Sam Harris collided with Ben Affleck recently on Bill Maher’s show. Affleck accused Harris of being racist and presenting opinions that are ugly while discussing the behaviour of what Maher called the “Muslim World”. The video spread and inspired lots of reflective opinion pieces. The opinions seem polarised, even in the new atheist community. The original video has been shared with the title “Affleck 1, Harris 0” as often as with the title “Harris 1, Affleck 0”. It’s interesting that people who consider themselves rational are happy to accept the rants of a man who thought that germs were a conspiracy.
Harris responded to this case specifically by arguing that Affleck was belligerent, which may well be the case, and wrong, and to the general case by asking “Can liberalism be saved from itself?” in which he criticises liberals for having a blind spot for Muslim extremism.
A few days later I noticed a post on the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s facebook page by Jerry Coyne in which he criticises “liberals” for holding to “the notion that Muslims should be held to a lower standard of behavior than people in the West”. This, for me, has purged any respect I had for new atheism movement, at least for its guiding lights.
In his recent posts about the Gaza conflict, in which he argues that Israel is the worlds most humanitarian ethnic cleanser, he had an exchange with Andrew Sullivan. In it he said that “the problem with invoking history in this discussion is that you have to decide when to start the clock”. There is another name for history: the facts. It’s inconvenient and complicated, even more so because it’s relevant. A person considering themselves a scientist and ignoring history, well, doing something wrong. The facts that Harris prefers to cite are from opinion polls, like the ones that ask Muslims if they think it’s OK to kill to protect Islam. Opinion polls are great but they tell you nothing about causation, they just tell you about how people say they conceptualise things. Harris of all people, being a neuroscientist, should be well aware that people telling you how they think might not be the best source of data on action causation. Also, Harris never mentions what the results would be of a poll asking Americans, either Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Atheist, whether it’s OK to murder to protect the USA, or ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberty’ and ‘Democracy’ or some other culturally loaded concepts that mean something different to everyone.
It got me thinking “how extreme are Muslims, really?” I thought it would be interesting to take stock of things that have actually happened. To solve the problem of when to start the clock ticking I thought, surely, the start of the span of living memory would be reasonable.
This history begins shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a few years after the First World War. The Ottomans were Muslims and operated the Caliphate. This event is the end of anything that could be called “the Muslim World” in any coherent sense. Contrary to T. E. Laurence’s stories the majority of Muslims were perfectly happy to be part of the Ottoman Empire, but as usual, like most populations, they had no say. The Ottoman territories were carved up and shared out largely between Britain and France. Three regions: Baghdad, Mosel and Basra, home to three different ethnic groups (roughly Sunni, Shia and Kurdish) were formed into the Kindgom of Iraq. A leader was inserted, Faisal, a man who as far as I can tell never even lived in Iraq, as a kind of compensation from Churchill who was a big fan and friend of T. E. Laurence. He felt that the Hashemites should be rewarded. There was no election. Faisal was a member of the Hashemite clan, descendents of Mohammed, they had tried to grab control of the Ottoman Empire during WWI and were hacked off that Britain didn’t give it to them after they organised the “Arab Revolt” (which was a military power grab). Later, Faisal’s brother was made King of Transjordan, by Britain, without election to keep him happy. What did the Muslims at a large have to do with this so far? Not a great deal.
Between the world wars there was a huge change in worldwide geopolitical landscape with the Russian Bolshevik Revolution. Muslims were involved, they comprised several ethnic minorities in Russia and as such have been subject to various and systematic oppression for centuries.
Not long later WWII happens. Anti-Semitism, which wasn’t unique to Germany, or even Europe (although Jews in the Middle East were given broadly free mobility), was given lethal form when Europeans busied themselves conducting one of most awful chapters in modern history. What did the Muslims have to do with that? Not a lot, although they were drafted to fight through colonial mandate.
WWII ended with the US nuking two cities. Now, in a discussion about extremism, surely the nuking of two cities must be the King and Queen. These events are even more extreme when you look at the narrative surrounding them. You can find plenty of rational, educated and moral people arguing that it was unfortunate but necessary and that it shortened the war, indirectly saving lives. Some even argue that not only was it moral, not doing it would have been immoral. The justification for these atrocities is based on lies. The US high command had been told that the Japanese were ready to surrender and had no capacity to fight. We know now because the documents were declassified. The Japanese had one condition: that the Emperor retained the status of god. The Whitehouse wouldn’t accept that, America doesn’t get told what to do, and so chose to nuke them instead.
