My Compassion Overcomes My Wrath
As I write this, the American government is engaged in yet another air bombardment campaign in the Middle East. In response to a series of relatively minor, but alarming and shocking, provocations by an extremist militant group usually known as ISIS, President Barack Obama — who initially campaigned on a platform of peace, diplomacy, and a gradual withdrawal from our entanglements overseas — has become the fourth president in a row to order airstrikes against the nation of Iraq; we have been engaged in some form of military action in the area every year for the past 24 years. Bombing Iraq is the single act of government upon which all U.S. leaders since Ronald Reagan agree. The program, largely carried out through the use of unmanned drones so as not to terrify Americans into a politically disruptive sense of the realities of war, is not without controversy. Drone warfare is criticized by some as a means of furthering a government subsidy program for already-wealthy defense contractors; it is seen by others as a rather imprecise and destructive method of warfare that has killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants, and likely has increased the supply of terrorists rather than reduced it; and still others are nervous on general principles at the idea of the U.S. government operating a store of invisible, silent, flying killer robots who are allowed to blow people to smithereens without benefit of a trial, or a declaration of war.
Where there is a bit more consensus (though, thankfully, it is far from universal) is our choice of who should have this slow-motion humanitarian disaster unleashed upon them. The Muslim world, as it happens, is all too apt to present us with targets that are easy to hate. Iran’s theocratic government is detestable in a cartoonish way, and Saudi Arabia’s is detestable in a sinister way; ISIS is jaw-droppingly brutal and cruel, and the inheritor of al-Qaeda, the great American bogeyman of the 21st century; Syria’s government has replaced Iraq’s as the most monstrous in their treatment of their own people; Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood are all too quick to make terrorism and violence their tools of first resort; and far too many Muslim-majority nations are cesspools of corruption and hotbeds of oppression, hostile to most forms of democracy and freedom. All over the world, Islamic separatists seem menacing and dangerous, appearing to many people like an unexpected cancer metastasizing at an alarming rate. Everywhere we look — China, India, the Philippines, the Middle East, central and eastern Europe, Africa — it is Muslims who seem to be causing all the problems. If we are dealing with them harshly, the prevailing attitude seems to be, it is only because we have been so intolerably provoked..
One of the most curious manifestations of this alarmist reaction to Islam comes from a community of which I have been a willing part: the self-identified atheists. Like them, I do not believe in the teachings of Islam (or of Christianity, or of Judaism or Hinduism or of any other form of religion); like them, I once believed, when I was an arrogant teenager, that I was simply a superior intellect who had had the courage and smarts to get hip to what all the rest of the sheep were too beaten down and stupid to figure out — that religions were all a lie. These questions still nag at me: I am quite certain that all religions are equally nonsensical and false, that most of their teachings are absolutist claptrap, that they are sexist and coercive, and that in the balance, they may do substantially more harm than good. On the other hand, because my strongest belief is in post-philosophical pragmatism, I have also learned that religion has great social value, that it has created or encouraged some of the greatest accomplishments in culture and science, that it can provide tremendous amounts of social value and make people feel less isolated, lonely, and small, and that it is quite capable of not just getting out of the way of social progress, but of outright helping it cross the finish line. Sadly, though, I have softened my views on the utility and value of religion (while still maintaining my personal disbelief and my general wariness of the harm it can do) at the same time a cultural phenomenon I never expected to see — the widespread social acceptance of atheism in America — has calcified religious skepticism into something very difficult to distinguish from outright bigotry.
Much of this is attributable to those unpredictable political bedfellows that always emerge in periods of social flux. Mainstream atheism — and part of me still goggles at the fact that there is such a thing — has largely rejected its ties to progressivism and has allied itself instead to the modern brand of libertarianism. The result has been a decline of its interest in economic issues, a restriction of its concern for social ones, an aggressive turn towards hostile and xenophobic conservativism, a nasty backlash against multi-culturalism, and a downright dangerous growth of the delusion that science does, or should, have anything to say about the rightness or wrongness of what are essential personal moral choices. Nowhere is this more clear than among the movement’s self-selected leaders: half-smart libertarians like Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Ricky Gervais assume that being clever enough to spot the flaws in religion exempts them from having to examine the problems with their own ideas, and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins constantly make statements full of prejudice against women, minorities, and religionists as if their brilliance at science allowed them to engage in sloppy thinking about other aspects of life. In recent high-profile clashes with actor Ben Affleck and author Reza Aslan, Maher and people influenced by the same lazy prejudice that Maher spreads around were brought front and center, and the outraged shrieks from their cronies has been depressingly edifying.
