Browsing the archives for the Terrorism category.

The Fantasies of Terrorism

Religion, Terrorism

A couple of days ago I wrote that Omar Mateen “wasn’t so much a jihadist as someone who poured his excessive rage into a fantasy of jihad.” Turns out that may have made him a typical jihadist.

At the New York Times Peter Bergen writes that he did exhaustive research into more than 300 individual incidents of terrorism to find out what motivated the terrorists. He concludes,

The easy explanation — that jihadist terrorists in the United States are “mad” or “bad” — proved simply wrong. Around one in 10 had mental health problems, below the incidence in the general population. Nor were they typically career criminals: Twelve percent had served time in prison, compared with about 11 percent of the American male population.

I found that the perpetrators were generally motivated by a mix of factors, including militant Islamist ideology; dislike of American foreign policy in the Muslim world; a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose; and a “cognitive opening” to militant Islam that often was precipitated by personal disappointment, like the death of a parent. For many, joining a jihadist group or carrying out an attack allowed them to become heroes of their own story.

The “heroes of their own story” turns out to be key.

But in each case, the proportion of the motivations varied. For instance, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, was a nonpracticing Muslim who became an Islamist militant once his dreams of becoming an Olympic boxerfaded. At the time of the attack, he was unemployed. For him, bombing the marathon seemed to allow him to become the heroic figure that he believed himself to be.

On the other hand, his younger brother, Dzhokhar, never seemed to embrace militant Islam. He smoked marijuana, drank and chased girls — hardly the actions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s motivations for the bombings were instead largely molded by his older brother, whom he admired and feared, and by his own half-baked opposition to American foreign policy.

Nidal Hasan, the Army major who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in 2009, seemed to be a more classic jihadist. He was a highly observant Muslim who objected to American foreign policy. But according to Nader Hasan, a first cousin who had grown up with him, the massacre at Fort Hood was also motivated by Nidal Hasan’s personal problems. He was unmarried, both his parents were dead, he had no real friends and a dreaded deployment to Afghanistan loomed. “He went postal,” Nader Hasan told me, “and he called it Islam.”

David C. Headley of Chicago, who did much of the planning for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, in which more than 160 people were killed, was not an observant Muslim. He juggled multiple wives and girlfriends. He was motivated more by a passionate hatred of India — and his enjoyment in playing the role of a jihadi James Bond, hanging out with Bollywood stars for cover while secretly planning one of the most spectacular and deadly terrorist assaults since Sept. 11, 2001.

Bergen doesn’t say if he found any examples of well-adjusted people not facing a life crisis or nursing a boiling personal grudge who decided only from their reading of the Quran that they had a duty to be jihadists, but my guess would be no.

I had said something similar in my book about the 9/11 terrorists, who were known to drink alcohol and go nightclubbing. Deep down, what they did was not really about religion. Meaning, religion didn’t provide the prime motivation. If you look closely, the “motivation” is nearly always some tangled mix of political, economic, social, cultural and historical factors with some big, honking Personal Issues mixed in. I wrote,

But it’s rarely just about Buddhism. Or Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. Like any other part of human civilization, religions exist in a context of culture, society, politics, and history, not to mention the various psychological issues of the participants. Religion has been the prime driver of some violent situations, but sometimes it’s just one factor among many, and the violence probably would have happened without it.

And sometimes religion may not be the prime driver but acts more as an accelerant, or at least an excuse, giving people a moral “cover” or context for their rage, even when their rage is being driven by something else entirely. If you can persuade yourself that your vehemence is sanctified, and that you are entitled or even anointed to strike at the object of your anger, it’s a lot easier to light the fuse or pull the trigger.

And this, I think, is at the root of why so much of the mass violence in the world today has a connection to religion. Religion has become the last refuge of the furious.

In short, religion can be used to craft a cosmic permission slip and provide a kind of holy absolution (in the minds of the perps, anyway) for what would otherwise be unjustifiable savagery. And, of course, ultimately it’s still unjustifiable.  But terrorists do tend to be the world’s worst cherry pickers, as far as doctrine is concerned. They’re only interested in the parts that might be used to justify what they were going to do, anyway. The remainder can be ignored.

In the book I went back to this great quote:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. —  Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951) 

I propose that these factors tend to come together to form “terrorists.”

