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Sep 18 2012

On atheist smugness and geopolitics

If you’ve been following the news at all, you’ve heard about rampant anti-US protests happening across western Asia and North Africa in response to a video trailer for a movie that supposedly mocks Muhammad, the central religious figure in Islam:

Rioting demonstrators battled with police outside a U.S. military base in Afghanistan and the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia Monday as violent protests over an anti-Islam film spread to Asia after a week of unrest in Muslim countries worldwide. In an appeal that could stoke more fury, the leader of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah called for sustained protests in a rare public appearance at a rally in Beirut.

The turmoil surrounding the low-budget movie that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad shows no sign of ebbing nearly a week after protesters first swarmed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya in the eastern city of Benghazi. At least 10 protesters have died in the riots, and the targeting of American missions has forced Washington to ramp up security in several countries.

Protests against the movie turned violent for the first time in Afghanistan on Monday as hundreds of people burned cars and threw rocks at a U.S. military base in the capital, Kabul. Many in the crowd shouted “Death to America!” and “Death to those people who have made a film and insulted our prophet.” They also spiraled out of control in Indonesia and Pakistan, while several in the Middle East were calm.

It took not long at all before my Twitter feed and Facebook newsfeed erupted with pustules of self-satisfied smugness from atheist after atheist, petulantly crowing about how foolish and deluded Muslims were and how religion bore the responsibility for these attacks. It has become a mainstay of the anti-theist crowd (among whom I count myself) to reflexively deride the self-imposed blindness of religious faith when it motivates people to commit atrocious acts. Further, these were acts committed specifically in the defence of an idea – the position of the protesters seemed to be that the very act of saying something unflattering about Islam justified widespread destruction of property. How ridiculous – ideas are not safeguarded from criticism, even the kind of poorly-crafted criticism the trailer apparently evinces. This is a sentiment that can be rattled off nearly automatically by any anti-theist worth hir salt.

What is more challenging is to hold that idea in your head at the same time as you recognize that while the headlines and, in some cases even the protesters may have claimed that this rage was over hurt religious feelings, the real story is far more complex:

Ostensibly, what sparked the siege on the embassy were statements by a number of religious leaders—amplified by social media and word of mouth—who condemned the film and called for protests. But while many in politically contentious Sanaa seemed eager to tie the protests to a prominent figure or faction, the truth was far less simple. Most of those taking part in the demonstrations lacked any obvious signs of religiosity: rather than bearded men or tribesmen in traditional garb, the bulk of those at the embassy were young men in Western clothes, united, if anything, by their rage.

(snip)

Specifically, Yemenis resent what they characterize as the United States’ persistent meddling in Yemen’s internal affairs. Even as government forces cracked down on peaceful anti-government demonstrations last year, the United States appeared reluctant to drop support for Saleh, whom American officials viewed as a key ally in the battle against Yemen’s local Al Qaeda franchise. Faced with the choice between siding with the Yemeni people and siding with the corrupt government hundreds of thousands took to the streets to topple, activists complain, the United States chose the latter. Since Saleh ceded power, resentment over the past US alliance with the former president has lingered.

Even today, many powerful opponents of Saleh claim that the United States still has not done enough to force the former president’s allies from power. One opposition politician, while condemning the siege, commented that the CSF’s failure to protect the embassy was ironic payback for Washington’s hesitation to make a full break with the Saleh family; after all, CSF Chief of Staff Yahya Saleh was once a favored US commander. At the same time, factions outside of Yemen’s political establishment have said that American reliance on traditional elites has contributed to their marginalization.

And yes, while “Islam turns otherwise reasonable people into ranting violent mobs” makes a far more parsimonious bumper sticker than “decades of questionable foreign policy allows opportunistic political and religious leaders to provoke underemployed and disadvantaged young men to lash out at a foreign power rather than focus their energies on the dissatisfying way in which their own leaders govern”, it does a severe disservice to the truth that my fellow anti-theists claim to pursue.

The fact that the United States is referred to in many places as “The Great Satan” should give any would-be anti-theist foreign policy commentators serious cause to reconsider their position. The United States has – for reasons that include their history of covert and overt involvement in the Middle East; their growingly-rampantly anti-Islamic sentiment; their military intervention in sovereign territories; and the careful cultivation of power-hungry sheiks, imams, and other opportunistic religio-political leaders – taken on truly mythical stature in many places around the world, the Middle East being no exception. Elaborate conspiracy theories find fertile ground in a population that may not have the benefits of European-style education or economic mobility or even the basic needs of life. It is a simple feat to blame any and all ills on America, which fills the same paranoid cognitive niche that “illegal immigrants” and “Muslim terrorists” do in the minds of xenophobic Arizonans.

The ‘advantage’, if you’d like to call it that, is that unlike the Qur’anic Satan, the United States has property and personnel that can be directly attacked. Satan doesn’t have embassies on Earth, but everyone knows where the American consulate is. So combine decades, perhaps generations or anti-American sentiment with a long list of legitimate grievances; add in governments that can no longer put down protests with impunity; garnish with a healthy dose of paranoid conspirac- mongering at the hands of unscrupulous leaders; and let it simmer in the heat of recent revolutions and an economic downturn. What you’re left with is a volatile mixture of elements to which only a little bit of religion need be added for the whole thing to explode. Hell, it even has a specific target to aim itself at!

