This is why they hate us: The truth about the roots of Muslim extremism

Our support for Mideast kleptocracies is the cause, just another link between corruption and religious extremism

Published January 25, 2015 4:00PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Excerpted from "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security"

Wait a second.

As I worked through this historical material, riveted by the saga of a carefully constructed mechanism coming to replace God as the main principle ordering government, I could not ignore one glaring fact: the people engaged in that process were practically all Protestants.

Why Protestantism? What is the link between reformed religion and representative government as a device to ensure the redress of grievances? Searching for answers to that question, I discovered something else: a separate strand tying corruption to religious extremism. This strand is not bounded by the arc of specific historical events; it is remarkably consistent through time.

But to unearth it, I had to go back to the source:

“The Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology . . . intends to defend the following statements.” So, legend has it, read a handbill that was tacked up on the carved wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, inviting scholars to a public debate on a long list of propositions.

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance ... as administered by the clergy.

Luther’s historic Ninety-Five Theses founded Protestantism, one of the most far-reaching intellectual and spiritual revolutions in human history. And these first two statements certainly sound theological in nature. Yet they were written in a temporal context—a context, it turns out, that had a lot to do with corruption.

In Luther’s day, Christians who had sinned were expected to regret their misdeeds—to feel remorse or “repentance,” the key word in the first thesis—and to prove their contrition by performing humbling acts such as fasting or almsgiving. Only then could they regain full membership in the community and ensure their salvation after death.

Accomplishment of dicult or humiliating deeds, and a priest’s determination that they were sucient to cancel out the sin, was “the sacrament of penance,” the key phrase in Luther’s second thesis. For many, the importance of performing these physical acts overshadowed that of the inward psychic reality of repentance.

People who died having confessed their sins but failed to perform penance were believed to incur a kind of debt, which they would have to pay off by suffering pain for some time in a limbo called purgatory. Lurid images in church windows and stonework, and the horrifying language of weekly sermons, frightened congregations with the agonies awaiting them should they die with accounts due.

Over time, church authorities began to offer people a dodge to avoid actually performing the penitential acts. They could purchase “indulgences” after confessing their sins. The vendors of these indulgences were eventually authorized to receive confession and administer absolution, though they were not priests.

In other words, just by handing over some money to buy an indulgence, a person could, in a single brief transaction, go through all the steps that guaranteed passage to heaven. Or even get a deceased loved one released from the torments of purgatory, by buying an indulgence in his or her name. The church had stumbled on a huge business. People started bankrupting themselves.

In 1515 a special indulgence was put up for sale in Germany. Cashstrapped Pope Leo X wanted to complete the construction of a magnificent church in Rome. The archbishop of Mainz—who had borrowed heavily to purchase his position, along with two other lucrative posts—was put in charge of the marketing campaign. Half the proceeds of the sale were earmarked for his creditor. So vital did the archbishop consider this mission that he ordered all other religious preaching to stop when vendors arrived in a town to hawk the indulgence.

This was the context in which Luther composed his theses, which included:

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. . . .

50. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. . . .

72. Let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed.

Luther’s theses—the genesis of the Reformation—were in large part an indictment of corruption.

So was a missive he wrote three years later, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” Luther was a sensation by then; his theses, printed in Latin and German, had spread as far as Switzerland. They were drawing fervent applause from Germans of all ranks. The pope was threatening to excommunicate him.

Luther’s response was an open rebuke to the Holy Father. “It is shocking to see the . . . vicar of Christ . . . going about in such a worldly and ostentatious style that neither king nor emperor can equal,” he wrote. “This kind of splendor is offensive.”

In the twenty-first century, Afghans and Tunisians and Uzbeks found such ostentation offensive in their governing officials too.

Rome, wrote Luther, is full of “buying, selling, bartering, changing, trading, drunkenness, lying, deceiving, robbing, stealing, luxury, harlotry, knavery. . . . And out of this sea the same kind of morality flows into all the world.”

A stream is muddied from its source.

Luther castigated the practice of appointing one man to several ecclesiastical posts, “coupl[ing] together ten or twenty prelacies,” so that “one thousand or ten thousand gulden may be collected,” allowing a cardinal to live “like a wealthy monarch at Rome.”

He criticized the widespread purchase of office: “No bishop can be confirmed unless he pays a huge sum for his pallium.” Legal cases over purely temporal matters are called to Rome, he complained, where judges are ignorant of local laws, justice (or injustice) is sold, and excommunication is used as a threat to blackmail people. Monasteries are given over to caretakers who appoint “some apostate, renegade monk,” who “sits all day long in the church selling pictures and images to the pilgrims.”