The first is some kind of association with an idealized mass movement.  As Bergen said, they seem to have “a need to attach themselves to an ideology or organization that gave them a sense of purpose.” However, this association may exist only in the head of the perp, as it did in Omar Mateen. In other words, the association may exist as a psychological factor but not a physical or operative factor, and it’s important for us to keep that straight. Otherwise you’re off into Crazy Land with John McCain, who has said President Obama is responsible for the murders in Orlando because he hasn’t bombed ISIS enough.

The idealized mass movement comes with a “holy cause.” But the holy cause is not necessarily religious; nationalism or or extremist political ideologies or white supremacy or a lot of other things will do just as well. If the “holy cause” is religious, it doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot if the individual perp really believes it that much. It’s the idea of having a holy cause to rally around, rather than personal devotion, that’s important. Without a holy cause to fight for, one cannot be the hero of one’s own story.

Finally, and possibly most important of all, is the fanatical grievance. I think if you look hard enough, in the soul of every terrorist or mass shooter or anybody who feels a need to express himself through violent slaughter is a festering grievance that the world simply is not giving him what he is due. Whether this grievance is primarily personal or collective, or a little of both, may not matter.

This is why people who make Islam, or religion, out to be “the problem” don’t get it. In the presence of the other psychological factors any mass movement/holy cause will do, including (in theory) atheism. It hardly matters if atheism has no doctrines, as doctrines aren’t that important to “religious” terrorists, anyway.” What’s important is the Cause, which ultimately is just something to reflect glory on the perp’s own ego.

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The Candidates Respond to Brussels

Bad Hair, Obama Administration, Sanders and Clinton, Terrorism

july4whitebackgroundAs a public service, I’ve put together a quickie primer on how the five remaining presidential candidates responded to the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Let’s start with the Republicans.

First off, let us acknowledge that Republicans are weenies. Charles Pierce reminds us that all three Republican candidates wet their pants over the Ebola terror, for example. After the attacks in Brussels, Kasich and Cruz nonsensically called for President Obama to cut the state visit to Cuba off short and fly to Brussels, as if he had any business there and wouldn’t just create more security problems. One suspects there are telephones in Cuba and that the President has communicated with European leaders as needed.

Otherwise, regarding Brussels, Kasich has been the soul of moderation compared to Trump or Kruz. In fact, I found no substantive difference between Kasich and Hillary Clinton on this issue. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Trump and Cruz, of course, both went into crazy overdrive. Trump continues to believe that Islamic terrorists (like the Ebola virus) are swarming across the U.S. Mexican border, and that the first order of business must be closing that border, along with banning Muslims from entering the country anywhere. He also promises to do lots of waterboarding and has not ruled out using nuclear weapons on ISIS (which Juan Cole tells us we should be calling “Daesh”).

But who knows what Trump would do? Here’s a snip of a recent interview with the Washington Post, courtesy of Mother Jones:

RYAN: You [MUFFLED] mentioned a few minutes earlier here that you would knock ISIS. You’ve mentioned it many times. You’ve also mentioned the risk of putting American troop in a danger area. If you could substantially reduce the risk of harm to ground troops, would you use a battlefield nuclear weapon to take out ISIS?

TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…

RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?


TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?

The word deranged does come to mind.

Ted Cruz famously promised to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Like treating innocent people like criminals wouldn’t radicalize them. Like Trump, Cruz thinks the southern border must be closed to prevent Muslim terrorists and their Ebola virus allies from entering the country, because obviously there is no other way for them to get in other than to sneak across the Rio Grande. It’s not like we have other borders or international airports or anything.

He also declared that “for years, the West has tried to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear.” It is an article of faith on the Right that President Obama refuses to acknowledge that Daesh and other radical jihadist groups even exist. But, of course, the Right is wrong. (See also.) Wingnuts think that fear itself has power and that hysterical rhetoric and ignorance make one stronger, which is why they don’t know what to do with President Barack “the Ice Man” Obama. And which is why their approach to terrorism would be a disaster for the entire planet.