Blaming this whole thing on Islam is foolish, short-sighted, and borders on criminally idiotic. If we wish to be credible arbiters of truth, then we need to stop reaching for easy answers whenever they suit our thesis.

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P.S. Evidence is emerging that the attack on the American embassy in Libya was not, in fact, in response to the video. It was an orchestrated paramilitary attack that was strikingly different from the violence elsewhere. While that is not relevant to my central argument, I feel it bears pointing out.

80 comments

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  1. 1
    julian

    You, sir, are win in canuck form.

    Also, massive thank you. I’m glad pieces like this exist otherwise I’d still be feeling high and mighty whenever violence like this happened.

  2. 2
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Sometimes people say “oh, there’s no such thing as Islamophobia, it is a made-up term used by the evil Islamists and their enablers to suppress legitimate, fact-based criticism of Islam.” Yet we see all sorts of people from all over the political and philosophical spectrum resorting to “foolish, short-sighted, and… criminally idiotic” arguments and assertions when it comes to the activities of Muslims, that would never fly in any other context. For instance, people don’t often make blanket assertions of guilt like “Catholics are baby-rapers by nature,” but more than a few have no problem saying “Muslims are prone to irrational violence with little or no provocation.”

  3. 3
    blogofmyself, writer of papers

    Yes. Thank you so much for writing this. I have nothing useful to say except that this post is awesome and everyone should read it.

  4. 4
    baal

    Yeah, I’m sure the drone strikes (as one narrow example) have nothing to do* with how we’re viewed in Yemen.

    *(this is sarcasm for the reading impaired (like me on occasion))

  5. 5
    Mathew

    I think you’re way off mark here. While it’s true that US foreign policy (absolutely asinine as it is) has a LOT to do with *where* offended Muslims direct their violence against, it has *nothing* to do with the origin of the violence itself. Let me explain.

    An atheist who comes out in many of these countries (and I grew up in one of them) would be persecuted and discriminated against. This has nothing to do with US foreign policy. Anyone who criticizes Islam in these countries will face all kinds of heat. Again, nothing to do with US foreign policy.

    If the movie in question was made by an organization within one of these countries, the reaction would be similarly violent (although not as widespread) and would be directed towards that organization.

    The only way the US (government/people) is involved here is that it has been used as a scapegoat for offended Muslims who have no idea what else to vent their anger against. And this choice of what the violence is targeted against, as you rightfully point out, has to do with US foreign policy. But the origin of the violence itself has to do with extremist religious sentiments.

    So, anti-theists like myself will rightfully focus our attention on the origin of the violence itself (religious extremism) and not where it happened to be targeted against.

    Don’t you even remember the Danish cartoon controversy?

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    There’s a good argument to be made that the anger in Yemen specifically predates and runs well outside the drone strikes, although you are almost certainly correct to note that they can’t be doing much to help.

    I am conflicted on the drone issue, because the other two options are a) not disrupting al-Qaeda’s command structure at all, or b) doing so with CIA agents and/or buying off militias on the ground. Neither of those seems like a particularly good option. I suppose there’s c) build political allegiances and have formal state actors move against al Qaeda, but I hope you will permit me a bit of cynicism about the efficacy of that particular course of action. I honestly don’t know what the other options are.

  7. 7
    Crommunist

    I remember it well. I am also aware of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the terrifying ordeal that Ayaan Hirsi Ali went through. I am certainly not saying “don’t criticize Islam” – I am saying that a worldview that begins and ends there is a gross distortion of the relevant facts. It would similarly be a distortion to say that people from the Southern US are all racists, and that’s why white supremacist doctrines foster there. It’s a convenient explanation, but one that will ultimately neglect important information. The conversation needs more nuance and understanding, not less.

    Furthermore, the reporting I’ve seen on the ground in Libya and Egypt particularly (at the hands of the redoubtable Richard Engel) suggests that religious outrage is only one part of a much larger feeling of resentment and anger that is not simply using the United States as a convenient target. Also, please note that I did not restrict this to simply an issue of foreign policy – foreign policy is only one of several variables that need to be examined in concert.

  8. 8
    Nathaniel Frein

    I disagree, Mathew. A lot went on this 9/11 to foment the protests and spark the riots. A lot of players were at the board. The video was part of it, but nowhere near all of it. We do ourselves a disservice and risk seeing this happen again if we just chalk it up to rage over a badly done video.

  9. 9
    Mathew

    Would you say the same about the Danish cartoons or the Satanic Verses? They had nothing to do with the US itself — and yet the violent reaction was similar.

  10. 10
    Argle Bargle

    Considering how the United States has been pissing all over the Middle East and other Islamic countries, it’s not surprising there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment in these countries.

  11. 11
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    And don’t forget that European countries tend to shit all over their non-white immigrant populations, claim complete innocence when violence occurs, and then use the violence as justification for more shitting on immigrants.

  12. 12
    smrnda

    Religious extremism doesn’t exist or develop in a vacuum – it tends to do best when the standard of living is low, which is why it’s running rampant in the Middle East and among disenfranchised immigrants. A low standard of living isn’t always going to produce this, but when people are faced with real world problems they can’t solve, religion seems to offer them something. It tells you that you’re on the right side, that the people who are pissing and shitting on you are agents of Satan, and that God will reward you for attacking his enemies.

    If actual solutions were available, people would go there and not religion.

  13. 13
    Rob

    Matthew I disagree. In fact I think it is you who is well wide of the mark here.