And all this, Luther charged—in terms Egyptians and Tunisians echo today—was especially despicable because it was done under the color of law: “They have bound us with their canon law and robbed us of our rights so that we have to buy them back again with money.” Obviously, the copious and profound teachings of Martin Luther cannot be boiled down just to a diatribe against corruption. His exploration of such doctrines as the physical presence of Christ in the host at communion, the importance of faith to salvation, and the role of priests as intercessors with God go far beyond such economic concerns. Still, many of the very elements of creed that he contested were used by the church to maintain a monopoly over the salvation of the faithful—a monopoly that made widespread extortion possible.


Luther was  hardly the first to lash out at the corruption of the Catholic Church. The twelfth-century mirror writer John of Salisbury reserved some of his choicest language for Rome:

Scribes and Pharisees sit[ting] within Rome . . . accumulate valuable furnishings, they pile up gold and silver at the bank . . . delight in the plunder of churches and calculate all profits as piety. They deliver justice not for the sake of truth but for a price. . . . Even the Roman pontiç himself is burdensome and almost intolerable to everyone, since . . . he erects palaces and parades himself about not only in purple vestments but in gilded clothes. . . . They pick clean the spoils of the provinces as if they wanted to recover the treasures of Croesus.

In the 1430s, an anonymous cleric probably living in Basel, where today’s Switzerland meets Germany and France, conceived a far-reaching reform of the church and empire, purportedly on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (d.1437). From its terms, a detailed picture of the church kleptocracy emerges. Along with indulgences—“as I love God, terrible simony and sin”—the text denounces multiple benefices, the sale of papal seals for ocial documents, and cardinals’ large retinues. The reform called for a fixed salary for all church officials and an end to clerics’ demands of “gifts” for their work, or the sale of dispensations for their illegal activities (such as sleeping with their maidservants).

In the latter half of the fifteenth century and the early sixteenth, a whole body of complaint literature grew up, collectively referred to as
the “grievances of the German people against Rome.” A treatise submitted to the Diet of Worms in 1521 listed one hundred and one specific complaints, including:

• Transfer of secular cases to Rome or ecclesiastical courts, under pain of excommunication,

• Transfer of benefices to Rome if a cleric dies there or on his way,

• High annual taxes (“annates”) imposed on Germany,

• High confirmation fees for bishops, or the requirement that prelates buy or lease their benefices from Rome,

• Annulment of the local elections to church office to make way for the pope’s cronies,

• Sale of absolution or dispensation from sins, even future sins,

• Penances made “so formidable that the sinner is obliged to buy his way out of them,”

• “Mendicant friars, relic hawkers, and miracle healers [who] go . . . through our land, begging, collecting . . . and extracting large sums of money”; permission to do so in return for a cut of the take,

• Threat of excommunication or withholding of sacraments to extort money, collective punishment on whole villages, even for matters of debt,

• Appropriating a cut of pilgrims’ offerings at shrines,

• Extortion of contributions for public processions,

• Extortion of payment for graves in the churchyard,

• Pressure on dying people to bequeath their property to the church instead of their kin.

There was enough material in those complaints for a sketch of the kleptocratic structure of church in the early sixteenth century, along the lines of that whiteboard drawing at ISAF headquarters that depicted the structure of acute corruption in Afghanistan.

Without doubt, the Reformation—which ignited wars and toppled kingdoms, in one of the most sweeping upheavals in Western history— was a revolution against kleptocracy.


Where the new reformed religion and its rebellion against church kleptocracy intersects most dramatically with the origins of modern representative government is during the Dutch Revolt. Key to that conflict was Phillip II’s savage repression of Protestant religious practice.

In the spring of 1566, barred from building their own churches, adepts of the new faith began congregating outside city walls, amid the hedgerows and pastures, to listen to itinerant preachers.

“I must not fail to inform your Highness,” wrote the governor of the city of Lille (now part of France) to King Philip II’s regent in the Netherlands, “of two preachings that were held last night. The principal one . . . attracted about four thousand people.” Reports from infiltrators he had placed in the crowd allowed the governor to quote some of the meeting’s incendiary language: “Pray God that He destroy these idolatrous Papists, and have courage, for we are strong, but our time has not yet come.”

“Despair made those who dissented in religion more obdurate,” wrote an eyewitness after the events, “and made them prefer to oppose the government openly and confess their belief frankly, rather than to remain for ever oppressed and subdued.” The lack of recourse was pushing Dutch Protestants to extremes.

Try as the local nobility might “to punish and curb this insolence and disorder of the sectarians,” they could not keep the people from attending these “hedge sermons.” The crowds grew larger. Worshippers, returning home from the sermons, would clatter through town, “armed and be-cudgeled, and singing psalms.”

