Let me first be clear: contrary to some of my critics, I don’t think that religion is the sole cause of Islamic terrorism. Obviously there are other factors: disaffection, the need to feel part of something greater than oneself, innate aggression of young males, and, yes, the mishandling of many Middle Eastern situations by the West. But I will maintain that as far as Islamic jihadism goes, religion is a critical part of the mix, perhaps to the extent that without it we wouldn’t have terrorism of the sort that strikes down not only Parisians, but many other Muslims, Yazidis, and gays. I argue this on several grounds, including the behavior and writings of the terrorists themselves, the fact that terrorism is wedded to particular faiths with particular doctrines, and the fact that terrorist groups like ISIS behave in many ways as if they truly believe religious doctrines, and then act accordingly.
The question to ask is this: if you could rerun history so the entire world were free from religion, would everything in the Middle East still be the same? Would the Paris attacks, the 9/11 bombings, the slaughter of Yazidis, and so on, still have occurred? Of course I have no answer to this: all we can do is infer motivations from what terrorists say and how they behave.
Scott Atran has spent much of his career interviewing terrorists, and, like Robert Pape, has come to the opposite conclusion: that religion and its doctrines, in particular Islam, play at best a minimal role in terrorism. Some of Pape’s analyses, conclusions, and statistics have been called into question (see here, here and here, for instance). Atran has argued that religious beliefs aren’t really like “normal beliefs,” in that they aren’t seen by many as “true” or “false”, and therefore can’t motivate terrorist behavior (see here, for instance). That’s an argument that Maarten Boudry and I see as false (see here). The widespread Muslim beliefs in martyrdom and the attainment of paradise are apparently important factors in motivating terrorism and suicide bombing, as evidenced by the terrorists’ own statements and actions. I’d also recommend, as I do often, that those who believe religion is unimportant read Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which imputes much of modern terrorism not to Western missteps, but to a hatred of the modernity and licentiousness that Muslims see as pervasive in the West.
In a new Guardian article,”Mindless terrorists? The truth about ISIS is much worse.“which does make some good points, Atran continues to imply that religion plays no role in Islamist terrorism, although his words sometimes appear to contradict that. He first notes that ISIS is using, and using effectively, tactics from an old Al-Qaeda manual that recommends striking “soft” targets. But he then goes on to argue that religion isn’t part of the mix. Here is Atran going after (without naming it) what must surely be Graeme Wood’s famous article in The Atlantic: “What ISIS really wants“, which has now garnered nearly 15,500 comments. As you may recall, Wood, having interviewed many terrorists and their sympathizers, emphasizes the importance of religious doctrine—particularly the reinstatement of a Caliphate—as a prime motivator for ISIS. Atran:
Simply treating Isis as a form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism” masks the menace. Merely dismissing it as “nihilistic” reflects a wilful and dangerous avoidance of trying to comprehend, and deal with, its profoundly alluring moral mission to change and save the world. And the constant refrain that Isis seeks to turn back history to the Middle Ages is no more compelling than a claim that the Tea Party movement wants everything the way it was in 1776. The truth is more complicated. As Abu Mousa, Isis’s press officer in Raqqa, put it: “We are not sending people back to the time of the carrier pigeon. On the contrary, we will benefit from development. But in a way that doesn’t contradict the religion.”
A way that doesn’t contradict the religion! Doesn’t that mean anything? Well, here Atran offers one statement by an ISIS press officer as evidence against what Wood says. And perhaps the truth is more complicated than just the desire for a Caliphate, but where does the “profoundly alluring moral mission” of ISIS come from? Whence ISIS’s desire to “change and save the world?” Both come from Islam and the brand of ascetic and outsider-hating morals that infuse the faith—the same morality emphasized by Lawrence Wright.
Near the end, Atran’s exculpation becomes clearer:
As I testified to the US Senate armed service committee and before the United Nations security council: what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.
In other words, ISIS is, as Atran notes, a big “band of brothers (and sisters)”. Atran may be right in part about the attractions of excitement, of battle, of joining with others who are like minded. And surely many ISIS fighters aren’t theologically astute! But that doesn’t matter if the overlords who recruit and direct them are motivated by religion. And surely many of the deeds of ISIS (see below) are not only motivated by Islamic doctrine, but also show that that doctrine, and the notion of Paradise, are real beliefs, not quasi-fictional imaginings.
Further, think about this: young men (and women, too) all over the world are into things “cool, glorious, and persuasive”. The classic motto is, of course, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” though that trio is off limits to Muslims. But why is it only Muslims who channel this natural adventurousness and rebelliousness into murder and barbarity? Why don’t they just play football? Now you could argue that the 60’s leftists (I was one) channeled their rebelliousness into politics, but what we did was demonstrate, speak, and write—we did not kill others or go on suicide missions. Why the difference between us and the young men and women who flock to ISIS? Could it be—religion? (Most radicals of the Sixties weren’t exactly religious.)
When I read Atran’s brand of Islamic apologetics, and when I think of the terrorists’ cries of “Allahu Akbar” that accompanied their Kalashnikov fire, and when I ponder why young men out for just “a good time, a cause, and brotherhood” would do these deeds knowing they were surely going to die (and probably believing that, as martyrs, they’d attain Paradise), and when I think of the other deeds they do—the slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, apostates, atheists, and gays, and of the way they treat women like chattel, raping their sex slaves and stoning adulterers—when I think of all this, and the explicitly Islamic motivations the terrorists avow, I have to ask people like Atran: “WHAT WOULD IT TAKE TO MAKE YOU ASCRIBE ANY OF THEIR ACTIONS TO ISLAM?”