    To claim that the US government/people are merely a target of [irrational] Islamic anger is to ignore decades of geopolitics. No, make that centuries of geopolitics. There is more than ample blame to go around when you look at the history (both recent and distant), but cycles of violence can really only be broken by those with the upper hand in power imbalance at any given time. For decades now in the Middle east that has been the US and it’s allies.

    Even giving the briefest of summaries of post WWII middle east history is beyond me in a comment post. I’m sure you can do some research and think about it in context if you are inclined.

    What you can’t do is what many of us in the West have done for decades and compartmentalise current actions from past actions. This is clearly what you are doing in your comment. Actions have consequences and those consequences can echo through decades. Just because ‘we’ don’t see that does not make it so.

  14. 14
    Egbert

    “Blaming this whole thing on Islam is foolish, short-sighted, and borders on criminally idiotic. If we wish to be credible arbiters of truth, then we need to stop reaching for easy answers whenever they suit our thesis.”

    Well said. But the irresponsible bloggers throwing more fuel on the fire are blinded by their prejudices, and aren’t listening.

  15. 15
    Mathew

    Rob, if you read my comments carefully, you will see that nowhere did I deny that people in Islamic countries have a legitimate reason to resent the United States. I am very well aware of the history of the region.

    I however fail to see any good reason to believe that the persecution of atheists and apostates or the violent reaction to criticism and/or mockery of Islam have anything to do with this history. This attitude of intolerance is applied to citizens and residents of their own countries.

    I have already agreed that the attack of US embassies in association with these protests stem from understandable resentment that Muslims have against the US. But the way they react to criticism and mockery goes far beyond this resentment.

  16. 16
    Suido

    I’ll just leave this here. Waleed Aly is a political lecturer at Monash Uni and one of the best Muslim voices in Australia.

    http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/antius-violence-isnt-about-a-film-its-about-an-excuse-20120916-260cp.html

  17. 17
    Hein

    Thank you for articulating it so much better than I ever could! I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed at all the smug oversimplifications that are floating around.

  18. 18
    John Horstman

    It’s sad people resort to terrible reasons to hate the USA and lash out violently against it when so many good reasons are available. (I should probably note that there are many good reasons to love the USA as well; most countries have complicated, conflicted histories AND presents. I don’t really hate my country so much as I’m deeply saddened by the fact that we could do so much better than we do, and so easily.)

  19. 19
    Rob

    Matthew, I assure you I read and re-read your comment very carefully. I also read your response to Nathaniel and I very carefully to see if you introduced new thought or explanation. You have not.

    We agree to at least the extent that there is no ‘good’ reason for this behaviour. There are clearly an almost innumerable number of poor to bad reasons. Your argument pretends to acknowledge that the west has a shameful history in the region, while in specific terms providing examples of recent behaviour that are in western eyes minor and then saying “But the way they react to criticism and mockery goes far beyond this resentment.”

    Again, we agree. The response does go far beyond resentment of the act that has triggered this latest violence. That is in fact my point. The middle east is not the only place where such violence occurs. Religion is not the only factor behind such violence.

    I feel that you are attributing a level of education, understanding cultural structures around freedom and individuality and empowerment to these people that simply does not exist. Certainly not as we in the west experience it. Even in the west we see outbreaks of violence (anti-globalisation protests is one, protests against loss of farming subsidies in Europe is another, but there are many others) that most of us, even if sympathetic, would see as excessive.

    I find the violence and oppression in the middle east and elsewhere distressing and appalling, but sadly not surprising. The focus on religion as the only or primary cause is wrong and will result in no progress being made whatsoever in fixing these issues.

  20. 20
    Brad

    Are you making excuses for them? A country’s shitty past behaviour doesn’t excuse what happened. I don’t think you mean to, but this post appears to minimize the extent to which the rioters and murderers are fucking morons over petty religious tribalism.

    I don’t deny the US has and had ignorant, shortsighted, and abusive foreign policy, but come the fuck on. (NSFW) Using the “move trailer” as an excuse is some weak ass bullshit, and that they used that instead of some legitimate grievance just demonstrates how irrational and unwarranted their behavior is.

  21. 21
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    c) Hit a valid target, and only a valid target. This would help to no end.

  22. 22
    F [is for failure to emerge]

    Are you kidding?

    Also: A county’s shitty current behavior, and future behavior as far as one can see.

  23. 23
    Crommunist

    Are you making excuses for them?

    No. Are you?

  24. 24
    Atheist in Solidarity

    Thank you for writing this, Crommunist. It’s infuriating when people (especially self-proud skeptics) keep talking about these protests in such a simple two-dimensional way. Mock Islam and all religions all day long, but don’t think that religion is the be-all end-all of any persons life.

  25. 25
    Brian Lynchehaun

    For instance, people don’t often make blanket assertions of guilt like “Catholics are baby-rapers by nature,” but more than a few have no problem saying “Muslims are prone to irrational violence with little or no provocation.”

    Seriously?

    Yes, this is true now, it is absolute false historically.

    “The Jew” was routinely demonised as a baby eater, a drinker of blood, and all that nonsense, as late as the early 20th century.

    Catholics were routinely demonised in the late 19th/early 20th century by various protestant sects (look at what JFK had to go through to ‘prove’ he wasn’t going to turn the USA over to the Pope).

