When Jihad Isn’t About Religion

2014-08-28 When Jihad Isn't About Religion

One of the rallying cries of the New Atheists was that–as 9/11 shows–religion isn’t just harmlessly irrational. It’s dangerous.

The logic seemed clear: the more devoutly you believe in God the more likely you are to go and do something violent, stupid, or both in the name of God’s will. The logic was wrong. As the New Statesman reports:

Can you guess which books the wannabe jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed ordered online from Amazon before they set out from Birmingham to fight in Syria last May? … Sarwar and Ahmed, both of whom pleaded guilty to terrorism offences last month, purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. You could not ask for better evidence to bolster the argument that the 1,400-year-old Islamic faith has little to do with the modern jihadist movement. The swivel-eyed young men who take sadistic pleasure in bombings and beheadings may try to justify their violence with recourse to religious rhetoric – think the killers of Lee Rigby screaming “Allahu Akbar” at their trial; think of Islamic State beheading the photojournalist James Foley as part of its “holy war” – but religious fervour isn’t what motivates most of them.

This isn’t just speculation or–worse still–some kind of PC effort to protect the reputation of Islam from its own adherents. As it turns out, this conclusion is the same one that was reached by the behavior scientists at MI5:

In 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was leaked to the Guardian. It revealed that, “far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”

But that’s not even the most interesting finding. This is: The analysts concluded that “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

In other words: if young, budding terrorists were more religious, they’d be less likely to be terrorists. Terrorism is primarily a socio-political response to insecurity, insecurity that a deep and abiding faith would help to alleviate.

The Real Story Behind the Prisoner Exchange

2014-06-03 Bergdahl Parents Press Conference
Bergdahl’s parents at a White House press conference.

As I understand it, the news cycle has gone something like this:

  1. Five detainees from Guantanamo were traded for the only American POW in Afghanistan, Bowe Robert Bergdahl.
  2. Republicans cry foul, making a variety of allegations about why the exchange was a bad idea, or at least not something to celebrate without reservation.
  3. Democrats mock Republicans for being willing to criticize everything they do, even when it’s the return of a POW.
  4. News stories from mainstream outlets start to validate some (but not all) of what Republicans were complaining about.

Let me give you two examples. The first comes from The Daily Beast and the headline says it all: We Lost Soldiers in the Hunt for Bergdahl, a Guy Who Walked Off in the Dead of Night. According to the story, Bergdahl deserted his post of his own volition (bad enough), which led to a vast manhunt that resulted in American soldiers dying while looking for him (worse) and culminated in strict orders that the American soldiers not speak of the incident at all (worse still). The article, written by one of the soldiers who was out risking his life and jeopardizing the greater counterinsurgency operations looking for Bergdahl, concludes by saying:

And Bergdahl, all I can say is this: Welcome back. I’m glad it’s over. There was a spot reserved for you on the return flight, but we had to leave without you, man. You’re probably going to have to find your own way home.

It’s a really poignant, fair, eye-opening piece. Read it. And then there’s this piece, published by conservative Mormon and Islamic scholar Daniel Peterson about some of the conservative complaints that are decidedly less reasonable. Peterson shoots down the theory that Bergdahl’s father “sanctified the White House for Islam” when he said, upon entering that building, “Bi ism Allah al-rahman al-rahim whih” meaning (in Arabic): “in the name of Allah the most gracious and most merciful.” Sounds ominous (if you have no idea what you’re talking about), but Peterson explains that the phrase “is routinely used at the beginning of formal statements and speeches in Islamic societies.” Bergdahl’s next words, apparently in Pashto instead of Arabic, were “I am your father.” Why speak Arabic and Pashto to a returning American POW? Because he spent the last 5 years speaking only Arabic and Pashto and is having trouble adjusting back to English, that’s why. 

In short: this is another one of those stories where everyone who is convinced that the other side is ripe for ridicule ends up looking rather ridiculous themselves. Whether it’s Mother Jones embarrassing itself by attributing the (entirely factual) notion that Bergdahl was  a deserter to “a few fringe types” (thus making The Daily Beast, USA Today, etc. all out to be right-wing nutjobs) or conservatives with zero comprehension of Arabic language or culture concocting weird fantasies about the White House being baptized into Islam, people ought to settle down and just do a little bit of digging. And maybe a little bit of waiting.

As far as I can tell the reason that conservatives were ahead of the main stream media on this story is partially paranoia but also because conservatives are much, much more tied in to the US military and therefore knew early that something was up. I knew because I follow Michael Yon, and he issued an early warning on this story, saying:

Mixed Reaction on Bergdahl release from Taliban
Be careful with this. He needs to be welcomed home, given a full physical and time with his family, and then charges against Bergdahl should be considered.
A piece of information you likely never will see in the news: Taliban and al Qaeda shared joint custody of Bergdahl. He converted to a hardcore strain of Islam, according to reliable sources.

Yon linked to an Army Times piece citing “mixed” reaction from the military community. (He added information in further updates like this one and this one.) So the military community, which is no fan of Obama, was out early with suspicion about holding a press conference for the return of someone who had, by his own derelection of duty, ensured that other Americans never made it home. Now the Pentagon will review claims US soldiers killed during search for Bergdahl. Looks like there was at least some fire to go with all this smoke.


No Honorary Degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali

2014-04-23 Ayaan Hirsi AliEarlier this month, Time posted a letter written by Ayaan Hiris Ali, which she had written in response to Brandeis University’s decision not to give her an honorary degree after all. If a university decides not to give someone an award, you can pretty safely bet it’s because someone might be offended. But it’s always interesting to me when the person who might be offended (in this case the primary victim appears to be CAIR) and the alleged victimizer (Ali) are both members of politically correct identity groups. After all, Ali is not only a woman, but also black. She is also a woman’s rights activist. But she’s an atheist and a harsh critic of Islam. So who do you side with, the WoC or Islam?

I’m partially interested in this out of morbid fascination, like watching a car crash. But it’s also a kind blend of fatalism and professional interest. Given my aspirations (to be a fiction writer) and my politics (anything other than party-line left) it’s more or less a question of how much I’m going to pay for my beliefs, professionally speaking, not whether or not I will. So, which are the most taboo taboos? What matters more?

Turns out, though, we can’t really tell from this story. Ali is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Suddenly: everything is clear. Doesn’t really matter what the rest of her liberal bona fides may be; she is tainted by association with the right. She’s even married to Niall Ferguson (who is practically a colonial apologist) so there’s really no hope for her at all.

I guess Brandeis didn’t really have a hard call to make after all.

Mormons…the new Jew?: Exploring the Jewish-Mormon Connection

BYU’s Jerusalem Center

Rabbi Perry Tirschwell wrote an interesting comparison of Mormons and Jews in the Jewish Press yesterday. Ever since Orson Hyde dedicated the Holy Land and prophesied about the Zionist movement, Mormons have had a vested interest in witnessing the restoration of the Jews’ place in the world. It should be clear, though, that Latter-day Saint Church leaders are on record in expressing love for towards both Jews and Muslims, lest people think we’re taking a side in certain Middle-East conflict. The late Mormon president/prophet Howard  W. Hunter said in his excellent 1979 address “All Are Alike Unto God”:

Read more