What atheists like Bill Maher have in common with medieval Christian crusaders

The "Real Time" host and his fellow new atheists are using ISIS as yet another opportunity to beat up on Muslims

Published September 4, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

Bill Maher                       (AP/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Maher (AP/Janet Van Ham)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet If you want to understand the roots of ISIS, Middle Eastern conflict and Islamic terrorism, stay away from anything that atheist bigshots Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher write on these topics.

For them, Islam is the root of all Muslim rage against the West, the root of all barbarism, and the root of all conflict in the Middle East. Their premise not only speaks in the language of 11th-century Christian Crusaders and 21st-century U.S. neo-conservatism, but also demonstrates a breathtaking level of naivety, and willful ignorance of both history, and the cause-and-effect link in the chain of terrorism.

In the days following the gruesome beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, Sam Harris tweeted, “If ISIS hasn't convinced you that they are motivated by their religious beliefs, what could they possibly do to convince you?” Harris was silent on ISIS’ beheading of Syrian Muslim journalist Bassam Raies.

“This ISIS is some cocky m-fuckers. This is one I’m really rooting for us to kick their ass down their throats. America, fuck yeah!” tweeted Bill Maher. “Blessed are the Muslims that keep the faith. For they shall keep their heads,” Dawkins joked.

Unlike Harris, Dawkins and Maher, the late Christopher Hitchens was well qualified to comment on geopolitics. He may have been one of the greatest geopolitical commentators the world has known, but that doesn’t mean he was immune from judgmental error, and it’s pertinent to remember that he led neo-liberals in the drumbeat for the Iraq war.

Hitchen’s God Is Not Great is one of the best anti-religious tomes of modern times. Tragically, its subtitle “Religion Poisons Everything,” has led a great many atheists to see geopolitical conflict and fissures through the lens of anti-theism, and Harris’ response to Jihadist terrorism typifies that prism.

To understand the conflict in Iraq is to understand the root causes of most animosities in the Middle East. Until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century, the Middle East wasn’t made up of countries. The entire region spanning from Iran in the East to Egypt in the West, and Yemen in the South, was a bunch of territories, locally ruled by tribal chiefs, sultans and sheiks. These territories were roped under one empire from the 16th century—the Ottomans. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1919 as result of World War 1, the people living in the Middle East expected and were promised independence. Instead, the West (Britain, U.S. and France) carved the region up into artificially created nations, with no regard given to culture, ethnicity and history, but much regard given to the region’s oil fields.

“Regions that had functioned as one, such as Greater Syria, were fractured; regions that had always been separate were smashed together, such as Iraq.” writes Melissa Rossi in What Every American Should Know About the Middle East.

Prior to its formation in 1932, Iraq was a collection of separate city-states: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Under a British mandate, the three cities were pulled together under one umbrella because that made it easier for the British to administrate the new country’s oil production and sales. When the British drew maps of the Middle East, the movement of a border/line one way or the other often meant billions of gallons of oil reserves lost or gained.

Our overthrow of Saddam and the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government put more than 1 million Sunni Iraqis on the streets, and pushed another several million into the refugee camps of neighboring Sunni states. Thus the genesis of ISIS.

If atheists like Harris, Dawkins, Maher and company were truly rationally minded, they’d dispense with the knee-jerk infantile emotionalism and anti-Islam rhetoric that serves only the interests of our military industrial complex and our addiction to cheap Middle Eastern oil.

If a “caliphate” has been established, it’s an American caliphate in the Middle East. With a total of 44 U.S. military bases in the Middle East and the Central Asia, some of which are the size of small cities, we have the Muslim world completely surrounded. From Turkey to Saudi Arabia, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, our bases serve as a constant reminder to Muslims that we control their economic future and we are here to stay. And with an economic future that looks bleak for Muslims, the embers for Muslim rage are stoked.

If the Middle East were to cut the U.S. off from its oil exports, the U.S. wouldn’t have enough oil to last more than two to four years. That's the reason why the U.S. has invested more treasure, sold more arms, sent more soldiers, and fought more wars than any other region in the world.

“In that largely Muslim part of the world, [Iraq] the U.S. left a grim record that we in this country generally tend to discount or forget when we decry the barbarism of others,” writes Tom Englehardt. Chris Hedges claims the beheading of Foley and Sotloff are the result of years, at times decades, of the random violence, brutal repression and collective humiliation the United States has inflicted on others.

Hedges writes:

Our terror is delivered to the wretched of the earth with industrial weapons. It is, to us, invisible. We do not stand over the decapitated and eviscerated bodies left behind on city and village streets by our missiles, drones and fighter jets. We do not listen to the wails and shrieks of parents embracing the shattered bodies of their children. We do not see the survivors of air attacks bury their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. We are not conscious of the long night of collective humiliation, repression and powerlessness that characterizes existence in Israel’s occupied territories, Iraq and Afghanistan. We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.

To maintain control of the Middle East’s cheap oil supplies, we have engaged in industrial slaughter. To achieve our ends, we have propped despotic regimes and brutal dictators, overthrown democratically elected governments, and waged three wars in two decades on Muslim soil. All while we fund and are complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation and theft of Palestinian land.

When atheists echo the know-nothing ramblings of the aforementioned heroes of movement atheism, they do so at the expense of the terrorists themselves. The Suicide Terrorism Database at Flinders University in Australia accounts for all suicide bombings committed in the Middle East between 1981 and 2006. The results of this study are conclusive: it is politics, not religious fanaticism that leads to terrorists blowing themselves up.

The study shows that “though religion can play a vital role in the recruitment and motivation of potential future suicide bombers, their real driving-force is a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.”

In other words, almost everything Harris, Dawkins and Maher have written on the topic of Islamic terrorism ignores both politics and history and studies of global terrorism. At the same time they echo the utopian goals of religious crusaders who wish to cleanse the earth of opposing religious beliefs and those who extol our own barbarism.

By CJ Werleman

CJ Werleman is the author of "Crucifying America" and "God Hates You. Hate Him Back." You can follow him on Twitter:  @cjwerleman


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Alternet Atheism Bill Maher Christianity Richard Dawkins Sam Harris The Crusades