    Protestants were routinely demonised as late as the 1960s/70s in Ireland.

    This is all political, and not about religion at all. During the times these things were happening, “more than a few had no problem saying” these things.

    So while I agree, ish, with your point (the current nonsense is an example of Islamaphobia), your examples are waaaaay off base.

  26. 26
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Your closing comments, not you example.

    Stupid not-logging-in-with-the-admin-account-so-I-can’t-edit-dumb-mistake…

  27. 27
    Brad

    Good. And I’m not sure why you’re asking me that.

    @F – Are you saying the US foreign policy is “asking for it”? The US is the victim in these incidents, regardless of other activities. Murderers have to actively murder.

  28. 28
    Crommunist

    Oh, I just thought this was the part where we ask each other dumb questions.

  29. 29
    jamesfrank

    I think you’re being far too condescending towards “smug atheists” for a conclusion which you have little data to support (if I’ve read you correctly in that you’re claiming Islam is a minor aspect, whereas the USA’s past involvement in the region is a primary one). As has been pointed out, countries other than the USA have suffered similar outbreaks and the examples given (the targeting of immigrants) have not, to my knowledge, given rise to similar actions to other groups in other similar circumstances.

    Going back to the USA for examples, I do not believe Irish immigrants and nowadays Mexican immigrants have reacted with the same knee-jerk mob violence that the people who steep themselves in the most backwards forms of Islam have, although certainly those groups did not also come from a cultural background which still sees itself in relation to the West through the lens of the Crusades. And while I can see the desire to separate their culture even more from the USA’s, it’s still rather dubious that their targeting of local Atheists could be considered a USA value given how vilified we are here – often by those who also advocate the strongest for military action against Middle-Eastern countries.

    Certainly it’s possible that other factors are also (primarily) in play, but I don’t see how it would be incorrect given current knowledge to claim Islam (or at least the religious-culture version those people who initiated violence practice) is a major cause behind most of the violence we’ve seen. The ideas behind what is appropriate, what is good, what is an insult, what is the correct response, etc. all seem to have origins within that tradition’s religious scriptures through one interpretation or another.

    Certainly claiming that it is the ONLY factor is also dubious, but not to the point where decrying Islam for its role should be chastised as an ignorant position. Especially when to do so you purposefully claim you know more about the feelings of protestors than the protestors themselves (possible, but it does come off as a bit arrogant to ignore what they say).

  30. 30
    Crommunist

    Paragraphs. They are your friend. I have added them for you.

    if I’ve read you correctly in that you’re claiming Islam is a minor aspect, whereas the USA’s past involvement in the region is a primary one

    No. My point is that it is ridiculously reductive to see that and say “look how crazy Islam is! It makes people do this!” There are a lot of other factors at play, and none of them seem to have worked their way into the “analysis” that I’ve seen, at least not outside of major journalistic outlets. It’s a typical behaviour, and I understand the temptation because the example is obvious, but it does our argument a grave disservice when we grossly oversimplify complicated issues just to score rhetorical points.

    Going back to the USA for examples, I do not believe Irish immigrants and nowadays Mexican immigrants have reacted with the same knee-jerk mob violence that the people who steep themselves in the most backwards forms of Islam have

    Nor have Muslim immigrants. What’s your point?

    I have, however, seen a lot of domestically-born Americans vilify and commit acts of violence against Muslims (or really, any brown-skinned person within rock-throwing distance) for no good reason.

    The ideas behind what is appropriate, what is good, what is an insult, what is the correct response, etc. all seem to have origins within that tradition’s religious scriptures through one interpretation or another.

    It’s in every religion’s traditions. We’ve seen mobs of Catholics kill heretics and apostates. We’ve seen gangs of Protestants beat up Catholics. We’ve seen Buddhist mobs in Sri Lanka, we’ve seen Hindu mobs in India… we have to have an explanation for these things that isn’t just “this religion is worse”. That’s a very very stupid way to look at the world. Human behaviour almost never boils down to a single factor, and when we have so many others to look at, it’s folly to ignore whichever ones don’t fit one’s thesis.

    it does come off as a bit arrogant to ignore what they say

    Calling me “arrogant” means nothing unless you can also demonstrate that I’m wrong. Otherwise, you’re just calling me apt.

  31. 31
    jamesfrank

    Yeah… I realized after finishing my long ramble that I should’ve tossed in a paragraph or two.

    No. My point is that it is ridiculously reductive to see that and say “look how crazy Islam is! It makes people do this!” There are a lot of other factors at play, and none of them seem to have worked their way into the “analysis” that I’ve seen, at least not outside of major journalistic outlets.

    Then I don’t think we disagree much on this.

    Nor have Muslim immigrants. What’s your point?

    It was more in response to those in comments who claimed the response against the Dutch Cartoons could be due to how those immigrants were treated in the Netherlands. The example was to show how such conditions, by themselves, haven’t been enough to trigger violence.

    It’s in every religion’s traditions. We’ve seen mobs of Catholics kill heretics and apostates. We’ve seen gangs of Protestants beat up Catholics. We’ve seen Buddhist mobs in Sri Lanka, we’ve seen Hindu mobs in India… we have to have an explanation for these things that isn’t just “this religion is worse”. That’s a very very stupid way to look at the world. Human behaviour almost never boils down to a single factor, and when we have so many others to look at, it’s folly to ignore whichever ones don’t fit one’s thesis.

