Facebook channeled a thread of news from Istanbul, Turkey, to me. My good friend from college slipped on his socks at his mother’s house, passed out and woke up in the ER. His brain cancer came back and bad. Tumors everywhere. A week later he was dead. The last time I saw him, a year ago at a coffee shop on Columbus Ave, he was digging through his bag for a voice recorder to interview a cancer survivor who was running the Boston Marathon. Cancer had consumed his life for the past three years. The second half of a book that he was writing about his fight with cancer, tentatively titled The Arithmetic of Cancer, is stuck behind his computer password. He was 32, English News Editor for a Turkish daily, a Muslim. I miss him. He made me a better person, and with him in mind ragging on Islam feels rude and inappropriate at the moment.
Death is no great comfort. Consumed with fear and wanting more (more love, more wealth, more time), wanting someone to tell us that everything will be okay, that consciousness goes on forever, that we can act however selfishly and be redeemed, sometimes invoking the will of gods offers a nice psychological substitute for justice. Religions promise binary, black and white, heaven and hell dues. But life is not so simple. The idea that the universe and all time is predetermined by a deity is just bad, and demonstrably wrong. Free will and fate are opposites. Everything dies. Death is natural. We do not need to fear or obsess on death when life surrounds us. Why dwell on what happens after our brains shut down?
Paradise is a powerful meme. Nothing cannot replace paradise. If you truly believe that you will live forever, you have nothing to lose. So suicide is selfish. But we cannot know whether forever exists. We know it cannot exist in this universe, given the link between time, energy and matter, given the eventuality of heat death. The fact that life is temporary is a relief in some cases, but not many. Cutting out the cancerous premise of eternal life, and killing the metastasized ambition to know the unknowable (god), might not actually help society at all. There are varieties of cancer so slow growing that they can be left unmolested. We each only have so much time, and if one thing doesn’t kill us within 100 or so years, another thing will. We’re all doomed to die.
There is this fear of death and desire for glory that religion answers, especially for those who do not dwell long on the dubious premise of eternal damnation. Avoidance of these tough topics is understandable, given the benefits. Community. Purpose. Brotherhood. Religion is like training wheels for the mind, providing myths for our colliding narratives (like the stories of Rebecca and Hagar), giving us an emotional sense of purpose (to follow the strong man). Our ancient texts preserve language (codifying memories) for us to discuss morality and mortality. We’d be better off viewing the circle of life, and our interrelated economies on their global scale, accept our individual irrelevance, and each work locally in our humble ways to make life better for each other.
With cancer in mind, in utilitarian terms, terrorism is a negligible threat. About 9 million people die from cancer each year, and 35,000 died from terrorism in 2014 (a particularly bad year). The tragedy is not so much the number of deaths as the amount of talent and effort wasted in this destructive struggle to establish a medieval empire. How many doctors, pharmacists, and really promising minds are on pause at the moment because of powerful hopes for eternity? Over the past ten years there’s been a concerted effort by the FBI to catch wannabe jihadis, and lock them away for “material aid to terrorists” before they do physical damage to their communities on top of the psychological violence they commit with vile speech.
People like Tarek Mehanna who publicize Qaeda, and normalize violent behavior, demand a response (Inshallah). Imprisoning them reduces freedom in our media, but their droning demands concerning god are also exhausting, insulting and unpleasant. We have a disturbing problem. Most Americans just don’t care about Islam at all, and never will. It’s barely part of our lives. But ignoring terrorist promotional methods (using our outrage and fear to publicize the Caliphate) and locking away propagandists seems short sighted. It’s like fighting cancer by not telling the patient in the hope that a positive attitude will fix things. Terrorism may be a small problem in terms of western casualties, but it’s a cancer to religious thinking in general. It killed my faith.
Religious faiths of all kinds gloss over reality with comfortable fictions that get more and more difficult to jettison as we get older. Religion satisfies our essential need for community. It checks our baser instincts like pride and greed. It offers us a reason to gather, and generally act weird. Without it, we might feel lost in a meaningless echo chamber.
Society seems to need some greater purpose to function, as David Foster Wallace suggested in his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyan College. “Everybody worships,” he said. “The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.” Wallace suggests we revere truth by living each moment of life to its fullest. “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.” We can find spiritual fulfillment here and now through entertainment, study, conversation and exercise.
