From the Comments: Debunking Myths About Islam and Violence

Jacques, a retired sociologist and university professor, has been repeating himself over and over again for the past fifteen years or so. His gripe? The imminent danger of Islam. Or Islamism. It depends on when you began reading him. Until recently, until the time that Delacroix decided to try and pick on me, Jacques’ venom was directed at Islam. Nowadays, it seems his poisonous arguments are directed at Islamism, the political movement. This is a step in the right direction. And yet, though his target his changed, his argument has not. The argument runs something like this:

  • Most, or much, of the violence in the world today is associated with Muslim groups of some kind or other.
  • Therefore, Islam, or Islamism, has an inherently violent penchant that needs to be removed using any method at the West’s disposal (including torture, a separate judicial system for Muslims suspected of being terrorists, and outright war).
  • In addition, Muslims who are not inherently violent (notice: Islam has an inherently violent penchant, except when it does not) are still responsible for terrorism because they do not snitch to government authorities when their fellow Muslims begin growing beards, and they do not speak out against Muslim extremists.

I have already gone the rounds with Delacroix on this narrative. He has been nothing but obstinately ignorant about his own argument, including the pseudo-facts that they rest upon. Maybe I shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m just a lowly blog editor, after all, and a self-admitted libertarian to boot. The ‘comments’ of the two guys I’m about to highlight should be taken seriously, though. They are both college professors, and both do not self-identify as libertarians (though I think they are). Here is Dr Khawaja attempting to talk some sense into Jacques:

The first point is predictability versus explanation-in-retrospect, and I think you’re proving my point. I agree with your general account of the traits and biographical trajectory of terrorists. They’re often just as you say they are. The problem is, there are lots of non-violent losers with identical traits and trajectories, and no way to sort out the violent from the non-violent before the fact. The explanatory patterns typically emerge after the fact, which is when people tend to jump from explanation-after-the-fact to predictability-ex-ante. I guess I’m just flatly denying that the trajectory of the non-Islamist crazy is–in Western countries–all that different (ex ante) from the Muslim ones. The only “distinguishing” feature is that the latter are Muslim, and alienated from traditional Islam, and born again into something radical. But an enormous number of people have those traits, and simply waste their lives on being born-again Muslims of that sort without ever doing anything violent. My point is, when people–typically young men–start to move in that direction, it usually causes some concern. But “concern” is not the same as alarm at an imminent or even pending attack, and contrary to your suggestion, there is almost no way to predict those unless you’ve been taken into confidence by the would-be perpetrator. And of course, given what he wants to perpetrate, he’d have to be very incompetent to take a would-be snitch into his confidences.

Proviso: what I’m saying above refers to Muslims in Europe and North America. Things are different elsewhere. In the West Bank, if X’s brother, father, uncle, or cousin has been killed by the IDF, X is likely to commit a terrorist act, and if X becomes very religious, you can infer that he’s a member of Hamas. Similar moves are open to someone living in Pakistan. But those are different contexts than France of the US.

I’m not dogmatic enough to insist that the French cleric you quoted must absolutely be wrong. Maybe he has some way of detecting jihadists. But I really doubt it. The problem with French clerics of that sort is precisely their proximity to the government. They tend to speak with a view to pleasing this or that constituency, and what your cleric says is what the French government and people want to hear.

On immigration, granted that you didn’t literally come out and oppose all immigration by Muslims. But that isn’t quite what I accused you of, either. My point is: here we have a humanitarian crisis involving refugees who want asylum in this country. I’m the first to admit that if we admit a large number, some of this number will be terrorists and will perpetrate attacks on us that wouldn’t otherwise have happened (if we hadn’t let them in). My point is: now that we have this crisis, Americans have suddenly decided that a mass influx of refugees has to be constrained by border controls that would ensure that the mass influx remains a trickle. Imagine facing a potential influx of Syrian refugees and applying your stricture that none of them be Muslim literalists. By the time you operationalized that policy, and hired the border control staff to operate it, the year would be 2023, and the refugee crisis would be over. Or to take your other policy: can you really imagine teaching Syrian (or any other) refugees First Amendment law at their point of entry into the US? It can’t be done. It’s just not the way refugee operations work or can work. Imposing strictures like that on refugees is just a way of ensuring that the US never becomes a sanctuary during refugee crises.