    I can’t really find fault with this. Your original post came off rather strongly suggesting that just because Islam is the most oft-cited reason within Atheist circles that they were ignorant of the deeper issues involved. And if they do indeed see it completely in such simple terms they probably are worthy of some chastisement. I probably misunderstood the meaning of your article though, and can’t object to a call for more nuance in a controversial subject.

  32. 32
    hall-of-rage

    Yeah, the only thing I find worse than atheists talking about how violent Islam is, is Christians doing so. (I haven’t heard people of other religions do that.)

    I like this post and the comments.

  33. 33
    Crommunist

    No no no… you must be new. THIS is the part where you get mad and say a bunch of insulting things. Then I threaten to ban you, then you call this “free from thought blogs” and make a crude cartoon of my head on a pig’s body.

    The example was to show how such conditions, by themselves, haven’t been enough to trigger violence.

    No, you’re quite right. You did see African-Americans rioting at various points during US history though. I think this would be an interesting sociological question to explore – how does the marginalization and demonization of a minority group manifest itself in that group’s behaviour? Would be worth a PhD or two, I think.

  34. 34
    Brad

    It’s hard to talk about this without victim-blaming. Those acting out are victims of some previous (possibly ongoing) injustice, but when they strike, they’re victimizing others. It’s possible but I’d be very surprised if the dead ambassador or anyone else there was meaningfully involved in US foreign policy 40-50 years ago.

    Sins of the father passing down is a religious idea too.

  35. 35
    brucegorton

    I mentioned your post in my column.

    To put it in its shortest possible summary – the protesters themselves say it is largely over the film so I am going to take their word on that.

    But we atheists still don’t get to feel smug, considering that what seperates a lot of atheists from being those rioters appears to be access to an Internet connection.

  36. 36
    Winterwind

    You raise some very good points as usual.

  37. 37
    jamessweet

    I wrote something similar but terser on my blog yesterday. Except in my case, I was speaking out just as much against those who deny the theological aspect as I was those who deny the geopolitical aspect. As you say, “opportunistic political and religious leaders… provoke underemployed and disadvantaged young men to lash out…rather than focus their energies on the dissatisfying way in which their own leaders govern.” If it weren’t for religion, either there would be no violent riots, or the violent riots would be about something that mattered. And if it weren’t for the geopolitics, instead of violent riots over something stupid and inane, there’d be a bunch of imam talking heads on Al-Jazeera complaining about something stupid and inane. It takes a special combination of both to have this much violence over something this stupid.

  38. 38
    Crommunist

    It’s as though “foreign policy” is the only thing I wrote in the entire post.

  39. 39
    Crommunist

    Thanks for the link.

    Also, that’s not the only thing the protesters are saying. I suggest you read the links within the article, or look at some of the news coverage where people are talking directly to protesters. The feeling of persecution is palpable, and these mobs are easily whipped into a frenzy not simply because they believe, but because they are raised believing that the United States is trying to take something away from them – this video is further “evidence” of that.

  40. 40
    brucegorton

    Thankyou. I am definitely going to read more into it (the recent death of 8 South Africans in Afghanistan has sparked a lot more interest out here, and at least one of our major mosques to condemn the riots) and your writing definitely has me thinking about the issues involved.

  41. 41
    left0ver1under

    Further, these were acts committed specifically in the defence of an idea – the position of the protesters seemed to be that the very act of saying something unflattering about Islam justified widespread destruction of property.

    I disagree. The muslims are rioting in various countries for the same reason idiots in Vancouver rioted after the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. They are using this as an excuse, a pretext, for causing damage and committing violence. Witness the Iranian cleric who associated the “movie” with the failure to murder Salman Rushdie.

    I have no doubt that most muslims who read newspapers or have internet access know that the “movie” is a fraud, they know that it doesn’t represent the majority in “western” countries. Or they don’t know, it’s because they have blinders on, their newspapers are lying to them, and those with internet access aren’t making any attempt to find out that the “movie” is as despised on “western” countries.

    It has become a mainstay of the anti-theist crowd (among whom I count myself)

    I don’t count myself among them. I view religion as being no different than a hobby, a waste of time, effort and money that can be more quickly and effectively eliminated by education than by banning it.

    The most anti-theistic people are religious people. They want to ban all competing religions. They want to make theirs not just the only religion that exists, but also make it required by law. That’s anti-theism.

  42. 42
    Crommunist

    can be more quickly and effectively eliminated by education than by banning it.

    I think you’d have to work pretty hard to find an anti-theist who thinks that religion should be banned, or that banning religion is a good (or even practicable) idea.

  43. 43
    HumanistJohn420

    You said it all Matthew.

  44. 44
    Anthony K

    If it weren’t for religion, either there would be no violent riots, or the violent riots would be about something that mattered.

    Stealing a bit from left0ver1under’s comment below, the prevalence of riots over hockey (or even nothing at all) in Canada would suggest that your thesis needs more work.

  45. 45
    Anthony K

    That may have come across as very condescending, though I didn’t intend it to, james. My apologies if it did.

  46. 46
    smrnda

    I’m not sure all riots are really the same any more than any negative social phenomenon is the same. Could some of them just be thugs looking for an excuse to tear things up? Possibly, but I doubt every person is really thinking the exact same way.

