Faith-inspired anarchy and bloodshed continue to spread around the globe, with no letup in sight.
January has proved especially sanguinary. Three days after President Obama’s State of the Union reminder to us all that he took out Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida (specifically, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) sprang back into action and launched one of its most lethal assaults in recent years, laying siege to a hotel in the West African country of Burkina Faso, killing 30, injuring 156, and taking hostage 176. Nigeria-based Boko Haram dispatched female suicide bombers to blow up a mosque in Cameroon, leaving at least 10 dead. The Taliban struck in Pakistan, assailing a university and murdering dozens. And in Iraq and Syria, ISIS may be losing ground, but it amounts to something more, pace Obama, than “masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks,” with a beguiling Islamist ideology that still draws new recruits (more than 6,000 since last fall), thousands of women and children still enslaved, and operations now expanding in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Yet here at home there was a bright spot! President Obama at last gave the green light for a stealthy, FBI-orchestrated mission that brought to a peaceful to end the occupation, led by heavily armed Mormon extremists acting on orders from the Lord Almighty, of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Kudos to our leader! The president is, of course, tasked with ensuring (secular) justice for us all. He had to act, lest the credibility of the federal government suffer further erosion.
Sorry, I was actually just indulging in a bit of wishful thinking. Nothing of the sort happened. Those same faith-crazed seditionists are more entrenched than ever, and now pledge to “never, ever” return the Malheur facilities to the federal government. This they do without the slightest resistance from Washington – a matter that has irked Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown, who has called on the federal government to “move quickly to end the occupation and hold all of the wrongdoers accountable."
In sum, these are times that try rationalists’ souls. Yet our politicians are offering precious little frank discourse on the one thing inspiring all the above-mentioned instances of murder and mayhem – religion. Which is to say, a congeries of ideologies mandating, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, belief in fantastic, often ludicrous, unverifiable assertions about the cosmos and mankind’s place in it.
Such anti-intellectual constructs would attract scorn and derision were they to obtain in any other sphere of human endeavor. Take science. If I were to proclaim, without offering a whit of proof, that the law of gravity does not apply to me, that I disobey it at will, that I have always disobeyed it, and that I demand all and sundry accept the veracity of my absurd proclamation, and respect it, cherish it, and even kill in its name, I would rightly be thought insane. Imagine, however, that a Nobel Prize science committee awarded me millions, great statesmen lauded me, prominent thinkers took me seriously, and the average Jane or John Doe not only ransacked their meager savings to donate to me, but held me in the highest regard, or at the very least esteemed it impolite, even indecent, to criticize me.
Who would the dupes be then? Not I! I would be laughing all the way to the bank! Which is just what faith’s potentates are doing.
Thomas Paine said, “The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.” He was right. I would, though, rephrase and update his statement: Those who, despite the torrents of evidence flowing forth from biology, physics and the other natural sciences, persist in believing the preposterous postulates of Abrahamic religions stand in urgent need of an intervention consisting of one treatment: forthright free speech from rationalists about their cherished delusions. We and our planet have ever less and less time to spare.
Back to our politicians and the faith shysters they abet. While recognizing that “the Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” President Obama managed to get through his lengthy State of the Union address without specifying the wellspring of the region’s turmoil – Islam. Rather, and as has been his habit, he enjoined us to reject “the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest” – unnamed, apparently unnamable, at least by him – “religions.” ISIS guerillas are nothing more than “killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.”
His solution? Have Congress “authorize the use of military force against ISIL.”
Okay. But what about the ISIS-inspired terrorists elsewhere, outside war zones – say, in San Bernardino and Paris and who knows where next? What should be done about the ideology behind all the violence – namely, the doctrines of jihad and martyrdom? This question would be more amenable to resolution if the president would just come clean and state, flat-out, that the “killers and fanatics” of ISIS are implementing a literalist interpretation of the Quran, with strong emphasis on jihad and martyrdom, and that this poses a huge problem for us all today, one we need to discuss openly. (The House Homeland Security Committee has confirmed almost 1,000 “active homegrown extremist investigations” in all 50 states, with ISIS hatching plans to hit 19 targets across the country.)
As the former Islamist turned reformer Maajid Nawaz has pointed out, trying to disassociate ISIS from Islam is “disingenuous. . . . We need to have a candid conversation about this and recognize that there is a correlation between scripture and [the Islamic State] . . . . We cannot shoot our way out of this.” Shifting the blame from Islamic doctrine to a bunch of armed crazies amounts to a slap in the face of those, like Nawaz, who are trying to reform the religion from within.