By July, Philip’s regent was calling up soldiers, foot and horse.

In mid-August, the Netherlands exploded. The governor of Lille’s August  report recounts that Protestants on their way to outdoor sermons suddenly veered off toward the towns of “Messines, Quesnoy, Warnenton, Commynes,” where they “trashed, broke images, sepulchers, and made gigantic disorders at churches, hospitals, and cloisters.”

The appalled governor of Aire wrote of similar unthinkable scenes in his region two days later:

I would not know how to express or spell out to Your Highness the great desolation that exists in Flanders, to see daily all the churches and chapels of the countryside devastated, ruined, and violated by the new evangelists. They carried out of the said churches all the furnishings for the holy sacrament, and played with them as with a bowling ball, and threw the very sacred consecrated host on the ground, broke the tables and altars, the figures and portrayals of the cross, of the virgin and the saints there represented, and set fires in several places. On top of that, they tore down the altars, shattering the stones of them, and also broke the baptismal fonts, tore up the books, and carried off all the ornaments and even all the cloths and other linen serving the said churches.

On a quick-burning fuse, the riots leaped from the towns of the southern Netherlands to the north, leaving behind the smoking and amputated ruins of thousands of ecclesiastical buildings, and the torn and twisted remains of vestments, chalices, altars, statues, paintings, plate, candlesticks, books, and even kegs of wine and costly butter.

It has been called “iconoclasm,” and indeed, the rioters went after icons, or religious images, whose presence in a place of worship they considered idolatrous. But they did not attack just images. They fell upon all the manifestations of the wealth and riches that the church had been extorting for so long and parading before their eyes. The ferocity of the destruction speaks to the depths of the people’s rage.

Those images—the painted statues of the saints or the Virgin Mary, the relics in their precious receptacles, even great crucifixes, were regularly taken out on procession, bedecked in brocades and furs, jewels at wrists and neck, while an impoverished public, assembled by the sides of the streets, gazed up at them.

“They put robes of silk on their idols made of old wood,” an anonymous complaint from the French-speaking southern Netherlands put it, “leaving us brethren of Christ naked and starving.”

Sometimes, armed with a candlestick or a stave, the iconoclasts would simply beat an object to pieces, hammering it blindly. But often there was a method to their vandalism. Statues were defenestrated, beheaded, their noses cut off. In one case, a Saint Nicholas was executed by hanging. The rioters seemed to be acting out a ritual punishment upon the symbols of the church, in retribution for the crimes of the Roman kleptocracy.

And those early Protestants, in revolt against kleptocracy, can only be described as violent religious extremists.


Skip now to 2012 . Al Qaeda–linked rebels, garbed in Afghan-cut clothes and black turbans, fall upon the legendary Malian desert city of Timbuktu and—as they deal out savage shari’a law penalties—set about trashing dozens of historic shrines dedicated to Sufi saints. They reduce ancient mud-brick mausoleums to rubble, raze a fabled monument at the city gates, and smash modern statues. “Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu,” a rebel proclaimed to Agence France-Presse. “God doesn’t like it.” According to Human Rights Watch, “bars and hotels . . . associated with alcohol consumption and prostitution” were also targeted. Later, fleeing the town ahead of French and Malian troops in January 2013, the militants set fire to the governor’s office and libraries that have stored precious manuscripts for hundreds of years.

The similarities between the early Protestants and today’s Islamist extremists don’t end with iconoclasm. The Puritans were famous for frowning on liquor, dancing, and festivities. They turned to the literal text of scripture for teachings on religious practice and the conduct of daily life. Where they could, they imposed their preferred practice on civilians by law, sometimes inflicting gruesome punishments on nonconformists. They wore ostentatiously modest black and white clothes—like those special Islamist veils—allowing adepts to recognize each other, whether they were Dutch or Huguenot or natives of Plymouth on the Massachusetts Bay.

And, as adamantly as today’s Salafis, they flung the label of unbeliever at anyone who differed with their rigid doctrine. “Puritans,” spat James I, in the preface to his mirror for Harry, imagine themselves “in a manner without sin, the only true church, and only worthy to be participant of the sacraments, and all the rest of the world to be but abomination in the sight of God.”

The other remarkable manner in which today’s violent jihadis parallel the early Protestants is that they articulate their struggle, at least in part, as a reaction to the kleptocratic practices of local rulers—in the modern case, inspired and enabled by the United States.

Even to suggest such an equivalency—including the proposition that violence in both cases grew out of legitimate grievances—may seem offensive to many Americans. But more than a dozen years after 9/11, the events of that day are now entering the realm of history. And to subject them, as historical events, to the type of critical analysis that episodes from earlier times and more distant places receive, is not to dishonor or belittle the victims.