    There have been race riots in the US during the civil rights era. I doubt that everyone participating was just a person looking for a convenient excuse to engage in some violent tendencies, I’m sure many people felt that this was a legitimate use of force to address an unfair situation. In some cases (like riots with sporting events) it’s probably just people looking for an excuse to smash things, but in many cases you’ll find people all over the place in terms of their individual motivation.

  47. 47
    DPSisler

    I agree…I was thinking that this was more like the “angry mobs of teens/young adults in Paris” that wrecked that City than just fundalmentalists. The movie was just a pretext to exhaust steam. Of course, our media will not address that issue.

  48. 48
    mynameischeese

    Finally, a postcolonial/neocolonial atheist perspective. I’ve felt so alone with all the other atheists neglecting the political context of these kinds of situations.

  49. 49
    Anthony K

    Believe me, you’re not the only one. It’s just that vocal atheists with a social sciences background are somewhat more rare than the STEM hyperskeptics.

  50. 50
    Crommunist

    So divisive, Brownian. I don’t have a social science background, incidentally.

  51. 51
    mynameischeese

    Oh sorry. Instead of “all the other” I should have said, “with so many other.” I know there are atheist postcolonial/neocolonial perspectives out there. They just sometimes get a bit drown out by the people who want easy answers, like, “Get rid of religion and world peace will quickly follow.”

  52. 52
    lirael_abhorsen

    And this is why I love your blog (one reason, anyway). Sorry not to have anything more substantial to say.

  53. 53
    Dog Almighty

    Yeah, I agree with that the reasons for these demonstrations are more complex than just “Muslims going nuts” because of a movie.

    A few years ago during the Muhammad cartoon riots some researcher (can’t remember his name) pointed out that a partial reason for these kinds of riots in the Middle-East is frustration. The people in these countries are not living in a bubble. They are very aware of what is happening outside the country. And for decades now they have watched Western countries develop and create somewhat decent societies, but at the same time they have moved nowhere.

    And over years the frustration because of this has grown. Muslims pray and pray and hope for Allah to provide for them. But nothing has happened. At the same time they have watched us infidels prosper. This makes them extremely disappointed and makes them wonder why Allah lets them down. And it only requires a minor incident to be the drop that makes the cup run over. These riots are not just a reaction to the movie. They are also a way for them to vent their frustration that has built up over years. Even though they live in societies which uphold the rules of their precious faith, they are at the same time painfully aware that their governments manage their lives more poorly than ours. Despite living in god fearing countries, their opportunities and freedoms in life are much more limited than ours. So these movies, cartoons and holy book burnings are just a reason for them to explode every now and then.

  54. 54
    jdt

    Thanks, Ian. Well-reasoned and thought provoking as always.

  55. 55
    Anthony K

    We can’t all be perfect, Crommunist.

  56. 56
    Anthony K

    Case in point, mynameischeese. Sam Harris never met a person whose rights he’d like to abridge. Well, 7/9 to 3/4 of them, I mean.

  57. 57
    doubtthat

    Some points:

    1) As long as Israel exists, there will always be enough angry people in the Middle East to start a violent riot.

    2) Eliminate religion from these events and there’s still sufficient fuel to spark the riots, but without religion you could never get so many people so violently angry about something so fucking stupid.

    3) There are oppressed Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists in the world, yet:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/no-one-murdered-because-of-this-image,29553/

    4) If the West completely abandoned the Middle East tomorrow, do people think there would more or less violence over the next several decades? Do people think standards of living and defense of human rights would go up or down on the average?

    I can see some countries, specifically Iran, thriving without Western meddling, but I think you could be certain of endless tribal conflicts and probably a major war against Israel. Theocracies would undoubtedly spread, at least initially, and that’s never good for the lady folks.

    5) This is a confrontation of villains, and pointing out the flaws with one side (Violent American foreign policy/insane, idiotic religious behavior) should not be seen as either a reductionist explanation or an endorsement of the other side. Pointing out the stupidity of being willing to murder people over a YouTube video is not an endorsement of drone strikes.

  58. 58
    mynameischeese

    @Brownian

    I see your Harris thread and raise you one where people claim to be fighting islamofascism in the first world* while also claiming that it can’t exist in the first world:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/taslima/2012/09/15/gods-soldiers/#comments

    *whatever the fuck “first world” means

  59. 59
    Marcus Ranum

    I believe the religion as,cause narrative is important because it promotes a specific agenda: the dumb violent arabs who are driven mad by islam. And since they are all crazy we can ignore the hundred+ years of profound injustice inflicted on the region by England, and the US. They aren’t pissed off because of god. They’re pissed off for really good reasons. The closer you look at the powers’ actions in the middle east, the more you’ll want to vomit.

    There’s some really interesting stuff in the inimitable Adam Curtis’ blog, such as:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2012/05/if_you_take_my_advice_-_id_rep.html

    Bin Laden said (in one of his speeches) that the motive for revenge against the US was watching the invasion of Lebanon and the genocidal attacks at Sabra and Shatila. All of which was done with direct US involvement or tacit permission. But somehow the publicly consumable narrative about Bin Laden was that he was a crazy religious muslim who hated how American girls dress, etc. It’s a convenient way to ignore the larger point – there are a lot of pissed-off people and they are pissed off for good reason.

  60. 60
    Edwin

    Thanks for this post, Ian.
    There is plenty that we as secularists, skeptics, and atheists can criticize about Islam – and religion in general – without resorting to absurd reductionist claims that place Islam squarely at the center of every ill in world.