Here is Cruz’s statement, in full:

“For years, the west has tried to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear. We can no longer afford either. Our European allies are now seeing what comes of a toxic mix of migrants who have been infiltrated by terrorists and isolated, radical Muslim neighborhoods. We will do what we can to help them fight this scourge, and redouble our efforts to make sure it does not happen here. We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence. We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized. We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration. And we need to execute a coherent campaign to utterly destroy ISIS. The days of the United States voluntarily surrendering to the enemy to show how progressive and enlightened we can be are at an end. Our country is at stake.”

In short, booga booga booga.

Both Clinton and Kasich emphasized strengthening alliances and working with strategic partners to root out terrorism. Kasich (who, notably, did not mention Islam):

“Along with every American, I am sickened by the pictures of the carnage, by the injuries and by the loss of life,” said Kasich in a statement sent to reporters. “The wave of terror that has been unleashed in Europe and elsewhere around the world are attacks against our very way of life and against the democratic values upon which our political systems have been built. We and our allies must rededicate ourselves to these values of freedom and human rights. We must utterly reject the use of deadly acts of terror. We must also redouble our efforts with our allies to identify, root out and destroy the perpetrators of such acts of evil. We must strengthen our alliances as our way of life and the international system that has been built on our common values since the end of the Second World War comes under challenge from these and other actors of evil.”


Former Sec. of State Clinton said in a statement, “Terrorists have once again struck at the heart of Europe, but their campaign of hate and fear will not succeed. The people of Brussels, of Europe, and of the world will not be intimidated by these vicious killers. Today Americans stand in solidarity with our European allies. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed and wounded, and all the people of Belgium. These terrorists seek to undermine the democratic values that are the foundation of our alliance and our way of life, but they will never succeed. Today’s attacks will only strengthen our resolve to stand together as allies and defeat terrorism and radical jihadism around the world.”

However, here is where Clinton fell short, and where I would have wanted a more substantive answer. On the Today Show, she was asked explicitly what she might do about the “root causes” of terrorism.

Clinton responded that we need to tighten our security, bringing up a “visa system and passenger record system” she advocated as secretary of state. She also said Europe needs to fall in line behind the US in adopting our surveillance measures:

“When I was secretary, we often had some difficulty with our European friends because they were reluctant to impose the kind of strict standards we were looking for. After Paris, that has changed, and we need to do more to tighten things up.”

She did not address any of the actual root causes of terrorism.

I believe President Obama would have had a better answer.  This blind spot in Clinton is  worrisome, especially considering her record as a “regime change” hawk.
Finally, we come to Bernie Sanders:

We offer our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones in this barbaric attack and to the people of Brussels who were the target of another cowardly attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. We stand with our European allies to offer any necessary assistance in these difficult times.

Today’s attack is a brutal reminder that the international community must come together to destroy ISIS. This type of barbarism cannot be allowed to continue. (see also)

He went further talking to Jimmy Kimmel (because news media ignore him):
‘”I think people get afraid, and for good reasons. ISIS is a disgusting, barbaric organization. We’ve seen what they’ve done in Paris, what they’ve done in Brussels. People are afraid of an attack in the United States. But I think what we have to understand is we’re not going to undermine the Constitution of the United States of America in order to effectively destroy ISIS. At the end of the day, we cannot allow the Trumps of the world to use these incidents to attack all of the Muslim people in the world. That is unfair. To imply that if somebody is a Muslim they’re a terrorist, that is an outrageous statement.”
Sanders generated a lot of derision when he linked terrorism and climate change awhile back, but lots of experts say it’s a serious contributing factor. Drought in Syria has a lot to do with migration into Europe and elsewhere.
Like Clinton and Kasich, he has emphasized international cooperation regarding security. I believe he has gone further than Clinton or Kasich in declaring that the United States isn’t the world’s police and that other nations, especially those in the Middle East, need to step up. He also has pledged to not use military force except as a last resort.
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Hate, Fear, and All That Stuff


Here is something I wrote over the weekend for the Buddhism website. Those of you who have read my book will recognize some of the themes.

See also Paul Krugman, Fearing Fear Itself.

Like millions of people, I’ve been obsessively following the news from Paris, putting aside other things to focus on the horror. It’s the natural human reaction. But let’s be clear: it’s also the reaction the terrorists want. And that’s something not everyone seems to understand.

