ISIS and Islamophobia
On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Ben Affleck clashed in a heated debate over 'Islamophobia' and criticism of Islam. The core of Harris’s argument was that “we have to be able to criticize bad ideas” and that criticizing Islam, which he termed “the motherlode of bad ideas,” was not akin to “bigotry towards Muslims as people.” Affleck argued that it was, and that the overrepresentation of jihadists and Islamists was not an accurate cross-section of the “more than a billion people” who practice the Islamic faith. Maher and Harris argued that standing up for liberal principles—freedom of speech, freedom to practice any religion, and rights for women—and pointing out how they are lacking in the Muslim world are important positions to take. They also argued that supporting the ‘true reformers’ within the Muslim world to “change it” is impossible without drawing links between Islam and the actions of at least some of its followers.
Regardless of what one feels about Islam or its followers, this is an important debate to have. Harris argues that the majority of Muslims are some form of fundamentalist—either jihadists, who use violence to export Islam, or Islamists, who use their own form of subversive democracy to export Islam, or conservatives, who do not identify with the first two groups, but contribute to the suppression of liberal values by espousing Islamic ideology and using it to overpower women and minorities.
Affleck, on the other hand, argues that the majority of Muslims around the world do not support the killing of apostates or the ideology that terrorist groups such as ISIS endorse. He argues that the actions of such groups are overrepresented in the western media, and that, while important and problematic, they have very little to do with the broader Muslim community.
While the debate may be important in discussing the effects of a doctrine on a population, or in comparing the similarities and differences between countries that share the same religion, it is ultimately insignificant when discussing terrorism. Religion has very little to do with the roots of terrorism, ISIS, or the Taliban.
It is, however, an incredibly effective recruiting tool and means of propaganda, particularly in the Greater Middle East. Where it lacks, however, is sowing the seeds for terrorism in an otherwise healthy community. There must already be widespread discontent, poor economic and societal prospects, and general dissatisfaction in the community for terrorism to become an enticing option. Only then can religion become a successful recruiting, organizing, and propagandizing tool. To attempt to understand what drives people to join groups such as ISIS, we should not be looking to the Quran (which explicitly states its opposition to innocent murder) or at the abstract collection of teachings that is Sharia law.
The roots of every terrorist group, espousing any religion, in any country, in any era, ever, have been definitively and without a doubt, political and economic in nature.
Leaving loved ones, friends, and society behind, in order to take up arms and accept the certainty of an oncoming death, are not actions that are taken quickly, nonchalantly, or even on the basis of religion. In countries where economic prospects are good and constitutional liberalism exists, terrorism is not an enticing prospect, as joining a terrorist group has very little payoff under such conditions.
Maher and Harris would probably argue that Islamic teachings do not allow for constitutional liberalism and thus do not foster an environment where terrorism isn't enticing. Many have argued this, as do Harris and Maher when they claim that Islam subjugates minorities and that “Muslim countries” do not espouse liberal values. However, this argument is simply untrue.
Firstly, it is important to understand what Maher means by the term “Muslim countries.” To suggest that the entire “Muslim world” has the same values and that Islam is the common factor, is, as Affleck says, “an ugly thing to say.” Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Turkey have strong institutions that fully encourage and endorse constitutional liberalism and the values that Maher holds so dear—those of free speech, rights for minorities, and safeguards for women. Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion at UC-Riverside, in his response to some of Maher’s previous statements, points out that placing Turkey or Bangladesh in the same category as Iran or Saudi Arabia, simply because they follow Islam, is outrageous. The values held by these communities are so incredibly distinguished and unique that to generalize on religion is simply bigoted. Even setting Saudi Arabia and Iran—seen as the two most conservative and “extreme” Muslim countries—as equivalents is incorrect. The Wahabi’ism and Salafi’ism of Saudi Arabia could not be more different from the form of Shia Islam followed in Iran.
Ben Affleck is right when he tells Maher and Harris that what they are saying is bigoted and narrow-minded. He is right in stating that most Muslims do not endorse the actions of groups such as ISIS. Yet even he ignores the real problem: the politics and economics of the places where terrorist group are formed and ferment.
ISIS, for example, was formed in 2003, at the start of the Iraq War. Anger at the invading American forces, the resulting war itself, the complete breakdown of the economy and society, and the failure of any succeeding government to establish order, were all factors that led to the creation of the group. It was not created because Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and self-titled Caliph, is a particularly devout Muslim. Rather, Al-Baghdadi saw the power vacuum as an opportunity to gain power and influence, and the unemployment, anger, and discontent meant he had a steady stream of willing followers who were disillusioned with the failure of all active forces in Iraq. ISIS then saw the same conditions in Syria following the start of the Civil War in 2011 and expanded operations there. ISIS used and continues to use Islam for propaganda and as a recruiting and organizing tool. Islam, however, has almost nothing to do with the roots of the organization. The same is true of the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, Al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and every single other terrorist group.
That is not to say that Islam is not important to these groups and their followers, as it clearly is. Islam is secondary, however. Islam acts as a legitimizer, justifying the horrendous actions of such groups. Any Islamist dictator, most notably Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan in the 1980’s, has used Islam for the exact same purpose. Once a power vacuum exists and a particular group rises to ascendancy, Islam becomes a tool to consolidate support.
Dropping bombs in Iraq and Syria is not going to help the situation. It is only going to create more chaos, anger, and resentment at the American forces, much like drone strikes do in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Providing weapons to rebel groups or insurgencies against governments that the U.S. doesn’t like will not help either, whether it's anti-al-Shabaab groups in Somalia, the Free Syrian Army against Assad (a group that is now widely associated with Khorasan, al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates) or the Mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1979.
If the U.S., a Western democracy, or any other country wants to help fight terrorism, it should stop trying to bomb militancy out of existence. Drones, air strikes, and ground invasions all make the situation far worse. Instead, the fight against terrorism should fight its roots. Developing strong civil and economic institutions, promoting employment and growth, and supporting governments that work to establish constitutional liberties are probably the most important efforts any country can make. Ceasing to arm any group in any conflict and refusing to work with governments that stifle civil liberties regardless of their usefulness to, or relations with, the West, are other important steps that countries can take.
The rise and success of ISIS is terrifying. Of this there is no doubt. To label Islam as the culprit, however, is incomplete and narrow-minded. Much like the claim that “they hate our freedoms,” it tells only part of the story. Understanding the birth and development of groups like ISIS, which seem to be popping up over a wider geographical area and with higher degrees of brutalism, is the first step in successfully tackling the severe problems that the people in these areas face.