Islam and Terrorism - an Atheist View

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, 10 April 2012, by John L Perkins

An ideology can be defined as "a body of ideas forming the basis of a political, economic or social system." In the past the great battles over ideologies have involved debating the relative merits of capitalism versus communism for example. Some would argue, perhaps, that capitalism best fosters technical progress, while communism or socialism best fosters an equitable distribution of income.

The arguments can be formulated as to which ideology is best in terms of objective criteria such as freedom and human welfare. The political divide in Australia between Labor and Liberal had its roots in this ideological battle, but now the distinctions are blurred and the arguments are largely devoid of principles or objective criteria, and self interest seems to be the main concern.

In this context, how should we rate an ideology that has little concern for individual freedoms, which enforces strict allegiance to ancient doctrines: an ideology that by many objective criteria is not good for prosperity, progress or peace? I refer to an ideology where violence today in the name of the ideology is commonplace, and whole societies are dysfunctional because of this violence. I refer to a society in which women are second class citizens, where their testimony in court is discounted, where they may be freely abused by their husbands, where they are coerced to wear oppressive clothing, where they are unable to fully participate in the workforce, or in sporting events, where they are forced to live their lives in virtual house arrest, unable to venture out without a male relative. I speak, of course, of Islam. Should we not be critical of this ideology?

My view is that we not only should be critical but we must be. Yet if we look at the major focus of atheists in their quest to expose the injustice and iniquity of religion, their major focus is Christianity, not Islam. In the current context, I think, Islam is a far more challenging and indeed threatening religion, for reasons I will explain.

It is, of course, a difficult issue to talk about. It is certainly not my intention to attack or demonise Muslims. In many ways I sympathise with Muslims, and with, for example, the plight of the Palestinians. By raising debate, my motivation is actually to seek to benefit Muslims, if I can, by in some way helping to lift the oppression of religion from their hearts and minds. We need to debate the authenticity of all religions, and Islam in particular, because Muslims, in particular, are generally unable to do so. Fear of intimidation is a powerful constraint.

It can perhaps be considered unkind to try tell people their beliefs are false. People feel threatened if their beliefs challenged and they can react emotionally. However we need to do this for at least two main reasons.

Firstly, religions are vastly more damaging to society than commonly recognised. Part of the evidence for this is economic. To the extent that economics is concerned with human welfare and how to improve it, a lot can be said about the damaging effects of religion. Its effect on stifling progress through history can be readily seen, as can its adverse effects on societies today, although this is an issue not commonly mentioned by economists. (I have discussed this issue in previous lectures.)

The second main reason that religions should be challenged is because they are not true. As statements of the history of the universe and of the origin and nature of humans, religions are not true. This would be the case even if a god did exist. If religious were true they would not be religions.

This is symptomatic of a wider issue that surrounds religion and its place in society. This is that the truth claims of religions, which are known to be false, are rarely questioned. There is a tacit agreement between the religious that the founding myths of other religions not be questioned, lest it should undermine their own. Increasingly, in the pursuit of inter-faith dialogue, and for fear of offending cultural sensibilities, the veracity of religions is left unquestioned. This has proceeded to the extent that society's implicit default assumption now is that all religions are true. This is a profound absurdity that undermines rational cognitions, at great cost to society.

Certain parts of academia have assisted in bringing about this malaise by promulgating the absurd notion that all truth is relative and even that there is no such thing as truth. This fraudulent notion has assisted many a learned career perhaps, and while religions may not be party to this particular deception, it has allowed the dysfunctional notion that each religion can rationally persist with its own independent version of truth to gain respectability. In fact truth does exist, it may be elusive, but only reason and evidence can find it. Reality is real and no individual or society can operate without this assumption.

Religions are widely presumed to be benign, but in fact they have been, and still are in many instances, immensely damaging to human progress, welfare and human rights, especially the rights of women and children. In so far as the truth claims of religions remain unchallenged, this blight on humanity will daunt us indefinitely.

Religions would not survive without their cultivation in the minds of children and without the socialisation which leads to them fulfilling emotional needs in the minds of adults. In order to sustain belief, believers necessarily turn a blind eye to contradictions. It is impossible that believers do not know of certain contradictions, if not between doctrines and facts, at least between religions themselves. Hence the blindness of faith must be to a certain extent wilful blindness. As explained below, I defend the use of the word delusion to describe this phenomenon.

It is interesting to consider where the principle of honesty figures in this wilful denial of contradictions. As an outcome of the financial irregularities that have occurred in recent years in the United States, the beneficiaries of Ponzi schemes are required to pay back to victims all the money received over the last six years to victims. However for those who were "wilfully blind" to the iniquities of such schemes, this six-year time limit does not apply, and they are legally required to pay back all the money they ever received. Hence being "wilfully blind" can have both legal and moral consequences.