  61. 61
    Riptide

    I have three main points (and one facile, self-serving one) to address. The least important is that Twitter users (tweeters? twitterers? nitwits? I think I’ll go with nitwits for the purposes of this) likely have an inflated view of themselves. After all, they think their random 140-character soundbites are worthy of a worldwide conversation; this isn’t necessarily bad, but I submit that it means the average nitwit is likely at least a bit more smug than xe ought to be.

    Intersect this population with Internet-going atheists, who’ve oft demonstrated their (our) smugness, and you get a recipe for the kinds of distasteful attitudes Ian attempts to rebut. The restrictions of the medium only amplify this.

    The first main concern I have is the following statement, drawn from the blog post: “What is more challenging is to hold that idea in your head at the same time as you recognize that while the headlines and, *in some cases even the protesters* may have claimed that this rage was over hurt religious feelings, the real story is far more complex”

    This raises the spectre of the kind of western-supremacist paternalism that infests so much of modern liberal thought, guised as multiculturalism. If the “man in the street” is marching because he (and it always seems to be a “he”) thinks his religion has been insulted, we insult him further by second-guessing those motivations.

    Secondly, arguing for more nuance on behalf of only one avenue of the conversation (and a non-professional avenue at that) is itself reductionist; there are dozens of publications, blogs, commentaries, and the like who either take a sympathetic tone toward the protestors’ religious sensibilities or who attribute the violence entirely to other factors. The anti-theist case is almost entirely absent from the “mainstream” conversation about these events at every single level; insisting that all nitwitting atheists should adopt more nuance leaves unsaid the need for the mainstream to do the same.

    Thirdly, and this is mainly to those who seem to equate these widespread protests to Canadian hockey riots, I have to ask: are you fucking kidding me? And you’re calling the anti-theist position reductionists?

    Okay, let’s see. You would have a point if the first of the Canadian rioters were sparked by a YouTube video of a soccer player taking a shit in a replica of the Stanley Cup, if they took up their mischief after their local hockey practice at the “suggestion” of their coaches, and if they felt entitled to storm a soccer stadium and kill the security personnel and one of the coaches therein. And then the protests spread out from Vancouver within days, with other violent protests erupting in cities across Canada with even more deaths.

    Then you’d find something like an equivalence. But saying “there are non-religious riots, therefore the riots here *can’t* have even been *influenced* by religion” is a non-starter. You still have quite a bit of work ahead of you.

  62. 62
    dereksmear

    Between 6 and 10 August 2011, several London boroughs and districts of cities and towns across England suffered widespread rioting, looting and arson where thousands took to the streets. The first night of rioting took place on 7 August 2011 after a protest in Tottenham, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man from the area, who was shot dead by police on 4 August 2011. The immediate spark for violence was when large numbers of police arrived to disperse the demonstration. Several violent clashes with police, along with the destruction of police vehicles, magistrates’ court, a double-decker bus, many civilian homes and businesses, began gaining attention from the media. Overnight, looting took place in Tottenham Hale Retail Park and nearby Wood Green.

    The following days saw similar scenes in other parts of London with the worst violence taking place in Hackney, Brixton, Chingford, Peckham, Enfield, Battersea, Croydon, Ealing and East Ham, Oxford Circus. From 8 until 10 August, other cities in England including Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester, along with several towns, saw what was described by the media as ‘copycat violence’.

    The riots were characterised by rampant looting and arson attacks of unprecedented levels. As a result, British Prime Minister David Cameron returned early from his holiday in Italy and other government and opposition leaders also ended their holidays to attend to the matter. All police leave was cancelled and Parliament was recalled on 11 August to debate the situation. As of 15 August, about 3,100 people had been arrested, of whom more than 1,000 had been charged. Arrests, charges and court proceedings continue. Initially, courts sat for extended hours. There were a total 3,443 crimes across London linked to the disorder. Emergency calls on Monday night saw a 300% increase, from 5,400 normally to 20,800.

    Along with the five deaths, at least 16 others were injured as a direct result of related violent acts. An estimated £200 million worth of property damage was incurred, and local economic activity was significantly compromised.

    The only conclusion we can draw from all this is that the English are savage and barbaric.

  63. 63
    left0ver1under

    I wasn’t inferring that you or others were actively seeking to ban religion. You and I are probably equally dismissive of it, and you probably share my view that education will eliminate religion.

    But as mentioned, the religious actively seek to eliminate competition by banning (or trying to ban) other religions, and there are many examples of it.

  64. 64
    jesse

    Part of the problem is that Al Qaeda isn’t a military problem — that is, while small groups can mount attacks, meeting force with force, as they say in Judo class, simply will not work.

    An analogy: I can flip a person heavier than I am. Why? Leverage and a little knowledge of how people move. Physics. If I try to fight like a big guy, though, I will lose. The bigger guy will beat the shit out of me.

    So what do you do? You think and try to learn where vulnerable spots are. You don’t stand there and let a big dude charge you and pound you into dust. Manny Pacquiao, by the way, demonstrated this several times. He would let his opponents tire themselves out, essentially.

    The US is approaching Al Qaeda as though by blowing up enough of them they would stop. Precisely the opposite: the more you kill the more you justify their existence. The more you suppress, the more they are motivated to attack.