The dogmatic worship of specific gods and religious practices/traditions encourages tribalism. There’s nothing wrong with joining a fan club. Fictions and rituals can be fulfilling, but the way we talk about our fictions can ease or retard our ability to honestly accept our inevitable demise. Death. It’s a hard thing to accept, and the problem extends beyond Islam.
There is a real blood lust to address, a desire for struggle that modern cultures (preoccupied with fashion, entertainment and lawn care) just do not easily accommodate. Terrorism, the principle of violence or murder as a means to an end (whether that be for an Israeli state, a Caliphate, dethroning a dictator, or to boost the teenage ego), has enthusiasts. We can stop this cycle of violence, if we want to. It didn’t start with Bin Ladin or Mohammad. We see it in literature dating back past the chronicles of King David’s genocide of the Amalekites. Before Agamemnon sacked Troy, Xerxes cut the heads off the archetects of a bridge over the Hellespont, and armies paraded in honor of the war god Anhur in Egypt, humans probably fought with neanderthals. Violence does not need to be an acceptable public policy, but it does work to secure territory or resources. Terrorism is one useful tool of warfare.
Cancer is often analogized to terrorism. As one ex-CIA operative put it in an interview about his memoir, “The best, most perfect analogy is that terrorism is a lot like cancer. In that, cancer is a catch-all term for a lot of different diseases that are not really related. A lot of the media used “terrorism” because it’s complex.” We’re not going to rid society of these familiar terrorist strategies of armed assaults and artisanal bomb making by simply attacking Islamic ideas. There are personal and political motivations here too. Dylan Roof’s attempt to instigate a race war by shooting assembled worshipers in a Black church, Amedy Coulibaly’s assault on the Jewish bakery in France, and the Columbine high school shootings, have a common thread. They share youthful delusions of grandeur, and the titillating novelty of killing in a peaceful public space. There’s a sense of manifest destiny with these things. Because it can happen, it does. It’s not that hard to buy an automatic weapon or make a few bombs and rain down havoc and chaos on a small scale. People do get perverse pleasure in watching other people die. It imparts a sense of power. It’s as though we feel we better understand death when we see others going through it.
Diehards often propose that violence solves violence. We might differentiate between the violence of revolutionary actors (like the Minutemen of the American Revolution), from government sanctioned violence. Drone strikes and assassinations are effective projections of power, on a level with the execution of Nathan Hale by Great Britain during the American Revolution. The reasoning, cut off the head(s) and the body fails, or, mixing metaphors, cut out the tumors so the cancer does not spread. The problem is that we’re dealing with a Lernaean Hydra, three heads growing from each freshly severed stump. The cancer metastasized. We’re dealing with a revolution in Syria, where secular and religious interests are all mixed up together. Many good intentioned young folks maintain brutal beliefs about corporal punishment, the role of women in society, and define sharia with gory brutality.
Regime change is never easy. Stable democracies have difficulty maintaining order while transitioning between power structures. When there is no formal court system, morality can be jettisoned in favor of expediency. Beliefs in gods have never really modulated this fact. It’s much faster and easier to kill or imprison individuals than to refute bad ideas and discuss morality. Unfortunately, when we kill people from afar, we create martyrs. The views of martyrs, just because they are paired with resonant stories of personal struggles, sway minds.
America creates martyrs, feeding this victimhood/underdog narrative, through both imprisonment and violence. Violence begets violence, and e4e makes everyone blind. I’m still not sure what Americans did to provoke 9/11. I suppose it’s to do with our government’s tacit support of the Saudi regime and other oppressive governments in the region, including Israel. American interests in Palestine aside, this is an odd stretch given that the Saudi government is one of the only dictatorships that still imposes the 7th century variety of sharia that jihadis so keenly discuss. Maybe it’s symbolic, a simple extension from the fact that the U.S. exports a lot of weapons, and it just looks bad when a smoke grenade knocks out your protest with “Made in the U.S.A.” printed on the side.