Take, for example, Jeb Bush’s declaration that “this is an organized attempt to destroy Western civilization.” No, it isn’t. It’s an organized attempt to sow panic, which isn’t at all the same thing. And remarks like that, which blur that distinction and make terrorists seem more powerful than they are, just help the jihadists’ cause.

It would be really nice if the next President is someone who can find the Middle East on a map and recognize that all those Ferrin’ places over there are not just alike. For example, in the recent Republican debate, Toast! actually said  “If you’re a Christian, increasingly in Lebanon or Iraq or Syria, you’re gonna be beheaded.” To which some Lebanese responded, “Um, no, we’re not.”

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A Taste of Their Own Medicine


For years we’ve listened to the Right whine that President Obama won’t call terrorism by its name. Of course, sometimes he does (see: Mittens gets schooled), but the point is that righties seem to think there’s something magical about using the word terrorism that strengthens us and confounds our enemies. Except that only applies to Muslims, apparently.

But, somehow, they are less bold in other contexts. See Judd Legum, The Wildly Different Ways One Senator Responds To Terrorism: Boston Versus Charleston. The Senator in question is Miss Lindsey Graham.

In response to the Boston bombing of 2013, Senator Lindsey Graham demanded that the government do everything it could to learn from the attack and prevent future attacks.

This man, in my view, should be designated as a potential enemy combatant and we should be allowed to question him for intelligence gathering purposes to find out about future attacks and terrorist organizations that may exist that he has knowledge of, and that evidence cannot be used against him in trial. That evidence is used to protect us as a nation.

Many people took issue with Graham’s claim that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is a U.S. citizen, could be designated as an enemy combatant. But Graham’s conviction that the attack was part of a more systemic problem, based on Tsarnaev’s Muslim faith, was unmistakable. Tsarnaev’s attack killed three people and injured over 250.

Graham’s reaction to Wednesday’s attack on a black church in his home state of South Carolina was very different. (His niece, coincidentally, went to school with the shooter). Graham is adamant that the attack is not evidence of any larger problem.

Graham, who is on his way to Charleston, said his niece did not recall Roof making any statements that were related to race.

“I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that,” Graham said. “It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted.”

They were all young men who were obviously twisted; IMO the object of violent peoples’ twistedness often is the cart, not the horse. In any event, terrorism experts apparently saw no connection between the Tsarnaev brothers and any larger terrorist organization, but of course some on the American Right would love to waterboard every Muslim on the planet.

There’s no doubt Dylann Roof is one of these whacked out kids, but so was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. We seem to have a lot of whacked out kids these days.

By the same token, if the Tsarnaev brothers were terrorists, then so is Dylann Roof. And so is Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller. Let’s be consistent, Miss Lindsey. Intimidating, threatening, and actually killing people on behalf of some Cause is pretty much what terrorism is.

I say we all pressure the righties to call the shooting in Charleston an act of terrorism.

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Self-Terrorism at Work

Terrorism, Texas, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

ISIS may be evil and deranged, and they may lack any sort of capability of striking in the U.S., but I fear they have our number.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack outside a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Texas — and warned of more attacks to come.

In a broadcast on its official radio channel Tuesday, the group said two Al Khilafa soldiers opened fire outside the event in Garland, a Dallas suburb. Al Khilafa is how ISIS refers to its soldiers.  …

…While ISIS claimed responsibility two days after the attack, there was no immediate indication that the terror group in Iraq and Syria had contact with Simpson or Soofi, who both lived in Phoenix.

Odds are the gunmen were wannabees with borderline personality disorder who had as much contact with ISIS as they had with Santa Claus, although the gunmen and ISIS operatives appeared to be following each other on Twitter. But we’re living in a country in which Wal-Mart has to refute rumors that the feds are building tunnels under closed stores to facilitate a military takeover of Texas. ISIS doesn’t have to lift a finger to scare Americans; we are champs at terrorizing ourselves. Claiming responsibility for the Texas shooting was actually brilliant on their part. The baggers will believe it and reach new heights of irrational paranoia.

Reminds me of the Twilight Zone episode where the townsfolk panic over rumors of space aliens and start shooting each other. The actual space aliens observe this and decide the easiest way to conquer Earth is to let the paranoid humans destroy themselves.

