Kareem Abdul-Jabbar misses the basket this time


I have praised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before as a thoughtful commentator on class warfare, racism, police shootings, and films. Now he has written a piece on the recent killings in Paris that is definitely a mixed bag.

I agree and sympathize with him when he describes what well-known Muslims have to endure every time a situation like this happens.

Another horrendous act of terrorism has taken place and people like myself who are on media speed-dial under “Celebrity Muslims” are thrust in the spotlight to angrily condemn, disavow, and explain—again—how these barbaric acts are in no way related to Islam.

When the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in a black family’s yard, prominent Christians aren’t required to explain how these aren’t really Christian acts. Most people already realize that the KKK doesn’t represent Christian teachings. That’s what I and other Muslims long for—the day when these terrorists praising the Prophet Muhammad or Allah’s name as they debase their actual teachings are instantly recognized as thugs disguising themselves as Muslims.

Where I disagree with him is when he says that “Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion—it’s ultimately about money” and that “these terrorist attacks are not about religion”. It would have been more accurate to say that they are not only about religion or that it is not the ultimate motive. After all, it is presumptuous to assert that people who proudly proclaim their religious motives for an action do not really mean it. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we have to take their words at face value and assume that it is at least the proximate cause for what they did. That there are other factors that may have caused these religious reasons to come to the surface does not mean that these reasons are not salient.

Again, I agree with him when he says that:

So the attack in Paris, as with most others, isn’t about changing Western behavior, it’s about swaggering into a room, flexing a muscle, and hoping to elicit some admiring sighs. In this case, the sighs are more recruits and more donations to keep their organization alive. They have to keep proving they are more relevant than their competing terrorist groups. It’s just business.

But I disagree when he says:

Nor should we blame America’s foreign policy as the spark that lights the fuse. Poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, lack of critical thinking, and general hopelessness in these countries is the spark… if recruits were swayed by logical idealism, they would realize that the fact that we conducted, released, and debated such a report is what makes America admirable. We don’t always do the right thing, but we strive to.

His words display a naivete about US foreign policy and its consequences and blowback that surprises me. To look at America’s long and ugly acts of violence and torture both abroad and at home and say that we always strive to do the right thing is astounding in its whitewashing of history. The appalling US foreign policy towards countries in the Middle East and the way that we have treated Muslim detainees at Guantanamo and the many black sites run by the US undoubtedly play a role in inflaming individuals so that they are more easily recruited by violent groups

In addition, we have young people in the US from comfortable middle class homes for whom “poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, and general hopelessness” are not applicable and yet are still willing to travel to that region to join the fight, so those cannot be the only reasons. Religion, US and western policies towards the Palestinians and nations in the Middle East, and conditions on the ground in those countries all play roles. The only question is the relative weights they have in influencing any particular individual.

It is also not the case that all Americans going abroad to fight for causes are viewed with the same level of concern. For example, since 2009, 1661 Americans have joined the Israeli Defense Forces and have been involved in its suppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and in the vicious periodic assaults on Gaza. Some of them are the children of very influential people in the US who play major roles in how Israel’s behavior is portrayed in the US.

The son of Times columnist David Brooks is now in the Israel Defense Force. The son of the former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner was in the IDF. The son of Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner, an Israeli, is now serving in the Israeli military. Brooks’s son was in the IDF for months before the New York Times even mentioned it.

And yet we do not view these young people’s decision to go abroad to fight to advance the agendas of other groups with the same level of dismay, showing once again the double standards that are applied.

Comments

  1. md says

    we have treated Muslim detainees at Guantanamo and the many black sites run by the US undoubtedly play a role in inflaming individuals

    Guantanamo opened after the Tanzanian embassy and USS Cole bombings.

  2. says

    Where I disagree with him is when he says that “Violence committed in the name of religion is never about religion—it’s ultimately about money” and that “these terrorist attacks are not about religion”.

    I agree with him. The atheosecular community has been falling for the religious narrative regarding islamic violence, which is a convenient way to avoid confronting the fact that the US and its allies have a tremendous responsibility for the situation. Political islam is about as much to do about religion as political christianity in the US – it’s all about power and privilege and wealth, contextualized in religion because religion is always a convenient way of explaining “why” to the suckers who are going to actually pull the trigger. The “religious terrorism” narrative pretends that violence is this thing that happens in a vacuum, and religion is its cause. The cause of the violence is that the US and its European allies (who, tellingly, are the targets of the violence) have consistently destabilized the middle east and parts of Africa in order to install friendly dictatorships in order to control strategic oil reserves.