Terrorism causes societies to be self-destructive. It eats at our goodwill, encouraging us to castigate each other, to retreat into our tribal cohorts (I’m a Catholic and you’re a Protestant, Jew, Hindu . . .) misdirecting our collective energy toward symbolic security blankets (wailing walls) instead of toward things that really will make society better for everyone, like cancer research and preserving social security. Lately I’ve been trying to quit this writing project and focus on something uplifting, like fiction and poetry projects. There are enough blowhards already writing incendiary verses about Islam online, excoriating the morality of Muslims. This behavior just shuts down dialogue, shoving us off into our on isolated media havens collated through masterbatory social media algorithms. Maybe my creative energy would be better focused on a screenplay. But every time I turn my thoughts on more fulfilling topics, violent news interrupts.
The opening page of ISIL’s latest magazine declares, “Paris was a warning. Brussels was a reminder. What is yet to come will be more devastating and more bitter.” I can imagine plenty of bitter scenarios, and most of them don’t involve Jihadi nonsense at all. The worst they could possibly do is get ahold of nuclear material and set off a dirty bomb in Mecca or someplace. That would be terrible, but life would go on. We can’t discount the brutality of death cults, but their narrative swallows its own tail. They will die, and societies they hate (like ours) will continue with near mathematical certainty.
The imperial mindset is just a loser, as expressed in the ancient account of Nebucadnezzer’s dream: “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:33-35). In fact, no individual, no matter how benevolent, can spot the truth in every subject. No perfect ruler exists. In fact, we all work independently and often our best intentions are misguided.
We have a political hypothesis on power structures here that proves to be chaotic in society after society from the Assyrians to the Egyptians to the Babylonians to the British Empire and so on: a god-king, a theocracy, the idea that an omnipotent, omnipresent god ought to rule everything through the will of an avatar on earth. A celestial dictatorship, worshiping a capricious leader, sounds awful. Yet most members of my family believe that the best thing that could happen to humanity would be the rule of a god who tortures evil doers. It’s an abstract fantasy that doesn’t make much sense, when you really put mental effort into defining evil or examine the actual source materials on YHWH.
There is an Armageddon narrative emanating from the bowls of Christianity, parallel to Qaeda’s, which will have an inevitable impact on the 2016 election among Evangelical Christians in particular. It might draw votes to whatever candidate most vehemently appeals to God for authority, or it might discourage Evangelicals from voting all together. All the better. Barack, it turns out, is not just the first name of America’s current president. Some Christians, of the variety compelled to defend slavery and slut shame, have developed a narrative over the past eight years in which their antagonist is Allah and their president, named after the winged horse that Muhammad rode to heaven, is plotting the demise of Israel. It’s a tired, predictable idea. Prophets and theologians have been expressing apocalyptic fantasies for generations. My parents both hold a tentative belief that the end of the world will arrive before they die, egged on by the conviction of Martin Luther who predicted that life on earth would end before 1600. These fatalistic prophecies never materialize. They are not new, and not likely to disappear, even in the information age.
As we confront this imperialist variety of jihad, we face what to some minds is a war to end all wars with the ultimate goal of enthroning a theocrat with a divine mandate. These Jihadis say quite clearly that they want to establish a worldwide empire with a godhead. Whether the Sharia is under Abu Baker (who for all we know is already dead), another grand Mufti, or Barack Hussein Obama, this is a fantasy. The question is whether to ignore these guys, and let their bad ideas collapse around them, which hasn’t worked so well in North Korea for example, or to engage them. Iraq/Syria/Kurdistan, whatever that central area of the Middle East ends up being, will be rebuilt in part by apostates. The current Jihadis will eventually be inclined to cut their losses, and start working to fix up the places where they live.
While there are many games in life, which we use to understand our lives and social phenomena better, life is not a game. We live. We die. The reckoning is of our ancestors. Winners and losers disappear in the sands of time. Foreign policy is much more complicated than Chess or Risk or any other strategy game, because there is an emotional/social component, and many individual minds involved. We make a mistake conflating national identity and foreign policy with personalities. America is not opposed to Russia, for example. Rich/powerful inhabitants on each of the land masses governed by Washington and the Kremlin respectively have opposing interests in several areas. But in many areas of trade, as in turkey legs and gasoline, our interests intersect.