I wouldn’t mind that attitude if only it were accompanied by a little bit of candor about history and politics. The US is committed never to become a large-scale sanctuary for, say, Syrian refugees. But now listen to the way politically conscious Americans talk about refugee crises elsewhere. The Arabs of Mandate Palestine were reluctant to open the borders of Palestine to European Jews? Well, that makes them anti-Semites. Common assertion: “The Palestinians remain in UNRWA camps to this day because the surrounding Arab countries, in their greed, refuse to take them in.” This comes from Americans who would never dream of taking them in. Israel, of course, has a very generous refugee policy (for Jews); that gets praise without any recognition that the refugees then function as demographic chips in the settlement game. West Bank settlements are full of Russian “Jews” who know less about the celebration of shabbos than I do.

Do I think the US has a Muslim problem? What makes the question difficult to answer is not any reluctance on my part to tackle the issue head-on, but an ambiguity in the phrase “a Muslim problem.” In one sense, it means “any significant problem stemming from Muslims.” In another sense, it means “a high priority issue facing the country as a whole and stemming from Muslims.” My view is that it has the first, not the second. There are several million Muslims in the country, and on the whole they don’t constitute a political problem. There are pockets of fanatics among them that do constitute a political (security) problem. France may well be different, but I think things are essentially in good shape in the US, despite this or that conspicuous Muslim atrocity.

To come at your question slightly differently: there is a sense in which Islam has a problem, the problem of reconciling itself to modernity. Given that, wherever you have Muslims who haven’t reconciled themselves to modernity, you’re going to get a problem (or problems). So yes, even if we had an isolationist foreign policy, that problem would remain. But that problem is least pronounced in the US, where Muslims basically run the same gamut as Reform to Conservative to Orthodox Jews. Literalist Muslims are no more (or less) a national problem than Orthodox Jews. I don’t mean to deny that they’re both a problem. But I wouldn’t say we have an Orthodox Jew Problem any more than I’d say we have a Muslim or Literalist Muslim Problem. Some places might, but we don’t.

Sorry, I said something confusing: “I don’t mean to deny that they’re both a problem.” I meant to say, “I don’t mean to deny that they’re both problematic,” i.e., give rise to problems. What I’m denying is that the problems are the equivalent of a high-level security threat.

Dr Khawaja blogs over at Policy of Truth and teaches philosophy at Felician College. Dr Amburgey tries to talk some sense into Jacques using a different angle:

“I said “probability.” It’s the concept we use, consciously or not, to approximate rational decisions in our daily lives: Select this birth clinic, rely on this baby food, travel by car, get vaccinated or not, go for this class rather than another. etc.”

I agree with Jacques. I’ll go further, I agree wholeheartedly with Jacques. I don’t subscribe to silly notions of human rationality like some of my colleagues but doing the best we can to make rational decisions is desirable both individually and in matters of public policy. As a consequence it’s useful to consider probabilities in our consideration of Jacques proposals.

Firstly, how does terrorism stack up against other risks in a probabilistic sense?

“Indeed – as we’ve previously documented – you’re more likely to die from brain-eating parasites, alcoholism, obesity, medical errors, risky sexual behavior or just about anything other than terrorism.”

Even if we set aside the consequences of our choices [lifestyle or otherwise] terrorism is dwarfed by other things that kill us. Is it rational to spend more on the military than every other form of discretionary spending combined?

Secondly, given that terrorism is a risk how do different forms stack up compared to one another.
According to Jacques…

“We have terrorists of all inspirations in America, I know. The white murderer of black church people in Charleston was a terrorist, pure and simple. He was home bred and home grown. However, we have many, many more terrorists of foreign extraction, almost all with ties to Islam.”

This is, to put it politely, a counterfactual statement. The various public datasets have different observation windows and methodologies. Right now I’m going to use the 1980-2005 FBI data simply because there is a handy pie chart that I can copy from. In decreasing order…

Latino-42%, Extreme left-wing groups-24%, Others-16%, Jewish extremists-7%, Islamic extremists-6%, Communists-5%

The USA certainly has problems. Does it have a ‘muslim problem’? I’d say the numbers speak for themselves.

Dr Amburgey teaches in the business school of the University of Toronto. He doesn’t blog.

