If you ever wake up and find yourself starring in a horror movie, be sure to remember the wisdom of young King David: Always Sever The Head: “Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath . . . and cut off his head with it” (1 Samuel 17:51). The Bible and the horror movie genre are in agreement on this matter. When you’ve got the big scary monster on the ground, knocked out and seemingly dead, don’t be an idiot! Don’t turn your back on him! Don’t start glorying in your newfound safety! Because everybody knows that the big bad monster always comes back to life, for one last terrifying encore—wherein he kills off some minor character of sentimental significance before getting properly (and more permanently) killed by the protagonist.
But seriously, the monsters are the only ones beheading people lately. Even so, the sheer barbarism of ISIS brings into sharp contrast the three greatest moral achievements of the Enlightenment: the abolition of public execution by torture, the abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of women. As the philosopher Susan Neiman rightly observes, in Evil in Modern Thought (2002) and Moral Clarity (2009), these three developments are a standing rebuke to cynics who maintain, with the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes 1:9, that “there is no new thing under the sun.” These three precious, and to some extent incomplete, achievements are proof that moral progress has happened before, and that it can happen again.
Does this mean that moral progress is inevitable, that history is in some sense progressive? Of course not! But it does mean that progress is possible. And possible is all we need for hope. Just as the stars shine brightest on the darkest of nights, the good in this world is often most visible in the presence of great evil. The Dark Ages didn’t go anywhere. They’ve been lurking in the shadows all along, like some big and hungry beast. Now they’re back, back with a vengeance, and growing bolder by the day.
I first understood the purpose and meaning of terrorism on the morning of September 12, 2001. Someone had scrawled “KILL ALL ARABS!” on our Baltimore street during the night. This is it, I thought, this is precisely what those Al-Qaeda fuckers want. And I refuse to give it to them.
At a certain point in the not so distant past, we started saying that everyone who has a problem with Islam is “Islamophobic” and everyone who has a problem with homosexuality is “homophobic”. To some extent this made sense. After all, many of the most virulently anti-gay guys I knew in high school were out of the closet and openly gay by the age of 25. It’s obvious now, but only in retrospect, that their bizarre hate-on for gays was really just a kind of self-hatred, a fear of their own repressed desire for some hot man-on-man action. The term “homophobic” fits guys like this like a glove.
But it doesn’t fit guys like Ralph (not his real name), the super-conservative, Christian fundamentalist father of a gay friend of mine. Ralph thinks homosexuality is wrong. He’s totally against gay marriage. And he would never watch Modern Family. Yet he really loves his gay son and totally accepts his son’s partner. I’ve seen Ralph with them: and he’s genuinely kind and openly affectionate with both of them. There’s some real love there. And definitely no fear. Describing Ralph’s anti-gay “thing” as a manifestation of “homophobia” is, well, bullshit. The shoe just doesn’t fit.
The term “Islamophobic” is fraught with similar difficulties. If we’re talking about a guy like Alexandre Bissonnette, the shooter who killed six people at a Quebec City mosque last weekend, it fits like a glove. Bissonnette wasn’t radicalized by traumatic first-hand experiences with terrorism or war; he was radicalized by fake-news sites like Rebel Media and Breitbart News. The term “Islamophobia” applies equally well if we’re talking about the anti-Muslim hysteria that flares up from time to time among hicks in homogeneous hamlets like Hérouxville. After all, these people have never seen a Hungarian, much less a hijab. Their ignorance is astounding. They don’t know any actual Muslims and their knowledge of Islam is wholly a product of media misrepresentations of Muslims inflected by the paranoid imagination. Referring to anti-Muslim antipathies of this stamp as a manifestation of “Islamophobia” makes perfect sense.
But, truth be told, the nastiest “Islamophobia” I’ve encountered wasn’t in rural backwaters like Hérouxville; it was in diverse cosmopolitan centers like Montreal, Los Angeles, Sydney, Baltimore, and New York—amongst Christians and Jews who’ve had to flee the Middle East. Most of these people have had first-hand experience with real persecution at the hands of Muslim majorities, much of it decidedly horrific. Their businesses were destroyed, bank accounts seized, places of worship trashed. Some of them were even tortured, kidnapped, ransomed. And these experiences have, quite understandably, left deep scars. Have they earned the right to demonize 1.6 billion people? Of course not. But saying that their problem with Islam is a manifestation of an irrational fear of The Other seems unfair, and lumping them together with the likes of Alexandre Bissonnette seems decidedly unjust.
I would never say that demonizing all Christians is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up gay in a Pentecostal household, in the heart of the Bible Belt, surrounded by people who treated you terribly, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay. But I get it. I might think you’re a bit of a bigot but I’d never call you a Christophobe. I’d never say that your problem with Christianity is a manifestation of Christophobia (the fear of Christianity). Likewise, I would never say that demonizing all cops is okay. But if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder because you grew up poor and black in inner-city Baltimore, surrounded by cops who habitually mistreated you, I get it. I’m not saying it’s okay but I’d never call you a Policophobe. I’d never say that your problem with cops is a manifestation of Policophobia (the fear of police).