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Neocons Attempting Another Con

Obama Administration, Terrorism, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

They don’t quit. The neocons at National Review — including Stephen Hayes, who will insist on his deathbed that before 9/11 Mohamed Atta did too meet with agents of Saddam Hussein in Prague — now are flogging documents that “reveal” Osama bin Laden had secret ties to Iran.

Yes, and I’m Shirley Temple’s zombie.

If you keep reading the articles, it turns out that these documents say nothing about secret ties to the Iranian government, just that a small number of al Qaeda operatives had been in Iran, somewhere, doing something, including “training.” But for all we know their long-term plans were to set off bombs in Tehran, not attend parties with the ayatollahs.

The documents were among those recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound and were introduced in court in the trial of “a terrorism suspect.” I believe they are referring to Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a Canadian national currently on trial in Brooklyn for murdering five U.S. servicemen in Iraq in 2009. However, for some reason, the National Review propagandists are not calling this suspect by name or imagining he has secret ties to Iran. I guess they have no beef with Canada. Yet.

The thrust of all of the National Review‘s articles on this new “evidence” is that the Obama Administration didn’t take the continued threat of Osama bin Laden seriously.

The files do not support the view, promoted by some in the Obama administration, that bin Laden was in “comfortable retirement,” “sidelined,” or “a lion in winter” in the months leading up to his death. On the contrary, bin Laden is asked to give his order on a host of issues, ranging from the handling of money to the movement of terrorist operatives.

Hmm, let’s see — which President was it who declared that Osama bin Laden had been marginalized back in 2002?

And, let’s see, which President actually got the guy? Hmm, it’ll come to me …

Seriously, does the crew at NR assume we all have Alzheimer’s?

From what I saw, at no point in any of this coverage does NR use the words Sunni or Shia. Al Qaeda is a radical Sunni sect opposed to all heretics, which in their minds would include Shia. The government of Iran is controlled by a bunch of strict Shia who consider Sunni militants to be their sworn enemies. The odds that these two are working together now are about the same as the odds that the GOP will throw the 2016 presidential election in favor of Bernie Sanders. Larry Johnson says that about 20 years ago there was a brief movement toward rapprochement between Osama bin Laden and the Shia in Tehran, but that those days are long over, and the two groups are more radically opposed to each other than ever.

Obviously, the neocon crew at NR are up to their old tricks and trying to stampede us into a war with Iran, which men of extended military experience like Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes (cough) think will be just the thing to fix all that misbehavior in the Middle East. They don’t quit. And they don’t learn.

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It’s the Derp, Stupid


A couple of articles from Foreign Policy that are worth reading:

It’s the Occupation, Stupid: Extensive research into the causes of suicide terrorism proves Islam isn’t to blame — the root of the problem is foreign military occupations.

In the decade since 9/11, the United States has conquered and occupied two large Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), compelled a huge Muslim army to root out a terrorist sanctuary (Pakistan), deployed thousands of Special Forces troops to numerous Muslim countries (Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, etc.), imprisoned hundreds of Muslims without recourse, and waged a massive war of ideas involving Muslim clerics to denounce violence and new institutions to bring Western norms to Muslim countries. Yet Americans still seem strangely mystified as to why some Muslims might be angry about this situation.

Earlier this week a much-linked-to article by Chris Hedges blamed poverty, but I don’t buy that entirely. No doubt it’s a factor in recruiting the discontented, but the people actually engaged in terrorism often aren’t that poor. I think poverty is a supporting factor, not the main cause.

“France Is an Unequal Opportunity Offender: For all the talk of defending the right to blaspheme Mohammed, the French can be extremely hypocritical when it comes to making fun of others

French legal history is choked with cases of bloggers, celebrities, and ordinary folk being dragged through the courts on charges of defamation or hate speech. Worse still, when the ink does flow, it predictably steers clear of powerful sacred cows, while baiting and stifling the usual suspects. If the French don’t learn the lessons of the Paris attacks and fail to confront the free-speech double standards that divide the country today, blood — not ink — will continue to flow.

