The Islamic Petri Dish

Posted: February 1, 2015 in Culture, Debate, Media, Politics, Religion
Tags: , ,

Since the eruption of bigotry against Islam on the Bill Maher’s show Real Time last October, I have been bugged by the ongoing tide of vitriol and fear-mongering as radical Islam becomes this century’s equivalent of 20th-century Nazis. There is no doubt that the Middle East is a troubled region of the world and that many of its issues are wrapped about Islamic dogma (e.g., jihad) that have been hijacked by extremists. Oppression, misogyny, violence, and terrorism will get no apologetics from me. However, the fact that deplorable behaviors often have an Islamic flavor does not, to my mind, excuse bigotry aimed at Islam as a whole. Yet that is precisely the argument offered by many pundits and trolls.

Bill Maher did not get the ball rolling, exactly, but he gave it a good shove, increasing its momentum and seeming righteousness rightness among weak thinkers who take their cues and opinions from television personalities. Maher wasn’t alone, however, as Sam Harris was among his guests and argued that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas.” The notable exception on the panel that episode was Ben Affleck (Nicholas Kristof also made good points, though far more diplomatically), who called bullshit on Islam-baiting but failed to convince Maher or Harris, whose minds were already made up. Maher’s appeals to authoritative “facts” and “reality” (a sad bit of failed rhetoric he trots out repeatedly) failed to convince in the other direction.

Sam Harris faced another detractor when he consented to be interviewed by Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks. The 3-hour interview gave both participants plenty of time to prosecute theirs views on Islam. I made it through only about two hours before giving up. Sam Harris failed (IMO) to correct what he described as misrepresentations of his views (namely, that he’s Islamophobic), and Cenk Uygur got lost in excessive tangential gotcha argumentation. Not the mark of a good interview or interviewer.

What I took out of it is that Sam Harris, one of several militant atheists and ideologues demanding attention in the marketplace of ideas, is attempting an end-around for his bigotry, arguing that, in addition to being the mother lode of bad ideas, Islam is a veritable breeding ground for extremism. Whether Islam or any religion formulates doctrines its members believe willingly, or alternatively, foists those doctrines on members who are trapped in the faith by accidents of parentage and/or geographical location is a good question. (Try being non-Christian in Latin America or non-Muslim in Malaysia.) The dominant culture in any region at any time in history has both subscribers and prisoners. Accordingly, I find nothing about Islam, viewed from the vantage point of history, that makes it especially odious compared to similar derailments of Christianity or Judaism, or for that matter, with nations and regional alliances that faced unusual stresses (typically caused by resource scarcity but sometimes borne out of pure ideology). History is littered with examples. Overpopulation and overextension of political empires in the Middle East (and elsewhere) are only the most contemporary expressions of such stresses. So yes, Islam may be the current flashpoint, but it’s the behaviors that ought to be the focus of condemnation, not the religion. Islam is no more an extremist Petri dish than was, say, Christianity during the Crusades or Inquisition. Generalizing the loudest minority faction across the entire religion is simply a mistake.

Yet that’s the message being broadcast far and wide. Plenty of argument is to be found on both sides of the issue. Here, for instance, is an e-mail message (apologies for the extended quote — author unknown) forwarded to me recently, arguing that Islam is some sort of fertile substrate for growing extremists hell-bent on taking over the world or destroying it:

Subject: A Short History Lesson

In 732 AD, the Muslim Army, which was moving on Paris, was defeated and turned back at Tours, France, by Charles Martell.

… in 1571 AD, the Muslim Army/ Navy was defeated by the Italians and Austrians as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to attack southern Europe in the Battle of Lepanto.

… in 1683 AD, the Turkish Muslim Army, attacking Eastern Europe, was finally defeated in the Battle of Vienna by German and Polish Christian Armies.

… this crap has been going on for 1,400 years and half of politicians don’t even know it!

… if these battles had not been won, we might be speaking Arabic and Christianity could be non-existent; Judaism certainly would be. And let us not forget that Hitler was an admirer of Islam and that the Mufti of Jerusalem was Hitler’s guest in Berlin and raised Bosnian Muslim SS Divisions: the 13th and 21st Waffen SS Divisions who killed Jews, Russians, Gypsies, and any other “subhumans.”