  3. Johnny Vector says

    md says:

    Guantanamo opened after the Tanzanian embassy and USS Cole bombings.

    True. Also, Shinzō Abe was re-elected as prime minister of Japan in December 2012.

    But I think if we’re going to start making a list of completely irrelevant points, it would be much more entertaining to go with something funnier. I know! The films of Rob Reiner. I’ll start: “This one goes to 11.”

  4. says

    Religion, US and western policies towards the Palestinians and nations in the Middle East, and conditions on the ground in those countries all play roles. The only question is the relative weights they have in influencing any particular individual.

    It’s not that simple; you can’t just flatten the complex web of motivations for entire civilizations down to a linear spectrum. Some of the people in a civilization’s motivations are going to be wealth and power, and they may see the path to that as involving interfering with the politics of another civilization. There will be people in that civilization whose motivations are religious, and they may be saints, or they may be easily turned into gun-toting cannon fodder. Meanwhile, in another civilization, serving in the imperial military may be a path to upward mobility for underprivileged youth, or serving in the military may be attractive because of propaganda promoting it as the right thing to do for god and country. Etc. The web of motivations at play is huge and complex and when anyone, whether it’s Jabbar or yourself tries to treat it as a simple “why?” question you’re throwing away way, way, too much important detail in search of a simplistic answer that will always be wrong because it’s the details that matter. The Charlie Hebdo killers were probably true believers and we can say their motives were religious. Maybe. (Maybe they were just bored and angry) But even within those individuals, those motives are going to be more complex than simply religious or simply political.

    The reason it does a disservice when we try to flatten the complex motivations and treat the problem as if it’s a simple matter of whatever is because when you do that you’re implicitly setting the situation up for someone to come along and say “well, we’ll just push on that one issue, then…” These facile analyses that conclude the problem has a handful of causes increase our chances of getting things wrong. Want to solve religious violence? It means undoing 100 years or more of post-colonial abuse of millions of people, undoing anti-democratic efforts and assassinations sponsored by the US and its allies, undoing European colonization of Palestine (in the form of Israel) and – yes – undoing the religious contextualization of the anger and resentment resulting from all of that. And doubtless, in my attempt to explain the complexities, I had to leave a ton of them out of my description. For some people, the political resentments go back to the crusades and reconquista, which were political events with strong religious overtones (because religion was one of the techniques used to sell the trigger-pulling rubes on why they should participate*)

    (* Though, if you read contemporary accounts of the crusades, such as Joinville, you’ll realize that even at the time a lot of the people involved were involved for loot and land)

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus Ranum @4:

    For some people, the political resentments go back to the crusades and reconquista, which were political events with strong religious overtones

    Yes, and it’s worth noting that the religious overtones were to some extent probably added after the events. Reconquista was much more complicated than Christians fighting Muslims. There were alliances of Christian/Muslim rulers against other Muslim, or Christian rulers, etc. Politically-motivated propaganda plays a huge role in ‘history’.

  6. says

    His words display a naivete about US foreign policy and its consequences and blowback that surprises me.

    Bullshit. He was talking about conditions in certain countries that are not necessarily connected to US policy, and saying they’re more proximate causes of extremism and violence than US policy. Or to put it another way, he was saying that US policies are not the ONLY root of all evil, as (I hate to admit) many liberals, progressives and “leftists” so simplistically say every time there’s a terrorist act somewhere. And he’s dead right: the political culture that breeds most of the Islamic extremism we see today arises from political, economic and demographic circumstances in both certain Muslim countries, and in European countries where Muslim immigrants are faced with bigotry and nativism that prevents them from fully enjoying the benefits of our liberal secular societies. And it’s been arising from such circumstances long before Bush Jr. took office.

  7. says

    In addition, we have young people in the US from comfortable middle class homes for whom “poverty, political oppression, systemic corruption, lack of education, and general hopelessness” are not applicable and yet are still willing to travel to that region to join the fight…

    How many such young people? If it’s just a handful, and not a significant stream (like Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande), then we really can’t use them to explain the cause of anything.

  8. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    How many such young people?

    Yeah, I’d like to know this too. I’ve heard Fox News types claim figures in the thousands, but those were apparently arrived at by assuming every American traveling areas where ISIS is active were going there to enlist. Personally I’d be surprised if anyone could find evidence of more than a couple dozen such recruits.