Because we gain more from cooperation than tribal raiding and feuding, our circles of awareness and empathy are slowly expanding. Overall rule of law is better than no rule at all. Sociologist Steven Pinker laid out some compelling evidence that “the world is putting an end to war” in his illuminating talk. We may be nearing the end of an Age of Empires. It’s worth outlining his argument briefly, as we consider how to overcome cycles of violence. If we’re cautious about starting more chaos, we may just be reaching a point in history when state funded violence of any kind is faux pas.
Pinker presents four divers of violence. “There’s raw exploitation,” he said. “Examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals.” Another is an explicit goal stated in the introduction of Qaeda’s 39 Ways to Jihad, dominance over disbelievers. Pinker calls it “competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence.” Revenge is a third inspiration for violence, as expressed in my desire to participate in the invasion of Iraq, and Bush II’s Shock and Awe Campaign.
Ideology is the fourth driver Pinker defines, saying that existential ideas may be the biggest contributor to warfare. “What these ideologies have in common is that they posit a utopia that is infinitely good for infinitely long. You do the math: if the ends are infinitely good, then the means can be arbitrarily violent and you’re still on the positive side of the moral ledger. Also, what do you do with people who learn about an infinitely perfect world nonetheless oppose it? Well, they are arbitrarily evil, and deserve arbitrarily severe punishment.”
As we deconstruct the glory of past warlords like Alexander the Great, The Kahns, et cetera, explore the stories of exploited people, the appeal of raw exploitation and dominance disappears. Revenge is restrictive, as Shakespeare often showed us: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” (Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2). We can see in just the past decade and a half, in the American response to Qaeda’s terror campaigns, the fruits of revenge.
Charting violent death rate statistics (per-capita) from the most violent times in the known history of our planet, Pinker argues for a trend toward peaceful cohabitation. Beating out our baser impulses, Pinker describes the “better angels” that might mitigate violence. These include “the faculty of self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior, and inhibit violent impulses. There’s the faculty of empathy (more technically, sympathy), the ability to feel others’ pain. There’s the moral sense, which comprise a variety of intuitions including tribalism, authority, purity, and fairness. The moral sense actually goes in both directions: it can push people to be more violent or less violent, depending on how it is deployed. And then there is reason, the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis.”
How do we bring out our better angels? Pinker’s statistics suggest that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes is right about the natural state of the human psyche. We are dull and brutish. We need the Leviathan to subdue our baser instincts. The best way to control our “nature” is with a state and justice system, “reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance.” Pinker suggests that “people tend to exaggerate their adversary’s malevolence and exaggerate their own innocence. Self-serving biases can stoke cycles of revenge when you have two sides, each of them intoxicated with their own sense of rectitude and moral infallibility.” The Leviathan becomes a means to revenge ourselves upon our enemies, who may be numerous, because we can all be assholes. We all do bad things when we know we can get away with it.
I notice among apostates from the Christian right online, a tendency toward the ideal of Libertarianism. I think it’s worth pointing out that the original colonists struggled through a libertarian society in the 1600s. That was a time punctuated by famines and witch burnings. Libertarians have the key weakness of overlooking the evil elements of human nature, our tendency toward superstition, and the inability of people experiencing difficulty to at best comprehend the finality of death, or at worst to empathize with the people they kill.
Most libertarians mean well. They are not all wealthy nihilists buying up private islands in Dubai. The man who taught me Latin in high school thinks kindly of people, but he also inhabits this odd pseudo reality of right wing talk radio. He hopes for a perfectly functioning society guided by an “invisible hand.” Well, there is no Hand. In fact, we make The Hand. The best analogy for our odd obsession with imperial power, our submission to gods and their human representatives, these crazy ancient theologies, is also tumorous. While they’re often benign, false, our species may not survive these all-consuming ideas.
Jesus didn’t walk on water, unless the sea of Galilee (a lake that is not stormy) was a fictional concept in the mind of whoever wrote the gospels. Mark reads like satire, if you read without prejudice. That’s where we get Jesus, The Nazarene. Though Nazareth probably did not exist. It’s a classic story arc that resonates through ancient literature, from the Odyssey all the way to the present day classics like Star Wars. Published at a time of rampant apocalyptic prophesy, when messianic figures were baptizing people. An interesting phenomenon, most people can hold multiple contradictory views at once. Brain scans of successful athletes might demonstrait a benefit in disassociated thoughts. I think it’s also possible to make fallacious connections, like the idea that democracy implies freedom. Also I don’t think that freedom and submission are necessarily opposed. When we do not worship the unknown (seek truth), we cease to seek or jihad for something better.
