Tuesday, December 23, 2008


This poll result from a recent Science article should make any reasonable, rational person shudder

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Copyright: Science, 2008

Neglecting the rather pleasantly heartening observation that the 'backward' Kazakhs are more enlightened than their fellow Muslims, the fact delineated in the article that there apparently are virtually no Young-Earth creationists is hardly soothing in light of these results. After taking a look at this, is it surprising that the 'moderate' Muslims are not stepping forward in large throngs to condemn their fellow Muslims' killing of innocents? The problem is not of moderates versus extremists. The problem is of mindsets that fan irrational behaviour based on rejection of world-views which are bolstered by mountains of evidence. The question we have to ask, not just of Muslims but also Christians, Jews and other deeply religious people, is whether they will truly be able to condemn their fellow religious travelers' acts of terrorism based on a reasoned and rational response? They may possibly do it for reasons of pragmatism, perhaps reasons related to political expediency or perhaps related to survival itself. But that is still a quite different stance from condemning such acts because they are as far from reason as we can imagine. Believing in evolution is not necessary for deploring these acts. But I think that a world-view as firmly grounded in reason and evidence as evolution can be a convenient yardstick to map out the general mentality of a population. Of course such surveys turn up disconcerting results in the most advanced country in the world too, namely the United States. Christians are no less ignorant than Muslims. But even in secular countries like Turkey, the Muslims seem to beat the Christians in terms of sheer numbers.

The concept of the moderate Muslim is dealt another blow by polls taken in the Muslim world regarding suicide terrorism. As Sam Harris documents in his book The End of Faith, polls regularly show that 20% of people even in Turkey answer "Yes" when asked "Is suicide bombing in defence of Islam ever justified". Given the population of Turkey, this is a huge number in terms of absolutes. Are we to believe that 14 million Turkish Muslims are Jihadi fundamentalists? That would stretch the imagination of even the most paranoid person. Indeed, probably 13.8 million out of these 14 million call themselves 'moderate' Muslims and live peaceful and pious lives. And yet they readily agree that suicide terrorism in the service of Islam can be justified at least under some circumstances. The proportion of such people in other Muslim countries is unspeakably high. There is a genuine problem here that transcends political, educational and socio-economic disparities.

Now it's also true that there is a substantial proportion of the population cited as "not having thought about evolution". To me it seems that members of this population would be of two kinds; those who basically just don't think about the topic and think it's irrelevant to their lives, and those who have given it some thought and are genuinely undecided about it. One may then think that the latter group stands a good chance of emerging as the next faction of progressive, moderate Muslims who would institute reform. But how can this happen? This latter group is going to be a weak-voiced minority in a majority that won't allow them to get an influential platform for their views. Much has been said about how Islam can only be reformed "from the inside". While this statement will always ring true, what exactly would be the source of this inside reform? It's not that there is suddenly an influential springboard which will serve as a political or social vehicle for transformation. For example, a moderate Muslim who believes in evolution and stresses its acceptance is probably not going to be elected to high public office, just like in the United States. Even if he wants to spread his message, how will he do it? The schools are mostly religious ones, with few secular ones that are going to take on the task of solidly educating their students about evolution. Even if the schools wanted to do it, there would be a pronounced backlash from many parents. Thus society itself would be largely hostile or passive to such a moderate Muslim's views.

As Harris says, the progressive position is also perceived as being theologically bankrupt; after all they are trying to argue against Muslims who are more devoutly following the Holy Book and therefore have already assumed the high ground. We have seen what has happened to progressive and secular Muslims like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Such enlightened Muslims are simply not in a position to stay in their respective Muslim countries and bring about reform from inside; in fact they have already been condemned by many of their fellow Muslims. Their stories would clearly discourage any potential progressive recruit from treading the same kind of path. So to me it seems that the safest strategy for a so-called progressive and moderate Muslim would be to either silently suffer and tacitly accept the trappings of his culture and society, or to completely break out and defect to more secular countries, in which case his role in own country becomes meaningless. It's a catch 22 situation in which moderates have to either accept the opinion of the majority, or become pariahs. In this light, I don't see a large-scale revival, let alone revolution, spearheaded by moderate and progressive Muslims anytime soon.

The point again is simple; as long as people have more or less blind and unquestionable faith in their Holy Book, as long as they more or less worship their favourite Invisible Man in the Sky, the distinction between moderate and extremist is bound to turn cosmetic. Moderates who may despise the details of the execution of the fundamentalists' actions may nevertheless at least tacitly agree with their stated goals. Even moderate Muslims (or Christians and Jews for that matter) would think that the world would be a better place if everyone in it was Muslim. And as long as this attitude persists, we cannot rid the world of religious fundamentalists.

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Blogger The Chemist said...

The problem with the Sam Harris statistic is the question, not the answer. Suicide bombing is a tactic, and the phrase "Islam" frequently taken to mean "Islamic Society". In light of that, it makes sense that it is considered justified. The communist (and by extension Godless) Viet Cong used suicide bombing, as did the very educated among the Japanese. The Tamil Tigers have dominated use of the tactic by sheer numbers, and one can easily characterize the conflict in terms of ethnic self-determination.

I never understood the fixation with suicide bombing as an indicator of "eebil". It's abnormal and foreign to the American and "Western" cultural paradigm. Otherwise, it remains well within the very universal component you find in militaristic circles:

A US marine who undertakes of his own volition, an act which will guarantee his demise, but ensure his brethren's survival gets a posthumous Medal of Honor. In a decentralized paramilitary, suicide bombing is an extension of that same suppression of the ego for the perceived (this being the active word) benefit of the cause.

Don't tell me that it's different because the USians are fighting for freedom, etc. The current forays and sacrifices in Iraq do absolutely nothing to secure freedom at home. Zero. Zip. Nada. That is part of the tragedy.

I despise- no, LOATHE Sam Harris. His explanations of world events in terms of his a deliberately narrowed worldview make for yawn inducing and terrible reading. A five year old could come up with a less contrived understanding of the various geopolitical, social, and economic factors involved in conflict. Never send an philosopher to do the job of an anthropologist. You want a valid understanding of suicide bombing and the various factors that enter into it, consider talking to anthropologists, political scientists, historians and people who otherwise make it their business to understand these things based on evaluation of data, environment, and artifacts. Shunya's Notes has an excellent article on this sort of thing.

Sam Harris's biggest flaw is that he has a point to make, and no matter how many facts get in the way he's going to make it, despite only a passing familiarity with the issues involved. You said it yourself in a different context:

"If the assumptions are suspect, then no matter how elegant and meticulous the study, its results are bound to be hazy."

1:07 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

You cited disparate examples of cases where suicide bombing was widely used as a tactic, and yet the very fact that they are disparate makes it difficult to detect a common thread among them. On the other hand, the very fact that the common denominator being all countries providing different levels of support for suicide bombings is disconcerting. The problem is not with Muslims; anybody who believes that should read the simple statistical refutation that Nassim Taleb provides in the Black Swan. But it does exist with Islam to varying extents and I think we have to admit it.

It's unfortunate that you loathe Sam Harris. Have you carefully read both of his books? Even if you strongly deplore some of his opinions about Islam or suicide bombing, I would be extremely surprised if you wouldn't agree that his analysis of illogical drug laws in the US and the idiocy of bans on abortion and stem-cell research are right on target.

11:48 AM  

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