trump is different, let alone better, than Bush in every way. But before you fear that he would be far and away the worst president ever, keep in mind that compared to Bush, he does get some important things right: he condemns the Iraq War, he criticizes Bush for failing to prevent 9/11, and he rejects many of the economic policies Bush continued. While Trump's use of hatred and xenophobia may be Hitler-esque, it's hard to say it outdoes Bush's invasion of another country that poses no threat in terms of emulating the Austrian-born dictator.

Trump is far from an ideal candidate, and far from the sort of person who should ever be in the White House. But to fail to remember how truly awful Bush was is no help to us going into the future.