Jacques has still not addressed my questions regarding the implications of his policy proposals, by the way, namely that they echo those implemented by the Third Reich. Political Correctness is a corrupting influence on the free and open society (I suspect, in my infinite kindness and generosity, that Political Correctness is Jacques’ real target when he writes about Islam), but so is cultural chauvinism. Two wrongs don’t make a right!

12 thoughts on “From the Comments: Debunking Myths About Islam and Violence

  1. While I feel that certain power hungry despots try to hijack any religion for their own personal gain. Many Muslims seem prone to support violent extremists who hijack their religion in the name of Islam. The pols often show that a majority of Muslims are sympathetic to terror based political groups.
    That being said, you can not judge the many by the few.

    • “The pols often show that a majority of Muslims are sympathetic to terror based political groups.”

      Can you provide a link to these polls?

  2. A summary of a dogmatic libertarian’s position on Islamist violence:

    Brandon is itched at the hip with the conviction that Islamist fanatics’ crimes are the result of American and other Western intervention in Muslim areas of the world. So, that’s why Boko Haram is massacring villagers in Nigeria, burning whole villages, and taking young girls into sexual slavery (only Christian girls). “Boko Haram” means “All books are forbidden except the Koran,” kind of a give-away The numerous, widespread Boko Haram atrocities in Nigeria are all against Nigerians. The US is sometimes and desultorily bombing from the sky in Syria and Iraq people who claim to be Muslims. These victims of American bombings decapitate aid workers and journalists on video; they burned alive a captured enemy combatant; they take young girls into sexual slavery. If America stopped in the Middle East, the Boko Haram violence in Nigeria would stop shortly, naturally. See the linkage, right?

    What I think are the fundamentals of Islamist violence in the West is explained in my article in Liberty Unbound with the title ” Religious Bric-à-brac….” And yes, it’s true that the Prophet decapitated his defeated Jewish enemies on the battlefield. And yes, Mohammed is described as “the Perfect Man,” worth of emulation in Muslim popular teachings. Tough some Muslims disapprove of the practice, his birthday is a major holiday throughout the Muslim word, like Christmas. But Jesus, the prophet, also an object of emulation, is remembered for raising the dead, turning water into wine, and once, only once replying rather sharply to his mother.

    Some of the issues Brandon raised in his torrent of words, I have addressed in an essay on my blog entitled: “Figures….” Others, I will leave to the sagacity of Notes readers. I am a busy man, what with the beach and so forth. Besides, I don’t want inadvertently to breathe new life into Brandon’s exotic beliefs at the very time when the bony knee of daily reality is pushing out their last exhalation.

    Brandon Christensen has huge energy. He is a likes a small aluminum boat with a big outboard motor and no rudder. Wonder why he describes me as a “retired sociologist”? Did I lose my training? Did a council of the politically correct decide to cancel out my modest scholarly achievements? Was I excommunicated, defrocked even?The fact is that I never lifted a finger to have my essays re-published in Liberty. Brandon goes out of his way to fish them off my blog ( and to reproduce them here ( I am glad he does, mind you; more readers is better than fewer readers.) just to show how wrong, wrong I am! If I did not exist, he would try to muster the talent to invent me. Good thing I am not interested in Freudian poopie!

    • Lol.

      More name-calling and red herring fallacies. BORING!

    • “Wonder why he describes me as a ‘retired sociologist’? Did I lose my training?”

      I’ve thought about this a great deal over the last several years. The conclusion I’ve come to is ‘yes’. The lack of anything approaching intellectual rigor; the total disregard for empirical data; the disdain for scholarship and critical thinking… I don’t know what happened to your training.

      “Did a council of the politically correct decide to cancel out my modest scholarly achievements?”

      I guess it depends on who is evaluating. As you may [or may not] remember inside the ivory tower if your scholarly achievements are more than a couple years old they don’t count. The last 5 or 6 years only count for getting tenure, after that only the last year counts. Outside the ivory tower pretty much no one gives a flying fuck about scholarly achievements.

    • As a graduate student in counseling psychology, I like the idea of intervening in this family-like dispute between Jacques and Brandon, and reconciling the two of you but offering a view intermediate between the ones you’re defending.

      I think Brandon is underplaying the degree to which Islam really does have a propensity toward specifically sectarian violence. But I think Jacques is overplaying the degree to which Islam is distinctive in that way.

