Is Extremism Political, Religious, or Political/Religious?

Atheist author and blogger Dan Arel as recently written that he was wrong in his previous response to the critiques of Islam by “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins:

To admit in public that one was wrong requires a greater commitment to honesty and truth than to ego, and this is rare. So, Arel is to be commended and his example should be emulated.

His earlier critique had rejected the claim of Harris and Dawkins that religion motivates Islamic extremism. As with many other commentators, generally of a liberal tilt, Arel previously rejected such a claim as Islamophobic. Rather, the causes of “Islamic” extremism are not the tenets of religion, but are located in socio-economic and political causes. Young Arab males are often jobless, powerless, disaffected, and angry. They see Western powers as hegemonic and exploitative in their actions and intentions. They live in oppressive, autocratic, or dysfunctional societies that offer them few opportunities for economic advancement and none for political participation. As a consequence, they become radicalized. While their radicalism is superficially religious, and while religion may serve as a catalyst for their radicalization, the true underlying motivation is a sense of outrage that is politically and economically induced. Let’s call this the “socio/economic theory” (SET) of Islamic radicalism.

While it is, of course, important to repudiate Islamophobia and the ignorant smearing of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, SET has always struck me as implausible in the extreme. When people turn themselves into living bombs and shout praises to their God as they detonate in a crowded marketplace, it would seem that their act has something to do with their religion. Further, if you ask the radicals why they do what they do, they will again and again give a religious justification. Indeed, religious slogans and quotes from the Qur’an are constantly on their lips. SET therefore has to assume that these persons are wholly inept at discerning their own motives. Of course, we have known at least since Freud that we are not wholly transparent to ourselves and that our true motivations may differ from our felt motivations. However, it seems presumptuous, and perhaps patronizing, to assume that Islamic radicals must be fooling themselves. When an ostensibly sane person insistently and consistently assures us that he is motivated to do X because of Y, it seems wise to accept that Y, at least prima facie, isthat person’s motivation for doing X.

Further, SET seems to assume that religion’s power to motivate is much less than socio-economic factors. It is curious why anyone would think this; maybe the ghost of Karl Marx continues to haunt the minds of many liberal analysts. On the contrary, it is clear that religion has the power to touch the deepest passions, to evoke the strongest loyalties, and to provoke the most intransigent defiance. It is hard to see how even a cursory acquaintance with episodes such as the Reformation could fail to teach this lesson. Even if smoldering resentments initially arise from economic or social injustice, religion can be the high-octane fuel that turns the slow burn into a conflagration. Your outrage is no longer just your own personal grievance (or even a national or ethnic grievance). Religion absorbs that outrage and gives it a transcendent justification. You are no longer just angry for yourself; you are angry for God. You have the blessedness of knowing that God hates what you hate. Further, God’s will trumps all ordinary inhibitions of compassion or compunction since God’s enemies deserve no consideration.

Finally, SET apparently assumes that the terms of our analyses, such as “religion,” “politics,” and “economics,” are in practice sufficiently separable to be placed in opposition and their relative effects measured. In fact, even a clear-cut conceptual distinction between these factors is not always possible. Even in the United States, where Jefferson’s Wall of Separation is still respected despite strenuous efforts to breach it, religion and politics are closely conceptually intertwined. Indeed, you just cannot understand the religious right in this country without seeing their tenets as politicized religion and theologized politics. In many Islamic countries the very idea of a distinction between the religious and political spheres would sound paradoxical if not incoherent. For them, political concerns are religious concerns and vice versa. Analysts who try to parse out the relative contributions of religion and politics are attempting to impose an artificial bifurcation upon people who would not recognize or admit it. In short, if religion and politics are two heads of the same ideological animal, you can separate the heads only by cutting the animal in two.

In conclusion, to the extent that religion can be identified as a distinct element of the witch’s brew that is radical Islamist ideology, it is fallacious to downplay or dismiss its influence. The motives for the attempt to do so may be commendable, but only truth can provide the basis for an effective response to a terrible problem. The only effective response to Islamic radicalism must be political, economic, AND religious. Only justice, prosperity, AND theological moderation will help.