Just as Christians once said of unbelievers, calling them heathens and prescribing for them repeated applications of the torch; just as Catholics once said of Jews, treating them as a particularly virulent plague that had to be isolated from the general population; just as communists once said about capitalists and vice versa (and see Harris’ column link above to see that he’s still fighting that once-cold war); just as every oppressor has said to the oppressed, the atheist elite is treating a huge, diverse, and complex thing –the religion of Islam as it is practiced by a billion people in every part of the world — as if it is a dichotomy of correct or incorrect, and incorrect means wrong, and wrong means evil. Atheism was much more politically appealing when it was the voice of the minority, railing against the injustices of the ruling Christian majority against the brave and innocent dissenter; now that it has become the voice of the ruling majority itself, the voice of libertarian, anti-religious, well-off American whites who preach the evil of Islam while innocent Muslims are bombed in their hundreds and imprisoned in their thousands, it is a lot harder to swallow. Even more galling is the way it dresses itself up in the language of progressivism, of defending science and women’s rights and freedom and justice, while ignoring the essential contradictions and omissions in their approach.
Because Aslan is right: there is no such thing as an “evil” or “violent” religion, because religions are not people, but organizations made up of people. Iran’s government is indeed a gaggle of criminals, fanatics, and provocateurs, but they no longer command the respect of the vast majority of their citizens, and only came to power because of our own insistence on running the country by proxy. Saudi Arabia is indeed run by a group of terrifying religious lunatics, but they enjoy their position because of our economic indulgence and political favor. ISIS are indeed frightening madmen who televise beheadings of kidnap victims, but their numbers hardly make them any kind of true international threat, and from a practical standpoint, does the world lose more from an innocent man being beheaded than it does from a dozen men being blown to bits because they were standing in the vicinity of someone we suspected might be a terrorist? Syria’s civil war is a horrendous crisis, but our foot-dragging and intransigence helped it happen, and even now we’re arming the same fanatics to fight the Assad government that we’ll have to fight ten years down the road if they take over, a dismayingly familiar cycle of violence we seem unwilling or unable to break. Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood are in the positions they are in — positions that allow them to engage in corruption, oppression, and terrorism — because of our unwillingness to budge in our support of Israel’s increasingly indefensible policies. Corruption and oppression are hardly unique to the Muslim world, nor is institutional sexism, and many of the worst crimes leveled at Islamic countries — female genital mutilation, denial of education and other social services to women, and the suppression of non-majority religions and political parties — are practiced just as much in non-Muslim nations. (America’s own treatment of women, gays, and minorities has not been so admirable for so long that we are in a position to act as if we’ve had the whole thing sorted out from the get-go.) Muslims have been present throughout the entire world for a thousand years, and are hardly alone in pushing for (often violent) nationalist governments, of the sort we support when it is politically advantageous for us to do so.
None of this is to excuse the heinous behavior of Islamic extremist groups, or to say that they do not deserve condemnation for all sorts of unspeakable crimes, from the mangling of young women’s genitals to the savage murder of aid workers to the mass disenfranchisement of any number of minority-status groups. It is only to say that it does us no good to pretend that this is universally the situation throughout the entire vast swath of the globe where Islam is practiced, to ignore exceptions where there are exceptions, to shrug off progress where progress occurs, or to maintain a worthless illusion that these behaviors are endemic to a religion rather than largely political acts influenced by culture, colonialism, exploitation, greed, power, and other factors that can be found in any human organization. The strength of pragmatism over dogmatism — even dogmas that claim to be anti-dogmatic, such as atheism and libertarianism — is that it allows us to avoid such absolutist nonsense, and to sidestep such unanswerable and pointless questions as “What is to be done about Islam?”, and focus instead on questions of a practical nature that can truly be acted upon: what do we mean by a “War on Terror”? Who should it be directed at, how should it be fought, and what should be its strategical aim? Why does Islam manifest itself in certain ways in some countries, and in different ways in others? Under what circumstances should we support nationalist and independence movements? What have we done to exacerbate tensions in these areas, and how can we meet our political and economic goals without continuing to do so? How much suffering are we willing to inflict in order to revenge our own suffering? Is a corrupt status quo superior to a violent change? To what extent is religious behavior influenced by the social, political, historical, cultural, and economic environment in which it takes place? And, perhaps most importantly, if our overall goal is the reduction of terrorism, is the blanket condemnation of an entire religion as murderous and the arbitrary destruction of civilians in areas where that religion is practiced really the way to do it?
It is said in Islam that written above the throne of Allah is this claim: “And truthfully, my compassion overcomes my wrath”. Until the intellectual power of atheism stops stoking its own ego and seeks practical solutions rather than merely examples of its superiority, its anger will overwhelm its mercy, and nothing will be accomplished but the same old naming of sides. Our policy towards a billion people across the globe of every race, nationality, and character will be as blind and as violent as a drone.