While religious believers who are wilfully blind may be guilty of at least intellectual dishonesty, they may not be morally culpable to the extent that they are unaware of the harm that their beliefs cause. Indeed most believers, even Islamic terrorists, are convinced that their actions are morally right and justified. As Humanists and atheists however, to the extent that we are aware that religions are both false and harmful, we are duty-bound, I think, to raise these questions of veracity and harm, especially in the context of inter-faith dialogue and debate.

This has been my motivation in producing my book, Islam, Arrogance and Delusion: a Reply to People Like Waleed Aly. With his regular programmes on radio and television, newspaper columns and commentary, Waleed Aly has become Australia's favourite Muslim celebrity. He is intelligent, articulate and provides incisive analysis of political and social issues. Given this, it might have been expected that he could have applied the same quality of analysis in his book, People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West, however this is not the case.

The book, written at a time when Aly was a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria, is very much from an Islamic fundamentalist perspective. While reviews of the book have tended to focus on the various inconsistencies in the arguments he presents, they have not tackled several substantive issues. These are that he fails to provide any justification whatsoever for the beliefs that he holds, and omits critical aspects of Islamic history that are inconvenient to his arguments. In short, he provides a case study in how blind faith can cause a brilliant mind to studiously avoid any issue that might challenge that faith.

Raising the questions of veracity and harm in religion was certainly my motivation in crafting my response to Waleed Aly's book. In particular, I have commented on the word "arrogance" and defended the reasonable use of the word "delusion". Aly suggests that non-Muslims are arrogant in the "egocentric" presumption that their views are universal. He is oblivious to the irony that in claiming that Islam represents the "Absolute Truth", he is thereby doing the same thing that he criticises in others. Is it not arrogant to presume, without any justification, that your own culturally induced views are superior to those of others? By contrast, I would argue that facts are not arrogant, and neither is the diligent pursuit of truth based on them.

A social phenomenon whereby intelligent people steadfastly hold to false beliefs, despite contrary facts being readily available, is the very definition of the word delusion. In describing the nature of religious belief, sustained by wilful blindness to contradictions, it is quite reasonable and appropriate to use the word delusion. In fact it is impossible to understand the nature of many religious arguments without appreciating that they originate from a somewhat delusional state of mind. This is certainly the case with many of the Islamic apologist arguments that Waleed Aly presents. In fact this is perhaps the kindest description as the alternative would be wilful deception.

There are certain facts of Islamic history that, given Aly's knowledge of the subject, it would be reasonable to assume he would be acquainted with. Yet they are absent from his account. Chief amongst these is the fact that the Prophet Muhammad was a military leader and that aspects of the Quran derive from his military campaigns. Given Aly's standing as a public figure, I did feel it was necessary to respond to his arguments in some detail, as I have done in my book.

Many of the criticisms that can be applied to Islam can of course be applied to other religions. Many of those who would criticise other religions refrain from comment on Islam due to the cultural sensitivities, or perhaps due to fear of intimidation, which unfortunately is a real concern in some countries. It is, however, a reasonable empirical conclusion to reach, that due to its wide geographical distribution, the extent of its penetration into societies where it is dominant, and the harm it causes in terms of social deprivation, human rights abuses and violence, Islam does indeed warrant particular criticism.

I argue that a knowledge of the military history of Islam and the strategy of insurgency as first applied by the Prophet Muhammad, is essential in understanding the nature of Islamic terrorism today. I argued that rather than engaging in military operations, such as is occurring in Afghanistan today, the appropriate response is to seek to engage Muslims in debate. Could we imagine in a debate about capitalism and socialism a constraint such as "we can't say that, it might offend someone"?

Al Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula produc an on-line magazine called Inspire, which is a high quality English language production, but seeks to use the Quran to inspire Muslims to commit egregious acts of terrorism. Its former producer, Anwar Al Awlaki, a US citizen, was killed with others in Yemen by US unmanned aircraft. I do not believe this is an appropriate form of debate. I have used a picture derived from the magazine on the cover of my book.

Finally I would like to say something about secularism. We are now frequently giving in to the demands of Islam for special prayer rooms and other privileges not accorded to other religions. Secularism is being eroded just when we need it more than ever.

We need a more comprehensive concept of secularism that that of the 17th century philosopher John Locke. We need to embrace at least the IHEU three part definition: separation of religion from state institutions; impartiality between religions; and protection of human rights from religious abuses, particularly for children.

We need to extend our arguments to promote secularism for humanitarian and security reasons. Of course we do not seek to make atheism compulsory. We do need to explain that religions are not true. If religions were true, we would not need secularism.

John L Perkins, 10 April 2012