I’ve spent a great deal of time talking with students, friends, and family members about the horrible massacre that happened at the Grande Mosquée de Québec. Trying to make sense of it. Trying to have an honest and open conversation about what’s wrong with our society. How we can fix it. How we can do better. How we can prevent things like this from happening in the future. Many things have become clear to me as a result of this process. One of them is that the term “Islamophobia” isn’t nearly as useful as I once thought it was.
Sam Harris eats progressive lunch once or twice a month on his podcast precisely because he can easily drive a truck through the conceptual holes in “Islamophobia”. So long as we keep implying that everyone who’s got a problem with Islam is motivated by a kind of irrational fear of The Other, it’s easy for Harris (and others like him) to make us look ridiculous. All he has to do is bring people on his program like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Gad Saad: people who’ve got horrific stories to tell. Stories that are unfortunately true. Stories which would seem to indicate that a generalized fear of Islam makes sense. Do we really need a clumsy concept like “Islamophobia” to describe the anti-Muslim bigotry in our midst? Probably not.
Much as I love and respect Karen Armstrong, I must confess that her last book—Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2015)—really got on my nerves. Religion is never taken at face value as a real motive force behind violent action in the world. It’s always something else: like masculinity issues, nationalism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, racism, or schizophrenia. Are some people who do horrible things in the name of religion actually doing them for nationalistic reasons? Absolutely. Are some of them actually crazy? No doubt. Are some of them working out masculinity issues? Certainly. But are we really ready to say that a deep commitment to a religious vision is never the real reason why someone decides to strap a bomb to his chest, fly an airplane into a building, or open fire on a crowd? Are we really willing to say that religion—“the most enduring form of popular culture in human history”—is never more than an epiphenomenal smokescreen?
Most people go to the church or the mosque to find other people, not God. Some seek to be reunited with the dearly departed in a heavenly future, some seek community in a lonely present, and some seek connection with an ancestral past. But few seek God. Religion is largely a function of sociology, not theology. I get that. But saying X is largely a function of Y isn’t the same as saying that X can be reduced to Y. Yet that’s precisely what we so often do. Refusing to even entertain the possibility that religious conviction might be a root cause of religious violence is intellectually dishonest. Profoundly so. It’s not unlike the sleazy sleight-of-hand favored by Marxists of a certain stamp: “if you don’t agree with me you’ve got false consciousness.” Or the equally sleazy sleight-of-hand favored by old-school Freudians: “if you don’t agree with my analysis you’re in denial.” At a certain point, we have to at least entertain the possibility that people mean what they say. At a certain point, we have to take the religious imagination seriously.
What’s more, we need to acknowledge that the mere fact that a person’s understanding of the world is clouded by psychosis—or psychedelics or masculinity issues or status anxiety or anything else—doesn’t necessarily mean that their religious insights and experiences aren’t real. Altered states of consciousness, regardless of their origin, can reveal just as much as they conceal. I know this to be true from personal experience. I had a serious brush with psychosis when I was a teenager. During those years I also had some profoundly life-changing spiritual experiences. Were some of these visionary experiences simply delusions produced by a malfunctioning adolescent brain? Absolutely. Can they all be explained away with the primitive tools wielded by modern psychology? I highly doubt it.
Although I’ve had insights when I was half crazy (or drunk or high) that were, in retrospect, complete and utter nonsense, I’ve also had—in the same head space—genuine insights into the world, other people, myself, and my relationships—insights I wouldn’t have otherwise had—insights that remained thoroughly compelling and useful and true for me “after the ecstasy” (to borrow Kornfield’s phrase). None of this would have surprised Seneca. In his essay On the Tranquility of the Mind he maintains that great thoughts are all a function of a kind of divine madness: “Whether we share the Greek poet’s belief that ‘sometimes it is a pleasure even to be a madman,’ or Plato’s that ‘the man in control of his senses knocks in vain on poetry’s door,’ or Aristotle’s that ‘no great genius has ever existed without a dash of lunacy’—whatever the truth, only the mind that is roused can utter something momentous that surpasses the thoughts of other men.”
The problem of evil is always, to some extent, a problem of naming. Hannah Arendt understood this better than most. She saw, when others did not, that the absence of clear language had itself become a barrier to understanding 20th-century evil. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she argued that, if you’re trying to make sense of Nazism and Stalinism, words like “fascist” and “communist”, “right-wing” and “left-wing”, aren’t particularly helpful. Among other things, these labels belie the degree to which Hitler and Stalin transcended traditional political divides to forge nightmarish states that were eerily similar to each other. Stalin’s Soviet Union was, Arendt argued, best understood as a totalitarian state, not a communist state. In Skin In the Game (2018), Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a strikingly similar claim about the 21st-century evil known as Salafism.
