In 1857, the French poet Charles Baudelaire published a collection titled, Les Fleurs du mal, or “The Flowers of Evil.” Today, such flowers seem to be popping up all over, most profusely in the Middle East.
ISIS, the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and its rivals keep themselves in the news by conjuring up new obscenities and posting them on the Internet. ISIS beheads prisoners and burns a captive alive, al-Qaeda shoots up the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and al-Shabab slaughters 150 university students in Kenya. Through such acts, Islamist terrorists have become the Cirque du Soleil of violence. A stack of new books, and countless articles and TV rants attempt to explain such Islamist outrages.
Amid the din, two discordant themes sound loudest. One is the liberal position that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, but rather springs from discontent due to poverty, corrupt rulers, and an Internet-fueled envy of the West.
The other: Islam is as Islamist does. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a remarkable woman who previously earned a good deal of moral authority with her memoir, has taken the baton for this chorus with the publication of her new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She argues that it is foolish to think the violent acts of Islamist terrorists can be isolated from the religious texts that inspire them. Hirsi Ali’s full argument is more subtle, but the conclusion many draw is that Islam and Islamism are one.
Where should a humanist come down? On a higher plane altogether. Both stances are dangerously simplistic, and it’s important to understand why.
With al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, and other militants competing with ISIS for headlines, Islamist terror grows ever more grotesque. That alone tends to wear down the liberal position. How can poverty, oppression, or any other grievance explain the horrors on parade? It really cannot. A growing number of prominent humanists—uber atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris leap to mind—seem to endorse the equivalence position.
They are right to dismiss the claim that a terrorist who gloatingly beheads an innocent prisoner or bombs a peaceful crowd must have a terrible grudge to work off. Many militants have led privileged lives—Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a pot-smoking college student until he and his big brother set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a Nigerian prince at a London boarding school before he became the Underwear Bomber. And so on.
The seeds for fleurs du mal lie in the soil of human nature. Buried in each of us is a driving need to achieve status. In a social species like ours, status is critical to reproductive success, and hence evolution has made competition a universal feature of our species. But not everyone has an equal shot at gaining prestige. Immigrants and minorities, for example, are at a disadvantage, because of their outsider label. Perceived disadvantage can be enough to alienate a person from mainstream status competition and set them looking elsewhere for opportunity. That’s the seed.
The fertilizer ISIS applies is toxic idealism, drawn from Islam. Utopian ideologies are rich sources of manure. When Marxism promised an egalitarian paradise on earth, it became all too easy for believers to convince themselves that any sacrifice could be justified to hasten that future—especially the sacrifice of others. Marxism eventually proved self-refuting, but religion is immune from that.
Once convinced that God wills violent action and rewards the obedient follower, nothing stands in the way of any horror. Researchers like Mark Juergensmeyer have interviewed terrorists and found them serenely convinced of the moral purity of their actions. How, you may wonder, can they feel no guilt? The answer again lies in the science of human nature.
The conscience evolved to apply only to those in one’s kin-based group. It would have been suicidal for ancient people to have concern for rival bands. The miracle of modern civilization is that we’ve been able to stretch an instinct that evolved to be about 150 people wide to encompass billions. It doesn’t take much to make conscience snap back to its original proportions.
So, liberals are wrong to think that Islamist terror has nothing to do with Islam. What Islam provides is a mine of toxic idealism. But those who argue that there is something unique about Islam are wrong, too. Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes a big deal out of its foundational text, but if there’s one thing that religion has proven again and again, it’s that interpretation is everything. If reading the Quran as dictating violence were necessary to be a Muslim, then nearly all Muslims would be heretics, right up there with Hirsi Ali.
For that matter, consider Christianity: most believers take the example and sayings of Jesus to mean that truly awful bits of the Old Testament are dead letters and that “love thy neighbor” is what counts most.
Yet, in his most famous sermon Jesus says: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.” (Matthew 5:17-18) Can’t get much more literal than that. Yet who eschews “graven images”?
Or, consider Buddhism. Nothing in the life of the Buddha or the writings associated with the religion encourages mass slaughter. Yet, that didn’t stop Aum Shin Rikyo from gassing five-thousand people in the Tokyo subway or militant Buddhist monks in Burma from leading deadly riots against Muslim villagers.
Interpretation is everything.
That’s why those who rightly argue that Islamism = Islam wrongly imply that it is a transitive equation. Of course, Islamists believe that they are practicing Islam. Of course, they draw the audacity to kill themselves and dozens around them from their reading of the Quran. That does not imply that most Muslims believe they are right.
Humanists must avoid the transitive trap, for it leads to bigotry. The evidence is clear: most Muslims interpret Islam to mean that you should struggle to be a better person, to be kind and generous to your fellow human beings, and to try to get through life’s difficulties through faith.
In other words, most Muslims practice mainstream religion—as do most followers of other religions. That could change, of course. If we in the West allow ourselves to lose sight of the crucial distinction, we could fulfill the fondest hopes of ISIS and its ilk. They yearn for an apocalyptic clash. Terrorists are mere thousands, however. While forcible action against them is inevitable, it can hardly amount to apocalypse. For that to happen, we’d need to make enemies of all the world’s Muslims.
Terrorists are bad seeds. We may not prevent them all from germinating, but as humanists we can reduce the supply of fertilizer. We can do this in part by continuing to spread reason and science to neutralize supernatural belief. But we must also make common cause with humanistic followers of all religions, including Islam, in a resolute stand against bigotry. Otherwise, the flowers of evil will flourish.