Abstracted from that painful psychological context, the resemblance between the language Al Qaeda uses to explain its violence, and that of the earlier Protestant insurrectionaries castigating the acute corruption of the Catholic Church and its royalist allies, is unmistakable.

In a video sent to the Al-Jazeera cable television network in late fall of 2004, for example, Osama bin Laden emphasized the kleptocratic practices of Arab rulers—and U.S. officials’ emulation of them—as he sought to correct what he saw as Americans’ misunderstanding of the motivation behind the 9/11 attacks.

“Even though we are in the fourth year after the events of September 11th,” Bin Laden said, “Bush is still . . . hiding from you the real causes.” Among those causes, he listed U.S. support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and both Gulf wars. The aim of the  war in Iraq, he emphasized, was “to replace [an old agent] with a new puppet to assist in the pilfering of Iraq’s oil.”

Then Bin Laden began analyzing the George W. Bush administration, which resembled, in his view, “the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military, and the other half . . . by the sons of kings and presidents.” And those leaders—of Arab military dictatorships and Gulf monarchies alike—are “characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth.”

President George W. Bush’s long friendship with these kleptocratic Arab rulers, Bin Laden told Americans, gave him an opportunity to observe their corruption, the impunity with which they were committing it, and the lack of any means of appeal or redress. Bush, Bin Laden suggested, “became envious of their remaining decades in their positions, to embezzle the public wealth of the nation without supervision or accounting.”

The theme of corruption also dominates a 2009 video interview disseminated by Al Qaeda’s media division. Here Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Bin Laden at the head of the organization, declared:

Regimes that are corrupt, rotten, and allied with the Crusaders . . . have tried to be secretive about the uprising and the jihadist anger. . . . [The uprising] defends the stolen Muslim rights and their honors that are being violated by those regimes every day. . . . Popular awareness is more convinced, now, that these corrupt and rotten regimes are the reason behind economic injustice and corruption, the political oppression, and social detachment.

Other Al Qaeda publications dissect the details of public corruption scandals, such as a 2006 Saudi deal to buy seventy-two Eurofighter jets, which allegedly included BAE Systems’ gift of a lavish honeymoon for the daughter of Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then secretary general of the UN Security Council.

Through application of the “command responsibility” principle that served as the basis for convicting King Charles I, that figures in so many Mirrors for Princes, and that explains why Afghans hold Washington responsible for the Karzai government’s behavior, Bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda figures blamed the United States for the corruption of their own rulers.

Abd al-Rahman Atiya, killed in a drone strike in 2011, conceded that the 9/11 attacks had been launched because of hatred for some aspects of Western culture, but the main rationale was the U.S. role enabling Arab kleptocracies.

Yes we hate the corruptive financial lifestyle that does not please God . . . But . . . the more important reason is their . . . appointing collaborative regimes for them in our countries. Then they support these regimes and corruptive governments against their people, who demand freedom and want to abide by Islam.

This Western support for Middle Eastern kleptocracies was “the real reason that pushed the mujahideen to carry out these blessed attacks.” Atiya went on to blast the aspects of Western culture he deemed most objectionable—excesses that have seemed especially pronounced since the 1990s: “It is a corrupt, wayward, and unjust system . . . based on beastly behavior, and seven principles: greed, gluttony, injustice, selfishness, extreme materialism, abandonment of religion.”

In this context—and recalling the history of Dutch Protestants ransacking the physical manifestations of Catholic kleptocracy—the choice of the Pentagon and the Twin Towers, near Wall Street, as the target of the 9/11 attacks may take on an enhanced meaning. Perhaps Al Qaeda’s main intent was not to kill large numbers of Americans so much as to visit a spectacular symbolic punishment upon the manifestations of what it saw as a criminal kleptocracy that controlled the most powerful instruments of force on earth. Perhaps Al Qaeda was in fact committing an act of iconoclasm: replicating the kind of sentences that the 1566 Protestants executed on churches and articles of devotion the length and breadth of the Low Countries.

These roughly comparable instances, from diçerent centuries and religions, exemplify a persistent relationship between corruption and religious extremism. In periods of acute, self-serving behavior on the part of public leaders, Christians and Muslims alike have often sought a corrective in strict codes of personal behavior derived from the precepts of puritanical religion. And they have imposed it, if necessary, by force. Those who object to this remedy should look for other ways to cure the cause.

Excerpted from "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security" by Sarah Chayes. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright © 2015 W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Sarah Chayes

An award-winning former NPR correspondent, foreign policy expert and entrepreneur with 10 years experience in Afghanistan, Sarah Chayes is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment and the author of "The Punishment of Virtue." She lives in Washington, D.C.

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