How should we talk about Islamic Terrorism?

In the wake of the Paris attacks and the mass-shooting in San Bernardino, the world began anew the discussion of how we should deal with Islamic terrorism. These events are moving fast and it's hard to wrap my head around how we should approach these conversations and the calls to action that flow from them. The very day that the terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, I read a book titled Islam and the Future Tolerance, a dialogue between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. Harris is a well-known critic of religion; Nawaz is an ex-Islamist. The exchange marks a valuable contribution to an important discussion about how we should talk about the problem of Islamic terrorism. The conversation is perhaps best summarized by a point -- one that I deeply resonated with -- that Nawaz offers towards the end of their exchange: "No idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity." That is to say, one can throw the kitchen sink at bad ideas while maintaining that we should avoid the pitfalls of tribalism, bigotry, and discrimination.

Before I dive a little deeper into what of value I think there is in the dialogue between these two men, I'd like to offer some caveats. First, though it does not say anything about what I do find important (among others, individual freedoms, social and economic equality, and civilization oriented towards discovery, reason, and improving quality of life), the fact that I am an atheist says much about what I do not believe in. I view the world's religions with the same skepticism that I apply to any idea; under that standard, I've found them wanting in their most important aspects. This perspective no doubt informs how I view the project of Islam in particular and I am fully aware that my commentary comes as an outsider to the faith. Second, as an American white male, an identity that is akin to winning the world's lottery, I've thankfully avoided the injustice of discrimination that Muslims have faced -- and continue to face -- both in my own country and around the globe. Nor can I pretend to understand what is like to be at the receiving end of an often disastrous American foreign policy. The weight of these injustices is real and my identity as a liberal compels me to pay attention. Finally, it should go without saying, but I'll say it explicitly here: I am not talking about the many, many peaceful Muslims around the world.

With these caveats offered, I cannot stand by idly. Islamic terrorism and related fundamentalist interpretations of Islam represent some of the worst of what humanity has on offer. The stories coming out of ISIS-controlled areas are horrifying. The mob murder of Farkhundab Mlikzada proves to be too much for the world to bear. I watched with horrified eyes as men beat her to death not because I'm rubber-necking violence in some far-flung part of the world but because I cannot avert my eyes any longer. The assaults of terrorists worldwide and the vision of fundamentalist Islam are in awful opposition with what I believe a harmonious global civilization can build towards.

These horrors are made all the worse by the fact that the debate is monopolized by troubling voices. Divining who the GOP nominee will be this moment is futile, but Donald Trump's popularity should serve as a drastic warning shot to us all. Even if Trump ultimately loses the battle of the primaries, his rhetoric is deeply connecting with real people across the country. At the moment of writing this essay, Trump is tied for second with the Pope in Gallup's ranking of "Most Admired Man." This troubling resonance with tribalistic politics is trending elsewhere in the world. Given this, we have a duty to take the connections these awful voices are forming with voters seriously. We need to understand them, and to offer up our better lights of reasoning in response.

Early on in Harris and Nawaz's conversation, the latter establishes a key premise:

Islam is not a religion of war or peace — it’s a religion. Its sacred scripture, like those of other religions, contains passages that many people would consider extremely problematic. Likewise, all scriptures contain passages that are innocuous. Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself; no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice.

Why is this important to note? One can imagine the horrors that other world religions could have committed if you took them at their worst (say, Christianity during the Inquisition) and gave them the tools that global terrorist groups have today. We have to understand what believers bring to their religion in order to understand how the religion expresses itself.

What, then, is the landscape of Islam today? Much later in the conversation, Nawaz cogently explains the many forms that it can take, focusing on ways to distinguish the forms that we might find problematic:

Islam is just a religion. Islamism is the ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society. Islamism is, therefore, theocratic extremism. Jihadism is the use of force to spread Islamism. Jihadist terrorism is the use of force that targets civilians to spread Islamism. The Islamic State is merely one jihadist terrorist group. The problem was never “al-Qaeda inspired” extremism, because extremism itself inspired al-Qaeda, and then inspired the Islamic State. It is this extremism that must named — as Islamism — and opposed.

This concise vocabulary is incredibly important. In this conversation about Islamic terrorism, we must be precise in what we are actually up against: jihadist terrorism. As I mentioned previously, the imprecise and callous language on offer in the public square at this moment is dangerous because it speaks to the fears of many without correctly diagnosing the actual problem. Harris is especially concerned with where inaction or confusion among the Left in this conversation can lead:

We have extremists playing both sides of the board in a clash of civilizations, and liberals own’t speak sensibly about what’s happening.