Later Britain lost control of its South West Asia colonies because of anti-colonial revolts and the prototype Israel-Palestine conflict being developed by terrorists that would later be given a state to run. Britain formally handed the situation over to the UN who issued the resolution making Israel a thing. What did the Muslims have to do with this? Well they weren’t pleased with the idea of the UN drawing more lines on maps and declaring them states, not such an unusual reaction, but their opinions didn’t matter (their disapproval of that resolution is somehow used as grounds today to argue that they have no rights to a Palestinian state and therefore no rights to resist Israel’s expansion). Arabs were seen as a set of backward and numerically irrelevant tribes.
Shortly after Israel became a state there was an Arab-Israeli war, although it’s more accurate to say that a civil war that was already under way continued. Israel took 60% of the land designated by the UN as Palestinian. Note that the states involved: Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, all states that were either literally created by the west or at least highly steered by western neo-colonial influence. The West (with Russian interference) had essentially created a series of units of influence designed to act as agents in the Middle East that had their own interests and often fell out with each other. There wasn’t a great deal of democracy going on, more a set of warlords, balanced precariously in place, trying to get more control.
At about this time a civil war broke out in Burma, which never ended. On the one side are a series of pro-Government movements, starting with the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League, Buddhist and Socialist in ideology. Later the DKBA, a Buddhist movement, joined the anti-government side, together with various military ogranisations. The US supports the anti-government side, as does Mujahedeen. The war kicked off after Burma gained independence from Britain and the situation escalated sharply when the state declared Buddhism as the official religion.
In parallel a war broke out in Malaya. The locals weren’t happy about the way the British were running their economy (as a means to get the stuff Britain needed to recover from WWII, what elites now call globalisation). They had moved from Japanese occupation to British neo-colonialism. Protests were punished and eventually a continuous war broke out.
A few years later the US goes to war with North Korea, which was one of the most advanced economies in Asia, second only to Japan, and literally bombed the whole country to the ground. Recently declassified documents mention US generals in awe of their own destructive power as they watched villages washed away by the water burst from the dams they were destroying. Islam had nothing to do with this.
Later the US decides to attack Vietnam because they didn’t like how they were organising their own country. The US had been running proxy terrorism plans to undermine Vietnamese integration, then decided to switch to overt attack. They attacked the south but dressed it as an attack on northern insurgents in the south, even though there weren’t any. They destroyed the country. There are people being born right now with deformities resulting from the chemical weapons dropped on their grandparents.
At the same time the world almost ended. The US became annoyed because Russia moved nukes to Cuba. US had had nukes in Turkey pointing at Moscow for years, but that doesn’t matter, the US can do what it wants, it can nuke cities and everyone will think it’s fine. Kennedy calculated the odds of nuclear war to be 50:50. Pretty extreme. As far as I’m aware he didn’t read the Quran. Good times.
So far this has sketched a significant chunk of murder and mayhem, covering the first half of a lifetime of history, and so far the Muslims have had little involvement with the exception of the WWI (the Ottoman Empire could have easily been on the side of the British if Churchill hadn’t impounded some war ships that were supposed to go them and there were plenty of Muslims fighting against the Ottomans too) and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Many of the conflicts that involve Muslim populations, that are the backdrop for our impression of Muslim extremism, are largely extensions of the Palestine conflict in some way, in which the west is complicit.
Those are the big obvious conflicts but there are of course many others. There are also whole continents worth of history of carnage that I haven’t mentioned. There were and are various armies, many citing Christian ideologies, marching around Africa turning children into soldiers and sex slaves, situations tangled in old colonial pathologies. There’s also plenty of history of terrorism in the South Americas, of US rigging elections to get their representatives in power and resorting to kill squads and terrorism when that doesn’t work out. The west’s hands are bloody from both of these histories and neither can claim Islam as a factor. There are also lots of examples of extreme violence if you look at the history surrounding China but although Muslim populations feature Islam can hardly be said to be a significant factor there either, and much like in the case of Russia Muslims are very much the minorities.
Since the point of this is to get a perspective on what we can call Muslim extremism in reality we can look at conflicts in reverse order of deaths focusing at events in the last century that involve Muslims in any systematic sense:
The first would be WWI with Muslims fighting on both sides. The next is the Iran-Iraq war. It started when Iraq, under the control of the Ba’ath party, US/UK endorsed and supported and equipped, invaded Iran. The UK, thanks to Thatcher, who liked Hussein a lot, had given him lots of weapons. The US declassified Iraq as a terrorist state so that they could sell them chemical weapons. The Iran-Contra weapons scandal was happening during all of this. And just to add an extremist jewel to this crown, the US shot down an Iranian passenger jet flying over Iranian airspace for no reason other than, apparently, to try out their weapons.