Barely a day after an estimated 3.7 million people rallied across the country in support of Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend Muslims, French officials embarked on yet another legal effort to protect Jews from hate speech. In an embarrassing display of the complexity of the French free-speech debate, the Paris prosecutor’s office on Monday announced an investigation into a since-deleted Facebook post by controversial comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, in which he proclaimed, “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” (Update: He was arrested and held for questioning in Paris on Wednesday.) The post was a characteristically insidious, Dieudonné-esque play on the now-ubiquitous “Je Suis Charlie” slogan invoking Amédy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed a policewoman on Jan. 8 and died the next day during a standoff in a kosher supermarket that killed four Jewish hostages.

I wrote a few days ago that a lot of the people who declared their support for free expression over the last few days have a rather dismal record on supporting free expression in the past. Basically, a lot of these folks aren’t so much for free expression itself; they just don’t want anyone to interfere with their right to bash Muslims. See also “Happily, President Obama N’est Pas Charlie,” which is in The American Conservative, of all places.

Muslim inhabitants of the Paris suburbs have ample reason to believe that France is far more committed to the defense of free speech which insults them than it is to free speech in the abstract. Charlie Hebdo was free to plaster on newsstands all over Paris vivid cartoon depictions of Mohammed as an eager homosexual bottom, but five years ago when one of its cartoonists wrote an item suggesting that a son of the president was making a good career move by converting to Judaism he was summarily fired and put on trial for “inciting racial hatred.” Literally, put on trial. The country of Voltaire, yup.

OT, but while you’re at The American Conservative read Daniel Larison’s “Romney and the ‘Vindication’ Fantasy.” It’s a hoot.

Going back to “It’s the Occupation, Stupid,” see Conor Friedersdorf’s “Islamophobia Is Not a Myth.” Apparently a lot of righties are arguing that Muslims who don’t engage in terrorism, which is most of them, have nothing to fear from knee-jerk backlashes in reaction to Islamic terrorism. This is absurd on its face; in the past several days how many public figures have proclaimed in mass media that Islam itself is the cause of terrorism? How many American wingnuts have worked themsleves into a fever pitch of hysteria over “sharia law”? Seriously.  In fact, the terrorists are counting on those knee-jerk backlashes to help radicalize the moderates still sitting on the fence. Bill Maher is proof the terrorists are winning, I say.  Friedersdorf writes,

My belief that Muslims are at special risk after a terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamist radicals is grounded in the fact that after the September 11 terrorist attacks, despite a conservative president urging his countrymen to refrain from blaming their Muslim neighbors, hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked dramatically.

The levels of increased hate were “real” and “measurable.”

My notion that Islamophobia, or irrational fear of mainstream Muslims, is a recognizable feature of post-9/11 America is informed by the several cities that have attempted to stop the construction of mosques, state attempts to ban sharia law as if we’re on the cusp of being ruled by it, fears that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, profiling of Muslim college students for no reason other than their religion, the anti-Muslim training materials that the FBI somehow adopted and used after 9/11, and dozens of Muslims I’ve interviewed who say that other Americans are more fearful of them than was the case prior to the September 11 attacks.

Which is, of course, why America was so easily stampeded into doing al Qaeda’s recruiting work and invading Iraq — that and the clueless wonders who were in charge of policy at the time.

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Obliviousness Will Be Our Doom

Religion, Terrorism

Earlier today I read a comment saying that Islamic extremism started with the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And of course that’s nonsense. The Iranian Revolution simply marked the point at which Americans noticed Islamic extremism.

I was as oblivious as anybody then. I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1973 and worked for the university for a few years after that, so I was on campus until about 1977. From time to time middle eastern students would mark around with signs denouncing the Shah of Iran and calling for America to stop supporting him. I ignored them. I had started seeing these guys with their signs before we were done with Vietnam, and I thought they should go demonstrate in their own country.

And then came the overthrow of the Shah and the Iranian hostage crisis. This wasn’t the first time violence connected to the region had gotten in our faces, of course. I became aware of the existence of Palestinians when a group of them got eleven Israeli athletes killed during the Munich Olympics. Which, along with being an atrocity, was also one of the worst public relations moves of all time. But I don’t remember that Americans associated Middle Eastern or Asian terrorism with Islam until they’d learned to hate the Ayatollah Khomeini.

But after all these years we still have no clue. I now have some understanding how much of today’s conflicts have their roots in European policies in the region at the end of World War I, and how that damage was compounded by America’s proclivity for propping up unpopular despots who at least were reliably anti-Soviet, like the Shah; and for toppling legitimately elected leaders who displeased us, such as Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Mossadegh had nationalized his country’s oil industry; he had to go.