  9. Erik Jensen says

    Marcus,

    So you agree with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that it is all about money. But you disagree with Mano Singham when he claims that there are multiple factors that lead to terrorism, because “it’s not that simple”? Which is it?

    I do think religion plays a role in terrorism. And the whole “legitimate grievance” claim is overblown. The “West” has a colonial/neo-colonial past (and present) in many parts of the world. I don’t see any Vietnamese Buddhist terrorists despite the fact that we killed millions of them. I don’t see any terrorists from Guatemala, despite the fact that we supported their murderous dictatorship for decades. Culture matters, and religion is an important part of culture. To claim that Islamic terrorists have nothing to do with Islam is absurd.

  10. nrdo says

    @ Erik Jensen

    I agree. Islam happens to be a highly political religion and has been used by Middle Eastern governments to suppress the social and economic power of their populations since well before Western interference in the region. The “all about the money” and “religion is the problem” theories are not mutually exclusive and, indeed, both feed into one another. The same is true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would be much easier to solve without the religious factions’ influence on their respective governments.

    Theocracy is what facilitates economic and educational oppression and is thus a root cause.

  11. nrdo says

    I’d also like to add that I think Mano’s innuendo regarding Israeli-Americans who serve in Israel borders on racism. I wouldn’t impugn, without evidence, the family of a Saudi or Jordanian-American who performs some form of national service in their home country even though I object to some of those governments’ actions. This is especially since people with experience in other countries are often the agents of change and communication. Comparing them to ISIS recruits is slanderous.

  12. says

    I’d also like to add that I think Mano’s innuendo regarding Israeli-Americans who serve in Israel borders on racism.

    That, too, is bullshit. If criticism of a certain entity’s actions is legitimate, then so is criticism of people who go out of their way to participate in those actions.

    I wouldn’t impugn, without evidence, the family of a Saudi or Jordanian-American who performs some form of national service in their home country even though I object to some of those governments’ actions.

    I would, if the service they were performing was related to the objectionable actions. If a Saudi immigrant’s kid goes to SA to work a soup kitchen or care for the sick, that’s fine. But if he goes there to put on a uniform and whip the skin off of dissidents’ backs, that’s not fine, and it’s not at all “racist” to criticize him for it.

  13. says

    Culture matters, and religion is an important part of culture.

    I would clarify that by saying that POLITICAL culture matters, and rigid religious authoritarianism is an important factor in that political culture. (I’m using the phrase “political culture” because it’s the political actions we should be attacking, as opposed to most of the other things that tend to fall under the heading of “culture.” It’s their politicians who are killing people, not their painters or playwrights.)

  14. md says

    Johnny vector,

    Guantanamo is routinely cited by liberals (not so much, terrorists) as a cause of terrorism. The point is that major terrorists attacks took place before the place was even opened.

    The cause of terrorism is terrorists.

  15. nrdo says

    @ Raging Bee
    Of course, if a person participates in or supports a specific activity they themselves should be subject to criticism. But that’s not what Mano wrote. He suggested, in broad terms, that the families (parents) of individuals who serve in their home country should be viewed with suspicion. Does he have evidence that David Brooks (who’s just an opinion columnist) or Ethan Bronner’s integrity is in question? Didn’t think so . . .

    I don’t think Mano meant to sound racist, but I think he did because he ignored some important facts:

    1) The “problem” of “Jews in the media” is a well-worn anti-Semitic trope.

    2) Most individuals who work in the IDF (and even in some Arab national militaries) do things other than gleefully oppress Palestinians. Some whom I’ve personally met oppose the occupation but feel that the net effect of their service is positive and protects the innocent majority from worse, extremist alternatives.

  16. nrdo says

    @ md
    Guantanamo and prisoner abuse in general isn’t a root cause of terrorism but I think it is a proximate cause of some. For one thing, ISIS was founded by former prisoners who became more radical and violent during incarceration suggesting, at least, a major failure of the system. I think the secretive and abusive nature of “war on terror” prisons is one of the worst mistakes the US made because, in addition to being immoral, it delegitimized the whole notion of holding prisoners; which would be legitimate after a transparent, due process.

  17. Johnny Vector says

    md:

    The cause of terrorism is terrorists.

    Then why did rounding up a big ol’ pile of terrorists and torturing them not reduce the amount of terrorism in the world?