That is to say, when those earnestly interested in resolving the problem become mired in a vigorous debate about the origins of terrorism and its potential remedies, the public debate can be monopolized by abhorrent voices like Donald Trump. Furthermore, this allows the troubling interpretations of Islam put forth by the likes of ISIS (which, as we saw with poor Farkhundab, ultimately harm Muslims themselves the most) to continue to flourish. This is the case because we don't deal directly with the fact that however twisted a view of Islam ISIS's doctrine may be, we can understand the interpretive route that got them there.

By recognizing that the interpretive path exists, we need not say anything about the truth of its expression, any more than we need to say that one woodworker's use of a slab of wood is the true expression of a tree. Only when we identify that interpretive framework as wrong yet comprehensible can we find a way to deal with its salience among Muslims. That Trump and ISIS seem to have the lion's share of the spotlight on this important issue is, to put it lightly, completely unacceptable.

With the clarity on offer in Nawaz's description of this landscape in mind, we can then move on to identifying the roots of jihadist terrorism. As part of running the counter-terrorism think-tank Qulliam, Nawaz has reached one conclusion that's helpful:

[F]our elements exist in all forms of ideological recruitment: a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; an identity crisis; a charismatic recruit; and ideological dogma.

There's much to unpack here in these factors, but the dialogue narrows its focus. When it comes to ideological dogma, Nawaz asks a piercing question:

[D]oes any piece of writing speak for itself? Or do we impose certain values and judgments on that text when interpreting it?

Nawaz finds for the latter. I agree. The Quran, like any text, is one with some degree of meaning up for grabs. Within the rich tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, literalism often guides meaning towards particular outcomes, like the tragedies we see in the news. Nawaz further zones in on this form of interpretation, cutting away at whatever defense of "intrinsic truth" that literalists might offer to their interpretive framework:

[W]hat [Harris] would call literalism . . . I call “vacuous literalism.” . . . For me, vacuousness in itself is a method of approaching a text. I use the word “vacuous” because an insistence on ignoring apparent contradictions is not in the keeping with literal wording. When you pick one passage of any text, and I demonstrate that it appears to contract another passage, the instance on being comfortable with those apparent contradictions and effectively arguing for both positions at the same time is a method. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s a method beyond mere literalism, as would be the method of attempting to reconcile such contradictions. Even agreeing on what the literal wording is requires a method.

The way out, then, is to provide room for competing interpretations, making it acceptable to bring different values to the text itself.

Showing his cards with respect to religion, Harris reflects that people bring values to their religion instead of finding them within their faith:

The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. In the twenty-first century, the moderate’s commitment to scientific rationality, human rights, gender equality, and every other modern value — values that, as you say, are potentially universal for human beings — comes from he past thousand years of human progress, much of which was accomplished in spite of religion, not because of it. So when moderates claim to find their modern, ethical commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception. The truth is that most of our modern values are antithetical to the specific teachings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And where do we find these values expressed in our holy books, they are almost never best expressed there.

As someone who exists outside of the rich traditions of the world's religions, I find Harris's point here well-taken. If I, like many of the non-religious, do not take my ethical cues from these admittedly rich traditions, we have to admit to some other source of moral imperative. We are all part of this collective storytelling of meaning and purpose and it's only when we recognize this that we actually grow in our capacity to tell our best stories.

What might we take away from this exchange? It's clear that what we're dealing with isn't just a problem of strategy. The cancer of ISIS cannot be eradicated by foolhardy American might ("Put boots on the ground!") or an alternative foreign policy framework ("No more blood for oil!"). Even noting the limits of strategy, we can recognize that there are better and worse answers to these questions. We have lessons to learn from Afghanistan and Iraq with respect to counter-insurgency and counterterrorism. More sane approaches like hard-fought diplomacy will hopefully bear fruit in the years to come. Importantly, we can be (rightly) critical of America's role on the world stage at various points in history. No one should relinquish their roles as watchdogs over the disproportionate influence the United States wields.

But the value of this exchange between Harris and Nawaz suggests that to stop there with our inquiry is to leave information on the table. The conversation indicates that this is also a war of ideas, and we need to be very specific and honest about which ideas we're talking about. Nawaz at one point prescribes that "the first stage in the empowerment of any minority community is the liberation of reformist voices within that community so that its members can take responsibility for themselves." I think this is absolutely correct. Providing space for reform and doggedly pursuing more sane, measured application of American power is the only way out of a world gripped by fear.

So, can we talk about Islamic terrorism, honestly and accurately? I think we can. I think we must.