If Western liberals find it hard to see Salafism for what it is, if they’re woefully lacking in moral clarity, it’s because they’re committed to tolerance and religious freedom, and Salafism is defined as a religion. This is, Taleb maintains, a grave error. Because Salafism isn’t really a religion. It makes far more sense to think about it as “an intolerant political system, which promotes (or allows) violence and refuses the institutions of the West—those that allow them to operate. Unlike Shiite Islam and Ottoman Sunnis, Salafis refuse to accept the very notion of minorities: infidels pollute their landscape.” We need to stop thinking about Salafism as a religious movement and start thinking about it as “a political movement, similar to Nazism, with their dress code an expression of such beliefs.” Taleb goes on to suggest that Western liberals might be far more open to the idea of, say, banning burkinis, if they saw it as analogous to banning swastikas: “these people you are defending . . . will deprive you of all the rights you are giving them should they ever ascend to power.” Indeed, if they had their way, your wife would be in a burkini! Salafists are, then, inherently problematic, for the same reason that political parties that promise to abolish elections if they’re ever elected are inherently problematic.
If you think this is all just semantics, consider, for a moment, the case of The Church of Scientology, an organization that has done a great deal of harm to countless people. Scientologists have gotten away with all sorts of horrible bullshit for decades precisely because they were able to get themselves defined as a religion from the get-go. Respecting religion runs deep in our culture. And the bad guys know it. That’s why we have to unmask the Salafists and Scientologists of the world, deprive of them of their “religion” status, and show the world what they really are. Demonizing Islam is as stupid as it is unwise. We need to isolate the Salafists. They’ve been hiding behind the politicized bodies of women and the banner of Islam for far too long.
I am not categorically against the use of violence, but I am categorically against the frivolous use of violence, and the barely concealed boner some activists get when they talk about it. I’ve dubbed activists of this stamp “revolution hawks” because, like chicken hawks, they advocate violence without knowing anything about it.
There are of course oppressed groups that live in a world of violence each and every day. If they choose to respond in kind, I ain’t gonna judge. But in my experience these folks aren’t the ones championing violence online, or at the movement meeting; the ones doing so are invariably loudmouthed idiots who’ve never been in a bar fight (or undercover cops trying to get you to do something stupid).
I’ve experienced enough of the world of violence to know that it’s not to be taken lightly. Although it’s not always immediately apparent, when you choose violence, you’re crossing a border into a foreign country, an older country, governed by ancient laws you’re probably not familiar with. The taboo boundaries between our world and the world of violence are there for a reason.
I separate political people into those who are willing, like Abraham, the Father of Faith, to sacrifice their firstborn son at the behest of their “God” and those who aren’t. I really don’t care who your “God” is, if you’re willing to sacrifice real people for your idea, if you love abstractions more than you love real human beings, you are my enemy, and I will do everything I can to keep you away from the levers of power.
In 1290, King Edward I expelled all Jews from the Kingdom of England. Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon did likewise in 1492, expelling all practicing Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Between 1609 through 1614, the Spanish Crown systematically expelled Muslims who had converted to Christianity from Spain. Between 1944 through 1950, Eastern European countries expelled millions of ethnically German citizens. They did so because they no longer trusted their German neighbors. If we don’t get a handle on this whole ISIS thing, I fear that we may see another round of European expulsions in the years to come. ISIS wants to undermine the trust that Europeans have in their Muslim neighbors. It’s a diabolical strategy. And it’s working.
The Nazis bombed the hell out of Manchester in late 1940, killing 684 just before Christmas. In 1996, the IRA detonated a massive bomb in the heart of Manchester. No one was killed because the IRA called in a warning. Still, over 200 people were injured. And now, in 2017, just yesterday, a suicide bomber blows himself up at an Ariana Grande concert. Twenty-two are dead thus far, many of them teenagers no older than my sons. We’ve yet to determine the size and color of the chip on this asshole’s shoulder. But I can pretty much guarantee you that, regardless of his politics, he wanted the same thing the Nazis wanted in 1940, and the IRA wanted in 1996: namely, to scare the shit out of the people of Manchester.
Scared people are incredibly predictable. They’re also remarkably easy to manipulate. In a sense, then, the problem of terrorism is akin to a classic boxing problem: the jab. If, like me, you’re right-handed, the left-hand jab is so unbelievably useful precisely because it bypasses your opponent’s rational mind. His hands fly up reflexively to block the punch that doesn’t matter whilst you hammer him with the one that does. Of course this trick won’t work on the well-trained, who’ve learned how to override their knee-jerk impulses. Wise fighters don’t fall for the jab. Same is true of wise citizens.
My mother was born in Manchester in 1950. Her parents, my grandparents, were part of the generation that defeated the Nazis. They knew how to respond to terrorism! They knew how to avoid falling for the jab! Just look at all of those amazing old photographs of defiant Brits having picnics and playing cricket in craters left by yesterday’s bombing raid. That sent a message!
Like bratty kids who throw temper tantrums in toy stores, terrorists do what they do because it’s worked for them in the past. As Yuval Noah Harari puts it in Homo Deus (2015): “Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them. Now they flourish in the wreckage.”
The enemy has come to believe that he can sway elections with bombs, shape foreign policy with fear, and write laws with blood. We need to disabuse him of these noxious notions, friends. We need to prove him wrong. As Napoléon once quipped: “Never do what the enemy wishes you to do.”
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2018)