      The truth is that both Judaism and Islam have a strong propensity toward specifically sectarian violence because both explicitly espouse and sanctify a connection between faith, state power, and conquest. Historically, Christianity has expressed that connection, too, but Judaism and Islam offer specifically scriptural warrant for it in a way that Christianity can’t match.

      Judaism sanctifies the faith-power-conquest connection through the Exodus narrative. The Jews escape oppression in Egypt to conquer the Promised Land in God’s name. They’re therefore obliged to conquer and/or annihilate its current inhabitants. Whatever its liberal pretensions, Zionism is a modern-day attempt to put this idea in practice, which is why, in practice, it’s led to decades of sectarian bloodshed and extended military occupation.

      Islam sanctifies the same connection through the doctrine of jihad and through the example of Muhammad’s regime at Medina and conquest of Mecca (and by implication, the idea of a caliphate). There really is no avoiding the fact that the doctrine of jihad is perfectly suited as an apology for conquest: it demands–in the name of “self”-defense–that believers extend the scope of Islamic rule as far as it will go. Whatever they say about imperially-inflicted grievances, modern Islamists are totalitarians intent on doing just that. My objection to Jacques wasn’t meant to deny that. It was meant to deny that the problem extends to American Muslims.

      One real problem with contemporary liberal discourse is that it stigmatizes claims like the preceding by equating claims about religions with claims about ethnicities. What I said about Judaism and Zionism becomes “anti-Semitism,” and what I said about Islam and Islamism becomes “Islamophobia.” Both become unsayable, and we’re condemned to nibbling at the edges of the issues. In that climate of opinion, it becomes impossible to make the obvious point that when you insist on using an ancient faith as the basis of a modern political doctrine, and enforcing or expressing that doctrine through the state, faith-based violence is the inevitable result.

    • Irwan: This is interesting but the link you make between the old Jewish narrative, as in the Bible and actual Zionism is not persuasive. As you note correctly, the conquest of the Promised Land after Exodus was supposed to involve massacres, in fact, genocide. Zionism is expressly not interested in genocide or big massacres.

      You say:” Zionism is a modern-day attempt to put this idea in practice, which is why, in practice, it’s led to decades of sectarian bloodshed and extended military occupation.”

      I hate to tell you but on any historical scale the sectarian bloodshed committed by Jews in the Middle East has been very low. It has been tiny especially in relation to the provocation. Just imagine Russians faced by (bad) rockets and suicide bombers coming from a territory effectively controlled by an entity that says openly its goal is to destroy Russia!

      You will note that this remark is unrelated to any basic issue of the injustice inherent in the existence of the state of Israel.

      My thoughts about the connection between Islamic culture and the propensity to violence are in an essay in Liberty Unbound. It’s entitled “Religious bric-a-brac….” I don’t want to repeat it here.

      On a more personal note, I want to tell you that I am not a natural-born Islamophobe. I wish I were wrong on the said connection.

      I did not finish answering your very first comment to my essay here “America’s Muslim problem…” I am thinking about it, not ignoring it.

    • Thanks for your ‘comments’, both of you (Drs K and J).

      I’d like to pull a Khawaja and find a medium between both of your arguments. This medium can be found in Dr Khawaja’s straightforward point:

      […] it becomes impossible to make the obvious point that when you insist on using an ancient faith as the basis of a modern political doctrine, and enforcing or expressing that doctrine through the state, faith-based violence is the inevitable result.

      Doesn’t this – and I think we can all agree that this point is unassailable – simply bolster my argument that religion cannot be blamed or cited as a reason for the ongoing violence and oppression in the Near East, North Africa, and South Asia? We’re looking at an institutional problem, not a cultural one.

  3. I would say the problem with “Islamism” has more than anything else to do with the Middle East and adjacent regions not having the most stable politics in recent world history, for whatever reason. Such conditions are conducive to politicized violence (“radicalization”) no matter what the inhabitants believe. The Abrahamic faiths as a whole may have a history of adding a religious layer to this violence (and I would argue this started with Judaism; the early Jewish inhabitants in Seleucid- and Roman-occupied Palestine didn’t all welcome their overlords with open arms if you catch my drift), but I wouldn’t say they have an ideological monopoly on this.

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s