    And why do terrorists come almost entirely from marginalized populations? Yes, there’s more to it than oppression, but it’s surely a big part. And really, if you think Guantanamo is the first thing the US did that legitimately pissed off a lot of people, I suggest you file malpractice charges against your history teachers.

  18. Holms says

    Guantanamo is routinely cited by liberals (not so much, terrorists) as a cause of terrorism.

    Yes, a cause of terrorism. Which is perfectly reasonable as you stated it, but you took it to mean the cause of terrorism, which I doubt many people have ever claimed.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @Marcus Ranum

    Political islam is about as much to do about religion as political christianity in the US – it’s all about power and privilege and wealth, contextualized in religion because religion is always a convenient way of explaining “why” to the suckers who are going to actually pull the trigger.

    Even if you argue that there is a vast conspiracy amongst the elite of the movement to pretend it’s about religion when it’s really not, you admitted that the “suckers” do believe it’s about religion. I do not understand your curious standard whereby you can ignore the motivation of 90%+ of the members of the group as irrelevant.

    The Charlie Hebdo killers were probably true believers and we can say their motives were religious. Maybe. (Maybe they were just bored and angry)

    Bullshit

    Continued:

    But even within those individuals, those motives are going to be more complex than simply religious or simply political.

    Everyone already agrees to that. No one is arguing that religious beliefs explain everything – not even Sam Harris. Everyone agrees that individual motivations are a complex web of many different effects, and everyone agrees it is facile to say it’s all because of religion. You’re arguing against a strawman.

    (No one here at least. Perhaps some radical fundamentalist Christians think that. I don’t see any here.)

    These facile analyses that conclude the problem has a handful of causes increase our chances of getting things wrong.

    And now you’re just being arrogant and condescending. There’s nothing wrong with asking why, and there’s nothing wrong with giving approximation answers which work for a large subset of cases – as long as you recognize that it’s an approximation which doesn’t cover everyone. Again, you’re arguing against a strawman.

  20. says

    There’s factors that motivate individuals to join a political movement, and there’s the factors that motivate the movement. US foreign policy, drone attacks, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, etc., all of these things are useful recruitment tools for Islamic terrorists. The terrorists are working from an Us v Them worldview, where “Us” means Muslims who adhere to their narrow interpretation of Islam, and “Them” means literally everyone else. US foreign policy makes it much easier for those recruiters to make that case.

    But that’s not the same thing as US foreign policy causing terrorism. It doesn’t. If the US never did anything wrong, there very well might be fewer terrorists, but Islamic terrorism would continue. The goal of Islamism is to impose an Islamic regime across the whole of the world, because they believe that is what God demands. It really is about religion, and there is nothing US foreign policy can do to change that. We can, and we must, stop feeding into a narrative that Islamists can use to gain support, but that isn’t the same thing.

  21. Holms says

    If a guy goes from sitting on the fence re. whether to join up against the west because he saw his friends blown up, and then the ambulance as well because the US designates first responders as enemies purely for helping wounded countrymen, then yes, America can have a share of that blame. Oh and what about the brutal regimes directly sponsored by the clandestine attempts to have puppet governments abroad? Pretty sure we can put a large share of that on America as well.

    Oh and as for Islamism trying to cover the world, that is not exclusive to Islam.

  22. says

    He suggested, in broad terms, that the families (parents) of individuals who serve in their home country should be viewed with suspicion.

    He suggested — quite appropriately — that when an opinion-leader’s kin are serving a foreign government, that could cause the opinion-maker to be biased in his statements regarding that foreign government. It is ALWAYS necessary to consider a commenter’s possible biases when hearing his comments, and this is just another case of bias we have to account for.

    Does he have evidence that David Brooks (who’s just an opinion columnist) or Ethan Bronner’s integrity is in question?

    Well, he has evidence of something that might cause a bias, which is enough to justify taking a harder look at their output. I’m still not sure why you would consider this a problem — examining and discussing other people’s biases is standard procedure in intel-analysis, jurisprudence, journalism, and a shitlolad of other necessary professions; so we’d all be fools NOT to do at least a little of the same here.

    Then why did rounding up a big ol’ pile of terrorists and torturing them not reduce the amount of terrorism in the world?

    +1 to that question.

    US foreign policy, drone attacks, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, etc., all of these things are useful recruitment tools for Islamic terrorists.