The next would be the Soviet war in Afghanistan, a recent episode in the Russian version of a familiar story of colonial intervention. Russia pulled out and the country went into a continuous civil war that lasted for decades. The Russians left lots of weapons behind. This is the context in which the Taliban, often thought of as a perfect example of Islamic craziness, came into power backed by, you guessed it, the west. They only became bad guys when they started thinking that they had a right to the oil resources inside Afghanistan in the mid 90s.
Next is the Algerian Civil war, which seemed to be largely a nationalist revolt against a brutal French colonial regime.
Next the Bangladesh Liberation War, which was a nationalism conflict, resulting in the Independence of Bangladesh. The conflict seems to have stemmed from perceived economic exploitation of one region over another by a state that didn’t want to loose control. This template of violence can be seen over and over in history, in fact, the US War of Independence has that exact template but we don’t consider that an example of extremism.
The Somali War started in the 80s and has never really stopped. The conflict is a government/anti-government affair beginning as resistance to Siad Barre. The US joined in on the anti-government side. Guess who supported Siad Barre until just before the war.
The Syrian Civil war is another ongoing conflict borne of resistance to an oppressive (incidentally secular nationalist) regime. The Muslim population are the victims in this situation, subject to a small group of warlords who took power in a military coupe and never gave it up. The Arab-Israel conflict actually helped the Assad regime take power in that it was seen as a strong contender that was able and willing to stand up to Israel. Note that at the moment the west is figuring out how to destroy Islamic State, which would help Assad a great deal.
The ongoing war in Darfur has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and displaced millions. This conflict seems to correlate mostly to Arab/non-Arab ethnic sets rather than Muslim/non-Muslim ones.
Next is the First Iraq war. This is a big one in terms of deaths. Remember that not long before both the US and UK bent over backwards to give Hussein weapons of mass destruction. If you are going to give a warlord such weapons, someone is going to get gassed. He had already ethnically cleansed Kurds by the time the Iraq war began but we didn’t care. The conflict between Iraq and the Kurds goes all the way back to 1912 and started with one King Faisal of Iraq, that Hashemite clan leader the British put in power I mentioned earlier.
The Islamic Insurgency in the Philippines, which is an interesting choice of name, is another conflict arising from resistance to colonial rule. Each time the current colonial power went to war with someone and was defeated the locals were taken over by the winner and so there is continuous resistance, termed ‘insurgency’. You can tell when the resistance can be called ‘extremism’; it’s extremism when the colonial power is the US.
That gets us down into the sub 100 000-death conflicts and so far Islam hasn’t featured as a significant predictive factor. You might think it callous to lump these conflicts together based on kill-count and pass over them, which is true, every death is important, but 300,000 Americans died since 1970 in industrial accidents. How many people have died because we have devoted resources to developing Viagra or curing baldness instead of Malaria/Aids/Ebola/Rabies/Small Pox/Naeglaria treatments? We have policies killing more people than these conflicts.
What’s interesting is that the examples of extremism that leap to mind aren’t present above. We tend to think of historically small events involving relatively tiny death counts as somehow extraordinarily relevant, for example 911, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, or videos of someone being beheaded. Meanwhile the west is apparently free to carpet bomb cities or murder people in mountains in Afghanistan and the world is supposed to be thankful. To any objective analysis it seems that the discriminating variable is level of technology. If you kill a few dozen people with a predator drone that’s fine, do it with a home-made car bomb and you’re an extremist.
It could be argued that I have ignored the content of what people like Harris are saying is extremism, that they were more talking about women being forced to wear head coverings or treatment of gays. As it happens forcing women to hide their faces originated in Ancient Greece, not the Middle East. In the Middle East it was the other way around: certain women weren’t allowed to wear head coverings. Anyway, that just reasserts the question: why are some things “extreme” and other objectively more extreme things not? Why is being an extremist a sin while knowingly creating, training and arming them isn’t? It seems that the form of argument used by Harris or Maher or Coyne is to create a box called extremism, put a tiny set of real events into it, leaving ourselves out, and.. what do you know? It’s full of the warlords we put in power!
Muslims have been involved in some huge and terrible conflicts but they have also had nothing to do with many of the biggest and worst, and the schematic of these conflicts tend to be transferable across history, geography and culture (resistance to oppression and unwanted government regimes). There is a difference in quantity but also of quality. Conflicts involving Muslims tend to be local border disputes and civil wars, nothing like the type of global conquests that the west engages in. And, again, even those local conflicts have arisen with significant western interference. Viewed in the grand scheme Muslims are relatively meek. And when you swap Muslims for some other group, and keep the West, you see the same patterns of violence and “extremism” in other parts of the world.
So perhaps non-Muslims so critical of Muslim extremism should redirect their energies away from worrying about what Muslims are up to and toward modifying the behaviour of their own states.