We need to work together to build strong systems of justice. Of course, this does not answer the problem of dictatorship. What happens in a country like Russia or Syria, built around a single strong-man personality violently clinging to power. Uprooting a tyrant also uproots the justice system, causing chaos. Here is a basis for an argument for open borders. In such a state, the best and brightest may look to invest their life and time elsewhere on earth, and their investments could (theoretically) benefit their neighbors wherever they chose to settle.
The world market has been growing steadily, as has our tendency toward harmony. So there is reason to hope. Steven Pinker points out, “Plunder is a zero-sum or even a negative sum game: the victors’ gain is the loser’s loss. Trade, in contrast, is a positive-sum game.” People are more valuable alive and happy in society than dead, orphaned or maimed. This is not so true in societies where wealthy and powerful people exploit their advantage. So those of us in the know can work together to change our incentive structures. We can make it painful to be selfish, and the ways that we fight against base instincts in our midst will become clear as we examine available ways and means to jihad for social justice. I am a social justice warrior (an avowed SJW), a jihadi. I want to help make earth a gorgeous garden, a self-sustaining space ship that maybe one day future generations will pilot to a younger star. I’ll be dead. So I give less then a fuck about success, but it gives me a purpose. It’s a reason to live.
Pinker takes an optimistic view, based on sociological trends. He predicts a bright future, as we all in our small ways work in each other’s interests: “People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.”
Let’s remember that many of our allies on earth are Muslim, and Sunni to boot. We do not need to agree on every essential belief or fashion. Most of our interactions involve platitudes and time wasting nonsense anyway. The actual work of building, of plowing and harvesting fields, of establishing magnetic intercontinental railway systems, of studying our universe, of honestly cataloging events for future generations, most productive things that give lives purpose don’t require a common deity or any religious belief system all. We do have common objectives and virtues to work toward in tandem. We can all be fans of different fictions. But there is this problem of dogmatic fanboys who dress up and act with extravagant bias against anyone who does not enjoy the same stories that their ancestors enjoyed.
Islamic discourse is Arabic, and the meanings of many Arabic words are preserved in the Islamic scriptures, mythology and tradition. We’re not debating whether or not Islam offers a complete system of governance. That’s a matter of faith and interpretation best left in the realm of god (the unknown). Why impose limits on our imaginations? What we’re debating is Sharia (law, put simply). What is right? What is wrong? How shall we govern, and who should govern? Unfortunately holy books like the Bible and the Quran, facilitate dictatorships by encouraging blind reverence for patriarchy. While explicitly dismissing man-made objects, they encourage this irrational awe of artifice and tradition. In many ways these books become like idols.
We waste time in religious discussion on ancient words that actually express fairly shallow ethics. Love thy neighbor is hardly nuanced enough of a moral teaching for life in a high rise apartment building. Love can mean a lot of things, but respect is a much more concrete ethical principle. Modern philosophy and science make much better reading: nature, Wired, Popular Science. Let’s explore the world, and share our experiences. Let’s grow an economy of knowledge, and exchange currency in good ideas.
Religion provides some psychological support systems. We function fairly well in congregations, looking out for each other’s interests. Religions teach social values: humility, kindness, good will towards men, respect for rituals and preserving traditions of history and memories. When we talk about reforming Islam (or Evangelical Christianity), we’re talking about civics, and how to govern our interactions. Whether we call it civics, sharia or law, the questions we are debating are policy related. If you don’t like the debate, if you don’t like how democracy works, then move to one of the many dictatorships on earth and stop surfing the internet.
So how do we counter destructive policies like terrorism, or segregation? How do we unseat dictators without upending the whole peaceful and productive system that keeps them in power? What is the best way to Jihad for social justice? As an apostate I am careful about saying anything emphatically. Aware of the embarrassing reality of often being wrong, I write in hope of correction, and revision. I want to make this document better. I want everything to be as honest and true as possible, and I’ll be lucky if half of what I’m writing here is actually accurate.