… in 1783 AD, when the British Colonies that would become the United States of America gained independence from Great Britain, five Muslim countries of North Africa declared war on the newly independent country, hijacking and kidnapping merchant sailors and selling them for ransom or into slavery. When the United States of America was established, we were forced to pay extortion fees amounting to 20–25% of our federal budget to those Muslim countries to keep them from their hijacking and kidnapping. It took two administrations, Washington and Adams, to build a sufficient Navy so that President Jefferson, in 1805, could send the Navy and Marines to conquer Tripoli and end the piracy. Islam has been at war with the USA since our founding.


A lot of Americans have become so insulated from reality that they imagine that America can suffer defeat without any inconvenience to themselves. Pause a moment to reflect back. These events are  actual events from history. They really happened!! Do you remember?

  1. In 1968, Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed by a Muslim male.
  2. In 1972, at the Munich Olympics, athletes were kidnapped and massacred by Muslim males.
  3. In 1972, a Pan Am 747 was hijacked and eventually diverted to Cairo where a fuse was lit on final approach, it was blown up shortly after landing by Muslim males.
  4. In 1973, a  Pan Am 707 was destroyed in Rome , with 33 people killed, when it was attacked with grenades by Muslim males.
  5. In 1979, the U.S. embassy in Iran was taken over by Muslim males.
  6. During the 1980s, a number of Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon by Muslim males.
  7. In 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut was blown up by Muslim  males.
  8. In 1985,  the cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked and a 70-year-old American passenger was murdered and thrown overboard in his wheelchair by Muslim males.
  9. In 1985, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked at Athens, and a U.S. Navy diver trying to rescue passengers was murdered by Muslim males.
  10. In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed by Muslim males.
  11. In 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed the first time by Muslim males.
  12. In 1998, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed by Muslim males.
  13. On  9/11/01, four airliners were hijacked; two were used as missiles to take down the World Trade Centers and of the remaining two, one crashed into the U.S. Pentagon and the other was diverted and crashed by the passengers. Thousands of people were killed by Muslim males.
  14. In 2002, the United States fought a war in Afghanistan against Muslim males.
  15. In 2002, reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by — you guessed it was a —  Muslim male.
  16. In 2013, the Boston Marathon was bombed; 4 innocent people including a child were killed, 264 were injured by Muslim males.
  17. In 2014, thousands of Christian men, women, and children are slaughtered, defiled, and beheaded by Muslim males.

No, I really don’t see a pattern here to justify profiling, do you? So, to ensure we Americans never offend anyone, particularly fanatics intent on killing us, airport security screeners will no longer be allowed to profile certain people. Absolutely No Profiling! They must conduct random searches of 80-year-old women, little kids, airline pilots with proper identification, secret agents who are members of the President’s security detail, 85-year old Congressmen with metal hips, and Medal of Honor winner and former Governor Joe Foss, but leave Muslim males alone lest they be guilty of profiling.

Have the American people completely lost their Minds, or just their Power of Reason?

My response is that yes, Americans have lost their power of reason, but not in the sense intended by this writer. This rant is an example of common bigotry, and it gets a pass with most Americans because the media have been fanning the flames and making out that all Muslims are terrorists by definition, conveniently forgetting that many from predominantly Muslim countries have legitimate reasons for grievance because of the ways they have been treated by Western governments. Also, Islam is one of the three major Abrahamic religions, along with Judaism and Christianity. With 1.6 billion Muslims (23% of global population), of course some of them are radicals — just like radical Christians, radical Jews, and radical atheists. Pointing out that some of them did bad things and generalizing (“I see a pattern”) across the entire population is textbook bigotry.