The Republicans have, of course, long made pungent political hay out of the president’s refusal to speak openly about Islam. They once again pitched such hay during the Fox News Republican debate held on January 14 in South Carolina. However, they merely called for Obama’s military solution to be enacted with more shock and awe, or proposed other measures that would only worsen things.
The latter is just what frontrunner Donald Trump did. Speaking about Paris and the attacks there, he lambasted the “strictest no-gun policy of any city anywhere in the world,” and ventured the inelegantly worded opinion that if “the [Bataclan victims] had guns on the other side, going in the opposite direction, you wouldn’t have 130 people plus dead.” (A more thoughtful individual might worry that if the audience had indeed been armed and had opened fire on the assailants in the closed environs of the theater, the death toll from “friendly fire” could have been even greater.) Trump, however, at least admitted to not knowing “what’s going on” with Islam, and told us that “we have to get to the bottom of” it. To do that, he might set aside that Bible he (so implausibly) claims is his favorite book and crack open Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith,” or at least read an Islam-relevant excerpt therefrom.
The rest of the GOP crew just seconded Obama’s bombs-away approach, if often more hyperbolically.
Governor Jeb Bush poetically decried a “world . . . torn asunder” in which “terrorism is on the run [sic]” and advocated, to catch up with it, “peace through strength” and “rebuild[ing] the military.”
Senator Marco Rubio recognized that “There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadist terrorists,” and pledged that, in the unlikely event he ever takes possession of the White House, “the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them.”
Dr. Ben Carson vowed to turn to “our military officials” and ask them, “what do you need in order to accomplish this goal [of defeating ISIS]?”
Governor Chris Christie said that “we will help to make sure we bring people together in the Middle East, and we will fight ISIS and defeat them.” Yet he does not bring up the role our allies (including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) play in financing and otherwise aiding the ISIS he wants them to destroy. This is an obstacle President Obama himself has failed to overcome.
Senator Ted Cruz swore that “When it comes to ISIS, we will not weaken them, we will not degrade them, we will utterly and completely destroy ISIS.”
Okay. Now for some reasoned analysis. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius offers the most plausible prediction concerning a military approach to ISIS: Victory will take decades and involve overcoming so many hurdles that it’s almost too depressing to contemplate. Worse, he cautioned that “The debate about how best to fight this enemy hasn’t even begun.” In other words, arms alone won’t suffice.
Definitely watch the superb video embedded in Ignatius’ essay. In it, the Post’s Greg Miller informs us that “The number of fighters and recruits who are still traveling to Syria, who are still joining the Islamic State has not tapered off . . . . The organization’s reach, if anything, is expanding” – and this due largely to its devilishly persuasive “propaganda.” But neither Miller nor others shown state the obvious: ISIS propaganda succeeds mostly because it concurs with calls for jihad and martyrdom indubitably spelled out in the Quran. And the doctrines of jihad and martyrdom are not going anywhere, whether ISIS is blown to smithereens in Syria and Iraq or not.
Given that no one is likely to take scissors to the Quran anytime soon, we seem to confront a hopeless situation. The overarching problem is, yes, religion, and the determination of almost everyone in power to accord it respect. But posit a mass outbreak of atheism in the Middle East, and what would happen to ISIS? To the Sunni-Shia schism?
Such a turn of events is, yes, improbable. But as I proposed above, religion can be cured with rationalist free speech. We should begin therapy now. This means, for starters, the cessation, in public and private life, of respect for all faiths, including Islam. Nonbelievers should stop pussyfooting around the Abrahamic creeds’ manifold absurdities – including, inter alia, a metaphysical despot siring a kid with a hapless earthling virgin, the notion that our morality derives from a message supernaturally chiseled on slabs of stone, and that a member of our species soared heavenward on a winged ungulate – and let believers know what they really think, recalling, always, that they are helping them become the atheists of tomorrow. (The brave ex-Muslims of North America can attest to this.) And nonbelievers should definitely apprise politicians of their godlessness: the inexorably multiplying non-religiously affiliated now account for 23 percent of Democrats, and they are getting organized for November’s elections. Atheism is even beginning to spread in the Arab world.
For now, though, we do need Thomas Paine’s lunatic asylum. Potential inmates, to be sure, we have aplenty. But no matter how much damage the faith-deranged are doing these days, the rising tide of godlessness is with us.
We need to buck up and act like it.