    Donna Lieberman of the ACLU said it well on a TV appearance: the NYPD’s reaction to peaceful protests misreads badly the reason why peaceful protest exists at all. Peaceful protests is what you have instead of terrorism. When people feel that the powerful will listen to nothing but violence, well, duh, what are they going to do? The US government has demonstrated that it will listen to nothing else. The people in the developing world aren’t fools. Had the US decades ago supported democracy even in the tepid way it did so in Europe, the story wold be very different.

  65. 65
    jesse

    Matthew — let me throw out a counterexample.

    South Park aired “Super Best Friends” in July 2001. The cartoon had a representation of Muhammed. What was the reaction in the Muslim world?

    Nothing. Zero.

    So, let’s offer up some reasons.

    1. Nobody — certainly no religious Muslim — anywhere in all the world saw the episode.

    2. Comedy Central didn’t broadcast the episode internationally.

    3. Not a single Muslim of a religious bent anywhere in the world could get YouTube or knew anyone in the US with a television.

    4. Nobody cared.

    Which do you think is more likely? And what does that say about common explanations (like the one you have) for why protests like this happen? You think that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t just the representation of Muhammed, but that combined with a lot of other real events?

  66. 66
    davidjanes

    c) Hit a valid target, and only a valid target. This would help to no end.

    First, assume a spherical cow.

  67. 67
    dereksmear

    Elsewhere, atheists in Turkey continue their campaign of brutal violence.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19650034

  68. 68
    Timid Atheist

    Where does it say that PKK are atheists? I’m seeing marxism-stalanism, which is stretching it a bit if you ask me. The ideology behind that group has nothing at all to do with atheism as far as I could find.

  69. 69
    42oolon

    Great piece

  70. 70
    dereksmear

    I’m afraid this just apologist talk. You need to educate yourself about what atheism is really about

    “Atheism is a material and inseparable part of Marxism” (Lenin)

    I think moderate atheists should be speaking out against this sort of violence rather than burying their heads in the sand. Actually, moderate atheists provide cover for the extremists.

  71. 71
    Timid Atheist

    I’m afraid this just apologist talk. You need to educate yourself about what atheism is really about

    “Atheism is a material and inseparable part of Marxism” (Lenin)

    I think moderate atheists should be speaking out against this sort of violence rather than burying their heads in the sand. Actually, moderate atheists provide cover for the extremists.

    I’m sort of at a loss for words on this one, so I’m just going to quote you and let your words speak for themselves.

  72. 72
    dereksmear

    Yes, here endeth the lesson.

  73. 73
    Rutee Katreya

    Don’t you even remember the Danish cartoon controversy?

    Is that the one where racists sent in racist cartoons to a racist rag, continuing more than a decade of xenophobia aimed at brown immigrants from the middle east? Yeah, that’s totally and entirely on ‘extremist religious sentiment’.

    Brown immigrants angry at racist white people became controversial when, exactly?

  74. 74
    Rutee Katreya

    I’m not going to lie, if Dereksmear isn’t trying to demonstrate the problem with islamophobia, he’s doing a great job of it on accident.

  75. 75
    mynameischeese

    ““Atheism is a material and inseparable part of Marxism” (Lenin)”

    Just because Lenin (or anyone) says it’s so doesn’t make it so. There are plenty of catholic communists in South America, just to bring up one example. Atheism is a single belief that can be inserted or extracted from almost any ideology, so thinking that atheists (who have existed far longer than communists) as a group should take responsibility for stalinism is like asking christians as a group to take responsibility for any fascist groups that might appear on the planet.

  76. 76
    Riptide

    Thank you for your nearly pitch-perfect example of reductionism in action. Your comment below about “atheist” violence in Turkey is also pretty nice, but it’s just a bit more strained than this one. Bravo!

  77. 77
    dereksmear

    I’m glad someone got it.

  78. 78
    Nick Gotts

    One point not covered here is that there have been two kinds of religious extremism at work in the Innocence of Muslims furore. That of the Islamists, and that of the film-makers. Those involved with the film include Terry Jones and Steve Klein (who believes California is rife with Al Qaeda cells just waiting for the word to slaughter as many people as possible), as well as Coptic Christian extremists such as Morris Sadek, apparently responsible for drawing global attention to the film, and Joseph Nasrala. The film was not, as many have said, “stupid”: it has succeeded in its makers’ aims, probably beyond their wildest dreams. In practice, despite their declared hate for each other, the Islamist and Christian Reconstructionist extremists are symbiotic: they both want violent confrontation, to serve their extremist religious ends.

  79. 79
    smrnda

    This is a point well made, and it’s also a shame that the people most willing to confront Islamic extremism are just a different set of religious fanatics. These people don’t want people in Muslim countries to re-examine their beliefs and become rational skeptics and humanists, they want to start some modern day crusades.

  80. 80
    Eldin Alvere

    While there is an undeniable anti-American element in Islamic states, it is over stated. Most people here in Indonesia like America, American products, American culture, etc. The primary point of contention is America’s support of Israel. That contention is entirely religiously based.

    Also, if you read the quran, you still see that the reaction of Muslims is according to the dictates of the quran. They are instructed to attack anyone that makes an image of their prophet or mocks their prophet.

  1. 81
    NonProphet Status » Blog Archive » A Change of Heart on Bigotry

    [...] suggest that the violence is rooted in politics, sociology, or economic situations (as The Crommunist has so fallaciously argued, with no nuance or eloquence whatsoever). Because that might be [...]

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