I have no god, but I do not mind abiding with yours. I’m not interested in religion as much as in how we might make the world better. Some people call this spirituality, but don’t expect me to buy into he said, she said, dogma. I don’t want to spread a false message as anything other than fiction. What matters in fiction is what’s beneath. Fiction can be true and profound. Fictions have the power to move our subconscious and to change our perspectives. Successful fictions always include truth, interspersed with fantasies that illuminate the mind and spirit.
Apostasy is the rejection of any dogmatic creed that once identified you. I am an apostate. I firmly disbelieve the claims people make about the Bible being historically or even ethically accurate. I think theological studies are wastes of intellectual capital. Functioning under the delusion of a grand narrative, they pervert our precious time together on earth into morality plays.
I take much more identity from my apostasy than from atheism. Apostasy is a difficult process, a realization and rejection of a community in order to seek truth. Atheism is simply disbelief in gods. Shared identity is better put in positive terms. I am a science enthusiast, for example. Fictions are comfortable, and it’s sometimes tough to abandon a fan club. It’s stressful to leave any community. Apostasy is lonely. It’s depressing to abandon a belief system, disconcerting. Losing my faith made me suicidal (for years). All purpose and richness can seem sucked from life as you accept that the earth is all we’ve got. But it gets easier. Difficulties are easier to manage without an invisible friend.
Of course as an apostate, struggling for social justice, I am still likely to be enamoured by hurtful, nonsensical ideas. Freedom of speech, for example, I hold as an infallible principle, though much of ISIL’s recruiting success in the West is a direct result of liberal tolerance of badly conceived speech.
A critical question to ask is where do we stand on violence? Is it worthwhile to kill people? Should we differentiate between terrorism perpetrated by a state and terrorism perpetrated by revolutionaries? Maybe there are times, virtue being abstract, when violence is productive, when violence does propel some social good.
We might define terrorism as the ideology of wanton violence as a means to media attension. It differs from war in that war is strategic, involving subterfuge and a variety of violent aggression. War is like jihad, a struggle toward a certain end, and defeating the enemy means putting them into a state of submission. We need members of Qaeda to start pursuing liberal values, change the outlook of this propaganda mill. We have ideological allies within the organization. Some of these guys are just religious conservatives, with all the same bluster and well meaning of Focus on the Family. Are we interested in punishment or reformation? We’ve killed bin Ladin. Maybe one day we can bring KSM, the real mastermind behind 9/11, to a public trial. If nothing else, he could be executed in Pakistan for killing Daniel Pearl.
It will take awhile, but we might be better off encouraging our Muslim brothers and sisters to disregard imperialist teachings and to draw spiritual fulfilment from the more wholesome elements of their scriptures. Muslims do not need to apostatize completely. Just rejecting the fundamental dogma is apostasy enough. The effect of Qaeda’s terrorist attacks is to make muslims feel victimized, polarizing society, encouraging Muslims to isolate and avoid mixing. If we want to end terrorism, we need to make it ineffective. We need to mix, and turn the spotlight on the victimization of progressive Muslims.
It would be nice if we could treat the self-aggrandizing Mujahidin like a gassy dog, and shut it away in its own stink. Wall these ideologues off in the desert, deny them access to the societies that create the technology they abuse, starve out their gas, make them beg for cell service and potable water. Man does not live on words alone, as Jesus and Al Ghazal found out. But we cannot cut off transit across whole sections of the earth. We cannot stop migration or trade. We cripple our societies when we try, and we also victimize certain identities.
We don’t need to understand Islam in English terms, and in some ways the English language presents false equivalencies (Jihad being tough to translate), but I do think some translation is in order. Maajid Nawaz westernized a few Arabic terms for discussing how Islamist (corollary to evangelist) and Jihadi (corollary to crusader) ideology might be tamed. It’s ok to be an Islamist or an Evangelical, as long as you can trust your god to enact justice without physical assistance. Punishments for existential sins, like abortion or homosexuality, must be existential, enacted by whatever god, not self-appointed followers.