Even our recent colossal screw-ups don’t seem to register as a cause of discontent. Invasion of Iraq? Abu Ghraib? Hello? Nah — it must be their religion.

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. She argues for something that I touched on my in book, Rethinking Religion. And that is that most of the time, the primary cause of “religious” violence isn’t religion, but something else that has caused fear and anger and a desire for violent action. And then the angry, fearful people get out their scriptures and look for Holy Permission to do what they want, usually accepting only those passages that could be interpreted to support their positions and ignoring those that don’t.

Most of the time, I argue, religion is not the cause of group violence but can act as an accelerant, allowing qualms and inhibitions to drop away. I think it can be argued that when an angry mob or violent movement persuades itself that God condones their violence, they might very well be more violent than they would have been. However, that doesn’t mean that if the religion factor were removed the violence wouldn’t have happened at all.

But what if the other factors were removed and just religion were left? Looking at all the religious violence in the world today and in history, I propose that religion alone doesn’t cause people to be violent. Religion has to be combined with something else, such as a deeply felt grievance. That grievance may have little or nothing to do with religion. And people of the Middle East have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved.

However, once an extremist religious movement has formed, attacking them, meeting anger with anger and violence with violence, just feeds it. It becomes more extremist; it attracts new recruits. Plus once the violence starts there are other groups of violent, angry people who want revenge. And if they can persuade themselves that their enemies have no cause for grievance and are just violent because they are crazy whackjob  religious fanatics, scorched earth retribution becomes more palatable.

See how that works?


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It Wasn’t About the Cartoons

Europe, Terrorism

Juan Cole has a must-read analysis of the Paris massacre that unfortunately will not be read by the people who need to read it.

The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.

Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Do read the whole thing. Juan Cole also writes that the perps were radicalized by Bush’s Iraq War and the Abu Ghraib torture.

Without Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, it is not at all clear that Sharif Kouachi would have gotten involved in fundamentalist vigilanteism. And if he hadn’t, he would not have gone on to be a point man in murdering out the staff of Charlie Hebdo along with two policemen.

Iraq is a major Arab, Muslim country. Its capital, Baghdad, is special to Sunni Muslims because the Abbasid empire built it and ruled from it. Having American troops occupy it for 8 years, humiliate its citizens, shoot people at checkpoints, and torture people in military prisons was a very bad idea. Some people treated that way become touchy, and feel put down, and won’t take slights to their culture and civilization any longer. Maybe the staff at Charlie Hebdo would be alive if George W. Bush and Richard Bruce Cheney hadn’t modeled for the Kouashi brothers how you take what you want and rub out people who get in your way.

That last part is supposition, but it’s well-informed supposition. Just as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 triggered a massively wrong-footed reaction that served the cause of al Qaeda a lot more than it did national security, the Paris massacre was designed to cause a massively wrong-footed reaction that could radicalize Muslims in Europe. But you’ll never get a true Islamophobe to admit, or even see, that he’s being played.

See also “Muslims Around the World Condemn the Charlie Hebdo Attack” and “‘Religious Violence’ Isn’t Just Religious.”

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Today in Panic News


I don’t want you to panic, but the Lt. Gov. of Texas announced that prayer rugs have been found on the Texas side of the border. The sneaky, nefarious payer rugs apparently attempted to disguise themselves as soccer jerseys. Don’t trust textiles.

On a more serious note, there is considerable panic over the workplace decapitation in Oklahoma, which strikes me as the work of someone with borderline personality disorder who watched the recent ISIS beheading videos a few too many times. This is a good argument for keeping some things off the Internet.

So far only Breitbart — the same crew who can’t tell the difference between a prayer rug and a soccer jersey — plus the usual suspects such as Pam Geller and Jim Hoft are reporting a direct connection between the perpetrator and actual jihadists.  This tells us with a high degree of certainty that there  is no actual evidence of such a connection at the present time, although that hardly matters to the unfortunate woman who was killed.

As Steve M says the mainstream press is downplaying this story, possibly because there’s not much to report so far except the grisly details. And the world is full of people with borderline personality disorder.


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