    That’s only one side of a coin. The other, equally significant, side, is that “Crusaders and Jews” have become favorite scapegoats for millions of people who are actually being most hurt by their own governments and religious leaders, and who are either unable or unwilling to turn their anger against their real enemies, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone with eyes. When the most fundamental pillars of your world are the causes of your misery, it’s always easier to find someone else to blame for it — and the people who are causing your misery are all too happy to help you lash out at just about anyone else but themselves.

  23. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    Does he have evidence that David Brooks (who’s just an opinion columnist) or Ethan Bronner’s integrity is in question?

    Does David Brooks even have any integrity to question?

  24. says

    md: quoting Pat Buchanan is a sure-fire way to flush whatever credibility you have down the toilet. He’s a well-known racist who still thinks FDR should have allied the US with Hitler instead of Stalin, and encouraged those two regimes to destroy each other (without caring about the tens of millions of people who would have been killed all over Europe); and this latest article of his is nothing but an incoherent hot mess of non-sequiturs whose “point” seems to be that we have to fight for religion and not for democracy. He’s the same doddering old hatemonger he always was, and I’m almost inclined to think your citation of him was a joke.

  25. md says

    Rob, Raging Bee,

    I posted The American Conservative link because I know Mano is an occasional reader and I wanted to be sure he didn’t miss it. Some of it overlaps with Kareem, and some blind spots are highlighted that liberals can’t always see about their ideologies.

    Regarding the arguments presented in the article, did you read it or just see the byline and feel like breaking some crockery?

  26. says

    …some blind spots are highlighted that liberals can’t always see about their ideologies.

    A Pat Buchanan disciple lecturing liberals about our blind spots? Yeah, that’s real credible. Or it might be if you had actually described at least one such blind spot.

    Some of it overlaps with Kareem…

    There is absolutely no such overlap. Kareem said something coherent and plausible that had some connection to reality; Buchanan just spouted pure bullshit about how we’re losing the war because we’re not religious enough.

    Regarding the arguments presented in the article, did you read it…?

    Yes, and I proved it by describing some of what it said. Did YOU read it? If so, you can prove it by discussing it intelligently, instead of just bluffing.

  27. md says

    Or it might be if you had actually described at least one such blind spot.

    Liberals seem to think we ought to be fighting for democracy worldwide. They assume their position to be common sense, and that the world would be better if everyone else just assumed it too. They are blind to what other cultures value, what other cultures will fight for. With Islamists, It is not free speech and women’s lib. Democracy, in its minimum sense of people freely choosing a leader, in Islamic countries like Egypt will not advance the other things we associate with it, like free speech, womens lib, respect for minorities, particularly religious, etc.

    Islamists are fighting for their religion. Islamists see politics through a religious prism, a sphere through which to advance religious thought. Today’s Europe and coastal America sees religion as an eccentric hobby, ideally completely separate from politics. These two views are incompatible and liberals have a hard time formulating coherent foreign policy because of it. Liberals in their universality of outlook don’t have the language to describe significant differences in culture. That would be rude.

  28. says

    Actually, we liberals have known for DECADES now that we can’t fight for democracy everywhere. It was liberals who invented the original policy of containment, which focused on defending democracy only where we had the best chances of success. That’s one of many reasons why we opposed regime-change in Iraq.

    They assume their position to be common sense, and that the world would be better if everyone else just assumed it too.

    Well, yeah, experience proves that to be true.

    They are blind to what other cultures value…

    Yeah, that’s what people like Putin say when liberals question their atrocious tyrannical actions. Not only is it dead wrong, but it’s hypocritical and manipulative: if we’re sensitive to other cultures, we’re called soft and multi-culti; otherwise we’re totally insensitive. It’s just another right-wing attempt to pretend liberals are always wrong no matter what we say.

    Islamists are fighting for their religion.

    Yeah, but shitloads of Muslims want Western-style secular democracy — run locally, of course, not by US or UK occupiers.

    liberals have a hard time formulating coherent foreign policy because of it.

    Actually, liberals approach foreign policy with more tools than military force (you know, that foreign-aid/soft-power stuff the “fiscal responsibility” types always scoff and defund), and recognize that different situations require different responses. That’s part of that alleged over-sensitivity and softness the neocons keep on complaining about.

    Liberals in their universality of outlook don’t have the language to describe significant differences in culture. That would be rude.

    What the fuck does that even mean? Even for the standard complaint of college-educated liberals not understanding the real world, your statement just plain fails.

  29. Holms says

    Oh wow, someone actually claimed that politically liberal people are less culturally aware than conservatives; that’s amazing. Preposterous of course, but props for the sheer nerve of it.

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