So critical thinkers have a variety of narratives from which to choose, all of them purporting to explain what’s going on in the world. Some would have us believe that Islam itself (an entire body of religious belief ranging from fanatical to casual) is so inherently bad it must be, what? Driven from the face of the Earth? An alternative is that we’re in midst of yet another epochal clash of cultures, where the Arab world and its belief systems that formed the origins of civilization have been losing their bid for dominance with the (Christian) West for over 1,000 years and is now rejoining the battle in earnest. Not exactly the Hatfields and McCoys (or Montagues and Capulets if you prefer), but still a longstanding crisis. Another is that modern media have made the (relative) freedoms and spoils of liberal Western democracies apparent to those suffering under theocratic and/or dictatorial rule who either want what we’ve got (Arab Spring) or want to strike against infidels who would invalidate their ways of life (Islamofascism). Like all cultural analyses, answers need not be mutually exclusive or definitive. However, rebranding Islam as some sort of evil incarnate to be stamped out is preposterous.

  1. Clem says:

    Pretty even handed. Nicely done.

    Have you ever traveled in a Muslim country?

    • Brutus says:

      I have traveled in Muslim countries, but none that resemble war-torn Middle Eastern and Central European countries. So although the Muslim influence was apparent in the architecture, my experience was entirely secular and unthreatened.

      • Clem says:

        I spent a few weeks in Kazakhstan about a dozen years ago now. They’d been independent of Mother Russia for about a decade at that point. Signs of Mother Russia were still very evident however.

        I entered and left through Almaty – the capital during USSR times. It was quite secular in nature, the Muslim presence was not in-your-face.

        More remote parts of the country still showed some signs of the Russian occupation, but this was less apparent. The Muslim presence seemed stronger (less secular if you will), but I would still not consider it any more imposing than what one would expect to find of Christianity in a rural Italian village. The most threatening experience of the trip came at the hands of some government bureaucrats who I’m guessing felt threatened by our presence. One awkward moment at a Mosque could be explained by a misunderstanding of proper Muslim etiquette (on our part). All in all an enlightening trip and not at all an experience that might lend fuel to anti-Muslim sentiments.

  2. Very nice post, really, more journalism than a blog post, well done! I object to Maher and Harris only because they seem to be supporting Christian or Western exceptionalism, The problem is religion. When religion was in charge in the western world, it looked a lot like parts of the Muslim world where the problems are coming from. Killing heretics was perfectly acceptable in Christianity when the church was in charge. The only reason things are better in the west at the moment is secularization. Actually the same is true in Muslim countries with strong secular governments (for example Turkey). Muslim extremism is a group of basically powerless people who are pretending their god gives them power. A political problem made worse by the absolutism of religion.

    We didn’t hear so much about “Catholic terrorism” when the IRA was running about bombing things. Then, somehow we managed to understand it was political. Same today in the mideast. And we do need to understand that.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t think a journalist would begin by saying “I’ve been bugged .…”

      Whereas some commentators drill down to the minutia putatively acting as causation (e.g., Islam as a subset of religion), I tend to go the opposite direction toward the biggest umbrella that covers everything. You’ve gone one size up to religion in general, but I have always thought of that being an convenient excuse for things people just want to do, which in politics is usually to dominate and rule (or conversely, be left alone to self-rule). Your second paragraph observes essentially the same.

      • I assume we would be on the same page to be opposed to the idea of exceptionalism. I think someone one has quite an uphill battle to prove that one group of humans are far better than another.

  3. misericordia says:

    It’s fair to expect better from public intellectuals than the tendentiousness on display here. It is, as you say, hardly different from the one-sided history lesson your correspondent served up to you. We humans seem quite unwilling to confront what remains our perhaps greatest challenge: understanding how and why our powerful pattern-finding faculty leads us again and again into traps from which one can only extricate oneself with difficulty. Indeed, we are often encouraged by others to do so and there are penalties for dissidence. I do worry, though, about your use of the term bigotry, which is too freely used as a barb. I favor its use to describe an unwillingness to entertain competing views, rather than that one is a holder of opinions that are by themselves objectionable.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m probably misusing the term bigotry. The dictionary points toward intolerance and intransigence rather than the wrongheaded generalization of exceptional and extreme characteristic behaviors across large populations. Perhaps I should use prejudice instead. I don’t mind being corrected on that account.

      My expectation of Maher is not very high. His filter is comedy. Sam Harris I might expect better of, but he’s descended into demagoguery. Public intellectuals should offer better models than to fall victim to the same sloppy thinking as the general public.

  4. Do you live in Middle East?

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