Self-Imposed Limits

Monday, August 29, 2011

In Foreign Policy, Charles Kurzman considers at length the following question: "Why is it so hard to find a suicide bomber these days?" He introduces the question and his discussion by considering an incompetent attack in North Carolina that failed to cause even one fatality, pulled off by someone who was easily deterred by gun laws, and who didn't even know the difference between the two major sects of his religion.

If terrorist methods are as widely available as automobiles, why are there so few Islamist terrorists? In light of the death and devastation that terrorists have wrought, the question may seem absurd. But if there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom, why don't we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?
Kurzman comes up with five answers, from which I'll excerpt single-sentence quotes below. My interpretations follow each in bold.
  • [M]ost Muslims oppose terrorist violence. In addition to possible differences of interpretation of Islam, I would credit cultural influences outside Islam, and free will and decency for this.
  • [M]uch of the support for Islamist radicalism is soft. This can be another manifestation of the above, or due to personal hypocrisy.
  • Islamist revolutionaries are divided, and that is a third reason for their relatively small numbers. True, but how important is this?
  • [T]he combination of democratic politics and cultural conservatism is far more popular among Muslims than the revolutionaries' anti-democratic violence. This is a rehash of the first reason, but perhaps also with a measure of the second-handedness I'll discuss below thrown in.
  • The more that terrorists target Muslims, the less popular the terrorists become -- the fifth reason that their numbers are so low. Both legitimate self-interest and mere tactical considerations can manifest in this way. Regarding the latter: With something like CAIR and an aimless established government around, who needs terrorism?
One thing Kurzman leaves out is what role the terrorists' motivating factor, Islam itself, might play. If one accepts an ideology on blind faith that demands unquestioning obedience, exactly how enterprising will one be? This plays out in different ways and to different degrees depending on how strongly one accepts such an ideology.

In my experience, most people are rather second-handed. That is, they are mentally passive, and accept things, like their religious beliefs through a sort of osmosis from those around them. It takes some degree of independence to question something like one's religion -- or the myriad other cultural influences one grows up with. (And that independence will be ultimately be self-defeating if the conclusion one reaches is to stop using his mind.) This fact works against both apostasy and radicalism, but more so the latter, given what Islam demands of its followers: complete mental surrender. (The rampant relativism of our culture, however, can and often does make Islam look like viable guidance, anyway.) So, someone who is Moslem "by default" will be unlikely to go out on a limb to embark on a career of religiously-motivated murder.

But what of the truly radical? To what do they adhere so rigorously? A religion that neuters their minds by demanding the very opposite qualities that a truly effective warrior would need. People can compartmentalize, and act very shrewdly in isolated aspects of their lives, while adhering to ideas that, if acted upon consistently, would kill them. (And shrewdness is much better-motivated by the prospect of personal gain than by that of annihilation.) Despite Kurzman's opening example of Mohammed Taheri-Azar, someone with an incomplete understanding of his religion, the astounding lack of mental acuity and initiative he displays epitomize the end result of someone who has completely surrendered his mind. The leaders of any movement, even Islamic totalitarianism, must necessarily be able to function above Taheri-Azar's level, but what kind of foot soldiers will such a movement produce?

I think that last question is yet another answer to Kurzman's question.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

It has been my impression (which may be completely mistaken) that if someone "belongs" to a religion because they were "born" into it, they're usually pretty milquetoast about the whole thing. Its the converts and people who flee to the religion for whatever reason who are the scary radicals--that and maybe the people who think they can gain power from it.

It's a pretty common pattern in any group dynamic, even, say, corporations. Your managers will be gung-ho, the people those managers bring in will be gung-ho sycophant types, and the rank-and-file will be indifferent, even cynical.

Does Islam *have* charismatic leaders of the type who become mob bosses and Fuhrers? Because I wonder if the existance of those has more to do with producing serious bombers, too.

Gus Van Horn said...

Regarding your last question, I think there are people who, in some non-Western cultures would be regarded as charismatic, but whose "charm" doesn't really translate to well. This might be another aspect of the "local" terrorism phenomenon Kurzman talks about, too.

madmax said...

I think Kurzman's whole approach to this is flawed. While it may be true that the number of people willing to be Jihad terrorists and actually do the killing is relatively small, it is not true that this makes Islam and Muslims any less of a threat to the West or any liberty oriented society. That's because there are other forms of Jihad besides just terrorism.

The better anti-Islam Conservatives have documented Islam's stealth Jihad campaign including demographic jihad, ie immigrating to Western nations in large numbers and using the West's egalitarian political system to implement Sharia. It is well documented that when Muslims become significant minorities in any country they go to, they end up causing civil unrest to an extent that is far greater than their percentage of the total population. Ed Cline posted an excellent article on this a while back where he showed the Muslim populations in countries around the world and the civil unrest and even destruction that they cause. Europe is a case in point. Europe has 60 million Muslims. I can't see how that can ever turn out well.

I can go on. But the main point that must never be forgot about Islam is that it is EVIL. It stands for ceaseless, never-ending warfare against non-Muslims for the purposes of world domination. That is Islam. It is far more evil than Christianity (which at root is a pacifist, self-immolating cult).

By not recognizing this, Kurzman is more a part of the problem than the solution.

kelleyn said...

It's always uplifting to be reminded of how small and impotent evil actually is. This was also a painful reminder that, considering how weak the Islamists actually are, we have only ourselves to blame for our continued suffering at their hands.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus when I first read "Why is it so hard to find a suicide bomber these days?", I thought it was going to be an article about our self-imposed intelligence and espionage woes. Heh.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree that much of the potential value of Kurzman's article is lost due to his failure to recognize the basic incompatibility between Islam and Western civilization, as well as the existence of other, less obviously lethal, forms of jihad.


Agreed. Without our help and acquiescence, there would be far fewer Moslems, the radicals would have been soundly defeated long ago, and many more Moslems would question their faith, or at least work to reform it.


Gus Van Horn said...


Good one! Your comment never got to my mail queue, hence the delay.

Mike said...

"In my experience, most people are rather second-handed. That is, they are mentally passive, and accept things, like their religious beliefs through a sort of osmosis from those around them. It takes some degree of independence to question something like one's religion -- or the myriad other cultural influences one grows up with."

I was reminded of this comment of yours in reading this post over at Volokh Conspiracy. It's an interesting bundle of survey results, but it reminds me that such types don't change historical trends, they are simply the ballast of the boat the committed activists and thinkers rock (short- versus long-term there). Even if the results were representative of 99.99% of the Islamic world, that's still in absolute numbers an awful lot of committed hardcore Muslims who could do a great deal of damage. (And even if there were no Muslim states that actually sponsored terrorism, the weakness of many of them would be sufficient grounds for more than the international police efforts often offered as a suitable solution for fighting Muslim terrorists.) An important part of one ultimate solution, of course, is for Islam to defang itself by widely preaching and practicing the separation of mosque and state, but given the sea changes that would require in Islamic thought, there are many parts of the Islamic world where that's simply not conceivable any time soon. (Just ponder the Tajikistan civil war, in a state where seven decades of Soviet rule did leave a legacy of statehood legitimated on grounds besides religion.)

Gus Van Horn said...

A couple of thoughts on American Moslems.

(1) Many are immigrants, and so are likely to have regarded America as good in the first place. This makes that group more likely than foreign Moslems to be pro-American (or at least not anti-American).

(2) Black Moslems, insofar as they represent disaffected, native-born, black Americans are quite likely also heavily influenced by the anti-American left, and so wold probably look more like foreign Moslems than other American Moslems to this survey, at least in terms of attitudes towards al Qaeda.