Theology is wasted time, ideas that metastasize in our souls, creating false hopes and dreams. Exorcising the premise, that doing certain deeds (like submission to Allah or Jesus or whatever) will impart eternal life, does some violence to a whole body of existential desires and fears. It feeds a cancerous mindset, elevating the idea that consciousness is eternal. It’s a way of seeing life on earth, and when life lasts forever (theoretically) it loses value. We can rationalize injustice, rather than seeing injustice for what it is, and looking for methods of restitution and resolution.
Let’s drop our moral imperatives, get off our high horse, and consider the idea that killing can be justified. It could be moral to kill one person to save a large group of people (as we learn from the classic train switch thought experiment–if a train headed toward a switch could go one way off a cliff, killing 200 passengers, or kill just yourself on the tracks going the other way, and you can flip the switch–or the story of Jesus). Capital punishment is brutal, but it can also punctuate a narrative. Maybe it’s base, but I do feel better knowing that Bin Ladin is gone, that he’ll never bloviate again. Even though he was just a spokesman. KSM planned 9/11.
Should we execute people for threats and bluster? The liberal jihad in the west has often been to counter this, to protect the lives of murderers and terrorists, to show that we are somehow better, that liberal ethics ought to be preferred. I’m arguing that this is not so much about Muslims and Christians or religiosity at all, but about providing honest answers to young people with honest concerns about death. We need to give some attention to the fact that we want everybody here on earth to be happy, to live full and rich lives. Life is better overall when we make each other happy. We don’t have to be such assholes.
For as long as Muslims perpetrate violence in the name of Allah, Islamophobia is inevitable, and Islamophobic people can be treated with patronizing disinterest. The only way to end Islamophobia is to end terrorism in the name of Islam. That can only happen when the messages of moderate Islamists eclipse violent messages within groups like Qaeda, in the same way that messages from moderate Evangelicals eclipsed the racist views expressed by Baptists across the country during Jim Crow and slavery.
The inability (or lack of desire) to recognize the difference between the tiny minority of dangerous Muslims is laughable, and a little shameful, but understandable. We might challenge Islamophobes, like Donald Trump, to find some courage within their gut to face their fears with honest policy debate. The fact is that young people sometimes get a taste for violence and mayhem. We do not need to carpet bomb the Middle East to decimate and ultimately defeat Qaeda. But we do need to talk strategy. How do we stop terrorists?
In a way, our Jihad is a rescue mission, saving our fellow humans from themselves. The Mujahidin is sacrificing lives for a fiction. They are the walking dead, and they can only continue living by becoming apostates. Some, especially those Syrian and Iraqi locals who joined the fight because they view their fight as a revolution against Assad and Western influence, may be able to adjust to a moderate variety of Islam that awaits the mythic judgement of god (aka the unknowable), having realized that the judgement on earth is made in fact by military commanders, politicians, and professional judges (Levites). Some of the fighters may be able to evolve their religious convictions. But most of the people who subscribed to Qaeda’s endless war till judgement day hypothesis will have to either die or realize that they were wrong. This will probably lead them to also question foundational beliefs of Islam.
Once upon a time I imagined that my morals were based on my religious convictions, that without heaven and hellfire life is a free for all. But in fact life on earth is heaven and hell. We are punished by society for being bad here and now, and the fact that good things happen to bad people is a problem that societies can work to fix. We can avoid rewarding bad behavior. We can make life better for each other by struggling for the good of the people around us.
The goal is to promote the “virtuous cycle” that boyd hundreds of thousands of Americans from subsistence level living to middle class prosperity in America in the 1950s. The world is large enough for everyone to establish a small domain, to have a private space, a car and a computer, a full cabinet and refridgerator, to buy entertainment legally and to pursue their own purpose. So our Jihad is to impose a virtuous cycle despite the irrational resistance from those who benefit greatly from the current system. The world is not zero-sum, and life is not a game. We evolve together in various ways, for the better or worse of our societies. We must take what we have, where we have it, asses where we want to be, and how to get there. This doesn’t mean that anyone is equal. But nobody needs to be hungry and homeless. Individually, we find where our talents and enjoyments can fit in with others. Collectively we find purpose in improving life (evolving) for future generations. Let’s counter Qaeda’s Jihad for dominance with our own overwhelming Jihad for social justice.